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White orbs

We have covered the 'white orbs' issue previously in our roundup of high-end enthusiast compact cameras published late last year, and in an investigative article published back in February. We also provided a follow-up news story after we received an X10 with Fujifilm's newly modified sensor. Those cumulative findings are summarized on this page for your convenience. If you already know all about the infamous 'white orbs' issue and just want to know whether it's been fixed, head to the bottom of this page.

Once the Fujifilm X10 started reaching customers, it didn't take long before some owners started to report - on our forums and elsewhere on the Web - what would become known as the 'white orbs' issue. Under certain shooting conditions a peculiar circular, hard-edged appearance of clipped specular highlights was visible in X10 images. To be clear, not ever X10 user shot in conditions that created the effect. But for those who shot nighttime cityscapes, for example, the issue was impossible to avoid. The samples below illustrate the effect. We shot an orb-inducing scene with two cameras at identical settings. The Fujifilm X10 is on the left, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 (another 12MP premium compact camera) is on the right. 

Fujifilm X10 original sensor with FW v.1.02 Panasonic Lumix LX5

You can clearly see that specular highlights rendered by the LX5 have become large hard-edged discs in the X10. Fujifilm acknowledged the issue and provided a firmware update (version 1.03) with the aim of reducing the phenomenon. While the update did not materially affect the occurrence of the orbs between cameras with and without the update, we did take note that the hard edges of the discs became much more diffuse at higher ISO sensitivity settings in both versions of the firmware. Below you can see examples at a range of ISO values, all shot with FW 1.03 at 12MP resolution at DR100%.

ISO 100, 12MP, firmware v.1.03 ISO 200, 12MP, firmware v.1.03
ISO 400, 12MP, firmware v.1.03 ISO 800, 12MP, firmware v.1.03

And just in case you're tempted to dismiss this as a studio-only, pixel-peeping problem, here are a couple of real-world examples that we shot on an early - and particularly 'orby' X10. You might easily miss the discs in the sun shining through trees in the landscape example, but the reflections from the scooter's mirror are very obvious, and very obviously wrong.

ISO 100, F5.6, 1/120sec (6MP) 100% Crop
ISO 400, F3.6, 1/340sec (6MP) 100% Crop

Does the 'modified' sensor fix the problem?

Yes it does.

In March 2012, Fujifilm belatedly acknowledged that since higher ISO sensitivities would indeed make the discs 'less evident', the firmware (v.1.03) 'solution' was essentially to just bias the X10's behaviour in EXR Auto mode towards boosting ISO in scenes where white orbs were likely to be visible. Having determined that this issue could not be resolved via software, the company went further and announced that its engineers were developing a modified sensor to address the issue once and for all. If you own an original X10 and you're being followed around by white orbs, Fujifilm advises that you contact your local authorised service center for a free modification (or a psychiatrist, depending on whether the orbs are talking to you or not).

With a camera sporting the redesigned sensor finally in hand, months after the March announcement, we ran some studio tests comparing it with the camera we had initially received for review. Below, we've used a directed light source to induce the large white discs, or 'blooming' that the X10 exhibits when bright light overwhelms the sensor. The first image was shot with our original copy of the X10 with the unmodified sensor. Below that is the same scene captured with a new X10 using the redesigned sensor.

Fujifilm X10 with original sensor 1/1.3 seconds, F5, ISO 100
Fujifilm X10 with modified sensor 1/1.3 seconds, F5, ISO 100

Clearly the new sensor has provided a fix for the white orbs issue. In the time we've spent examining our photos taken with the new version, we've not encountered the issue once, a welcome bit of news for both current and potential X10 owners.

We've also done exhaustive comparison testing with our suite of studio tests between the two versions of the sensor to determine if any other changes to image quality are evident. We've found the sensors to be materially indistinguishable in terms of sharpness, resolution and noise performance (and as such, some samples included in this review and samples gallery were taken on 'unmodified' X10s).

If you've read this far you won't be surprised that there is one final complication in the tale. As far as we've been able to establish, modified and unmodified X10s are totally indistinguishable externally, both in terms of body and packaging. So if your local camera store has an X10 on the shelf that's been there for a while, there is no way that we know of, of determining whether it's fitted with the 'new' type sensor beyond taking it home and shooting with it.

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