It didn't take long once samples of the Fujifilm X10 were out in the wild for reports to start surfacing of a strange and unwelcome phenomenon in images taken in certain conditions. Colloquially known as 'white orbs' or 'white discs' the problem describes the peculiar circular, hard-edged appearance of clipped specular highlights in images taken on the X10. The effect is unpredictable, but virtually unavoidable in some situations (low light cityscapes for example) and impossible to ignore once you notice it. The table below shows what we're talking about - this is the same scene, shot at identical settings. The Fujifilm X10 is on the left, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 (one of many examples we could have used here) is on the right. 

Fujifilm X10, ISO 100, f/5 0.8sec  Panasonic LX5, ISO 100, f/5 0.8sec  

We mentioned this issue when we included the X10 in our pre-Christmas roundup of high-end enthusiast compact cameras, and have since reported on Fujifilm's announcement of an upcoming firmware release to address the problem. In the meantime we had no option but to put our in-depth review of the X10 on hold until the new firmware was available in case it made a significant difference to image quality.

As soon as the new firmware (version 1.03) became available a couple of weeks ago we loaded it up on our test camera and started shooting. Here's what we found.

The Tests

In our shooting with the X10, we had already established that white orbs aren't a problem in every single exposure. Far from it. In fact, depending on the sort of photography that you do, you may encounter the problem rarely, if ever. This is important to bear in mind, especially since the images you're about to see were shot in conditions specifically designed to highlight the issue. As such, these samples should not be regarded as representative of the X10's image quality in day-to-day use.

For the purposes of this exercise - to see whether firmware version 1.03 reduces or solves the orbs issue - we set up a controlled studio test. 

Studio Scene: ISO Sensitivity

There are two light sources in this scene - a pen-light, to provide a point reflection on the metal frame and balls in the Newton's cradle on the left, and a low-intensity tungsten bulb on the right, for light relief. 

We used one camera, and shot one set of images using firmware version 1.02 and then updated to firmware 1.03 and took another set. The camera was tripod-mounted, and white balance was set manually to 2800K.

The first set of images is a simple run up the X10's ISO sensitivity settings, from ISO 100-3200, at its full resolution of 12MP. DR was set to 100%. Images taken with the older firmware version 1.02 are on the left, and the new firmware is on the right. All other settings are identical. 

ISO 100, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 100, 12MP, firmware v.1.03
ISO 200, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 200, 12MP, firmware v.1.03
ISO 400, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 400, 12MP, firmware v.1.03 
ISO 800, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 800, 12MP, firmware v.1.03
ISO 1600, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 1600, 12MP, firmware v.1.03
ISO 3200, 12MP, firmware v.1.02 ISO 3200, 12MP, firmware v.1.03

As you can see, white discs are very obvious around point highlights in images shot with both the new and old firmware at ISO 100 and 200. As we move higher up the ISO scale the effect is reduced until by ISO 800 we wouldn't really consider it to be problematic. Highlights are blown, but lack the unpleasant hard edge which looks so artificial in lower ISO images. The new firmware appears to have little or no material effect on the appearance of the 'orbs' in this scene. 

Click here to read page 2 of our investigation into 'white orbs' with the Fujifilm X10