My everyday camera is an iPhone 11 – it’s a smartphone, of course, but it’s also a great camera – really – I like the ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent) and its incredible capacity at making nice portraits or group photos in relatively poor lit scenes. But the iPhone 11 still has a few inherent limitations – its longest focal length is equivalent to a 26mm lens in a 35mm film camera (on the wide side even for a wide-angle, then), and the sensor is so small that even with the best digital signal processing, the best picture enhancement algorithms and a dose of “semantic image analysis”, it’s still not that great when there is really not much light.
Enter my latest acquisition, the Fujifilm XQ2, an ultra-compact point and shoot camera launched in 2015. It’s an old camera by digicam standards, and with a sensor area of 0.58cm2, the XQ2 it’s a sort of tweener. Its sensor is twice the size of the 1/2.3in chip you could find in an entry level digicam, but half the size of the 1 Inch sensor of the current gold standard of ultra-compact digital cameras, the Sony RX100. Using a smaller sensor made the XQ2 smaller (marginally) and cheaper (massively) than the RX100, but took its toll on image quality in poorly lit scenes.
The size of the sensors of small digital cameras is often expressed in Inches. An iPhone 11 has a 1/2.5in sensor, a Sony RX100 has a 1in sensor, and the Fujifilm XQ2 sits in between with a 2/3in sensor.
- The “Inches” do not represent the actual size of the sensor – the figure is derived from the length of a video tube that would capture an image of a similar size in an old TV camera: for instance, a 1in video tube captures an image with a diagonal of 16mm, so a silicon chip with a 16mm diagonal will be advertised as a 1inch sensor, even if it’s much smaller than one inch in any of its dimensions (*).
- Obviously, there is more to image quality than the sole sensor size – but all things being equal, any time the area of the sensor doubles, its ability to deliver noise free images at high ISOs improves by the same factor: if a 1in sensor (area of 1.16cm2) delivers noise free images up to 800 ISO, a 4/3rd sensor (area of 2.25cm2) will deliver noise free images up to 1600 ISO.
- In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the realm of very small sensors: a so called full frame camera (Sony A7, Canon RF, Nikon D850 or Z6, ..) has a sensor which has 30 times the area of the sensor of an iPhone, and 12 times the area of a 1in sensor.
In the real life
I’ve already sang the praise of the iPhone’s camera – it’s truly impressive – in particular when the images are viewed on a smartphone screen. The larger the screen (or the monitor), the less convincing the images, as the effects of the digital zoom (and of aggressive noise reduction) become more visible. The images are pleasant, but very saturated and borderline loud. [images of the horses above]
The XQ2 (under the standard film simulation mode) delivers more subdued images, closer to the output of a conventional camera. In my experience, the XQ2 manages scenes requiring a high dynamic range better than the iPhone, even if it’s not as good as a camera with an APS-C sensor like the Fujifilm X100T. [pictures of the French Bouledogue taking the sun].
The big difference of course is the focal range of the lens(es). With its ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent on a full frame camera), the iPhone lets you create dramatic landscapes. But its longest focal length is a short 26mm (equivalent), and most of the pictures involve a modicum of digital zoom. Which is costly in terms of image quality.
The XQ2, on the other hand, can zoom optically up to 100mm, which is very useful when you want to isolate a detail, or a human being in a wide landscape, without needing to crop the image.
The iPhone particularly shines at night – the images it creates are more dramatic than the images of the XQ2 – even if on a large monitor, they show more noise artifacts. In comparison, the XQ2 uses a more aggressive noise reduction algorithm, and the images lack details and have a distinct artificial look
As a conclusion
Honestly, at the beginning, I was a bit disappointed with the output of the Fujifilm XQ2. The images shot on an iPhone are more dramatic, more spectacular, almost brash. And the ultra-wide angle lens has no real equivalent in the world of dedicated amateur cameras, and the iPhone’s night landscapes are spectacular. The iPhone’s camera is incredibly easy and intuitive to use, you just have to pinch and point to adjust the framing and the exposure.
Because it’s a conventional camera, the XQ2 is not as easy to use (no touch screen) and its default output is less pleasing, but more in line with the expectations of seasoned photographers, looking less artificial. The camera can be operated with one hand – the iPhone can’t – and proposes more control options.
Practically, the big difference is the reach of the XQ2’s zoom – 100mm vs 26mm (equivalent) on the iPhone. In both cases you can use a digital zoom to bring you closer to the subject, but the quality suffers rapidly . To get to the field of view of a short tele-photo lens (100mm), the iPhone will have to rely on a 4 x digital zoom and will in fact crop a very small section of the image at the center of the sensor, while the XQ2 will still use the full 12 Million pixels of its sensor. And if you don’t mind the loss of quality, a 2.5 crop factor will allow the XQ2 to emulate a 250mm lens.
Lastly, and paradoxically for a photographer like me who had been taught that cameras were precious objets to be treated with the utmost care, I would not be afraid to risk the XQ2 in situations where I would not dare expose my phone. On the second hand market, the XQ2 is far less expensive than a new iPhone 11 (by a factor of 5, maybe). It’s also less important for my professional and personal lives than my iPhone – I would be sad to lose it but it would not have the same consequences as losing or destroying my phone.
Will I keep this camera? Yes. Will I use it? Yes.
Because it’s very light and ultra-compact, it’s not a big burden to carry it around.
Of course the iPhone is more convenient – it’s smaller, you always have it with you and it’s the go-to device when you only have 2 seconds to locate a camera and shoot.
But the XQ2 is a real camera, far better than the iPhone at capturing and isolating remote subjects. Because it’s dedicated to the task of taking pictures, its ergonomics make it easier to hold and to set up than a smartphone, and its output is more similar to what a real camera (film or digital) would deliver.
Last by not least, the availability of an OEM underwater housing, specifically designed for the XQ series, and good for a depth of up to 40m (130 ft), is the cherry on the cake. I don’t know if I will ever dive with it, but it came with the camera and could always be used to protect it from the rain or mud projections on the surface of the earth.
(*) For the anecdote, this nonsense of expressing the size of a sensor in relation to the length of a video tube from the 1950s is not unique to the photo industry – we’re still using Horse Power (HP) as a unit of power for the engines of our cars because in 1782 James Watt (the inventor of the high pressure steam engine) had found it convenient to express the capabilities of his machines as an equivalent to a source of power that everybody had experience with: the horse.
More about sensors: a good overview (written in 2013 but still pertinent):