And now for something completely different: the Fujifilm XQ2

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.

Fujiflm XQ2-6632
Fujifilm XQ2 with lens and flash extended. The lens covers the same range as a 25-100 zoom on a full frame (135) camera

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.

Relative Size of Image Sensors
Relative Size of Image Sensors (courtesy Simon Crisp in new atlas.com) – the Fujifilm XQ2 has a 2/3in sensor – as opposed to the 1/2.5″ sensor of an iPhone

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 (*).
Fujiflm XQ2-6631
I leave the camera in full automatic mode most of the time (that’s the SR+ position on the mode selector).
  • 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.
Fujiflm XQ2-6630
The Fujifilm conventional commands.
  • 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.
0F421249-0EDD-40C7-BD8E-4781A176A0D0
Atlanta – Chattahoochee – iPhone 11. Focal length equivalent : 14mm
DB4A7004-D70A-4DA1-A4D7-6455A70B8216
Atlanta – paddleboard on the Chattahochee – Fujifilm XQ2 F/4.9. Focal length 25mm (100mm équivalent) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

 

9DF12F88-EAA5-4301-825A-66C277DA8206
Horses at the Vinings Polo field, Atlanta – GA – Apple iPhone 11 – f/1.7 – Digital zoom x 3.5 (equivalent to 91mm)
8B213BF4-1F4C-4E90-AB78-2284E22F03D6
Horses at Vinings. Fujifilm XQ2 – f/5.6 – 21mm (equivalent to 85mm) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

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.

D1BD6313-1A73-415A-A13A-93E5F8829CA3
Max sleeping. Fujifilm XQ2 – shot at f/4.5 – 15mm focal length (equivalent to 70mm full frame)
D76DF4E5-9FED-4F4D-A392-8667B2238915
Max. iPhone 11. F/1.7 Digital Zoom x 2.8
2020-03-Fuji_tests-8147
Max – Fujifilm X100T – for comparison – the APS-C sensor of the X100T has a much better dynamic than the tiny sensor of the XQ2 (or the iPhone’s)

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

0E67F7DD-D10B-4D5E-8442-4B051F5D4E96
Long Beach. iPhone 11. F/1.7 40mm équivalent.
608E739B-611B-436F-860E-3802ECC19F58
Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/3.5. 1/8 sec. 3200 iso. 8.7mm focal (equiv to 27mm)
002047E4-443F-4F32-838F-5E31CE738F42
Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/2.6 1/10 sec 3200 ISO Focal Length 7mm

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.

ABF118C1-0E28-46EA-9938-D831E23083BC
Long Beach. The marina. Apple iPhone 11. F/1.7. 1/4 sec. 640 ISO – Digital zoom x 2.2. (56mm equiv)
39498BF3-3D2C-4455-93C2-11740B7AD440
Long Beach – Fujifilm XQ2 – f/4.5. 1/8sec 3200 ISO. Focal length: 19mm (equivalent to 76mm)
Fujiflm XQ2-6629
It’s a tiny camera – it’s thicker than an iPhone but smaller in the other dimensions. The case is not an original Fujifilm accessory, and it’s not in leather, but it’s convenient.

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.

fujifilm_housing_press_photo
The WP-XQ1 Underwater housing case.

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):

Camera sensor size guide by Simon Crisp

The iPhone 11 and the power of “computational photography”

Photo and Video have become major differentiators in the world of smartphones – and the three-way competition between Google (Pixel), Samsung (Galaxy) and Apple (iPhone) has led to huge improvements in the last few years. Each new generation is markedly better at making pictures than the previous one.

A few weeks ago, I could not resist any longer, and took advantage of a promotion of my favorite carrier to buy the brand new iPhone 11 for $350.00 – I just had to surrender my old iPhone 7 in exchange. The truth is, I needed more internal storage, but I also wanted to see whether the new camera was as good as promised.

IMG_5131
iPhone 11 – sunset at the pool

And I was not disappointed. The photo section of that thing is incredible. Simply having access to any focal length between the ultra-wide (13mm equiv.) and the wide angle (26mm equiv.) at full resolution, with a digital zoom to bring you a bit closer to the subject if you need it – is literally a game changer: how often have amateurs access to a  13-35mm zoom lens on their full frame digital camera?

Of course, with a 12 Megapixel sensor and a “normal” lens limited to the equivalent of a 26mm wide angle, it can’t beat a medium format digital camera for large prints, or a DSLR with a fast telephoto lens for sports photography. And because of the way Apple has tuned noise reduction and HDR, the pictures are a bit light on contrast to my taste, but that’s nitpicking.

For subjects which are considered “normal” for an amateur photographer: selfies, family shots, portraits, street photography, urban landscapes, interiors, and for the “normal” destination of most of today’s pictures  (instant messaging, social networks, on-line photo galleries, prints up to 11x 8) it’s so good that I doubt I could get better pictures out of camera with any of the digital cameras I own.

Even if I spent big money on the latest and greatest full frame mirrorless camera, bought more lenses, and dedicated a lot of time to practicing and testing in order to seriously step up my technical game, I’m still not sure I would get significantly better results out of camera than what this iPhone gives me effortlessly. (*) (**)

So is the power of “computational photography“…

Very high level, an iPhone takes many different versions of the same shot (just before and just after you press the shutter release), with different focus and exposure settings, and uses artificial intelligence to decompose the image in sections (main human subject, background, sky, …). Each segment of the image is then optimized (exposure, contrast, noise reduction, focus, white balance…) and integrated into the “final picture” presented on the phone’s LCD. They call that “semantic rendering”.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second – the iPhone’s processor is a 64 bit / 6 core chip with a “machine learning accelerator”, and it can process 1 trillion operations per second.

Canon, Nikon and Sony don’t disclose many details about the architecture of the electronics of their top of the line cameras – but I doubt they have anything that even remotely compares to the processing power of the best of the smartphones.

apple-iphone-xs-camera-layers-keynote
iPhone 11 presentation – the processing pipeline of an image – segmentation is what’s new.

Ultimately, “amateur photography” is about the pleasure of taking and sharing pictures.  I’ve been so pleased with the iPhone’s pictures that I’ve not used any other camera (digital or film) since I bought it. The novelty will wear off, and at some point, I’m pretty sure I’ll get tired of a “neural engine” making “semantic rendering” decisions for me. I’ll want my pictures to be really mine, not a quilt of segments massaged by an algorithm running on a chip with 8 billion transistors. Maybe I’ll just go back to black and white film, and process the images in a dark closet at home.

In the meantime….

Happy New Year.


Out of the camera pictures taken on the iPhone 11 – minor adjustments in the iPhone’s photo app.

IMG_5134
Florida – Sunset at the pool – iPhone 11

 

IMG_4977
Las Vegas – the Paris – iPhone 11 – with the 13mm equiv. Wide Angle lens

 

IMG_5009
Las Vegas – Night scene (iPhone 11 with optical image stabilization, handheld)
IMG_5024
Las Vegas – Mandalay Bay hotel. Interior Photography – iPhone 11
IMG_4994
Las Vegas – Street Photography – iPhone 11
IMG_4865
iPhone 11 – portrait mode. at night, at the terrace of a restaurant
IMG_5154
Florida – Landscape at sunset – iPhone 11 –

 

(*) Of course, the key restriction here is “out of camera” – with the help of Lightroom, and a set of Lightroom plug-ins, a recent full frame digital with a good set of lenses beats an iPhone – but we’re not in the realm of candid amateur photography anymore.

(**) I don’t do videos. But I’ve read multiple comparative reviews of the iPhone 11 opposed to good mirrorless cameras: for still images, a dedicated camera will ultimately yield better results than Apple’s latest smartphone (think large prints, action photography, …) – but for videos there is no discussion that the iPhone – because it has enough processing power to enhance each individual frame in a real time – is the better widget.


More about Apple and computational photography

https://coolhunting.com/tech/apple-iphone-xs-camera-computational-photography/

https://blog.halide.cam/inside-the-iphone-11-camera-part-1-a-completely-new-camera-28ea5d091071