Friday, 24 June 2016

The Fuji F20, A Past Gem.

straight out of camera jpeg from the Fuji F20

Revisiting Digital Tech

Ten years ago this month Fuji introduced a really neat little compact camera called the F20, which was a follow on from the earlier F10/F11 series.  The F10/11 weren't the flashiest or best specced compacts around but they had one amazing feature, superb image quality for a compact.  Somehow Fuji managed to obtain really impressive low noise results, even at high ISOs from a small 6 megapixel sensor and the legend was born, so when the F 20/30 compacts were released 12 months after the initial 2005 models, many people were keen to buy one.  In many ways the F10/11/20/30/31 were the Sony RX 100s of the mid noughties. 

The F20, F30 and F31 all used the same sensor and all produced amazing image quality for a compact of just 6 megapixels.  Unfortunately Fuji then got fired up in the pixel race and subsequent F models have had poorer low light performance and in many folks minds were a serious backwards step.

The F30 and particularly the F31 were cult cameras and for a couple of years after release were the only digital cameras on the market that were actually worth more second hand than they cost new and in some cases they went for double the price of the new top model F that replaced them.

So this left the F20, which unlike its siblings was still possible (just) to buy a new, for about 12 months after being replaced and didn’t command a crazy premium, I bought 3, one for me, one for my wife and one for a friend.  I sold my F20 about 2 years ago and it still worked great, my wifes' now sits in my camera collection cupboard and still works fine, thought the battery is somewhat weak.

The F20 lacked the manual controls of the F30/31 but other than that the sensor, processing engine, body and lens were identical, in other words it was a bargain basement F30/31.

So how did this little gem actually perform?

First of all was not without faults and to my mind had two.  One it used xD memory cards which were much more expensive than SD cards, second, under certain high contrast situations the chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was a bit on the high side and in those days fixing CA was nowhere as easy as it is today.

The F20 redeemed itself with amazing real world performance.

Focusing and exposure start up times, and features were all adequate and pretty much like most other good compacts of the era.

Image quality as said however was what set the Fs apart, it was quite exceptional for a 6 megapixel compact camera.

First the lens is very very good, somewhere in the now dim past I read that its resolving ability was pretty much about the best ever tested on a compact camera up until 2006, well I can’t confirm that but I can say it was very very sharp.

Image noise at all ISOs was much better than almost any other compact I had used ISO for ISO and in fact looking at files today I’d say it’s maybe even as good as say an old 6.3 megapixel Canon 300D DSLR from the same era, ISO for ISO.

The exposures were very consistent and it always seemed to capture shadow and highlight detail very well providing you set the EV value to –1 and left it there and were prepared for a little post editing.

200 ISO wide open at the wide angle setting, just a little touch up in photoshop and close to perfect.

In fact I will go as far as to say that the files from the F20 at the time were the most editable I had ever got from any compact of any price, in other words if you wanted, you really could push those files for superb results.

Battery usage is pretty good, but oddly not as good as the stellar F30/31, still it was better than most compacts.

The lens was not flare prone and remained sharp at all focal lengths but typically was best at around max telephoto, and when I say best I mean truly amazing for the pixel count, but even the wide angle setting was excellent.

Maximum lens performance is obtained when the aperture was around f4 and it completely fell off a cliff at f6.3 and above due to diffraction, so using high ISOs in good light was not ideal for ultimate results as it needlessly pushed the aperture setting higher.

At the wide angle setting an aperture of f2.8 yields quite incredible quality edge to edge clarity for a compact.  An interesting aspect is that F20 was the only compact I had ever tested where the digital zoom was actually superior to just cropping and up rezzing in Photoshop or a similar editing program.  Once you got zoomed right in of course it fell apart but at around 6 – 8 times was definitely a Photoshop beater, I have no idea how Fuji pulled that one off but it was an attribute they touted at the time.

The scene modes made a big difference to the dynamic range of the photos and portrait mode was neat is you wanted to lower the contrast a bit for improved post editing options.

I doubt most folk who had F cameras realised the full image quality they offered because the camera had such high resolving power the edge was really knocked off by any camera movement.  Sadly the shutter on the F20 was a little stiff so the causal shooter will almost always have some slight image degradation due to pressing too hard and upsetting the balance.

At one stage I recall shooting a series of test images with the camera at 1/400 sec and there was a noticeable increase in clarity between the supported, semi supported and unsupported images, so the lesson there, if you wanted what this camera had to offer you needed to pay a little more attention to your technique than usual.

Auto white balance like many Fuji cameras to this day was very accurate under most circumstances but once again a little extra effort applied in using the custom WB setting made for exceptional colour straight out of the camera.

So you have probably gathered I loved this camera, and you're right, everyone needs a “take anywhere” camera and this one in 2006 was perfect for my needs and probably suited lots of other folk perfectly, its time is now long past but I bet eBay could turn up one or two for next to no money.

Here is a link to get a peek at the camera and an overview.

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