Monday, February 23, 2009

Fuji F200EXR at 1600 ISO -- Revisited

There's been a bit more hyperbole surrounding this camera. What a shock :-)

The latest comment is that this camera can take images at 1600 ISO that "no compact camera has ever been able to take."

The example that was quoted to me is here. Now, it's a nice shot, but the rails are blown out completely, so clearly the EXR sensor was doing its high ISO trick and not its high dynamic range trick.

I was told that the faces were really good, which presumably means that all other compacts would be unable to duplicate the feat. So to be quite clear on what we are talking about, here are the faces isolated in a 100% crop. Remember to click on the image to see the larger version, then click your back button to return here.

So yes, the faces look decent. Especially when you consider that this image is shot at 1600 ISO.

Now, the first thing I thought about was that my F10 and F11 have shot a lot of concerts and night images ... so perhaps I could find similar images from them. Remember that the F10 was the breakthrough camera that started the whole Fuji low light revolution.

People poo-poo the earlier cameras these days because DPReview said that the F30 was a full stop better with noise than the F10. In fact, this is true when looking at out of camera output. But it is hardly true with competent processing.

For the purposes of this test though, very little processing has been applied to the images ... just enough to tease out some detail. *No* extra noise processing. At all ... on any of these images.

So let's have a look at the F10 ... granddaddy to them all.

Wow ... those 100% crops are pretty smooth for 1600 ISO, aren't they? I think a lot of people have forgotten how smooth and clean Fuji's 6mp sensors looked before Fuji cranked up the NR, contrast and sharpening to create rather water colory images that happen to print well straight from the cam. These are pretty darned good, and remember that there is *no* extra noise reduction here, other than the freebee you get from downsizing for the web.

So ... what about the F11, the one that shipped only to Europe and Asia? I got one on eBay and loved it. That is, until I got the G10 ... but let's wait a moment for that.

That de-icer driver was shot through an airliner window and of course through his window. That's a lot of detail at 1600 ISO through two thick glass elements. The Roger Waters image shows how detailed his hand is ... really amazing when you consider how far I was from the stage :-)

I think the F200EXR is going to struggle to outdo these older cameras. Frankly, these cams are *very* friendly to additional processing, so they can be brought up to a pretty decent standard.

Now ... let's move to the ridiculous. The G10 is not a 1600 ISO machine at all ... that is easily its worst ISO. And yet, when you shoot RAW and process carefully, it's not awful. Remember that you downsize a long way just to get to the EXR's 6mp high ISO images. So what does this all mean?

Well, here's an interesting image ... shot in jpeg only because it was my first night with the cam and I was unfamiliar with the menus and controls. I included two 100% crops here ... one of the original 15mp image, and one of a 6mp version of the image. The latter is the only fair comparison, since it is the same size (exactly) as the EXR and F11 images.

I actually find the detail to be pretty decent for 1.7 micron photosites shot at 1600 ISO. The web image looks pretty decent to me.

But I don't tend to shoot this cam at 1600 ISO. I prefer to shoot at 200, 400 or 800 and to underexpose a bit in RAW, then pull up in post. After doing this for a couple of concerts, I am pretty sure that it works better than shooting at 1600 all the time. The easy manual control of the G10 makes it trivial to experiment with the technique ... and I am pleased enough with the results.

Two more example ... 400 ISO then 200 ISO.

So there you have it ... I think this shows that there is plenty of detail available in current cameras in low light. I am sure that the F200EXR will be pretty good at it, providing some of the strange noise patterns we've seen do not get out of hand under certain conditions. But I don't consider head and shoulders above the rest of the Fxx series at high ISO.

In fact, I don't find its images particularly smooth ... Fuji could have done better with a simple 6mp sensor with current technology. But then they'd have no way to get the high dynamic range mode ... and there would be no way to advertise it as a 12mp camera.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Is the F200EXR that much better than the F31fd?

Today, the Fuji Talk Forum on DPReview is a buzz with interest in this review. It's been pointed to before, but it seems that there might be some new comparisons on there. Specifically, the F200EXR is directly compared to the F31fd.

Why does this matter? Because there is a cult of people who believe that the F31fd was the culminations of Fujifilm's great Fxx series of cameras, the low-light masterpieces that were able to shoot decent small prints at 1600iso ... a first for a compact camera.

Personally, I like the F11 just fine ... it used a softer touch on the noise reduction and sharpening, and could therefore handle quite a bit of processing. I compare that camera to the Canon G10 (my new favorite) in this blog entry.

The buzz is made up of a lot of superlatives. The F200EXR is "a hundred times better" ... "VASTLY better" ... and so on ...

I compared the F200EXR to itself at 1600ISO previously in this blog entry ... and found that the new 6mp "binning" mode seems to work. You get a better result than with the 12mp mode, which means that this camera should get back the high ISO performance that was lost when jumping to 12mp. A bit ironic, though, that it was achieved by dropping back to 6mp in this "special" mode :-)

The real benefit though, is that this camera increases the effective pixel size while taking advantage of the really nice lens from the F100fd. This lens shows less tendency to CA and PF, and it seems sharper corner to corner than the F31fd's lens ever was.

So there should be an improvement, and indeed there is obvious improvement at 100%. That is, you can see less smearing from noise reduction and you can see less blur from the lens. You also see much less CA and PF.

But what does this mean to j6p? Remember that the average person does not print and tends these days to post to facebook or equivalent.

Once downsized, a lot of these differences simply disappear. And for those enthusiasts who process their images (I don't see any point in just taking what the camera gives you), the differences becomes very marginal.

Here is a pair of 800 ISO images (the highest useful ISO on almost any small sensor camera) where I downsized for the web after performing essentially identical processing. Basically, for each image, I:

  • Loaded into CS4 directly as a copy / paste
  • Removed distortions using PTLens
  • Adjusted saturation and vibrancy (it was terrible on both cams)
  • Adjusted contrast, opening the shadows a bit
  • Adjusted local contrast with the DSLR Tools clarify filter
  • Added more local contrast to the subject (middle forground) using PKSharpener's narrow edge local contrast filter. Also worked over the background branches and foliage on both images.
  • Resized to 800px
I performed one special step to each of the images:
  • For the F200EXR, I ran Neat Image 6 to slightly reduce the obvious grain. I added luminance sharpening to preserve detail. The end result was still more grainy than the F31fd.
  • For the F31fd, I added a slight amount of output sharpening to equalize to that received by the 200 in its Neat Image step. Both images appear to me to have the same amount of sharpening now.
Now remember, I used the same amounts in each of the steps ... the two images were similar enough that no variance was needed to achieve the same effect.

So ... drum roll please. Which is which? In my opinion ... all these superlatives get washed away once properly processed.

Remember ... click to get the 800px version, and use the back button to come back.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fuji F200EXR at 1600 ISO

The Fuji EXR sensor has finally appeared in a new camera, the Fuji F200EXR. This camera boasts a sensor that has a pair of same-colored pixels at each location, instead of the usual interleave in the bayer mask. This allows Fuji to perform a smooth "binning" operation (combining two pixels at the RAW level to make a bigger pixel) without the usual horrid artifacts that appear in every other implementation of binning. This means that high ISO modes will double the size of the pixels, which has a dramatic difference on noise, as they have proved in the past.

Fuji added a second trick to the sensor though, the ability to read one pixel of each pair early, before the exposure is completed. This makes the sensor behave a little like the SCCD SR in the Fuji F5Pro, a favourite with wedding photographers because of its extended dynamic range.

Unlike the software based extended dynamic range, which is used by *every* manufacturer now (as it is simple d-lighting at its essence), this appears to be the real deal. The samples that have been posted show a marked improvement in detail retention and overall tonal balance in harsh and contrasty images. A whilte dress in the sun looks perfect in one image. All in all ... very impressive.

But what was perplexing was that Fuji did not post any samples abive 400 ISO on their official site. This is a little disconserting, because they have never been shy about posting 1600 ISO and even 3200 ISO images for their previous cameras.

Well, the folks at DC Impress filled in the blanks for us, here.

You can find high ISO images there in both modes, and that makes for a fascinating comparison. This because the binning mode appears to really work. Combining the data at the RAW level allows the image to escape the sledgehammer noise reduction that Fuji uses to keep there 12mp and 11mp images smooth at 1600 ISO.

You can see all this in these crops. Click to open in full, as there is a lot of data there. What you can see is that there is clearly better detail retention when starting with the 6mp image, whether upsized to match or the other downsized to match. The NT of the 12mp images has flattened it and removed a lot of detail. This reduces the 3D effect considerably. The fact that the whole image even has a 3D effect at 6mp is pretty exciting. I'm really impressed ... for the first time in years (since the F10), I think Fuji has done it again.

Even the noise in the 6mp image has a much nicer quality. You can see the awful artifacts that the strange mask arrangement leaves behind ... two pixels of the same color in a row makes for some very accentuated jpeg artifacts after demosaicing. In bright images, this will not likely show up, but in noisy images, it sure does. This is a secondary reason for the superiority of the 6mp mode.

So how does this look in real life? I.e. images processed and downsized for the web? Here are four examples. Two versions of each images, one without additional noise reduction, and one with my usual Neat Image protocol with a bit of extra sharpening to pull out detail that was smoothed by the NR. This really accentuates the flat spots where the original NR took away too much detail. I sharpened all four with PKSharpener's 800px output sharpener at default strength.

So these are perfectly comparable. I've watermarked each image for what it is -- enjoy.

So am I thrilled? No ... not quite. I like the high ISO trick, and I love the dynamic range trick. I even like that they reintroduced a full manual mode to this camera. It allows setting of aperture and shutter speed independently.

But they use sensor shake to stabilize. And they have no live histogram. Few buttons and dials on the outside. And no RAW mode! This is a compact camera ... probably the best social snapshooter to come along in years. But it is not really an enthusiast's camera at all ... I've become addicted to the serious control I get with my Canon G10. I can no longer enjoy fiddling in crappy menus for 20 or 30 seconds to set up the next shot. That's a waste of time and energy.

Before anyone asks, here is a crop from the F200EXR at 100ISO ... middle of the frame on the riverbank shot. I avoided the smoke trees on the bank, which always look mushy, and took a crop from an area with more typical foliage. These should be really detailed, and indeed shots like this are mind-blowing on the Canon G10. But on the Fuji, the sledgehammer noise reduction makes short work of all the fine low-contrast details. Most unfortunate, and something that any pocket landscape photographer must take into account. Hopefully, they will put out an E series camera with RAW, so we can do our own processing in ACR.

So I will forgo this one ... and hope that Fuji will finally step into the ring with an E-series camera with controls and features to match the Panasonic LX3 and Canon G10. That would really be something!