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!


Johnny Chang said...

great review, do you have comparison shots with the G10, particularly for low ISO (100) outdoor scenery?

Kim Letkeman said...

Johnny, I have several blog posts on the G10 and F200EXR, search the blog for them (search window should be on the right or at the bottom.) I also have at least one really good example of the spectacular detail that the G10 can produce in shadow ...