Some cameras are made to be practical; get the job done, move on. Some cameras are made to be loved. The Fujifilm X20 is in the latter camp. That's not to say it doesn't take great pictures. In the right hands with the right settings its picture quality is up there with the best compacts, albeit rather more modestly priced ones.
If you're stepping up to the X20 from a regular compact you'll need to re-program your shooting methodology. For a start, don't waste time looking for the "on" button. There isn't one – instead you twist the manual zoom ring to pop out the lens and fire up the camera. Likewise, the regular zoom rocker switch is nowhere to be found, so get ready for plenty of old-school lens swivelling.
To use the X20 as Fujifilm intended you'll also have to shy away from the usual arm's length viewing of the LCD in favour of framing with the optical viewfinder. It's synchronised (approximately) to the zoom length of the lens but you're not actually looking through the lens, so there's no impression of focus or depth of field (aside from a green dot to indicate that it's locked onto a focal point). For that you'll have to check back to the LCD.
However, the Fujifilm X20's viewfinder does include a basic information overlay when you're in A/P/S or M modes with shutter speed and aperture info, plus an indication of whether you shot is likely to be over- or under-exposed. Handy, but not too distracting.
Manual or auto?
Cradling the lens barrel in your left hand and shooting with your right allows you to peer through that rather small viewfinder and size up your scene in a more thoughtful way than you might with a standard point-and-shoot. Even so, the super-fast autofocus makes it quite feasible to whip out the camera and fire off an opportunistic snap and be quite confident that you'll capture the moment.
It's well stacked with semi-pro controls too, including RAW shooting, a dedicated exposure compensation dial, a hot shoe and manual mode that extends to 30 seconds. There's a cable release thread in the shutter too, but without an unlimited Bulb exposure mode this is more for wobble-free triggering than extra-long exposures.
In its regular Auto mode, the X20 delivers rather disappointing results with overly contrasty images that need post-processing to dig out detail from the shadows. However, in Advanced Auto it uses a few compositing tricks to even out highlights and shadows, often to excellent effect. More experienced snappers can of course push and pull things around in-camera with manual controls, and if you're prepared to do some work after the event there's always that RAW mode.
Colour reproduction and detail levels are generally as good as you'd hope for in a camera this size. What might exceed your expectations is the X20's ability to maintain a high shutter speed in less-than-ideal conditions, so motion blur is rarely a problem. That bright f2.0-2.8 lens really pays off here.
On paper the video specs are impressive: 1080p at 60 frames per second is still a rarity. While the footage is very good and better than that from most compact cameras, it can't beat the 1080p/50fps output of the Sony HX50, losing out on definition and motion handling, with occassionally indecisive continuous autofocus.
Highly desirable as the X20 is, there are many instances in which the Sony HX50 will do a better job. For example, the Fuji's 4x optical zoom is fine for portraits but can limit your possibilities when you're out and about, especially compared to the Sony's 30x zoom which can scope out a barn owl from 100 metres. As a luxury second camera the X20 is hard to resist, and so long as you've got a fallback option for those days where there's no time for chin stroking, the X20 will become a faithful friend. So, just pipped to the topspot by Sony's excellently reliable HX50, the X20 stil cleans up with a pole position in our list of the best compact cameras you can buy.
Review by Tony Horgan.