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Roadtrip: 12 days with the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR

Discussion in 'Scenic, Architecture, and Travel' started by flysurfer, Sep 20, 2011.

  1. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    On September 3rd, I boarded a Lufthansa Airbus A380 from Frankfurt to Miami to meet a few friends and spend 12 days on a road trip covering more than 3000 miles though several southern states.

    12 days are a short period of time, 3000 miles are a long way and 4 companions with no or little understanding of photography are a combination straight from hell, meaning there would be no time for me to wait for better light, for a particular situation to unfold (aka "the right moment") or to move the camera to a more effective place.

    It basically meant that I would have to "work" like any simple tourist, shooting pictures spontaneously, without much planning, mostly on the go, usually just taking quick shots while passing by a random subject.

    Sounds horrible, right? However, isn't this is exactly the situation the vast majority of "photographers" (aka normal people who own and use some kind of camera to take snapshots) will find themselves in when they are going on a trip?

    Those "normal people" typically don't use sophisticated and expensive camera equipment. They prefer simple (and cheap) compact cameras or "all in one" solutions. Most of them buy cameras to point and shoot, with tiny sensors and enormous zoom range. Cameras like the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR, most certainly a "serious compact", yet also a pretty cheap one given its impressive spec sheet: Amazon USA currently lists brand new HS20s for USD 375.

    Though I also brought a Fujifilm X100 along for this trip, I quickly realized that it wasn't quite appropriate for this particular endeavor and that the HS20 would be more effective.

    However, I really didn't have much experience with the HS20, though I also own a HS10, which is quite similar. But similar is not the same, especially since I had spent most of the year working with a Fujifilm X100 (which is an altogether different beast) under completely different conditions that didn't even remotely resemble a vacation. Hence, I needed to master a steep learning curve in order to find out how to make the best use out of the HS20, what to do and what to avoid.

    The HS20 is an EXR camera, using an EXR CMOS sensor featuring modes to enhance image quality by either reducing noise (SN mode) or enhancing dynamic range (DR mode). In both modes, the sensor resolution drops from 16 MP to 8 MP, which is just fine. In order to take advantage of one of the EXR modes in every single shot, I preset the camera resolution to "M" (aka 8 MP), hence automatically activating the EXR functions not only in the camera's dedicated EXR setting, but also in all PASM modes. Interestingly, this particular feature/behavior is not well documented in the user manual and also quite often neglected in reviews of the HS20 and other Fuji EXR sensor cameras.

    To keep things real and realistic, I only shot in JPEG mode (no RAW, period) and didn't use any accessories such as external flashes, tripods, filters etc., just the plain camera as it came out of the box. Post processing was limited to Apple's iPhoto and, for a few shots, to a simple but effective program called FUNtastic Photos that specifically caters to amateurs who would never dream of using anything resembling Photoshop. I also used several iPhoto compatible plug-ins of Topaz (which are less elaborate than the NIK suite) for black and white conversion and color effects of several shots and for some minor sharpening or denoising.

    Finally, I didn't allow myself vast amounts of time to post process my pictures. Instead, everything had to be completed and published for my friends on Facebook on the very same day (or night) it was shot.

    While I had no clue how this experiment would eventually turn out, I was quite pleasantly surprised with the usability and quality of the HS20, given its really tiny sensor. But let's take things one at a time and start with my very first day, just a few hours after arriving in MIA, renting a Ford Expedition from Alamo and driving it to our Westin beach resort hotel in Hollywood.
     
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  2. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Admit it, you all did it: testing and getting to know a brand new camera by simply taking a few pictures from your balcony. ;)

    Well, that's exactly what I did after arriving at the Westin Diplomat hotel between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Luckily, the weather was on my side with some quite interesting cloud and thunderstorm formations:



     
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  3. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Shooting from high above also offered an opportunity to use the enormous telephoto range of the HS20 of up to 720 mm (converted to 35 mm measurements):



    For this shot, I also used Topaz to convert it to B&W while maintaining some color transparency.

    Looks close? Well, this is still far from 720 mm, it was actually more like 480 mm (in 35 mm terms).
     
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  4. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Getting hungry, our next stop was the hotel's "Executive Club Lounge", a curious euphemism for a place with free soft drinks, subpar snacks – and a pretty nice view:





    Now, if you have a closer look at the first of the two pictures above, you may recognize some blurry softness in areas of the parking structure. This behavior has been a well-known problem with the HS10, and I certainly wasn't pleased to see it on the HS20 with its new EXR sensor. After all, isn't that what progress is supposed to be all about?

    To mitigate this problem, I decided to switch noise reduction from "standard" to "low" on the next day and kept it on this level for the remainder of this trip. This turned out to be a very good decision, as the camera produced much better detailed JPEGs with this setting. Sure, noise also increased at ISO settings above 400, but since it resembled a fine analog film texture it didn't really look that unattractive.
     
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  5. Briar

    Briar SC All-Pro

    Oct 27, 2010
    Scotland
    Karen
    I'm sitting back and enjoying this ride with you. I wont trust myself to say anymore until after I've had a long nap ... sleep deprivation has muddled my brain this morning so only nonsense is spouting from my keyboard. I have to say travel photographY is my favourite genre. If it is a genre, honestly, the bus just doesn't go to where my head is now. Anyway, I'm glad your running this thread. Wish we could see more of this type here.
     
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  6. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    So here I am on the next morning (and official day 1 of our trip), catching my roommate taking in his usual breakfast treats:



    As you can see (or even better: can not see), this situation offered a welcome opportunity to try out the built-in flash and use it as a filler light against the harsh light of the bright morning sun. The flash synchronized at 1/850s, a thing you pretty much will not accomplish with your typical DSLR. It's also a great opportunity to shoot with the full wide-angle setting of 24 mm (which is actually more like 22 mm since the HS20 sensor is a bit larger than the sensor of the HS10 while using the very same lens).

    Why did the camera choose ISO 200, though? Well, that's because when flashing, the HS20 will (can) not use the sensor's EXR-DR but (when set to AUTO DR or a manually forced DR setting of 200% or 400%) will instead employ the simple old-fashiond DR expansion some of you may know from the X100 (and many other Fuji cameras such as the S100FS). But in order to expand dynamic range one notch (200%) that way, ISO needs to be pushed up one notch as well, hence the ISO 200 in bright sunlight (using the camera's AUTO ISO 400 setting).
     
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  7. Briar

    Briar SC All-Pro

    Oct 27, 2010
    Scotland
    Karen
    I really like the swimming pool scene, it's an unusual angle and it works in the photos favour. My eyes are unwillingly drawn first to the man's larger than normal chest which did amuse me for all the wrong reasons but actually when my eyes went around the whole capture, the other characters in the scene hold my interest too, which is good. The man drying his hair is the aspect of the pic I like the best.
     
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  8. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    While I could certainly post some even more embarrassing shots of our beer and cigarette loving companion, I think it might be better to move on or at least head downstairs to show a couple of exterior views of our hotel:



    Here we go with another B&W conversion in Topaz and full wide-angle:



    Of course, the beauty of a camera like the HS20 is that after taking the shot above with 24 mm (actually more like 22 mm, as mentioned above), you can just turn around and immediately capture something like this with 720 mm (actually more like 700 mm for the very same reason):



    Remember: You'll never have to change lenses with a HS20. It's truely "all in one".
     
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  9. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    So here we are: finally on the road to Orlando, FL:



    Another full wide-angle shot through the windshield, converted to B&W with Topaz within iPhoto.

    BTW: Only 2 of the pictures I have shown you so far did NOT involve any manual exposure dial adjustment. So while the HS20 may be a great all-in-one solution, the "all in one" will unfortunately not include the person behind the camera. Actually, I often felt that I had to work a little (sometimes a lot) harder than with a DSLR or SLT. How's that? One example: The EVF of the HS20 is just terrible, in many situation such as bright sunlight you won't recognize a thing. Yes, you'll not just miss some details, you'll sometimes not even see what you are framing and what not. You'll be guessing, which means you'll have to fall back on your experience (and you certainly need to be lucky now and then). Unfortunately, this is typical for cameras in this price and technology range, so the solution will probably not be to buy a Lumix FZ150, which will be more expensive (because it's new), yet (according to my quick research in dpreview) will not offer better screen resolution than the HS20 on either its EVR or its LCD monitor. At least the latter screen was much improved on the HS20 compared to the HS10, but honestly, it's pretty stupid to hold a camera with both arms stretched away from you when shooting telephoto stuff up to 720 mm full-frame equivalent. ;)

    Anyway, let's move on, no particular comment on this next photograph, except for mentioning that it is using two stops of old-fashioned non-EXR dynamic range expansion (aka DR400%) and the built-in flash:



    That way, I do not only fully expose the criminal offender, but also the background including textured white clouds in bright sunlight.
     
  10. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Next stop: Orlando.

    Obviously, the group wanted to spend the day visiting a theme park:

    No flash:


    Flash:





     
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  11. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    It was a hot day (we were very lucky with weather throughout the entire trip), so the group wanted to get wet asap:



    Mission accomplished:



    Btw, this is basically a recolored B&W conversion with harsh contrasts, really bringing out the wet spots. ;)

    Again: some manual exposure adjustment (usually to the negative) with every picture I've shown you since I last mentioned that subject.
     
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  12. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
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  13. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    So the group was wet, but it wanted to get even wetter. Hence another water ride, and this time I really needed the high-speed continuous shooting mode of the camera. 11 fps will certainly do the job (even the most expensive DLSRs won't offer more), but of course there's a catch: no continuous AF object tracking (the HS20 AF works with contrast measurement, not phase detection), and I couldn't recognize a thing on the EVF or backscreen, which basically meant that in order to be sure I had to take a high-speed series of every logboat racing down the water ride, literally shooting hundreds of frames just to get this single one showing our group:



    Another catch of shooting in continuous frame mode is that DR will be limited to DR100, hence no dynamic range expansion at all, neither the old-fashioned way nor using the EXR sensor. This is pretty tricky with this particular backlit motive, so I had to make sure to underexpose a bit in order to not lose any texture in the sky and clouds. -0.3 EV did the job, as the camera's multi-segment measuring mode really worked pretty well in this case. Unfortunately, I didn't know that until I was back at the hotel on my laptop, as the camera's screen simply will not allow for a realistic exposure review of sample pics in such bright sunlight. You are better served trusting your instincts and experience here.

    Did I mention that it was a hot day? Well, the camera did issue temperature warnings now and then, but it never stopped working during the entire trip. Also, I was very pleased with the performance of the Eneloop batteries. I never had to change batteries during the trip and I never even came close to a low battery warning, not even on this very shooting day with far beyond 500 exposures, plenty of fill-in flash and a lot of on-screen reviewing. Sanyo certainly did a decent job with their most recent generation of Eneloops. Speaking of mandatory add-ons, I used a 8 MB SanDisk Extreme Pro card (45 MB/s) for storage and exposed about 3000 frames during the trip, obviously many of them on this very theme park day.

    So here we are, basically as wet as it gets, no dry spot left:

     
  14. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Since one member of our peculiar group is an avid Harry Potter fan, this was our next stop in the theme park:



    Both pictures (above and below) are other examples of Topaz/iPhoto B&W conversions.




    Even that one was created using the Topaz B&W tool:



    Another example with some simulated infrared filtering:




    Looks like a tough job to me: standing fully dressed for hours in the bright sun on a hot day, having a different picture taken with a different guest every 10-20 seconds:



    While our group was catching the mandatory Harry Potter ride, I had a few extra minutes to catch this roller coaster, again using the continuous shooting mode of the HS20:



    Artificial lighting was provided by FUNtastic Photos, a rough and simple piece of software, but I still do like it.

    Of course, this kind of PP brings out every flaw and limitation of the camera and its tiny sensor (that's one reason why I'm showing it here, after all), but then again, I have seen similar effects with cameras using larger sensors.

    Not to forget that we are talking about a camera sold for the price of a professional carbon monopod (lens and camera body unfortunately not included).
     
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  15. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Next stop was this funny mockup of Fisherman's Wharf in SFO...





    ...featuring our beer addicted friend with a heartfelt message to his usual buddy in crime in Germany, the translation reading "someone is missing here":



    Once again a combination of deliberate underexposure (-1 EV) and a cranked-down fill-in flash.
     
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  16. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Strangely, left coastal Fisherman's Wharf leads directly to Amityville and "Jaws", which AFAIR is supposed to be on the right coast. Speaking of left and right, at least Orlando is offering a more entertaining JAWS ride than Universal Studios Hollywood:

     
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  17. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Another example of wide-angle with -1 EV exposure and fill-in flash. Works like a charm:



    Here we go again: Over 100 "blind" shots at full speed in order to get this single picture of our friend. After all these beers, no wonder nobody wanted to sit next to him. ;)

     
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  18. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    While two members of our group tried different rides, I had time to take a few ridiculous pictures of a ridiculous person sporting ridiculous hats:











    Now guess who was the Harry Potter fan in our group!

    And this concludes day 1 of 12 of our little trip.
     
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  19. Lili

    Lili SC Hall of Famer

    Oct 17, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    Lili
    great travelogue!
     
  20. flysurfer

    flysurfer SC Top Veteran

    791
    Aug 31, 2011
    Before I go ahead with more examples showing a broader variety of scenes and subjects, feel free to ask any questions or post any comments, after all, this is a forum, not a blog. :)