FUJI X - X-Trans or Bayer CMOS Sensor? The Adobe Camera raw issue.

Fuji X-A1 - 35mm f/1.4 lens - 100% blowup - From Raw - ISO 800 - ACR Photoshop CS6

Fuji X-A1 - 35mm f/1.4 lens - 100% blowup - ISO 6400 - Out of camera jpg.

Above gallery of images shot with - Fuji X-A1 - XF 14mm f/2.8, XF 35mm f/1.4 and XF 56mm f/1.2 lenses

Above - From Raw Photoshop CS6 - Identical Processing

Four samples above X-T1 OOC jpgs.

Below X-A1 OOC jpg.

First off, let me make clear that this article relates to how the Fuji X-Trans sensor compares to the Bayer CMOS sensor in the Fuji X-A1, with regard to raw files processed in Photoshop CS6 / ACR and the OOC jpgs. Raw files processed in other software, such as Photo Ninja and Iridient Developer is a whole other story. In fact the raw files processed from either camera in either of these 'alternative' software apps are very similar (and incidentally very sharp and detailed) and for me, this is still the best way to see what a Fuji X camera + XF lenses is capable of. However, Lightroom and Photoshop are the most commonly used raw development software applications and this is where all the issues have occurred. I've also been very critical of how Fuji process their out of camera jpgs. and I thought I'd deal with this also.

So what are the issues? In the samples above I've tried to illustrate how the X-Trans sensor is different. I've included comparison shots (at the bottom of the article) to illustrate those differences. X-Trans sensor files are regarded as 'cleaner' at high ISO's than the equivalent Bayer CMOS files produced by the sensor in the X-A1. By all accounts this is the Sony sensor that is used by many cameras, including most significantly for me, by Leica in all their APS-C X and T series cameras. However, you might like to have a look at some of the full-size jpg. files from the X-A1 below I've made available for download and I was certainly surprised by them and you might be too. 

This supposed 'cleaner' X-Trans sensor look however is accompanied by a certain amount of 'smearing' and what is called the 'watercolour effect' (see samples above) and can lead to distant detail in certain kinds of landscape shots appearing very soft and lacking in both definition and sharpness. Again, I make the point that raw files processed in either Photo Ninja and Iridient Developer are MUCH better in this regard. 

I'm actually very impressed by what the X-A1 can produce, both in terms of OOC jpgs. and via raw files processed in Adobe Camera Raw. Particularly with regard to what the best XF lenses can turn out. I've always thought Fuji make great lenses and for me they just got better. So I find it strange that Fuji choose to persist with the X-Trans. From what I've seen the Bayer CMOS sensor in the X-A1 is also capable of excellent high ISO results, so what exactly is the advantage of the X-Trans sensor? Well for me, I have to say not much (if anything at all). Because it's easy enough, with the addition of noise reduction, to make the Bayer CMOS files look as 'clean' as the X-Trans files, but it's impossible to sharpen up the X-Trans files to make them look as detailed as the Bayer files. At least using Lightroom or Photoshop.

It's also important to remember that the X-Trans sensor was announced three years ago and it's still pretty much the same now as it was then. In the meantime Sony in particular have come up with some amazing sensors that have made the Fuji X-Trans sensor look somewhat outdated. Three years being a very long time in digital sensor development.

However that is largely irrelevant since the issue is not with the sensor itself, but with how Fuji choose to process the files from it. In terms of their in-camera jpg. processing and in the background imbedded parameters in the raw files when processed via their own Silkypix software or the previously mentioned Adobe applications. This is, by default, making noise reduction the priority over sharpness and definition. Some people blame Adobe for this, which is odd since they work with what Fuji give them. Plus you only have to have to look at the Fuji out of camera jpgs. to see what Fuji want their files to look like.

Now there are some reactions to this issue. Some try to deny it, some say it doesn't matter and some say it's fixed now. Well it does exist, it does matter and despite some marginal improvement Lightroom and Photoshop raw processing still produces a 'mushier' rendition than either Photo Ninja or Iridient Developer. Incidentally I don't think Capture One is much different to the Adobe rendition. 

For some kinds of photography, portraits, weddings, events, certain kinds of fashion photography, this 'smoothed out' rendition has it's advantages, but again there's nothing to stop any photographer 'smoothing out' Bayer CMOS sensor files. Which is of course exactly what they do with images shot on on Nikon, Canon, Sony et al cameras already. The problem with the Fuji X-Trans sensor files is that unless we use other than Photoshop / Lightroom we don't have a choice, since this 'smoothing' is embedded in the raw files and using Adobe software there is no way to avoid it. 

So why do Fuji do this? Well, to be honest, I have no idea. To me it's pursuing the idea of 'sensor independence' at the expense of choice for photographers. Nikon and Leica seem quite happy to use Sony Bayer CMOS sensors, so why do Fuji have to be different? I have no objection to companies coming up with their own sensors in house, but this has to offer something better surely. The Foveon sensor that Sigma use is very different but it does have the advantage of producing incredibly detailed images at low ISO's. The Fuji X-Trans sensor has no such advantage, at least regarding the OOC jpgs. and raw files processed via Adobe software (Or indeed Fuji's own) And again I repeat if you think Adobe is at fault here, just look at the Fuji OOC jpgs. Sharp they are not!!

Over the past days when I've been using the X-A1 I've realised just what a difference there is when I process my raw files via Photoshop. And this is the crux of the 'debate'. Why do Fuji insist on this way of rendering their raw files in Adobe software?

Over a year ago I conducted an email interview with Jim Christian of Photo Ninja, which you can read here - http://www.soundimageplus.com/soundimageplus/2013/11/photo-ninja-some-comments-from-jim.html?rq=Photo%20Ninja

Here is a part of that:-

'As for our demosaicing technology, I can't really go into detail, but I can try to provide a little perspective.  I am indeed doing some things differently versus what you typically read in the demosaicing literature......

....Moreover, most fixate on achieving a low signal-to-noise ratio, which I've found to be a poor indicator of image quality.   A few researchers seem to be realizing this (mostly the ones who work more closely with industry practitioners).  But there are a number of algorithms out there that employ sophisticated math and look effective on paper, but don't seem to hold up very well in a more realistic setting.

So the idea that what Fuji offer us is the only way to process their raw files is clearly not the case. Jim has made the decision to go with sharpness over noise reduction, which is very much what I want to see. As I wrote before, it's much easier to 'noise reduce' a sharp detailed file than sharpen up an already 'softened' file. And for me, Fuji / Adobe raw files and Fuji OOC jpgs. just don't look sharp and detailed at high magnifications and this WILL impact on how they look on the printed page.

Again I have to say, that for many kinds of photography (and photographers) this isn't an issue, but for others it is. And I know for a fact from my conversations with them that many professional photographers, despite having lots of positive feelings about the Fuji X system, won't commit to the system precisely because of this issue. One even wrote to me 'Why on earth do Fuji b****r about with this sensor when we've all been using Nikons and Canons for years. This is what we are used to, this is what we want. If they have any aspirations to make cameras that appeal to professionals, then they should suck it up and gives us what we want. Because this is what we make our living with! Oh and by the way we all use Photoshop!!'

That sums up my attitude somewhat succinctly! However, you may think that I've got a lot of Fuji X gear for somewhat who has issues with the sensor. And that is purely because there IS an alternative to Adobe software. But if there wasn't Photo Ninja and Iridient Developer then I would have given up on Fuji long ago. Because if the only alternative I had was Fuji jpgs. and Fuji / Adobe raw conversions, then I would have said 'Thank you very much, not for me'. Even allowing for the fact that I like using the system, which I genuinely do. 

And the reason I still use Fuji X is I'm not a photographer under pressure. I have the time to use these 'alternatives' (As both PN and IR do increase workflow time) and I know that I can get some superb results from them. But even saying that, I would like to use ACR in Photoshop CS6 because this is my preferred (and quickest) way of handling lots of raw files. There are also times when I need to get a lot of files uploaded, that I would like to use jpgs. But I never even consider using Fuji X OOC jpgs. as for what I mostly shoot, they just aren't detailed enough. 

So will Fuji continue along this path? Well they have already indicated that they are sticking with the X-Trans sensor, with all it's (for me) failings in terms of image quality and don't lets forget the power consumption increase as well. If, by some miracle, Fuji decided that their next sensor would be the Sony 24MP APS-C Bayer CMOS, or a revamped X-Trans that performed in a similar fashion, then I and many others would be a lot happier. In fact I suspect that I would embrace the system even more than I do now. Because these are the advantages:-

  • Sharper more detailed files 
  • The ability to use Photoshop and Lightroom to speed up workflow with the above result
  • Better battery life in the cameras
  • 'Compatibility' with what exists with other systems
  • Probably the option to improve the video offer
  • The chance to see what those XF lenses can REALLY do.

Disadvantages? I can't actually think of any.

I also find it strange that my best results from my Fuji Camera / Adobe software combination come from a little compact camera with no viewfinder. Now is this a situation that Fuji are happy with? It seems so. And for me personally I have workarounds that mean I can get what I want from my Fuji system (albeit having to put up with the fact that it takes me more time) but I do know that there are others who are not so forgiving (and also don't need an endless source of material for their blog!!) We all do of course have the choice to use Fuji or not and even though I am often frustrated by what I see, I've made mine. However, I do think that Fuji are missing a great opportunity here. And by swallowing their pride and admitting that the X-Trans sensor is an interesting but failed experiment would, as far as I can see, actually make them more appealing to many photographers. Will it happen? I seriously doubt it, but we (I) can live in hope!!

Finally, here are couple of links to raw files and jpgs. you can download from the X-A1 and X100s. As ever, these are test shots, but they are my copyright, so no sharing please. If you think others might like to see them, then please link to this post. 

FUJI X-A1 samples - ISO comparison

FUJI X-A1 and X100s comparison files