Just how basic a camera can you buy and still get flashing? You might assume it’s a no-brainer that a digital SLR is the better way to get started with lighting. However, compact fixed-lens cameras have some big advantages over “professional” interchangeable lens cameras when using flash, and here we are going to explore them.
While digital SLRs have the benefit of beefy build, chunky chips and assorted interchangeable lenses, they do have one drawback: sync speed. Because of the way focal-plane shutters work, you can’t use flash with digital SLRs at shutter speeds faster than around 1/160–1/250 second, except with complicated hacks or expensive triggering accessories.
Compact cameras simply don’t have this problem. You can use them with flash at almost any shutter speed, which combined with relatively wide-aperture lenses and high depth-of-field means you may not need quite as much artificial lighting to overpower the ambient. With dark backgrounds and brightly-illuminated subjects you can create some really dramatic photography.
Today we’re looking at a pair of high-end compacts: the Canon Powershot G15 and Fujifilm X20. Both have fixed zoom lenses and small sensors, both have hotshoes and built-in flashes, but which one will work better for the creative lighting enthusiast?
|Lens||28–140mm f/1.8–2.8||28–112mm f/2.0–2.8|
|Sensor||1/1.7-inch CMOS||⅔-inch CMOS|
|Resolution||12.1 megapixels||12.0 megapixels|
|Sync speed||1/2000 second||1/4000 second|
|Built-in flash||Pop-up, 7m range||Pop-up, 7m range|
|Display||3-inch LCD + tunnel OVF||2.8-inch LCD + tunnel OVF (85%)|
|Battery life||350 shots||270 shots|
|Dimensions||107 * 76 * 40 mm||117 * 70 * 57 mm|
Canon’s G15 and Fujifilm’s X20 have much in common. They weigh the same and are similar sizes (the X20 being a tad thicker); each sports a large LCD, optical viewfinder (OVF), hotshoe and pop-up flash; and both offer a bevy of DSLR-like controls. They’re both pretty tough, too.
Style-wise, the G15 looks like just about every other G-series camera and is also pretty similar to the Nikon P7000. No points awarded for originality, then, but it’s been tried and tested so you can’t really fault them for that. The X20, meanwhile, takes some retro design cues from its big-chipped brother, the Fuji X100S, but with an understated black finish. (You can opt for a showier silver version if you like, at the risk of appearing ostentatious.)
For such small cameras it’s interesting that they both manage to squeeze in two command dials and an exposure compensation wheel — more than you can expect to find on some low-end digital SLRs. Of the two cameras, the G15’s controls have the better tactile response, with the X20’s secondary command dial feeling a bit too loose and prone to being knocked.
If you buy either of these cameras you will find yourself using them rather differently. It takes one hand to use the Powershot G15 but two to use the Fujifilm X20.
With the Canon I can shoot, adjust settings, zoom and review my photos all with my right hand. The great thing about this is that I can take casual photos with one hand while walking the dog, carrying shopping or calling my stockbroker with the other. Any wobbliness can be taken care of by the built-in image stabilisation.
The Fuji X20 commands more of your attention, which I guess makes it more of a “photographer’s camera” but can be irritating at times. The SLR-style twisty zoom ring doubles up as the power switch and when you turn the camera on, the metal lens cap (an extravagance) will fall off. The playback button is also on the left-hand side, so you need two hands and an extended lens just to start reviewing images.
But once you have everything set up and your zoom in the right place, both cameras are light enough to shoot with one hand. You also shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out how they work, with consultation of the instruction book reserved for only the most advanced functions.
Through the viewfinder
Neither viewfinder truly looks through the lens (the very definition of an SLR) so you’re always going to expect a compromise. Nonetheless, the X20’s viewfinder is a reasonable size and tells you useful titbits like exposure settings and the current AF point. However, looking down the G15’s viewfinder — which was plainly added as an afterthought — is like viewing an Instagram photo placed at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Canon could maybe have followed Nikon’s lead and simply not bothered this time.
Shooting in the studio makes it hard to rely on these OVFs. Even if you train yourself to compensate for parallax error, you’ll still encounter issues with autofocus. The AF on these cameras isn’t slow per se, but it can be inaccurate at times and using the LCD is the only sure way to monitor this.
In practice, you only want to be using these cameras’ OVFs for outdoor photos and defer to the LCD for everything else. This can hit the battery life hard and the Fujifilm X20 comes off worse here. As well as having a smaller battery (both in physical size and capacity) to begin with, you have to dive into the X20’s menus to toggle between LCD vs OVF whereas on the Powershot G15 I could bind this function to the Shortcut [S] key.
Overall, I found myself having to recharge the Fujifilm X20’s battery more often than that of the Canon G15. Since getting a Nikon V1 I’ve become a big fan of electronic viewfinders and would quite like to see the next generation of these cameras adopt them, à la the Panasonic LF-1, but realise this might be asking a bit much. (At the same time I’m not such a fan of “bridge” cameras like the Fuji X-S1 and Canon SX-50.)
The minuscule pop-up flash lives on the left-hand side of each device. These are pretty basic illuminators — no fancy tilting, swivelling or advanced wireless functions here. The available power is about equal, but the level of control is different.
Fujifilm’s so-called “Super Intelligent Flash” on the X20 is so intelligent that apparently it doesn’t need to be told what to do. In other words, there is no manual control — just a bit of TTL exposure compensation either way. You have the pick of Auto, Forced Flash, Slow Synchro and Red Eye Removal modes, plus Off (retracted).
In practice, this is fine for snapshots but from a technical point of view means you can’t predict exactly how much light is coming out of it. For wireless flash, a simple optical slave won’t do — you need one that can be configured to ignore the automatic pre-flashes.
On the Canon Powershot G15, the flash looks about the same but the difference is in the camera menus. By switching it from “Auto” to “Manual” mode you get three different power levels — “Minimum”, “Medium” and “Maximum” — that are consistent and will play nicely with optical slave sensors.
Using the built-in flash of either camera offers only a rudimentary level of creative control, and perhaps more saliently will drain more of your camera’s precious battery life. Fortunately we have an Iso standard hotshoe on board, so let’s put some accessories in it!
OK, let’s face it: putting a professional-sized flash unit on these cameras is technically possible, and looks quite funny, but obviously isn’t really practical. What other options do we have?
With the launch of their new X-series cameras, Fujifilm brought out an assortment of accessories. Among them is a flashgun called the EF-X20, and — though the name similarity is part-coincidence (it’s a GN-20 electronic flash unit for X-series cameras) — it is the flash to go with the X20.
With no tilt, swivel or zoom, it’s ostensibly little more than an upgrade for the pop-up. It does have three stops more intensity and its own power source (a pair of AAA batteries), which is nice. And it is so small and unobtrusive that you can keep it on your camera all the time if you want.
Recycling is slow but tolerable. Max output meters f/7.1 at one metre (Iso-100, 1/250 sec). But far and away the best thing about the EF-X20 is the control it offers.
Whereas the X20’s control over its built-in flash is quite limited, the EF-X20 has a stunningly simple interface that gives you oodles of control, with manual power reduction in whole stops down to 1/64 power and Auto-mode exposure compensation of +/-1EV in ⅓-stops. Just turn the wheel to what you want. That’s it!
You can also use this little gadget off-camera, as it has an optical slave sensor built-in, which can even by triggered by the X20’s built-in flash. A rudimentary two-light setup with very little gear. Great — though you might do better to buy a more powerful third-party slave flash.
The only problem though is the price. At £249 it is ludicrously expensive, dearer even than the tilty, swivelly Fujifilm EF-42, which out-specs the EF-X20 in every regard. Had Fujifilm built more flash control into their camera menus and given the X20 a longer-lasting battery, the EF-X20 would be almost redundant (except for those who needed more power). The controls are great but only serve as a reason to want to buy it, not to pay over the odds for it.
(Fortunately, some retailers have seen sense and reduced it by nearly a hundred pounds. You can check Camera Price Buster for the current best UK price. If the EF-X20 starts selling for around the £100 mark then it might start approaching “good value”.)
As far as the Canon G15 is concerned, the equivalent flash to the EF-X20 is the two-AAA Speedlite 90EX. I haven’t had the opportunity to try this out for myself so I can’t comment on its quality. But on paper it has some things better and some things worse.
Better because it is cheaper (£100) and is a wireless E-TTL master/slave (though not a simple optical slave), but worse because it is not as bright (GN of 9m) and everything has to be controlled through camera menus. There is also the option of the 270EX II (£135) which is bigger, brighter and has vertical tilt, but can’t be master.
Obviously if you’ve already bought either the Fuji X20 or the Canon G15 then you don’t really have the choice between the 90EX and EF-X20, being dedicated to their respective brands, but if you’re comparing the relative merits of the flash systems before you purchase a camera then it might be worth considering.
You won’t be able to get a Canon Speedlite radio transmission (RT) system up and running with the Powershot G15. Despite the ST-E3-RT being small enough not to look ridiculous on this little camera, it is specifically not compatible. Not because of any particular technical limitation (the Speedlite 600EX-RT’s non-radio features will all work on the G15) but presumably because the company wants you to buy one of their high-end DSLRs to access this feature.
Fuji doesn’t have an equivalent system — radio or optical — for remote control of flashguns. All of the X-series are therefore roughly equal in their level of external flash control, except of course for the XF-mount cameras, which have focal-plane shutters and correspondingly limited sync speeds.
As mentioned in the introduction, the X20 and the G15 will synchronise well beyond the limit of a DSLR. You can use the built-in flash as a simple optical master, but since you can’t really point it or turn it down as far as you might like, radio triggers are a safe bet.
Now, while your theoretical sync speed is something like 1/2000 second, the small signal delays in the circuitry of a radio transmitter mean that you’ll typically get 1/800–1/1000 second instead. In the past I’ve generally found Pixel and Phottix brand triggers to be quicker than Yongnuo ones.
The Fuji and the Canon aren’t born equal here. While they’ll perform the same with truly “universal” (single pin) flash triggers, many transmitters nowadays have extra electrical contacts to do things like wake up remote flashes from sleep mode. When I put a Canon-fit trigger on to the Fuji X20 it had a bit of a hissy fit. Triggers that do work will always be quicker for Canon if they’re designed for it. I don’t know of any manufacturers that make Fujifilm-dedicated radio triggers.
Cheaper triggers tend to be slower than more expensive ones, but even the most bargain-basement generic effort will get you 1/640 without any trouble. If you can acquire a great big sync cable with a hotshoe on the end then you don’t have to sacrifice any speed at all.
Going into pixel-level detail about the raw image quality from the Fuji X20 and the Canon G15 is a bit beyond the scope of this review. It doesn’t matter how nice the images are if you cannot take them in the first place, due to some show-stopping technical limitation or annoying design flaws that might make the camera unappealing to use.
A compact camera doesn’t normally live in the studio or on a location photo-shoot, so how do both of these gadgets survive outside their “comfort zone”?
Using fast shutter speeds outdoors with either camera is infinitely easier than trying to achieve the same goal with a DSLR. Just sync up however you like and you’ll manage an easy 1/800 second. The following shots were done with a single speedlight through a translucent white brolly at full power, but if you’re using more, bigger or unmodified lights then you won’t need to bring in your flashes quite as close or push them quite as hard as we did with the LumoPro LP180 here.
Focussing is pretty quick and accurate in such good lighting conditions with both cameras, though shot-to-shot times are a bit sluggish. In bright sunlight the rear LCDs can be hard to read, but you’ll still be wanting to use them over the optical viewfinders if your subject is within a few metres. If they are a bit further away then the parallax error goes away, though the G15 OVF’s lack of exposure information and general rubbishness persists.
The benefit of having such lightweight cameras cannot be underestimated. It seems that everybody is more relaxed in front of a small camera, which is good not only for the subject of your photographs but also any potential jobsworths lurking nearby.
More importantly than that, though, the lack of bulk means that you can hang the thing round your neck all day or slip it into a bag without necessarily buying a specially padded case. For the shoot demonstrated here, I easily packed both cameras, a reflex light stand, the LumoPro LP180, triggers and umbrella into a casual leather laptop bag.
The Fuji was the loser in this bout, though. Despite having the superior viewfinder and everything syncing correctly, the battery gave out before we got anything more than test shots. And this wasn’t the only time that the X20’s juice ran a bit too low. Whether we were just a bit unlucky in our timings or whether the camera genuinely doesn’t last very long, it’s hard to say.
To be honest you can’t really go far wrong with either the Canon G15 or the Fuji X20 for outdoor location work. Though if they had electronic viewfinders rather than optical ones then life would be a bit easier for composing photos.
In the studio
Right. Now I’m in the studio; who cares about sync speed? Well not everyone has the benefit of a professional studio with blacked-out windows, lights with self-cancelling modelling lamps and so on. With a fast shutter speed you can have daylight streaming in or leave your room lights on without any ambient contribution to the exposure. So you can design your lighting from pitch black without actually fumbling about in the dark. Ace.
Despite what bokeh-seeking keyboard warriors might have you believe, occasionally it’s nice for some of your photo to be in focus. And small cameras with their small sensors and small lenses let you achieve this without needing nearly as much artificial lighting. If you wanted to shoot a telephoto portrait scene with everything in focus, a medium-format Hasselblad lens might be so stopped down that you’d require a small power station to run all necessary studio lights. Use this Fuji or that Canon at f/2.8 instead and you could get away with mere speedlights. Magic.
Indoors, using the LCD isn’t so bad because 100% of the image is lit by flash (hence no risk of camera shake) and it’s dark enough to view the screen properly. Using the OVF doesn’t work very well, because even if you can see clearly and try to offset the parallax error by aiming high, we tended to miss the mark a lot anyway.
You can of course also use a tripod, but if you have a quick-release plate you’ll need to remove it each time you want to access the memory card or change the batteries. This is the case for both cameras because the card/battery compartment is on the bottom and the 1/4-inch socket isn’t far enough from it not to obstruct access.
For our photo-shoots, both cameras responded well to using flash, though the Fuji X20 is a bit more finicky about what radio triggers it has mounted. As you can see from these images (some of them edited more than others) the level of detail produced is very good when you stay around base-Iso settings, as you generally will in the studio. (Both cameras will smudge details as you step up the sensitivity, but you don’t buy these cameras for their low-light capabilities).
As previously touched upon, you aren’t short of depth-of-field in these pictures. This makes the occasionally-inaccurate focussing much more forgiving. Focussing and recomposing should be a bit less fiddly than selecting an off-centre AF point, but this is where the main distinction is drawn between the two cameras.
When using live view with the Canon G15, you are shooting blind as soon as the shutter gets pressed halfway. Why? Because the camera’s LCD decides to render a preview of what the final exposure will look like. Unfortunately for any aspiring studio shooters, this is a blank screen (we cut out all the ambient, remember?) and you simply can’t see what’s going on. This means that between focussing and taking the picture your model could have changed position, orientation and facial expression and you’d have no idea because all you see is the blank back of the camera. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t find a way to disable this.
The Fujifilm X20 has no such affliction. Regardless of your actual exposure settings, the LCD preview is just effectively a balanced ‘auto’ exposure. The +/- scale will tell you if it’s over- or under-exposed in the camera software’s opinion, but you aren’t crippled when shooting in a dark environment with external flash, unlike the Canon.
So if you want to shoot indoors with flash, then be sure that your subject doesn’t move or get very adept with the optical viewfinder, else the Canon G15 is not for you. The Fujifilm X20, despite a few flaws elsewhere, seems to do a smashing job in this area by contrast.
It’s a little disappointing that neither of these cameras offers much of anything in the way of connectivity. With smartphones encroaching on compact camera territory all the time, it is hard to defend the latter when they’ve taken this long to adopt WiFi as a standard feature. Sorry, Eye-Fi doesn’t count.
I’m not saying that we need to turn cameras into phone-like Android devices so we can play video games on them. Just that anyone should be able to share images to online storage, social media and e-mail etc. easily. Other manufacturers, such as Samsung, are a couple of steps ahead with this already so it’s a shame that Canon and Fujifilm haven’t really put in the effort yet.
Fujifilm does do a really good job in letting you customise the way your images are processed in the camera so you can minimise the amount of time spent in front of a computer. You’re given several film emulation presets and can adjust them as much as you like. This will work affect any Jpegs you produce, but you can also do in-camera Raw conversions.
Canon, meanwhile, seems to believe photographers can fall into one of two camps — those who publish everything straight out of the camera, or those who spend hours and hours on the computer doing post-processing. But nothing in between.
How have I made this sensational inference? Because Canon Powershot’s own system for editing picture styles, called My Colors, only works in Jpeg mode. You can have a highly-customised Jpeg (fine), or a generic Raw .CR2 file (to be processed later — not every camera maker has Nikon-style embedded Picture Controls) but not both. If you shoot Raw + Jpeg then your Jpeg can only have default processing applied to it.
Now, many, many people won’t care two hoots about this, but it’s practically a deal-breaker for me. I like the idea of trying to get something perfect in camera, but having the Raw there in case I want to process it differently later, or to rescue it a bit if needed. Because My Colors is disabled in Raw + Jpeg mode, I can’t take this approach.
Less flashy Canon G15 sample photos
Less flashy Fujfilm X20 sample photos
Both cameras are solidly built with a good assortment of features. Both will give you high quality images (at low sensitivity, at least) and could feasibly stand in for a DSLR if you want to avoid expensive and complicated high-speed flash triggering solutions, or feel like skipping getting a big camera altogether. Each camera is pretty easy to use and has the full complement of manual exposure controls. WiFi and a tilty screen wouldn’t go amiss, though.
The Canon Powershot G15 has arguably superior ergonomic design, since you can do everything you like with the one hand and the lens will neatly fold away all by itself. Reviewing photos is also a slicker, experience. The Fuji X20 on the other hand is a bit more aesthetically pleasing with its retro design and more traditional controls (though let down by the loose rear control wheel). It also has a superior optical viewfinder, relatively speaking, making it more of a “photographer-centric”.
Technically speaking the G15 offers a number of advantages, since it’ll work with many more different optional flash units and accessories, plus it has a stronger battery life and a longer zoom. Non-TTL users might not be too bothered about the limited choice of automatic flashes for the Fujifilm system, but the X20 will nonetheless be the worse-behaved at connecting with remote optical slaves or radio triggers. The EF-X20 would be a no-brainer accessory if it weren’t so overpriced.
Some quirks of the Fujifilm X20 being retro-for-the-sake-of-being-retro might have had me leaning towards the Canon G15 instead, which seems to offer a more refined experience, for the mass market at least. If the G15 were compatible with Canon’s radio transmission system then it would really punch above its weight, so it’s a shame that the company excluded this feature. This, the near-pointless OVF and the Live View blackout in studio shooting makes it less than ideal for some mad-keen flash enthusiasts. And in the end I’m less interested in a generic mass-market camera; I’d want something for photography. So the X20 wins the duel. Priced about £100 more, though, is Fujifilm offering 30% more camera in the box? That’s a tougher call.
Overall, both of these cameras offer excellent image quality in a compact package. If you want to take advantage of compact cameras’ fast flash capabilities and net yourself a nice enthusiast camera at the same time, you won’t go too far wrong with either of these. Each has its quirks, depending on what kind of pictures you like to take and your lifestyle. There are more cameras to choose from, though, so we’ll be exploring more flashy cameras very soon.
Would you use anything less than a DSLR for flash photography? Share your comments below.
The Fujifilm X20 costs £439 from Amazon UK. The Canon Powershot G15 is £368 including a free 16GB memory card from Wex Photographic. Visit the Fujifilm and Canon UK product pages for further information.