Review: Fujifilm XP120


With my new kayak fishing blog, I had a shooting scenario that my usual cameras aren't really well-suited for. I wanted to add "action cam" videos of me and the yak out on the water, (hopefully) catching some fish! I wanted a camera that I could pole-mount slightly above me for a good view of the water, me, and any fishing action. My other cameras shoot fine video, but I was leery about using them for this. I didn't want to risk water destroying one of my expensive (for me) cameras for a silly fishing video. I could use my phone of course and I have a waterproof case for it, but I didn't want to mount my phone on a pole because I need ready access to it on the kayak for phone calls and messages.

What I really needed was a rugged, waterproof camera, capable of shooting decent video and stills. It needed to have mounting options for the kayak and remote control capabilities since pole-mounting the camera would make it physically harder to access. Of course, a GoPro was the obvious solution, but the GoPro models I thought would work best for me exceeded my budget. I wanted a camera that wouldn't emotionally scar me if it got damaged or even lost. So I'd set my budget low at $250. For two and a half Benjamins, I had realistic expectations about image/video quality, but it did need to produce content suitable for good quality web publishing.

I did a lot of research into different action cams and ruggedized point-and-shoots. Unfortunately with action cams, there seems to be quite a bit of distance between GoPro and second place. You can find a decent action cam that's not a GoPro, but the accompanying software will be vastly inferior. So I was pretty set on going the ruggedized camera route.

Then I was at my local BJ's and, as luck would have it, they had a special on the Fujifilm XP120 for $150. The XP120 was one of the cameras I'd researched and $150 was the cheapest price I'd seen for one, including online. Plus, I'm a Fuji fan because my trusty X20 has been a terrific camera. I did some final research on the XP120 and it seemed to be pretty well-suited to my purposes. The only drawback was that BJ's was only offering it in Big Bird yellow.

But for 25% off the usual street price, I could live with yellow.

Little Big Bird


The XP120 is pretty compact. It's a little smaller than the palm of my hand. One advantage of going with a camera like the XP120 over an action cam is that its form factor is better suited for shooting stills. That's a plus for me. The trade-off of course is that the XP120 isn't as good for the type of mounting you typically do with an action cam – on helmets, handlebars, trained monkeys, etc. But it's small enough to work fine for kayaking though.

Obviously, you don't buy a camera like this for world-beating image quality. You buy it for its ability to take a beating from the world while capturing decent-quality images. The XP120 is rated IPX68. In practical terms, this means it's waterproof to 65 ft, dust-proof, shock-proof to 5.8 ft, and freeze-proof to 14° F. That's pretty impressive for a $150 camera! In fact, I'm seriously considering buying my kids one of these because it would stand up to the abuse much better than any so-called children's camera.

The XP120 has a 28-140mm zoom lens. The zoom is operated electronically with two back panel buttons. It is augmented by a 10X digital zoom, which like all digital zooms progressively degrades image quality the more you zoom. I tend to leave digital zooming off unless I really need it and quality just doesn't matter.

Battery life is poor, which is the same deal with my X20. Fujifilm uses compact batteries to keep the form factor of the camera small. But the downside is a full charge just doesn't last very long. Especially when shooting video!. The battery (NP-45S) is rated for 210 photos, but I imagine that's under ideal circumstances. There's no way it would last an entire day on the yak. Also, the battery is charged in-camera. This means that the camera can't be used while you're charging spare batteries. Happily, a standalone charger and generic brand extra batteries are cheap. I bought 4 extra batteries and a standalone charger for $27 on Amazon.

The external controls on the XP120 are pretty minimal. Shutter, on/off, and video start/stop buttons on the top panel. The back panel has the two zoom buttons, a playback mode button, a wifi button, a back button, and a multi-directional cluster of buttons used for menu navigation and as shortcuts to common shooting settings. The vast majority of functions are accessed using the menu system, which is logically arranged and easy to navigate. If you've used other Fujifilm cameras, you'll feel right at home on the XP120.



The back panel also has a surprisingly nice 920K-dot LCD display. Thanks to ever-improving yet ever-cheaper technology, it actually has over twice the resolution of my X20's display!


Rounding out the exterior of the camera, there's a door for the battery and SD card on the right side and a tripod mount on the bottom. The battery/card compartment door is rubber-sealed and protected using a very secure locking mechanism. It's a little awkward to use, but it definitely gives you a feeling of confidence that water is not going to leak into the battery compartment.



In terms of extras, the package I bought included a 16GB SDHC UHS-I card, a float strap, and a small case. The case and strap are nice touches and are pretty ideally suited for kayaking. The neoprene case is nice and compact, although it would be nice if it could hold my extra batteries.

Image Is Everything


The image quality from the XP120 is about what you'd expect from a point-and-shoot with a 1/2.3" sensor. It puts out a respectable photo in good light. Color in most camera modes is pleasant, tones are contrasty, and when not zoomed way in, the images are reasonably sharp. But sharpness, color, and especially noise, rapidly deteriorate as the light dims. That's the deal with small sensors. And the slow f/3.9 lens doesn't help.

The images in this section aren't intended to demonstrate all the features and capabilities of the XP120. They're just snapshots I made with the XP120 on my last fishing trip that I've included to give you a general idea of what pictures from this camera look like.


There's a built-in flash, but it's pretty low-powered so it's not much good past maybe 5 or 6 feet. So although it's waterproof to 65 feet, used as a diving camera you'll reach the limits of the XP120's low-light performance long before you get 65 feet deep in the water. However, I'm not taking mine diving. I'm mainly using it on the yak in broad daylight, so all of this is not that big of a concern to me.


If you pixel-peep images from the XP120 , the first thing you'll notice is that there's not a lot of image detail. Things are pretty smeared at 1:1 magnification. I think the 16MP resolution is wasted on a sensor this small. But from a more practical standpoint (pixel-peeping is what us photo-nerds do, not normal people), the XP120's image quality is just fine for snapshot/holiday photos. As a comparison, I would say it's slightly better than a new model iPhone, but noticeably worse than a mid-tier compact with a bigger sensor. My X20 is a lot better.

One nice thing about the image quality is that you get that iconic Fujifilm color. Fuji cameras (and film) tend to have nice color rendition, strong contrast, and less of that warm orangey tint that, say, a Nikon would produce. It works well for skin tones, and isn't objectionable for landscapes. If you like that look, and I do, then the XP120 produces it straight out of camera.

Videos look about the same. Better than acceptable in good light, and deteriorating quickly as the light dims. In general, more than good enough for web publication. The XP120 will shoot full HD video of 1920 x1080 at 60 fps. But it won't do 4K. It will also shoot high-speed video for smooth slow-mo, but not in HD – the frame size goes down as the frame rate goes up (all the way to 320 fps!).

There's more audio background noise than I'd like on videos, and there's not much you can do about it in-camera. You could fix it in post, either by recording another audio track externally and using it to replace the XP120's, or by running the XP120's audio through some kind of noise reduction. There's no way I'm going to that much trouble for fishing videos though. The camera does have a "wind filter" effect that probably does some kind of digital band-rejection filtering to the audio. I haven't tried it out yet, but I suspect I will when the next time the wind kicks up on a kayaking trip.

It's a photo-nerd thing, but the XP120 does not support RAW image files. For the intended target market, I think this is a reasonable limitation. But for me, I wish I could edit from the RAW images. I just like having the extra bit depth.

Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff

The XP120 has a pretty respectable continuous shooting mode that will snap up to 10 frames per second at the largest image size setting of 4608x3456. And there's a "Super High Speed" setting that will do a whopping 60 fps, but the images are only 1920x1080. If the target viewing format is web, however, it's a neat capability. I'd hate to sort through them though – a mere 5 seconds of shooting produces 300 photos!

Going in the opposite direction, there is also a time-lapse shooting mode. It can automatically package the result as a video, or just provide all the still images for you to videoize in post. I can envision using this to show my journey paddling to my fishing spot, but condensing the time so you don't have to watch 20 minutes of me huffing and puffing.

Of course the XP120 has a self-timer mode. It works like the self-timer in virtually any digital camera. It also has a timer mode I hadn't encountered before. It's called "face detection timer" and it's for group portraits where the photographer is going to be in the picture too. The XP120 will kick off the timer automatically when it detects a specified number of faces. So you put the camera on a tripod; enable face detection timer; hit the shutter button; run over to take your spot; and when the camera sees you've joined the group, it will start the timer. Interesting.

The Swanky Modes

The XP120 has a bunch of different shooting modes designed to handle all kinds of photography scenarios. Portrait, landscape, sports, night, sunset, snow, beach, underwater, macro, HDR, text – it's pretty much all covered. There's also "SR Auto" mode, which automates even the selection of the mode! When you press the shutter button, it evaluates the scene and selects the mode it thinks is best suited.

All of the XP120's modes are automated, meaning the camera is making all or most of the exposure and image rendering decisions for you. There is no Manual mode. There's not even Aperture-Priority or Shutter-Priority modes. The best alternative provided is Program mode, which at least lets you control ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation. If I were going to use this camera for "serious" photography, I would feel too constricted deferring so many artistic choices to the camera. But once again, for posting fishing photos and videos to the web, it will do. Between Program mode and judicious use of the specialized shooting modes, I should be able to achieve everything I want.

When I first started shooting with the XP120, I figured I'd spend all my time in Program mode because it offers the most control. But it simply doesn't work very well for some things. For example, you can see in the landscape shots in this post that the depth of field isn't large enough to bring both the foreground and background into good focus. I shot those in Program mode. It occurred to me afterwards that using Landscape mode would have fixed that by forcing a smaller aperture with greater depth of field. So if you want to photograph a lot of different scenes, and do it at high quality, it pays to know and use your modes! If you just want to set it in one mode and not have to think about that stuff (which is perfectly reasonable), then I suggest putting it in SR Auto because most of the time the camera will diagnose the scene correctly and choose the optimal mode.

Here are some of the more useful, interesting, or just unusual modes:
  • Pro Low Light – Pro Low Light mode is something that I've used a lot on my X20. It's a great way to get higher quality low-light images without a flash. It doesn't work miracles, but it is definitely an improvement. I wrote an article on my web site describing how Pro Low Light works, which is interesting if you're into that sort of thing.
  • Panorama – I also use Panorama mode a lot on my X10. It's easy to put together an impressive shot and I use it quite a lot, either for broad landscapes or inside small enclosed spaces.
  • HDR – I've done a lot of HDR photography. But always in post-production, almost never in-camera. I'm not a fan of over-done HDR, but the HDR built into cameras is usually so subtle that it's not very effective at doing what HDR is supposed to do. My few experiments with HDR on the XP120 reaffirms my doubts. It does provide better shadow detail, but it's doesn't prevent highlight blow-outs as well as it should.
  • Cinemagraph – I'd heard about cinemagraphs a few years ago. It was "meh" to me then, and still is. It strikes me as one of those novelty things that people go crazy for for a little while, then people either get bored with it or it becomes a dated cliché (e.g. selective color, HDR). Basically, a cinemagraph is a video in which only selected portions of the scene are animated while everything else is still. Or stated in an inverse way, it's a still image which has small areas of animated movement. Anyway, the XP120 can shoot these and you can select what areas of the scene are animated. It will save them as a video file, which you could use as-is or convert to an animated GIF on your computer. I don't see me using it very much, but I will say that Fuji makes it easy to do if I ever want to.
  • Action Camera  – I had high hopes for Action Camera mode, but it let me down. Supposedly, the Action Camera mode sets the lens to be fixed at 18mm for a very wide angle view and turns off the rear panel display during shooting. In testing it, I also observed that Action Camera mode forces a higher shutter speed than most other modes. This makes sense in order to freeze action. On paper, all of this would be terrific for kayak fishing videos.

    I was a bit skeptical about the 18mm lens claim though, even before I bought the camera. With the little bit I know about optics, I just couldn't imagine how they squeezed an extra 10mm off the minimum focal length. And if they did, then why was that lens configuration only available in one specialty mode? That seemed like a pointless limitation. You'd get more marketing mileage having a generally-available 18mm wide setting for the lens, than hiding it in an obscure mode.

    Well, after a lot of testing, I can confidently say that Action Camera mode provides no wider viewing angle than the widest normal setting of the zoom lens – 28mm. It's exactly the same. There is no technical sorcery happening to turn the 28mm-140mm lens into an 18mm lens. As another test, I compared the Action Camera mode to my Nikon with an 18mm equivalent lens and it confirmed what I was seeing – the angle of view is much closer to 28mm than 18mm. In my opinion, without the 18mm lens, Action Camera mode is a waste of time. Why give up the ability to zoom if you're not going to get that ultra wide-angle perspective? Bummer. Fortunately, the standard 28mm setting of the lens is still wide enough for kayak fishing videos, but having an 18mm option would have been great.

Live and Unfiltered

One fun (and occasionally even useful!)feature in all Fujifilm cameras is a great selection of filters that can be applied to photos and videos. The more useful ones include high-key and low-key. The Dynamic Tone filter is a high drama, heavy contrast, almost-HDR sort of look. I wish it had a control over the amount because it's seriously heavy-handed. But it could work with the right content. Despite the name, I find the Toy Camera filter occasionally useful when I want a highly-stylized vintage photo look. Some of the more fun novelty filters are Fisheye which is particular great with kids and pets; and Sketch for making Aha! videos. And there are the usual over-used cliché filters like Selective Color and Miniature, which makes aerial images look like dioramas.

Pass Me the Remote


One of the most useful features of the XP120 from a kayak fishing standpoint is a companion mobile app called Camera Remote, which I'll call "CR" because we're good friends now. CR lets you control the XP120 remotely from a mobile phone or tablet; transfer photos and videos from the XP120 to the device; and geotag photos with GPS coordinates from the device. All this happens over a wifi connection with the XP120 acting as the router. CR is available for free download for iOS and Android.

CR has a pretty bad rep if you look at the user reviews on Apple App Store. If you believe the reviews, it is very buggy. But it works fine for me! I've tried every feature, multiple times. I've tried to find corner cases that might screw it up, and I've done a lot of testing to see deduce how things work under the covers. And so far, I've never had it crash or fail to do what it is supposed to do.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. One, the software's been out for several years with a lot of updates so it's probably gotten more stable since a lot of the reviews were written. And two, I suspect there are a fair number of people who just don't know what they're doing. There are some set-up and connection procedures that aren't intuitive for people who don't understand wifi and how computer software works. If you get hung up there, the app will never work.

That's not to say that CR is perfect though. There are some limitations and design flaws in the app, a couple of which are shaking-my-head egregious. I'll cover them below. But overall, this app works for me, even if it's kind of clunky in some areas.

Once you install CR, there is a mostly manual procedure you have to perform every time you want to use it:
  1. Put the camera in playback mode and press the wifi button. (By the way, for some odd reason there needs to be at least one photo or video on the XP120 to activate wifi.)
  2. Go into your device's settings and connect the device to the XP120's wifi network. On my iPhone this will happen automatically if it's not already connected to another network. But if it is, I have to manually connect to the XP120's network.
  3. Fire up the Camera Remote app
  4. On the XP120, you may need to authorize your device connecting with the camera. This must be done the first time you connect to the XP120, or if connect with a different device than the last time you used CR.
From there, you choose between one of 4 "modules" or main functions of the app:
  1. Remote Control - Displays the camera's live view on the device's screen and allows you to shoot photos and videos remotely from the device. This is extremely useful for controlling a camera that you can't physically reach, such as one mounted on a pole on kayak!
  2. Receive - Transfer individual photos and video files from the camera to your device.
  3. Browse Camera - Browse and view the photos and videos on your camera, and selectively transfer them to the device.
  4. Geotagging - Grab the current GPS coordinates from the device and load them into the camera to tag subsequent photos.

Remote Control

Remote Control is the niftiest module in CR. It basically turns your phone or tablet into a simple but highly functional remote for the camera. It displays a live view through the camera's lens and provides controls to zoom and shoot photos/videos. The functionality is pared way down from what is physically available on the camera, but it's slick and it works.

Ideally, Remote Control would let you pole-mount the camera and then not need to physically touch it again until the next time you come ashore.  Remote Control is totally up to that challenge if you can accept its shooting limitations, which I'll discuss. But that working model is constrained by the XP120's battery. Unless you're doing a short 2-3 hour trip, you'll need to change out batteries at some point and you'll need to physically access the camera to do that.

That being said, if you're using the Remote Control module, you can leave the app completely and use other apps on your device. When you return to Remote Control, the camera will still be there ready to go. In other words, it won't drop the wifi connection just because you left the app or the device went into screen saver mode. This is terrific because it means you can set up the wifi connection, put the camera on a stick on your kayak, and then use Remote Control to take pictures and videos throughout the day until you're either done or you run out of battery power, whichever occurs first. (As you might guess, my money is on the battery!) You'll also want to disable the auto-power-off feature on the camera so that it shut itself down after a period of inactivity. Very helpfully, when Remote Control is fired up, the LCD display on the XP120 is turned off, conserving precious battery life.

You have fewer shooting options when using Remote Control. Most of the video and photo settings are preset and don't honor the settings you made in the camera. So, things like the shooting mode, exposure compensation, ISO, filters, etc. are ignored. I think the only thing it honors are photo size and quality. Moreover, video is preset to 640x480 at 30fps; no HD. That's a drag, although acceptable for my kayak fishing videos. I suspect the limitation is because live preview of HD video over the wifi connection might be unsupportable due to performance constraints. But functionally, it's a shame.

The controls you do get from the app are extremely basic: Take picture, start/stop video recording, set the zoom, set the flash mode, and set the timer mode. That's it. But like the video size format limitation, it's just barely enough for my purposes. It would be nice if it would honor more photo/video settings and allow you to control things like ISO and exposure compensation. And I'd love to have the option to shoot HD video using the Remote Control module. But for my primary use case, it'll do. And if I really need to shoot HD, I still can, I just have to do it without Remote Control, that's all.

Browse Camera

Browse Camera is a remote image/video browser. It works the way you'd expect it to. The user interface is occasionally a little sluggish as it transfers data from the camera to show you a photo on your device. Another more significant limitation is that you can't zoom very far into an image. I like to zoom in a lot to determine if a photo is genuinely sharp or not and Browse Camera won't let me do that. But overall, Browse Camera works like it's supposed to and it's very easy to use.

Within Browse Camera, you can select one or more files for transfer to your device. Browse Camera is better suited to multi-file transfer than the Receive module. I've read on the Internet that some people have had trouble transferring multiple files, but I haven't had any problems with it. As of this writing, I've transferred batches of a couple dozen full-size, high-quality files and it has worked flawlessly for me so far. Each file takes about 3.5 seconds to transfer, which seems pretty reasonable to me for a 16MP image.

There is a camera setting to downsize files before transmitting. This is very useful when you're transferring for the purpose of uploading to social media.

Receive

Unlike the other modules, you interact with the camera more than the device when using Receive. After you fire up Receive on the device, you scroll through photos and videos one-by-one on the camera and elect to transfer each to the device, or not. It's best suited when you have a particular photo/video (or a very small number of them) you want to get onto your device with minimal hassle. Large numbers of files are best transferred using Browse Camera since you have to flip through them one-by-one with Receive. The whole thing is easy and it works fine. On the other hand, it's not very "remote" since you have to physically handle both the device and the camera.

Geotagging

Geotagging is the worst of the CR modules in my opinion. It is rudimentary and not very well thought out. Since there is no GPS in the camera, Geotagging can download the device's current GPS coordinates, send them to the camera, and for the next 3 hours, the camera will tag all subsequent photos with those coordinates. Note it doesn't get new coordinates for every photo, it just keeps using the last ones it received until one of 3 things happens: 1) you make the app get new coordinates, 2) you set the camera to stop geotagging photos, or 3) three hours has elapsed since the GPS coordinates were last updated. Every time you want the GPS coordinates updated in the camera you have to perform the connection procedure I outlined above, then go into the Geotagging module and have it send new GPS coordinates to the camera. The more accurate you want your coordinates, the more frequently you'll need to do it.

I could see this being useful if you know you're going to be taking a lot of photos in one place. You'd get your coordinates at the beginning of the session and then turn off tagging at the end. But if you're on the move snapping photos, forget it. Too much hassle. Other camera systems employ a log file of time-stamped GPS coordinates, which is used by a PC or mobile app to geotag the photos later by matching up the time stamps on the photos to the time stamps on the logged coordinates. As long as your camera and device clocks are fairly close, that's a much easier and more accurate way to do it.

Doc, There's a Bone In My Head

There are some other boneheaded design decisions in CR as well. The most mind-boggling is that exiting any of the 4 main modules of the app disconnects the wifi connection between the device and camera. So if you want to switch between modules, you have to reestablish the wifi connection (following the procedure I outlined above)! As a former software engineer, I can't think of a good reason for this. Perhaps Fujifilm was concerned about battery life with wifi on and wanted to make customers disconnect when not using the app. This would be a crappy reason in my opinion. First, there's no guarantee that users will always exit a module when they're done using it. Second, if Fuji is concerned about battery life, then spec a larger capacity battery! Their batteries are notoriously fast-consumed. Anyway, it's an inconvenience, especially on a kayak with the camera perched on a pole!

Thankfully, the Remote Control module will allow you to browse and transfer images and videos directly from within the module without exiting, and Browse Camera also includes transfer capabilities. So the need to exit a module isn't nearly as bad as it could be, especially Remote Control.

Summary


I suppose I can sum up this review by saying that the XP120 is a good camera for my needs. Its strengths align well with my hard requirements and its weaknesses align well with the areas where I'm willing to compromise.  It is unabashedly a point-and-shoot, with all the limitations that confers. But if you need an inexpensive, rugged, and waterproof camera, and you're reasonable about camera performance at this price point, it could be the right camera for you too.

Pluses
  • Inexpensive
  • Very rugged – waterproof to 65 ft, dust-proof, shock-proof to 5.8 ft, freeze-proof to 14° F
  • 16MP still images
  • Big, high-res LCD display (3", 920K)
  • Remote camera operation with Camera Remote app
  • Time-lapse with automatic video clip creation
  • Wireless transfer of photos to mobile phone or tablet
  • Lots of fun and useful modes and filters
Minuses
  • Small sensor means poor image detail and low light performance
  • Short battery life
  • Limited control over camera shooting options
  • No RAW file support
  • No 4K video
  • Using Camera Remote limits camera shooting options even more 


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