November 18th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

The new Fuji Real 3D W1 digital camera is generally available only in Japan so far, but one of them recently made its way into my hands and I’ve had a few weeks to play around with it.   Perhaps the first thing I must tell you is that I’ve not seen an English-language version of the user’s manual, so it’s entirely possible that I may be wrong about certain things regarding the camera’s operation.  However, the user interface menus are in English, and I’ve found much information from Fuji online.

At first glance, if you don’t look too carefully, the W1 looks like any number of other point and shoot digital cameras, albeit somewhat more bulky than most recent models.  But if you look a bit more closely, you’ll notice the “3D” logos here and there on the case.  And when you slide down the front cover, you’ll reveal not one but two separate lenses, and it finally sinks in that the W1 is a 3D-stereo camera!

The camera’s two lenses are 77mm apart, or approximately the same distance as a human adult’s eyes.  Coupled to each lens is a 10mp digital CCD image sensor, giving each 3D image a total of 20 megapixels.  However, for comparison purposes, I’m going to be treating it like a 10mp camera since that’s what you’d get in regular 2D mode.

Controls

The back of the camera features a fairly large 2.8″ LCD display, but it’s not just any LCD.  This is actually a 3D display that provides you with a fairly good idea of how the 3D image will look.  On either side of the LCD is a vertical row of buttons that allow you to bring up the various menus and move through them.

The camera’s user interface, to be perfectly honest, seems rather dated.  My sister had a Fuji digital camera 7-8 years ago and it doesn’t seem like this camera was much different as far as the UI goes.  And to be honest, I thought that her camera’s UI was kind of clunky even then.

Perhaps the main problem is that there are certain things in the UI that are buried a few levels down that really need to be available at the top-most level if they’re to do the user any good.  One example is setting manual exposure control.  More on that later.

Exposure Control

The camera supports ISO settings from 100 to 1600 in 1-stop increments, and you can either set it manually or have the camera set it automatically for each shot.  I’ve used it mostly at the automatic setting and from what I’ve seen, the camera does a fairly good job at selecting what speed to use.

The first real gripe with this camera is the level of difficulty involved in controlling your exposure settings.  There is a manual exposure mode, but you have to go through several menus to set the shutter speed and the lens aperture.  It’s OK for making manual exposures when you’ve got plenty of time, but not so much in other situations where speed is a factor.

Another issue is that the lens only has 3 aperture settings.  They vary depending on where you have the lens zoomed to, but at the wide range they are f/3.7, f/5.0, and f/8.0.  For maximum telephoto the range is f/4.2, f/5.6, and f/9.0.  It’s rather an odd selection.  The first two choices are only 2/3 stop apart, and the last two are about 1-1/2 stops apart.  I can understand why f/8 might be the smallest aperture on a camera with a small image sensor and short focal length lenses, but why not give us standard 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments on the aperture choices?

The situation is better with shutter speed control, but oddly the range varies depending on the selected aperture.  On manual control, the low-end of the range always starts at 1/2 second.  On automatic, the low-end can be as much as 4 seconds, but it’s not entirely clear about what circumstances are required.  At f/8, you can go as high as 1/1000.  At f/5, you can go as high as 1/640.  And at f/3.7 you can go to 1/500.  In all cases, the speed is adjustable  in 1/3 stop increments.

Electronic Flash

The W1’s built-in electronic flash is fairly small, and placed directly in between the two lenses, making red-eye a virtual certainty in many low-light situations.  Fortunately, like many small cameras these days, there is a red-eye reduction mode where the flash will flicker several times immediately before the picture is taken.  This causes the irises in your subject’s eyes to stop down, reducing the possibility of red-eye.

One thing I liked is that because the camera doesn’t use a focal-plane shutter, there is no restriction on flash sync and shutter speed combinations.  You can use the flash at any desired shutter speed.

My general impression is that the built-in flash is a bit underpowered.  I didn’t really have a problem with range, but when taking several shots in a row, even with several seconds between each shot, there were many occasions where the flash didn’t fire because it hadn’t yet recycled since the previous shot.

The built-in flash isn’t ultimately that much different from those found on most other point and shoot cameras.  But many other cameras at the W1’s price point include some option for using external flash, and the W1 does not.  You can use the built-in flash to trigger an optical slave connected to an external flash, but that’s about it.  This is a serious shortcoming for me.  The camera is big enough that a hot shoe on top would have worked, and an external PC flash connection would have been nice as well.

The Lens

Uh, make that “lenses” I guess.  The two matched lenses provide 3x zoom capability.  Fuji claims that it’s the equivalent of a 35mm camera’s 35-105 zoom lens, but frankly it didn’t seem that wide at the low-end.  It seemed more like a just slightly wider than “normal” lens field of view, rather than being truly wide-angle.  At the high end it’s a moderate telephoto.

The lenses are adequate if not spectacular, but it’s a shame that they don’t go wider at the low-end of the zoom range.  Why don’t camera manufacturers seem to want to give us wide-angle lenses on these point and shoot models? Whenever I’m taking pix with these cameras, I’m always backing away from the subject to get everything in the picture.  And that places a bigger strain on the built-in flash, and it also increases the chances of getting red-eye.  Why don’t they realize that these small cameras are often used to shoot groups of several people from just a few feet away?  On this camera, as well as 3 other P&S digital cameras I’ve owned, the “wide angle” end of the zoom was never more than barely wider from what would be considered a “normal” lens.

Video Mode

While waiting for the camera to arrive, I was really looking forward to creating 3D videos.  Unfortunately, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with the video capabilities.  You have a choice of 640×480 or 320×240 for either 3D or 2D movies.  Why no high-definition mode?  This omission is a serious shortcoming these days.

Aside from the lack of high-def mode, there are a few other issues.  First, you cannot zoom while recording video.  I cannot even imagine why this restriction is in place.

Otherwise, the main problem is that you have no control over compression settings.  The camera seems to be stuck in a fairly high compression mode.  I don’t see it all the time, but you do sometimes get compression artifacts in the video.

The camera creates standard Windows AVI files for video, using Motion-JPEG compression.  Who uses Motion-JPEG any more?  Even cellphones use H.264 these days, so what’s the deal here, Fuji?  It’s really a shame they didn’t use some variation of MPEG-4 H.264 compression.  That would have provided much better quality video for the same amount of memory card space.

With a 16gb card, the camera tells me that I can shoot for a bit over 15 minutes in 3D/640 mode, and up to about an hour in 2D/320 mode.  The camera can only create files up to 2gb long, which is the nominal maximum size of a file using the FAT32 filesystem.  Some other cameras get around this by simply chaining multiple files together as needed, but Fuji declined to do that here. 

Shooting With It

One of the first things you learn when shooting the W1 is that if you really want the 3D effect to work, there are certain rules you have to follow.  First and foremost is, keep the bottom of the camera parallel to the ground.  If you tilt it more than a few degrees, the image just won’t look right unless you turn your head to match when viewing.  Tilting forward or back is OK, as long as you don’t tilt from left to right.

Of course, “no tilting” means you cannot do anything but  “landscape” mode shots.  No turning the camera 90 degrees for a “portrait” shot.  This can take a little getting used to, and I didn’t always remember this idea when shooting my first few batches of pix.

Other than that, shooting with the W1 isn’t much different than shooting with most other point and shoot cameras.  Oh, you do have twice as much chance to accidentally cover a lens with your finger, but you’ll see that on the viewscreen if you’re paying attention.  This sounds like a joke at first, but it’s not entirely.  For some reason, the two lenses aren’t centered on the front of the camera.  They’re offset to one side, with one lens right up against the edge of the front of the camera.  So in fact, it’s not all that hard to cover up one of the lenses with a finger if you’re holding the camera with both hands.

Viewing Your Images

So how does one view the images created with this camera?  Well, there are several options.  First, it is possible to make 3D lenticular screen prints.  Remember those 3D trading cards you had when you were a kid, the ones with the grooved plastic overlay where the image perspective would change depending on the angle you looked at the card?   Fuji tells us that there are print-making services that can take the W1’s MPO image files and create such prints.  I’ve not done that, but it seems to be something that might be useful occasionally.  It’s significantly more expensive than “standard” prints are, however, so it’s not something you’ll do with every memory card you fill up.

Fuji sells an LCD photo frame that has a 3D LCD screen similar to that on the camera, albeit larger at 8.4″ diagonal measurement.   However, it’s rather pricey at $499.  (Not to mention that Fuji seems to have problems keeping it in stock in their online store.)

Another possibility it to use NVIDIA’s 3D Vision stereo glasses with a compatible monitor and NVIDIA-based video card.  This is how I’ve been viewing my images so far. If you don’t mind wearing the glasses, this will be the best option for many since the image size will be much larger than the photo frame.  Plus, you can get a good 20″ or 22″ monitor and the glasses for around the same price or just a bit more than Fuji’s 3D photo frame.

(Disclosure: I do subcontracting work for NVIDIA and in fact obtained the W1 camera through them.) 

In Conclusion

This camera is a study in contradiction.  On the one hand, the ability to create 3D images is really cool, and with the right subject matter the images are just amazing.  On the other hand, when using the camera, you sometimes get the idea that the designers were so in love with the 3D capabilities that they just plain forgot about making sure that the rest of the camera was just as cool as the 3D stuff.

If the ability to create 3D images is your primary reason for being interested in the W1, then the camera’s shortcomings in other areas are probably something you can live with.  But if you are primarily looking for a good camera first, and think 3D would just be a nice feature to throw into the mix, you may want to wait another generation or two for the 3D capabilities of the W1 to be combined with a better all-around camera.

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