The Fujifilm Finepix 6800Z (‘Z’ standing for Zoom) was an important and memorable progression in digital camera history. Not because it pioneered any new technology – the notorious Super CCD had been used in previous Fuji cameras, and the interpolated output which made devices like the 6800Z so controversial had formerly been a gimmick of Agfa’s. No, the 6800Z was so important because it showed that Fuji’s high-risk approach to digicam development was working. The very fact that this flagship compact progressed the Super-CCD-plus-interpolation concept to Generation II and trumpeted the fact from the rooftops (rather than ditching the Super CCD for conventional technology in the face of industry criticism), meant Fuji’s unconventional ethos was making sense to the consumer. Fuji had stopped trying to out-run rivals on the megapixel treadmill, and had instead taken to getting ahead by custard-pieing the competition in the face. This camera was a custard pie of unprecedented magnitude.
The Fuji Finepix 6800Z (left) shown alongside the much later Canon G9 for size comparison. The Fuji's Porsche design certainly looks flash alongside the more utilitarian Canon.
Modern, stylish and compact, the highly desirable 6800Z offered an unrivalled 6 megapixel output at a time when leading compacts like the Canon Powershot G1 (£749), the Nikon Coolpix 995 (£799) and the Olympus 3040 (£749) were offering less than 3.5. Priced at £699.90, Fuji’s new king of compacts sported a brand new, drool-inducing, slick design by none other than motor world luminary FA Porsche. With its reassuring metal construction and its much-hyped Super CCD image sensor producing vibrant, impactive pictures, the 6800Z surely sent rival marketing departments straight into facepalm mode. On paper, there was no other deal like this in the world of digital consumer cameras. This device had the looks, the exclusivity, the credentials, and the talent.
But not everyone thought Fuji’s Super CCD was the technological marvel it was cracked up to be. Some believed it was snake oil salesmanship of the highest order, and unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the chip overshadowed its real merits. However it was marketed (and we’ll come to that shortly), the Super CCD in itself was a cool piece of technology.
The Super CCD was all about giving consumers the things that mattered to them most in a photo. Fuji knew that the kind of pinpoint detail analysis and technical assessment seen in camera reviews was only really important to a small minority of potential users. Most people just don’t see photographs like that. What they see, is a picture. If that picture is colourful, vibrant, punchy – aesthetically beautiful, then it’s a great picture. If it’s lifeless, colourless, and it doesn’t leap out at the viewer in a ‘glance test’, then it doesn’t matter how technically perfect the rendering of fine detail – no one cares.
Not only did real people want impactive photos that passed the ‘glance test’, they wanted that type of image straight off the camera – no editing, no faffing. The Finepix 6800Z, with its second generation Super CCD, unquestionably delivered that instant wow factor. It may not have produced anything like 6 megapixels’ worth of definition in the fine detail, but was the average customer bothered? No. The camera took pretty pictures, and the output files were compatible with big prints. Add to that the pocket sizing, the genuine designer build, and the fact that the 6800Z undercut the topline 3.3 megapixel digicams on price, and you had an inevitable winner.
A collection of traditional 35mm film from 2001, shot with the Fuji 6800Z, demonstrates why this digital camera was of such appeal to consumers. Strong colour and accurate exposure/balance straight off the bat made for a very satisfying user experience.
WHAT ACTUALLY WAS THE SUPER CCD?
Hitting the rumour mill in autumn 1999 and first becoming available in a camera on 1st March 2000, the Super CCD was a design of image capture chip which replaced each four-sided conventional pixel sensor with an eight-sided photodiode, flipped round in the chip pattern at a 45 degree angle. The realistic technical goal behind this was much more associated with producing smoother, dynamically richer images than leading the megapixel race. But from first release, the Super CCD invariably operated hand in hand with a high level of image upsizing, in which pixels were artificially added to the information from the CCD. Known as interpolation, this process gave each camera an output rating of nearly double the megapixel count of its actual sensor chip.
The commercial implications of that, in a market where megapixels made or broke deals, were obvious (not to mention highly controversial). But away from the hype and controversy, the Super CCD was really about keeping the chip’s light-sensing diodes large, and not succumbing to an otherwise inevitable pressure to reduce the size of the photodiodes in order to pack more pixels onto a limited size CCD. Why the reluctance to reduce the size of the diodes? Because smaller diodes were less sensitive, and that would compromise the dynamic range of the chip, as well as increasing the level of noise.
The flagship digital compacts Fuji had released before the birth of the Super CCD had delivered very good tonal balance and smoothness in their images, along with impressively accurate colour for their time. But Fuji knew that as the race for more megapixels continued, they risked losing that leading edge on aesthetics. They needed a way of increasing megapixel count, without compromising the all-important photodiode size.
In retrospect, it’s very interesting that in the April 1999 Jessops photographic catalogue, Fuji’s 2.3 megapixel MX-2700 (newly released at a price of £599 as the final flagship compact before the Super CCD), was displayed right next to the like-priced Agfa CL50. The Agfa CL50 only had a 1.3 megapixel CCD, but interpolated its captures up to an output resolution of nearly 2 megapixels. In spring ‘99, Agfa were offering output files way larger than their cameras’ real capabilities, whilst Fuji were still slavishly grinding away with a pixel for pixel translation. It’s impossible to look back at the catalogue listings from that final spring of the 1990s without wondering whether this was the exact moment when the future of Fuji’s digicams was mapped out – especially given the timing of the Super CCD system’s announcement (around six months later), and release (nearly a year later).
So, was the Super CCD conceived independently of its accompanying interpolation, with an unexpected realisation that the output file could feasibly be drastically upsized coming only after the Super CCD was perfected? Or did Fuji start with the idea that they were going to ‘cheat’ with their output ratings, and then design the Super CCD with the intention of smokescreening what was basically a pretty disingenuous plan to get ahead in the megapixel race?
Old school Fuji: a 1999 ad for the MX-2700. This was the final flagship Fuji compact before the Super CCD was introduced. The Super CCD in the MX-2700's successor (the 4700Z) only upped the real terms resolution from 2.3 to 2.4 megapixels, but with onboard interpolation (image upsizing), the first Super CCD model boasted a market-busting 4.3 megapixels. It would be a whole decade before Fuji finally dropped their interpolation-based system.
WAS THE SUPER CCD A CON?
Fuji’s first Super CCD-totin’ camera – the Finepix 4700Z – was billed as the world’s first 4 megapixel consumer camera. It was originally badged with a 4.3M logo (the ‘M’ standing for megapixels), and sent out to the photographic media for review. But there was sharp criticism in some reviews, after it was established that the 4700Z only had a 2.4 megapixel sensor, and that the results from this first generation chip were not always better than those from other 2.4 megapixel cameras – let alone anything higher. In response, Fuji quickly removed the 4.3M logos from the 4700Z, and began to market the model more responsibly – quoting both CCD and output resolutions. But there looks to be little doubt that had Fuji been allowed to get away with effectively marketing their cameras at nearly double their true resolution, they would have done so. It seems the only thing that prevented the Super CCD from being an out and out con at this stage, was the industry’s reaction, and the high profile protests of angry competitors. Fuji, it appears, were forced to play fairer, because the industry and its press simply wouldn’t accept that a camera with a 2.4 megapixel CCD was a 4.3 megapixel device.
But even early on, Fuji were able to argue strongly in favour of the Super CCD, and there were undeniable improvements in the second generation 3.3 megapixel chip used by the 6800Z. In fact, the manufacturer boasted 50% better colour reproduction, hugely improved sensitivity, and lower power consumption… The Super CCD II did also genuinely improve real terms definition as compared with that produced by sensors in earlier Fuji compacts.
By the time the 6800Z was introduced in 2001, there was also the significant point that many digi owners were not intending to use their cameras in conjunction with a computer, let alone an editing suite. The digicam was now making real inroads into the lucrative point and shoot market, and many users would simply take their Smartmedia capture card straight to the lab to get the contents directly printed. A lot of the more serious photographers or reviewers were using the argument that anyone could take a 3.3 megapixel file (from any camera) and interpolate it up to 6 megapixels in Photoshop. They could, of course, IF they had Photoshop.
But that was the thing. These point and shoot converts from the 35mm compact or APS market had no interest whatsoever in the rigours of editing. They just wanted to press a button and get a nice big print. And that dismantled the argument about Photoshop’s upsizing being as good as, or nearly as good as Fuji’s in-camera upsizing. You needed Photoshop to upsize in Photoshop, and how much did Photoshop cost? Five hundred quid. That wasn’t a realistic purchase for the average snapper, and Fuji’s in-camera interpolation was accordingly legitimised on the basis that it was the only way some customers could get a file that large.
A collection of 2001 magazines shot with the Finepix 6800Z. Instant results of this type prompted even staunch traditionalists to consider whether film-based photography would see out the decade.
THE 6800Z IN ITS DAY
Back in 2001, even when you examined one of the 6800Z’s 6 megapixel images closely, you didn’t immediately think: “Oh yes, that’s a photo which has been shot at 3.3 megapixels, and doubled in file size”. However, at the time of the 6800Z’s introduction, few people had any real 6 megapixel digital captures with which to compare the results, because in the domain of consumer compacts there wasn’t a camera capable of producing such a resolution. So it was all down to the imagination – based on the kind of results you expected a real 6 megapixel digicam would produce. Did the 6800Z meet those expectations? By and large, I’d say it did.
Of course, in retrospect, the hallmarks of interpolation do show themselves when you look at the fine detail, and in all honesty they’ll be pretty obvious to the serious photographer of today. The 6800Z’s interpolated files are still acceptable – even now. But it’s when you look at the non-interpolated 3.3 megapixel files that you gain an impression of how good the Super CCD II was in its day. In early 2001, 3.3 megapixels was a high resolution, and it’s still, in 2013, the highest resolution which some image sharing facilities deem necessary for Web upload. It produces a 7x5 print at publishers’ DPI, and whilst many photographers will tell you they sit there printing A3s all day, realistically that’s impractical both economically and in terms of storage. The Fuji 6800Z still covers all the most popular bases at its 3.3 megapixel optimum (as opposed to its 6 megapixel maximum).
Image: The 6800Z as introduced in 2001.
You have to make allowances for old digital cameras, but especially given that this one was introduced only just over a year into this century, the number of allowances you have to make with it is small. The colour is truly impressive for a device of this era. It’s very punchy, with areas of bold colour really catching the eye. The skintones look convincing, and the reds really kick. Solid yellows aren’t as powerful as we’ve come to expect these days, but they’re not unnatural. Importantly, the greyscale and contrast element of each photo is pretty sensational for an old digicam. I’ve been using a late noughties Canon G9 for a number of years, and whilst its images have far superior definition to those from the 2001 6800Z, they’re nowhere near as attractive in the ‘glance test’.
I don’t think Fuji had lost the plot with their Super CCD concept. I think they were right to aim for impact and general aesthetic beauty over and above true pixel count. I’d rather have photos with overall punch but a bit of technical shortfall on full-res inspection, than photos which render the minutest detail but just don’t have any vitality.
In use, the 6800Z is fairly hard going in 2013. It powers up pretty quickly, but if you want to monitor on the LCD screen rather than through the viewfinder, you have to physically switch on the screen each time, and that’s an extra step at power-up which will annoy most modern digicam users. The screen is small too, and you don’t really get much impression of whether or not you’re in focus. In everyday use, the 6800Z’s autofocus is fine, but I like to be sure, and that’s near impossible with a tiny screen. Battery life is typically limited for a camera of this age, although it’s a lot better than with many other older digicams.
The 6800Z’s biggest problem as seen from the present time is its shutter lag. This was a horrendous headache with early digital cameras, and it made action shots total guesswork, bordering on impossible. The 6800Z’s lag actually wasn’t bad at all for its time (with some early digicams it was almost like employing the self-timer!), but if you use current cameras and then switch to the old Fuji, you’ll definitely find yourself messing up a good few action shots before you acclimatise.
It’s fair to say that this camera can still hold its own a good twelve years plus after introduction, and that’s a hell of a long time in technology. Think back to the state of technology in general back in early 2001. Computers still had CRT monitors, only about 7% of the world had an Internet connection, and there was basically no such thing as a camera phone outside of Japan. This was a world before Facebook, before Twitter. Much of today’s Internet was yet to be born… That a digital camera from that time doesn’t seem out of place today, and still works perfectly well, attests to the eminence of the device. True, using the camera is a challenge as compared with current fare, and getting hold of a spare, long-obsolete Smartmedia card could prove troublesome these days. But with cameras, in the end, it’s all about the photos, and the 6800Z has always delivered on that front.