Fuji X100 Review
Photokina is the world’s largest photographic trade show, and the event is traditionally a time when manufacturers announce new models.
In the run-up to the event last September, everyone was waiting for perhaps a minor upgrade to the DSLRs churned out by Canon and Nikon. Or maybe a new selection of bright and sparkly point and shoot cameras with pet face recognition and shit image quality from seventeen different manufacturers. In other words, nothing of any note was expected.
And then, just before the show, Fuji announced this:
It was called the Fuji X100 and photographers went nuts. Voted the star of show at Photokina and subject to massive pre-ordering, the Fuji was an instant hit. And if you can’t understand why, then you probably don’t know about cameras like this:
This is the Leica M9 and it lurks on the edge of the consumer camera market. A throwback rangefinder design with a full frame sensor and a Leica lens which together produce stellar images. The only problem is that you either have to be insanely rich, or insane, to fork out the $10,000 or so to own one. But it costs nothing to desire one and most photographers would murder their pets for a chance to shoot a Leica M9 for a while (I have informed my cats that this is the case. They now avoid me). So when Fuji announced something that looked similar, but cost “only” $1,200; then the excitement was understandable.
When the X100 was announced, I remarked: “Once this is released next year, I am going to have to make sure that my credit card and this camera are never in the same room at the same time.” Almost inevitably, we were, and so now I have one. After a month or so of ownership I feel ready to record my thoughts.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way; this camera is beautiful. Looks even better “in the flesh” than it does in photos. Does this matter? Of course it does. The Fuji X100 begs you to pick it up and go take photos with it, in the same way a Canon boring black box doesn’t. It looks like an old camera which means it is non-threatening and you are generally ignored when shooting on the street. On occasions people will come up to you and ask if the camera belonged to your Dad or if you enjoy shooting film. It’s simultaneously discrete and charming; a little like me.
It feels good too. Solidly constructed from magnesium alloy with a chunky dial on the top to set the shutter speed, and a ring round the lens to change the aperture. Another dial on the top provides exposure compensation and all of these controls operate with a satisfactory click. The shutter doesn’t operate operate with a satisfactory click because it is silent. In fact you can turn the whole camera into silent mode which means no shutter noise, no focus acquisition confirmation; nothing. More on this later.
All this looking and feeling good is of no consequence unless the photos that it produces are of some quality. Fortunately, they are. Fuji have married a 35mm (effective) lens with a 12 megapixel sensor and a processing engine to produce very pleasing images.
Photos are sharp, the colours are rich (maybe too rich for some tastes) and there is very little noise as the ISO increases. Even at very high ISOs, the colour retention is good and any noise can be easily removed; much better than the performance of my Canon 1D.
ISO 1600 jpg out of camera, no extra processing.
ISO 3200 from RAW, no extra processing
So, the camera looks good, as do the images it produces; now let’s discuss what it is like to operate.
The viewfinder from heaven.
The X100 has a hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. When in optical mode, you are looking straight through the camera and out into the real world; there is no better view. There is a white box which frames the shot, and you can see the area around the box, which is very useful for composition, or spotting that some tiresome child is about to walk into the frame and ruin your masterpiece.
The box is surrounded with information about the settings, plus there is a bar showing the focus point and depth of field. You can also display a histogram and a level line to help ensure your photos are straight.
If you wish to switch to a purely electronic viewfinder, then there is a little red switch on front of the camera to facilitate that; but why would you ever want to leave the lovely clear optical mode…?
The answer is parallax. When shooting a distant building, what you see through the viewfinder and what the lens “sees” are pretty much the same. But as the subject comes closer, parallax effects come into play and the lens is capturing something down and to the right of what the optical viewfinder is showing. The optical viewfinder does a pretty good job of handling this. When you focus the camera, the frame moves to cover the area that will be taken by the camera and the focus box shows the point which has been focused upon, which is no longer the same as the framing box. Here’s a rather crap example, captured by taking a photo through the viewfinder with another camera. Trust me, the actual view is much clearer than this:
With the uncertainty over what you are framing and what you are focusing on at closer distances, the easiest solution is to switch to the electronic viewfinder and see exactly what is coming through the lens. But Fuji doesn’t trust us to do that without prompting and implements their own solution; and it’s not elegant.
Once you get within 80cm of your subject, the beast refuses to focus until you switch into macro mode. Switching to this mode also automatically switches the viewfinder to electronic, thus dispensing with any parallax issues. So it’s not really macro mode, it’s “my optical viewfinder can’t cope any more” mode, but it’s hard to write that on a switch.
Trouble is, 80cm is not that close and it’s a real bugger to find your camera suddenly refusing to focus at a distance that doesn’t feel macro at all. Fortunately, there is a solution and it involves setting manual focus.
Manual focus really really sucks on the X100. The manual focusing ring on the lens has approximately a thousand turns from end to end. Start with a blurred image and spin that ring for a few minutes before deciding that the blur is not improving and you have to spin it in the other direction. Even if you do find yourself approximately in focus, then the available zoomed-in view is inadequate to really confirm best focus. Compared to the elegant approach to manual focusing on the Panasonic GF1, the X100 is pathetic.
But, switch the camera to manual focus and then use the focus lock button to acquire auto focus when required, and you have a very workable solution. First, you take focus once with the button and then you can roll off as many shots as you want without the shutter button pausing to focus again. And, for no documented reason, the “my optical viewfinder can’t cope any more” mode disappears and you can continue to focus with the optical viewfinder for as close as you feel comfortable with using it (although you still need to trigger macro mode if you want to get really close).
In summary, the optical viewfinder is glorious, and you can continue to use it closer than 80cm if you use the manual focus/focus lock approach. Kinda nuts that this is not in the manual (maybe it is, I should read it).
The noiseless shutter
People are very aware of the sound of a camera shutter. So if you point a camera at someone and they don’t hear a shutter noise, they are much less aware that you are taking photos. I was stood right next to this family and they were completely unaware that I was shooting them:
But for this next shot I was stood next to she who must be obeyed who was using my Panasonic GF1. I was just lining up my shot when she pressed the shutter. The “click” from the GF1 alerted the hairdresser, I recoiled at being caught (hence the blur), and the shot was lost.
Shooting with the X100
It looks good, it takes good photos, it has a wonderful viewfinder and the shutter is silent; is this camera heaven? Not quite.
You have to develop a shooting style. Mine is to set my preferred aperture, set the shutter and ISO to auto, set the focus to manual and use the auto-focus button; and go shooting. Set like this, I am a happy man. Focus is reasonably fast and I can take shots in quick succession. It’s not DSLR fast, but it’s fast enough. But if I want to change some settings, then everything grinds to a halt.
The problem is two-fold. One is the back panel on the camera which, unlike the rest of the camera, seems cheap.
The command wheel with the “OK” button in the middle is a particular source of frustration. Annoyingly unresponsive at times, and faster than something that is very fast at others, you are never quite sure what you are going to get. Turning the flash on or off, for example, has left me weeping with frustration as my subject wanders away into another province; sick of waiting for me to set the bloody thing. Moving the focus point around the screen requires you to hold down a button on one side of the screen whilst fiddling with the control dial on the other; not something I can personally manage while looking through the viewfinder. The OK button is not OK, far too small and recessed and, unless your fingers are the size of pencils, you will find yourself triggering all manner of unwanted responses.
The rear panel debacle is compounded by the state of the firmware. Already updated twice, it is still ludicrously complicated at times. Turning the Auto ISO on or off, for example, will take you a minimum of 23 button presses. 23! The situation is not helped by the availability of only one programmable function button which nestles next to the shutter. Meanwhile, a totally redundant “RAW” button sits idly at the bottom of the rear panel (for JPEG shooters to choose an occasional RAW, and for RAW shooters to do absolutely nothing with apart from curse).
Fuji say they are committed to improving the firmware. If they do, maybe some of the frustrations will disappear, maybe the buttons will have a more reliable response, and maybe even the manual focus will improve (although I doubt it). Meantime, the operation of the camera can be described as being frustratingly idiosyncratic; or “having a unique charm” if you are a Fuji salesman.
Some other thoughts:
Battery life is pretty feeble, around 300 shots. But the battery is tiny, light and dirt cheap on eBay; so I carry a couple of spares. I’d rather do that than have a larger, heavier camera with a big battery.
Hood and filter adapter
On a fixed lens camera there is a particular need to look after the lens. Bugger it up and the whole camera is ruined. As it comes out of the box, the lens stands proud and exposed, challenging a passing bar girl to give it a glancing blow with her handbag.
No problem, fit the hood. But there isn’t one in the box. OK, then fit a protective filter. But you can’t because you need an adapter; which just happens to be available separately, together with the hood, for a sizeable chunk of cash. For a camera of this price, these should be in the box.
If you ever manage to turn it on before the moment passes, the inbuilt flash is very good. Does a fine job of providing fill flash, provided you remember to remove that expensive hood you just bought, otherwise you will get some nasty shadows (more “unique charm”).
The shutter is silent because it is a leaf shutter built into the lens. Another upside of this is that you can shoot flash at very high shutter speeds. A downside of this is that shutter speed is limited at wider apertures. For example, at F2 you can’t shoot faster than 1/1000th of second, rather limiting on a sunny day. To manage this, there is a neutral density filter available via the menus (good luck finding it).
Congratulations on reaching this far. I wasn’t planning on writing so much; just planned to say “mostly good, with some rubbish bits”. So that can serve as a conclusion: Mostly good, with some rubbish bits.
The Fuji is not a camera for everyone. You have to learn how it works (and doesn’t work) and then develop a way of shooting with it to minimise the failings. Like most compact cameras, it is no good for sports and similar fast-reaction type photography. But I have the 1D for that. Neither would I use it for precise macro work, but then I have the GF1 with a selection of lenses for that. But as a carry everywhere camera which produces beautiful photos even when the light is low, which is discrete and non-threatening on the street and is a pleasure to hold and operate (usually), then it is hard to beat.
With demand still high, I could sell mine for at least the purchase price; but I am keeping it. I could tell you it’s because I will use it for my polo non-action shots instead of the GF1, and improve both my social standing and the quality of the photos. I could tell you it’s because I prefer it to the GF1 as a carry-around camera and it is the only camera I carried on our last two trips overseas.
But really, could you part with something this beautiful?:
No, me neither.
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