Why I love, hate, love, hate, love… the X100

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The Fujifilm X100 (manufacturer’s propaganda here), since the moment of its announcement through to its much delayed availability, has been one of if not the most hotly anticipated digital cameras of the digital age.  What’s all the fuss about?  Well, the X100 is a small, rangefinder style camera dressed in metal and faux leather, featuring a sharp and fast fixed optic (35mm focal equivalent) and a unique hybrid (electronic and optical) viewfinder.  Oh yeah, and it has a larger APS-C sized sensor.  Could this be the serious shooter’s walkabout camera, reviving the memory of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his Leica, ever ready to nail that “decisive moment”?  Could this be my own personal return to my favorite film era camera, the Contax G2?

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I loved that G2.  Supremely sharp optics for the three lenses I owned for the system, much more than capable autofocus, reliable metering, and build quality that was unlike anything I had ever handled to that point in time.  I might have liked to have experienced Cartier-Bresson’s brand, the Leica, but the Contax was the poor man’s better option.

So, might this X100 be the digital equivalent of the poor man’s better option?

Let me begin by saying that my mother (a Gemini) and wife (also a Gemini) have pointed out to me that my being born under the Gemini sign predisposes me to a higher level of indecisiveness… of a certain spontaneity that, while endearing at times, can leave those around me wondering where I really stand on a matter.

You’ve been forewarned…

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The X100 has been out for a month or two, with somewhat better availability in the U.S. happening only within the past few weeks.  There were legions of pros, camera buffs and web pontificators all speculating and postulating about this camera before it was even in the flesh… and now that it’s in hand, the rampant buzzing continues.  It seems that the camera has a long list of, uhm, quirks.  The venerable dpreview site, in its comprehensive review (see here) included an entire page dedicated to “bugs, quirks and eccentricities” – see here.  Extraordinary.  And unprecedented.

If you cast a google search net out there, you’ll see that there’s no shortage of opinions on this very unique shooter.  Rather than summarize all those opinions here, I thought I’d offer my own given that I’ve been walking around with one for about a week.  It’s been raining nearly nonstop here in the Boston area and so that has hampered my ability to test it and on one full day, I shot in RAW mode, only to learn when I imported the photos into my preferred post-processing program, Apple Aperture, the X100 RAW files aren’t yet supported.  So, in my library, instead of staring at my images, I stared at big black boxes, each with a foreboding warning that the format was verboten.  Happily, a day or two later, Apple released the update and I upgraded the software.  But, those big black boxes remain… which is surely curious.  My Nikon D5100 files (also just now supported by Aperture) magically appear in the program, but not the X100’s.  Another quirk?

On with my impressions…

On one particularly nasty day this past week, I sat in my car with Shadow, my ten year old (this month) lhasa apso and read through the comprehensive manual.  It’s a complex, but highly capable camera, for sure.  The manual, while not the easiest to plod through, was decent.  Better than some have suggested in the internet forums.  By the way, if you’re contemplating acquiring the X100, prepare to spend some serious time getting to know the overall interface.  Like the BWM 3 Series I once owned, there’s a certain lack of obviousness to some of the controls and indicators.  And because some settings survive a shutter release and others are forgotten (i.e., some are sticky settings and some aren’t), you’re going to want to understand just how this camera thinks before getting out into the field.

I picked up the camera, set it to a shallow depth of field (f2) and took a picture of Shadow.  Huh?

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Not sharp.  The green box lit up and I heard the focus confirmation beep… so why the lack of sharpness?  Is it a focus issue?  I made sure the shutter speed was sufficient.  Still, I got photos like this.  I took several additional photos and learned that in order to gain proper focus, particularly at this close distance, it’s important to get the entire focus box over the subject, despite the fact that camera indicates focus confirmation.  Here, this is better.

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(Dog lovers will understand that Shadow was quite thirsty – hence the big tongue action.)  I tried for sharp focus on the eyes, understanding that the shallow DOF from the larger aperture would throw everything else out of focus.  But here’s the thing – when I moved the camera slightly closer, I couldn’t gain focus no matter what.  Shifting to macro mode (easy to do because of the dedicated button on the four way controller) solved the problem.  On other cameras, I’ve been accustomed to needing to get much, much closer for macro mode.  Not so on the X100.  During the course of testing the camera, when I was getting close, even on portraits, I had to move into macro mode… then back out to resume shooting.  Not great.

Overall, for a camera I was hoping would be Contax G2-like, most notably in terms of focus speed, I’d have to say that the X100 disappoints.  It’s ok, but not great.  I didn’t expect it to be the equivalent of a Nikon DSLR or even my Pentax K5, which is not known to be a speed demon, but I did hope it would match the micro-four thirds cameras I’ve used.  The Olympus PENs are considered to be a tad slower than the Panasonic mirrorless cams.  If I had to rank these cameras in terms of overall focus capabilities (speed and accuracy), I’d have to put Panny first, Oly next, and the Fuji third.  Disappointing.  The decisive moment?  Not exactly.

So far, I’m not loving the menu system and interface and the focus engine was a let down.  Guess I’ll ditch it then.  Right?

Because of all the rain, I’ve been itching to put this camera through the paces.  And Shadow’s not speaking to me anymore.

So, when the rain broke for a few hours this week, I decided to park a bit further away from my meeting downtown and walk.  The stroll included the now lush (thank you rain) Boston Public Garden and the perpetually upscale Newbury Street.  It was a great opportunity to see what this camera can do.

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Fujifilm provides for “film modes” and the top photo above is from the standard JPEG engine.  The second is Velvia, reminiscent of the 35mm Fujifilm film that boosts saturation and provides a more vivid rendering of a scene.  Nice for landscapes, a bit overdone for portraits and people photography.  I liked it, but do prefer to leave JPEG photos in a more subdued state so I can selectively adjust in Aperture later.

There are other ways to modify the photo at capture as well.  The photo below is shot using Sepia tone.

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Another neat trick is in-camera panorama mode, a feature popularized (and just about perfected) by Sony in their compacts and NEX series.  Here’s a scene shot using the Fuji implementation.

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The feature works fairly well, though if you look at the tree cluster above and to the right of the swan boats, you’ll see a blurring, which is the result of imperfect stitching.  With more practice, I assume I could improve my luck.  Sony’s implementation is a good bit more reliable, however.

As my time with the X100 continued, the controls began to feel more natural to me.  And I started to like the thing.  Really like it.  There is a decisiveness about switching aperture and shutter speed using the retro mechanical dials.  A quick nudge of the exposure compensation dial with your right thumb makes subtle and speedy adjustments easy.  A flick of the index finger on the front facing viewfinder switch toggles between a beautiful optical view with overlays showing focus point, exposure settings and more.  Want to see what the actual scene looks like, minus any parallax error (unavoidable given the laws of physics) from the optical view, flick the finger, and there you have an electronic viewfinder that nearly rivals the exceptional VF2 that Olympus provides for its cameras.  It’s worlds better than Panasonic’s add-on viewfinder for its GF and LX cams and certainly surpasses the viewfinders on the compact cameras that sport them.

Also, as I continued to use the camera, I became more accustomed to the surety and predictability of having a fixed focal length optic.  With the optical viewfinder and the ability to see beyond the edges of the capture, I found composition to be aided and the overall process of shooting to be appealing, even fun.

Man, this thing was growing on me.

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Some have written that the camera is surprisingly heavy for its size.  Others have commented that the fake leather wrap feels cheap.  I disagree on both fronts.  It’s a beauty to hold and the heft is perfect.  I wouldn’t want it much heaver.  Or lighter.  And the grip is sure and comfortable.

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Subject isolation and bokeh is nice.  I might have thought that the sharpness wide open would be better than it is, however, and that was a bit of a downer.  I added some selective sharpening in Aperture above.  Does it show?  Does it work?

What about as a street shooter?  Would Cartier-Bresson have wanted one of these?

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Assuming you could have pried the Leica out of his hands, I wonder…

As I stated above, the AF isn’t a good as I had hoped.  So, how do you manual focus?  That must surely be a strength of a camera in this class.  Surely.

A simple adjustment of the switch on the side moves the camera into manual focus mode.  The lens ring allows for adjustment.  I found the experience to be frustrating, slow and dark on the screen and hard to adjust precisely.  I got tired of it and went back to AF.  Perhaps I could have tried harder to use a smaller aperture to broaden the DOF range and to take on more of a hyperfocal approach to maximize sharpness.  That’s just not my style, though.  I simply like a better autofocus engine and again, the X100 disappointed.

Other issues?  Wish there was another programmable button.  I set the one that’s available to ISO control, but I would have liked to be able to assign the included and helpful neutral density feature to another.  Also, there’s a spinning wheel dial (a la Olympus EPL2) and a jog wheel on back, but I found it relatively easy to avoid using them all that much.  The cluster of buttons along the lefthand side of the back frequently confused me; I guess I’m just used to NIkon’s implementation here.

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One of the touted benefits of the X100 is that it contains an APS-C sized sensor and it didn’t disappoint in the noise department.  The photo above of the woman and child was taken at ISO 1600.  I was able to easily take very usable ISO 1600 shots without noise reduction applied.  I didn’t venture north of 1600 as I don’t get consistently great results even on the APS-C class leading Nikon D7000 and D5100 cameras, so I didn’t expect to here.

Despite the quirks, the Fujifilm X100 is a very, very important camera.  It represents a defining moment in the industry as mirrorless cameras take hold and consumers continue to ask why they can’t get DSLR quality in a smaller package.  But the X100, while harkening back to the Contax G2s of the past, also innovates and demonstrates just what is possible in this product class.  The hybrid viewfinder is going to become, I speculate, the de facto norm.  And because an APS-C sized sensor is planted inside, we’re all going to expect greater noise control and narrower and more pleasing DOF control from our smaller cameras.

Competitors are observing all this buzz and will, I’m sure, respond.  Fujifilm itself probably already has a X200 on the design table and let’s all hope they iron out all these kinks, many of which can probably be fixed via firmware updates.  Pundits and industry observers are quick to point out, however, that updating its already released cameras hasn’t exactly been Fuji’s strong point.  As the pioneer of this platform (no, I’m not including the Leica X1 which is $2,000 and doesn’t contain the nice VF), however, they stand at a critical moment in their history.  Either they will update the X100 and quickly… and introduce an X200 concept that addresses the flaws (and maybe even adds the ability to change lenses)… or they will falter and lag behind opportunistic and better executing competitors.  I’m rooting for Fujifilm, though.

So, this camera frustrates.  But I love walking around with it and in varying conditions, I’m very pleased with the results.  As the title of this post indicates: I love it, I hate it, I love it…

But, do I actually want it? Can I work it into my photographic style and workflow?

For $1,200 which is, I would argue, a fair price for what you get here, I have to wonder about the alternatives.

For about the same money, you can get the exceptional Nikon D5100 with kit lens and the sharp 35/1.8 lens.  Bigger, yes.  More capable and flexible?  Absolutely.

Then there’s the fact that many retailers currently are offering the Panasonic GF2 with kit lens and the very nice 45-200 for about $650.  Add the beautiful Panasonic 20/1.7 and their electronic viewfinder and you get to about the same price at the X100.  You’d then have a small, pocketable, fast shooter with the 20/1.7… but with the ability to add other lenses and to get into a full system with other possibilities (such as the nice Panasonic and Olympus wide zooms).  This might be a better alternative for many.

Finally, Sony and Samsung have APS-C mirrorless options.  I’ve not been a particularly big fan of Sony’s menu system and interface and there’s no viewfinder option.  Samsung’s line feels cheaply made and the IQ results fall behind the leaders according to most published reports.  But Sony and Samsung aren’t hanging back as new cameras and lenses are coming soon.  And Sony is rumored to be soon offering a camera with a different and enhanced interface.  So, it’s worth paying attention to what they’re doing.

Finally, Nikon and Canon haven’t committed yet to a mirrorless interchangeable lens format, though rumors abound.  It will be interesting to see whether their massive customer base and established distribution channels will help them to overcome the lead that the others have built.

The Fujifilm X100.  Landmark camera?  Certainly.

One I’m going to keep?  No.

Well… uhm… actually yes.

 

Posted by Rey

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24 Responses to Why I love, hate, love, hate, love… the X100

  1. LaRee says:

    Being a fellow Gemini I can relate to you well. 😉 Thank you for sharing your impressions and experience with the x100. The design of this camera is pulling on many photographers heartstrings.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      LaRee – I agree. For those who take the plunge, I believe many will be rewarded… but patience will be a virtue. For those who resist, I truly believe similar and perhaps better/cheaper alternatives will be forthcoming. You know what they say about the best form of flattery…

      Rey

  2. Magnus says:

    Love-hate? Yes. This is my second day with the X100 and i can only agree.

    A tip for you. Use the AFL/AEL to fucus in manual focus mode, then you do not need to switch either to macro-mode or the electronic viefinder, it focuses hapily down to macro in the optical finder and the framelines takes a big jump doing the paralax-thing when half pressing the shutter. It works great but i have to get used to that kind of focus, i have even forgot to focus a couple of times. In the OVF it is not all that obvious if you are in focus or not.

    I am not a rangefinder guy, i come from old manual SLRs. I have an EOS 400D, but i want a digital SLR that is like those old ones, manual focus, aperture ring and shutterspeed dial, small enough to go down in a large pocket with a pancake-lens and with a hughe viewfinder ment for manual focus. But a camera like that cannot be bought for money, no matter how big pile of it. I will never buy another digital SLR until there is one that will fit my spec above (i actually said that back in 2004 and 300D, but i was not true to my self and got that 400), if that means never, then it is, i keep my money. I wont buy yet another big and clumsy automated almost green rectangle camera. Since 2005 i even picked up my old cameras again, bought film, chemistry for both B/W and color (C41 and RA4), got my self an enlarger and all that gear. Well, now this X100 came along..

    The X100 do fit in the pockets of my jacket, it has aperture and shutterspeed dials, it can do manual focus (barely), it has an optical viewfinder, though useless for focus. Can this camera be that tactile high quality photo tool that actually can come along and not be left at home due to size? Yes. Did i look at Oly pen, NEX and what not? Yes i did, they have not aperture and shutterspeed dials and no OVF. The only camera that is close to be what i want, is Leica M9, but its price-tag is silly and in some points the X100 actually beats it, like high iso and flash-sync (the X100 beats almost any camera ever made on that point), and i have never really liked rangefinders, i am an SLR-guy, but never the less i have bought the X100, i guess that tells a lot about what what i feel for all the other CaNiPeOly..

    The digital camera i want cannot be bought, for any money, despite that my demands are very modest and even ancient, so the X100 will have to due, it is as least small enough.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Magnus – thank you for that tip re: the afl/ael button. Very helpful.

      Given your description of what you’re looking for, have you not been impressed with the PENs? I know the sensor is a bit smaller, but it seems to offer a good bit of what you’re looking for. And Olympus is rumored to be coming out with new models, including a higher end version. That might be what the doctor ordered…

      Rey

  3. John Gaskins says:

    You have to try the Ricoh GXR A12 series, and you might find a system that is more suitable for what you are trying to do.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      John – I’m not too familiar with this camera line other than it has the funky replaceable back system. Is that what you shoot? If so, how does it compare to the X100 (and m4/3 systems)?

      Rey

  4. It must be a Gemini thing. I’ve pre-ordered one on Amazon and every few minutes I’m either sure I’ll cancel or sure I’ll go through with it. Now that I’ve read this post I’m just as positive as to what I’ll do as I was before 🙂

    Good stuff.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Nikhil – thanks. Best case scenario: you get it from Amazon, fall in love and then never have to buy another camera again the rest of your life. Worst case scenario: you get it, hate it, sell it on eb*y and make $200. You should get it. Maybe then again, no. Yeah, a Gemini thing.

      Rey

  5. Prentis Drew says:

    Rey,

    That is pretty much what I thought you would say about this camera and I am thankful for your report. There is a prevailing feeling among early adopters that they are beta testers instead of purchasers of a mature product. I’m sure the earthquake didn’t help matters any in getting the first units out. Although I had an order in with Adorama for a long while I cancelled it a while ago. I am now in the wait and see camp. Fuji has really started something with this design and I hope there will be successors from either Fuji or their imitators that will address the “quirks.” Now THAT will be a very cool camera. Patience is a virtue.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Very well said, Prentis. Being an early adopter can be thrilling, but there’s often a cost as well. I’m optimistic about this class of camera…

      Rey

  6. Benjamin Vu says:

    I am with you Rey,
    Love then hate, then love and hate until I truly found the unique of this camera, I did not let it go.
    Love my X100 after many days play around just to understand it more.
    Thanks for the X100 post.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Thanks, Benjamin. I must say that the “warming up” phase is ongoing. The more I have this, the more I like it (and tolerate some of the downsides). If Fuji would only make some of the firmware fixes…

      Rey

  7. You may want to take the ISO north of 1200 for a test drive. To me the usability of 3200 is amazing. Even 6400 can be used in a pinch.
    Had mine 7 weeks and loving the camera. User interface sucks but once it is set up hardly any menu diving needed except to change ISO when set to auto ISO and you have a specific number in mind then it takes almost 30 button presses to get the right setting.

  8. 2guysphoto says:

    Michael – will do and will post some results here. Thanks. Agree about the ISO adjustment issue. They really missed on that one…

    Rey

  9. dave h says:

    I have found overall that I truly love to use the camera and I gives very very nice images – – one must go with the flow, learn its quirks (and there are a few), and perhaps change one’s shooting style.
    — if you want an SLR, super fast on/off/focus/large-fast memory buffer – go somewhere else – the x100 is not for you
    — if you want a camera that is light, delivers wonderful images and makes you think a bit about what you are doing – I believe you will enjoy using the x100.
    — my usual kit is a D700 with a couple of [heavy] lenses – it is just plain fun to run around with the x100 for several hours, take pictures and return home without needing to take a nap. Also, the change in shooting technique has forced me to think a bit more about what I am doing and that is a huge plus and hope it carries over to my work with the D700 as well (where I find myself getting a bit careless at times).

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Well said, Dave. As my post indicates, I’ve been a bit on the fence about this camera. BUT… the more I’ve been using it, the more I’ve been leaning toward where you are.

      Rey

  10. anonymous says:

    Great review.

    By the way Gemini is not indecisive, Libra is. Gemini is superficial. They don’t know where they stand because they identify with what they think and thoughts can change constantly. The trick is to feel. For instance when you say : “this thing is growing on me”. You can only say this after some time through your own experience, which is based on feelings not thoughts.
    But you being Gemini (Sun in Gemini), doesn’t exclude any of the other planets being in Libra or any other Sign for that matter.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Thank you for the education… but I must confess to feeling better about being considered indecisive rather than superficial.

      Then again, I can’t make up my mind…

      Rey

  11. I enjoyed reading the review. I have to think that some day there will be a camera out there that I’m willing to buy and also actually use over the one that I have today:-) Keep the reviews coming…please.

  12. Prentis Drew says:

    Rey,
    You asked me to let you know what I ultimately decided in my quest for DSLR qualities in a compact. The X100 is interesting but I still have misgivings about the “quirks” not to mention the price. I went to the camera store to see and feel the Micro 4/3rds cameras. They are pretty interesting but with zoom lenses they soon begin to crowd the size and price of an entry level DSLR. “Entry level DSLR…hmmm.” That is when it dawned on me to slap my Nikor 35mm f1.8 from my D90 kit on my wife’s wonderful little D40. Darned if that doesn’t make for a sweet package. The IQ of that camera/lens combination will run circles around most compacts, being a true SLR has a “viewfinder” (so to speak), is a lot easier to control, is really pretty light and compact, and the best part is I already had it. So that is going to be my answer for a small darned good IQ camera at least until the market for high IQ compacts matures.

    Meanwhile I was so impressed with your everything proof Lumix TS3 article that i just ordered one to have a true pocket-able camera around with the added attribute of being rain proof (I live in Seattle, remember?) It isn’t my dream camera but certainly fills a niche.

    Now mark my words. My wife will fall in love with the TS3 and I will end up with her D40. All’s fair in love and cameras.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Hey Prentis – thanks for the update. Glad you found your solution. My son shot with a D40 for a long while and loved it. He’s since moved on to a D5100 (via a disappointing experience with the short-lived D3000) and loves that too. They’re all the same form factor and interface. Many speak of the D40 (and cousins) as the perfect entry level cam, but I’ve long thought of them as the perfect light kit for the more serious amateur/pro. A few years ago, on a trip to your neck of the woods, I couldn’t believe how many people I saw walking around places like Mount Rainier and Olympus National Park with D40s. I’ll be interested to see how this evolves for you.

      In terms of the m4/3 cameras, I’m a fan… but agree with you that once you start adding lenses and a flash, you end up with a second system and one that isn’t all that lightweight either.

      Regarding your (uhm, your wife’s) TS3, good luck. Send us some nice rainy Seattle shots. We’d be happy to post them here.

      Rey

      • Prentis Drew says:

        Will do when it gets here. Pardon me but I had to chuckle a little. Rey, you have been talking cameras too long. It’s the “Olympic” National Park. At least you didn’t call it the Panasonic National Park. 🙂

        • 2guysphoto says:

          Yowser. Thanks for pointing that out, Prentis. By the way, in a few months, I’ll be headed west for a business trip and hope to visit the Grand Canon and Leica Mead. : )…

          Rey

  13. Ferdinand says:

    You seem not to appreciate the majestic K-5 that you also have….

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