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?
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…
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?
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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