Having received my Fuji X100 a few weeks ago, I thought it was time to start compiling my thoughts on this camera.
This is my first camera review, so go easy on me
The Background/ the competition:
When the very first information started to surface about the Fuji X100 back in 2010 I was immediately taken by its design. As a then Panasonic GF-1 user I hoped for something similar to that wonderful little camera, but with a more “resilient” sensor. When I say resilient I mean a sensor that would produce less noise at higher iso’s, and a sensor that would not create blown out highlights that were often unrecoverable in post processing.
My experience with the Panasonic GF-1 coupled with its removable 20mm f1.7 lens had on the whole, been beyond my expectations. Here was a almost pocketable camera, that brought the fun back to photography. Looking back through the files on my computer I can see it brought out the creative side in me, and by the number of shot’s I took was a camera that I rarely left out of my backpack when traveling. The fast f1.7 lens was both tiny, and remarkably sharp wide open, Its wide light conduit in some ways compensated for the upper noise limit of the camera. I even sold an image 24″ x 36″ taken indoors at iso 800 with it… This camera is a great little tool that punches above it’s weight.
To explain further, one of the things I liked best about the Panasonic GF-1 was its menu system. On some levels I wished I could have lived with the Olympus EP1/2 instead due to it’s nicer .jpg colour rendering (despite nearly always shooting in raw), and more classic retro design. To this end whilst owning the GF-1, I bought an Olympus EP2/pen to compare with the GF-1, being smitten with the idea of its digital eyepiece display, and body design. The Olympus EP/2 has the same sensor as the GF-1.
I hated it. The menu drove me crazy… I’m sorry, but if I’m going to use a camera to take pictures rather than just look at it , it needs to be user friendly. For my needs it wasn’t. I took it back within a week, and put it down to experience. I carried on using the GF-1 enjoying the speed and simplicity of its interface even more, reveling in its ability to make quick changes in settings at the slightest whim of creativity. Here are some of my shots with the GF-1 on Flickr
3 months ago :
I pre-ordered the X100 as soon as I found a store in Toronto that would accept my request. Pre-ordering was something I’d never done before with a camera, but I felt the design of it was so revolutionary (in digital cameras), that it had to be a great move… Didn’t it?
I felt if I was one of the design team involved with such a project for such a camera, I would surely put my utmost effort into it. I felt the people involved in Japan must be really enjoying themselves with the concept of a camera with both an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and an optical one (OVF) fitted to a small form factor unit.
As time passed the Fuji marketing machine got into its swing, and seemed to confirm my thoughts on how happy and proud they must of been to have designed such a camera. Photography forums were all a buzz, and more and more people were speculating on how wonderful this camera was to be once released.
Finally about a month or so ago, some people got there hands on pre-release units and although some unforeseen shortcomings marred the overall picture (a 1/1000sec top shutter speed at f2.0 being one such disappointment), the camera still looked to be an outright winner. The descriptions of it’s design being beautiful to behold and operate ringing true. Any issues would surely be fixed in the final firmware/release version of the camera…
The camera was released in different countries at different times, or at least got to market earlier in some parts of the world than others. Some people in Asia getting their hands on it in February. Here is a picture that I saw online back in February that told me (again) this camera in the right hands had potential for great images : Link to early shot I liked.
Now in late Apri,l I’ve read a number of other preliminary reviews of this camera, from all parts of the world most of them written by people who have found the Fuji to be an enjoyable camera to use, but there are some gremlins it seems…
My experience so far…
I finally got a phone call from the camera store on the 31st of March, and decided to pick the camera up the next day. I’d already purchased and charged a couple of Ebay batteries compatible with the camera, so on the 1st of April (don’t laugh!), I was ready to walk out of the store and start shooting! I paid for the camera and the first time I picked it up I was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually slightly smaller than it had grown to be in my mind (and from viewing countless pictures of it online).
Check one. Small size? Yup.
I’d become a Fuji X100 enthusiast before I’d even touched one. I don’t think I’m alone here, the hype had set the bar very high for the X100, how was it to perform in real life?
Well, my secondary thoughts were of it’s beauty and tactile build that once finally touched by my own hands brought a smile to my face. I looked through the optical viewfinder, and saw a reasonably bright vision of the actual space in front of me… I panned around the room with it, and saw a world with no motion blur, no digital artifacts, just a view through clear glass.
Check two. Viewfinder clear and spacious.
I turned the controls on top, yes! She felt similar to my older mechanical film cameras.
Check Three. Solid construction
Then I looked at the front of the camera, removed the metal construction, felt lined lens cap, and examined the lens. Err… its glass, nothing out of the ordinary here.
Then I looked at the back of the camera… wow, what a lot of buttons. Don’t get me wrong, My Nikon D700 has lots of external controls stopping me from having to dig through menu’s to change basic settings all the time, and the Panasonic Gf-1 was the similar to some extent. This seemed like a good thing.
I loaded a charged battery in the camera before leaving the store, and attempted to find my way around the camera menu system… Oh dear.
How does this thing work?
The display on the back of the camera is nice and bright, with a fairly colourful menu. But somehow the camera felt awkward. I tried taking a few shots of items in the store in the manner with which I use my D700 SLR. I picked a target, put the camera in Aperture priority, easy enough, rotated the sweet aperture dial on the front of the camera, and then set about composing the shot. Argh!, how do I move the focus spot?! I tried and tried and the multi-directional keypad just wouldn’t budge the focus spot in the now nicely lit optical viewfinder. Eventually the solution was found by pressing the rear “AF” button at the same time as moving the direction pad… What! how was I supposed to do this whilst holding the camera to my face and composing a shot? It’s possible, but not easy. I tried a few other functions on the camera, decided the menu was too complex to guess how everything worked in that instant, and left the store after briefly joining a discussion with the sales assistant who commented “You are lucky to have your hands on one of them, and they are going for twice the price on Ebay”. I agreed, and left the store with a smile on my face.
In the next 24hrs, those last words from the store assistant grew louder in my head. The X100 in practice was a mixed blessing. After months of waiting for it, it seemed both wonderfully perfect in some ways, and down right annoying in others… In my main profession I’m used to finding my way around menu systems of devices of all kinds (often without a manual), but this camera was proving to be a challenge. I didn’t want to read the manual I just wanted to find out how things worked for myself, this is normally a pleasure for me (I know, I’m weird like that). Then the bad thoughts started creeping in my head, maybe this is a design too far for Fuji, maybe I’m a beta tester here, maybe I underestimated what is involved with making all this functionality come together in a harmonious design. Maybe, just maybe, I should sell the unit now and be happy with making a profit on it…
I resorted to further reading online about the camera, and found other people were also struggling with the design and interface… Oh no. Finally I came across a user online who had compiled a nifty set of tips and tricks for using the camera. I tried a few of these out and “the penny dropped”.
Oh yeah, this is not a Digital SLR!
Now don’t get me wrong, I still think the Fuji X100 menu system and interface is flawed in a number of ways, but once I found a way to use the centre focus point for auto focus acquisition, and holding down the shutter release partially to lock this distance and then re-composing, my troubles seemed to pass away.
With my D700 SLR, using a fast lens like an 85mm f1.4, focus especially on close subjects can be tricky, due to the tiny depth of field created by the wide aperture lens on a full frame sensor. I mitigate this issue when shooting off centre subjects, by moving the focus point around in the viewfinder to the subject, after composition. With the X100 it seems one needs to merely focus in the centre first, and then compose the shot after. The Fuji 23mm f2.0 lens generates a much deeper in focus area (compared to and 85mm f1.4 lens), and for medium distance targets and further away (ones I most often shoot with the X100), the issue is frankly, not an issue. This technique of focus acquisition is somewhat similar to using a rangefinder camera, like a Leica M8, or Zeiss Ikon. Focus, then re-compose. Not the other way around.
This is not the only way to focus this camera, but you hopefully understand how quick this technique can be when put it into practice. This is a good thing, especially when trying to capture multiple elements colliding in a scene.
Another technique I’ve been experimenting with is hyperfocal shooting. Setting the camera to manual focus, setting an aperture in the region of f8.0 – f16, and rotating the focus ring (on the lens), until the in-viewfinder display gives me a focus indication of a distance in front of me spanning all the way to infinity, whilst at the same time telling me my minimum distance to subject that I know I can shoot and still get a reasonably sharp image. Whilst this technique seems a little less fashionable in the world of large aperture shooting, it does give immediate shutter response allowing one to capture the decisive moment effectively (practice still required however).
Their are so many functions and features on this camera that I’m not going to do more than scratch the surface of what it’s capable of, meaning you’ll have to read about these elsewhere but for now, how about a few pictures I took in Buffalo whilst attending the recent McNally /Hobby “Flash Bus tour”?
Fast forward to today
Since the above words were written Fuji to their credit, despite horrific issues in the homeland (Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear fallout…), have continued to supply this camera in (small), numbers to people , and have released the first (and probably not the last), of firmware updates for the camera.
It’s still early days
The above, combined with the fact that Adobe Labs have now released an update to their photo editing software enabling RAW file editing, are the first signs that this product is on it’s way to becoming a lot more fun for me since those early experiences.
I did once own a Leica M8.2, but sold it as I felt the camera was just a little to flawed for my liking, especially considering the price. Compared to my Nikon D700 the files just seemed to be quite vulnerable and intolerant of exposure errors (come on, we all make them!), and high iso settings.
A “real digital rangefinder” is probably still the ultimate way to go due to the ability to change lenses, and in the case of Leica perhaps in the pleasure of ownership, but the Fuji X100 seems to give me a lot of the rangefinder experience despite not technically being one…
And what of the X100 flaws? Well, I think this camera has a lot more going on under the casing than most rangefinders/compact cameras, and it’s because of this that the interface still suffers somewhat. With optical, digital, and rear screen view options for composition, this camera was always going to be tricky to design an interface for.
Other notable features of the camera include it’s ability to focus down to 10cm in macro mode, up to 180 degree pano-stitch feature (blended in camera), video recording at 1280 x 720 pixels (24frames / sec.) with stereo sound, in camera RAW editing, built in flash and hot shoe, very high flash sync up to 1/2000th of a second and more…
The above said, the main stand out feature of this camera is still it’s excellent glass/hybrid viewfinder with electronic bright frame data overlay. If you get a chance to try this camera, do it and see for yourself, I think you’ll be impressed.
So to end this article for now, I can say I think things will get even better with future firmware updates as I know there are a lot of passionate people out there willing to supply ideas and feedback to Fuji about this camera, it’s only a matter of time and patience. I know my technique will improve with practice too.
In the meantime, this unique camera is still remarkably capable and I’m loving the combination of small size, vintage looks, with a relatively large (and capable), sensor. These coupled with the super quiet operation of its leaf shutter, and a sharp lens make for a great package…
Well done Fuji!