I can’t recall a single camera that has generated so much buzz in the photographic world and created so much anticipation as the Fuji FinePixX100 camera which made it’s public debut in October of 2010 (with shipments of the actual camera not to start until six months later). Some people were salivating over the camera just from the press release photos (which still very much resembled an airbrushed prototype in my opinion) or they were condemning it as a failure based entirely on the pity description that ran in the press release. Those who were intrigued took a wait and see attitude. Why all the excitement though?
I believe the X100 is a camera that fills a void for many photographers between nostalgia and hard core practicality/simplicity of design. The camera looks “retro” in that it looks like a rangefinder camera of yesteryear. Black leather wrapping (faux leather in this case), solid metal dials, a fixed lens, and that familiar window on the right side of camera (looking at it from the front) all speaks of a camera that some of us owned in our young (or not so young) adulthood when film ruled and autofocus was a science fiction fantasy. The only thing that gives the camera away as an invention of the modern age is the LCD screen on the back of the camera and some crazy buttons called “Play” and “RAW.”
In reality, I’m not really sure what Fuji had in mind when they showed off the X100 last year. I’m inclined to think that they knew they might be on to something but weren’t quite ready to commit to the idea. Their reaction to the public excitement over the X100 in the early days of the announcement came across as a bit of shock, like Fuji had been taken unawares to the response the X100 would get and I tend to think this truly was the case. The enthusiastic response probably woke them them up in that they now had to deliver on this camera not as a limited production curiosity for camera collectors but as a full-scale commercially viable production camera.
The X100 has been out for a few months now and although it has been quite scarce, with dealers selling out of preorders within hours (sometimes minutes) of making an availability announcement, enough people have been able to obtain the camera so that we now have a better understanding of how unprepared Fuji was to mass produce this camera for the general consumer market (more on this later). First, some basics on what the X100 is . . .
The X100, for all of it’s rangefinder-like trappings, is not actually a rangefinder camera at all (like the Leica M8, 8.2, or 9) but rather, it utilizes a hybrid viewfinder that provides both an optical window and an electronic viewfinder in one. In optical viewfinder mode, the X100 provides one with a framing square in the viewfinder along with a focusing box and an array of camera settings (which can be customized). In electronic viewfinder mode (triggered using a small switch on the front left side of the camera) the X100 viewfinder shows a roughly 100% coverage of the composition (taking full advantage of the viewable area in the viewfinder). Surrounding this wonderful innovation is a compact camera body that sports a fixed 35mm F2.0 lens (23mm actually but it comes out to 35mm equivalent) which is relatively flat, almost like a pancake lens, and a high resolution LCD display (460,000 dots). Inside of the X100 is a medium-sized 12.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor (such as is found in many digital SLR cameras today). The camera comes with the basics (lens cap, neck strap, manual, battery and charger, plus various AV cables). The street price for the X100 is $1,200 USD.
What’s the big deal with rangefinders you might ask? Well there are two distinct advantages. First, a rangefinder camera is typically smaller than an SLR camera because there isn’t a mirror box (the big bump that houses the viewfinder) such as you find on an SLR. Since the image you are seeing through the viewfinder on an SLR is the image that is coming straight through the lens itself, a series of mirrors are required that will reflect the image (upright) to your eye in the viewfinder. This takes up space. Also, the design of a rangefinder allows for smaller lens than you would find on an SLR system. For example, a fast (F1.4) 35mm Leica lens is far smaller than a fast F1.4 lens from say for example Canon (of equivalent image quality, etc.). The X100 has a fixed lens (it can’t be removed) however, it is very small and of a very high quality.
The other advantage (and this one depends on personal tastes) is in how you focus. With a rangefinder camera you look through a window, you see a composition box that corresponds to the lens that you have attached (everything in the box will, in theory, be in the frame of the picture), and you focus manually by turning the focus ring on the lens while looking at a split image patch in your viewfinder. When the images line-up, you are in focus (simple, elegant, and a design which was first introduced by Kodak in 1916 and has stood the test of time). Since the X100 really isn’t a rangefinder though, you must rely on autofocus (something a typical rangefinder doesn’t have) or you must use a distance scale to estimate your distance to subject (more on this later).
The bottom line is that using a rangefinder or the X100 is very different than using an SLR (digital or otherwise). Actually it is more analogous to using a camera that relies on the LCD screen for composing your images (kind of like a ground-glass in large format camera for example). Your view of the world is defined through a window that doesn’t change like it does in an SLR (you will notice an out-of-focus image in an SLR immediately because you are seeing through the lens) however, this window opens up all kinds of compositional opportunities as I’ll discuss later.
Make no mistake, the X100 is a serious camera. To hold one in your hands is to know this to be a fact. The X100 is surprisingly heavy and feels very solid (very little plastic on this camera). You feel like you are holding a solid piece of metal (much like the feeling one gets when holding a Leica by the way). The power/shutter button and exposure controls are located on the top of the camera (through the use of a shutter speed dial and an exposure dial both made of metal and stiff and deliberate to turn). There is also a function button (FN) which can be set to take on a frequently accessed menu item (e.g. ISO). A hot-shoe is also available for attaching a more powerful flash unit. Aperture is set on the lens itself by turning a ring on the lens . . . very retro. The front of the camera has a lever for toggling between optical and electronic viewfinder mode.The rear of the camera contains various controls for setting focus and exposure lock, playing back images, white balance, drive, macro mode, and flash activation. The X100 powers up and down very quickly (the lens does not extend or retract which greatly speeds this process).
All “feels” as it should with the single exception of the menu button/dial wheel on the rear of the camera. This is essentially one of the most frustrating things in using the X100 in that the menu button needs a direct-on press with the tip of your finger (or a cotton swab) or else you run the risk of activating one of the other functions on the dial wheel that surrounds this button. My hands and fingers are not large by any means and even I had a lot of trouble with this which means people with large hands are going to curse the camera. Thankfully, once the camera is set up and ready to use, you don’t need to access this dial or button all that often in the field but still, it feels like no one at Fuji was paying attention to this basic ergonomic function.
Likewise, the menu layout and organization in the camera is a total mess. Nothing makes sense and the menus take a while to get used to (much less figure out where certain features are or should be). Again, the engineers designed a beautiful camera (basically the general body, lens, and hybrid viewfinder) and left these other details to non-engineers to figure out. A user interface expert would have helped here or at least someone who had actually used a camera from, well, any other manufacturer before (even the Sony NEX menus are better).
The third issue I have with the X100 is manual focusing. Once you switch the camera to manual focus, a distance scale appears in the viewfinder and what you do is turn the focus ring on the lens until the indicator rests on the estimated distance to your subject. So far so good however this process falls down with the focus ring on the lens which really is just another dial of sorts (it could have been located on the back of the camera for all it matters). The problem is that as you turn the ring, the indicator crawls (and I mean crawls) along the distance spectrum in the viewfinder making manual focus on the fly virtually impossible. This makes zone focusing in the field virtually impossible unless you are only going to work at a specific distance the entire time you are out with the camera (and have a minute or two to set the focus).
Unlike the terribly designed menu button/wheel, the menus and even the manual focus issue can be fixed with a firmware upgrade. Apparently the word on the street is that Fuji is planning a major firmware release in the not-to-distant future which may actually be a complete reboot of the firmware, essentially giving us version 1.0 instead of version .01. These three major issues aside, the X100 is not only one of the most attractive cameras to come out in a long time but it is also a substantial camera in all ways and in some way a game-changer for an industry that has been fixated on digital SLRs for many years.
In the Field
The X100 feels solid to hold and not so heavy that one would get fatigued carrying it around the neck or wrist (using a third-party wrist strap). The lens cap (which is also made of metal) slides on and off (a welcome change from having to press in some buttons to remove and reattach the cap). I decided to use the neck strap rather than a typical wrist strap due to the added weight (the neck strap provided better support and balance for the camera) but I find I hate having the camera bounce around on my chest (the strap is too short for sliding the camera on one’s side like a sling). Also, after a day of carry the camera around on my chest, I noticed a very slight hairline scratch on the LCD screen (apparently from rubbing up against the plastic buttons on my shirt). Either I did something else to cause the scratch (I was careful with this camera) or the LCD screen is more susceptible to scratches than one would think. Something to be careful for (a screen protector seems like a good investment).
Because manual focusing is so difficult with the X100 (as of this writing anyway), I used the camera in autofocus mode with center focus set. I tried letting the X100 determine what to focus on but it seemed to jump around too much and not know where my subject was. In all fairness, I find this to be a problem with most cameras that have multiple focus points. The camera just doesn’t know sometimes what you want to photograph. I always find it best to use a center or spot focus setting and just recompose the scene after locking focus on my intended subject. The autofocus however was extremely fast (almost DSLR speeds if not equivalent at times) and very accurate. I also found shutting off the review mode in both the viewfinder (once I could figure out how through the labyrinthine menus on the X100) to be liberating (no chimping). Using autofocus in this way made using the camera a joy to use in the field and any issues with the camera kind of melted away.
In actual practice, I preferred using the optical viewfinder mode rather than the electronic viewfinder (or the live LCD mode for that matter) simply because it was much more fun. Being able to see action and potential subjects outside of the focusing frame frequently gave me the illusion of using a rangefinder camera and indeed, I shot as if I was using rangefinder which, for me anyway, results in different kinds of photographs where my subject hugs the edges of the frame. Not better, just different.
The optical viewfinder, while extremely useful and the real highlight of the X100, does have a few issues (I won’t call them problems because they’re not serious). The framing lines are accurate only at certain distances. If you are too close or too far, then the lines are less accurate however, this is true with rangefinder cameras as well and once I knew the “zone” of what will be in or out, it wasn’t a problem. The other issue had to do with bright sunlight. I was using the camera at mid-day and I sometimes found the superimposed readouts, frame-lines, etc. got washed out in the bright sunlight. Again, not a big deal but something to keep in mind.
Oh yes, since your exposure is set pretty much manually I also had to get into the habit of constantly adjusting my settings between various lighting conditions. At first I frequently forgot to change my aperture from F2.0 (which I might have used indoors) to something smaller after moving outside into sunlight. The result as you can imagine were either overexposed or underexposed photos as the case may be (an argument for chimping each photo I guess but developing good shooting habits is probably the better solution).
In actual operation, the X100 was actually a lot of fun to use. The camera handled well (neck strap not withstanding), felt good and solid, and the hybrid viewfinder (particularly the optical mode) is excellent. Using autofocus on the X100, sometimes a hindrance to the kinds of photos I like to make when using other cameras, performed superbly in the field. The very excellent 35mm F2.0 lens was a joy to use as well. Although the camera didn’t exactly disappear from my consciousness while I was making photos, neither did it ever get in the way.
The image quality of the X100 is excellent and on par with any medium-sized sensor camera. This is a combination of the sensor and the excellent lens that Fuji chose for the X100. The RAW files (DNG actually) come out of the camera in great shape and took to editing in Lightroom very well. Below are some images that I shot at a local farm. I did very minor editing on these photos. Slight fixes to the white balance (which I shot in auto mode the whole time) and exposure (which required very little tweaking because I kept playing with the exposure compensation dial on the camera itself) show the dynamic range possible as well as the quality of the Fuji lens.
I shot entirely using available light (no flash). This dimly lit barn required I use F2.0 and as you can see, there is nice depth of field as well as sharpness in my subject (the sheep and the pig and piglets).
I initially overexposed this photo of the chicken coop (remember my issue with forgetting to check exposure settings from one place to another) however the file hung together quite well and allowed me to pull the image back into something acceptable.
The color definition rendered by this lens is actually quite subtle (which I prefer to over saturated images) and when the lens is stopped down, you get beautiful sharpness throughout the various planes of focus (deep depth of field).
Shooting in harsh lighting conditions (midday, overhead sunlight, etc.) can be very difficult in getting a good exposure but here is an example of how good the X100 is in this regard. Notice that my son’s face, while in shadow from his cap and the overhead sunlight) is still exposed properly. Yes, the colors of the tractor, foliage, and sky are a bit washed out but this can be easily fixed in Lightroom or Photoshop. The bottom line is I got the shot (and the area of proper exposure) in auto mode.
Having such a fast lens and large aperture can allow you to really have fun with the depth of field. The trick of course is that you can’t see the out-of-focus elements in the optical viewfinder mode so you have to be extra careful and/or review your shot afterwards to make sure you got it. Happy accidents though are always appreciated such as this photo where I missed locking focus on my son and instead got the poster behind him. I kind of like it though.
The Fuji X100 is an excellent camera (warts and all) and while it may not be to everyone’s liking (fixed focal length lens, no zoom, etc.), it is truly a step forward in camera design and will most likely have an influence on other manufacturers.
Fuji may not have known how popular and in-demand the X100 would be but I think they clearly knew who their direct competition was and if Leica does not learn something from the X100 as they plan their own redesign of the X1 (the X2), then they will suffer the fate of other stubborn manufacturers who refused to learn from the consumer. I find it hard to believe that a new X2 camera from Leica (priced $800 USD above that of the X100) that merely remedies the deficiencies in the X1 will be enough to compete with the X100 not to mention the other medium-sized sensor cameras that seem to be coming out every couple of months. The current competition for the X100 as it stands now is:
- Leica X1
- Sigma DP2 line
- Ricoh GXR (particularly with the 28mm module)
- Sony NEX line
- Samsung NX100
I should also mention that the micro 4/3rds cameras (particularly those from Panasonic and Olympus) are also quickly gaining ground in the image quality department and will soon (if they don’t already from a general consumer standpoint) offer direct challenges not only to the compact cameras mentioned above but to the DSLR world in general.This is all good news for us the consumer as it gives us options to choose from. We are truly moving into new territory (a silver or golden age of digital photography if you like) much like the gradual move from medium and large format photography to that of small format (35mm) photography almost ninety years ago. It will be exciting to see how this all plays out in the coming months and years ahead.
Paul Giguere is a photographer based in the United States. His current focus is on social documentary photographic projects that show the positive aspects of society and community. He is the host of the podcast Thoughts on Photography (www.thoughtsonphotography.com) and you can also visit his personal web site at: www.paulgiguere.com. -Amin
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