Introduction: The Fujifilm X100

Introduction

In a strange twist from the globalized world of digital imaging, Fujifilm, one-time maker of zesty film has launched one of photography’s most compelling successors to to history’s iconic Leica rangefinders of the 35mm film era.  How many of those German cameras at one time or another loaded with Fuji Velvia, Astia, or Provia?  No matter, Fuji is back in the game with a tough little rangefinder built around classic Fuji color philosophy and the camera rocks.

What is the Fujifilm X100?  It certainly looks like the film-era rangefinders it mimics, and in many ways operates like one too, though the classy metal and faux-leather chassis uses digital trickery to add high-tech through-the-lens viewfinding.  The hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder allows much of the modern gizmology of recent interchangeable lens compacts and high end point and shoots aimed at sophisticated photographers.  Modern tricks include autofocus-enabled video capture; autofocus from any point in the frame; pre-capture preview of white balance, exposure, and histogram; RAW and JPG capture; in-camera RAW processing and film simulation; a virtual horizon in the viewfinder;  and a post-shot quick image review in the viewfinder.  Not to mention, as much as any camera currently made, the X100 packs its digi-tricks into an old school camera body that is fun to shoot, with quick, clicky mechanical access to aperture settings and shutter speed.

So, what is it like to shoot this quirky neo-classic?  Read on for our complete introduction…

Features

The Fujifilm X100 is a roughly $1200, 12.3 MP digital camera with a fixed 23mm f2.0 autofocus lens.  The Fujinon-branded lens equates to a 35mm focal length on a full frame 35mm camera and is equipped with a manual aperture ring and a focus ring.  The X100 offers both a classic manual control interface and sophisticated automatic control.  Color settings are divided into presets named for classic Fuji film, like Astia, Velvia, and Provia while ISO range covers 100-12800 and is capable of shooting RAW files.

The x100 makes use of a unique viewfinder, a hybrid unit that can be switched between an optical and electronic view using the red-marked switch on the body’s front.  The optical view is large and bright, with clear and customize-able information, including focus point given via a clean white overlay.  Switching to digital mode allows an even greater range of information, as well as through-the-lens accuracy for focus and composition.

Finally, the X100 has many of the digital tricks photographers have come to expect in new cameras, 1280×720 HD video capture, sweep panorama shooting, and in-camera RAW processing.

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On The Job

I took the little Fuji along for an intense weekend of professional shooting including a handful of portrait shoots and a wedding.  During testing, I used the camera in a range of settings from full sun, to near darkness, and coupled to a Profoto D1 Air kit.  In practice it is nimble and quick, grabbing shots with immediacy and finesse.

The X100 takes a few seconds to boot up and is not photography’s fastest focuser.  During testing, the camera frequently locked focus on the background and not the subject, a problem I solved by first updating the camera to Fuji’s 1.10 firmware and then – counter intuitively – by avoiding spot focusing.  Focusing is, I believe, the camera’s primary weakness.  The hiccup of waiting for digital focus lock and having it miss from time to time betrays the otherwise stealthy, old school performance.  By contrast, the very good brain that selects exposure settings in P, S, and A mode, as well as flash intensity, is brilliant.

Focus would be more fun, and more true to the camera’s rangefinder heritage, if the smooth-turning burled focus ring on the front was for more than show.  The ring, however, does no more than suggest very minor adjustments to the digital brain, and is so slow and ineffective as to be of no use whatsoever.  Other controls, like the aperture ring, shutter speed selector, exposure compensation, shutter release, etc. are so perfectly true to old Leica feel-good photography, that the focus ring miss is an especial bummer.  As long as the ring is there, I’d rather have it be put to use as a Canon S95-style control ring and then assign it to ISO – but that’s just me.  Perhaps future iterations of the Fuji X line will make better use of it.

So the image pipeline must flow through autofocus, which is not too bad.  In practice, the X100 is smooth and stealthy and frequently came close to matching the image output of my professional DSLRs, in a package that is far smaller, more fun, and more discreet.

Viewfinding is a unique experience with the X100.  It has three modes, an optical viewfinder, a digital viewfinder, and the rear LCD screen.  The “View Mode” button on the back selects between rear LCD and viewfinder, including a third setting allowing the camera to switch automatically back and forth by using a sensor to detect incoming faces.  There is a learning curve and an experimental period in finding the preferred manner of working with the X100.  During my first days with the camera, I accidentally and repeatedly found myself staring through the viewfinder at a menu, preview of an earlier shot, or turning the camera on and off when the screen wouldn’t light, all because I’d set an unexpected View Mode by mistake.

The View Mode button is different than the camera’s “Disp./Back” key which cycles whichever viewfinder is currently active through a set of options.  The LCD screen, for example, cycles from an info screen to a full screen preview, to a full screen preview with lots of data overlayed, including a virtual horizon and live histogram preview.  The data overlay screen is also available through the digital viewfinder, while even the optical viewfinder has a number of options.  Perhaps it’s safe to say that, whatever camera data you want to look at while photographing, the X100 can provide it, which can also include nothing but the scene before you.  Very interesting.

Whatever your data preferences, the optical viewfinder is a joy to use.  It is big and bright with a clear view of both the captured frame (marked with a white outline) and the surrounding space.  The outline only roughly equates to what the actual photo composition will be.  Though it moves to compensate for parallax (the differing viewpoint between the finder and the lens) it is not always spot on.  The white lines and markings can be hard to spot in bright light; digits aren’t laid over black as in most 35mm and 645 viewfinders, but float freely in open viewfinder space.

One unique ability of the X100 is to allow a photographer to optically compose and snap a shot and then to immediately be shown the bright digital photo right in the finder.  It’s startling at first, like your subject just locked up completely – also the optimistically high-contrast digital viewfinder tends to render shots that look more awesome than they may really be.  None the less, it only lasts 1.5 seconds by default and is a pretty interesting way to keep your eye to the hole, shooting while secretly “chimping” a mini LCD.  Also, while you’re in there, you can scroll through the camera’s menus, as they can also be brought up in the viewfinder.

The digital viewfinder, meanwhile, offers the distinct advantage of being a more accurate tool for composition and focus.  It is unaffected by the parallax shift of the optical finder, so, while it isn’t as pretty to use, it is very useful for more precise focus and composition, as well as for previewing white balance and exposure.  It is the default finder for macro mode, and makes the neo-rangefinder a more practical device overall by offering a very practical, if less aesthetic experience.  From my own experience, when digital viewfinding was called for (for example, during macro shooting) I tended to just used the rear LCD.

Besides these controls for these various viewfinding options, The Fuji X100 has relatively familiar feeling digital controls.  “AE” and “AF” buttons are used in conjunction with the control wheel/four-way rocker to quickly adjust focus point and exposure settings and double for zooming in and out of images (the X100 allows zooming WAY out to an impressive thumbnail view that shows at least 200 shots).  A dedicated “RAW” button sets the camera’s next capture to RAW plus JPG in case photographers feel an especially important snap coming on.

The right-side control wheel does a nice job doubling as a 4-way rocker switch for menu navigating as well as quick access to drive mode, flash settings, white balance, and macro mode.  It makes spinning through images quick and easy, though it’s fairly easy to outpace the X100′s play-back speed when zipping through RAW files.  A center “MENU/OK” button works in conjunction with a separate “DISP/BACK” button to navigate in and out of certain options.  At times, I accidentally hit up on the 4-way control instead of the “MENU/OK” button, but the overall layout is clean and easy, with good access to everything important.

Above the 4-way switch/control wheel is a handy little rocker switch/button combo.  With a press, the control allows a quick 100% zoom when in playback mode, a great shortcut for focus check.  It also adjusts aperture settings in 1/3 stop increments, something the whole-stop only front ring doesn’t allow (similarly, the control ring adjusts shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments for fine tuning).

All these digital tools are integrated well in the old-school Fuji.  It will fool most observers into thinking you’re shooting film.  The somewhat standard digital input buttons, however, are nicely minimal and work well.  The brief menus are laid out in attractive and useful order and the LCD is bright and beautiful.  The camera never lists more than two sub menus, instead showing a pair of menus that apply to shooting when the camera is in shooting mode and a pair of menus that apply to playback when in playback mode.  Once I got the hang of it, it was nice, and one little example of how this Fuji does a lot of thinking on its own, in a similar way to recent German cameras.

Speaking of recent German cameras, I can’t help but compare this little Fuji to the Leica S2 we recently reviewed (read it here).  Though the $23,000 medium-format Leica is clearly priced and designed for somewhat different use, the two cameras share a certain philosophy of design, no doubt inspired by common roots in the Leica rangefinder.  Neither camera, for example, has an exposure mode dial, instead offering “A” settings for both shutter and aperture.  When only shutter speed is set for auto control, the camera is in Aperture Priority, when only aperture is set for auto control, the camera is in Shutter Priority.  When both “A” settings are engaged, the camera is in Program Mode (and a fantastic Program Mode at that).  I’d like to see the Fuji’s controls include 1/3 stop indents between marked settings like the Leica, by the same token, I’d like to see the Leica use a thumbwheel control like the Fuji.

The S2 comparison doesn’t stop there.  Like Leica’s line of S2 “CS” lenses, the Fuji is equipped with a leaf-type shutter allowing quick strobe sync.  A very interesting addition to a camera with a standard hot shoe and manual exposure controls.  Indeed, it was a joy to use with our Profoto D1 Air kit, syncing and snapping with all the authority of a much pricier camera and a significantly higher sync speed than anything from Nikon or Canon, even bettering Hasselblad and the Leica S2 by about a stop and nearly approaching the lofty realm of the current high speed sync champ, the Mamiya 645DF with Schneider-Krueznach leaf shutter lenses.  Check back for a future article in which we’ll bring a more complete discussion of high speed strobe sync and the X100.

Image Quality

To see example images, visit our Image Gallery: Fujifilm X100

In the end, of course, it comes down to image quality, and, I’m confident saying, the X100 rarely disappoints.  The camera’s quick f2.0 wide prime is sharp and sophisticated with controlled distortion and relatively little falloff (Adobe Lightroom 3 is ready and waiting with an excellent Lens Profile for the camera that will kill the little inherent distortion and vignetting).  It compares more favorably to recent DSLRs than to other fixed lens brethren and, in many settings, is capable of creating professional-looking “.RAF” RAW files.

Indeed, but for a visible fine grain pattern, a fixed focal length, and the habit of missing focus, photos made in good light can be difficult to distinguish from professional DSLR images.  In close inspection of the same shot from both a Nikon D3 and the Fuji X100, for example, the $5,000 Nikon has a certain added depth and clarity, but the difference is subtle.  The Fuji has very good auto exposure and auto white balance, and its RAW files, with respectable tonal range and detail, can stand up to a good amount of post processing.  At ISO settings higher than 800, the big Canons and Nikons make use of their added dollars of investment, though the Fuji is very good for its size and price point, comparing more favorably, perhaps, to similarly priced DSLRs.

All things image quality considered, the Fuji X100 creates great color and contrast, good tonal range and detail, packing 95% of DSLR image quality into a go-anywhere, fun-to shoot package, easily besting point and shoot competition in both image quality and street cred.  Its design and size, quality and sophistication place it decidedly in a category above “point and shoot” while a fixed lens and lackluster autofocus prevent it from outright replacing hard-working DSLRs.

Market Position

The Fujifilm’s X100 most obvious competition is the current class of interchangeable lens compacts and perhaps none of those so much as Olympus’s new E-P3 (available bundled with a 17mm f2.8 prime lens or with a 14-42mm zoom lens).  The roughly $900 Oly is cheaper and can accept an ever-growing selection of M4/3 lenses.

For shooters seeking a photographically respectable compact, a category into which the big X100 only fits when in comparison to bulky DSLRs, much smaller and more affordable cameras like the Canon S95 or Olympus XZ-1 are more responsible choices.  Both offer RAW capture and quick lenses, also adding true pocketability.

Compared to both interchangeable lens compacts and high end point and shoots, the Fujifilm X100 costs a steep premium.  Considering only pricing, it is a closer competitor of popular DSLRs, and not entry level DSLRs at that.  It is close in price to Nikon’s well-regarded  midlevel D7000 and Canon’s lower-midlevel 60D.

The X100 is priced, and designed to appeal to serious photographers.  I believe it would be a welcome just-for-fun or vacation alternative for DSLR shooters and would not be inappropriate for Web-presented journalistic or documentary work.

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Selling Points

The Fujifilm X100 has excellent image quality, including beautiful color and contrast, and respectable detail rendering.  With a relatively large sensor and fast lens, the camera can produce shallow depth of focus, and corner-to-corner sharpness to rival DSLR prime lenses.

It has wonderful styling and build quality, with manual controls that feel timeless and creatively inspiring.  When not set for manual mode, the X100 does a great job selecting exposure, flash, and white balance settings.  The camera’s standard hot shoe and high sync speed make it a fun companion for photographers who use studio strobes.  During our testing, it integrated perfectly with a Profoto D1 Air kit, though I’d like to see an option to still fire the on-board flash as well as the big strobes.

The X100 offers a number of film-simulation modes that are actually very useable and attractive, both for initial capture and in-camera RAW processing (which creates new JPGs without disturbing the original RAW files).  Other digital tricks include a useable sweep panorama that is a bit finicky, but can be made to work, and work to good effect, as well as video capture, that is fun to have, if deeply limited in its abilities, which leads us to…

Considerations

Perhaps the X100′s weakest point is autofocus.  It has poorly designed manual focus control, control that betrays a nice-feeling focus ring by giving it essentially no noticeable effect, thus providing a not infrequent reminder that the X100 isn’t really an old Leica.  While the camera’s autofocus has a wide array of points, easy access to controls, and a novel integration with its three methods of viewfinding, it is not up to the cutting edge sophistication of the camera’s other systems.

Perhaps focusing is only part of the learning experience with the Fujifilm X100.  Indeed other aspects of the camera require practice and experimentation.  I’d like to see a more dedicated method of ISO control, including adding “Auto” to the sensitivity menu that comes up when the “Fn” button is set for ISO control.  A dedicated ISO key along the LCD’s left side would be a welcome addition.

I don’t mind that video capture is treated as an afterthought on the X100 (it is accessed via the drive mode menu).  These days, however, video capture is much more thoroughly integrated on almost all other cameras that have it.  Hopefully, in terms of video capture, a future version of the X100 will allow easy access, manual focus, and manual exposure control.  With wonderful-feeling exposure input tools and a focus ring, the camera stands to offer a very good video capture experience that could only expand its functionality.

Conclusion

Aside from any comparison to DSLRs, interchangeable lens compacts, or point and shoots, the Fujifilm X100 is a fun-to-shoot, and very capable camera.  It renders beautiful images with a nice blend of flexible high-quality RAW capture and tastefully-styled internal processing (via RAW processing or JPG capture) with a modern take on classic Fuji color.  The X100′s Leica-inspired manual controls are top notch, with digital controls that are functional, if not equally brilliant.

The X100 uses a smart, practical, and rewarding array of viewfinder options, including both a digitally-enhanced optical finder, an eye-level electronic finder, and LCD screen “live view”.  Its autofocus control is well-integrated, but the actual system lacks consistency, and the provided manual focus ring is of almost no use.  Also, certain digital tools are not fully implemented, including promising, but half-baked video capture ability.  All considered, Fujifilm has revitalized classic rangefinder design and utility with digital smarts.

Most rewarding is the camera’s exceptional image quality, which rivals that of cameras many times its size, cost, and complexity.  Indeed, with a little refining, a neo-classic Fujifilm rangefinder could be a valuable professional tool for many photographers.  In its current form, the camera is a fun and capable DLSR alternative for a wide range of applications and a joy to use.

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Useful Links

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Image Gallery: Fujifilm X100, test shots, outtakes..

Compare the same shot from a Nikon D3/50mm f1.4 and the X100 on our Facebook page

The Fujifilm X100 at Samy’s Camera

Rent the Fujifilm X100 from Borrowlenses.com

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by Matt Beardsley, photography by Matt Beardsley

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