A few months ago when the X100 was first announced , I immediately became very excited. Despite being of a completely different generation to when rangefinders were commonplace, I love their simplicity and style of shooting. In the modern world of DSLR’s and digital compacts, rangefinders are becoming scarce. Due to the nature of how a rangefinder works, today’s method of trigger happy shooting where just holding down the shutter button to take hundreds of photos, hoping at least one will be a “keeper,” isn’t encouraged. Composition requires effort and focusing requires time. Because time is taken, it forces the user to think hard about shooting and usually the result is better photos.
The first thing you notice when looking at the X100 is it’s retro design. If you fail to notice the LCD and the buttons surrounding it, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a film camera. It’s a beautiful camera to look at. When you hold it, the next thing you notice is the weight and quality of the build. It’s a solid camera. Having an all metal construction as apposed to plastic, it feels strong.
The dials are smooth with precise movement. Another thing you notice is how large it is for a “compact,” which is how some are defining it. It won’t fit in all but the largest of pockets. But with a camera that beautiful I’d much rather have it out on display around my neck using the neck strap than have it concealed in a pocket. This being South Africa, I usually discourage people from walking around with their expensive cameras around their necks in public due to the crime factor. But since the X100 looks so vintage, I doubt many prospective thieves would consider the X100 to be anything more valuable than what it looks like, which is an old film camera with very little street value. Little would they know that it actually cost as much as a mid level DSLR.
The X100 isn’t what I would call “ergonomic” with such a flat and square design. It fits in your hand slightly better than a brick, but it’s a price you have to pay for those good looks and it’s a price I’m happy to pay.
Most of the buttons are laid out simply enough and are intuitive to use. A few functions were a bit fiddly and I found them difficult to understand how to engage them but a quick flip through the instruction manual solved that problem. Once I committed the layout to memory it was much easier to use with speed, although I still felt some of the features could have been thought out better to be more intuitive to use.
My main issue with the handling was with the rotating directional keys. They’re too small so using them was a struggle. The small diameter of the ring makes precise action difficult. People with large fingers will find it even more irritating.
The two main settings, ie.shutter speed and aperture,are controlled in a typical “old school” fashion. For shutter speed control there is a dial on top of the body just like an old film camera. For aperture control there is an aperture ring around the lens, again, just like an old film camera. It’s ironic how “refreshing” it is to have such an old method to change settings again..
Unlike modern cameras which have mode dials to select Av (Aperture Priority), Tv (Shutter Priority), Manual or Program, the X100 does it in a very different but clever manner. Both the shutter speed dial and aperture ring have an “A” setting. When both the dial and ring are set to this setting, the camera is in full auto mode. If you change the aperture ring to a desired setting other than “A” then the camera switches to aperture priority.Conversely with the aperture set back on “A” and the shutter dial set to a desired speed, the camera is in shutter priority mode. When both the aperture ring and shutter dial are set to a desired setting then the camera is in full manual. All this is confirmed in the view finder/LCD where the mode setting is stated in the bottom corner.
ISO can be controlled easily enough. Next to the shutter button is a “Fn” (function) button which can be custom set to the function you wish. I found it best to set it to control ISO because if it’s set for other purposes then the only other way to set ISO is to navigate the internal menu system which far more time consuming. There is one more annoyance, actually the most annoying thing about the camera, but I’ll get to that later in more detail.
The first thing I noticed when shooting was how responsive it is. From start up time to the speed of the autofocus. Overall it is hard to see a difference between the X100 and a good DSLR. It makes shooting in a hurry easily possible , which is very uncommon for a rangefinder. It’s nowhere near compact camera like in its response performance. Even its burst rate is impressive. I found it a bit odd having such a good burst rate considering it’s probably never going to be used for sports shooting.
I was very impressed by the lens. I used the large f2.0 aperture pretty much the entire time I had the camera. It produced very sharp images with a nice soft bokeh. Low light performance might not be the best in comparison to what some DSLR’s are capable of nowadays but it is still very good. At 1600 the images are still crisp and clear of heavy grain or noise. Images start showing some noticeable noise at 3200 but it is still quite acceptable. From 6400 it starts becoming unpleasant so I wouldn’t use this or any higher settings. The combination of good ISO performance and fast f2 lens means hand held low light shooting is easy to achieve. For example, I shot in a very dim restaurant, lit only by candlelight and I still got sharp images. In fact, most of all the images I took in the restaurant were sharp. It would take a very unsteady hand to falter the sharpness. Had Fujifilm included a stabilized lens, the possibilities of low light would have been even further improved but I did not feel left wanting in terms of low light performance and as such the Fuji was very acceptable and manages without stabilization.
The hybrid viewfinder is probably one of the best features on the camera. It’s simply fantastic and works better that I ever imaged it would. It’s a system that fits the rangefinder system perfectly. It has a variety of custom setups. It can be set up to be completely optical, completely digital or a combination of both. I found it was ideal having a combination of the two as it gives the best of both worlds. I’m not a fan of digital viewfinders as the image quality is never anywhere as good to what an optical system provides. But with rangefinders, as much as I love optical viewfinders, because what you see through the finder is not the same as what the lens sees, it can be a bit tricky to use. Manual focusing is difficult. Which is why I love the X100’s viewfinder. When viewing, even though you’re viewing optical, the focusing points are digitally superimposed and highlight when the selected autofocus point is in focus which makes precise shooting with custom selected focusing points a breeze. It must be seen to be fully appreciated.
As mentioned earlier, I had a main irritation with the handling. It had to do with the manual focusing. Firstly I want to mention how great it was having manual focusing. It’s a feature mostly missing in compact cameras and a feature I think is vital to have. In my style of shooting it’s a feature I use often, and I did use it often on the X100. My issue with it had to do with how long it takes to manual focus between vast distances. Going from infinity to minimum focus distance required a crazy amount of rotations on the focus ring. I never counted the actual number of rotations but it was somewhere in the region of 12-15 rotations. It’s just far too many to be used in a hurry. I did find a way around it though. I focused with autofocus to get the distance roughly to where I wanted it to be and then switched to manual to fine tune it. Even though it can be done it was irritating and I feel it should be unnecessary. But due to the focusing ring being electronic, and not mechanical, to me logically it would mean that this action is dictated by the camera’s software. Theoretically it can be easily solved with a firmware update. Hopefully this is something Fuji look into and resolve.
While I’m on the topic of features that don’t work well, the panoramic mode is another feature I had an issue with. It simply doesn’t work at all, particularly in low light. Because it’s a sweep panoramic mode, the camera has to be moving while shooting. The shutter speed is controlled automatically and is, by default, just too slow. Because the camera is sweeping, the initial shots come out all blurry. Once it is all stitched together to make a panoramic, the result is a wide angle shot of blur. A nice feature of the sweep panoramic mode is that it is usable while the camera is in portrait format, and not just landscape format, which makes it possible to shoot larger sized panoramics. This is a feature missing on many other cameras that support sweep panorama and one I think is neccesary to have. But it’s pointless having that benefit if the camera can’t utilize it by taking blurry shots.
One of the features I love most about the X100 is the inclusion of a hotshoe mount. It allows the user to attach an optional hotshoe flash but more importantly to me it means I can use wireless triggers to trigger my studio lights. I used the X100 in a studio set up and it worked flawlessly. Because of the small size of the Fuji in comparison to a SLR, when used with a speedlights in a strobist set up, it’s possible to carry a very small portable studio set up very easily. It should be a great attraction to photographers who shoot on location who want great performance but in a small, easy to carry package.
Another great feature about the X100 in terms of using flash is the maximum flash sync speed. Due to the construction of the shutter (it’s a leaf shutter. Leaf shutters are situated in the lens and not in the body) it allows extremely high speed syncing with flashes. Unlike SLR’s where the maximum sync speed is usually no faster than 250th of a second, the X100 can shoot roughly at least twice as fast. I say roughly because not even Fuji themselves quote the max sync speed (the official website on the X100 was created while the camera was still in development and has not been updated since so final specification of these figures are unknown) but from personal experience I know that I shot at 1000th of a second and the flashes still fired. This is a great feature for sports photographers, but due to the relatively short focal length of the lens for sports photography, it’s usage would be limited to extreme sports like skateboarding and BMXing where the shooter can get close to the subjects. Dancing, like ballet, would also be a good option.
The X100 also has a built in 4-stop neutral density filter and I’m glad they included this feature. On my first day shooting with it there was a shot I was trying to achieve in bright sunlight, and because I was using a slightly long shutter speed, if it didn’t have the built in ND filter, I wouldn’t have been able to get the shot I wanted. It very quickly became a life saver.
I love the inclusion of the film simulation modes. The user can chose between replicating Fuji Provia, Velvia and Astia. I enjoyed being able to choose between vivid or muted color. Even with the black and white simulation mode, it’s possible to choose black and white with different color filters, such as red, green, ect. This creates different effects to the contrast in monotone images. As black and white film shooters will know, different color filters on their lenses would either make blue skies darker or skin tones more fair. It is a clever inclusion in the X100.
On a side note, it’s worth mentioning some small details that Fuji put into their camera to give it that extra something. For example, the shutter release cable isn’t an electronic one. It uses the old threaded cable release that screws into the shutter button. Fuji could have used an electronic cable, but they didn’t. They chose to use old “technology.” And I’m glad they did. Another example is the lens cap. Unlike the current standard where lens caps clip onto the inside thread of a lens, the Fuji lens cap slides over the outside and doesn’t actually clip onto the lens. It’s lined with a velvet-like material on the inside to give it a snug fit. Again, this is a very old style in terms of method and emphasizes how the X100 combined “old school” style but with state of the art technology. It’s a great combination.
Who is it for?
This isn’t a camera for everyone. Not all will appreciate the fixed focal length lens. Not everyone will like the fact that it’s a rangefinder. It is fairly large as well if you compare it to a compact. But keep in mind that this is a camera that would appeal more to the kind of user who shoots with SLR’s rather than the compact camera user. It is far smaller than a SLR and almost as capable. That’s not to say that compact users wouldn’t be interested in the X100 but most likely they would be more interested in something like the Canon G12 or Nikon P7000 which is more versatile, (in that they have zoom lenses) and are smaller if they were going the compact route. Not to mention far cheaper. This is a unique camera in that it occupies a very small market. It’s a bit of a combination of various cameras. It’s partially, Olympus Pen, Leica X1 and Leica M9 and personally for my style of shooting it works best for me and I would take it over any of the other competitors. It will appeal to the older generation of shooters, casual or professional, who are used to rangefinders of a bygone era. It will also appeal to camera collectors who enjoy high end, premium and classy products. It also has use for pro shooters who want a back up camera that is small but extremely capable with uncompromising image quality and inconspicuous.
But whoever lands up considering one to add to their camera bag will have to either really need it, or really want it badly, because at a recommended selling price in the region of R14,000.00 it isn’t cheap and it wouldn’t be the first choice of many people. Ultimately, the X100 is the kind of camera you buy not with your head but with your heart and the high price further compounds this. It’s up to the buyer to decide whether the price is worth it. Keep in mind you are getting an extremely good quality product for the money, although I feel most will still find the price too steep.
I had the Fuji for about a week. The longer I had it the more I loved it. I was honestly sad and hesitant when the time came to give it back. It handles wonderfully, looks great, performs excellently and is a camera that grows on you very fast. Granted, there are a few negatives about the camera, but despite how annoying those negatives could be at times, it was never enough to make me not want it. The pros far outshined the cons. It would be a welcome feature in my camera bag as it would see a lot of use from me. I would carry it around with me at all times. I like to always have a camera with me but my existing DSLR is just far too big and heavy (not to mention valuable) to keep with me always so the Fuji would fit that bill perfectly.
I would have preferred if it had an interchangeable lens. A 35mm and 50mm option would be enough in my opinion and make it even better suited to it’s target market. Hopefully with the expected success of the X100, Fuji will consider an interchangeable lens version for a follow up model. One can only hope. That would make it even more irresistible.
The only thing preventing me from getting one is the price. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s worth it, because if I had the money I’d gladly buy one, although it wouldn’t be without hesitation. There’s no denying that price.