So—the long-awaited and much-discussed Fuji X100 is beginning to fall, like the occasional droplets of a coming rain, into users' hands, even though it's currently sold out at B&H Photo and at Amazon. And all sorts of reviews are hitting the web, the best of which is probably the "Conclusion" section of dpreview's (I like their new expanded conclusions, since that's all I read anyway). Image quality—the rubber-meets-road aspect of all new and as-yet little-known cameras, but especially fixed-lens ones—looks very promising. But the more pressing question remains to be answered: Do you like the way it looks?
I have a real love/hate affair with retro. For the most part, I love classicism—the idea that there is an undying essential, proper and right style underlying all temporal and temporary iterations of an ideal. And I like old things—I'm not a neomaniac. And I like the process of refinement that happens with designs that are evolved slowly and thoughtfully over time—you can see the results of that in things like acoustic guitars and small wooden sailboats, or hand woodworking tools. I even buy a magazine called New Old House (it appears to be a bi-annual, which is about as infrequently as a magazine can come out and still be called a magazine), which features new houses purposefully made to look like old ones.
So why do I hate retro? You really only have to look at this to know instantly. (It's an Excalibur limo, for those of you momentarily too shocked to think straight. Shades of Liberace.) Retro always has at least a whiff—and all too often, more—of tastelessness about it; an ugly underlayment of the contemporary showing through or, worse, an essential misunderstanding of the target style betraying itself in the attempt. However much you like it, it has to be conceded that retro style not easy to pull off. Much as we might admire old originals, cars don't have fenders any more, houses aren't built by carpenters on site from scratch these days, and Elvis is dead.
Done right, or right enough (and the dividing line there is often razor thin), I love it. I fell for the X100 at first glimmer and time hasn't dimmed my admiration, even though I haven't held one in my hand yet (I live in the sticks, remember), and even though I have a photo-friend who felt the opposite at first and whose negative opinion appears to be hardening as time passes. The X100 is channeling the aesthetic of the compact rangefinder 35's of the '60s and '70s—cameras like the Minolta 7sII, Olympus SP35, Olympus RD, and Canon QL 17 G-III, with some flavor notes of M3 thrown in too. I think it does it well enough to convince. What about you?
(And check out the "Category" for this post. Little joke there.)
(Photos: Fujifilm, Mini Cooper)
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Ctein adds: And further inflaming the datageek wars, DxO has their RAW benchmarks for the X100. I'm hoping that by the time a review unit gets to me, we're a coupla generations down the firmware. I'll always withhold judgement until I can test something myself, but dpreview's extraordinary shopping list of interface problems is daunting. Like most of the other commenters, 80% of what's on their list won't apply to me... and the other 20% are real killers.
Featured Comment by Jeff Hohner: "Love retro when it's done right. You're right, the line is fine. Design will always be about function and fashion. I enjoy nods to past fashions. They highlight history and the conversation culture has with itself over time.
"But I also believe 'form follows function'—more or less. (Not the strict Modernist formulation of that, everything stripped down to its essentials; there's always room for a little decoration in design, call it style.) As you said, objects, if designed conscientiously, evolve to approach ideal forms. So retro can also serve function, when it returns a tried and true design.
"To wit: the sublime X100.
"I am ecstatic to see camera design return to this form: compact body, dedicated control dials, optical viewfinder. For my kind of photography, this is the most useful tool, the tiny aluminum pencil sharpener (another triumph of design) of cameras. (I still shoot primarily with '60s rangefinders, so perhaps I'm biased. The X100 will be the first large sensor digital camera I will have ever purchased.)
"About the looks of the X100, I don't think it's actually all that. It's still too button-busy for me. And what's that screen for on the back? Looking down on it from the top, however, just makes me want to throw it around my neck and start taking pictures."
Featured Comment by Paul W. Luscher: "I guess my problem with retro is that it's phony, and appears to be an admission that we can't make things as nice anymore. My feeling is that if you wanna go retro, buy real retro. Get an M3 or M4 and learn how to use it, rather than getting a faux-M...."
Featured Comment by Andrew Roos: "The X100 looks...Gorgeous from the front. Gorgeous from the top. Gorgeous from the sides. Cheap and nasty from the back."
Featured Comment by Peter Rees: "I often still take pictures with my beloved 'old' Nikon 35Ti—there's a retro design that justifies itself through the sheer functionality of its gorgeous analogue interface, or what we used to call dials. As for the X100, I don't like it—too many unnecessary curves. Visually, it feels indecisive, perhaps reflecting the haste with which it (and its infamous 'infirmware') were brought to market."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "If a camera's styling is driven by, and works well with, the camera's functional design it's sublime whether 'retro' or 'futuristic.' But as accurately noted earlier, this is a rarity.
"If a camera's design is driven by styling it's destined to become a short-lived failure.
"I've not touched an X100 and have no plans to buy one. Early reports, however, suggest that it's an average APS-C camera hampered by a fixed lens and an version 0.9 operating system. I think it might be closer to an example of the latter case than the former.
"Ctein's column last week featured the obviously debatable headline 'No One Cares How Hard You Worked.' But this topic could be headlined 'No One Gives a Damn How Pretty Your Camera Is' with no debate."
Featured Comment by charlie: "Great design transcends time, genre and category."
Mike adds: I'm not sure I necessarily believe in the "form follows function" mantra. Seems to me it often leads to some pretty dispiriting forms. Concrete shell buildings with metal-truss roofs in the exurbs, for instance. Perfect examples of form following function, but bleh. Here's an instance of function being subservient to form. Here's an example of what happened when they realized life would be easier for the mechanics if they just shucked the pretty skin and went with a form-follows-function approach.
Beauty can be its own reward.
Featured Comment by mark lacey: "Well I'm 52 and just bought my first Rolleiflex, a 3.5 E3, and I can tell you I look pretty bloody retro wandering around with that. Might even have to get a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows!"
Mike replies: ...And a briar walking stick. With a tripod thread mounted in the top.
Featured Comment by Tom M: "$1,600 for a fashion accessory? For that amount of money, I think I would rather buy a $500 canon G12, and two pairs of $400 boots, and have $300 left over for the latest fashion accessory, the iPhone 5, coming out this summer. Ha ha!"
Featured Comment by Shaun Kelly: ""I shot severe weather for over a decade with a pair of Koni Omega Rapids—big, bright viewfinders, leaf shutters, built like tanks. I carried a old Nikkormat and a pair of Spotmatics with fastish primes as backups and for the time crunched/low light shots.
"I went to digital with a Nikon D40x and have not regretted it, but had been looking to upgrade for the last few years. I never did upgrade—I don't need autofocus and half the other bells and whistles, and while sensors improved, it seemed incremental...I coudn't afford the first FX cameras, though I nearly got a D700, but fell into the 'wait 6 months and something better will arrive' trap, and now I'm waiting for a D800, maybe. I can wait; the D40x still takes nice images. The micro 4/3rds with EVF's caught my eye, but I couldn't choose one, so I waited there, too.
"On the other hand, I pre-ordered the X100 months ago and got mine from the second batch of US shipments—easy decision. The OVF is great. The lens is fast and sharp, the leaf shutter is a leaf shutter. I can make good images with it, the controls feel right, the camera feels right in my hand. I really like it.
"Sure, I'd love it if they'd written the firmware right, and I hope the uproar makes them fix it, but it didn't stop me from getting some great storm pictures already. I expect I'll get a lot more storm images with it, and probably a lot of decent indoor low light people shots as well. Plus, as opposed my other cameras I have it with me right now."