One Photographer's Experiences and Opinion
By Ken Tanaka
"Fall in love with photography all over again." That opening invitation on Fujifilm's dedicated X100 website neatly sums the camera’s apparent strategic design and primary target market; a retro-design for middle-agers old enough to have fond memories of using classic rangefinder cameras of the 1960s and '70s. Folks yearning for the "simpler" days of homemade ice cream and small, lightweight, fixed-lens rangefinders. (A group that’s also old enough to have forgotten the bellyaches that each produced.) Folks who can't, or don’t want to, schlep big DSLRs but want something better than generic point-and-shoots. Most importantly, folks who won't balk at spending twelve hundred dollars for the chance to "fall in love with photography all over again."
But though the X100 may sport a crew-cut and horn-rimmed glasses, it's actually every bit as technologically and functionally complex as any of today’s top-line cameras. And then some.
My original perspective on the new Fujifilm X100 was mostly that of apathy. It looked a bit kitschy to me and I needed another camera like I needed a third leg. I was curious about the new "hybrid" viewfinder, but since I owned several genuine models of the genre that the X100 apes, I really didn’t feel a tug. But an odd turn of unrelated events suddenly plopped a shiny new X100 on my desk. Kismet? With hundreds of X100 frames now under my belt and following a desperately needed remedial firmware update, my perspective on the X100 is more informed and a bit more enthusiastic.
In brief, having now used my X100 daily for two weeks I can say that the camera is not pure kitsch. It is a camera whose design and manufacture seem sincerely intentioned toward simulating the gestalt of a simpler, more organic photographic experience. It is a camera that is neither as good nor as bad as its principal advocates and detractors seem to claim it to be. It is most certainly a camera that demands practice, for both good and bad reasons, to achieve proficiency.
What follows is just my experience notes presented in no special order, for whatever value prospective owners of the X100 might find in them.
The X100 is very well built and has a substantial feel. Nobody will mistake it for a toy. It looks and feels like a "real" camera.
Despite the hail of stock images of the X100 that flooded web sites since its introduction, plus DPreview’s typically highly detailed review, I was a bit hazy regarding the camera's relative size. Maybe you are, too? So here are a few comparisons.
You can see that the X100 is actually considerably slimmer and smaller than a Leica M9 (or M8). What you can't see is that it's also considerably lighter than an M9, weighing in at 405g versus the M9's (body-only, with battery) 585g.
Perhaps the closest Leica M body to that of the X100 is the Leica MP, although even the MP is wider and thicker than the X100.
The X100 is a bit larger than, but approximately the same weight as, the Olympus E-P2's body although the E-P2's accessory viewfinder changes this relationship a bit.
The closest style cousin I have to the X100 is the Canon's Canonet QL17. The Canonet is very close to the same size and weight as the the X100 and, I believe, represents precisely the kind of simple compact rangefinder experience that Fujifilm is trying to present in the X100. (See Stephen Gandy's Canonet page for an excellent description of the Canonet.)
What I like best about the X100's small size is that the camera fits neatly into a medium-sized waist pack, even with the optional hood mounted. No extra lenses needed (or possible). Batteries are small.
Comparison to a Leica M
Contrary to appearances, the X100 has little in common with a Leica M. It is not a rangefinder camera, nor does it offer interchangeable lenses. In fact, it has more in common with a simple point-and-shoot camera. Nevertheless, the X100 is often being compared to the M9. That’s rather silly, actually. Two comparative points are, however, worth noting. First, by virtue of the X100's non-rangefinder design it can focus on much closer subjects than most common M lenses. Indeed, when the camera is placed in macro mode it can focus as close as four inches (10 cm). Most M-mount rangefinder lenses cannot focus closer than about three feet. Second, the left-justified viewfinder location offers the same advantages as classic 35mm rangefinder camera designs. In particular, since the camera only covers your right eye you can (with practice) monitor the full scene in front of the camera with your left eye.
What about that "hybrid" viewfinder?
The X100's viewfinder is the genuinely groundbreaking part of the camera. The best way I can characterize it is to use the old Burger King ad slogan from the 1970s: "Have it your way!" It allows you to switch between point-and-shoot style live-view on the rear LCD, the optical viewfinder, and an electronic viewfinder displayed through the optical eyepiece. You can even have the system switch from LCD to viewfinder automatically as you raise the camera to your eye. Explaining it further would not be productive. You have to work with it for a while to really appreciate its value. More than any other aspect of the X100, this viewfinder points the way forward for future mirror-less cameras. It's not yet perfect, but it's an admirable and valuable effort that makes the camera's swollen price a bit more digestible.
The Fujinon 23mm ƒ/2 lens
The X100's 23mm Fujinon lens (35mm effective coverage) is really top-notch with good sharpness throughout the frame, nice contrast through all apertures, and barely any discernible chromatic aberration. It also seems perfectly mated with the APS-C sensor.
Characteristically, the X100's contrast-detection autofocus system is not the fastest and can be a bit dodgy in low light. It really needs to see vertical lines, so you will find yourself often needing to plan ahead to pull focus. It's not normally distractingly bad, but it's not in the same league as current mainstream cameras in its price range.
Manual focus is basically a wipe-out. The electronic focus ring on the lens requires far too much movement (an infinity twister). It's perhaps the biggest fault in the camera’s "retro" design, and the blemish that might prevent some buyers from "falling in love again."
It is, however, possible to use the camera’s autofocus lock to zone-focus quickly, again with some practice.
I agree with the reviewers who, almost unanimously, claim that the X100’s image quality is excellent. Images are sharp and flesh tones appear natural, although the camera’s auto-white balance does have a bias toward blue/green. I was initially struck by how similar X100 RAW image files appear to those from the Leica M9 and M8. Fujifilm claims that, like the Leica M8 and M9, the X100's sensor has been customized to minimize light fall-off at the frame corners. I believe them, as I've not been able to induce significant vignetting at any aperture.
In fact, DxOMark rates the X100's sensor better than that of the Leica M9. I've certainly noticed the difference at ISOs higher than 640, where the M9 begins to get sandy but the X100 hardly seems to be breathing hard.
It's also noteworthy that Adobe's Camera Raw and Lightroom 3 already have a profile of the X100‘s Fujinon lens, making geometric corrections a 1-click operation.
Prior to Fujifilm's recent X100 firmware update this would have been a long list. But the update mercifully eliminated nearly all of the nuttiest bugs. But some of the X100’s remaining issues continue to be distractions to me even after settling in with the camera for a couple of weeks.
Electronic User Interface: The whole electronic interface, principally the menu organization, terminology, and adjustment accessibility needs a re-do. As near as I can tell, everything I need is in there...somewhere. But finding it might be an excursion. The less I have to wade into that swamp the more I like the camera. I think, for starters, that Fujifilm should take a cue from Canon by placing the frequently needed controls (ISO, file size, white balance, etc.) on a quick menu. Of course they would then have to assign an access button, which brings me to my next complaint...
Buttons and dials: Not terrific. The top exposure compensation dial is the highlight of the design. The rear dial is too small and fussy. The single programmable Function button is rather illogically on top near the shutter. The spring toggle lever is just mushy and often maddening to control. And the unique dedicated "RAW" button occupying the bottom right rear is just bewildering. But my least favorite mechanical switch is the autofocus mode switch on the otherwise ignored left front edge. This tiny slider is simply far too easy to accidentally change between Manual, AF-S, and AF-C, and potentially miss a shot.
Humans have thumbs: ...But this would be difficult for extra-planetary visitors to surmise from the design of the X100's rear panel. There's only the tiniest of spaces for your opposable thumb to get a grip without nudging some little control.
To all of you "Give me a good, fast 35mm prime with a good optical viewfinder and I can rule the photo world!" guys, your throne awaiteth. No doubt that the X200 and X300 will be better, but the X100 fills your basic bill, and then some. So time to stand and deliver!
To the rest of us, the value of the X100 is more conditional. It really is today's closest digital experience to the classic fixed lens rangefinder. I am still enjoying mine quite a bit and will probably travel with it soon.
But it's also worth remembering just how limited those simple little rangefinder cameras really were. There's a reason they became extinct. Canon sold well over 1 million of those small Canonet cameras...until the SLR became affordable.
So certainly the camera's weakest attribute will be its fixed focal length lens. Yes, it's an excellent optic. But while some owners will find it romantic, many will find it too impractically limiting to hold their interest. It's hard to argue.
So I believe that the highest long-term aspiration of the X100 is to become someone's regular second camera. The camera that you tuck into a bag for casual, lightweight close-quarter photos, probably around friends and family. It's a good candid camera, given its silent P&S-type electronic shutter and relatively small size.
But I also predict that many, maybe most, buyers will become bored with the X100 after the sweat dries from "falling in love again." The camera's design quirks and shortcomings will grow to be major (psychological) deficiencies. I'll bet that few people who have lots of cameras will be using it often a year after purchase. It's a good little camera, but it's not magic.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Vadim Gordin: "While this is a great review, I feel that it misses an important point...that there are many users (like myself at age 28) who have no history with film cameras about which to reminisce and find having a compact fixed lens camera enjoyable for reasons of function rather than nostalgia. My GF-1 + 20mm has effectively replaced my Olympus DSLR gear as my day-to-day street, social, and travel shooter. For the past two years, my Olympus 12–60mm and 50–200mm setups only come out in the rare cases when the need for versatility outweighs their bulk."
Featured Comment by Ben Mathis: "I bought my X100 intending it to be my second camera, but it has quickly become my first. I haven't touched my 5D since I got the X100, and I don't leave the house without it. Does it have limitations? sure, but no other package can give me such an easy to carry yet useable camera (both useable in the field, as well as producing image files I can use in the digital darkroom and print). You're right that it has a limited user market, but for those who have that itch, it scratches it like no other. I am undertaking a one-year-one-camera-one-lens challenge that Mike proposed before, but with the X100, which can be seen here."
Featured Comment by Steve Rosenblum: "I took an X100 with me to Paris as an alternative/backup camera to my DSLR during the Turnley workshop. I hoped it might be perfect for street shooting—small, inconspicuous, high quality wide lens, clear viewfinder, excellent image files. I abandoned it in favor of the DSLR after one frustrating day because it provides no reasonable way to zone focus and the autofocus is too slow for rapidly-changing street photography. There have been a number of workarounds suggested for this problem, but why should I have to fiddle around so much to accomplish something that would have been so easy for them to build in? All that is needed is a zone focus/snap focus/hyper focal distance setting, and this camera would be a killer street shooter. Ricoh and Sigma have this feature neatly implemented, why in the world did Fuji leave it out? I had hoped that they would fix it with the firmware update, but they did not. Seems senseless to me."
Featured Comment by Sean: "Very nice review. Interestingly, the X100 has become my primary camera. I bought it as a secondary camera (to A700 and A850), but those cameras do not leave my home unless I'm doing birding (A700) or portraiture (A850). The size of the X100 and the image quality is simply unbeatable. The so-called 'limitation' of the fixed 35mm lens has reinvigorated my photography."