Fuji’s Fantabulous X100!
Its been along time coming, and who would have thought the that it wouldn’t be one of the big two to bring into our hands the amazingly big little camera that is the Fuji X100.
As with my previous reviews this is my opinion piece on how this camera fairs with my needs in mind and if your needs are anything like my needs, then perhaps the few minutes you’ve spent perusing this article will help you decide if its right for you. For a detailed 27 page description of every nut, bolt and screw, link yourself over to dpreview. Else, continue on.
What we have here is the panacea that ails a lot of folks like me. Or at least as close as its going to get for a while. When it comes to the mechanics of taking clean images in less than good light, physics simply cannot be denied. Size matters. And as such, that has meant lugging around a large bulky digital SLR body and fast expensive lenses around to occasions that i would like to take pictures of. Compact cameras simply dont cut it. Trust me on this. Size matters, plain and simple. And the size in particular that were concerned with is of the imaging sensor. Compact cameras mostly use teeny tiny sensors that perform well in good light, but present them with a poorly lit scene such as an indoor social gathering and it loses its lunch and your shot. Size matters and thats where the X100 comes into its own. Fuji managed to pack a whopping APS-C sized sensor into a body that fits in the palm of my hand! Oh joy!
Its a social problem really,.. one can lug around a large sensored DSLR every where, but it is almost always never practical. It just doesnt work. Ive yet to find a DSLR strap that will match my suit or compliment my tie. It becomes an accessory that sticks out like a sore thumb. And the minute you’re spotted with one, you become the default photographer of everything. Flip the flash up to bounce and you’re tagged an expert.. and the fun very simply stops there. The whole point of the occasion gets lost in just taking pictures documenting it. Its getting too involved in the process too often. Regardless if its on holiday or the kids birthday party, the viewfinder is a tunnel, and there is life outside of it. The images at the end of the day may justify the image quality afforded by a DSLR, but you are out of place,… its being at the party wielding an axe, and then being called a murderer for being good with it. Its a bit of an embarrassment truth be said. And as such, I find myself leaving my DSLR gear at home more and more often just so i can enjoy the occasion for what it is. Damn the pictures….. but unfortunately its a hard decision to make each time, being a enthusiast and all. What of all those photo opportunities lost…? Damned if I do, damned if I dont. Until now that is….
Before the X100, only digital SLRs sported large APS-C sized sensors, but Fuji managed to squeeze one into a svelte little body reminiscent of the glory days of rangefinders from the 70s.
I’ve owned it for just over five months now, and it is very simply an amazing little thing. This is the first “socially acceptable” large sensored camera that will provide the image quality of any APS-C sensored DSLR out there. Its hallelujah in a form not much bigger than the terribly mediocre Olympus E-Pm1 (click on link to read my E-PM1 review) that it replaced. The only thing of any real importance, if at all, it gives up on any other camera is its fixed lens. And i can live with that just fine. I have feet. And i get my social life back.
Yes, there are some things it doesn’t do well, but what ever they are, i don’t seem to have a need for them, because what it does do well, it does extraordinarily well!
These days, the DSLR is readily available to just about anybody. Its no longer priced out of reach of the everyday consumer and has simply become quite often, a premium point and shoot camera that offers image quality that trounces any traditional compact camera out there. Everybody’s a pro with a DSLR, which come chock a block full of automatic scene modes. No compact camera hitherto has been able to match the image quality provided by digital SLRs. Mind you, a camera body is just that, a body,.. its the lens that matters just as much and mating a DSLR body with a less than stellar lens is not going to get you all the way. The X100 though, is adorned with a lens that is frighteningly good.
The large APS-C sensor is mated to a 35mm fixed focal length equivalent lens (23mm actually) all beautifully wrapped in magnesium alloy and kitted with an extraordinary hybrid lcd/optical viewfinder which is so good that it makes one wonder why it took so long for somebody to produce one. It quite simply brings a whole new perspective to the picture taking experience. The controls are pure genius as well, its so simple, yet so adequate.. we’ve been spoilt for options that its a breath of fresh air to come across simplicity of form. The essentials are presented in a classically beautiful way at your fingertips. What you get is machined metal dials for shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and a shutter button. The shutter button is even threaded to accept a mechanical remote cable release. I salute you Fuji, for including that bit of nostalgia. The camera feels reassuringly good in hand. It is lighter than it looks thanks to the Magnesium alloy used in its construction of its body. The only bits of plastic, unfortunately, are of the control buttons on the back and a function button on top. Fuji could have done better and used metal through out.
The controls are a joy to use if well acquainted with the art of photography. Its not that hard to master even for the uninitiated, but note the red “A” marked on the shutter speed dial and aperture ring. Turn everything to “A”, as in “Auto” and even grandma could use this camera in a pinch. Perfect for lazy days or handing it to someone else to take a picture. To take over the creative process, selecting either the aperture ring or the shutter dial with put the camera in “aperture” priority or “shutter” priority respectively. Take rein of both the aperture ring and shutter dial and its full manual. Simple. The control design, while is doesn’t seem like its something new, has been re-engineered in a way that is elegant and nothing short of ingenious. The power switch is ringed around the shutter and wake up times are reasonably responsive.
The X100 touts itself as a serious photographic tool mind you, there’s no silly scene modes and face detection anywhere to be found, not that it is incapable of it, as it has a feature that detects a face after an image has been taken, but have been omitted (in my mind anyway) to leave an uncluttered and purpose centric photographic tool. It takes images and it does it remarkably well. “Auto” is a crutch and this is not the camera to own if that is the only way it is going to be used. Theres cheaper and better alternatives to be had for use exclusively in “Auto” mode.
The exposure compensation button, if you have never used one, when used in conjunction with the electronic view finder makes it ridiculously simple to get the exposure exactly how you would envision it with a real time preview. No need to bracket or shoot and review. It simply has never been easier. Its easy to get accustomed to the controls and soon becomes instinctual. And once you get past the basics of its handling, the camera very quickly gets out of the way of the picture taking process. Its simply a joy to use and is no less rewarding.
Auto focus, while not speedy gonzales, is adequate.. just dont expect to shoot sports with it.The X100 provides no form of image stabilization. Fuji has included a useful focus distance bar, when used in manual focus, shows focus distance and depth of field which can be used to set zone focusing. I use it in low light situations to lock the focus distance instead of relying on the auto focus and blindingly bright AF assist lamp. The AF assist lamp can be switched off in the menus.
The lens starts at a bright F2 and takes center stage on the front of the camera. While F2 is good, it is a slightly soft, but redeems itself by being tack sharp at F2.8 and onwards. There really is nothing to complain about here.. its a gem of thing. At its widest apertures, the X100 is capable of taking lovely images with a shallow depth of field yielding beautifully blurred backgrounds and well isolated subjects. The X100 uses a leaf shutter that is completely silent, no more loud mirror slaps and curtains zipping by. It also has the added benefit of syncing to a flash at its maximum shutter speed if you have the need for that sort for thing. The digitized shutter sound effect and other camera beeps and bongs can be muted in a very useful “silent” mode.
Both the viewfinder and the rear lcd can be used for composition.. not that i ever would. The viewfinder is just too beautiful of a thing not to use. Fuji has managed to fold into the optical path a LCD display, which superimposes shooting data over the optical view.
It is nothing short of amazing. When the LCD override is activated by the red switch that’s reminiscent of a self timer on the front of the camera, the optical view finder is physically shuttered and the LCD takes over completely.
For me, the X100 is the perfect people camera, and for social occasions. Its small, unintimidating and unobtrusive, yet packs a hell of a picture taking wallop. The large APS-C sensor coupled with a bright F2 lens soaks in enough available light to triumph over any low light situation. It doesn’t shy from cranking up the ISO to 3200 and still produces astonishing images thats punchy and relatively free of noise. Fujis jpeg processing renders beautiful out of camera output that has the typical Fuji flair. Its very pleasing, but not as accurate as Nikons color. Not a deal breaker in any way.
One thing Fuji has managed, is to perfect the fill in flash. It somehow gets it right every time adding just the right amount of light so much so that i never bother to turn it off. The flash built into the X100 is relatively small but the X100 uses it so well in conjunction with its other strengths that it is more than adequate. I always thought Nikons iTTL-BL fill flash was good, it is.. definitely, but Fuji scores as high with its implementation with the X100s built in flash. Not having to tote around a dedicated flash gun also keeps the size to as small as it can be. But a hot shoe is provided for getting creative with.
The X100 tends to err on the warm side of things when it comes to white balance. Its auto WB is by no measure bad, but Nikon does a better job in rendering the color of a scene more accurately.
I hardly use RAW, but the more discerning user may want to shoot in RAW to got the most out from the X100. To me, its is just that much more time consuming and space occupying. I rather get the best i can out of the camera.
The X100 is not without its quirks… the battery for one, seems as if it was an afterthought designed after the budget had run out. It goes into the camera every which way although it is curved on one side. And the battery charger uses what i can only describe as a plastic wedge to hold the battery in place. As i mentioned, focus isnt the nippiest, but the most recent firmware update has made it perfectly useable It did not though address the continuous AF function, which is pointlessly ineffective. Manually focusing the X100 also isnt quite as good as it should be.. you”ve got silly menu options such as changing the direction of the focus ring rotation but no option to reduce the number of turns to get the focus where you want to quickly. I do realise its a focus by wire mechanism, but its not new and it certainly could be implemented better. These are quirks that you simply wouldn’t and,.. quite frankly shouldn’t expect from a premium priced camera. The rest of the camera fortunately makes up for these quirks and shortcomings…, but as good as its, and i reiterate again, it is so very good, its the sum of its parts that contribute to the experience of the whole. It really doesnt have to be said now, does it?.. i cant imagine what the boffins at Fuji were thinking. The X100 does also have other minor niggles, fortunately none of which i regularly encounter in how i use the camera.
What the X100 isn’t is a do it all device. Once you realise what it is, and what it can do.. there is nothing on the market right now that looks like it or performs like it as an alternative. The Micro four thirds offerings may be as small, but it is a smaller sensor and as of yet while the new generation may come close, still cannot compare directly. The X100 has to be the least intimidating proper camera with a large sensor to point at a face in a crowd to be currently produced. It blends in and disappears into any situation not calling attention to itself or the user. I fitted mine with a B&W filter and leave the lens cap in the box. It simplifies things greatly with out having to worry about a lens cap. The filter and adapter ring are cheaply available on Amazon.com. If by chance the filter were to get scratched, it would be no more cost prohibitive than to replace the lens cap if it were to get lost.
What the X100 is though, is a liberating unfettered photographic tool. It sets me free. No more dragging an anchor of a DSLR around my neck or having to compromise on high ISO image quality. Just about all cameras take great pictures in daylight. Where the X100 shines.. is inside, in difficult light and in situations where toting a DSLR is simply not polite. Its all fang in sheeps clothing. Fuji got the X100 right, shying a mere three feet short of pure perfection.., it is very simply brilliant!