Fuji X100 camera review

Dan is one of the lucky PhotoRumors readers who was able to purchase the Fuji X100 camera in Hong Kong. Since I have not received mine yet, I asked Dan to share his first impression of what appears to be the most anticipated camera of the year. You can follow Dan on twitter @ZDP189. Here is his FujiFilm FinePix X100 camera review:

Executive Summary

The X100 is a blend of traditional photography shooting process and digital technology.  The hybrid viewfinder makes the camera special, but it is this unique shooting experience that is unsurpassed.  The camera isn’t without fault, but for me they’re not the faults that talked about in most reviews: the electronic framelines are the wrong size and manual focus is poor compared to a true manual focus rangefinder.

Introduction

I've been anticipating the new Fujifilm Finepix X100 since it was first previewed at a camera show and reported on photorumors.com.  I’m a hobbyist photographer with a competent DSLR setup, but I prefer to use film rangefinders and 1990’s luxury film compacts when capturing memories for my own enjoyment, so this camera is ideal for me.

A couple of days ago I bought a production model from Simon Ip of Hi-Tech Pro Shop in Hong Kong.  In my eagerness, I've rushed out a quick review.  These are my first impressions after having figured out how to work the camera out and having taken a bunch of pictures.  In places I may be factually incorrect and I may change my opinion later as my experience with the camera matures. However, this review presents a new angle and covers some not previously discussed aspects.

Image Quality

My first impression is that the image quality beats or equals the APS-C sensored compacts that it is competing with, including Leica X1, Sigma compacts and most of the consumer DSLRs to boot.  I think you really could shoot a commercial assignment with one as a backup camera.  The images are crisp and clear with punch, yet in full-auto it shoots each scene as it appears to the eye.

It managed to shoot well in some challenging lighting conditions, such as street lighting with subject movement and a less than steady grip, and photos of our escaped hamster captured under a single halogen downlight.  ISO 800 comes out as clean as 200 on most compacts and cleaner than the Lumix GF1.

The lens is pretty good with just a hint of barrel distortion and very little vignetting even wide open.  The aperture ring has nine blades and is almost perfectly round at all apertures.  I am sure that it can produce magazine publishable quality photos in the right hands and people who say its lens is not up to snuff are either too detail obsessed, or don’t have their priorities right.  The bottom line is I get satisfying photos out of it.  The X100 almost always delivers first time round and has a high proportion of ‘keepers’.

Flexibility

Despite the limitation of the fixed prime lens, it would serve well on its own as my complete travel kit.  I plan on taking it alone to Vietnam for 2 weeks of non-stop shooting.  I’m not a light traveller.  My wife and I took 3 digitals (Olympus XZ-1, GF1, Ricoh GRD3), 2 film cameras (Ricoh GR1V, Zeiss Ikon ZM), 9 lenses and 40 rolls of film on our 8 day trip to Europe last week, so dumping them all in favour of the simple effectiveness of the X100 is saying a lot.  The 35mm focal length is a good compromise between a nifty fifty and a wide 28mm.  This focal length is my most used prime lens.

(Mostly) the Best of Both Worlds

I won’t pretend that the hybrid electronic-optical viewfinder doesn’t give this camera a certain cachet, but it doesn’t completely define it either.  Instead, the best thing about the camera is the overall shooting experience.  It’s as close to using a traditional rangefinder as you can come and keep the full advantages of digital too.  As a digital, you’re unlikely to forget to remove the lens cap and there’s no forgetting to change the ISO when you change the film and end up shooting two stops overexposed, no jamming the film and losing half a roll of exposed film.  I managed to do all these things last week.  As a digital I found that it is better than the Leica X1, the Sigmas and anything I’ve tried; not necessarily because of its image quality but its fast and instinctual shooting.  It just feels right.

Other Features Not Often Mentioned

Reviews of this camera seem to concentrate on less relevant features, stats and unboxing.  The hybrid viewfinder concept gets a lot of rave press and then there are the pixel peeping comparisons.  There are other features that I only discovered when I got it home that deserves more press.

The general theme is the great use of RAW sensor data.  The camera uses RAW files in multiple ways automatically processing them in-camera into JPEGS.  Consequently the output will require very little post processing, a blessing if you don’t want to spend hours reworking images on the PC.  If you do want to suddenly switch from JPEG to RAW, there is a dedicated button to press to get it, or you could just shoot RAW by default.  Conveniently, you can also do in-camera RAW conversion and adjust all the necessary settings.  This helps if you are away from your desktop and need to quickly output some JPEGs.

The RAW-based feature that I like most is the Dynamic Range enhancement.  You can choose DR100%, DR200%, DR400% or let the camera decide.  This takes the extra bits of data produced by the sensor and automatically post processes the JPEG to give it better dynamic range, with less highlight clipping and more shadow detail.  This is beautiful and subtle, not like an over processed HDR shot.  You can also prioritise highlights or shadow tones.

Film simulations of Fujifilm’s classic and familiar film products Provia, Velvia and Astia are just a poncy way of saying Stanard, Vibrant and Soft colour and contrast, but they are tuned to the films.  Velvia is more like Velvia 100 than extreme Velvia 50, but then the auto exposure is more reliable than I can eyeball these reversal films.  The approach to Auto ISO limits and program AE minimum shutter speed is simple and sensible too.

Besides the film simulations, the yellow red and green monochrome colour filters are great, especially when you use the full electronic viewfinder to preview the effect.

There are many white balance modes with three different fluorescent tones.  I haven’t noticed much about the colour shift during shooting, which means it’s working properly.  There’s also custom (white card sampling) and direct colour temperature methods and two axis white balance shift to play with.  They have included an underwater mode too, which I never plan to use.

I will definitely be using the bracketing.  It’s superb.  Exposure and DR bracketing are done at 5 frames per second and ISO, and film simulation bracket are single shot based on RAW.  You can choose the burst speed at 5/s or 3/s.

The shutter goes up to 1/4000s.  Not so many cameras can shoot that fast.  While it can’t shoot this fast with the aperture fully open it has an internal 3 stop ND filter so you can still shoot with a shallow depth of field outdoors under the sun.  I just took a close-up photo synced with the internal flash at 1/4000s; incredible.

What it doesn’t have by and large I don’t need.  It lacks faddish art filters like ‘pop art’ and ‘pinhole’ mode.  It has a motion panorama feature, but it’s not as good as the XZ-1’s precise method.  It has video, but it’s not full 1080P.  I do wish it had an intervalometer for time lapse shooting though, or a wired electronic shutter trigger.

Hybrid Viewfinder

It’s sooo sexy; no surprise there.  The moment I checked it out in the store, I realised that this is how all non-SLRs should be.  It shows all the information that you could need, can (theoretically) be customised to taste and I have not managed to get the display to be swamped by bright sunlight light. That’s the only potential fundamental drawback of a hybrid VF versus a traditional brightline optical VF.

However, X100’s viewfinder is not perfect. I'd like to make myself clear first to avoid misunderstanding. The X100 has the best built in viewfinder I have ever seen on a digital camera other than a DSLR or a rangefinder. It makes a G12 or a P7000 seem laughable by comparison. The nits that I am about to pick are minor and forgivable. I just haven't seen much mention of them online. It boils down to this: In electronic mode, the lag is more than usual. In optical hybrid mode, the frameline box is too small and the viewfinder magnification feels too low.

To start, the framelines are cropped tighter at about 40mm than the image field of view at 35mm focal. There are two ways of looking at this: (1) mentally adjust the sight picture, get over it and move on; (2) curse and rant.

Let me explain option 2:

"@#&! Why is this happening?" Well, it’s because there is too much going on in the hybrid viewfinder. You've got focus distance, depth of field, focus mode, exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and all that goes around a moving parallax corrected box plus a large margin of eye relief.  There's just not enough space.  If the frameline angle of view was made full sized, something would have to give.  Designers would have to decide between losing some information, making it too small to read, losing the bottom and right edges of the box, or parallax correction, making the viewfinder bigger and more expensive, or decreasing magnification yet further.

The magnification's already almost too small.  At about .50x you need good eyes and it's hard to shoot rangefinder-style with both eyes open.

Supposedly you can customise the OVF and EVF/LCD displays.  However, unless I am missing something, the EVF/LCD setting panel only affects the LCD and the OVF and EVF cannot be changed from standard at all. The changed setting panels have no effect.  There is a bug in the firmware. Remember, mine is a production version, not a pre-production prototype.  We need a firmware update.

Even if customisation worked, it would not change the box size and magnification.  I am tempted to fit an accessory finder to the top of the camera, but that'd be embarrassing on this particular camera.  No, I shall have to resort to option 1, which is to shrug it off and pretend it doesn't bother me.  I suppose if you absolutely have to have a viewfinder on a digital camera as good as a Leica M8 or M9 then you have to go out and buy a leica M8 or M9.  In the world of single lens premium compact digital cameras, this it the best there is.

Other Significant Criticisms

The biggest drawback is the poor manual focus.  There is no rangefinder patch, SLR-style split screen, but there is an optional digital magnified focus window.  What you do is autofocus using the AFL button, and then press the centre of Control Button and manually adjust focus by scale focussing and watching the magnification patch.  In this respect it is a bit of a letdown.

In addition, the electronic manual focus ring is not directly coupled, so when you turn the ring fast and back again, the original points on the ring corresponds to a different focus distance.

The less than Leica M-grade manual focus is a big fat fail and the top reason some pros wouldn’t buy one.  The camera’s workable though; it just takes a bit of getting used to. The AF is fast, precise and reliable and fine tuning’s no problem.

I can set infinity focus too, which is more than can be said for the XZ-1 or the GF1 and would be great reliable except that if you hit pre-autofocus in manual mode in bright sunlight it focuses at about 5m instead of infinity.  I thought this was strange, but then I realised that it was using the contrast-detect method and it was in hyperfocal range.  The reason I was confused was that in auto aperture mode, the depth of field indicator shows the depth of field wide open, not the increased depth of field that will actually be shot.  I wish Fujifilm would fix this; knowing the depth of field is important to me.  The camera already knows this figure, because it continually auto-adjusts the aperture before shooting.

Aesthetic and Build

I found that almost all the published review criticisms of the pre-production models do not apply.

It looks right, and to my eye is not “excessively retro”; not more so than my modern Zeiss Ikon ZM. At the same time, the camera is not dominated by this aesthetic.  The shape is dictated by function.  Take the design elements and it is a challenge to assemble them in any other way: a large optical viewfinder window, combined with a wide diameter lens body for a pancake lens with rings for aperture and focus. Add prominent exposure compensation and shutter speed dials, hot shoe and a built in flash and the form factor is inevitable.  The nods to the 70’s rangefinder are more or less limited to the VF selector (an excellent design) the leatherette finish and metal top and bottom plates, slip on cap and the Zeiss Ikon style on-off switch and shutter button.  However, these simply complete the look.  The only physical features that I don’t like is the standard cable release and flash position.  I’d have preferred a Canon-style electronic release and a wireless remote.  As for the flash, it’s too close to the lens and may cause red-eye.  At least there is a red-eye auto removal function. Everything else is complementary to function.  The tripod screw mount is close to the central axis of the lens and the centre of mass too.

One review said it’s lightly made and too light.  It’s not.  It anything it’s a little too heavy.  It’s about the same as a GF1 or an X1.  None of my 70’s rangefinders are as well built and I’m talking about the apparent robustness, fit and finish, not just the weight.

The shutter sound is not annoying.  I concede that the fake shutter sound is tacky and more like a ring tone than a mechanical sound, but I suspect that it’s due to some obscure legislation requiring a loud shutter sound in some market, rather than deliberate kitsch.  I just turned the sound off, and all that’s left is a compact camera’s leaf shutter. It sounds like a Hexar AF in silent mode but without the motor drive. I am super grateful for that as the sharp clack of the GF1 is way too loud. The X100 has its own silent mode, suppressing all artificial sounds, the AF-assist light and even the flash and with the back display turned off, it is very stealthy indeed.

Another reviewer of a pre-production model said that the IR auto detect sensor that senses when you put your eye to the finder is too sensitive.  On my model it is perfect.

Ergonomics

I’m not 100% satisfied with the ergonomics. It really needs an aftermarket grip bar or hand strap adding, as it is a bit heavy and has a tendency to slip out of my hand.  That’s alarming, considering the cost and rarity of the camera.  Otherwise the buttons are all in the right places and it feels good in the hand. I also wish it had a switch for the flash like the Ricohs and the Nikon 28Ti.  I like a physical flash switch.

Availability

Fujifilm has admitted that following the Tsunami, the Sendai factory is not functional.  Certainly it will take time to get even 24/7 power and I suspect it will take many months to get machinery and clean rooms back to spec.  Even with a Herculean effort by Fujifilm, their Japanese suppliers have also been affected.  I have heard rumours that with so many outstanding pre-orders, production will get moved to China/Taiwan/SE Asia and will rely heavily on OEM for a quick start-up.  Even then Fuji would have troubles as I am told the sensor is made in-house.  The Tsunami has also squashed spurious rumours of a new model with interchangeable lenses, so demand may actually rise.  As a result, after-market prices have now risen to twice official price and at this level many people will balk.  Look at it this way: yes, you could buy a second hand Leica X1 for 25% less but the X100 is far superior a package and for the time being at least, far more exclusive.

Conclusions

In conclusion, I paid twice the official price and I still feel that I paid less than what it’s worth.  The camera has some potential for improvement, but it is both inspiring and technical competent.  Mine is an early production model and let's face it, Fujifilm have a lot on their plate right now.  A firmware update should fix most issues I have mentioned.  I feel the X100 will be my primary camera for quite some time.

Thanks Dan!

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