For a long time since their last DSLR model, the well-regarded S5 Pro, Fujifilm has been quiet on cameras bigger than its compact point-and-shoot ones. It seemed like they’ve given up on the upper end of the digital camera market but apparently they’ve been working on something. And what a something it turned out to be.
Announced at photography trade show Photokina 2010, Fujifilm’s FinePix X100 has become one of 2011′s most anticipated digital camera. It has handsome old-school styling that harks back to the rectangular two-toned film rangefinders, complete with brushed metal top with engraved labels, metal setting knobs, and the textured black lower-half. Behind the retro exterior lies high technology from Fujifilm’s engineering teams: a fast prime 23mm f/2 lens with optics more sophisticated than usual, 12-megapixel DSLR-size sensor for better image quality and noise limitation, Fujifilm’s EXR image processor, and their unique hybrid Optical/Electronic Viewfinder.
Many review sites have already covered the technical specifications in details, and DPReview has a pretty good hands-on impression article here. I will be writing about my personal experience with a pre-production/sample of this camera.
When pictures and details of the X100 came out, I was one of the many photographers who were smitten with it. I had grown up with film cameras and liked how Fujifilm brought the traditional rangefinder camera into the digital age; this was a camera that I really looked forward to. So I was excited when Fujifilm Philippine distributor YKL Color, Inc. invited local photographers to test-drive the first FinePix X100 to reach the Philippine shores, to be held at the historic and scenic Fort Santiago in Intramuros, Manila on 5 March 2011.
Unfortunately, it was drizzling when I got there last Saturday and so I expected that the testing session would be somewhat limited. Only a few of us made it to the morning testing session because of the rain and bad traffic, and Ariel Tresvalles of YKL Color arrived in a while and finally brought out the X100. It was just as well that we couldn’t go out just yet to start shooting with it, so I spent that time exploring the camera.
First Look (and Touch)
Wow. It looked good in pictures, but it looked even better in person. I had brought along my 60s-era Yashica Electro 35 film rangefinder camera for comparison, and while the X100 was more compact it looked like it was cut out of the same cloth as the Yashica. The machined metal controls on top are reminiscent of the venerated Leica M film cameras used by professionals. The X100′s On/Off Switch is even similar to my Yashica’s shutter button lock switch and it had a threaded hole in the shutter button for a traditional shutter release cable. The only real concession to the digital age on the top of the camera is an “Fn” button near the shutter button. With the appearance of its front and top, the X100 wouldn’t get a second glance if Austin Powers brought it back in time to the middle of the 20th century.
One gets brought back to the present when one see’s the camera’s rear. The X100′s back is dominated by a 2.8″ 460K-pixel rear LCD screen set into the black texturized surface covering the lower part of the exterior. Buttons and controls are set on the side of the screen, and this is easily familiar to anyone who’s used a digital camera. Users of Canon’s G-series camera (and cameras of other brands with a read control dial) will instantly feel at home with the 4-way controller disc with scroll ring. Above the rear dial is a very useful thumb-operated clickable jog switch to change certain settings, similar to the control scheme of Ricoh’s GR-series of prosumer digital compact cameras. The much-talked about Hybrid Optical/Electronic Viewfinder is found on the left side of the rear panel, which is where the optical viewfinder on a traditional film rangefinder would be.
It became way better when I picked it up, because it just felt so nice. The magnesium-alloy body feels really well-built and there is no flex anywhere. The metal construction adds to the comfortable heft and the X100 feels balanced in the hand. If you are a tactile person who likes the feel of things, this camera certainly won’t disappoint. The precision-machined brushed metal top and metal dials feel good to the touch, the buttons are firm and don’t feel mushy or cheap, and the black textured covering around the camera’s lower part provides hand traction and lends a sense of confidence when the camera is held. There is also a raised grip on the right side of the camera which allows the camera to be used with one hand.
The X100 isn’t a small camera. It’s bigger than chunky compacts like a Canon G12, and is most likely unpocketable, unless you wear really big pants. Like, really, really big pants. But it can probably fit into the leg pockets of cargo pants, if you don’t mind a camera banging around your legs while you walk.
The Fujinon 23mm f/2 lens is an interesting one. According to Fujifilm’s specifications, the lens has 8 elements, which means that it actually has 8 pieces of glass/optics inside a non-zoom prime lens. This is relatively complex for a fixed focal length lens, similar in construction to high-end prime lenses of Canon and Nikon, and it shows that Fujifilm was serious about making this camera a performer. The lens also included an aspherical element to correct aberrations and is EBC coated to minimize flaring and ghosting given the lens’ sophisticated construction.
Fujifilm chose to go with an non-zoom fixed lens instead of the more common zoom lens found in many compact digital and DSLR cameras. This is because they went for a high quality fast prime lens instead of a zoom lens that had flaws like barrel distortion and smaller max aperture. With the X100′s DSLR-sized APS-C image sensor, this lens is the equivalent of 35mm on a 35mm film camera. This focal length is wide enough for most purposes and considerably minimizes the side-stretching distortion found in wider lens.
Behind the glass lies the X100′s brain: the 12-megapixel DSLR-sized image sensor and EXR processor. The APS-C-sized sensor is bigger than the ones found in your average digital compact point-and-shoot cameras, and it is also a bit bigger than the ones found in the Micro Four-Thirds cameras such as the Olympus E-PL2 and Panasonic GF1/GF2. A bigger sensor given a similar megapixel count will have bigger photosites, and this generally results in lesser noise when shooting in high-ISO/low light levels. Fujifilm has built a reputation in film/digital processing, and high-ISO performance for its smaller digital compacts, and their experience in these areas has been distilled into the EXR image processor found in the X100.
Fortunately for us, the rain let up after 15 minutes and that allowed us to go around the park and shoot. We were allotted 30 minutes each to take the X100 out for a spin. When my turn came, the rain had started falling again so I had to go around and shoot. My first minutes with the camera was spent familiarizing myself with the controls.
The On/Off Switch is a switch around the shutter button, so it was easily activated with the right forefinger. Also within reach of that finger is the Fn button which was set to change ISO, this felt very similar to the Canon DSLRs I use. Aperture is set using an aperture control ring around the lens (which goes from f/2 to f/16, with additional “A” setting for automatic aperture selection), which will be familiar to users of film cameras. The Aperture Ring has a small lever to make it easier to adjust without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Shutter speed is set via the biggest control knob on top of the camera (the knob goes from 1/4000 second shutter speed and slower, including a bulb mode and “A” setting for automatic shutter speed selection).
The X100 has a different way of setting shooting modes. There is no Mode or PASM dial to change between P(rogram), A(perture Priority), S(hutter Priority) or M(anual) shooting modes. Switching between PASM modes is actually done with the combination of the X100′s aperture control ring and its shutter control knob. Below is a quick run down of the mode settings:
- P (Program AE), the camera basically adjusts shutter speed and aperture for you: Set Aperture Ring to “A” and Shutter Speed knob to “A”.
- A (Aperture Priority/Av), set aperture and the camera selects proper shutter speed for you: Set Aperture Ring to an aperture you want (e.g. f/2) and Shutter Speed knob to “A”.
- S (Shutter Priority/Tv), set shutter speed and the camera selects proper aperture speed for you: Set Aperture Ring to “A” and choose a shutter speed with the Shutter Speed knob.
- M (Manual Control), you choose both shutter speed and aperture: Set Aperture Ring to a particular aperture (e.g. f/2.8) and Shutter Speed knob to a specific shutter speed (e.g. 1/125).
I used the Aperture Priority mode most of the time because I wanted to shoot the camera wide open at f/2. Most lenses are soft shot wide open and will improve when closed down by a stop or two, and I wanted to see how this one does.
Switching between focusing modes is done using a slider switch on the side of the camera. One can use Single-Shot Autofocus, Continuous Autofocus and Manual Focus. Autofocus is activated by half-pressing the shutter button until the camera locks focus on the subject. Manual focusing is done using the focusing ring around the lens barrel.
While using manual focus with distance scale was an option, I ended up using autofocus the whole time for two reasons: first, the X100 is a walk-around camera to me and I would like to be able to just shoot it without having to worry about focusing, and second, I only had limited time to shoot in bad weather and I didn’t want to eat up my time doing manual focus.
Autofocus was pretty snappy for general use, and focus lock was almost instantaneous. Even in indoor situations the camera was able to acquire focus lock quite well. The only time that I had trouble with AF hunting for focus was when I used it in Macro shooting mode to shoot flowers, but then again, macro experts would point out the folly of using AF for macro subjects.
Exposure is indicated in a meter inside the view finder, and a dedicated Exposure Compensation (EC) knob sits conveniently beside the Shutter Speed knob on top of the camera. The EC knob is very useful because it allowed me to quickly bump exposure settings to make my image brighter or darker, up to two stops over or under, in 1/3 stop increments. I could lock exposure, and dial in an additional stop of exposure without taking my eye off the scene with it.
Clicking the shutter button was a very smooth affair. The button just slides in and one will hear a very satisfying click as the shutter snaps open and closes. The X100′s shooting sound is distinctly different from a DSLRs because it doesn’t have a mirror slapping up and down everytime it shoots. This also results in less camera shake/vibrations due to mirror slap while shooting, resulting in sharper pictures.
Traditional rangefinder cameras have optical viewfinders (VF) set on the left side of the camera for focusing and image composition. Fujifilm has brought this optical viewfinder to modern times by coupling the optical VF with a digital heads-up display that can superimpose information such as exposure, camera settings etc into the actual scene you’re looking at (so actual you can even see the lens barrel on the lower right corner). Most digital compact cameras have done away with the optical VF, or have a really tiny one that makes looking through them a pain, so the X100 does well in bringing us a big optical VF. Like traditional rangefinders, what you see through the optical VF is not exactly what the lens and image sensor will see, since the VF is offset to the side, as compared to the DSLRs where what you see in the VF is more-or-less what you’ll get. But then again, the X100 isn’t as bulky or heavy as the DSLRs.
And if you want to see exactly 100% of the scene, then switch the X100′s VF from optical mode into Electronic mode. With the prism-based Hybrid VF engineered by Fujifilm, that same optical VF becomes a brilliant electronic 1.4-megapixel electronic VF. Aside from giving you a 100% view of what the camera is actually seeing, the electronic viewfinder can also make autofocusing better, and you can magnify the view in the VF to see if you have spot-on focus. Setting changes are also reflected using the electronic VF. There is a diopter adjustment dial beside the VF so you can adjust the clarity of the VF, useful if one is wearing glasses. In addition, there is also an eye sensor which detects if your face is against the VF, so that it can turn switch the view from the rear LCD to the VF as needed.
One can also use the X100 in the typical compact Point-and-Shoot manner, which is to hold it away from your face and compose your scene using the 100% coverage rear LCD screen. Nothing wrong there because the X100 has a nice big LCD screen at the back, but you may be doing yourself a big disservice because using a viewfinder lets you become more intimate with the scene: it’s only you and the subject, and the viewfinder tunnel vision blocks out everything else.
I mentioned earlier that the fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent on full-frame) is wide enough for most purposes. In my 20-minute shooting stint with the X100 I found that it is wide enough to take in street scenes, pictures of big things like buildings (as long as you are at a reasonable distance away). If you want portrait shots of people you’d probably want to go closer, but that wouldn’t help much if you wanted to shoot candid street scenes. On the other hand, I didn’t have to step back much to take in a scene, and in my experience it’s much easier to go closer than to step back farther.
And speaking of stepping forward and back, because the X100 has a fixed lens, you’ll have to do a lot of foot-zooming, or using your feet to get closer to, or farther from, your subject.
But what makes this lens impressive is that it is so well-engineered that chromatic aberration (CA) is virtually non-existence in high-contrast situations. In many lenses, CA is present as colored fringing around high-contrast areas. For example, purple fringing can be seen on the edges of a dark object backlit by a bright light source, such as the sun. CA is present in some of my Canon L lenses, and these are lenses that are already highly regarded. With the X100′s 23mm lens, I didn’t see it in my 100% crops that I have.
The X100 has a flash, but it’s small. It’s also mounted directly on top of the lens, which isn’t ideal and could result in the deer-in-the-headlights-look when shooting people with. I recommend not using it, unless it’s absolutely needed (like in really poor lighting indoors). If you want a flash the X100 has a hotshoe that you can put a compatible external flash on.
The X100 also has a 3-stop Neutral Density (ND) filter built into it. This ND filter can cut the amount of light entering the camera and is generally used to take pictures using a longer exposure time at a given aperture. In the case of the X100, it is used to allow shooting the camera wide open at f/2 using shutter speeds lower than what can be done without the ND filter.
The rain and the clouds resulted in a dreary morning with little contrast in the scene. The X100 didn’t have “Cloudy” in its White Balance (WB) settings, so I chose the closest one, “Shade”. I shot a scene in using the Shade WB setting, then shot the same scene again using Auto WB. I found out that I couldn’t tell the difference between the two shots (e.g. Auto WB mode chose “Shade” or something similar), so I stuck with Auto White Balance for the rest of the session.
I have no RAW converter capable of opening the X100′s RAW file yet, The pictures I took with it were shot in JPEG straight out of the camera. Sample pictures taken with the X100 have already made their rounds on the internet, and a common observation was that the pictures could use more contrast. I wanted to see this for myself, but with the rainy weather providing low-contrast scenery I am unable to say at this point if the pictures I took were low contrast because of the camera or because of the shooting condition.
However, I have found out that switching Film Simulations modes (basically image rendering presets patterned and named after Fujifilm’s popular negative and slide films) from Provia (standard) to Velvia (vivid) resulted in punchier photos. So if you want well-saturated contrasty photos with the X100, set it to Velvia mode. Or you can add contrast as well as change other parameters in post-process, which one will have to do anyway if one shoots in RAW.
In addition, the X100 has several monochrome (Black and White) simulation modes including: B&W with filters and sepia.
Another aspect of the X100 that is sure to be discussed is its performance in high ISO situations. It has a native ISO range of ISO200 to ISO6400, and can be expanded to ISO100 and ISO12800 Under most circumstances, it performs virtually noise free at ISO200-ISO800. A bit of noise becomes visible at ISO1600, and banding starts to creep in at ISO3200. Banding is very visible in ISO6400 and becomes more prominent at ISO12800. However, the noise and banding at even ISO12800 can still be cleaned up via post processing (if one can accept some loss of detail). If final output of an image will be for the web, then noise really won’t be an issue for images coming out of this camera. Decent high ISO performance by the X100 shouldn’t be a surprise considering that Fujifilm’s has years of experience developing compact digital cameras that perform well in low-light. In fact, it seems to me that the X100′s ISO12800 image looks like a pic at ISO3200 from my Canon 40D, which goes to show how far along technology has progressed.
The X100 has video recording and sweep-panorama modes, but I wasn’t able to test these in earnest. Maybe next time if YKL Color allows me to use the camera again.
So far I’ve been painting a very nice picture of the X100. But that it’s not a perfect camera. For one, the menu system is slow. There’s a significant lag every time I change a setting within its menu system, and very noticeable to people coming from DSLRs and premium compact P&S cameras. My other complaint is that the rotating scroll ring at the back is too sensitive. When I am using the 4-way click controller to select menu items, a slight brush against the ring surrounding it would scroll-select something else, and to correct that I would have to go through the slow menu system again just to fix that. Hopefully the production model resolves addresses some of these issues.
The X100 could also use an optical image stabilization system to help reduce camera shake. I have hand tremors and this would really have been helpful to people like me.
There’s also the matter of price. The X100 is anticipated to have a price tag of US$1200 at launch. No Philippine prices have been announced thus far, but I’d expect it to be that or more. That’s a big chunk of money that can buy one a nice mid-range DSLR camera, or a really nice lens from Canon or Nikon. All this money for a 12-mp camera that doesn’t even have zooming lens. I guess one has to bear in mind that this camera is a pioneering product and as with many pioneering products, the prices are quite high when they’re released.
To be honest I didn’t see anything really bad to say about the camera, as I was able to pick it up and start shooting. For me, the X100 hits most of the hyped-up expectations about it that we’ve seen in the last couple of months: the fast lens, DSLR sensor and EXR image processor result in great images, very deliberate and well thought-out controls, and the pioneering hybrid viewfinder works really well. It has its share of flaws, yes, but nothing seriously bad that couldn’t be fixed with a firmware fix (bearing in mind that the camera I tested was a sample unit, most likely a pre-production model).
Fujifilm could’ve done worse and have fallen flat on their faces coming with a product that nobody has ever attempted doing, but in the case of the X100 they’ve gone out on a limb and come out with something that’s pretty good and most likely be popular with photographers (as much as the Panasonic Lumix LX-3 was when it first came out).
Is this a camera for you?
The FinePix X100 is touted by Fujifilm to be “The Professional Photographer’s compact digital camera”. To achieve this, a lot of thought has been put into this camera, resulting in one with a high-performance fixed lens that has been purposely designed to match the DSLR-size sensor for pro-level images, very good control layout, decent autofocus and a high degree of portability. Plus, it’s pleasing to touch, feel, hear and use too.
The FinePix X100 is aimed squarely at Leica’s X1, which has the same fixed-lens, DSLR-sized sensor in a small compact body concept and has been out for a few years already. The X100 promises faster autofocus (the Leica X1 was reported to have slow AF) and a hybrid VF for the rangefinder look and feel (the X1 only had the rear LCD for composition), at almost half the price of the Leica. In that sense then the X100 is a bargain by comparison. So if you’re in the market for the Leica X1 (and the Sigma DP cameras), you may want to consider this.
For most professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts, the X100 would be a very good companion to a DSLR for the reason that it can provide DSLR-level images and usability. Coming from a DSLR, the X100 will feel like really light. But at that price point, such a person would have to think really hard if the X100 and its limited lens will be better than getting another DSLR, or a Micro Four-Thirds camera like the Olympus E-P or Panasonic GF ones with interchangeable lenses.
Finally, for the casual user users, is this a good buy? To be honest, US$1200+ is a lot of money for a camera for most of us. Putting that in context, for that money one could buy two or even three premium compact cameras, the Canon G12, Canon S95, Panasonic LX-5, any of which will be excellent for general use. The X100 isn’t for everyone, and is really meant for people who know what they’re getting into. For someone who can appreciate the engineering that went into the X100 and gets pleasure from using it as the well-designed tool that it is, then that money is well worth it. It might help to think of it this way: use the X100 as your everyday camera (which it is great for) for three years, and it’ll cost you P50 per day. That’s less than what some people spend on other things.
As for me, the test drive succeeded for Fujifilm. I now want an X100.
What do you think of the Fujifilm FinePix X100? If you had the cash, would you buy it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below!