THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS | A PRO PHOTO & VIDEO BLOG

FujiFilm Finepix X100 Review

Posted in Equipment, Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on June 29, 2011

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Without a doubt one of the most hotly anticipated cameras in recent years is the FujiFilm X100 (we examined the hype machine surrounding the camera before). With its innovative hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder and classic rangefinder stylings, teary-eyed photographers hailed it as the second coming, some musing whether it could give the M9 a run for its money, at a (relatively) tiny fraction of the price. High expectations indeed. Could any camera, let alone this remarkable little package, live up to the billing?

I had had a few sightings in the wild before, sheepishly approaching random strangers in the street to ask if I could just look for a moment through the OVF (just for a moment…), but I finally got my hands on an X100 for a test last week. Unfortunately, when I checked the weather forecast it looked like this:

It basically rained or was overcast for the five days I had the camera, with one brief burst of sunlight on my last day. It’s just a personal preference, but I can barely bring myself to shoot without sunlight, so uninspiring do I find overcast light. But I soldiered on, and got to know this idiosyncratic, but ultimately quite successful camera.

The Good

FujiFilm got the big things right with the X100.

The first thing that you notice is that the build quality is excellent. The camera is a great size: diminutive and lightweight, but not so small you feel like there’s nothing to hold onto. The physical shutter and aperture rings (which move in satisfying, well-machined clicks), as well as the programmable function button, most obviously set to ISO, created a refreshingly straightforward shooting experience. The dial on the back for third stop adjustments is a great touch. The optical viewfinder info overlay is a huge leap forward, and feels like a touch of the future in this decidedly retro package. All your key metrics, including histogram, are crisply displayed in the OVF while you compose.

The camera is effectively silent and the autofocus is quick – almost matching the speed of the mirrorless-leading GH2 – making it a great carry-everywhere camera, and great for street photographers. Of course, whether a 35mm equivalent lens fits everyone’s shooting style is a personal matter, but I love this angle of view, and find myself shooting it almost exclusively, even when using zoom lenses, so it was perfect for my style of photography.

But most importantly, image quality is stellar and holds up very well at higher ISOs. One can handhold at slow shutter speeds because the lens is so sharp. The colors are good, with a variety of film simulation modes to choose from when shooting JPEGs, and also when shooting RAW (which I did), and skintones look great.

The Bad

Although the hardware is very well thought out, and the camera is built with beautiful precision, I have a few minor design complaints. The D-pad/menu button is finicky. I had to be very careful to hit actual center, and my finger would easily slip off, activating one of the other features. You’ll find yourself using your fingernail to get it exactly, and it distracts from the shooting experience when you have to devote precious motor skills to just making sure you’re hitting the right button. Manual focus is practically useless, as the focus ring operates by laboriously slow focus by wire. Zone focusing/pre-focusing is your best bet for fast street photography. I wasn’t a fan of the electronic viewfinder, as the resolution wasn’t adequate for critical focus, and also had the usual lag issues, especially in low-light. I found myself using the optical viewfinder much more frequently, though the borders in the display didn’t quite match the final image, which encompassed more of the scene, so I learned to mentally compensate by stepping forward a foot or two. Also, though the simplicity is charming, pros will demand more readily accessible function buttons, as the one programmable function button will obligatorily be monopolized by ISO control. My only aesthetic qualm with the X100 is the LCD screen, which juts out awkwardly from the back, and hope future versions will be flush with the body, or at least have swivel functionality.

But the main problems with the X100 lie on the firmware side. If you’re used to Nikon (relatively intuitive) and Canon’s (very intuitive) menu systems – with their color coordinated and logical groupings – you’ll find this UI comes totally out of left field. Placement of items is sometimes illogical and important features are buried deep within submenus.

Other gripes: RAW files were far too slow to write, and lock up the camera while it’s thinking, preventing you from adjusting settings or shooting again while the moment is slips away before your eyes. This will be a big annoyance with street photographers. I was using a class 6 card, which is normally plenty fast, but I’ve heard this is less of an issue with the latest gen SD cards. Some photographers will be frustrated that autofocus won’t work at a relatively far distance (a few feet or less) unless it’s in macro mode. The movie mode, clearly an afterthought, is laughable, with no manual control and terrible image quality, and the exposure distractingly jumping in hard stops to stay neutral. It’s basically worse quality than the D90, almost 3 years after that camera introduced video to DSLRs.

Conclusion

Despite it’s shortcomings, FujiFilm is in an enviable position with the X100. They got the big things right: the build quality, design and image quality are top-notch. The camera is priced competitively when you factor in added lens costs for MILCs, and it’s most obvious rival, Leica’s X1 is almost double the price, despite being outspec’d by the newcomer in almost every way. Kudos to FujiFilm for recognizing an unexploited niche. It’s refreshing when camera companies rethink the paradigm, and introduce revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, products. They took a gamble with the X100, and it paid off with possibly the most talked about camera in years.

In the rush to market, the firmware was clearly left in beta. Certain things we’ve long taken for granted in serious cameras are frustratingly lacking or absent. But this is one of those good problems: the major user experience issues can theoretically be resolved with firmware upgrades. The recent firmware update fixed two of the most aggravating and strange choices for me: the stickiness of ISO settings in each specific shooting mode and the aggravatingly long shutter half-press required to wake it from sleep (the new firmware was released halfway through my time with the camera). Manual focus speed and menu arrangements would be the next logical targets in my mind.

What I found in my limited time with the camera was that, when you get accustomed to its quirks and learn to work around them, it really is a great carry-everywhere camera with excellent image quality, which is exactly what I’m looking for right now. Maybe if they someday come back in stock I can pick one up 🙂

——

Nathan Lee Bush is a fashion and fine art photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.

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  1. […] this blog, Through The Looking Glass, I review the FujiFilm FinePix X100 to see how it performs in the street; Michael Foley, the Director of Foley Gallery, explains how […]

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