Kirk Tuck Spends Some Quality Time With The Fuji X100.
I've just had my hands on the X-100 for a few days so this is not intended to be an exhaustive review. Nothing in depth. Just a general appraisal that may be followed by a more finicky look.....
I first saw the X-100 in person at lunch on Weds. Will and I were having Vietnamese BBQ sandwiches at a food trailer called, Lulu B's, on South Lamar. We sat at a little metal table under the canopy of a giant oak tree and drank Mexican Cokes. We do things like that here in Austin. I'd dragged along my latest crush, a massive Canon 1dmk2N and Will brought his new squeeze, the supple, subtle Fuji X-100.
First impressions? Styled like my old Leica M3, silent shutter, very nice EVF and lighter than it looks. Now I'm a sucker for heft but I have to admit that, as I get older and spend more quality time in the Texas heat (will it hit 100F today? Will it ever rain again?) I'm starting to believe that we can offset whatever inertial dampening benefit we get from heavy metal cameras with well done, in body image stabilization. And that's not on the check list for the X-100 (which I will just refer to as "the Fuji" for the rest of this Sunday afternoon keyboard ramble) but with a wide angle lens in the mix it's not as crucial as it might be for a slow zoom.
In many ways this camera is just what a legion of art-inclined photographers have been begging for since the beginning of the digital era: the exact equivalent of a Leica rangefinder with a brilliant 35mm focal length lens (in "film talk" equivalents) and hands-on controls for the primary, important stuff. Throw in small, light and relatively affordable and I'm sold.
Let's get the big stuff out of the way first. The images out of the camera are very good. Close to M9 and Summilux good. And that's about as good as it currently gets for light and portable cameras. I haven't done exhaustive tests but up to 1200 ISO and down to 200 ISO this camera just flat out rocks.
External dials: Back when Rollei introduced the first modern 120mm medium format film camera they did something simple and novel and fun. They gave us an aperture ring around the lens that also had an "A" setting on it. They gave us a shutter speed dial that had all the usual shutter speeds (and electronically controlled in 1/3rd stops, no less) and the shutter control also had an "A" setting on it. If you wanted to switch to "shutter priority" you chose a shutter speed and then set your aperture ring to "A" letting the camera select the aperture. If you wanted aperture priority you set the shutter speed ring to "A" and you chose the aperture, allowing the camera to select whatever shutter speed it deemed necessary. And.....wait for it......if you wanted programmed exposure (in those few cases when you wanted to hand the camera to a small child or your grandmother so they could get a shot) you would set both controls to "A" and you'd be sporting a mighty heavy and sophisticated "point and shoot" camera.
That's how the dials work on the Fuji. And that means you don't have an annoying dial with M/S/A/P/little duck/Clouds/Fireworks, etc. taking up valuable camera top real estate. Amazingly simple and you'll master the rythme of that in minutes.
From the other end of the spectrum (well, maybe in the middle) Canon got lots of kudos when they introduced the G10 for having a separate, external, dedicated knob for exposure compensation. Also present and most appreciated on the x-100. Set up the camera menu for the settings you want and you're ready to head out and do some fun, candid, street photography while channeling the HCB look. And you could do a lot worse than that. While the menus are different than my previous S5's or anything from Canon and Nikon the controls themselves are really straightforward so if you're just shooting away in raw and doing all the image tweaks in PS you'll be ready to go after a fairly quick browsing of the manual. The one thing you'll need to study is how to toggle back and forth between the eye level EVF and the screen on the back of the camera.
Ergonomic answers. Took me ten minutes to make the grip and the hold all mine. The camera feels very good in hand but my one complaint is the quick review. I'm used to shooting at eye level and then looking at the screen on the back to judge the shots. When you use the EVF on the Fuji and you have it set for instant image review the electronic finder stops showing you what you're pointing the camera at and shows you your last shot. You'll want to turn off the review for serious, continuous shooting.
Another point I need to make about the set up is about the histogram. You should be able to set the camera so that every time you review the shot the screen comes up with your preferred information on it. In my case that would include a histogram. Unless I'm dumber than dirt and haven't found the right setting yet, you have to toggle thru the information choices to the fourth item before you get a histogram and it's not sticky. You'll need to do this each time you need a histogram.
Worst feature of the camera? The video tease. Yes, there is HD video (of the 720 variety) but no, you'll never want to use it. Unless aliens land in front of you and bribe Barack O'Bama at raygun point to have tea with Sarah Palin...... Here's why: It's totally automatic. No audio level controls, totally auto exposure and totally auto ISO. Even totally auto autofocus. Just not professionally usable. But then you really won't be lining up to buy this camera if your number one priority is video. For that you'll want a Canon 60D or a Panasonic GH-2.
Now let's talk about the big ass elephant in the room, the price. Would we all like this camera to be $495? You bet. Is $1200 out of whack? Nope. The camera has a lens that is on par with stratospheric lense like the Leica Summi series lenses in the equiv. focal ranges. It has a much bigger sensor than any of the cult series pocket cameras like the G-12, S-95, Olympus ZX-1, etc. That means its image quality is going to be on par with good DSLR's and it's noise performance as well. But the added benefit is the design. Isn't that getting to be more and more the case with better products? We're finally acknowledging the important role of good design as a metric in hand tools and appliances. And this camera has handling design in spades.
The settings you might be looking for to add nuance to your photos might be hidden in some menu pages but the actual "hands on" shooting controls are right where they should be and the handling is good. The EVF is not quite up to the electronic viewfinder for the Olympus Pen cameras but then nothing else on the market is either. There's a little jitter as you pan with the EVF in use but it's nice to see a reasonably accurate approximation of what you'll end up with. If the jitter annoys you it's always easy to turn off the electronics and use the finder as a direct optical finder. You'll lose the on screen menu items and focus points, etc. but you'll get a clear, uncluttered and direct view of your subject.
Is this camera a great all around camera? Can you recommend it to your mom? Not likely. It's actually aimed at advanced hobbyist, professionals and artists who depend on being able to gracefully immerse themselves in a scene, shoot inconspicuously and come away with great medium wide angle shots. If you shoot sports don't even consider it. If you are into conventional portraits, take a pass.
But if you dragged a Leica M2 and a 35mm Summicron with you as you back-packed thru Europe in the 1970's and you've been looking for the same experience ever since electrical engineers killed true photography (just kidding???) then this is certain to be near the top of your list.
Faster and much better in the hand than its $2,000 Leica rival, the X-1 and light years ahead of the Canon G's and their friends, it's actually in a class by itself. Know what you are buying and why and you'll be almost guaranteed to like it. Buy it because you are bored with your DSLR and your huge collection of zoom lenses and I can almost guarantee you'll go one of two ways.....either you'll grow to hate its formalist restrictions and turn it back into your dealer or.....you'll learn the incredible value of a minimalist approach to core photography and you'll never turn back.
It's the camera most of us wanted.
How about me? Will I buy one after testing Will's for these past few days, and in light of all the nice things I've said about the camera above? Sadly, it's probably a big no. And not because of any faults of the camera. I don't like shooting wide. I don't really need the context of all the stuff in the background for the work I like to do. I love the 50mm focal length and I'll wait (probably forever) for a camera maker like Fuji to come out with a version that has a 45 or 50mm lens welded onto the front.
When I pack for work I take long lenses, sometimes even two versions of my favorite focal length, the 85mm. I always pack and almost always use my Zeiss 50mm but my Zeiss 35mm keeps the stuff in my camera bag company more often than not. If I want to go wide I want a 21. If I want longer I grab the 50. I've spent decades trying to learn to love the 35mm focal length and I'm giving up. But that's just me.
My final advice? If you are already a Leica user you'll love this camera. If you've never used rangefinder style cameras you NEED to go to the camera store and handle the camera. That's the quickest way to know whether it's for you. Really.