Fuji X100 Review

The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past" --William Faulkner

What is it?
The Fujifilm X100 is a large, high-end, compact camera with a large sensor. The 12mp (Sony) APS sensor, fixed 35mm (equivalent) f/2 lens, coupled with the rangefinder-retro design make the X100 one of the more unique entries in smaller, carry-everywhere cameras.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

Announced at Photokina in fall 2010 and delivered a bit over six months later in 2011, the X100 has been, and remains, one of the most talked about, written about, blogged about, lusted after cameras on the market. That's remarkable in more ways than just the longevity of the overly-hyper discussion: this is a bone simple camera with tangible flaws.

Reminiscent of many of the old rangefinder cameras (but not exactly Leica), the X100 features an old-fashioned shutter speed dial, exposure compensation dial, and aperture ring at the base of the lens. The top/bottom plates are in chrome, the main body in leatherette wrapping is also a retro cue. If you look at the camera from the front and/or top you'd be hard-pressed to see the X100 as the digital camera it is: you fully expect to flip it around, open the back, and stick some film in.

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

The back, however, is a digital giveaway, and it looks and feels cheap compared to the metal armada on the top plate (though the Fn button on the top plate is a measly black plastic nub that also looks and feels out of place). A lot of controls populate the compact cameraish back: besides a thumb wheel for settings and the ubiquitous direction pad with wheel, we've got eight other buttons (plus a switch on the left side). The LCD is fixed in place, 2.8" in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and 460k dots. Not a high-end screen, but not low, either.

The flash, hot shoe, and tripod mount are not aligned with the fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/2 lens, something that the film rangefinders would never do (okay, some of them did; but the great ones didn't). Flash sync is 1/2000 (not available at all apertures). The camera shoots raw and JPEG, plus has a nascent 720P/24 video capability. There's a useful sweep panorama function (you can get 7.3mp to 16.6mp panos from the camera, which is decidedly more than you typically get from compact cameras). A threaded cable release in the shutter release button and a built in ND filter rounds out the main feature set.

Except for the piece de résistance: the viewfinder. This is what most of the hubbub around the X100 was fixated on: the X100 has a fixed optical viewfinder, but it uses LCD overlays to present the frame lines and additional shooting information. Technically speaking, that's already far better than any of the film rangefinders were able to achieve, as the frame lines can be moved based upon focus and that extra information is incredibly rich (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO as a base, but you can add focus distance, level, histogram, frames remaining, and more). Very nice piece of work at that. But wait, if you act now, there's more! A lever on the front of the camera closes a shutter at the front of the optical viewfinder and the LCD overlay becomes a 1.44 megapixel EVF (electronic viewfinder). Now you have 100% pixel accurate framing and depth of preview (sort of). This best of both worlds framing capability was and is much talked about, and is one of the centers of attention in the camera.

The camera comes in traditional chrome and black leather(ette) for US$1199.

How's it Handle?
Those of you who read my original short note about the X100 probably are expecting a thrashing. To put it bluntly, Fujifilm shipped a product that was still at a beta test level of refinement. Since then, we've gotten one fairly substantive firmware update (call it release candidate 1). By substantive, I can identify 24 different things that were changed or improved. That helped quite a bit, but...

Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan

Issues remain. Indeed, within minutes of updating the firmware and taking my X100 out for another spin, I had it shut down on me and reset. I have no idea what triggered it, and it hasn't happened since, but there's still a very rough feel to the X100. Some of it can't really be fixed by simple firmware updates.

Take the changing maximum shutter speed. While the shutter speed of the camera goes to 1/4000, the in-lens shutter design is coupled to the aperture. At f/2 the fastest shutter speed available is 1/1000. You can't set 1/4000 until you get to f/8. Since the "in" style these days is bright light, fast aperture (to blur backgrounds), you end up dipping into the built-in ND filter. But that's something you have to trigger yourself, there's no auto-invoke implementation here. You can assign the ND filter to the Fn button, but without a quick menu, there's actually a lot you want to assign to that button.

That would be okay if the menu system wasn't a jumble. Why Auto ISO is on the Setup menu but ISO is on the Shooting menu, I don't know. Likewise, Noise Reduction is on the Shooting Menu and Long Exposure Noise Reduction is on the Setup menu. This kind of scattered order permeates the entire menu system, and since we have six Setup pages and four Shooting pages, that can lead to a lot of button pressing. You can create a custom setting for the entire camera and save it, then select from your custom settings, but that's three pages down in the Shooting menu.

If you're a set-it-and-shoot kind of guy (or gal), none of the menu nonsense will likely give you much grief. If you're a dip-in-and-change-all-the-time kind of hombre (or senorita), you're likely to be less happy with the way Fujifilm has implemented things.

There's a slight hump to the front of the camera that's apparently an homage to a grip, but doesn't actually function as one. That's okay, as you'll be two-handing this camera (that aperture ring). The camera's heavier and bulkier than virtually any other compact camera. Indeed, it's right up there with my E-P3 in terms of size and weight. The mass actually feels good, but this is not a so-light-you-forget-it's-a-camera camera. You'll be gripping this thing, and you'll probably be using a neck strap with it. The strap connections are slightly offset, which is a shame, though not as badly as some cameras. That, coupled with the hot shoe and tripod socket offset from the center of the lens seem like silly it's-easier-to-make-this-way mistakes on a high-end camera.

But what about that viewfinder, Thom?

(Viewfinder shown with most options visible; can be simplified). The viewfinder is not without some glitches. I've never been a fan of frame lines. They're just not accurate enough, even with parallax correction. The X100's are 90% (and now with the new firmware, can also correct the focus point for parallax (as you can see here), a much needed feature that should have been there from the beginning). If you like frame lines, you'll probably love the X100's viewfinder. Except if you've got image review on: suddenly getting the EVF popping up with the image you just took is a little jarring when looking through the viewfinder. It's a different brightness, and, of course, 100% frame accurate, which means that you get a slight zoom effect, too. As optical viewfinders go on non-DSLR cameras, the X100's is as good as it gets, to be sure, but I'm not as enamored by it as some. Sure, the dog can sing and dance, but I'm not sure I like the song.

Manual focus is, uh, oh, my mom said I shouldn't say anything if I can't say anything nice. You can get a zoomed focus area by pressing in on the command dial, something a lot of X100 users don't seem to get at first, and a necessary function in some cases, especially since it zooms to active focus point in playback of images, helping you figure out if you've "nailed it." Also, note that the AFL/AEL button serves as an AF On button when the camera is set to manual focus. Most manual focus users press that button, then fine tune with the focus ring.

One thing that a lot of users who don't read the manual don't at first figure out is that Fujifilm has a number of hold-to-set options built into this camera. Hold the Disp/Back button for more than a second and you get silent shooting mode, which is actually misnamed: it's really a stealth mode: not only will you not get any sound from the camera, but all external things that could be detected, such as AF assist light and the flash, are also cancelled.

There's plenty more to write about, but overall, handling could use the attention of an anal retentive and brutal disciplinarian. Fujifilm is still a long way from creating a golden master for release as far as I'm concerned.

How's it Perform?
Fujifilm at least used one of their regular batteries on the X100 (the NP-95). The problem is that it's not up to the challenge of constantly driving the LCD-laden viewfinder. I'm getting mid-300 images to a charge. As with most compact cameras, even swollen ones like the X100, buy and carry extras.

Fujifilm hasn't improved their terrible card write performance, either (camera requires Class 4 or higher). Their DSLRs were well known for being sluggish in writing, and the X100 shows that no one there studied up on I/O design since. Strangely, if you turn off image review (remember, you're trying to conserve battery) the write times get longer! Somehow the X100 manages to get 2003 level performance out of UHS-I (state-of-the-art) SD cards. The buffer is adequate for a compact camera, giving you a minimum of about eight shots, even in raw. Put another way, don't expect a DSLR type of performance out of the X100. Fujifilm never quite managed that with DSLRs, either.

The flash doesn't have a lot of range. At ISO 200 and f/2, we're talking about 10 feet. You may need one of the optional flash units if you require more.

The lens is excellent. Fujinon lenses are well known in the video world for excellent quality; it's a shame we never got cameras that could use them in the still world. Center sharpness is superb, even wide open. Sharpness holds up well for about two-thirds of the sensor. As you get to the very corners there's noticeable softening wide open, but it only takes two stops to fix that (f/4). Some people may have issues with sharpness at close distances, but I think this is partly the focus system, not just the lens, that's contributing to this problem. Lateral chromatic aberration is nearly non-existent (and auto corrected in JPEG). Longitudinal aberration is present, as it usually is with simple primes, but I never really found it to be an issue. Distortion control is quite good for a wide angle, though be aware that the teeny bit that's there is not linear. Get ready for some subtle wave correction. Vignetting is not bad for a wide angle, though I suspect the sensor microlens alignment has something to do with that. At f/4, you can forget about vignetting completely. Worst case I found was 1.3 stops in the very corner wide open.

But wait, there's more: the lens has a 1:3 macro capability since it focuses to 30cm. However, at this close focus the lens loses some of its pizazz and is substantially less sharp wide open. Fujifilm warns of this in the manual, but that has me scratching my head: why enable it if you're going to disclaim it? As others have pointed out, though, for some subjects the spherical aberration can be complementary, not a detraction. Not for me. I'd rather have acuity in my pixel data and take it out later. To do that close up you'll have to get to f/8. Fortunately, you can do it.

On top of all that good news the lens produces a pop that renders microcontrast with clarity you usually don't see in compact cameras. The lens is a pro, all the way, despite the small things I pointed out. Good enough that the camera should have shipped with a lens hood instead of a US$129 optional one.

The big surprise from some was what Fujifilm coaxed from the Sony sensor. The sensor in the X100 is a custom one, with some offset to the microlenses. Whether that's the special ingredient that made the difference or not, you have to admire the results. This may be the first camera I've experienced where I prefer NR Normal to NR Low. For some reason NR Low seems to put a little bit of smudge in the results, where NR Normal produces a very nice balance of edge acuity with noise reduction. The X100 is easily usable out to ISO 3200. Beyond that, we get the drabbing of colors. Base ISO is very clean in JPEG shooting, with a teeny bit of luminance noise at base (no worse than a D7000, though). I do sometimes see some slight banding of noise when you press the camera to its limits, but its not something I'd even begin to worry about. The X100 is going to give you perfectly fine results almost any way you use it.

As you'd expect from a large sensor camera, dynamic range is pretty good: on par with Nikon's best DX cameras. But there's a catch. Be careful with those Film Simulations. Velvia, for instance, does what Velvia did in film: it truncates shadows (and has a far narrower DR). More interesting is the dynamic range extension abilities (DR200 and DR400). Fujifilm achieves this by not amplifying the sensor data as much (technically overexposing) and then recurving the data, something similar to what Nikon has done with the D3 models at LO ISO values. That said, the problem is that the gain from the DR extension in the highlights is coming at the expense of other things, most notably noise in the shadows. As dpreview showed in their testing, the Fujifilm JPEGs actually under-recover highlight detail compared to what you can in raw. Personally, close attention to settings and exposure is a better choice than the extended DR functions.

Video seems like an afterthought. The quality is okay, but nothing to write home about (my mom will still read this, though ;~). Unfortunately, you'll want to be on a tripod shooting video, as there's no image stabilization. That very well may be the defining attribute for video quality: are you on a tripod or not.

Final Word
Okay, I've run out of poison for my pen. So I hate the X100, right?

Wrong. This is a real tricky traverse I'm going to attempt here, I hope I don't fall.

First, this is an expensive camera for what it does (US$1199). At that price we can get a D7000, so we obviously need to see some high level of execution. We get that in a few ways with the X100: build quality, basic controls, lens, image quality. On the other hand, we get a lot of amateurish and not-quite-finished bits (focus, menus/firmware, non-essential controls). The question is whether the balance of those two works or not. Barely.

There's no doubt that the X100 is a unique camera. It can be configured for silent running, you can compose Leica-street-shooter-style on the fly, and it produces superb images when used correctly. The first level manual controls remind us why dials worked so well. The lens is exactly what it should be (though I would have preferred a 28mm equivalent). If you can ignore the fact that the wizard keeps peaking out from behind the curtain (or just shutting the whole show down) and use the camera at its simplest, it's a delight, and the X100 has become one of my two "silent" cameras (the Ricoh GXR being the other). But I'm sure hoping that the wizard gets hidden and he stops hitting the wrong button some day.

Many of you remember that several years ago I asked for a large sensor compact very much like what the X100 turned out to be. I guess I need to be more careful about what I wish for. Indeed, the X100 manages to fulfill most of what I wanted, but it's rough at the edges, and some will find that a problem.

I'm not going to gush over the X100 and marry it as some have proclaimed on their Web sites. I'm not going to tell you to avoid it, because, obviously, I haven't. What I'm going to say is this: it's a damned good tool for many things, but make sure that you can live with the idiosyncracies. This is not a camera that will adjust to you. You'll adjust to it, or you'll return it for store credit.

Features Bare-bone basics done retro (mostly).
Performance But what about the photos, Mrs. Lincoln? Loved them.
Value There are cheaper ways of getting good 12mp images.


Original: 8/4/2011
Updated: 8/6/2011 (minor additions, revisions)

Ratings last updated: 8/4/2011


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