Thoughts on Fuji X100

September 3, 2011

Fujifilm X100, as shot by Nikon D7000

Fujifilm X100. Tasty donut-bokeh courtesy of Nikkor 18-200mm VR.

I have had my Nikon D7000 since November 2010 and it was love at first shot. The most impressive feature I noted right away was its speed – it felt as if the camera focused and took pictures before I even pressed the shutter button. Of course, DSLRs are supposed to be fast at AF, but while I never complained about my old D80’s focusing abilities, the new one was just above and beyond. It is also the smartest camera I have ever used in terms of colour rendition, exposure, user interface, etc. The fact that Nikon threw some unnecessary but nifty things like an intervalometer only sweetened the deal.

Having used this little champ for so long, I have gotten spoiled by its greatness. It’s still fast, but it no longer feels unusually fast. There is only one thing I would change about this camera – the size. If only I could magically shrink it down to half or third the size and weight. This became ever more evident during my recent trip to Italy – carrying it around was tiring and there were quite a few occasions when I opted to leave it behind and just enjoy the views with my ultra-compact built in retinas.

That’s when I started hearing about this new “compact” camera with a cool retro styling, Fujifilm X100. They said it had image quality as good as a DSLR with less than half the chunk, all manual controls, great colours and exposure and was pretty much the best thing since ripe tomatoes (ripe tomatoes beat sliced bread, any day). It also cost about as much as a D7000 body, so while I was ready to try it out, I also set the bar rather high. This X100 was bound to be compared to D7000, because D7000 is what I would compare anything to, since it’s been my primary camera for the last several months. The bar was set too high.

First, the good things. The packaging of the X100 is making it look even more high end than you’d think. A black satin lined box makes you think of jewellery, not of electronics. The camera itself is a looker too, especially the front and top, with the brushed metal details and classic black textured surface, pragmatic levers and dials and buttons, thin lens…

It also takes pictures, as I can confirm. And videos too. The film simulation colours look great (except for the default Provia one, which is dull even in comparison to the sepia mode). I liked the different black and white modes that emulate using coloured filters instead of just desaturating the image. As far as quality, it definitely lives up to the promise of photos looking as good as any crop DSLR. It takes a bit of time at the beginning to play with the settings and find the colour, contrast, exposure compensation and other options that look best to you, but after that it can be left in that state and no more fiddling required.

I liked the panorama mode. Having tried a Sony camera a few months ago that also had a panorama mode, I have to say Fuji got it much better. While the final image sometimes has imperfections, it never messes up quite as bad as Sony did – putting black bars in the end instead of the photo.

I like that exposure compensation is a physical dial. I like the aperture ring. I even like the dual optical and electronic viewfinder.

In the evening it becomes even better. Set to full automatic mode (automatic aperture, shutter, ISO) it gets great shots wide open with little camera shake handheld even at night with bleak lighting at Toronto harbour.

Speaking of evenings and bright days. I absolutely love the built in flash on X100. It does an amazing job doing both fill in flash in daytime and lighting up the people in night portraits. The surprising part is that it actually looks natural, even and complete. This cannot be said about the D7000’s built in flash, which I find often is too bright and results in harsh shadows and overblown highlights, at the same time quickly dropping off to nothing at the edges of the shot making it look like the scene was lit with a small flashlight. Whatever the trick Fuji made with X100’s flash, it works very well. I find it great that they included a usable flash with the camera for a change. The other option would be to resort to buying an external flash, but for the number of times I want to use it, I cannot justify neither the added expense, nor the added bulk (not to mention having to charge another set of batteries).

And now I have to start counting the ways in which I do not like it. I do not like the menu and rocker buttons, it’s too easy to press the wrong one. I do not like that the menu is convoluted and cannot be cleaned up from unneeded entries so that stuff I use is easier to access (ala Nikon’s custom menu). I do not like that the arrangement of buttons on the back is not nearly as beautiful as the controls on the front and top of the camera. I do not like that the X100 is guaranteed to run out of juice if used but not charged daily (a real DSLR’s battery life will spoil you rotten).

If you compare just the physical size of X100’s battery to that of D7000 you can right away see one of the main reasons D7000 can run for thousands of shots while X100 – only hundreds. Sure, the X100 is supposed to be more compact, but I wouldn’t mind if they made that battery 2-3 times bigger, wouldn’t make that much of a difference in total. It’s a real shame how small it is. While I do not have an engineering degree, I do think it should be possible to squeeze all the other components inside and use the saved space for a bigger battery. Take a look at an iPhone 4, for example. I mean, take it apart and look – it’s pretty much a battery with a case around it. The circuit boards and camera take so little space, the majority of size and weight is just the outer shell/screen and the battery. It can be done.

Another thing that came as a blow, and that one was perhaps the biggest one, is the focusing. First of all, the fact that it works differently when you use optical viewfinder compared to the electronic one was a surprise for me. But that’s okay, that’s just the way physics works. I’m sure we could think our way around it, but what do you want for only $1200? You cannot have everything right away, especially in a camera named X100. When they reach X700 I’m sure it will all work much better and all of my concerns would be addressed.

More to the point, OVF cannot focus up close, which is a physical limitation due to parallax. You can switch to EVF and the accuracy would be greatly improved, but the speed still remains a bit low. Going to manual focus is pointless. Manual focus on X100 is not a feature, it’s a torture device. It takes a few dozen turns of the focus ring to go from one end of the focus range to the other – simply too time consuming. So just stick to automatic. You can try using it if you want to correct autofocus by just a tiny amount, but if you have to make large corrections – gather your patience, you will need it.

It’s all workable if you shoot pictures in a relaxed atmosphere, where you can stick around and take your time if needed. But if you, like me, are used to the fast D7000 you’ll need to hold your horses a little bit. And remember to recharge as soon as you get home.

Here are some more afterthoughts. The ND filter works great. It lets you take advantage of the shallow depth of field of the f/2 lens in daylight, and since you got that nice lens, you might as well use it, even in daylight. Maybe you’re taking a portrait in the park and want as much of bokeh as you can get, right? Here is a free tip for Fuji for the next version of the camera (if not a new firmware for this one) – add a graduated ND filter. I wouldn’t even care if I cannot rotate it – just make it fit the most common bright sky / dark land problem and rotate it 90° automagically when making vertical shots. That would be just swell.

Overall, X100 appears very promising, though it does have a bit of a v1.0 feel to it. It cannot fully kick out my D7000. Yet.

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