The following is the review I wrote when I received one of the first cameras to arrive in the UK…
Fujifilm’s Finepix X100 has been a highly anticipated camera. I’ve been lucky enough to get one from the first batch to arrive in the UK, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the camera so far.
This review will be very ‘real world’; photos of real subjects, not resolution charts, from my perspective as a full time professional photographer.
Build Quality 9/10
The X100 is beautifully built. To understand how well, you really have to hold one. It has a lovely, solid metallic feel. The analog controls move very precisely, and to hold it feels more solid than my Nikon D700, in fact it feels better built than anything I’ve used except my old Nikon FM2 film camera. The only negative of the design is central circular control on the rear of the camera. The buttons are sturdy enough, but the surrounding rotating plastic wheel feels like it’s been lifted from a cheap compact camera. Thankfully you never have to use that wheel, as every setting can be controlled using either the metal controls, or the function button and horizontal control stick. The lens cap is a large slip on design, which has been criticised, however it fits solidly and a lens cap is not designed to be left on the camera and taken off when you want to take a photograph – it should live in your pocket.
The X100 is the best handling digital camera I have ever used. I have shot professionally with both Nikon and Canon, and the X100 is more precise and faster than both. Analog controls may be old, but they are brilliant. At a glance you can see all your settings and, more importantly, you can change your aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation without looking. Yes, you can do that on a DSLR, but it is so much faster on the X100.
To give you an example: I was shooting in aperture priority mode, setting the aperture with the aperture ring and leaving the shutter speed dial on A for auto. I spotted the shot below, and decided to use a slow shutter speed to give the impression of movement. One twist of my left hand to shift the aperture to A and one turn of the fingers on my right hand to take the shutter speed to 1/8th second set the camera up for the shot. And all the time I could keep the viewfinder to my eye.
The process is very intuitive, especially for someone like me, whose first camera had a film in it, and dials for aperture and shutter speed.
The optical viewfinder is an absolute joy to use, and makes you feel really connected to the image. The electronic overlay is very useful, very customisable, and because you get focus confirmation in the optical viewfinder you never have to use the dark electronic one. The real benefit comes when shooting in low light – it’s impossible to use an electronic viewfinder, however good, in the dark.
‘Silent mode’ is one of the best features of the X100. In just one touch you can turn off all the sounds, the AF-assist lamp and the artificial shutter sound. The leaf shutter is then almost silent, and coupled with the old styling of the X100 means the camera is the most discreet I’ve ever used. No one seems to notice an old ‘film’ camera, especially not when you can’t even hear the shutter click! Fuji put a lot of thought into the design in many areas, and thankfully the feel of the shutter was one. Despite the camera being silent the shutter still gives nice feedback, so you know when you’ve taken a photo.
This is the one area where the X100, despite being impressive, falls short. The X100 has an excellent contrast detection auto-focus system, but it’s still no match for the speed of the phase detection system you would find on an entry level DSLR. In good light it focuses very quickly, and more importantly accurately. If the scene has low contrast however it just doesn’t feel as fast. Macro focusing is about half a second, and to focus on anything nearer than 80cm you have to engage Macro mode. The X100 only focuses in Macro mode using the electronic viewfinder, which makes the process seem even slower. However, the Macro focus is very accurate. After a half second wait it comes to life and it locked on to the subject perfectly every time. It may be slow, but it’s far better than the camera hunting for focus and being even more frustrating.
(f/2.0, 400 ISO and 1/680th sec)
Manual focus is sadly where the X100 most disappoints. Firstly the X100 is not a true rangefinder – you won’t have an out of focus area in the viewfinder to match to what you see in focus. Fujifilm has very cleverly utilised their new dual optical/electronic viewfinder to aid the process, but it’s only a partial solution. In manual focus mode, the viewfinder displays a distance scale and the current distance the lens is focused at. By turning the focusing ring on the lens you can change the distance. Here lies by far the biggest mistake Fuji made with the X100…the focusing ring is electronic, or ‘fly by wire’. What that means in the real world is a delay while the lens ‘wakes up’ and then focuses. Slowly. On a camera with real dials and an optical viewfinder it is a real shame that the focus ring is not physically coupled to the lens. The solution is the street-shooting technique of pre-focusing, setting a pre-determined focus point and shooting when your subject moves into the plane of focus. Whilst this is workable, the ‘fly by wire’ focus ring makes the whole process seem disconnected, and at odds with the feel of real manual control that you get when using the X100.
Image Quality 8/10
The X100′s image quality is very good. It’s the best I’ve seen from an APS-C sensor, although I haven’t ever shot with a Leica X1, which is the X100′s nearest competitor – albeit a very expensive one. The 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens is very good. Sharp at f/2, it starts to shine from f/2.8 onwards. It renders colours extremely well and controls chromatic aberration superbly. In the real world this lens is excellent. Obviously it can’t compete with a top class prime lens, but for less than the cost of any of Nikon or Canon’s top lenses you can purchase the entire camera. Here is an un-sharpened image, shot at f4 and 200 ISO. (the image is a slight crop as well)
The X100 renders colours nicely, but if the light is flat, your pictures will be too. (As is true of any camera.) Its dynamic range at low ISOs isn’t as good as I was expecting. Here is an example of the same photograph without and then with post processing. (I don’t like the strongly contrasted digital look, but it gives you an idea of the malleability of the jpeg files.)
Dynamic Range – Where the X100 does very well is creating excellent dynamic range when using higher ISOs. Fujifilm has included dynamic range enhancement settings that start to kick in from 400 ISO and really show up at 800 ISO. At 400 ISO you can enhance the dynamic range by 200%, at 800 ISO it’s up to 400%. Having looked at the files it seems that all the camera does is reduce the ISO in the highlight areas and increase the ISO in the shadows. No, it doesn’t match medium format film, but it does make a real noticeable difference that really boosts the image quality straight out of camera. The following example was shot on the same settings at 800 ISO, the first image with no dynamic range enhancement, and the second with 400%. (Other than sharpening, the images are straight from the camera.)
High ISOs are very impressive on the X100. With noise reduction set to low I would be happy to use the camera up to 3200 ISO without a second thought, and 6400 ISO if I needed to. To get an exact comparison you’re better off waiting for the real noise charts from the more technical reviews, but the performance of the X100 is very impressive for an APS-C sensor. (When I’ve got a good sample of high ISO photos I”ll be adding some to this review.)
In the real world
In the real world the X100 is a very good camera, but it’s not perfect, and there are a few negatives that do take away from the experience.
The neutral density filter is a nice addition, reducing the exposure by 3 stops. However, it’s really there to allow you to use the lens wide open at f/2.0 in good light. Due to the shutter design, the camera is limited to 1/1000th sec when the lens is open at f/2.0. I found myself having to quite often turn on the neutral density filter, or drop the ISO down, to use the lens wide open. With a firmware update allowing customisation of the RAW button on the back of the camera as well as the dedicated function button, turning on the filter would be easier, but having to delve into the menu to use the lens wide open can get frustrating.
Battery life is sadly disappointing. Fuji claim you can get about 300 shots from a full charge, but I found that it was about half that, even using the optical viewfinder as much as possible, and avoiding using the rear LCD. Battery life will improve over time, but you will definitely want a spare with you, even if you’re only going out shooting for a day. The real negative is the extremely poor battery life indicator. Taken straight from a compact camera it goes from reading full, to half, to empty far too quickly. Why Fuji could not include a consistent % indicator I don’t know, it seems to be a pattern in anything other than the top professional cameras. Again, I imagine this could be fixed with a firmware update should Fuji choose to.
Images are the real test of a camera, so I’ve included a selection from the ones I’ve shot in the past few days, so you can draw your own conclusions. All the images are the full-size files.
The following shot has had the contrast increased slightly, but gives you a good idea of how the X100 renders out of focus areas and the quality of its ‘bokeh’. However, do bear in mind the X100 only has a 35mm lens, it’s not designed as a head and shoulders portrait lens, instead it gives a perspective that includes the context of every shot. (It would be a perfect camera for environmental portraits for example.) Any non-UK readers may be interested to know that the church behind the trees is Westminster Abbey, shortly to be the venue for the Royal Wedding.
Reflections, and a contrast of old and new, often look good in black and white, but I had to do a surprising amount of work on the curves in this shot to produce a black and white image I was happy with.
This image is a completely untouched, straight out of camera jpeg file. (The only addition is the black border.) The X100 is showing its interesting trait of having a worse dynamic range at a lower ISO, however it renders the colour very accurately. The image was shot using the standard film style setting on the X100 (the other options being vivid, soft and b&w) and could easily be improved by tweaking the jpeg settings in camera.
This next shot is a deliberate replication of an image I shot on an Olympus PEN Ep-1, although there was a more interesting sky that day. The X100 has rendered the detail very nicely, and effortlessly.
This image is another crop – 35mm is not the best focal length for nature photography – and has had some additional sharpening.
This final image was down entirely to the very good auto focus. I had to move quickly to get the shot, and the X100 focused as fast as any DSLR I’ve used. (The contrast of the white swans against the dark river will have helped.) This image is, again, a centre crop, but encouraged me that, even with a contrast auto focus system, you can catch fast moving moments on the X100.
First impressions are that the X100 is a brilliant little camera. It is not so much the image quality, but its handing that makes it superb. The combination of the excellent optical viewfinder and the analog controls makes it a complete pleasure to use and, very importantly, at no point in the last few days have I felt inhibited by the camera’s lack of responsiveness. The X100′s image quality is not as good as I was expecting at low ISOs, but it does render tones beautifully and I have yet to explore all the ways of improving the jpegs out of camera, and of course non of the major photo editing software manufacturers have released updates to allow the reading of the X100′s RAW files yet.
I’d like to keep this review evolving, so will be updating it with more photos in the coming days and weeks, and would love to know your thoughts, and what images you would like to see. Do get in touch via Twitter.
UPDATE 08:38 GMT Sat. 12th March
This in an update, just to answer a few questions that have been raised on various blogs in response to this review…
Shutter lag is absolutely minimal. Firstly, apologies for not reviewing this earlier, but I hope that just shows how impressive it was, as it didn’t cross my mind! I didn’t feel it was slow once, although I was using the Optical Viewfinder for all my shooting.
Manual Focus is disappointing, but I should mention that when in MF mode the AE/Lock button on the back of the camera initiates auto focus, and the centre menu button magnifies the focus area ‘zoomed in’ on the eleectronic viewfinder. If you have time to use it, it is a partial solution, but I have found that method of manual focus check to be very slow, especially in low light. It also puts you at the mercy of an electronic viewfinder, which, as always, will be very dark in anything but bright sunlight.
The Rear LCD is excellent. It stays fairly bright in strong sunlight and the resolution is perfectly good enough to accurately judge a shot after taking it.
UPDATE 14:00 GMT Mon. 9th May
I’ve now added a few additional photos…
UPDATE – February 2012
I have now sold my Fuji X100. Why?
My reason was that because, over time, the handling of the camera felt less and less responsive in comparison to the DSLR I use for my professional work. The shutter response is quick, but there was something that didn’t feel quite right. I found that using the Fuji X100 felt little different to using my old Canon G11. Yes, the Fuji produces wonderful images and yes it is beautifully designed, but in essence it is a compact camera. Eventually I found the quirks more frustrating than endearing.
2012 is proving an incredible year for cameras and the market is changing rapidly…
Fuji has released the Fuji X-Pro1, the ‘X100 with interchangeable lenses’ that so many people wanted. The image quality will no doubt prove to be incredible, but it will come at a high price tag. It’s currently selling for £1,500 for the body-only in the UK.
Sony have sorted out their production issues and the NEX-7 is now on the market. More like a spaceship than a camera, it points to where the industry is going.
I’m sorely tempted by both, the NEX-7 for its controls and the Fuji X-Pro1 for its image quality. If I give in I’ll make sure I blog about it!
To see more of my work visit www.charlwoodphotography.com