Fuji X100 - Test II

Please tell me I am not the only sad photographer in the world that spends half his waking life on the Internet looking for photo-related articles to read? Surely that can’t be true!

If you have a life and don’t undertake such hopeless pastimes then you might be forgiven for not noticing that Fuji has released a rather sexy compact camera on to the market. The X100 is really easy on the eye but, from the professional’s point of view in any case, surely that’s as far as it goes? We are talking about a compact camera after all, and very few of us would own up to using one of these in a professional capacity would we?

However, if you are as sad as me (and please tell me I’m not the only one) then you will have noticed anticipation and general chatter about the X100 well before its launch, and this buzz is getting all the louder now that it’s actually made it into the shops. I can’t remember the last time a camera caused a stir such as this, and with all due respect, this is a compact (I think I might have said this before) and it is from a relatively unglamorous manufacturer (sorry Fuji!)


So what is all the fuss about? Well, while I do realise that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, pretty much everyone seems to be in agreement that the X100 is just gorgeous! If you grew up with film, at one time or another you will have lusted after something like a Leica rangefinder model. Well, enter the digital age and enter the X100. I have a feeling that those who are young enough not to remember film cameras at all, might run the risk of just not getting the X100, but even then the current vogue for all things retro could still see it make it on to the shopping list.

Around the camera

Let’s start off by mentioning that the X100 isn’t a rangefinder camera. It might look like one but take my word for it, it isn’t. There are a few other things that deceive about the camera, and the fact that it also looks very old-fashioned is another bit of playful disguise. In fact lots of things within the X100 are totally cutting edge and in time will no doubt find their way into other manufacturers’ models. In short, while this model looks like an average compact camera and is indeed the size of a compact camera, it still hits well above its weight in terms of quality.

Why should this be? Well, for a start it boasts an APS-C CMOS sensor in a mirrorless body, equating to DSLR-quality images with less vibration and shake than other compact systems. It also features a quality build far exceeding anything Fuji has produced before, including the use of magnesium alloy body parts. It has ‘old-school’ aperture and shutter speed dials (remember them?) and a fixed (yes fixed) 35mm equivalent f/2 lens to achieve the most detail from the 12 MP chip. The X100 also sports an innovative and very cool hybrid optical viewfinder that superimposes data over the image as you shoot: seeing is believing! The price for all this hi-tech loveliness? Around £1000 give or take, and remember that this is all for a compact camera that doesn’t even come with a free lens hood!

We all know that building a sexy camera isn’t the be all and end all. Let’s face it, all the gizmos in the world are no good if you are never going to use them. A professional’s camera must perform both in practical terms and also in terms of delivering good, usable image quality at all ISO levels as well, particularly important for a compact camera with this kind of price tag.

Performance

The X100 is a hard camera to review if truth be told, since it evokes many nostalgic memories and has so many plus points, along with a few less than ideal ones as well.

On the plus side the image quality from a ‘meagre’ 12MP chip is outstanding. The JPEG images are just sublime and are the best I have seen from any camera with this resolution: this from a man who only shoots Raw is praise indeed. The new viewfinder is a total joy as well: think fighter pilot’s ‘heads up’ display and you are on the right track.

In addition to this, the X100 also sports an excellent electronic viewfinder, the kind of thing that in general I hate but seem to be using a great deal more on this camera. Last but not least the X100 can also be used like an ‘ordinary’ compact at arm’s length, composing using the rear screen. Having used pretty much every camera system on the market, I can definitely say the image quality from the X100 is far superior to all the Micro Four Thirds system images I’ve seen, both in terms of detail captured and high ISO performance, which is outstanding.

The metering system is superb, uncannily so, and when used with the electronic viewfinder it’s almost foolproof! The fixed lens is a gem as well, with bags of contrast, excellent sharpness and just a hint of barrel distortion. Yes, I realise it is a fixed focal length and at times it is limiting, but it is also liberating. It won’t suit everybody but it is certainly making me think more about my composition, which I don’t see as a bad thing. To finish off, the built-in flash is adequate but not outstanding in low light situations, but it really does shine when used for just a splash of fill-in on sunny days.

As you might have guessed I am quite enamoured by the diminutive little X100. However, all good things have to come to an end and here are some of the not-so-good points! Schoolboy errors rarely come into play in today’s photographic arena but Fuji certainly has managed it with the battery compartment in the X100. Unbelievably the battery can be put in no less than four different ways, three of which are incorrect. Was it too much to ask to make a shaped battery to stop this from being the case? Battery life is also underwhelming, allowing me just 158 shots on a single charge for this test.

While on the subject of bad design, the Achilles’ heel of the X100 is undoubtedly its focusing. The AF, while not great due to it being contrast detection technology, is adequate, but the manual focus is just awful. Sorry Fuji there is just no other word for it… You would think being a ‘retro’ camera the focus would just be a matter of turning the focus ring and voila! Not so. The manual focus on the X100 is fly by wire, which means electronic! To manually focus on anything you need to turn the focus ring for what feels like 800 turns to get from one point of focus to another.

Poor design yes…. but there is a workaround. Select manual focus, push the command dial in to zoom in and push the AFL button and instant focus is achieved. It sounds far more complicated than it actually is to be truthful, and it does work well. The next real issue with the camera is the very poor menu system. Four hours with the instruction manual and lots of expletives later and I feel I am finally getting there. This should be an easy fix with firmware, and Fuji appears to be already working on this but it needs to
be addressed quicker. As do all the silly
little bugs the camera has, like why does the ‘live’ histogram work in all modes except manual?

With regard to the functionality of the X100, most of the buttons and dials are well placed and function well, all except the control wheel and menu button, both of which are fa too small and fiddly, even for the smallest of hands.

Conclusion

So, on the one hand the X100 is an endearing camera packing a real punch, but then again there are certain aspects of its personality that are unforgivable. In this price bracket – and let’s be honest, the X100 isn’t cheap – buyers will demand a great deal more than just nostalgia value. If, however, Fuji can address most of the camera’s issues then it will, in my opinion, take the X100 from cult to classic status.

Is the X100 a pro tool? Well this really depends on your requirements. Fuji has marketed the X100 as a street camera, but I feel it is much more than this and it’s ideally suited for many other applications. A fixed 35mm lens could be an issue for some and for others it might just not look ‘pro’ enough. If like me, however, you need a tool that you can take out everywhere, all of the time knowing that it will deliver high enough quality for resale, then maybe the X100 is the camera for you. I know my DSLR gear never sees the light of day except when booked for a specific job as it is just too heavy to walk around with, but that’s definitely not the case with the X100.

Would I buy one? Well yes – the camera on test is actually mine – and trust me when I say that for me to spend that much money on a compact it must be good! Yes I have had to adapt my shooting style, but I can honestly say it is the most fun I have had with any camera in over 20 years, and in many ways that justifies the cost all on its own. Add to that the fact that it has already paid for itself in book cover sales for pictures I wouldn’t have taken if I hadn’t had a camera with me, and it starts to look like a bargain.

Taken from the October 2011 issue of Photo Professional magazine