PhotoGraphia regulars may recall a post in which I praised Fujifilm for their then newly announced X100 premium almost-compact camera. It was October 2010, the only interesting news at Photokina came from the enhanced-quality/smaller-size segment and the hybrid viewfinder technology sounded like being a winner.
Nine months (and tons of enthusiastic reviews) later, a small parcel coming from Hong Kong was delivered to my studio and the next minute I was unboxing that beautiful little gem.
I have been shooting only with the X100 since then. The last time was today, trying to catch the sunrise light over the sea of the French Riviera during my usual (on holiday) early morning bycicle ride. By the way, I have tons of French sunrises in my hard disks wich are not likely to be ever made public; but I'm sure I'm not the only one.
As usual, I will leave to professional reviewers the task of scientifically measure and rate every single feature of the camera. Which has already be done by many, on the other hand. I don't remember any photo product being described, commented and buzzed as widely as the X100. And for sound reasons.
In putting my hands on the X100 for the first time i got amazed: a camera that looks and feels like... well, like a camera! Seen from above, the unit shows everything a photographer could expect from his tool: analog dials for aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation (all of which can be read even when power is off), a Fn button which is ideal for ISO setting, along with a threaded release button (allowing the use of any classic $10 universal flexible release, instead of a bulky and clunky $80 dedicated remote) and a moderately protruding pancake lens.
Build quality is top class. Despite its moderate -but not insubstantial- weight, the body feels sturdy and reassuring. The leatherette covering thoroughly matches the metal top and base plates, which are somptuously painted and engraved. Generally speaking, the X100 could be mistaken for a luxury analog compact from the Seventies, back side apart. Only the poorly designed rear wheel and the flimsy battery/card cover on the bottom deserve a word of reproach.
Though the sore point is yet to come. Because, after a full charge of the battery (the same as previous cameras from the house: well done, Fuji), the poor photographer would want to set his brand new camera up according to his own taste and needs. Well, I fear that the only way to do it without getting completely lost would be by taking the same drug Fuji menu designers are obviously addicted to. Unfortunately it's not mentioned in the user's manual.
Briefly, I have no suggestions about this issue. The only way is that you take your time, concentrate, breathe deeply, write notes and keep your fingers crossed. As a matter of fact Fuji partly addressed the harsh criticisms quickly aroused by the X100's menu system one month ago, when firmware version 1.10 was released. But, apart from some crazy behaviors and bugs which have been duly fixed, the song remains the same. On the other hand this painful procedure has to be performed only once (and whenever the firmware is updated, unfortunately). I mean, this kind of camera only requires to be set up once for all. It's not like when you fiddle with a sophisticated DSLR to choose among a wide range of specialized performances in extreme shooting conditions. Forget all this. Once you have decided if you need the histogram to be displayed or not, or the DOF scale, or the spirit level, or the grid, if you want auto-ISO or whatever being set on, and what function the Fn button should be enabled to, I'm pretty sure you will forget about crappy menus and everything, and will concentrate on composing your photograph and shoot. Because this is a back-to-basics tool: once configured, you get quickly used to it that way, and you are done.
One of the first photographs I shot with the Fuji X100 (out of camera jpg)
The hybrid viewfinder has been considered as the X100's forte months before the camera was actually released. No surprise. When switched to electronic it's as good as the Olympus EPx's add-on unit. Well, not as bright, perhaps. Anyway, although definitely too dim for daylight use, it helpfully gains EVs in low light, allowing an accurate framing even in the darkest shooting conditions. Nonetheless the real treat comes when it's switched to optical. Imagine a current Leica M viewfinder, only a little smaller but definitely clearer and brighter, with a neat and crisp rectangle accurately outlining the actual framed area, and surrounded by additional, fully customizable and easily readable informations. Framing through such a perfectly engineered device is a unique and exciting experience most young photographers can't even imagine. And soon you realize that not only your left eye, but also your right hand is perfectly at ease with the X100, because its insane menu system is lavishly made up for by its stunning ergonomics: everything is simply in the right place, has the right shape and works the right way. The silent release button is the cherry on the cake (provided that the stupid fake shutter sound is set to off, of course). Nothing to do with the clunky and noisy Leica M9's. The X100 can be unnoticeably used during a theater performance or a classic music concert.
A switch on the left side of the body allows the focus to be set to manual (or continuous). Don't delude yourselves, the X100 manual focusses by-wire, which has nothing to do with the experience of a proper, true mechanical focus ring. Therefore I prefer to make do with the autofocus, which is reliable and not too hesitating.
Don't worry, I didn't forget that a camera is about taking photographs in the first place. Nor did Fuji engineers, who made a really great job in this respect: the X100 lens-sensor-processor-firmware pipeline is definitely the best performer I have ever tried in my life (as of August 2011). Let me make one thing straight: I have only shot jpg's with the X100 so far, and I won't change. As this blog's regulars know, I'm allergic to raw formats and I expect a good camera to properly do its job, which is to take a photograph and properly process it into a usable file, instead of subcontracting this task to the photographer. Whenever a masochist outburst makes me want the hassle of raw reviewing and processing, I shoot with the Leica M9, which delivers the lousiest out-of-camera jpg in the history of digital photography.
Whith all the picture parameters of the X100 set to standard you get awesome colors and tonal values, rich details and microcontrast, a sharpness you'd expect from a 16 Mpixel camera at least, no visible noise (at reasonable ISO values), no distortion, no corner fall-off, no chromatic aberration. The lens' better performance is at f5.6 and f8. If you need more depth-of-field f11 is the best compromise. At f16 the effects of diffraction become obvious. I warmly suggest to avoid the film modes, as they dramatically cut down image quality. If you want to play with those effects you better save the expense of a real camera and use the Hipstamatic app with your iPhone. Moreover, by living all picture parameters on standard you will not have to fiddle with the crazy menus of the X100. In-camera black&white is also to be avoided, as it generates visible artifacts in the smooth areas like, for instance, a deep blue summer sky. This is probably due to a weakness often found in the blue channel of digital cameras.
Incidentally, I don't see the point in clumsily trying to imitate film rendition with digital capture, when the best film cameras can be purchased for nothing nowadays and films are still easy enough to find and get processed. It's like buying furniture covered with fake wood. It's a little sad, I think. You like wood? Buy real wood. You want a film look? Make your life easier: use film.
So are we talking about THE perfect camera? I don't think so, but we are very close to it. The X100 is a light and swift tool, but not as fast. On the other hand speed is not the first attribute we'd expect from such a camera (personally, I couldn't care less). Pro DSLR are there for that, and they do an excellent job in that field. Wake-up time could be slightly improved, perhaps, as well as focus reactivity. Somebody could miss an interchangeable lens, but a fixed 35mm equivalent focal length is part of the DNA of this kind of camera. And after so many years of zoom addiction (I confess being an addict too), leaving home with only what is considered as the "golden focal length" can be highly educational: if you only have a hammer with you, you'll only see nails and won't miss one.
To get instructions, and a safe guide through the fanciful menu system above all, forget the user manual and refer to Ken Rockwell's cleverly thought and written Fuji X100 User's Guide: everything you'll ever need to know is there. As for accessories, I got my X100 bundled with the adapter ring and hood as well as the ever-ready case. The latter is a very well built and sturdy classic brown leather case (with matching strap), perfectly tailored around camera's body and fast to open thanks to its magnet system. As a biker, I'm a fan of this kind of camera protection, and my X100 sits inside it since the very first day. As for the adapter and hood kit, despite the top quality build and finishing mine is still unused, as it's not compatible with the case. Too bad.
At the end of the day, if you like the idea of strolling around with a light and compact rig -made even more unobtrusive by its handsomely nerdish appearance (especially with it's brown leather case)-, go back to the essentials and find the pure joy of photography again, the Fuji X100 is your camera. Period.