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Camera Test: Fujifilm Finepix X100
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Camera Test: Fujifilm Finepix X100

Cool tech in a classic retro package

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One of the most anticipated cameras in recent years, the Fujifilm X100 promises a classic camera experience with a high-tech twist. Can it deliver street-savvy performance and resolution in the lab and on the street that justifies the high demand and nosebleed price?




Fujifilm X100 Key Features:

  • Hybrid Viewfinder System lets you switch between 1.4M Pixel LCD and optical image with Bright Frame indications
  • 12.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor
  • Built-in 23mm f/2 Fujinon Aspherical Lens with 8 elements in 6 groups
  • 9-Blade Rounded Aperture
  • Close focus to approx. 6 inches
  • EXR Processor
  • Retro camera design reminiscent of Leica M Camera
  • Cast-Magnesium Alloy and Metal Construction
  • 720p HD Video capture
  • ISO range 100-12,800
  • Shutter speeds 30-1/4000 sec
  • Built-in 3-stop ND filter
  • Price: Approx. $1,199.95

 

Walk down the streets of any hip, photo-savvy city (like New York City or Rochester, NY) with a Fuji X100 slung over your shoulder and you’ll be accosted by curious camera fans conjecturing whether the camera you’re toting is an old 35mm rangefinder camera, a Leica, or some such. When you tell them it’s a Fuji X100 large-format (APS-C-size sensor) 12.4MP digital camera with a parallax-compensating optical viewfinder, a 35mm-equivalent f/2 prime lens, and lots of other novel features, they’ll either be surprised, envious, or both.

As of the day this article is being posted (June 28, 2011), the X100 is in short supply, and out of stock at most major retailers, and it often commands more than its hefty Adorama price of $1,199.95 new—if you can find one.



Basically the Fuji X100 is what happens when you take the basic concept of a large-sensor, fixed-focal-length lens digital compact camera (akin to the pioneering Sigma DP series or the marvelously minimalist Leica X1) and let the engineers loose on taking it up a couple of notches. The result is a camera with a “hybrid viewfinder” that provides something akin to the rangefinder experience, albeit without actually providing an optical or electronic rangefinder.


You can call it a posh, serious enthusiast field camera designed to supplement rather than supplant a DSLR—the kind of camera a pro might carry in a jacket pocket for street shooting or as a casual “notebook” camera. In keeping with that role, its classic styling is executed to perfection, it provides analog controls for aperture, shutter-speed, and exposure compensation. Its cast magnesium chassis and metal-clad body imparts heft and solidity, and its slim, rounded-end form factor nestles comfortably and securely in your hands. Its lens and sensor are clearly aimed at providing topnotch performance. In most cases they do, but this brilliantly executed machine does have its peccadilloes, as we shall see.

The defining difference between the X100 and the handful of other cameras of its ilk is the hybrid electronic viewfinder that lets you toggle (using a handy front-mounted mini-lever) between a traditional 0.9X inverse Galilean optical viewfinder (OVF) with LCD info and parallax-compensating frame line overlay, and a high-res (1.4M pixel) EVF display that shows the parallax-free view through the lens at eye level allowing you to frame subjects even more precisely and to preview focus, depth-of-field, and white balance. It can also be used to review captured images. Like all EVFs there can be a slight display lag, especially with moving subjects.

 

Fresh quiche: Charming grab shot of baker delivering delicacies to Swallow Coffee Shop in Hudson, NY exhibits outstanding definition at point of focus (see snap on blouse, necklace details), and good depth of field. Camera’s AE system delivered excellent exposure accuracy in a tough backlit situation in multi-zone mode. Exposure data: 1/140 sec at f/5.6, A mode, ISO 400.

 

In general, I preferred the OVF because it provides a greater sense of immediacy, lets you check the subject’s expression even as the shutter fires, and provides a larger field of view than the lens captures so you can see the area just outside the image field to anticipate action—just like a Leica M9!

The ability to switch easily between these two types of eye-level displays is fantastic. So is the ability to focus the lens manually (in MF mode) via a conventional-looking but electronically actuated (focus by wire) focusing ring behind the lens. In MF mode you can “guess focus” by setting the (metric) distance on a horizontal scale in the viewfinder display, or by viewing a full-frame or magnified EVF image on the 2.8-inch 460,000-dot LCD on the back of the camera—pretty cool.

The camera will not focus closer than 0.8 meters (about 31-1/2 inches) in single or continuous (focus tracking) AF mode. To get closer you have to press the left-hand button on the rear control dial to select macro mode (flower icon) that will let you focus all the way down to 10cm (about 4 inches) for dramatic close-ups. When you do so, the camera will automatically switch to the electronic viewfinder to obviate parallax error.

However, since the camera’s 8-element, 6-group 23mm f/2 Fujinon lens provides an angle of view equivalent to 35mm on a full frame (24x36mm format) camera, the need to switch to macro to get, say, a frame-filling head shot is an inconvenience. The LCD monitor and EVF finder options can be used to focus at close range even when macro mode is not selected, but then AF is pretty pokey.

On the upside, the X100 offers a very convenient limited-area-AF option. Just press the AFL/AEL button and a small green rectangle about the size of a rangefinder patch (!) appears in the viewfinder and the camera will focus precisely on that area when you press the shutter button partway in, and confirm AF with a chirp and a green dot. This feature works very will in combination with macro mode, but it’s also useable with subjects in the normal focusing range.

 

Wide-eyed espresso: Shot of coffee drinker was taken at closest normal range AF distance of just under 3 feet. Definition and detail are exquisite (see eyes and skin textures). Overall image quality is superb, with excellent color saturation. Exposure data: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, A mode, ISO 400. Below: 100% detail at ISO 400. No noise!

 

Foibles & frustrations

The presence of a traditional analog aperture ring around the lens, and a classic analog shutter-speed dial is a welcome relief from the menu-driven controls on other cameras, but there are a few foibles. While the commendably straightforward milled-edge exposure-compensation dial atop the camera is a thing of beauty, its placement at the edge of the right-hand corner makes it all too easy to knock into with an errant finger or when sliding the camera into a pocket, and its detents are too shallow to prevent accidental miss-settings. The solution: stronger detents or a lock button.

I was also disappointed that the frequently-used ISO settings are buried in the menus rather than being assigned to a button on the main control array on the back of the camera. You can remedy this by assigning sensitivity (ISO) to the function (Fn) button.

The AF system works well, if a tad more slowly than that of late-model DSLRs, and it’s extremely accurate when focus has been attained. But occasionally the camera was not able to achieve focus with subjects having good contrast and well-defined detail, especially close-ups in the 3-4-foot range, and selecting “macro” didn't always help.

Perhaps my test X100’s most annoying quirk was that once in a while, even with a fully charged battery, the camera would not turn on when we moved the on/off tab to “on” and pressed the shutter release partway in. Yes, I checked the display functions to make sure they were properly activated. The solution: Wait a few seconds and try again, or remove and replace the battery.

The fact that both the aforementioned lapses only occurred about half a dozen times during the course of shooting hundreds of pictures points to a possible firmware glitch, which can usually be corrected with an upgrade, or some sample-specific problem.

[Editor's Note: Just after this article was submitted, Fujifilm posted a major firmware update with 24 fixes and improvements to the X100. It does not, however, address the issues mentioned above. You can download it here.]

As long as I'm picking nits, I may as well also mention that having to insert a (supplied) spacer in the battery charger compartment when charging the battery indicates that Fuji recycled an existing charger rather than producing one specifically for the X100’s shorter battery. This is not what one would expect with a $1,200 camera.

Found still life: Amusingly antic display in front of antique shop in Hudson, NY shows outstanding definition from corner to corner, excellent color contrast, superb color accuracy over the entire spectrum, and neutral blacks and whites. Exposure data: 1/300 sec at f/5.6, A mode, ISO 400.


Lens and Sensor: Superb Image Quality

Fortunately, the very nicest things about the Fujifilm X100 are those that matter most to serious users—the lens and the sensor. We found the lens performed very well indeed at its maximum aperture of f/2, yielding crisp definition and detail in the center of the field, and slight falloff in resolution in the corners and just a touch of chromatic aberration. At f/4-5.6 the lens delivers exquisite sharpness of truly professional caliber over the entire field, and this level is maintained all the way to the smallest manual aperture of f/16. Bokeh (out-of-focus image quality) is likewise outstanding, partially attributable to the 9 curved blades in the lens’s iris diaphragm.

The performance of the 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor is also exemplary, capturing excellent detail and color fidelity with very low noise up to ISO 2000, and very good definition with reasonably low noise up to ISO 6400 (settings cover a range of 100 to 12,800).


Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark)

Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 1600
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 3200
Color depth: Excellent (22.9 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Very Good (73 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 12.4 stops


According to DxOMark's tests of X100 RAW images, the camera can produce acceptable-quality images at up to ISO 1600, but at all other ISOs it seems to do quite well. While it falls about half a stop short of the APS sensor camera-leading performances of the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K5, the X100 delivered the one of the best image sensor quality performances for a non-DSLR digital camera.


 

Toast to the host: Available light performance at a high ISO in a dimly lit restaurant is topnotch, with excellent detail (see print on menus), and very low noise even in underexposed areas of frame. Exposure data: 1/30 sec at f/4, ISO 2000, A mode. Below: Full size blowup detail.

 

Built for Candid Photography

Discreet shooters will be absolutely delighted with the X100 because its inter-lens shutter is one of the quietest on any digital camera I've ever used (you can also set the custom release sounds to mimic a DSLR with flipping mirror or a focal-plane shutter). I was actually able to shoot people reading newspapers or otherwise engaged at distances down to two feet without attracting their attention!

The Fujifilm X100 is most definitely a full-featured camera in a comfortably compact package. With the press of a button or two it can mimic the film characteristics of Fuji Provia, Velvia, Astia, Kodachrome, and other films. It provides RAW (via a RAW button) and JPEG capture plus in-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion, a variety of custom screen and finder configurations, high-speed contrast AF, 720p HD video capture with stereo sound, shoots continuous burst at 5 fps and 3 fps, offers AE, ISO, dynamic range, and film simulation auto bracketing, an optional level in the viewfinder for landscape and architectural shooting, multi-pattern, spot, and averaging metering options.

 

Read Bob Davis's hands-on write-up of what happened when he used the X100 to photograph a wedding.

 

Portrait of an artist: Classic head shot taken in Macro mode exhibits excellent sharpness at point of focus and shallow depth of field due to wide aperture used, giving a nice pictorial effect. Color saturation and accuracy are excellent at ISO 800. Exposure data: 1/1000 sec at f/2 in Aperture Priority (A) mode.


Compared to the Leica X1


To answer the 64,000-euro question: How does the X100 stack up against the Leica X1 (Adorama price $1,995)?  That’s a tough call, because each camera has a distinctly different personality. Certainly the X100 scores on features per dollar, but that’s not really the point. In terms of actual field performance they’re quite close, but the Fuji’s hybrid viewfinder, extensive feature array, and f/2 lens extend its operational range.

The X1 provides a true Leica experience (it actually feels like a classic screw-mount Leica) in terms of form factor and it is smaller and lighter, but its viewfinder is an optional accessory. The Leica’s lens delivers superb performance even at maximum aperture and probably edges out the Fujinon at f/2.8, but at apertures of f/4 on down, it’s a wash. Do you like your picture-taking experience to be elemental or enhanced? The fact is that either one of these distinctive cameras, despite any nits, makes a superb street and take-along camera, so there is no one right answer to the question.

Soda pop: Excellent sharpness and detail at maximum aperture (see expiration date above logo on orange Fizzy Lizzy bottle). Color saturation and accuracy are excellent at ISO 800. Exposure data: 1/750 sec at f/2, A mode.


Conclusion and Recommendation


Despite a few small annoyances, most of which can and will be addressed, the Fuji X100 is an awesome machine, and a brilliant and large successful attempt to take the non-zoom, large sensor field camera to a new level. Would I buy one? In a heartbeat!  

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