A few months back, I made a substantial change in my photography gear. I traded off my Olympus E-PL1 rig and my backup DSLR, a Canon 30D, for a Fujifilm X100. I had been studying the X100's specs, reviews, and image samples for quite some time until I couldn't stand it anymore and made the plunge. It was a bitter sweet decision to make. Let me first say that I liked my E-PL1 and if I could have afforded to pay the $1199 for the X100 outright, I would have liked to have held on to the E-PL1. With the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, the only lens I really used on the E-PL1, I had a focal length close to the X100's fixed lens with faster glass and image stabilization in the camera body. I loved that Panasonic lens and it was tough to move to a slower piece of glass at "only" f/2.
So, why make the change? Well, my love for the Panasonic 20mm lens just wasn't enough to keep me married to the E-PL1. That's not to say that there weren't some things that were great about them together. I really liked the form factor of the camera/lens combination. The image stabilization came in really handy. Color rendering was awesome. On the other hand, the E-PL1's quirky controls were a source of irritation. I always hated having to use arrow buttons instead of dials for shutter and aperture. My real gripe though was the sensor. I hate sensor noise and the E-PL1's max threshold for me was about ISO 800. I could work with images up to 1600 but I felt like I was giving up too much detail in the noise cleanup. I don't intend to make the E-PL1 sound like a dud. On the contrary, I still maintain that it's the best deal going in interchangeable lens compacts. I'm just a picky pixel peeper and I thought I could do better. While researching alternative cameras, I came across the X100. I tend to go look at images over specifications and I was really taken by what I saw. Exceptionally clean images up to ISO 3200 from the X100's larger APS-C sized sensor! I was intrigued.
Let's start with the physical characteristics of the X100. It's an attractive camera, kind of sexy (there, I said it.) It just feels good in the hands with it's retro styling and substantial weight. It feels like a quality piece of gear, which is refreshing in this age where everything is made of the cheapest plastic possible. The appearance might lead one to believe this is a rangefinder camera, although that is not the case. I find that styling to be pleasing, but I must admit that I haven't been into photography long enough to have ever used a rangefinder camera. It has a certain look and feel that harkens back to a time when things were crafted with precision. It's an overall solid build that makes me feel better about spending $1199 on a compact camera. BTW, I'm not including any of my own pictures of the camera since there are plenty of really good ones here on the X100's official site. Pictures I took with the camera are coming up soon, so keep reading!
The X100 came in an attractive black box, cradled in soft cloth. A neat looking metal lens cap covered the lens. Nice aesthetic touch, but I soon realized it was not very functional. The loose friction fit made it all too easy pop off and I quickly replaced it with an aftermarket plastic cap. The alloy body feels solid and the textured grip provides a reassuring grasp. The aperture and shutter controls are provided in traditional locations, on the lens and a dial on top of the camera respectively. The stop points have a nice positive feel. These controls move in one stop increments and finer 1/3 adjustments can be made with the two wheels on the back of the camera. I do find myself wishing that the aperture at least could be completely controlled in 1/3 stops on the lens. The ISO setting is quickly accessible through a programmable function button on top of the camera. You can assign other functions to that button, but I don't know why anyone would want to. A secondary programmable button would have been a nice addition for something like quickly changing white balance. There is a dedicated RAW button on the camera back, used to create JPEG files with differing camera settings, that would make an ideal candidate for a secondary function button. Unfortunately its single function cannot be changed.
An EV adjustment dial is located on top of the camera. I've got mixed feelings about that. It's in a bit of an awkward spot that makes it easy to inadvertently change. This is the quickest way to make 1/3 stop exposure adjustments in aperture or shutter priority modes. You just have to be careful that you don't bump it during handling of the camera. I tend to shoot in manual mode much of the time and the EV dial does nothing in that mode. It would be nice if it could be assigned to modify the shutter (preferably) or the aperture values, as the dial is a bit easier to quickly manipulate than the back control wheels.
The shutter button is located in the typical location and Fujifilm went with a traditional style button that accepts a manual screw-in cable release. Kudos for that nice retro touch, but I'm disappointed that there isn't an electronic, preferably wireless, option built-in. Yes, the old fashioned cable style is neat. I'd much rather have a modern wireless option in this instance.
I'd like to report that Fujifilm didn't cut any corners on this handsomely styled body, but they did. My first big gripe is the battery door. It's cheap plastic and I fear that I will eventually break it. Really, Fuji? You couldn't have used a metal door with a more positive latch? The USB/HDMI ports are also covered by a rather cheap feeling plastic cover. That is more forgivable to me since it at least integrates well with the grip texture and I rarely use those ports. I'm also not crazy about the focus mode selector switch that lets you change between manual, single, and continuous autofocus modes. It's a fidgety 3-position plastic switch that really mars the look and feel of otherwise positive feeling main controls. One last gripe is the tripod adapter. The hole is right next to the battery door which means you have to remove your quick release adapter to get to the battery or SD card.
Manual focus is on the lens barrel as you would expect. The movement is nice and smooth. However, the rotation required to make significant focus adjustments is very excessive. My Panasonic lens was bad in this regard too. Both the Panasonic 20mm and the X100's built-in lens are focus by wire. I have to say, I hate focus by wire. I find myself using auto focus to get locked on to something in the ballpark and then tweak manually from there. There is a "back button" focus on the camera back that works quite well in manual mode (i.e. you can achieve autofocus even in manual mode and it stays locked when you release the button.) I actually find myself using that button the majority of the time instead of the typical half shutter press.
A key feature of the X100 is its optical/electronic view finder. I love this feature! I like to use the optical viewfinder when I can. It is a wider area of view than the sensor so you use guide lines to frame your composition. The distance from the lens can create some issues when focusing on close objects though. I tend to switch to the electronic viewfinder for any close up or macro work, as well as portraits. You switch between optical and electronic modes with a switch on the front of the camera. When using the electronic mode, there is an eye sensor you can enable to automatically switch from the back LCD to the viewfinder when you raise the camera to your eye. Very cool.
When I was researching the X100, I found a number of folks complaining about the menu system. I actually don't have any problems with it myself. It navigates very quickly for me. If anything, I could complain that the menu button in the middle of the main control wheel is a bit tough for someone like me with large fingers to hit. I find it's easier to hit it with my thumbnail. Standard drive, flash, and macro focus controls are available at the typical points for modern cameras on the control wheel. If I could complain about anything it is that I have to scroll through the menu system to enable an external flash on the hotshoe. It would be nice if that would just work automagically.
There are some annoying quirks in the firmware. It looks like Fuji really rushed this camera to market and the initial firmware was very buggy. I'm on the second update now and things are looking pretty good. I really have only one complaint that drives me completely bonkers. If you make any fine tune adjustments to shutter or aperture with the back control wheels and then view your captured images, those settings will be lost when you leave image view mode. That has bitten me a number of times! Epic, epic fail! This could easily be fixed in the software, so hopefully a fix will be forthcoming soon. I noticed that the X100's little brother, the X10, does not have this problem.
So, enough babbling about the physical and functional characteristics. Let's get to what is really important, the images it captures. I started off by testing the camera in the worst environment I had readily available, my office. It's fairly dark and the lighting is horrible, with an ugly color cast. Perfect to shoot wide open, see how autofocus works in low light and to check the noise levels at high ISO. One of our poodles, Chloe, was kind enough to be my subject.
f/2, 1/20, ISO 3200 (from raw)
I was very impressed with the high ISO performance. Noise is well controlled and easily cleaned up. Autofocus was a bit touchy, but no worse than my Canon 5D. Sharpness at f/2 (wide open) is acceptable. I have to be honest, it's not tack sharp but it is good enough to be sharpened up nicely in post. Drop a stop to f/2.8 and then I see tack sharp.
A pleasant surprise in the X100 is the built-in flash. I didn't expect much but it is actually quite good for a fill. I snapped this shot of my friend Andy in a dimly lit restaurant (apologies, buddy!)
f/2.8, 1/30, ISO 800, fill flash (JPG straight from camera)
Another great feature in the X100 is the built-in ND filter. This kicks butt. Can you say f/2 in bright sunlight? Heck yeah, drop out the background into soft bokeh in the middle of the day!
f/2, 1/850, ISO 200, ND filter
How about toning down the background on a portrait? I used the X100's hot shoe in this next shot to trigger off camera flash. The X100 has another really cool feature. Flash sync is up to 1/2000! It would have taken a lot more flash power to pull this off without the ND filter and the fast sync speed. The 35mm focal length equivalent lens is great for this sort of environmental portrait. I have used the X100 instead of my Canon 5D for environmental portraiture on several occasions now.
f/2.8, 1/500, ISO 200, off camera flash
I love night photography and this is another area where the X100 shines. Long exposure noise is low and the dynamic range is quite good. Here's a shot I took at a recent carnival. This is a raw capture that I have tweaked minimally in post.
f/11, 1sec., ISO 200 (from tripod)
The aperture produces round bokeh coins in the center of the image with lopsided ovals toward the edge. There are some interesting, sometimes annoying flare characteristics. In the upper left corner below you can see one type of flare. I actually have grown fond of this sort of flare and have learned to position it creatively using the electronic viewfinder.
f/2, 1/45, ISO 1600
Next shot is the X100's lens flare at its worst. I purposely composed this shot to illustrate the various flare characteristics I have observed. I think I managed to get them all in one frame! From the left corner you see nearby street light flaring across the frame. That is easy enough to control with composition, a hood, or your hand. Bright lights head on can produce the spikes of flare you see at the top. Stopping down the aperture or tilting the camera can minimize or remove that. You can also see some flare spots in the lower half in the center. That may be reflections caused by the protective filter I had on at the time - not sure on that. The one type of flare that is really kind of annoying to me is the light "ghosts" like you see off of the street light on the left down the street. Again, changing the aperture or camera angle can reduce that. The good part is that you can see this stuff on the LCD or in the EVF before you snap.
f/2, 1/9, ISO 800
I'm an HDR buff and while I have gotten some good bracketed sets to work with from the X100 I'm disappointed that it only captures 3 brackets at a max of 1 stop intervals. I wish it would do 5 or 7 bracketed shots. On the plus side, when in timer mode, it will rattle off all the brackets with one shutter press.
f/8, 1/125-1/60-1/30 (3 shot bracket), ISO 200
Regardless of its shortcomings, I really like this camera and find my self preferring to work with it over my DSLR whenever possible. Once you get used to its idiosyncrasies, it is a powerful photography tool. It has an excellent sensor and a very good lens and that is what matters most. It's not for everyone though. This is not a typical point shoot (it's much better than that) and it's not a DSLR. Many will find the prime lens limiting. I personally love it and find that it makes me look at my compositions a little more creatively. If you are looking for DSLR quality images from a small, rugged camera and can live with a prime lens, the X100 may be right for you too.