As a wedding photographer, I have had a long history with Fujifilm and their imaging products. They have successfully targeted niche markets in the past – be it with their film or digital technologies. And it always seems like I was always in one of these niche markets.
In the past, I shot with their film exclusively and when I switched to digital, my first DSLRs were made by them. Their Finepix S1, S2, S3 and S5 Pro DSLRs were based on a Nikon camera body, but incorporated Fujifilm’s own sensors and image processing electronics. There has always been “something special” (a new and highly sophisticated technical term) with images produced by a Fujifilm camera and they just seem to “come to life”- not to forget, they always had the best skin tones and dynamic range.
Around 2008, Fujifilm quietly disappeared from the DSLR scene which was unfortunate – no one created an image/file like them. Other camera companies had great image quality, but Fujifilm had a cult following in this regard (and yes, I was part of it).
At Photokina in 2010, Fujifilm caused a big commotion (and IMHO, stole the show) by announcing their new X100 (B&H – amazon.com – Adorama) digital camera. It wasn’t a Nikon/Fujifilm “Frankencamera” as in the past, but a completely new design. What was really special about the X100 was two fold:
The only “limitation” (if you could call it that) was that it had a bright, fixed 23mm f/2 lens (approximately a 35mm field of view) permanently attached. If you wanted a camera that used interchangeable lenses or needed another focal length, this was not the camera for you. 35mm is a popular focal length for photojournalism and street photography, hence why Fujifilm chose this lens.
Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one of these beauties.
Now, off to visit a few penguins
The Fujifilm X100 (B&H – amazon.com – Adorama) starting shipping (in Canada) in June 2011 and I received my copy then. It comes beautifully packaged (ala Leica camera packaging) and I was impressed even before I picked up the camera.
There are many X100 reviews on the web, several of them written by accomplished wedding photographers. I wanted to do something a little different as the camera has already been out on the market for almost 8 months now, so I took it with me on a recent trip to Antarctica (South Georgia).
I had been to Antarctica once before (in 2010) and just loved it. I had the opportunity to visit again in late 2011 (I will write about that trip in a couple of weeks) and decided to bring my X100 along to complement my regular Nikon camera kit, as a lightweight, go anywhere camera. So, everything you will read here reflects my experience with the X100 out in the field (literally) amongst several million penguins and seals.
Please note that I purchase all camera equipment that I review on this site with my own hard earned money. If a vendor has been kind enough to lend me a camera to review, I will always state that up front. I also do not review items that I have not used in the field.
When you pick up the X100, it feels solid. It is not overly heavy, but there is a nice “heft” to it. I had a “Déjà vu” moment when I first looked at it – it reminded me of the rangefinder that I learned photography on (almost 40 years ago). If Fujifilm tried to evoke a positive emotional response to this camera, they succeeded. It felt as though I had been reacquainted with an old friend.
There are plenty of external controls, so if you like to shoot manually, you will feel right at home. Of course, there are automatic modes (P, A, S) if you want to use them. Changing the aperture is done using the aperture ring on the lens. Talk about going back in time when cameras had real, tactile controls.
When you turn on the camera and look through the optical viewfinder (OVF), you won’t believe your eyes:
One of the special things about the X100 is that Fujifilm took the OVF and managed to put an electronic overlay on it. It is pure genius. You can customize this overlay with the information you wish to display, which is great. Depending on your distance to the subject, you may encounter parallax, however, you can (with the flick of a switch) change the OVF to an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to see the exact framing. Again, pure genius.
There is an eye sensor so the camera can automatically switch between the OVF/EVF to the rear LCD (and vice versa) which is handy.
The X100 uses a 12.3 megapixel CMOS APS-C (16mm x 24mm – 1.5x FOV crop) sensor which I understand has been optimized for use with the built-in 23mm lens. It is also the same size as sensors used in many DSLRs, so in theory, it has the ability to capture images that are just as good, or better in quality. Its ISO range is 200 to 6400 which can be expanded to ISO 100 and ISO 12800. I had heard a rumour that it was manufactured by Sony, however, I have been unable to confirm that.
The X100 in use
The first time I took a photo with the X100 I honestly thought the camera wasn’t working properly as I didn’t hear a loud shutter noise. But when I pressed the playback button, I saw the image that I just shot, so it was working. What I did not realize is that the leaf shutter used on the X100 is very quiet. There is also a “silent” mode on the camera (that disables the flash, focus confirmation beep, etc.) also known as “stealth” mode. When using the X100, people standing next to me usually have no idea that I have taken a photo – that is how quiet it is.
Fujifilm has a very long history in the photographic industry – and creating a really pleasing image has always been one of their main strengths. The X100 does not disappoint in this regard.
When I used to photograph with my previous Fujifilm DSLRs (like the S5 Pro), I was always enamored with their in camera JPEGs – they are simply beautiful and I rarely found the need to shoot in RAW (and process them later) as the JPEG images were always great.
The X100 is no different. The images are beautiful right out of the camera. I often shoot RAW + JPEG – if I need to extract maximum quality of an image (for a large print or difficult lighting), then I will process the RAW file in Lightroom.
I have a 16″ x 24″ print of the above image in my office and it is stunning – the level of detail you can see, even in the bird’s feathers, is incredible. Here is a 100% crop of the smaller penguin on the left – notice the “insect” on its wing.
The sensor/lens combination is fantastic – it is hard to believe that this is a 12.3 megapixel sensor. I suspect there is a weak anti-aliasing (AA) filter – or perhaps, it has been removed.
The lens also has a macro mode – it is not a true macro lens per se, but it does allow you to focus on close objects. Fujifilm does recommend that you stop down the lens (i.e. not f/2) when using this mode. I have actually tried using f/2 in macro mode and the resulting images were quite sharp.
A useful feature of the X100 is its “panorama” mode. I had discovered it on my trip and decided to try it out. You basically press the shutter, move the camera (slowly) either horizontally or vertically for about 10 seconds (or about 135 degrees) and voila, an instant JPEG panorama. I have to admit I was impressed with this feature and the quality of the image it produced.
Fujifilm also managed to pack in a small, built-in flash into the X100. It is not very powerful, but as a fill in flash, it is very good. Also, the leaf shutter on the X100 means that you can get very high flash sync speeds – up to and including 1/4000 sec. I cannot think of many other cameras on the market that have the ability to do that (you Strobists will be giddy after reading this).
Quirks and Quarks
As you can tell, I really enjoy using this camera. Nothing is perfect though.
There is a “RAW” button on the back of the camera. I never use it as I usually shoot in RAW + JPEG mode. I wish the user could assign another function to it (like you can with the “Fn” button on the top of the camera). I understand X10 users in the latest firmware update can do this now with their RAW button, so I am hoping Fujifilm will let the X100 do this in the future via a firmware update.
RAW files are large (20MB) with no option for file compression. File compression has been around for years, so I still don’t understand these bloated file sizes.
Another gripe – when the camera is writing files to the SD card, you cannot change menu items until the camera has cleared the buffer. That means if you shoot continuous RAW frames, you could be waiting for a while. I first used an A-Data Class 10 SD card which was painfully slow (6-7 seconds per RAW + JPEG file), but I just started using fast SD UHS-I cards in my X100 which has cut my write times by 60-70%. So, I only wait about 2.0 – 2.5 seconds for a RAW + JPEG file to write to my SD card.
Just before I purchased my X100, I had read on various photography forums about how bad the menu organization was and how some people found it totally unusable. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous as I has already placed my pre-order. After I received the camera, I agree that the menus could have been better organized, however, after using the camera for a day or so, everything became second nature. It is not intuitively obvious where all the items are so you need some time to acquaint yourself with the menus and controls. Once I customized the camera, I rarely had to use the menu as most things I needed to change were accessible using the external controls.
The rear thumb-wheel is not that great. My thumb often slips off of it and I find it difficult at times to “click” on the various items on the wheel (like WB, flash, etc), including the centre button. This wheel was a poor choice for a control that would be used often by the photographer.
When I first received my camera, I found that AF was a bit sluggish in low light. I recently updated my firmware to the latest version (1.13) and even though Fujifilm stated that there was no AF fix in it, AF now seems more responsive. Focus is acquired in a reasonable amount of time now (less than a second) where in the past it struggled. AF is still not blazing fast, but it has improved and is acceptable.
Some of the top controls such as the EV compensation dial and on/off switch can be easily moved when bumped as they do not (IMHO) lock very securely in place. I have to make sure to look at the dials when I remove the X100 from my camera bag as it is easy to change/compromise previous settings you have made.
Image Quality (IQ)
I have always stated that despite a camera’s minor quirks, the most important thing to me is the image quality. Having said that, the X100 will always have a place in my camera bag as its IQ is simply fantastic. I have no issue making large prints from ISO 200 to 3200 as noise is very low and well controlled. Even ISO 6400 is usable for small prints or web use.
Dynamic range is excellent and it was easy to recover the highlights (from RAW) if I had slightly blown out them out. Colours are gorgeous. Metering is very accurate and rarely did the camera improperly expose the scene.
Simply put, the X100’s IQ is the best of any APS-C camera I have ever used (to date), including its cropped sensor DSLR cousins from Nikon and Canon. I have used a lot of great DSLRs in the past and I am amazed what Fujifilm has accomplished in this camera.
Fujifilm have included 3 film stocks in their X100 JPEG engine – Provia, Velvia and Astia. Film users will recognize these names and the great thing is that you can further customize their looks.
Also, you can perform black and white conversions right in camera. I really like the “Monochrome + R” filter setting. The “R” is a red filter which enhances the blue sky. You can get some dramatic results.
Here a nice photo of the mountains in Stromness Bay, South Georgia with a blue sky and clouds:
Now, when I shoot the same scene with the “in camera” JPEG setting of “Monochrome + R”, I get this:
Quite a dramatic difference. Ansel Adams would have used this camera. There are other filters in the monochrome setting that the X100 JPEG engine offers, so only your imagination is the limit (BTW, I love, love, love B&W images).
As stated earlier, I often shoot RAW + JPEG (typically Astia) and if I like the JPEG file, I will not process the RAW file. If I need to rework the image, I will process the RAW file in Lightroom 3 to my liking.
I guess it is obvious that I
like love the X100. I will use mine until it is beyond repair or someone pries it out of my dead, cold hands. I now take it everywhere with me and as the saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
It isn’t without fault as it has its issues. But if you can live with them, you will have in your hands, one of the nicest image making machines out there – in a very cool looking package.
What I liked:
Annoying, little things:
Fujifilm has created an excellent camera and judging by X100 sales, it has even exceeded their expectations. I remember that for months after its release, it was next to impossible to buy an X100 as they were always sold out, so I feel fortunate that I was able to get one early.
After being out of the high end camera market for a couple of years, Fujifilm is firmly back in the game. They have proven that you can combine classic styling, innovative ideas and superb image quality in a stylish, compact package. There are quirks, but show me a camera that doesn’t have any?
I am also looking forward to the X100 (B&H – amazon.com – Adorama) successor, the X-Pro 1 which builds on the X100’s success, uses interchangeable lenses and boasts a new 16.3 megapixel sensor. If Fujifilm have dramatically improved the X100’s image quality and useability, I think I will die and go to heaven. I hope to receive one in the next few weeks, so I will have my thoughts posted about this exciting new camera (and lenses) next month.
One final thing: our ship that took us to Antarctica, dropped us off in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands for our flight back to Chile (then onwards home). We had a couple of hours to explore the town before our flight and I found this sign outside of a pub:
If I ever visit the Falkland Islands again with my wife, I will get her to drop me off here!
BTW, you can view a larger collection of images from both of my Antarctic expeditions by visiting my Antarctic gallery.
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