Fujifilm X100 Review

(This review was written on Jan 16, 2013 for stevehuffphoto.com)

For a long time I‘d been thinking about purchasing a camera small enough to carry around all the time, yet providing high quality output and manual setup of all its functions. I use a D700 and bunch of prime lenses for my portraits and it has never let me down, but there’s one major drawback. Its size and weigth brings more trouble than joy when it comes to everyday use.

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 Digital devices weren’t much of a deal when I started to shoot, so the only option was the film. I was used to work in manual mode and my habits persisted also in digital era. Six months ago I bought an all time classic – Nikon FM2 /w 50mm lens – with an intention to take it everywhere and shoot more spontaneously than before. To capture a moment or a view whenever chance occurs. Although my return to analogue photography was quite joyful, with all the magic and waiting for pictures to be done, the film costs, developing issues and consecutive scanning took all the joy away. I like to have total control over my stuff, so handing film negatives over to photolab and hoping our esthetic taste would match wouldn’t just be bold, but also utterly naive. Yes, you can always scan and postprocess everything by yourself, but that’d consume much more time than the photographing itself, which was not really my intention. I wouldn’t want to dismiss film as a dead medium to me, I just find it highly impractical for everyday shooting. The feeling you get from making your own pictures is second to none, but a busy man like me must resort to practicality.

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So my pursue lead me back to digital. I had narrowed my selection to Fujifilm X System cameras (Leica being just a dream so far). I’ve ruled out the X-Pro-1 for the price and X-E1 for EVF – and both of them because I doubt it’s reasonable to run another system besides Nikon. And in the time of writing this article there still wasn’t full Bayer technology suport of RAW file development in Lightroom (or any other RAW developing software apart from the slow and half-functioning one by SILKYPIX). I don’t count myself among pixelpeepers, but these (link 1 and link 2) Lloyd Chambers’ posts on the matter have quite disturbed my peace.

I’d been keeping an eye on X100 since its introduction. I was impressed by its look, approach to manual setup, OVF, APS-C sensor, my favourite 35 mm f/2 focus and a relatively warm reception among photographers. Poor man’s Leica, they said. However, regarding that the machine’s core was controlled by nothing more than a beta software, my attention eventually drifted away.

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I tend to trust only that I inspect in person and I always get suspicious when it comes to online reviews. My occupation is not that far from marketing field, so I quite know what’s what on the web. And I also don’t give much credit to reviews in which the author analyses the object in finest detail within an extremely short time and manages to write an enormous treatise after just one day of testing, without giving the product enough time to prove itself in practice. For it’s all about being first nowadays, and the first uploader gets the most traffic. That’s why I strictly avoid novelties when buying cameras – some of them are surely being debugged even after their official launch. Examples? Focus issues of D800, dusty and oiled D600 chip, and we mustn’t forget X100 of course.

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A lot of RAW files from X100 were online to try, so I had downloaded a bunch and developed them in Lightroom. Disappointment, to say the least. Advertised picture quality was nowhere to find. Picture was too soft with aperture stop at 2, higher stop values got it better, but it also limited DOF alteration. Maybe i was just spoiled by D700’s output, maybe my expectations were set too high, maybe.. Further sharpening in Lightroom instantly brought up noise even at ISO200 (I feel to mention I’m not oversharpening my pictures). But there was still hope - nice dynamic range and flexibility of RAW together with large data extraction possibilities cheered me up a bit.

I slowly started to worry that I wouldn’t find my everyday photographing companion at all. But then I stumbled across the LaROQUE blog of a Montreal based photographer who used X100 for his private works. Not only was I charmed by his personal work which emitted spontaneity and freedom, I also came to think again that not the device, but one’s skill, experience, sense of light and composition creates the photo. Things I already knew but forgot. So contemporary, so human.

It was resolved.

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First impressions after the purchase were, well, realistic. Software upgrade turned half-baked retro dummy into a functional camera with just a few quirks. Device setup appeased my taste – simplicity and functionality at hand. I got over poorly made backside buttons as well as outdated display resolution that is barely enough for correct focus control, but I had no problems checking composition and exposure. Menu browsing (and picture viewing) speed is hardly dazzling, quick and precise AF makes it impossible to shoot anything moving faster than a tortoise, macro mode is unavoidable when your object is closer than 80 cm/2.6 ft. Combination of MF speed and EVF resolution makes photographer a voluntary masochist, and so on. You’ve surely seen it all over the web. To my own surprise, none of these are really jamming the joy of picture making. After all, older analogue machines had no autofocus, LCD display or fancy buttons.

The joy kept growing.

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If you expect only words of praise from now on, I must disappoint you with one more flaw. After loading first few pics into Lightroom I found a sad fact – camera chip was dusty at multiple spots. Apparently not only Nikon has quality check issues, so the camera was en route to reclamation after only 4 days. These things work a bit oddly here in Slovakia – if you bring new device with production defect in, you seldom get it replaced with brand new one. So there was a standard 30-day long „repair“ prior to return of my camera, luckily dust-free.

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My concept of a camera to carry around without restraints began to fulfill. I started to shoot my surroundings immediately, mostly private, and I had experienced sheer joy of photographing again. The feeling is hard to describe, but i felt liberated. When something caught my eye, I wasn’t limited by carrying D700 and replacing lenses for the occasion. Single focal point became an advantage. One concentrates only on composition and tries to capture as much of the moment as his skill allows. I fell for the option to manually set aperture and time at once. The same I liked in FM2 was now at my disposal with a perk of keeping all processes within my hands. I slowly started to get used to OVF parallax. I had rejected EVF at first, thinking I would never use it. But since I am old-fashioned and picture cropping is out of question, I had gradually learned that if something had to be composed precisely, I should switch from OVF to EVF and shoot.

I have turned all sounds off. Thus people feel no discomfort from mirror slapping. Shutter of X100 is quiet and allows to preserve atmosphere without the model realising that she/he is subject to interest. Camera’s size also does not indicate something big is going on, so the person doesn’t feel endangered and usually remains spontaneous.

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I suddenly started to take long walks in my surroundings and craved for shooting regardless what the object was. Because I shoot RAW only, I don’t care about nothing but aperture, time and iso – well, to be honest, since I work in M mode only, I check exposure on LCD during first few shots. I leave the rest to postproduction, respecting original lighting conditions during editing (HDR tricks don’t suit my fancy).

Thanks to its character the grain mattered no more. Nothing magical there, just that the X100 chip noise resembles film grain rather than digital noise. After printing the photos at home (and entirely under my control) my primeval disappointment had vanished and only pleasure from final photography had remained. Likewise the noise, colours from X100 also possess filmy character which (along with dynamic range) impresses me greatly. Possibility to extract so much information from APS-C chip is amazing.

It’s a paradox that despite all the flaws the shooting with X100 is truly a pleasure. If the owner accepts its weaknesses and copes with them, the camera rewards him with nothing but benefits. If one is after resultant photo in the first place and a harmony between creativity and tool occurs, drawbacks become irrelevant. No, it isn’t my justification of X100 as it may seem. It is not a perfect device - not one camera is. But it fulfills the purpose for which I chose it and that is the only that matters. The rest is a dialogue between me and photography.

Photographs used hereby were made during last two months – since I got X100. Postprocessed in Lightroom or Photoshop /w VSCO film plugin.

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