Friday, May 13, 2011

Fuji X100 Thoughts

f/2, 1/15s, ISO 1600
 Since I first had a chance to play with the Fuji X100 at CES earlier this year, I knew it was a camera I wanted to try. Unfortunately at that time, I didn't get a chance to examine the images so I didn't know what the quality of the lens or sensor would be.  When the X100 started trickling out, it seemed like people were satisfied with the image quality so I bit the bullet and decided to get one.  Unfortunately, due to the March 11th Japan disaster the camera has been available only sporadically with many (unscrupulous) retailers choosing to sell what couple of bodies they had for grossly inflated premiums on eBay (I think one even went for $4000).  I was patient and last week managed to snag one from Amazon which I received last Friday.

f/4, 1/30s, ISO 400

I own several DSLRs, have used micro four thirds cameras and also have a Sony Nex, yet all of these cameras represent compromises in one or more ways and something has always been missing.  The DSLRs are sometimes just too big, and the mirror + shutter combination being just too loud.  I wasn't very impressed with the sensors in the micro four thirds cameras and finally the Nex is small and the sensor is great but I'm underwhelmed by the lenses and adapting manual third party lenses just wasn't doing it for me.  Then there is the Leica M9.  The high ISO image quality is ok, the lens lineup is incredible featuring some of the best optics ever made.  However there's the archaic rangefinder focusing and the heavy price tag. 

f/2, 1/60s, ISO 3200

Enter the Fuji X100 which promises a high quality sensor, a high quality, reasonably fast (f/2) fixed lens and a hybrid viewfinder that marries the appeal of rangefinder framing (where you can see outside the frame lines to anticipate action) with the modern convenience of an electronic view finder for accurate focusing.  All of this in a compact package that fit in a spring jacket pocket.  Does it live up to the promise, that was the question in my mind.
f/4, 1/640s, ISO 200, flash fired
The short answer is yes.  The X100 is by no means a flawless camera, but its key strengths, namely the sensor and lens are very strong with most of the weaknesses being the software.  When I saw the first couple of images I took with the camera I knew that the lens was great.  It has the kind of great colors and contrast that I get from my Canon L series lenses and is quite sharp even wide open.  Stopped down to f/2.8 its sharp right to the edges.  The sensor is also impressive, great color fidelity, excellent dynamic range and low noise at high ISO (easily better than a Canon Rebel T2i).

f/2, 1/20s, ISO 1600

The UI controls are generally where you'd expect them, I felt no need to bust out the manual.  Aperture is set on the ring.  Shutter speed / Aperture Priority is set via a top dial much like the Leica as is exposure compensation.  ISO can be assigned to a button at the top.  There is Auto ISO and unfortunately its buried as a menu option instead of just being part of the regular ISO settings (i.e. one of those software things).  Also, I find the Auto ISO to be of limited use for me, since my preferred workflow with auto ISO is to use the camera in a sort of Shutter+Aperture Priority.  I.e. I want to set the aperture and shutter speed and have the camera pick the ISO based on its meter.  However, meters aren't always accurate so I need to be able to use exposure compensation to bias the ISO the camera chooses.  Unfortunately, the X100 doesn't allow me to do this, the camera ignores the exposure compensation dial when using Auto ISO and having manually set a shutter speed.  Again, this could probably be trivially fixed in a firmware update.

f/2, 1/1000s, ISO 200, flash fired

There's a well known bug in the X100 where the camera will continue to do red-eye reduction even though its turned off in the menus.  But this bug only happens when shooting RAW and not when shooting JPEG or RAW+JPEG, bizarre I know.  Curiously, I encountered this issue within the first couple of hours of using the camera.  Since the X100 features a leaf shutter, its both extremely quiet and is capable of very high sync speeds.  I wanted to try this out by photographing my daughter Maya blowing bubbles in backlit evening light.  The ambient exposure was giving shutter speeds that would have been too high for most cameras without an ND filter.  But with the high sync speed of the X100 and a built-in flash that is *very* competent, I was able to make some fun images.  Unfortunately because of the camera's insistence on shooting with red eye reduction, that caused a significant shutter lag.  At the time, I didn't realize that to work around it one had to switch to RAW+JPG, but I got used to the lag quickly and could anticipate when to release the shutter to get the shot I wanted.

f/2, 1/17s, ISO 3200
One of the first things I did when I got the camera was to shut off all sounds it makes.  When you do this the shutter is almost completely silent and makes using the camera discreetly without disturbing anyone so much easier.

The hybrid viewfinder in the X100 has been talked about a lot and I know many are wondering what all the hype is about.  If you've ever looked through the optical finder of a rangefinder like the Leica M9, then you'll know that you get very nicely magnified view that is considerably brighter than what you get through an SLR.  The viewfinder is also usually larger than the captured frame size and so you can see elements outside your frame to help compose faster or to anticipate when something is going to come into frame.  The X100 has this and it overlays an electronic HUD with various bits of interesting information.  Then how would you focus?  In the case of rangefinders, there is a mechanical coupling to aid manual focusing.  In the case of point and shoot cameras and the NEX, the camera auto focuses using contrast information from the image as its read off the sensor.  But you'd need an electronic view finder to show this in the eye.  With the X100, you have two choices.  You can tell the camera to auto focus using sensor data while you look through the optical viewfinder and trust that the zone you've indicated is in focus.  Or (and this is the cool part) you can flick a switch and now your optical viewfinder becomes an electronic viewfinder and you can easily verify that what you want in focus is in focus.

f/2, 1/80s, ISO 400

So if the optical viewfinder is so great, why not just use it all the time?  It really comes down to when you are trying to focus on something that is relatively close to the camera (say within a few feet).  You have an issue of parallax because your eye and the sensor aren't on the same axis.  So when you select a zone for the camera to focus on, what you intend on focusing when looking through the optical finder may not be what the camera's sensor sees, this can lead to major focus errors.  But if you are shooting something at a distance, then you can just use the optical finder and can be reasonably confident that auto-focus will be accurate.

f/2, 1/25s, ISO 3200

There are a few other quirks.  The battery life indicator is woefully wrong, keep spare fully charged batteries with you.  The battery will show full life, then all of a sudden 1 bar, then a dozen shots later it'll be toast.  The focus speed is also not going to come close to comparing to a modern DSLR, especially for tracking moving subjects.  I was hoping that Fuji would have incorporated some kind of optical or sensor based image stabilization and unfortunately they didn't.  It is possible to get good images at slower shutter speeds like 1/10s but with some kind of image stabilization, you'd probably be able to go a lot lower.

f/2, 1/10s, ISO 3200

I love it when camera companies innovate and this is a case where Fuji has demonstrated great innovation.  They've been able to marry some of the benefits of cameras of old with modern advancements.  You can have both a high quality, bright optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder.  You can have Live View to acquire very accurate focus.  All this with some excellent optics mated to a very good sensor.  In my books the X100 is a winner and if Fuji can someone make an interchangeable lens version of this camera with just a limited set of compact primes (24mm, 35mm, 75mm FOV equivalent lenses) with the same optical quality of lens in the X100, I would be all over it.  Even better, if they can make an interchangeable version of the X100 that takes Leica M lenses, on my that would be stellar.

f/4, 1/320s, ISO 200, flash fired

All that said, this camera with its compromises fits well into my lineup, but it isn't going to do so for everyone.  First, it certainly isn't going to replace a DSLR.  Second, its not going to excel at fast paced shooting, nor is it going to be a "jack of all trades" general purpose camera.  So if you get one, keep that in mind.
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