First, a disclaimer: I ain’t no expert, nor professional photographer & I make no claims to the absolute validity of anything I say here. I am, however, a reasonably competent average user, so I feel I can speak with some authority to that base, which most probably forms the largest of the X100s users. Also, I made up the bit about three months (tis, for example, now two months since I started writing this). No idea how long it is, but it is longer than a day or two. Around 11,000 frames, if that matters. Incidentally, sorry I’m in most of the photos below, but it’s otherwise hard to find photos of the camera.
It’s very common to see early reviewers or commentators talk about the size and handling of a camera when they in fact have had very little experience of using it. Sometimes their only real experience is in merely holding it. It seems such an understandingly human thing though, so let’s be a little forgiving here.* However, it’s important to appreciate that the new so often feels odd, awkward, over or undersized, etc., and the familiar feels, well, familiar. Thus it is with cameras. Despite being a long time Leica M user,** the X-Pro1 feels a little large in my hands. The X100(s) conversely felt a little small. This was a pre-purchase conundrum until I realised that it does’t really matter. Unless something is totally, outlandishly of freak-out proportion, then I’ll adapt in short order and everything will be fine. Thus it passed.***
It’s no Leica, but then again, what is? It’s relatively solid and comes across as reasonably tightly toleranced and feels well made, with a lightish, non back straining heft. I have to say though, I find the battery / memory card door disconcertingly flimsy. The top and bottom plates are, I believe, some kind of metal, but do feel a tad plasticky. I think it would feel (& maybe look) nicer if these were a smidgen heavier (and painted black!).
Sure, it’s a bit oddbally – read the manual. Then, read the DPReview version in their review. Then scour the internet for tips and tricks and heads ups to the quirky bits. It’s fun. Besides, esoteric knowledge makes you hip. Some of these sites are really helpful (like here). Take the time to come to grips with it all and then – set & forget. I’m just immensely grateful that unlike some of their competitors, Fujifilm doesn’t insist on locking the menus of domestic market models to Japanese only. Take note Sony & Panasonic (& probably others), that’s how grown ups behave.****
Life was so much more interesting when people used photography for pixy peeping, rather than pixel peeping. Anyway, the files that come out of this camera are fine. Nothing wrong with them. Maybe they are mind blowningly amazing on some metric. Maybe not. Whatever the case, I’d rather people blew my mind with actual photographs.
Low Light Performance
I was going to call this section ‘noise’ or some such, but I’ve never sweated the noise issue too much and I’m more interested in the overall image performance in low light conditions. So, what do I think? Freaking amazing. Combined with the electronic viewfinder, this camera, to quote both David Hobby and Nick Devlin, sees in the dark. More than that, when you get noise it’s not objectionable, unless you’re so unreasonable as to object to its presence in the first place, which at high ISOs is indeed an unreasonable position. In fact, I’m still not used to how good this camera can be in the dark and I find I tend to give up before it does. For daily snapping, when I’m not concerned with making conscious manual choices, I tend to leave it on minimum shutter 125 sec. and auto ISO from 200 – 3200. But really, there’s no reason why the top end shouldn’t be 6400. That’s how confident I am with the images and their noise content. For a low light focus tip, see what I wrote here.
The menu offers a nice range of film simulations which are applied to jPegs in-camera. These include both colour film simulations (all Fuji products naturally) and B&W with the options of filterless, yellow, red or green filters, and a sepia setting. Something for everyone here I guess. Combined with manipulating the highlight and shadow tone settings, it is possible to get some very nice, specific looks. It’s all far too complex to go into detail here, but suffice to say, there really are some interesting and attractive possibilities here. The possibilities are almost a little bewildering in fact, and it does take some time to figure them all out and settle on what you like. Well worth the effort though. My advice would be to take some time and be methodical about it, and find the looks that you like, and then save these as presets in the Quick Menu (document as you go, as it can get confusing very fast).
Advanced Filter Modes
My first inclination was to write these off as silly and gimmicky. However, I came across David Hobby mentioning here that he found the toy mode nice with the frame set square, at 1:1. So, I tried it out and he’s right, it does look good. I use this setting so often now that I’ve set my Fn button to bring up the Advanced Filters. Sometimes I also use the Miniature Mode, but not often. And I pretty much maintain my original view with regard to the other Advanced Filter options.
RAW vs JPEG
Personal workflow choice. Up to you. Dictated in part by whether or not you use any of the above mentioned film or filter modes. Personally, I take both (where possible) and make choices later in post. Often I end up going with the RAW file, but at times the in camera processing nails skin tones better than I can manage without considerable effort (or, more to the point, the tonal transitions of skin). The world’s a very variable place, and this can be reflected shot to shot (pun intended), and having both RAW and JPEG is useful. I’d like the option for in-camera conversion to TIFF though, that seems useful to me (i.e. a RAW to TIFF option as well as the current in-camera RAW to jPEG conversion).
If you are shooting RAW, this is pretty important. The X-Trans sensor files are famously different and need special help at the RAW processing stage. RAW conversion in general is an area where people can and do squabble. RAW conversion software is to the pixel peeper what crack cocaine is to the crack cocaine addict. I’m almost scared to talk about it. However, having used Aperture, Lightroom and Capture One (all latest versions as of writing), I can say that I see a reasonable difference when viewing 1:1. Aperture and Capture One seem, to me at least, to be noticeably sharper at default settings, with Capture One coming in ahead. They also seem to deliver nicer looking files at normal viewing size (fit view). Just generally nicer tones, nicer contrast, nicer colour, etc. than Lightroom. It is all subjective though, and on the other hand, I imagine you could get where ever you want with Lightroom + RAW too, and most probably with minimal tweaking. That said, for speed I find I like Capture One the best. I seem to be able to get the nicest looking ‘starting point’ files with this software. I can do it consistently and then I have a file I can use in either Aperture or Lightroom. Extra step to the workflow I know, but I have been using Capture One for a long time now, I like it, and I’m comfortable with it. And I think out of these three, it gives the best results globally. I hear many people think Iridient Developer compares favourably to Capture One too, and quite possibly delivers even sharper files. Cheap too!
I don’t really know much about cars, but as I understand it, the Mazda Roadster (MX-5 Miata in North America) gets a lot of stick in certain quarters; for being too girly, not powerful enough, not refined enough, too wussy, etc. Apparently, while acknowledging that it’s no Ferrari or Porsche, folk expert in such things feel that it is in fact an amazing car in its class, especially when considered correctly in context.*****
Buy a spare. No, buy two.
Everyone wants the battery meter to work like one on some other camera they own / admire. Sure, what they say about the Fujifilm X Series meters is true, but let’s compare what actually happens. First, an assumption – if you ever go out expecting to shoot enough frames to deplete a battery, you also take a spare. That’s true with any system. Now, picture this – fancy meter says 100%, so you take photos. Fancy meter says 72%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter says 64.2%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter says 52.3%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter say 33.7%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter says 19.5%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter says 9.7%, so you keep taking photos. Fancy meter says empty, so you change the battery and continue taking photos. Now, the X meter. X meter says 100%, so you take photos. X meter says something other than 100%, so make a choice depending on the circumstances – either change now or in about 5 shots. See how much more simple that is once you wrap your head around it. Guess what folks, the only things you need to know are, is if you can take a photo right now and if you are going to run out of juice shortly. Anything else is just the ampere-hour version of pixel peeping. With the X meters, think of it as “Okay / Get Ready To Change Soon / Change Right Now.” Really, that’s exactly what we need to know, and I can’t help but wonder if Fujifilm are the only ones who actually get this.
The controls come in two distinct sets. The traditional manual dial types of shutter speed, aperture, focus and exposure compensation (hey, just like my first camera 28 years ago). Then there are the ‘digital’ controls. I’d call them the ‘electronic’ controls, but someone’s bound to take me to task. Bound to anyway over calling the aperture ring manual. Anyway, I love the return to the traditional control layout, brilliantly implemented by Fujifilm with the use of the auto “A” setting on both aperture ring and speed dial. This traditional system is so logical and practical. More than that though, it’s a beautiful way to use a camera. Somehow the traditional set of controls feels more ‘connecting,’ if that makes sense. The control wheels for aperture and shutter speed on my dSLR work just fine, but I feel no connection. The X100s’ ‘digital’ buttons could be a tad firmer. I personally have no problem with the layout of the ‘digital’ controls.
I definitely have opinions about lenses in general, and this lens in particular, but I feel reluctant to talk specifically about it. So many people know so much more than me about such things. Several of said experienced and knowledgable people rate this lens highly and I have found no reason to disagree. It is very sharp without feeling harsh (tad less sharp at f2 – note that I didn’t say soft). 23mm at a max of f2 on an APSc sensor is never going to give you the most amazingly shallow depth of field by any means, but by using your brain you can most certainly create lovely out of focus back/foregrounds. The bokeh is really very nice, with a smooth, creamy look. Who really knows how much of the lovely performance is in the lens, and how much is attributable to being specifically paired with this sensor and tweaked via the firmware? It doesn’t matter in the end. The results really can be quite stunning, and that’s the point.
The Lens Hood
Buy it, or a decent equivalent, and use it. Flare can be an issue (see here). A lens hood is important and needed with this lens I feel.
Here is one area where you won’t catch me being flippant with a smart arsed “yeah, it’s it’s a window, look through it.” Here, I was planning to rave on and on. Now I’ not (so much). I’m just going to make a statement (or two):
This is it. This is where it’s at. All the other things like autofocus, image quality, high ISO noise, etc., are important but, let’s face it, for all practical real world non-pixel peeping uses, they are pretty much perfected and quite similar across the whole market. It’s the viewfinder that makes this camera. It makes it a real camera. Bold statement time: view cameras work fine with a focus / composition screen, as do LCD back panel composing cameras when placed on a tripod. However, for mobile, handheld photography, nothing matches a box squished up against your face while looking through a finder. Nothing. That being the case, it’s tempting to say that the quality of your finder becomes all important. Before that though, the existence of your finder is all important, it’s the meta-important thing – you have to have one in the first place. The X100, X100s and XPro-1 have two! The XPro-1 has a very nice optical viewfinder, the X100 and X100s however have a positively, drippingly gorgeous one. Personally, I’m not a big fan of electronic viewfinders, but I find myself using the one on the X100s more and more. There are times when precise framing or low light needs make the presence of this option a blessing. It’s also fun to shoot in B&W while viewing the world in B&W. The basic fact is, this is the first decent digital camera that allows one to return to real rangefinder style photography (while avoiding the need to have an excessive amount of disposable income – thus caveat inserted).
As I said above, you have to take early reviews with a grain of salt. Even with a fair amount of use under my belt with this camera, I guess this is still a kind of preliminary review. Give it another six months or so, and then I’ll know how I feel for sure. I doubt I’ll have much to add, just whether my feelings have held or not. That said, I think it’s time for some bullet list summary points and a conclusion.
- Build: not pro, and could do with weather sealing, but solid and fine. It’s an expensive precision device, treat it as such.
- Handling: handles well because of traditional shape and controls. Probably fit most people better with some form of third party thumb lever. People with only dSLR experience might find the shape odd at first, but rest assured, there’s a reason cameras stayed this shape for so long, and it wasn’t the need first to stand out and then to conform.
- Battery life: as mentioned above, get a couple of spares.
- Menu, controls and battery meter: All menus have their quirks. If you can’t cope with the one on this camera, give up photography. Ditto the buttons. Double ditto the battery meter.
- Image quality: digital cameras are going to constantly improve. Nothing you can do about that except stop worrying. This camera produces class leading images that many feel can compete, in some areas, with some contemporary full frame cameras. That means the image quality is outstanding and way good enough for most uses. If you genuinely, really, honestly and truly need to make huge prints, then you already know what you need to know anyway, everyone else can just take it as a given – image quality is more than enough.
- Transparency: an important point about any tool in any craft is that it ceases to exert its own presence, that it becomes either an extension or transparent. When this happens, not only does the tool never impede or interfere, it barely even makes it’s presence felt. In writing this review I have constantly found myself having forgotten something, or omitting some feature or point. Largely, I feel, because the camera is becoming transparent.
“I miss old friends that I once had” – I’ve been waiting for a long time for a digital camera that would give me an affordable and truly comparable experience to my Leica M. While you could argue what ‘affordable’ means and play semantic games over the difference between ‘comparable’ and ‘equivalent,’ for me, this camera is it.
…Coming home to your love, mama
* read, covering my arse
** whatever that means
*** having said that, I found that the addition of the Lensmate thumb lever accessory added the perfect touch of film camera rewind lever feeling. My mini review here
**** tempted to write that’s how real camera companies behave, but hey, wouldn’t want to come across too vicious
***** if ye dennae ken that, simply go to DPReview and find out what dSLR has the fastest autofocus in absolute terms, and buy that. When a faster one comes out, buy that. Keep doing that, until the end of time