Fujifilm X100 - retro rangefinder *

Text by Jarle Aasland

Most things have been written and said about the Fujifilm X100 already. Despite a few minor issues, most reviews are surprisingly positive.

Surprising since the X100 is a unique, one of a kind camera. And not neccessarily in a good way. It doesn't have an interchangable lens. It doesn't have a zoom. It's not a DSLR. It's not a Leica. And it's relatively expensive, considering the competition. But despite, or perhaps because of these limitations, the X100 has already become a modern cult classic.

I won't repeat a bunch of technical data here. The following is not meant to be a comprehensive review, but rather my own first impressions of the Fujifilm X100. I may update and expand the article later.

Let me start by saying that the X100 is not a camera for everyone. For many people, an inexpensive DSLR or a do-it-all compact camera will be a much better choice. But for others, including passionate amateurs and working professionals, the X100 is truly an exciting camera.

Leica killer

Personally, I've tested and worked with a wide range of cameras over the past 25 years. 35mm film bodies, medium format cameras, compact cameras, vintage Nikon rangefinders, early digital models (including the first professional Kodak and Nikon cameras), the latest and greatest professional DSLRs, iPhones - you name it. My latest purchase was a Panasonic LX5, a high quality compact camera with an impressively sharp Leica lens. For personal work, I often find myself carrying the LX5 (in addition to my iPhone), leaving the big, bulky Nikon bodies (D300, D3, etc.) at home. In many cases, smaller is better.

Fujifilm Fujix DS-300

For the record, Fujifilm is no stranger to innovative, high quality digital cameras. In cooperation with Nikon, Fujifilm made the first digital SLR cameras, announced in 1995 (the 1.3 megapixel Nikon E2/E2s aka Fujifilm DS-505/DS-515). It also made what is considered to be one of the first "affordable" professional digital cameras, the Fujix DS-300, in 1997 (photo). The company is also known for its Nikon mount FinePix S1, S2, and S3 Pro bodies, and compact classics like the Fujifilm F30.

A couple of years ago, I tested a Leica M9 for a few days. I instantly fell in love, and have been dreaming about one ever since. But not any more. Having spent some time with the X100, I've found that it's everything I need in a small rangefinder-like camera. It's not cheap, but compared to a Leica, the X100 seems like a bargain.

Some people will tell you that it's just plain stupid to compare the X100 to a M9. And it's not hard to understand why. After all, the M9 is almost six times as expensive. And that's before you add a lens. Surely, it must be a lot better?

Admittedly, it's difficult to compete with Leica lenses and the M9's high resolution 18 megapixel Kodak sensor. But considering everything - the price, build quality, features and excellent image quality of the X100 - there's no doubt in my mind that it's a much better buy than the ridiculously expensive Leica M9 (unless, perhaps, you have already invested a fortune in M mount lenses).

The M9 will produce slightly higher resolution images with a tad better sharpness and more details, but the difference is smaller than you'd expect. In many areas, the X100 is better. In particular, shooting at high ISO in low light, there's no comparison. The X100 is in a different league. Even up to 3200 and 6400 ISO it's pretty darn clean.


A classic 1957 Nikon SP rangefinder with a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens next to the Fujifilm X100.
Camera body

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up the camera is the solid feel. The X100 will probably take a beating just as well as a M9. At least it will be considerably cheaper to fix or replace! Most controls are very nice, but like most reviewers I'm not impressed by the command dial (jog wheel) on the back. It feels a little flimsy, especially compared to the rest of the camera.

The X100 has a small, but very welcome grip, making the X100 easy to carry around by hand, even for a long time. For security, I simply attached a handstrap from my old F30, another classic Fujifilm camera. If needed, the camera is small enough to put in a regular sized jacket pocket. It's also small and light enough to carry around the neck or on your shoulder for an entire day. Sweet!


Lens and viewfinder

Technically, the X100 is not a rangefinder camera. Manual focus leaves a lot to be desired. It's relatively slow and awkward to use, and cannot compete with a real rangefinder. Luckily, the X100 autofocus is both fast and accurate under most conditions. Not DSLR fast, but fast enough for most purposes. If you need DSLR speed - bring a DSLR. Sure, I'd like to see a future firmware upgrade improve the camera's manual focus capabilities, but it's not a big issue.

Before handling the X100, I expected to miss the smooth manual focus of a high quality Leica lens or an old Nikkor, but I didn't. In fact, I find autofocus easier and faster to work with. For most practical purposes - other than manual focus - shooting with the X100 feels a lot like working with a Leica M9 or any other classic rangefinder camera.

The 23mm f/2 lens - equivalent to a classic 35mm lens on a full frame camera - is convincingly sharp. It's a little soft close up at f/2, but I can easily live with that. Do I miss being able to change lenses? Not at all. If I need another focal length I'll simply use another camera. I planned (or rather dreamed about) getting a M9 at some point, but I would probably never buy more than one lens anyway.

One annoying thing: Fujifilm should include the optional adapter ring and LH-X100 lens hood in the box, as part of the kit. Charging $129 for this stuff is just plain silly. I've ordered a cheap(er) eBay solution instead.


Fujifilm X100, 1600 ISO, f/2.0, 1/140 sec. Raw capture, processed and converted to b/w using ACR/Photoshop CS5.

The hybrid viewfinder is amazing. For me, this is a must have feature in a camera like this. At one point I considered getting a Panasonic GF1, but the lack of an optical viewfinder was a deal breaker. I bought the less expensive and smaller LX5 instead, a decision I have never regretted.

The lack of viewfinder information was my biggest single issue with the Leica M9. From my review:

"I don't understand why Leica didn't put some more info in there. You can't even see the shutter speed when shooting manual (but you can when you switch to A - so the digits are already in there).

There are three LED's in the viewfinder (two triangular and one circular) indicating the 'correct' exposure, but there's no way knowing how far off you are. And why don't they use a plus and a minus sign (indicating over- and underexposure), instead of those meaningless arrows?"

In the LX100, I can easily see all the information I need. I expect Leica to do something similar in the M10. Solms, are you listening?


Operation

The X100 is a joy to use. It's small, unobtrusive and responsive. Also, it's extremely silent, once you disable the shutter sound effect (the first thing I do with any camera with such a "feature"). Another thing I immediately disabled was the image review in the viewfinder.

Some people have complained about slow startup times, but it's not been a real issue for me. Shot to shot speed and less than perfect menus is also a common complaint. According to dpreview.com, the firmware design (i.e. camera menus) is "decidedly flawed".

I'm sure there are issues that can and will be fixed in future firmware updates (Fujifilm is already working on one as I write this), but personally I haven't experienced any of these "frustrating" problems. The menu is not worse than many other cameras I've used (in fact, I think it's pretty good), and speed has never been an issue for me, using a 16 GB class 10 Transcend SDHC card and a 8 GB class 4 Sandisk SDHC card. As always, your milage may vary.

One small issue: I'd like to see a lock on the exposure compensation dial. On several occassions, the dial has inadvertently moved, resulting in over or underexposed images (shooting in aperture priority mode).

Battery life is decent, but not as impressive as some other cameras. Luckily, (generic) spare batteries are cheap and easy to find.

Conclusion

As I've already mentioned, image quality is very good. Dynamic range, contrast, colors, details - it's all very convincing. The approx. 19 MB raw files (.raf) can be opened using the latest version of Adobe camera raw. High ISO is impressive, even up to 6400. I've mainly looked at raw files, but JPEGs straight out of the camera seems to be very, very good (as confirmed by other reviews).

In my opinion, the X100 can easily compete with both other APS-C sized cameras and full frame bodies. The X100 is (almost) everything I could wish for. Like many other reviewers, I have decided to buy one myself.

Anything I forgot to mention? Feel free to send questions and comments to feedback @ nikonweb.com (remove spaces).

* As mentioned elsewhere, the X100 isn't really a rangefinder camera. But for most people, that's a technicality. No need to argue.


Further reading
2005-2015 Jarle Aasland - webmaster @ nikonweb . com (remove spaces)