Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Fuji X100 in My Hands

"And then I realized, like I was shot! Like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that! The genius!"
-Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now!

The Beginning...
I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of the FinePix X100 camera ever since Fuji unveiled the it back in 2010. I immediately found the optical viewfinder, the fast high-quality lens, the larger size sensor, and the rangefinder styling to be very attractive features that on their own would make the camera worthy of ownership. Based on those features alone, I knew back then that I would own the camera. However, after a succession of promising high-end fixed-lens point-and-shoot cameras had appeared under the new product spotlight over the years and then receded into the shadows dragging their failings along with them, I was a skeptical and somewhat cynical consumer. So, when Fuji announced the camera MSRP, I decided to be cautious and hold off on purchasing the camera until I had seen some of the initial usage reports. I also wanted to see the review for the camera (I was very keen on seeing the high ISO performance). I painfully pulled myself off of every online waiting list for the camera and hunkered down into lurk mode for the fallout.

The initial reports looked great, and everything seemed to shake out positively for the X100—even though the camera didn't receive the highly valued 'Recommended' rating from Despite some of the minor concerns detailed in the review, I placed an order for the camera. I had yet to physically see or handle the camera, but I really wanted it. That desire didn't make the decision to purchase it any easier. The camera is quite a financial commitment for the hobbyist and amateur, and immediately after consummating the online order with Amazon, I began to have those nagging buyer’s remorse-type regrets. Fortunately (I reasoned), I ordered the camera while it was in an out-of-stock status, so I estimated that I had a wait period of about a month or two to reconsider my decision and, if necessary, cancel the order.

The Middle (Wait Period)...
Not long into the wait period, I had my first opportunity to handle the X100. I was shooting at an outdoor event in San Francisco when I ran into an online photo buddy who had the camera in one of those gorgeous red leather cases made by Luxecase.

Even beneath the case, the ergonomics of the camera called out to me. I’m really big on camera ergonomics, and I can't help but compare every camera to the camera that I consider to be the ultimate shooting machine, a Leica M. Luckily, on this day, I was able to get a direct comparison between the two cameras, and the X100 made an immediate and lasting impression on me during that very first handling.

I had been shooting that morning with a Leica MP (and a Cosina Voigtlander Color Skopar 35/2.5), so my hand was nicely conformed to the MP body. When I was handed the X100, it was a quick exchange between the two cameras. “Wow!” I was instantly impressed by how the X100 fit and how my MP-contorted hand fell naturally around the camera. I couldn’t spend a lot of time with the camera, because other local photographers were queuing up for a chance to hold it. I reluctantly passed the camera along, but the feel of the camera, the contours, the weight, the positioning of the shutter release and top-mounted dials had a comfortable familiarity.

A few days later, I had a chance to spend some more time with the camera when a friend brought it to our quarterly photo-print group meeting. The camera sidetracked us for about 20 minutes, but it was great to handle it again and confirm that same ‘perfect fit’ feel—this time on a naked camera with a modified Thumbs Up attachment.

I was able to spend a little more time investigating the viewfinder and playing with the manual focus ring. The fellow who brought the camera also does a fair amount candid street-style shooting, so I got some feedback from him about how the camera handled for this type of shooting. We talked a little about the auto-ISO and dynamic range settings, and by the end of this second encounter, I was convinced that camera was going to work out for me. I checked the order status on and found the camera had already shipped.
The Camera in My Hands...
When I received the camera, I took the advice of some online reviewers and set aside a block of time to go through the user’s guide. According to some accounts, the Fuji menu system on this camera is difficult and unintuitive. Hmmm. Maybe it’s the ‘internet bugaboo effect’ of magnifying complaints, or maybe it’s because I already own a Fuji point-and-shoot camera—I think it’s more the former—but those concerns about the menus are a load of nonsense. The menu system on the X100 is much simpler—structure-wise—than what I’ve seen on a Nikon DSLR or even a Canon G11. Of course, the Canon is a feature-laden point-and-shoot, which has a lot to do with it.

In fact, whilst rooting around in the X100 menus, it struck me with just how little there is to this camera. Beyond the high-level features (the hybrid OVF, the great lens, the large sensor, and the RF styling and ergonomics), which (again) are very nice on their own, there really isn't much by way of special features. Sure, I knew this already from reviewing the camera specs, but you become very (almost painfully) aware of this when you have the camera in-hand.

The reviewer at seem to address this as well. He thought that certain standard-type features such as face detection should not have been left off the camera. Initially, I agreed with that conclusion. Of course, there are features that are somewhat unique and certainly interesting about the camera. For example, I think I’m going to really like the dynamic range settings, the RAW button on the back of the camera, the ND filter, and the leveling line, but beyond that I can imagine that there isn't much to entertain the buyer who likes a lot of bells and whistles. One can't help but wonder where all the $1200 USD (MSRP) went.

The Diamond Bullet...
After owning a an MFT camera and a slew of high-end compact digital cameras, I was a bit disappointed with the meager feature set, until I showed the camera to a couple of photographer friends who are outside the target audience for the X100. After a brief introduction to the high-level features and some camera fondling and ogling, we sat with the X100 sitting on the table in front of us. Then one of them asked, "So, what else can it do?".

I had to pause, because the question was based on the supposition that a camera needed to do more than enable (enhance) a positive shooting experience and produce good-looking image files. One could argue that features (features!) enhance the shooting experience, but really that's a determination for the purchaser and the intended audience/end-user. An abundance of features means one thing to the buyer of a compact camera and something else to a professional shooting with a DSLR.

Then, like a diamond bullet to my forehead, I remembered what I wanted from this camera, and really, what I had wanted from every digital compact and MFT camera I’d ever owned. The remembrance shook off all my previous digital photographic experience like rain from a raincoat. What I really want this camera to do is to perform—as closely as possible—like a rangefinder camera. I want to be able to shoot a digital camera the same way I shoot a film RF camera--quickly and with as much control as possible. And, aside from a Nikon DSLR that I purchased several years ago to photograph my kids sporting events, that goal has been the impetus for my excursion into digital photography up to this point.

I didn't buy my digital compact and an MFT camera, because I wanted or needed them for any particular purpose (yes, I have found the situations where these cameras function at their best, and I use them in those situations). I bought these cameras because I saw in them the possibility of using them as I would a film camera, because I want that same experience every time I shoot with a camera. And, really that's what this niche market, the target audience for the X100, is primarily about, quality output, rangefinder camera-like handling, and film camera performance.

So, after failing to achieve that single purpose by trying to coax RF camera performance out of my Canon G11--through a seemingly endless combination of settings and features (including face detection)--and by twisting a seemingly endless number of M-mount lenses onto my Panasonic G1, I now hold in my hands the Fuji FinePix X100. The camera hits on a lot of RF-like points, great ergonomics, an excellent lens, bare-bones feature set, manual control, fantastic high ISO performance, an f-stop ring, and an honest-to-goodness viewfinder. Straight out of the box--and aside from a Leica M8 or an M9 (neither of which I can afford)--this is the first camera that comes the closest to achieving that wonderful goal. Could this be the camera that allows me (us!) to achieve that end? The best test for determining this is (as always) usage.

To be continued....

Photo of camera in red Luxecase belongs to Gary Hagan.
Photo of camera with Thumbs Up attachment belongs to Jamie Pillars