Fujifilm X100 Review

by Camden Hardy

Issue 27

The beginning I was introduced to the Fujifilm FinePix X100 back in March at this year’s Society for Photographic Education conference in Atlanta, GA. As my cohorts and I were digging through the pile of free 120 film that had just been dumped on the Fujifilm table, pretending to listen to the rep while he pitched the camera to us, I heard phrases like “Hybrid viewfinder”, “first in the world”, “23mm fixed Fujinon lens”, “12.3 megapixels”, “amazing”, “APS-C CMOS sensor”, “720p video”, and “revolutionary”. It was exactly the sort of self-indulgent techno-babble that makes me want to jam a long, sharp object into my ears.

In what might best be described as a moment of weakness, I suddenly found myself paying attention - but not to his voice. My eyes were locked onto that strange Leica clone in his hands. Is that...a digital camera? With an optical viewfinder? It was absolutely stunning. As I held the X100 in my hands, I thought, “this is how a digital camera should feel”. It wasn’t long after my return home from SPE that I placed my preorder.

I generally don’t buy into the hype associated with new cameras, but this one was different. I couldn’t get enough. Websites built specifically for the X100 started appearing all over the place - I checked x100rumors.com daily for two months, hoping each time too see some sort of indication that my order would ship soon.

So, now that I have one, does the FinePix X100 live up to the hype? In a word, yes.

Lens The X100 is equipped with a very nice fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) Fujinon lens. It opens up to f/2, which is fantastic for photographers like myself that work with short depth of field. It’s also equipped with a built-in ND filter to allow wide open exposures in direct sunlight. The fixed nature of the lens has been bemoaned as a design flaw in many of the reviews I’ve encountered, but I see it as a key selling point. Not only does a fixed lens allow the camera to be much smaller, it eliminates the risk of getting dust on the sensor. It also simplifies the image making process by removing focal length choice from the equation. Who actually wants to carry around all those extra lenses, anyway?

Hybrid Viewfinder The X100’s Hybrid Viewfinder is one of those key features that Fuji’s PR people love to talk about. The term “hybrid” refers to the existence of an optical viewfinder, which contains a prism that allows data such as meter reading, histogram, focus distance, and more to be projected onto the image, as well as an electronic viewfinder, which uses the same prism to relay image data directly from the sensor. The lever on the front of the body next to the lens facilitates easy, fast switching between the two. While I don’t think it’s as brilliant or revolutionary as they would have us believe, the ability to choose one over the other, on the fly, is a fantastic feature.

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) isn’t the nicest looking image preview out there, but it is nice to have a live view of what the sensor is seeing. This is especially useful when working with a shallow depth of field or unusual lighting conditions.

As a photographer that primarily uses film, I find that the optical viewfinder (OVF) is a much more pleasant experience than the EVF because the technology of the camera is more transparent; it feels like an old 35mm, where I’m seeing the real world instead of a projected image. Thanks to the paired prism configuration, various bits of data such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus distance are displayed in the OVF’s window. According to the manual, the overlay information is customizable (one can add a histogram, for example), but at the time of writing this particular photographer has not managed to change it.

One more feature of the viewfinder that is particularly clever is the proximity sensor. The camera knows when you hold it to your face, and turns off the screen. What’s more, if you bring up any of the X100’s menus while it senses that you’re looking through the viewfinder, they will pop up in the finder window. Changes can be made to the camera’s settings without pulling it away to look at the screen on the back.

Neither viewfinder is perfect, so I find that I use them both with the same level of frequency.

Image quality The image quality of the X100 is surprisingly good. A side-by-side comparison between RAW files from the X100 and Canon 5DMKII, both lightly processed and interpolated to 25MP in Adobe’s Camera Raw, shows that there is in fact a quality difference (of course), but not nearly as much as one might expect.

Overall, the X100 has a very acceptable dynamic range. It does a better job maintaining detail in shadows than highlights, so underexposing by 1/3 stop is recommended. It also handles low light quite well; in fact, there isn’t much of a quality difference in ISO settings until it gets up to ISO 2000.

Things I don’t like I have a lot of praise for the X100, but there are a few things that drive me nuts. Here they are, briefly stated. 1. Autofocus is a bit clumsy and unpredictable with small objects and short depth of field situations. 2. Manual focus is electronic, and painfully slow. In most cases, it’s utterly unusable. 3. Accessories are ridiculously expensive. $130 for a leather case - are they serious? 4. Images can’t be downloaded directly from the camera via the included USB cable without using Fuji’s FinePix Viewer software. Hopefully this will be fixed in a firmware upgrade. 5. Fuji’s FinePix Viewer software is awful. You’re much better off with a SD card reader.

Wrap-up This camera is a dream to operate. Shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation adjustment are all easily adjusted without the need to look for their controls. It has the most complex, feature-rich menu system I’ve seen on a digital camera, yet it’s extremely intuitive and easy to navigate; you don’t get lost in it.

I’ve had my X100 for less than a month, but feel as though it’s been a beloved part of my collection for years. I bought it to act as my “on the go” camera: a compact, high quality device to carry when the Hasselblad and large format gear is just not practical. Little did I know that it would become a contender to my primary camera, even for “serious” work.

In a recent essay titled Collector vs. Photographer, Michael Sebastian beautifully describes the conflict that often arises within photographers. The X100 offers those of us in that situation a moment of peace; it’s got the style and sophistication that thrills my inner camera nerd, but when it’s time for the image maker to get some work done, the technology steps aside. The camera, in its elegant simplicity, doesn’t stand between the photographer and the scene.

This offering from Fujifilm is far from perfect, but I can’t imagine a better camera for my needs, despite its annoying shortcomings and steep $1200 price tag. If you’re in the market for a (barely) sub-DSLR camera, I have no reservations in recommending the FinePix X100.

If you’re in the mood for more comprehensive (and objective) look at the X100, take a look at
DPReview’s 26-page review.

Order the camera here.

Camden Hardy is working toward his MFA in Studio Art at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
To view some of Camden's work, please visit his website