A (brief) visit with the Fuji X100

Just back from a 1h visit with a Fujifilm X100 at Wellington Photographic Supplies; well, when I say 1h, I mean about 15 mins of handing it around the group, 1/2h photographing it with other cameras while the battery got charged, and another few minutes at the end really.  I’ve made a few notes on what I think, knowing that a lot of people are interested in this camera - but it may get real geeky real fast, so skip to the end if you don’t want detail.

Impressions are from a PRE PRODUCTION SAMPLE mind you, and THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.  (Okay, we covered that.)  These are the observations of one photographer, who is accustomed to working with Canon 1-series bodies, Canon consumer SLRs, a variety of point & shoots from different manufacturers over the years, and an Epson R-D1s - a reasonable range of cameras.  Here’s what I thought…

Epson R-D1s, Fuji X100, Canon S90

- size & weight are both perfect to me, being a guy with biggish hands.  Not so small that the buttons take over the back, but still quite a compact camera compared to an SLR - or even compared to a rangefinder like my Epson.  It’s lighter than the Epson too, but still has a good feel of heft to it - even compared to a small SLR.  Good, solid feeling camera - and the grip seemed good, too.  Sticks to your hand quite naturally.

- controls are nicely laid out and well thought through, though my one wish would be to have a stop or a heavier click at 0 on the exposure compensation wheel, so you’d know when you’d found it.  It looks like there’s a little release button just for that purpose next to the dial, but no - it’s just a bit of black plastic.  (On the Epson, that’s what it does!)

- focus is VERY quick.  Much more so than my Canon S90 - I’d have said the X100 was in the same league as my 500D, though I didn’t have that with me to compare.  This was shooting indoors only at the camera shop, under mixed discharge & fluorescent lighting plus some window light (at a distance) - so very quick, and not just in broad daylight.

- focus with optical viewfinder is interesting; of course, you can’t see what’s sharp through there, since you’re looking straight through a window; but I would say that the focus point you’re being shown is about as accurate as the framelines.  That is to say, it’s a rough guide to where the actual focus point has landed, but won’t tell you precisely - and I did try tweaking the size of the focus point using the jog lever, but the box in the optical viewfinder remained the same.  Obviously, in the EVF, you see a more accurate guide of what’s in focus.

I didn’t try manual focus, but I couldn’t actually see a mark on the scale in the optical viewfinder showing me the focus distance - and I didn’t see in the menus how to turn that on, if that’s what was needed.  So I can’t comment on that, really.  (Did I mention PRE-PRODUCTION SAMPLE?)

- very little lag in any form, by my standards.  Apart from the battery dying, of course!  I wasn’t really pushing it, but at no stage (shooting RAW + .jpg to a Sandisk Extreme III) did I feel like I jammed up the buffer and slowed the camera down, or was waiting for focus, or mashing the shutter and wishing it would fire.  I would rate the camera as very responsive, and very consistently responsive.

- interestingly, after every shot through the optical viewfinder, the shutter pops up and you get a view of the image you just shot in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) - without having to check the screen on the back of the camera.  This is probably an option you can turn off - but remember, I said it felt very responsive and had very little lag, that’s even considering that it did this after every shot!  When you’re ready to go again that just disappears and you’re back in shooting mode with the shutter open again.  It’s so quick, I didn’t even realise what was happening until I saw the shutter pop up when someone else was using it.

The focus did grab the telescope this one time, though!

- that said…there were times when I couldn’t get it to focus where I wanted, either because it was picking out a background object behind what I considered to be the subject (which could be chalked up to the difference between the optical viewfinder AF point and the actual AF point being used), or possibly because I was too close to the subject. 

How’s that, you say - it focuses down to 10cm!  Well yes, it does - but only in macro mode.  Which means only in EVF mode, or using the screen on the back - if you’re in the optical viewfinder, possibly you can be too close to acquire focus on your intended subject, but (from what I saw) you may not know it, if the camera locks onto a background object instead and lights up the green box to say ‘focus acquired’.

I was trying to lock onto a telescope on a tripod and kept getting the display cases behind it instead - but either scenario could apply there.  Only a longer test would answer that question, I think.  On the plus side, when reviewing in the EVF, you can actually tell that the shot wasn’t in focus right away - at least if you’re shooting at f/2!

- also on the minor downside list is the EVF, in the sense that it doesn’t keep up well with fast movement, at least in terms of panning the camera.  I saw a fair bit of stuttering when I turned from one person to another - I wasn’t looking for it, it just happened and I was surprised by it.  I can’t say whether the screen on the rear is the same or not, didn’t occur to me until now to test that as well.  Again - PRE-PRODUCTION SAMPLE, potentially not an issue in real ones, who can say.

Good white balance & metering, not fooled by backlight.

- metering I’d say was quite good, tending towards the subject when backlit (see above - rather than being fooled into metering for the outdoor areas beyond the windows); but I didn’t  muck about with that or with exposure compensation.  Hard to comment as I only used it in one scenario, but there are several images where the metering and colour balance are quite impressive, considering what was being thrown at it.

6400ISO - with very little noise.

- 6400 ISO is pretty darn impressive (that was as high as I pushed it - see above); some signs of noise reduction, but I would put it in at least the same class as my 500D or 1D MkIII (and - maybe even - the MkIV), just based on the in-camera .jpgs I’ve got.  Naturally, the RAW files may be even better - but Adobe don’t support them yet, so we’ll have to wait to find out about that!  That said, I did see the same kind of noise reduction at 2000ISO as well - to a much lesser extent, but I did notice it.  Again, that would put it on a par with my 1D MkIII, though not the MkIV.

- the files have some pretty impressive detail, noise reduction notwithstanding.  When it’s sharp, this baby’s SHARP.  Highlight transitions in the .jpgs (and note this is in Provia mode, I believe) are good, too - what I remember from my brief ownership of a Fuji F11 (which lost down a river in ‘06) was that the transition from blown highlights to bright white was marked by odd colour changes to green for some reason, which I’d wondered about in current Fuji cameras, but in this case I’d have to say they’re looking good.

Good colour and DOF blur at f/2

- auto white balance did well under the circumstances - three kinds of light in the same place - but of course I would tweak the raw files myself later anyway, so I wasn’t too concerned about that.  Nice to know it’s relatively good in those kinds of situations.  It’s hard to comment on colour quality when shooting in a venue like this, but I don’t hate it.  Colours seem bright - yet accurate -to me.  Again, this is in-camera .jpg conversion I’m looking at, hard to know what the RAW files will show - which is the only way I’d be shooting with it.

- file sizes are ~5-6MB for large/fine .jpgs, 19.0MB for .raf RAW files.  This may help with your SD card shopping decisions.

- the lens is NIIIIIIIICE.  Maybe not as nice as my Summilux 35mm pre-ASPH, but still - it’s half the price of my used mid-70s lens, and comes with a camera body!  Out of focus areas are very nice (to my eye), and (at f/2) it gives a really pleasant overall look to the image.

- the leather case is nice too, as is the lens hood; not sure if I’ll need the former, but I’ll probably wind up getting the hood.  Interestingly the case doesn’t screw onto the tripod mount like I expected, it just hooks over the strap lugs to stay on - which in turn means it’s easier to get the camera out, which of course you’ll need to do to get the memory card & charge the battery!

Long story short - I haven’t cancelled my order, put it that way.  Even with the NZD$1999 RRP I was quoted!  I’m impressed enough with the files and the experience of using it to want to know more, test it more, see if it can fit in as a practical tool in my camera bag - which I think it will, to be honest.  My main concern really is figuring out how to accurately nail the focus while using the optical viewfinder; but I’m pretty confident that’s a solvable issue.  Frankly, if it’s not user error in some form, I’ll be mildly surprised.

So on the whole - well done, Fuji, for creating something interesting and unique that fits between the compact cameras (and let’s face it, the iPhone 4 is taking over in that department) and a full-size SLR.   This may actually be the first serious, fast, responsive, sharp, good-in-low-light small camera - IF you can live with the one focal length. 

For some people, that’s a big if; for others (predominantly those with a full SLR system already), it won’t be a big deal - it’ll be their walkabout / street camera for when they’re not working, and a darned impressive one at that I’d say.  That’s what I’ll be doing…