PDN Gear Review: Fujifilm FinePix X100 Digital Camera

May 2, 2011

By Bob Rose

Combining the latest in technology with a retro-cool look and feel from 45 years ago, the Fujifilm FinePix X100 is perhaps the most highly anticipated camera of the year.

Although at first glance while it can be confused with a classic rangefinder camera (intentionally, of course), the Fuji X100 is not a rangefinder. Sharing the solid construction and major controls of film cameras mostly long gone, this is a professional grade compact digital camera with a fixed focal length (35mm f/2 equivalent) lens and the world’s first Hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder.

At the heart of the X100 is a new imaging system featuring a custom designed 12.3MP APS-C (digital SLR-sized) CMOS sensor and 23mm Fujinon lens that were built exclusively to work with each other, and when combined with the equally new EXR processing engine produce truly outstanding results. Upon first use it becomes quite clear that this camera has such great image quality that it makes it relatively easy to overlook the little quirky nuances of operation that sometimes get in the way of an otherwise impressive experience.

Throwback Look and Feel
Some may feel limited by the idea of having a camera of this caliber with a reasonably large image sensor and a single focal length lens. But a 35mm (equivalent) lens provides what is considered to be the most popular angle of view and by fixing the lens to the body, one essentially eliminates dust, improves reliability and requires a more deliberate kind of photography (not point-and-shoot) which suits me just fine. Plus, as an added bonus focusing down to 4 inches makes it possible to take a photo filling up the frame with a subject as small as 2-3/4 x 4-1/8-inches. Certainly from a practical perspective it allowed Fujifilm to create a camera that is small, compact and produces images of the highest quality.
In use I found my hands wrapped quite naturally around the magnesium alloy and leather-like body parts, so it was easy to squeeze the shutter button and get very sharp images even at slow shutter speeds (as further proof of the lineage a conventional threaded cable release can be screwed into the center of the shutter button).  

Precision-milled metal control rings and dials were equally solid and conveniently located giving direct access to auto and manual operation of exposure and focus.  Unfortunately, the top control EV adjustment knob while nicely positioned by the right thumb is deserving of a lock as it’s too easily moved off of “0”.

Other controls seem a bit more arbitrary in how they were positioned or why they exist, especially the “Command Dial” on the back of the camera which comes straight from the consumer line of Fujifilm cameras and doesn’t have a positive feel sometimes slowing down operation.

And while there is a user assignable function button on the top of the camera (which I used often in its default ISO adjustment setting), I truly hope the Fujifilm engineers can provide a firmware update in the not too distant future that allows more user customization. This also applies to the fact that certain global settings are linked or de-linked to each other and the X100 doesn’t retain all individual settings that you make once the camera power is turned off.

Hybrid Viewfinder; Lens Quality
The X100 Hybrid viewfinder is where just about everything you might want to know about the camera settings can be electronically displayed (and in this case customized).  A bright, clear direct optical viewfinder (OVF) gives a more traditional vision of what the camera sees with about 90% accuracy but also the ability to look “outside” of the frame line so you can anticipate the shot.
A surprise to me was how much I enjoyed flipping the front lever on the Fuji X100 to switch on the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which in itself is also eye activated when you bring the camera close to your face. Framing is certainly more accurate. The standard OVF frame lines only compensate in part for parallax – decreasing viewing accuracy dramatically as you get closer to the subject. EVF also provides the option to preview depth of field as well as the effects of low light rendering.
Focusing was snappy in bright light conditions but the Fuji X100 focusing can be easily confused as light levels drop and I wouldn’t recommend it for any action photography.  So while it’s a bit hard to predict when it will fire, the system does have the capability to focus quite accurately in most light levels and also at angles through glass.

The manual focus also benefits from the same system and has an electronic link between the focus ring and the lens itself. But perhaps a greater convenience is the always accessible Auto Focus Lock (AFL) button on the back of the Fuji X100, which drives the lens motor quickly to the focus point. I often used the AFL button programed to simultaneously provide AutoExposure Lock (AEL).

A rather subjective measure of the lens quality is its Bokeh (i.e. background blur) and I can say that the out of focus areas produced by the Fuji X100’s f/2 lens were quite pleasing. The nine-bladed aperture is supplemented with an integral electronically switchable 3-stop ND filter so you can shoot wide open in high light levels for the “look” that f/2 gives you (in both still and video).  And while there was a slight softness in the edges wide open, I welcome that as part of the reason to choose the widest lens setting along with shallow depth of field.

I found this particularly appealing on portraits where I often worked with the Fuji X100’s focus set to manual; then I used the Auto Focus Lock button to drive the lens to target the model’s eye and recomposed. In the resulting photographs a shallow plane of focus held my viewpoint as intended while the rest of the image focus faded out to a progressively softer blur.

As expected, full frame sharpness was optimal at f/8.  Even toned areas were smooth, and all straight lines were rendered essentially distortion-free (although measurable distortion is fixable in software).

Filter Power
If you want to add more filtration you’ll need to opt for the accessory AR-X100 49mm Adapter Ring which replaces the slim trim ring that’s standard on the lens. But if you’re going to do that you might as well get it as an LH-X100 which includes the matching lens hood (also very retro) that bayonets on the ring.

It goes without saying that you’ll want the best quality filters to reduce flare and reflections that are commonly experienced when cheap filters are introduced into the optical path of compact lens imaging systems. One note is that you’ll need to remove the Lenshood when using the built-in flash (but there are two competent accessory flashes, EF-20 and EF-42 which work in the hotshoe).

Also worth noting is the fact that you can use either a linear or circular type polarizer, but I experienced best results with a circular polarizer both in terms of maximum polarization and minimal effect on overall exposure. And since Fujifilm has produced such great UV/IR capable camera systems before I couldn’t resist trying 18A and 87C filters since I could see the image directly in the EVF.

Short answer to the question is yes, if you’re willing to give up about 11-12 stops the Fuji X100 does provide good imagery in the “invisible” areas of the spectrum, but the lens was not designed to equally transmit all wavelengths so (and common with current optics and coatings) there’s uneven illumination.

Image Quality
Exposures from the Fuji X100 were good and the color sensitivity and extended tonal range were consistent with what Fujifilm has been especially well known for. Strong blue rendering was evident in the skies, green in grass and textured areas of red were quite well represented.  

And this didn’t stop the camera from resolving subtle tonalities as well as flesh tones. Please note, Fujifilm is the only company responsible for manufacturing their own pro level digital cameras and sensors as well as film – and I mean film, not film cameras. So it’s logical to expect that they know how to record colors and tones accurately.

Capable of emulating the various types of Fujichrome films (Provia, Velvia and Astia), as well as filtered B&W and Sepia, I specifically did the majority of my testing with all settings in what might be considered “normal” just to see what the Fuji X100 was capable of outputting as straight JPEGs (six of which are included in an unedited format with this article). But because there is RAW capability I knew I could extract and produce even higher quality results.

Fujifilm includes a copy of SILKYPIX but that doesn’t fit my workflow so for this review my RAW processing was handled with a Beta copy of the Camera Raw plug-in from Adobe. (Editor’s note: Last week Adobe released a Camera Raw 6.4 update and a Lightroom 3.4 update, both of which support Raw files from the Fujifilm X100).

It’s hard to isolate and talk about only the lens, or the sensor, or even the EXR processing engine which does such a great job to keep the noise level (especially at high ISO’s) so low. The Fuji X100 is truly the sum of all its parts and, by design that’s what makes it such a fine performer.

In the next section, check out some full resolution images I shot with the Fuji X100 and some of my thoughts on how the camera performed. After that, scroll down for the conclusion of this review.

Fuji FinePix X100 Sample Photos

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 200 1/680 @ f/8 (click to enlarge)

Hoping to catch the strong graphic elements of this building accentuated by the lighting on a cool crisp day in the Northeast, I set the X100 for its native ISO of 200 and its optimum aperture of f/8. A 1/680th second exposure produced a nice clean image with sharp, distortion-free straight lines and smooth tonal rendering of both the blue sky and all the building structures.

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 200 1/30 @ f/8 w/flash (click to enlarge)

Intrigued with the texture and strong colors of this parrot I wanted maximum quality and sharpness. That meant shooting with the native ISO 200 at f/8 and required a decision to “break the rules” using the flash much closer than recommended. An accurate exposure of the small light source isolated the parrot’s head effectively eliminating background distractions. Note the close focusing capability of the X100 — it’s worth zooming into the eye to check the detail.

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 800 1/5 @ f/5.6 -2EV Comp, shot through glass (click to enlarge)

In the underground complex of the Beijing Olympic stadium area I found a partially constructed area that grabbed my eye both for the geometry of the scene as well as the wide tonal range. Boosting ISO to 800 and shooting at f/5.6, I knew the X100 would require extra support so I literally pressed it against a glass window for a 1/5 second exposure. From the position I was shooting a -2EV compensation was required. The tonal detail and the lack of distortion across the image are quite exceptional.

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 6400 1/105 @ f/8 (click to enlarge)

Putting the Fuji X100 through its paces in a brand new Beijing subway station I pushed the ISO to 6400 in order to give myself a hand-holdable exposure of 1/105th second at f/8. Most notable is the smooth “grain” and almost noise free rendering of the image. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that even at this high ISO the darker tones didn’t get muddy and the light elements of the signage were not burnt out.

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 800 1/150 @ f/8 (click to enlarge)

Wandering through a Hutong I ignored the tourists and focused my eyes on the details. Especially anxious to utilize the close-focusing capability of the Fuji X100 I spotted a pair of classic Peking door handles. Boosting the ISO slightly to 800 so that I could use a 1/150 second exposure at f/8 I framed the image accurately in the EVF. The various colors of the world that can all be called “red” are easily distorted but the final image showed this subtle version of crimson was rendered extremely accurately.

Fuji FinePix Sample Photos

ISO 1600 1/100 @ f/5.6 -2EV Comp (click to enlarge)

A difficult lighting situation in the Forbidden City palace, this ceiling was well shielded in deep shadows yet had a component of strong daylight the X100 had to contend with. Raising the ISO to 1600, I could shoot at 1/100 second and f/5.6 but braced myself so I could adjust and automatically expose with -2EV compensation in order to shift the tones of the scene to get a proper rendering. Even with the extreme lighting conditions and high ISO, the 400 year old slightly muted colors and gold leaf details were recorded quite faithfully.

Who’s This Camera For?
The Fuji X100’s image files are a respectable size and since writing data to memory does lock up some controls (like the Hybrid Viewfinder switch) you’ll want to use the fastest SD cards you can get. Fine JPEG’s are about 4.4MB and RAF RAW files are 19.9MB. On 16GB cards the maximum burst of eight takes a painfully slow (one minute, eighteen seconds) to write on 2MB/s rated Class 2, but is more digestible at 37 seconds on a 20MB/s rated Class 10 and more ideally handled in 23 seconds on a 45MB/s rated UHS-1 card.
Although they must exist for others, I couldn’t imagine taking the X100 and using many of the consumer features like the ability to shoot at lower resolutions, tag my favorites or even use the rather elaborate set of controls that allow you to process RAW files with a variety of special settings. My preference is to let the camera provide the optimum quality image capture and post process at a more appropriate time (as a more extreme example a typical RAF fully rendered to 16 bit/300ppi yields a file size of 73.4MB). But one consumer feature I did enjoy is the well implemented variable angle “Motion Panorama” mode which at the 180 degrees setting produces a 7680 x 1440 pixel, 11.1MB file.

Which brings me to the bottom of the camera where the off center tripod socket not only prevents direct rotation on optical axis for panoramas but also is positioned close enough to the battery/memory card door that even a simple tripod Quick Release plate has to be moved to gain access to the door.

My guess is that because the X100 has already had limited release in Asia and Europe there’s been just enough time to realize some kind of cult status. This means there will be aftermarket (and pricy) accessories to help solve some of these problems and make a great handling camera even better.

The Bottom Line
Fujifilm got a lot of people excited when it previewed the X100 in very rough form at Photokina last September. Since that time there’s been a lot of speculation and expectation about what this new form factor camera would be capable of. And now that it’s here it’s currently only available in limited supply. If you’re looking for extremely high quality images from a solidly-built well handling compact camera, and can live with a single focal length lens, then get in line quickly, it was worth the wait.

Pros: Outstanding image quality; great handling camera in a classically styled design with a classic field of view

Cons: Slightly quirky operation and controls; not good for action; single focal length lens.
Price: $1,199

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