Review : Fujifilm FinePix X100

Fujifilm claims the high ground with an emphasis on pro photo quality.

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Product Manufacturer: Fujifilm

Price: $1,200

The Good

  • Superb image quality.
  • Bright, quick lens.
  • Exceptionally solid build and grip.
  • Smart physical and on-screen controls.
  • Optical viewfinder with overlay and electronic option.
  • Good preview LCD.
  • Wide range of bracketing modes.
  • Remote shutter option.

The Bad

  • No lens zoom for those that need it.
  • Expensive relative to compacts.
  • Optical viewfinder doesn't aim down the lens.
  • No external microphone input.
  • Not really meant for sustained burst shooting.
Design: body and physical controls

Most Fujifilm cameras have, if anything, focused on being hypermodern and slick, like the F70 EXR. Not so the X100. In part seizing on the trend started by the Olympus E-P1, the X100 is made to deliberately evoke memories of classic 1950s and 1960s cameras, especially rangefinders akin to earlier Leicas.

From a strictly look-and-feel perspective, the X100 has definitely succeeded. It's a wonderfully evocative design, and the build quality is tangibly better than not just Fujifilm's line (which is normally good, but not great) but many entry DSLR cameras. The frame is real metal, and about the only slight disappointment is the that the leather-look outer cover is actually hard plastic, although that will make many anti-leather advocates happy. Either way, the X100 is a definite attention-getter and feels great in the hand; both the materials and the ergonomics produce a reassuring grip.

It's on the outside that you see the first clues of how relatively specialized the camera is. Rather than have the familiar PASM (programmed auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual) dial, the main dial is actually focused all around shutter speeds: flick the dial to a given value, anywhere from 1/4 to 1/4,000, and the camera will try to give the best possible aperture for that speed. If you're experienced, it means you can choose a slow shutter speed for low light but fairly still shots, or else a high shutter speed for bright (usually outdoors) scenes where you're trying to catch fast movement, such as in sports. There's also long-exposure options using either time-based (T) or bulb (B) methods if you're shooting a star field.

Much like Canon's G-series, there's also an exposure compensation dial on the top. It's undeniably convenient for a camera that focuses on brightness above all else, since it can help make up for a very sunny day or strong shadows. The rest of the top layout is helpful, too: there's a programmable function button for your most common tasks, the obligatory hot-shoe for a flash and some accessories, and a socket for a remote shutter control.

What most distinguishes the camera, and affects virtually the entire control layout, is on the front: the lens ring. Along with a focus ring, there's a dedicated aperture ring. It gives very easy control over the brightness and depth of field in the shot but also obviates the need for the PASM controls in the first place through a unique combo control system. Want aperture priority? Set the aperture to a specific value and leave the main dial at "A." Shutter priority? Set the ring to "A" and pick a shutter speed. As you'd imagine, setting both to "A" is full automatic, and specific numbers for both amounts to full manual control. It's initially confusing if you're a veteran of high-end cameras, but we quickly got used to it and found it very fast for getting just the right settings.

A look at the back reinforces the semi-pro emphasis. Fujifilm's four-point directional system will be familiar to just about anyone, but there's also features you'd more often expect from a DSLR, such as autofocus/auto-exposure lock and a thumb switch for when you're looking into the viewfinder. The pad also has a "stealth" jogwheel we really liked for quickly scrolling through settings. There weren't any real complaints here, although we wished there were a dedicated sensitivity (ISO) button, since it's something we want to change often; a few cameras, like the Panasonic GF2, go that route.

There's not much to the sides, though there's still more than some in this class. A switch on the side provides either manual focus, servo focus for more continuous shooting, and the usual contrast autofocus. On the right is a mini HDMI output for previews as well as Fujifilm's usual combo USB/RCA jack. That gives it compatibility with earlier Fujifilm camera accessories, but we still wish the company would move away from its proprietary cables. The standard mini USB on many cameras makes it much easier to attach a camera if you don't have a card reader and lost your cable. No microphone input is available, though that's forgivable for a camera centered more heavily than usual on stills.

Menuing, the display, and the viewfinder

In part because of the physical controls, the on-screen menu system is laid out differently than on most cameras. The basic menu's top item is, thankfully, the ISO we were looking for, and much of everything right at the top level is oriented towards immediate shooting conditions we found very useful. Again slightly confusing at first, many of the special modes, such as movie recording, bracketing modes, and panoramas, are tucked into the "drive" menu rather than in the main area or the dial, but we ended up liking it in the end for the simplicity. Deeper settings, like red eye compensation and noise reduction behavior, are smartly broken off into a separate settings category where they're quicker to find.

Information on the display is well distributed and easy to interpret. One major touch that's still rare in cameras with non-removable cameras is the built-in level. It's easy to interpret, auto-adjusts for the camera's orientation, and is a tremendous boon if you're trying to go for a truly horizon-guided shot.

The main LCD is a pleasure to look at. Its 460,000-pixel resolution is strictly par for the course, but it's sharp, produces good color, and has wide viewing angles. You'll still face some trouble reading the display on a bright day, though the viewfinder helps alleviate some of that complaint.

Bucking the trend from increasingly compact models like the Canon S95, Olympus E-PL2, or again the Panasonic GF2, the X100 has a large and very much real optical viewfinder. It even has a party trick: going beyond even what a DSLR does, it has an electronic overlay that shows most of the LCD's information through the eyepiece. If you're a traditionalist or just keen on conserving battery power, you can spend virtually all your time staring through the eyepiece.

If there's a central quirk with the camera, though, it's the position of that viewfinder. Fujifilm has put it in the same location as on a vintage rangefinder; unfortunately, that also offsets it well away from the actual lens and doesn't reflect the real camera settings.. As such, you're not seeing what you'll actually get out of the camera, just a sense of what the lens is aimed at. Photographers used to a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeables with electronic viewfinders will be disappointed. There is an electronic viewfinder option if you need it, though it's noticeably smaller and not as sharp as the optical kind.

Image quality

Everything in the X100 revolves around the match-up of the 12-megapixel sensor and the lens. The camera is Fujifilm's first non-DSLR to have an APS-C-sized sensor; that's larger even than Micro Four Thirds and leagues beyond usual point-and-shoot sensors. In practice, it amounts to accepting much more light at similar settings and both better tolerance for low light as well as cleaner, more detailed shots.

The lens is in itself special and also makes our review trickier. It's a 23mm, f2-16 lens with, unusually, a fixed zoom. Users of many more expensive cameras will be used to these "pancake" lenses; unlike those cameras, though, the lens can't be taken off. That wide, relatively up-close focus almost immediately determines the role of the X100. You can shoot macros as close as 3.9 inches, regular portraits, and landscape shots, but you won't be using it from ten rows back at a concert or to capture a macro from several feet away. Simply put, if you were looking for an all-purpose camera, you'll need to look elsewhere.

If that's not an issue, then you're in for a treat. The X100 has one of the best pancake lenses we've seen, and that's saying something given the emphasis on optics in that category. If you can shoot at the widest f2 aperture or close to it, images are almost disconcertingly sharp and well-lit with rich colors. Focus isn't necessarily DSLR-fast but is noticeably speedier than for most point-and-shoots. That same aperture creates a depth of field effect that can have a pleasing soft background, but it's not so shallow as to leave most of the subject out of focus. If anything, the lens and sensor are almost too receptive, as there were moments when we needed to dial down the exposure, ISO levels, or both to avoid blown-out lighting.

And while the fixed zoom definitely limits the potential of the camera, the output along with the emphasis on manual controls was very valuable for improving technique. Even as were already aware of the tradeoffs between aperture and shutter speed, the X100 encouraged experimentation that's usually not as accessible. It's not hard to try for a bokeh (almost stage-like shallow depth of field) shot but narrow the aperture to get a wider depth of field and a slightly darker image.

Light sensitivity is much more tolerant on the X100 than on most semi-pro compacts and generally lets you shoot at lower ISO levels than you might have to otherwise, even with a standard zoom lens on a DSLR. Noise becomes fairly apparent at ISO 1,600 and above, and we wouldn't want to use ISO 6,400 or the special ISO 12,800 mode unless it was very dark and we were still forbidden from using a flash. Having said this, noise here produces a color-neutral and even slightly pleasing film grain effect where some cameras tend to show mottled colors.

The flash itself is unspectacular and is relatively short range. Only if you need it, however. Because of the bright lens and large sensor, we rarely had to invoke the flash at all and left it off more often than not.

A demonstration of aperture changes: the first photo at f2 is focused on the woman's face (hence the lower exposure) with a very soft background, while the next two shots (at f4 and f16) focus on a wider swath of the scene and make the background sharper In this case, it also brightened the scene since outdoor light was factored in.

There's very little handholding on this camera, so to get best results, you'll definitely need to be aware of the limits of photography. To us, that was the only real limitation in image quality. It's not hard to over-expose a shot or induce blur if your'e not paying attention. Thankfully, the good lens and the camera controls were good ways to reel the image quality back in and get the right shot.

Special modes: bracketing, panoramas, and movies

The sensor uses the same basic EXR technology as behind most of Fujifilm's earlier cameras, so you get many multi-shot options. Here, though, they're clearly reoriented towards experienced photographers who understand the terminology. Almost all of the modes are focused on bracketing, or taking samples both above and below the user's settings. You can account for dynamic range, exposure, ISO levels, and even simulated film types.

In practice, the bracketing modes were as you'd expect: sometimes useful, sometimes not. They were most important at those points where it was clear the results would be a gamble. We most often turned to dynamic range and exposure bracketing, since they were most likely to give at least one photo that looked acceptable in a borderline case.

Using exposure bracketing: as it steps through the exposures, the colors of the sunset go from washed out to increasingly darker but more accurate.

Continuous still shooting is downplayed on the camera, though there's notable three- and five-shot burst modes that do fire off quickly.

A more direct import from the company's regular camera line, like the FinePix HS10, is a sweep panorama mode. The feature works just as you'd expect and involves slowly rotating yourself to create an arc that's automatically stitched together. We don't expect it to be used too often for the X100's audience. The approach works best only in a scene with little movement, and scenes with live activity are best stitched together manually.

Panorama mode with artifacts of moving subjects (click for a large version)

Movie making isn't really the X100's focus. Even so, it's surprisingly good. The 720p image is understandably very clean and captures a good amount of detail. Audio quality out of the microphone was uncharacteristically bright and clear for something built in, too.

Limitations do show up but appear to be limitations more of the nature of the camera format than anything under Fujifilm's direct control. We noticed a rolling shutter effect during fast pans, often known as the "tower of Jell-O" effect for the appearance it gives of tall subjects wobbling while the sensor struggles to catch up. There's no continuous autofocus on close objects, either, so a subject that wasn't already reasonably in focus won't be. Still, for more deliberate pans and most on-the-street shooting, the X100 is up to the task.

Wrapping up

The X100 isn't an easy choice to make if you're just shopping casually. At $1,200, it's twice as expensive as an entry-level interchangeable lens camera and three times as much as advanced compacts like the S95. To some extent, that's understandable and a definite consideration. If you genuinely value zoom or are just looking for a camera with more control, an entry-level DSLR like the Canon T3 or Nikon D3100, or a mirrorless interchangeable camera, will get you as much and sometimes more for less.

And yet it was hard not to be enamored with the X100 once we got used to it. The retro look and metal body are not-so-subtle attempts at appealing to your emotional side, but we couldn't help but grow attached to it for all the right reasons, too. You want to shoot with this camera often, in as many situations as you can. You want to experiment with it. The image quality is like that of a DSLR mated to a good lens, but in a much smaller and frankly more interesting body.

Accordingly, we're more inclined to compare the X100 to those high-end cameras than to point-and-shoots, even at the high end. When you do, the pricing is much more in line. It's not uncommon in the DSLR world to pay at least $1,200 for the combination of a basic body and a good pancake or macro lens. If you know how you're going to shoot, or you're looking for a second camera as a sidearm next to a more general purpose camera, why not get it in a smaller body?

As such, it's easy to like the X100 and give it a good general recommendation. It's absolutely essential to be aware of what the camera can do, but there's so much power inside that it feels like the last compact camera you'd ever need. It almost pained us to have to hand the camera back, and that speaks volumes about what Fujifilm has done. The company still has a long way to go in establishing itself as a premium camera maker; nonetheless, the X100 makes a tremendous leap forward in the right direction.