Again About the X100?

With the help of a kind soul in Alaska, I managed to buy a new Fujifilm Finepix X100 from a camera shop in Canada. I’ve had it for about seven weeks, I’ve taken more than 1,600 pictures with it, and I now feel compelled to add to the sea of ill-informed, strongly-held opinions swamping photography forums across the Internet, my own opinion being equally ill-informed, but perhaps not quite so strongly held. I was attracted to it in part because of its design, which is undeniably beautiful, but mostly because of the extensive manual control it offered–not out of nostalgia or in a vain grasping after authenticity, but because I’m very much in the early stages of learning how to take pictures, and the more decisions I make about each picture I take, the more I learn. Even for my DSLR, I had winnowed my lenses down to four primes, three of which are manual focus only, and I was having a ball with them.

In the weeks I’ve had it, I’ve come to use the X100 differently than I’ve used my DSLR and previous cameras. I’ve always shot using a viewfinder of one sort another, from the Instamatic I used for the school newspaper in fourth grade through my current DSLR, with the exception of my year with a Micro Four-Thirds camera, during which I never quite got used to shooting using the LCD screen on its back. But with the X100 I’ve taken to shooting fully manually, but from the hip. This is something I could do with many, many other cameras, including my DSLR, but the X100 is ideal for this for a few reasons:

  • It’s very small, so it attracts very little attention when framing a shot.
  • It’s essentially silent, so it also attracts very little attention when taking a shot (or even several shots in succession).
  • Finally, without a mirror to flip up when shooting, it’s easier to get steady, sharp pictures with it at the end of its strap, rather than pressed to my face.

I just set it to f8 and ISO 400, set the focus to fifteen feet, and shoot away. I’ve even gotten to the point where I’m able to pretty accurately guess the right shutter speed (which I can adjust using the mechanical dial on top of the camera) without using the meter. When shooting this way, I make sure that the shutter’s always at 1/125 or faster, and if that happens not to be enough light, I increase the ISO (rather than increasing–or is it decreasing? widening?–the aperture) which is another strength of the X100. I’ve been able to take perfectly clear, bright pictures with the ISO set as high as 3200. Unless absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t attempt anything greater than ISO 800 with my DSLR, and even then I would usually expect to do post processing to clean up the noise.

I wouldn’t use the X100 for sports or other action shots or when I wanted a telephoto, but it does also take beautiful composed shots. It’s color rendition is gorgeous, and composing with its hybrid viewfinder has been a revelation. With digital cameras, I’d only ever used electronic viewfinders or LCD screens. Though they do show you exactly what the picture you take will look like (excepting for their low resolution), they show you that and nothing else. An optical viewfinder allows you to see the scene (and some of the area around it) as it actually is. As you get used to shooting this way, you have much more information with which to make decisions as you’re shooting, rather than seeing only the result of the decisions you’ve already made.

And the X100’s optical viewfinder isn’t simply a piece of glass. It’s implemented so that a bright frame, a distance indicator, a virtual horizon, a variety of other statuses, and even an electronic viewfinder can be projected onto it. The bright frame adjusts for parallax down to a little less than three feet, and there a couple of clever options to address the issue of focusing with the optical viewfinder (aside from the distance indicator). One is to press the AFL/AEL button, and the camera will auto-focus using the mode you’ve chosen. This is the method I use whenever I’m actually focusing (as opposed to shooting from the hip), and it works well. I had a parallax problem with it once when shooting a flower from a few feet away, but other than that, I can’t recall any problems with this approach. The other option is to push the command control lever in, and the viewfinder will switch from optical to a magnified electronic view of the spot on which you’re focusing. I haven’t tried that just because I haven’t needed to.

Yet as well made as the X100 is, as much fun as I’ve had shooting with it, and as lovely as the pictures it has taken are, there are an awful lot of complaints about this camera out there. From what I can discern, most of the complaints stem from the camera’s not meeting various expectations that it doesn’t really try to meet. I have the advantage of being too much of a novice to develop unreasonable expectations, so when the camera doesn’t work as I expected it to, I just assume I’m taking the wrong approach and try to determine the right one for this camera. That’s not to say it’s perfect. I can’t see any reason why the command control lever (which I use for adjusting ISO) isn’t a dial instead, and a more precisely responsive one at that. The battery life isn’t what it should be, and the less said about the kludged battery charger, the better. But that’s about it for my complaints. It’s not that I haven’t read (and read and read) all of the other complaints about this camera, or that I haven’t understood them–it’s just that they haven’t affected me. YMMV.