Fuji changes the game : The X100, X-Pro 1 & X100S

24? 35? 50? 18-200? 55-200? 105? 70-200? 180? X – Infinity? No more of that. For the last 10 years, ever since the dawn of (digital) photography, manufacturers and consumers have strived to sell/buy more gear, sometimes almost identical except for a couple of minor improvements.
“Hmm, I have a 55-200 but they just came out with the 55-200 VR and for a mere 250$ I can have that! My pictures are BOUND to be astronomically better right? Right? It’s newer so it MUST be better right? I don’t really need it but that’s OK, because my pictures will be better right?”

The X100 captures colors and details perfectly, even in challenging light situations

It all got a little too hectic. You know it all gets a little bit too hectic when specific diseases are being invented for photography-related symptoms : GAS. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. The pathology was that irreversible, endless need to buy new gear in the vain hope that it would dramatically improve your photography. That monkey in your brain telling you ‘buy this, buy that’ Who cares you don’t need it. It’s better, better I tell ya!” The cure? Simplification. The pharmaceutical company? Fuji.

Then Fuji came along. Before that there were the micro 4/3rd cameras. The idea was good, the execution not so much. Picture quality or image quality is decided by a number of factors, but one of the biggest factors is the sensor size. The idea of a mirrorless, interchangeable lens system in a small body was good, but the fact that they still used those tiny sensors really ruined the image quality.

Fuji noticed this, and intelligently avoided this trap when they were designing the X100, X-Pro 1 and X100S. The X100 features a APS-C sized sensor (that’s right, the same sensor size as in the professional Nikon D300S and such) and the X-Pro1 and X100S also have an APS-C sized sensor, though another one than the X100. That’s right, you read that right. You have (potential) DSLR quality in a tiny body. Why is this important? For street photography it is crucial, but not only that.

The sensor has no problems with straight and intersecting lines

The sensor has no problems with straight and intersecting lines

For decades Leica had been the unquestioned champion of photojournalism and street photography. Their classic, timeless designs and image quality were legend. Every self-respecting photographer had a Leica M-body and a 35mm f/2 lens. It allowed you to capture life without intruding.

Then the (d)Slr made it appearance. Through-The-Lens viewing was interesting, as it avoided the problems created by parallax, and it was literally ‘what you see is what you get’, which made photography easier. Lenses and accessories started sprouting like mushrooms. Minds became clouded. Which lens to take? Ah, the 35mm f/2 is sharp as a tack, but what if my subject is too far?  I don’t want to walk all that way! Are ya crazy? I’ll take the 55-200. Or no, wait, the 50mm. that’s also sharp. Hmm same conundrum.

Details are crisp across the image, even at f/4

Details are crisp across the image, even at f/4

And so people often went out shooting with 3 lenses, a battery grip, a huge bag, without ever being sure of getting a single decent shot.

Cartier-Bresson said it best :

Il faut etre receptif. Quand on veut, on n’obtient rien, il ne faut pas vouloir

You must be receptive.  When you want, you’ll obtain nothing. You just have to record life as it unfolds before you. And that’s something you can’t do when your mind is filled with noise. Which lens to use? Which aperture? Flash or not? Djeez this bag is getting heavy, maybe i should go home, i’ll try tomorrow.

Your mind is cluttered with noise, and as Zack Arias tells it, it should be filled with signal. Back to basics. Back to essentials. You, your eyes & mind and a device to record what you see. Doesn’t matter which device, as long as it serves its purpose. A camera with 3 lenses in a bag but none on the body won’t record it as well as one camera with a fixed lens. All the great photographers knew and know this. Ernst Haas famously said this. He once had two ladies in one of his workshops. Both ladies were arguing over which of their Leica was the better one. Haas, a longtime user of Leica, burst out saying these famous words : “Leica, schmeica. The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But you have to see” 

And that’s what signal is all about. Seeing.

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A large sensor means good ISO performance. The X100 performs amazingly.

Fuji got this. So they introduced the X100 & X100S. Tiny, beautiful body, fixed 35mm f/2 lens. It was made to be shot on the streets. It’s tiny, discreet and silent. You can’t fumble around and you aren’t distracted by different lenses, and whatnot. You focus on shooting. This thing is deadly silent. I’ve stood a meter away from people and shot them without them even noticing. And even if they notice, they mostly don’t care. Why? Because it’s not as menacing as a dSlr. You don’t have a big camera and lens staring down your face as a subject. That intimidates people, it does. I’ve noticed it during my street shooting. You literally see them thinking “What the hell is that guy doing? Why does he need my picture? He’s got professional equipment, he must work for some P.I company, or worse – the government.” It puts up a barrier between you and your subjects. Subjects are always best for photographs when they are at ease. Same thing for street photography. It really does make a difference.

First, the basics and the looks : It looks incredible. Fuji definitely borrowed a page from Leica’s M-cameras for the design, but who cares. Every dslr looks alike due to design requirements. Glad to finally see a more affordable camera with a nice design. It’s retro, it’s all metal/aluminum so you know it’s solid. The optional leather housing for the camera (LX-100 I believe) is gorgeous and really complements the camera. That brown leather just increases the camera’s beauty. It’s outrageously priced (150€ I believe) but you’ll find lower quality knockoffs on the internet if you’re into that. The stitching, material and overall quality of the Fuji case is pristine however. If you can spare the bucks, buy it. The top buttons, knobs and aperture ring are also made of this same metal. The clicks occur smoothly when you switch them, it’s a delight. The back however, isn’t as great. The buttons are relatively small. I have narrow fingers so it’s not really a problem for me, but I can easily imagine someone with fatter fingers having problems pressing the OK button.

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No mirror means no vibration. This was handheld at 1/17th of a second and it’s tack sharp. 1/17th!

This also leads us to one of the major drawbacks of this camera (because like every other camera in the world, it’s not a perfect camera. That doesn’t exist) : the menu is not well engineered. It’s illogical, you’ve only got 2 tabs and 4-6 pages of menu in each tab so changing a setting is highly frustrating. They partially fixed that with the X100S that has the convenient ‘Q’ button where the X100 has a ‘RAW’ button. This allows quick access to all major menu functions in the X100S. We can only hope that Fuji will put that function on the RAW button with a next firmware update (update : they did).

Next: autofocus. The first firmware that shipped with the X100 was a disaster. Autofocus was the most frustrating thing in the world. Today we’re at Firmware 1.30 and things have greatly improved (update : FW 2.0 and it’s amazing). Unlike other brands, Fuji keeps updating this thing, which is amazing. They don’t sell you something and then never improve it. Now, this is a rangefinder-like camera, so you’ve got multiple options for autofocus.
You’ve got the amazing Hybrid Optical Viewfinder. This thing is the bomb. When I look through the viewfinder of my dslr I can’t help but cringe. So basic. So old. The hybrid viewfinder is amazing. It combines an optical viewfinder with real-time superimposed information like an electronic level. After you snap a pic, you immediately get a preview in the viewfinder. No more looking back and forth with your back LCD. I swear, this is the feature that has made me hate my dslr most. They improved the screen of the viewfinder in de X100S I’ve heard. Some still say it’s slow, I haven’t seen this as a problem. Evidently it’s not as fast as a dslr, but that’s normal. For the street shooting I do, it’s fast enough. Who knows, Fuji will improve it even further in firmware 1.40. Time will tell.

Image Quality : This is where the X100 really shines. The image quality is superb. The colors are rendered beautifully and accurately. Fuji used to make film, so they know what they’re doing. It just works. That translates into gorgeous in-camera JPEG’s. I still shoot RAW because in the end I want maximum control over my image, but I was blown away by the JPEG’s this camera produces. They are by far the best I’ve seen lately coming out of any camera. Even the D800.

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Noise-wise the X100 and X100S are no slouches. I usually set it to auto-ISO with a max of 800/1600 and minimum shutter speed of 1/60th. The fact that this is a mirrorless camera means I can get super sharp snaps at 1/60th. At 800 ISO the noise is irrelevant. at 1600 you’ll see it, and at 3200 it’ll be annoying but usuable. I’d rather have a grainy picture than a blurry one. As living legend Jay Maisel says on using low ISO’s : Your pixels will be fine, but your picture won’t! Make your choices, place your bets.

The only thing that annoys me profoundly and that hasn’t gotten better with the firmware updates is the battery life. It is horrible. You’ll get 300 shots tops out of the camera. The battery meter is equally horrible. A battery icon with 3 little stripes. When the 3 are lit, battery is anywhere between 100% and 50% of battery power. That is a HUGE difference. 2 bars lit, and you’re below 50%, 1 bar lit and you’re f$cked. Come on, don’t tell me you can’t make it any more accurate. Maybe not to the 1% accurate like Nikon, but at least put 5 bars or something. In any way, don’t use 1 bar to represent 50%, that’s just bonkers.
The upside to this is that Fuji uses the NP-95 battery that is NOT exclusive to this camera. It’s been out there for quite a while, so substitutes are cheap and plenty. For a day’s shooting (leaving the camera on) I recommend packing 2-3 batteries. They’re tiny, so no biggy.

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Geometry is everything

All in all this is a fan-tastic camera.
Is it perfect? No. Neither is the Nikon D3, D800, D4, Dwhatever. The perfect camera is a myth, like the coveted life-elixir. It can’t be built. Not now, not never because in the end it’s subjective to every shooter’s wishes and demands.
Is it for everybody? No, this camera takes getting used to. The viewfinders are quite different from what everyone’s accustomed to. Parallax will be new to a lot of users, and you have to learn how to ‘see’ the way the camera does. Once you learn how to see like the camera however, the images you’ll get will blow you away. This tiny package really, really delivers.

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Is it the perfect camera for street photography? Given the current state of things and available cameras I’d say it’s the closest camera to get there. It does away with the noise, and gives you signal. It’s tiny so you can take it anywhere. The best camera is the one that’s with you. It’s the one that enables you to record life as it unfolds before you. It enables you  to be discreet, to not intimidate people. It doesn’t set you back 10,000$ like a Leica.

Happy shooting

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2 thoughts on “Fuji changes the game : The X100, X-Pro 1 & X100S

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