Those who know me well, are aware of my love for Nikon cameras. I got my first Nikon, at the soft age of 18 (a gift from my parents upon my acceptance in the University), a Nikon F2 Photomic with a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor AI lens. With a brief break of two or three years, I always had at least one Nikon camera. So you can say that I am pretty familiar with the way Nikons and Nikkor lenses work. My latest cameras are a Nikon D700 and a D300 dSLRs and several zoom and fixed-focal-length (prime) Nikkors.
A couple of years ago, I decided that it was time to satisfy my long-lasting lust for a Leica camera. I’ve fallen in love with them, by reading about all the great photographers that used them. So I eventually got myself a pristine Leica M6 together with three lenses. My love affair with the new camera was a disaster.
Nikon lenses and Leica lenses work in … opposite ways. In other words, while Nikkors have the aperture ring towards the camera body, Leica lenses have their focusing ring there. And while Nikkors have their focusing ring towards the front of the lens, Leica ones have their aperture rings there. Not only that, but these rings turn in different ways. So using the Leica M6, was for me, an exercise in futility. My subjects (unless they were inanimate) were bored before I was done setting up the camera for the picture. So I sold the Leica and decided to focus on Nikons for the rest of my life.
However, I always wanted to shoot “Leica-style” i.e. with a rangefinder camera. The only problem being that the only Leica-style cameras in the market were those made by Leica, so the lenses problem was a deterrent again and the price was outside my budget.
That was true until about November 2010, when a brand new camera from Fujifilm, stirred the water. It was the all-new X100, a retro-looking camera, with enough digital features to make photographers take notice. I won’t do a detailed presentation of the X100 in here, Google can help you find several reviews in the net. These started appearing on the Internet soon after the camera was presented to the public and all were unanimous: excellent picture quality but quirky user interface. Fujifilm corrected some of the problems shooters have been complaining about, but there were still quite a few that they didn’t fix, in the latest version of the camera’s firmware (1.12).
After making sure that the X100 lens operated in a way similar to the Nikkors I am used to, I decided to buy one and try it out. Below, I describe my personal experience with this camera, after about two months of using it.
First of all, the good news:
- The picture quality is indeed amazing. The X100 has a 12 Mpixels APS-C size sensor, which produces amazing pictures.
- The quality of the camera is top notch. The body is made of magnesium alloy and the camera feels as solid as a vault in your hands.
- The camera controls allow the photographer to take full control over any picture situation. Having independent control dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation, together with an aperture ring on the fixed-focal-length lens, allow you to take full control of your shooting and of the picture you’ll get.
- The camera’s hybrid viewfinder (a standard optical viewfinder combined with an electronic one) is a joy to use and gives you a lot of flexibility to match different shooting conditions.
- The fixed, prime lens with which Fujifilm equipped this camera is as sharp as any lens I have ever tried, even in its widest aperture setting. Its “macro” capabilities are a bonus, which was greatly appreciated.
- The camera is light, as expected. You can carry it around all day long, and you will never feel its weight.
- Finally, the mechanics of the camera are also top notch, providing positive feedback from all controls, with the single exception being the lens focusing ring, which is a disaster (more later).
However, the camera is seriously disadvantaged by its firmware. More precisely:
There are a lot of inconsistencies in the way the camera operates. Take for example its focusing system, which appears to be right there at the top, equivalent to any dSLR focusing system in the market. After all, it has manual focusing, single-point auto-focus and continuous auto-focus. So what more could you ask for?
Well, the way the focusing system operates, is totally different than in any other camera. First of all it uses Contrast Detection instead of Phase Detection, which by itself is NOT a bad thing. The way however that Fuji implemented the focusing system is a disaster.
For example, while the camera has a “manual” setting for focusing and there is a focusing ring on the lens, it has no manual focusing system. Read that again. The camera can’t be manually focused, no way. What Fujifilm means when saying “manual focusing” is similar to AF-S of any Nikon dSLR. You press the shutter release button to focus, instead of using the focusing ring on the lens. This last one is a disaster, it takes about 10 full turns to go from infinity to the lens’s closest focusing distance and that is NOT an exaggeration.
Another issue: on any digital camera I have ever owned, focusing is initiated by a single, consistent action, no matter what your focusing mode the camera is in. For example, on Nikons, you either initiate focusing by half-pressing the shutter release or (if you have selected that in the menus), by pressing the AF-On button. The procedure is the same, no matter if you use AF-S or AF-C focusing mode, one button starts focusing. Not so with the X100, if you are in manual focusing mode, focusing is initiated by the AE-L/AF-L button, but if you switch to AF-S or AF-C focusing mode, then focusing is initiated by pressing the shutter release. Very … consistent Fuji, thanks!
As I said above, the camera has an AE-L/AF-L button at the rear, just like the Nikons. And it even allows you to select if you want that button to lock exposure or lock focus, or both. So, what’s the issue here? Well, if you are using AF-S or AF-C, then this button locks focus, but if you are using manual focusing, then it initiates and locks focus, as mentioned above. Consistent?! Neah!
Oh yes, in AF-S mode, you also loose the ability to zoom in on your focusing point to verify that the camera has focused correctly, something you can do in manual focusing mode. Sounds strange? Believe me, it is. Oh and let me tell you one more strange thing. While in AF-S mode, there is an optical confirmation that the camera has acquired focus (the focusing indicator in the viewfinder turns green), there is no such confirmation in manual mode, only an audible beep. Why? And that beep is muted, if you turn off the camera sounds, so there is nothing to tell you that the camera has focused on your subject or not. Or in a slightly noisy environment, it is impossible to hear that beep, so again, you have no confirmation that the camera has acquired focus.
Want more? The focusing works differently in portrait mode than in landscape mode. In other words, if you hold the camera in vertical position, it has less chances of focusing on a subject than if you hold it horizontally. Strange, but it has been reported on the Internet and it is true.
Other inconsistencies? While the camera can focus down to about 30 cm from the front of the lens in manual mode, it can’t do so in AF-S or AF-C mode. In these two modes, you have to manually switch on the “macro” mode, from the controls at the rear of the camera, which is a pain. If the camera can focus down to 30 cm in manual mode, without any manual setting from the shooter, why can’t it do so in AF-S or AF-C mode?!
More inconsistencies? If you use the AF-S mode, you are allowed to select the size of the focusing area, in your viewfinder (smaller for a more accurate focusing, larger for general shooting). However, you can not do the same in manual focusing mode nor in the AF-C mode, where the focusing area is one-size only. Why!??!
To sum it up, it appears that the focusing is the strongest complaint between the X100 users community.
More inconsistencies? While the camera can show a histogram in your viewfinder, if you want one, it displays the histogram in some shooting modes, but not in others.
The software engineers who created the camera’s firmware, seemed to … well, let’s say that they seem not to have ever taken one single picture in their lives. What I mean by that is that they have included all (or nearly all) functions that a shooter needs from the camera, but they buried them deep in the menus system. Take for example the fact that you have to go in the menus system to format the memory card. Why couldn’t they assign a pair of buttons, which would do the format, when pressed together, the way Nikon does? Or the fact that you again need to go in the menus system, to use the ND (neutral density) filter that the camera has. On the other hand they have used a “RAW” button on the camera. What this does, is to allow the photographer to switch between raw files and jpg files for his pictures. Now how many photographers do you know, that change their file selection, when shooting? Usually, you select what you want to get (raw or jpg) and leave it like that for ever, since your post processing depends on that. It’s not as if you change back and forth between the two formats every 10 minutes. Why did the engineers bother to give us that button instead of something more useful, is something only them can tell us.
And this mindless lack of consistency goes on and on and on. It’s like as if Fujifilm had its top engineers design the hardware and then brought in the second (or the fourth) team to do the firmware. Or that Fujifilm spend too much time designing the hardware and they didn’t have enough time to complete the firmware by the scheduled announcement day.
But the camera has been in the market for more than a year now and we have only seen very little corrections in its firmware. There is no excuse for that. Fuji needs to come up with a new firmware that will correct those issues.
There are unfortunately, other problems with the camera too. Take for example the next-to-useless lens cap. The one Fujifilm supplies with the camera is a great-looking cap, but I assure you, you will loose it sooner rather than later. It’s a push-on cap, which stays on the lens only by the friction its felt-cover internal surface exercises on the lens barrel. The slightest nudge will set it free and you will be lucky if you noticed it. I lost mine in a taxi ride in Las Vegas, when I was going to a camera store to buy a spare battery for the camera, but didn’t noticed it until I returned back to my hotel. The replacement is not exactly cheap, it costs 25 british pounds to buy one and it’s not an item usually stocked by your friendly camera store around the corner.
Another problem is the fact that the lens doesn’t have a filter thread, at the front. You need to buy a filter adapter if you want to mount a filter on your lens. And that filter adapter, comes with a dedicated, special hood that goes with it. Total cost for these two items a whopping $120!! Thank God for the Chinese, you can get a complete adaptor-hood set for $20 from eBay.
So you may ask, do I hate the X100? Have I sold it already and replaced it with another Nikon? After all, the Leica M6 didn’t lasted two months, before I got rid of it.
Well, no. I love the X100. I love the light weight of this camera, its hybrid viewfinder, the quality of the pictures produced by it. However, I use it in a special way, which I believe is what most of its users do with it.
First of all, I decided that I would use this camera in the simplest possible way, just like as if it was my old Nikon F2. In other words, set everything up beforehand, so that when taking pictures, all I need to manipulate is the aperture ring, the shutter speed ring, possilbly the exposure compensation dial and of course the shutter release. I set the focusing method to “manual” (some times I switch to AF-S, but very rarely). I set all the other camera parameters the way I want them in the menus, so that I do not have to go in there again, except for formatting the memory cards. In that way, I avoid all the inconsistencies and all the frustrating issues of the camera.
This “modus operandi” though leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. After paying $1,200 (1000€) for such a camera, you are entitled to a better experience. You are entitled to a fully developed firmware, which doesn’t cause you to take anti-frustration pills every time you pick the camera up. You are entitled to not having to forget all you knew about cameras, just because X100 engineers decided to screw things up.
Fujifilm has announced the evolution of the X100, the XPro-1, in January 2012. A camera similar to the X100 but with interchangeable lenses. I would love to have one someday, it is the closest thing to a Leica, but in a digital form and without the problems of the Leica vs Nikon controls. But I do not think I’ll go fo it, until I can find one to try out. If this camera has the same inconsistencies as the X100, then I am definitely sticking with my Nikons!
Come on Fujifilm, fix our firmware, give us the camera you have promised us and which we paid for.