Handling the Fujifilm X10

The X10 is a small camera in comparison to mirrorless interchangeable lens models, but remains a decent 'handful' and is decidedly less pocketable than the smallest of its high-end peers like the Canon PowerShot S100. This is due in part to the lens barrel, which protrudes from the camera even with the lens rotated to its 'off' position. In this view you can also see the X10's hotshoe and metal exposure mode dial on the top-plate. The rounded rectangle on the far left is actually the top of the flash housing, which is popped out using a mechanical catch on the rear of the camera.

Overall handling

The X10 provides an extremely satisfying handling experience in almost every regard. The camera feels reassuringly solid in hand. The slightly raised profile of the handgrip provides a sure grip from the front of the camera while a contoured thumb pad on the rear further contributes to a camera that is very comfortable to hold.

The camera's ample supply of buttons and dials is thoughtfully arranged, with key controls within easy reach from the shooting position. The lens is zoomed by rotating its barrel, encouraging a two-handed shooting position that will be second nature to anyone who's used a DSLR or rangefinder camera. Buttons and dials are substantially larger than those found on nearly any other compact camera, which is great news for those of us in the office who disdain having to use our fingernails to engage a control point.

Both the mode dial and exposure compensation button offer resistance that is stiff enough to minimize accidental operation, but not too rigid for easy engagement when necessary. The Fn button sits just to the right of the shutter release, providing a fast, convenient method to alter ISO (which is its default behavior) between shots.

Despite its minimal grip, the X10 fits easily in the hand, giving the thumb easy access to the rear control dial and placing the index finger on the shutter button.

One of the more unique (as opposed to simply retro-inspired) design features of the X10 is the power switch which is integrated into the zoom ring. A hard detent at the 28mm (equiv.) setting indicates by feel when you've reached the widest zoom setting. Rotating the lens beyond this point powers off the camera. While this design may be a matter of personal taste for some, we think this is a clever touch that serves to highlight the tactile user experience that is part of the X10's charm.

Some X10 users have reported problems with the camera not turning on when the lens is rotated from the off position. We experienced this issue very intermittantly with a pre-production sample X10, but we've since used two production-quality samples which have operated flawlessly.

Specific handling issues

For all that we find enjoyable about the X10's handling, there are some annoyances. Waking the camera from sleep requires you to press and hold the shutter button for a couple of seconds. You can make the X10 behave more sensibly and wake with a press only by enabling Quick Start mode; however this will reduce the camera's already paltry battery life.

Neither do we understand the rationale behind screen options disappearing after just two seconds of inactivity when pressing the 4-way controller buttons (drive, macro, timer and flash). By contrast, the AE, AF, Fn, white balance and RAW buttons display their onscreen options until you actively dismiss them, a much more sensible approach.

We'd also like the ability to disable the onscreen graphic that accompanies each rotation of the mode dial. It remains on screen for a second or two before returning you to the shooting information view. While you can dismiss the graphic immediately by pressing any button on the camera, this feels like an unecessary step, especially given the level of users that Fujifilm is targetting with this camera.

Something we do appreciate though, is that the X10's RAW button can be customized. Following the release of firmware version 1.0.3 this button can now be assigned any one of the same set of options available to the Fn button. Even better, re-assigning a parameter to either the Fn or RAW buttons can be done simply by holding down either button for a couple of seconds, which brings up the list of assignable parameters. What we're not fond of, however, is if you set a parameter that is unavailable in a particular shooting mode, a button press fails to do anything. We'd prefer an onscreen message stating that the selected feature is unavailable. A relatively minor issue, to be sure, but one that feels less like a deliberate omission than something Fujifilm's engineers simply weren't paying attention to.

The X10's menu system makes navigating to your desired function a needlessly tedious affair. There are only two tabs, which seems sensible enough until you realize just how many pages of information each one houses. We'd much prefer an interface that lets you jump per page instead of forcing you to scroll item by item. The X10 has an 'Info Off' setting which provides an uncluttered view of the scene. Yet, as soon as you half-press the shutter (or rotate the control dial in MF mode) the exposure bar reappears along the bottom of the screen. This makes precise framing nearly impossible, particularly if you use a focus-recompose technique.

A larger disappointment though is with the onscreen menu display. To call it uninspiring would be generous. Perhaps Fujifilm intended the retro design language to extend to all aspects of the camera's operation, but a two-tab, page-driven menu system simply feels outdated. Fortunately, with all of the external controls available you don't have to delve deeply in submenus on a regular basis.

In live view mode, the UI design presents a more serious obstacle. A gray bar runs along the bottom of the screen displaying shooting mode and exposure information. Unfortunately, this obscures a sizeable chunk of the live view area, hindering precise composition. Even if you customize the display setting and remove all selectable features, the gray bar (now devoid of information) still remains. The only way to get rid of it is to select the Information Off menu option. Yet even in this mode, the exposure bar appears every time the shutter button is half-pressed. Shooting handheld, using a focus-recompose technique means this distracting element remains onscreen as you try to compose the image.

The X10's optical viewfinder is made of glass (vs. plastic), and zooms with the lens. Like all such viewfinders in compact cameras though, its usefulness is limited by parallax errors at close focussing distances, a relatively small scene coverage (approx 85%) and of course the absence of the exposure information that can be overlayed on the camera's rear LCD screen. Another minor annoyance when using the optical finder is that the X10's lens is visible, blocking a portion of the view. This can be very irritating when composing relatively close-range portraits, where a good amount of one corner of the scene will be occluded.

In addition, the lens has a small, hard-to-find 39.5mm filter thread. Fujifilm offers the optional LH-X10 combination lens hood/step-up ring which allows a more commonly available 52mm filter. Naturally though, this add-on only increases the area of the viewfinder that is blocked by the the lens. The included lens cap has no connecting strap. Without the lens cap or optional lens hood, its been our experience that the lens quickly ends up with a fingerprint or two from casual handling.

Most of the complaints outlined above are fairly minor, and do little to take away from the pleasurable experience of operating the X10. The amount of manual control that is easily available means you can quickly adjust settings between shots while still remaining engaged with your subject. In short, the X10 feel and handles like a serious photographic tool; one of a select few compact cameras about which this can be said.

Bright manual zoom lens

In addition to using a large (for a compact camera) 2/3 inch sensor, Fujifilm has sought to distinguish the X10 by mating it with a 28-112mm (equiv.) fast F2-2.8 lens. Not only does this allow you to use lower ISO sensitivities in dim light, you also have the ability to create shallower depth of field than is possible with most compact cameras. Don't get too excited though - X10's lens gives similar depth of field control to a 28-112mm F7.9-11 lens on a full-frame DSLR.

We like having a fast F2-2.8 len,s and appreciate the mechanically driven zoom operation. Integrating the power switch with the zoom ring is a clever design as well. Yet you can see that the viewfinder window is placed almost dead center over the lens barrel, where it intrudes into the scene at focal lengths wider than 50mm (equiv.)

In this view you can also see the focus mode switch with options for continuous and single AF modes as well as manual focus.

The X10's lens is manually zoomed by rotating the barrel, and this movement is mechanically linked to the optical viewfinder, meaning you drive the viewfinder as you extend the lens. The lens has smooth travel across its range, and popular focal length markings (conveniently notated in their 35mm equivalents) are etched onto the lens barrel. The mechanically-driven lens and viewfinder design has two key advantages. The first is that it gives a pleasantly direct feeling of control over the lens' behavior, allowing continuous (rather than stepped) zooming. Crucially it also means the camera isn't dependent on its battery for driving the lens and viewfinder. The X10's rather small battery is rated at 270 shots per charge - which would be even lower if it had more work to do.