Fujifilm FinePix X100 In-Depth Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent sensor offering superb image quality even at high ISO settings
- High quality lens with excellent cross-frame sharpness, and minimal distortion and chromatic aberration (although see Cons below)
- Exceptional build quality - extremely solid, yet not too heavy
- Intuitive and straightforward traditional control layout (aperture ring, shutter speed and EC dials)
- Ground-breaking hybrid viewfinder works extremely well - large, bright and clear, with detailed exposure information in optical finder
- High quality EVF for critical composition
- Essentially silent operation
- Highly flexible and configurable Auto ISO
- Reliable and accurate metering and white balance systems
Conclusion - Cons
- Camera locks-up certain key functions for several seconds while writing to card (including ISO)
- Requires fastest possible SD cards to give tolerable write speeds when shooting raw
- Several key features buried deep in the menus (Auto ISO configuration, ND filter, flash exposure compensation)
- Autofocus not quite as fast and accurate as the best mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras
- 'Focus by wire' manual focus slow and unresponsive (but accurate)
- No face detection AF system
- Limited customization of controls available
- Inconsistent button operation for secondary controls
- Somewhat buggy firmware and poorly organized menus
- Relatively poorly-implemented video mode
- 4-way controller can feel laggy and imprecise
- Menu/OK button too small and not very positive
- Lens gets very soft at large apertures and close focus distances
The X100 is without doubt one of the most highly-anticipated cameras of recent years, due to its combination of traditional, 'rangefinder-esque' design and the innovative technology of its hybrid optical / electronic viewfinder. The good news about the X100 is that in certain key respects - its basic operation, viewfinder, and image quality - it's excellent, and more than lives up to the pre-release hype. The bad news is that in some other regards - notably shot-to-shot speed and firmware design - it's decidedly flawed.
So let's look at the good points first. Perhaps most importantly, the X100's image quality is excellent; the sensor may not be the latest generation, but it still produces highly-detailed images at low ISOs, coupled with impressive colour rendition and low noise at high ISOs. This is complemented by a lens that is extremely sharp in most situations, with minimal distortion or chromatic aberration; it's only real weakness is when used wide open at short focus distances. Operation is completely silent, and the analogue controls are a joy to use and encourage the user to take creative control.
This all sounds great, but unfortunately the X100 also suffers from a number of operational oddities, quirks and firmware bugs that can rather get in the way of the user experience (although Firmware 1.1 is a real improvement over the original release). These are described in more detail throughout this review; suffice to say that while many are quite minor, and can be worked-around once you know about them, others are potentially more problematic. To Fujifilm's credit, many of the camera's initial eccentricities have been fixed in successive formware updates.
What is very clear, though, is that the X100 isn't a camera to be bought for its peripheral features. Movie mode feels half-hearted at best, with a number of inexplicable operational flaws and limitations, most notably to do with exposure compensation and focusing (it's bizarrely difficult to focus and lock on a specific subject prior to recording). Motion Panorama mode sounds interesting but simply doesn't work very well, and none of the various unconventional bracketing modes (ISO, dynamic range or film simulation) give better results than simply making a single exposure in raw then processing it in-camera after the event.
One aspect of the X100 that's almost impossible to criticize is its image quality. It may not have the most modern sensor available, but it really does get the most out of its 12MP CMOS, providing highly detailed images at low ISOs and remarkably noise-free and colorful output at high ISOs. The dynamic range is already good at default settings, and judicious use of the cameras 'DR' modes can extend highlight range considerably when needed (although at the cost of working at higher ISOs). Overall the image quality is difficult to fault, either in JPEG or raw.
The Fujinon lens is superb too, just as we'd expect, giving excellent cross-frame sharpness when stopped-down a little, almost imperceptible distortion, and minimal chromatic aberration. Naturally it's not perfect: at F2 the corners are somewhat soft wide open at all focus distances, and while the center is sharp when set to infinity, it gets progressively softer as you focus closer due to spherical aberration. At macro distances, it's very soft indeed across the frame at F2, but improves considerably on stopping down.
The default Provia color mode isn't our favorite, due mainly to its rather low-contrast tone curve and somewhat open shadows, which means the images lack a little 'punch'. But this is easily addressed by switching to the Velvia film mode (which is very contrasty and saturated indeed), or Astia which offers an attractive middle ground, especially when shooting portraits. The camera also offers an unusually wide range of image adjustments for its JPEGs, including the option to tweak highlight and shadow tone curves independently. All this means that it's easy to tune the camera to provide pretty well exactly the output you like. These tweaks can also be applied using the in-camera Raw conversion, making it easy to optimize your shot without resorting to Photoshop.
The X100's traditional control layout, with its aperture ring and shutter speed and exposure compensation dials, makes it a fast and highly intuitive camera to operate for anyone versed in the basics of photography. The lens-shutter design means it's almost completely silent in operation, with none of the shutter or mirror noise of interchangeable-lens cameras, which is advantageous in many situations - it's not necessarily obvious to your subjects that you're taking pictures, which can bring more natural results. Autofocus, while not blisteringly fast, is acceptable and rarely causes you to miss a shot.
The hybrid viewfinder is excellent too - the optical viewfinder can show a wide range of useful information, including a live histogram and electronic level, and it's easy to switch across the electronic finder which allows critical composition and exposure preview. All this means that if you shoot in aperture priority mode and primarily use autofocus, perhaps with Auto ISO, the X100 provides a fluid shooting experience that makes it a joy to work with - at least until you run into one of its numerous quirks or flaws.
The problem with the X100 is what happens the moment you look beyond the analogue controls and hybrid finder. It has a couple of fundamental operational flaws that make it a far more frustrating camera to use that it should be, plus a range of minor bugs, quirks and idiosyncrasies (which are documented on the final page of this revew). Most problematically, it locks up certain key functions while writing to card, including changing the ISO, EVF/OVF switchover, and AF point selection. This wouldn't be too bad if write times were snappy, but they're not - a RAW file can take 7 seconds to write even with a decently fast Class 10 SDHC card, meaning you really need to invest in the latest UHS-I cards to make the X100 least-painful to use.
While many of the X100's more annoying quirks have been addressed in firmware updates (for which Fujifilm deserves due credit), a number of problems and irritations remain. We've compiled a short list of the major remaining issues below:
- Manual focus ring is unresponsive, and accurate focusing using the magnified view in the EVF/LCD is often impossible as the lens stops down uncontrollably to whatever the aperture the camera chooses.
- Certain key options, including Auto ISO and flash exposure compensation, are deeply buried in the menus.
- Switching to continuous drive causes the camera to switch to a different filenaming convention, which wreaks havoc when sorting through your shots on the computer.
The Final Word
The X100 is without doubt one of the most idiosyncratic cameras we've ever come across. It veers wildly between being delightful to use and deeply frustrating, depending on which functions you're trying to access. It has flaws that we never expected to see on a camera in 2011, including the inability to manually focus or change the ISO or AF point while it's writing to card - a process that can take an inordinate amount of time. And the quirkiness of its firmware means that you have to keep a close eye on what it's doing, lest the camera change key settings on you without warning (such as turning off raw file capture in certain bracketing modes).
Yet despite all of its manifest flaws, the X100 is a camera that's become a firm favorite in the dpreview offices. Its drop-dead gorgeous looks and excellent build make it a camera that begs you to pick it up and take it out with you, and the image quality it returns at the end of the day is nothing short of superb. And this ultimately is the key to its attraction - it just takes wonderful pictures, time after time.
Overall, then, the X100 is a difficult camera to assess. Indeed it might be tempting, after all of the bugs and quirks that we've detailed in this review, to dismiss it as a case of Fujifilm overreaching itself in a bid to make a 'halo' product. But this would be to miss out completely on the bigger picture. Because when used in a simple fashion, much like a traditional rangefinder, the X100 is (usually) a delightful photographic tool that is capable of image quality that rivals most DSLRs, but in a much more discreet and portable package.
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest problem for the X100 is that it's competing in today's marketplace with the new breed of compact Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras, and it's not exactly cheap in comparison. These tend to offer a more compact-camera-like user experience, often with approachable, results-orientated interfaces as well as full manual control, and for many users they will surely be a more sensible option. But none can quite match the X100's combination of excellent viewfinder, silent operation, and out-and-out image quality - especially at high ISOs.
As a high-end retro-styled camera with a fixed focal length lens, the X100 was always going to have niche appeal. Sadly its various flaws will limit that appeal still further. Even after several firmware updates the X100 is too flawed to quite earn our outright recommendation, but if you're prepared to tolerate its foibles as the price to pay for its superb image quality, it's a camera you can easily grow to love.
ADDENDUM: With the release of firmware v1.10 on 24th June 2011, Fujifilm has addressed a number of the issues originally raised in this review. From the photographer's point of view, the most important improvements are that the camera no longer sets the ISO and DR separately for each exposure mode, and that drive and macro mode settings are no longer forgotten on changing exposure mode or entering playback.
It's also nice to see Fujifilm addressing usability issues too: you can now wake the camera from auto power-down with a quick half-press of the shutter, and intermediate third-stop shutter speeds and apertures are available in all exposure modes. The camera's lack of customizability has been partially addressed by allowing you to change the function of the Fn button by pressing and holding it for a couple of seconds, which offers slightly quicker access to key photographic functions such as the ND filter.
Not everything has been fixed, of course - most notably you still can't change certain camera controls while the camera is writing to card, which is compounded by slow RAW write times. So there's still work to be done before the X100 is as slick in operation as the best of its mirrorless interchangeable-lens competitors. But overall Fujifilm has to be applauded for listening to feedback from both its users and reviewers, and addressing their concerns. It has made the X100 a better camera.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Fujifilm FinePix X100
Category: Enthusiast Large Sensor Compact Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The X100 combines excellent image quality, solid build and a superb viewfinder with somewhat sluggish and quirky operation. It's been much improved by multiple firmware updates since its initial incarnation, and despite its flaws, is now a very likeable camera indeed.
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