OlegNovikov.com

Fujifilm X100: from curiosity to desperation

This page is a collection of random thoughts and observations that gradually unfolded during a four–month period of using the X100.

Why Fujifilm X100?

In August 2011 I went on a non–photographic trip and, although photography was of secondary consideration, I still envisioned the possibility of having some quality photography time. As much as I liked the Canon S95 camera that I had been using for over half a year, I was hoping to bring back images of higher quality than the S95 could deliver (especially at higher ISO settings). Thus, I finally decided to take the plunge with respect to large–sensor compact cameras and had become a proud owner of a Fujifilm X100. The decision to choose this particular camera did not come easily, and so I thought I would share with you first how my thinking process unfolded.

   

Large–sensor compact cameras have been around for a while now, and potential buyers have some very competent choices. When choosing one product among multiple alternatives I usually first decide what I do not want (or cannot afford), thus narrowing down my options. Following this rule, I first dismissed Samsung NX series as the brand is not exactly known for its long history in photography (but this, quite possibly, only reflects my ignorance and biases, not the quality of the products). Next, I passed up Sony NEX series because I am not a big fan of the camera ergonomics, not to mention that the reportedly funky user interface is a no–no for me. Finally, I wrote off Panasonic GF series as I personally do not welcome the direction the company has taken with the latest iteration of the series, i.e. weirdly shaped camera bodies with fewer and fewer direct controls of crucial functions. Thus, I was left to choose between Olympus EP–3 and Fujifilm X100 (if I have failed to mention any other brand or camera it only goes to say that it is not inspiring enough to have left a lasting impression on me).

I have always been attracted to the Olympus EP–series cameras, but the first two iterations seemed somewhat undercooked in some crucial areas. The EP–3 has apparently addressed the issues its predecessors were criticised for and finally delivered what the original camera, the EP–1, promised to be. To make the EP–3 even more enticing, Olympus have also introduced a couple of prime lenses in the focal lengths that I favour a lot (equivalent to 24mm and 90mm in 35mm format). And talking about lenses, I still own an old Soviet 1000mm f/10 lens, which I, at least in theory, could use on the EP–3 via a Nikon F–mount adaptor. Although I would not expect to shoot with this monster of a lens often, it would certainly be useful for the times when things get stale and boring. All things considered, I could build a wicked kit around the EP–3.

Fujifilm X100 is a very impressive camera, too, albeit in a totally different—almost mysterious—fashion. On the one hand, it is said to have some very solid foundations: direct analogue access to vital controls, superb image quality, outstanding lens (that offers my desert island angle of view, no less!), unique hybrid viewfinder, excellent build quality, etc. On the other hand, however, it is also reported to have numerous drawbacks: autofocus is not exactly fast and manual focus is not well implemented, user interface is inconsistent and menus are a labyrinth, operation and file write speed is on the slow side, and so forth. And of course, there is also the issue of committing to one single focal length—while I remembered the numerous times when in the past I would go on walks and non–photographic trips with nothing but my Nikon D700 and a 35mm lens attached to it, I could not be sure that I could live with one prime lens on my camera at all times.

Now, when you have such a fat fly in the ointment it inevitably tends to spoil the whole works. In case of the X100, however, the fly seems to change shape, size and degree of transparency depending on which angle you look at it from, as well as who is looking—and, amusingly, attraction of the camera somehow remained almost intact despite the existence of the fly. I read many reviews of the camera, but, very strangely, still could not make heads or tales out of what the camera actually is. Seriously. As if I had not read anything at all.

I spent a lot of time pondering all of the above but still could not make up my mind as to which camera to buy. Ultimately, it was thinking about what shooting approaches and experience each camera would impose that made me choose the X100. In this respect, the EP–3 and the X100 are at the opposite end of what one can expect—while I could almost completely imagine what using the EP–3 would be like, I could not envision how inspiring or discouraging shooting with the X100 would in reality be. Picking the EP–3 would be like meeting a nice yet somewhat mediocre person whose company you are likely to enjoy, but who is unlikely to bring anything fundamentally new into your life, let alone changing its course. Choosing the X100, on the other hand, would be like meeting a genuine yet not entirely known character—someone you might end up hating, yet who has the potential of truly enriching your life.

In the end, I decided to take the risk and go with the X100, because stretching established habits while trying something not entirely predictable is always a worthwhile exercise. And if worse comes to worst and the fly really turns out to be the unpleasant creature many claim it is, I can always return to the safety of mediocrity.

The curse of viewing extravagance

After using the X100 for three months, I have to say in all honesty that it has been somewhat of a love–and–hate relationship. On the one hand, there is so much to love about the camera, and I will write about this eventually. On the other hand, however, there is something persistently nagging about the X100 that has a taste of subdued, never ending frustration. It has been widely suggested that the camera's user interface is not well sorted out, and this critique indeed points in the right direction. However, as it does not really explain much I have been trying to identify what it is exactly in the user interface that is the source of the frustration. At long last, I think I have put my finger on it. But first of all, let's consider what it is not about.

To begin with, this frustration is not about access to crucial controls—if anything, it is exceedingly well implemented due to the use of traditional knobs and wheels. You have direct access to shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and, via the Fn button on the top of the camera, ISO settings. My only gripe in this respect is that Auto ISO control is separated from ISO settings and accessible through menus only. I have learned to live with this, though.

Second, it is not about menus. True, they are not exactly logically arranged and consistent—for example, I have no idea why Fujifilm engineers had to place Auto ISO control on the third page of the Setup menu, or why custom Display settings are in the Shooting menu. Nonetheless, the menus have a fairly simple structure—four pages in the Shooting Menu and six pages in the Setup menu—and finding what you need is mostly straightforward. Besides, you will not need to use the menus all that often after you set up the camera the way you intend to normally use it. Come to think of it, Auto ISO control is the only item that makes me dive into the menus more often than I like.

So if access to crucial controls and the menus are not the culprit, then what is the cause of the irritation? As it turns out, it is an overabundance of viewing options that are often illogically entwined. Let me explain.

   

As you know, the X100 boasts an innovative viewfinder that is actually home to two viewfinders—an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and an Optical Viewfinder (OVF). The EVF and the OVF offer very different viewing and composing experiences (the former is 100% precise and the latter is 100% imprecise with respect to framing), which is why I consider them as two separate viewfinders; and the icing on the cake is that both viewfinders can show abundant—and customisable—shooting information. In other words, photographers who regard composing with the use of an LCD screen as holding a baby with a smelly diaper shall rejoice. At the same time, those who do not mind holding babies can enjoy using the high resolution LCD screen at the back of the camera. Thus, we have three viewing options so far: two viewfinders and the LCD screen at the back of the camera. So far, so good.

If you want to change between the viewfinders and the LCD screen depending on how smelly the diaper is, you have three options: shut the LCD off and use the viewfinders only, shut the viewfinders off and use the LCD only (strictly speaking, you cannot shut the OVF off; you can only shut off the gridlines and information shown in it), or employ the eye sensor so that the viewfinder turns on when you put your eye to it and the LCD is used when you do not mind the diaper. Switching between the two viewfinders is done by a lever on the front of the camera, and switching between the viewfinders and the LCD is done by the View Mode button at the back of the camera. The snowball has started to roll down the hill and we already have five possible viewing options: just EVF, just OVF, just LCD, EVF + LCD and OVF + LCD.

What is shown on the LCD screen and in the viewfinders is not static. By using the DISP button at the back of the camera the LCD view can be changed from shooting information shown on a black background to Standard view and further to Custom view. The same button is used to switch the information shown in the viewfinders on and off—separately for the EVF and the OVF, i.e., if you switch viewfinder information off in the EVF, it is not automatically switched off in the OVF. The snowball continues to roll and is speeding up.

Suppose you want to see one set of information on the LCD screen and a different (say, less cluttered) set of information in the viewfinders. Is this possible? Sort of. The trick is that the information shown in the Custom view of the LCD display and in the EFV is the same, so if you choose something different to be shown in the OVF vis–à–vis the LCD screen, then the information shown in the EVF and the OFV will not be the same. To put it differently, if you want to have the same information in the OVF and the EVF, then the LCD will have to show the same information, too.

If you are still with me, suppose you want to make things a little simpler by using the viewfinders only for shooting and the LCD screen only for browsing menus and reviewing images. That is fine if you are using the OFV; however, once you switch to the EVF, the menus will be shown... in the viewfinder, not on the LCD screen. And, oh, just for amusement, you can even have a combination of a blank OVF and shooting information displayed on the LCD screen against a black background (how did I get and what am I doing here, please?)!

The snowball is still far from stopping rolling—I could continue and bore you to death, but I think you get the point. Quick: given what has been outlined above, can you list and count all viewing modes and their possible combinations? I bet you will have to at least scratch your head as I, for one, still cannot. Each time I pick up the camera after not using it for a few days my mind comes to a grinding halt as I attempt to figure out where I was in terms of viewing settings last. And once I figure that out, it often takes quite a bit of an effort to get to the viewing mode that I want to use next.

Now, to be fair, most of the viewing features that Fujifilm came up with in the X100 are truly innovative and welcome. However, the overall package does not have to be so counterintuitive and needs to be significantly streamlined. Having a (viewing) choice is always a good thing, but having too many unsorted and inconsistent options can very quickly become burdensome. This, indeed, is the trap the X100 has fallen into. And most amusingly, it could not be more ironic: while most current compact digital cameras suffer from lack of viewfinders or viewing inadequacy, the X100 is afflicted by viewing extravagance.

Image quality

Overall, quality of the images produced by the X100 is very impressive—perhaps not as lush as that of, say, the full–frame Nikon D700 camera, but, I reckon, at least perfectly competitive with any APS–C camera of the same, or even higher, resolution. This being said, after starting closely looking at the RAW (.RAF) files I shot with the Fujifilm X100 camera as well as doing some printing, my attention was almost immediately drawn to a strange rendering whereby some—i.e., not all—smooth lines and edges have exceedingly strong zigzag appearance at micro level (or pixelation). It probably will be easier to illustrate than to explain in words, so here are a couple of fairly typical examples:

 
 
 

The above are the original images and below are small crops shown at 100% magnification—note that they were not capture–sharpened. The excessive pixelation I am talking about is not very obvious yet, but it is discernable if you look closely.

 
 
 

Once the images are capture–sharpened, though, the zigzag appearance of some of the smooth edges and lines is apparent (see below). I can see the pixelation in various files but cannot quite pin down when and where exactly it occurs—sometimes I see it in the areas where I do not expect to encounter it, and I often do not see it where I think it is likely to appear. Once I finish working on the files and sharpen them for final output, the pixelation becomes even more obvious and, indeed, impossible not to notice.

 
 
 

The above crops were capture–sharpened in Adobe Camera Raw using the settings that I find most satisfactory. To make sure the excessive pixelation is not a result of improper sharpening, the below crops were converted in Adobe Camera Raw without applying sharpening and then capture–sharpened in Photoshop using PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in, a sharpening tool I fully trust and use on a regular basis. As you can see, the result is slightly different but shows the same problem.

 
 
 

Finally, to ensure that this is not a question of image quality of the X100, the below crops were processed in Silkypix, the RAW conversion software that came with the X100 (please disregard the difference in contrast and colour rendition—I did not want to spend too much time making the output from ACR and Silkypix look the same in terms of these attributes). No sharpening was applied in Silkypix, and the crops were capture–sharpened in Photoshop with the use of PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in. It is important to note that no matter how I massaged the images in Silkypix the excessive pixelation never occurred. (To be honest, I do not like the conversion results I got with Silkypix, but this might have to do with me not knowing the software well enough.)

 
 
 

In the Resolution section of his Fujifilm S5 Pro review Thom Hogan reported on a very similar, if not the same, image quality issue: "What you won't like is that every now and then a diagonal component in your shots will render with some stair stepping." Although the S5 Pro and the X100 use different types of sensors (Super CCD and EXR CMOS, respectively), both cameras clearly show the same problem. This most likely has to do with the fact that the original pixel array is rotated 45° to improve vertical and horizontal resolution.

Now, the important question is whether this is just futile pixel–peeping, which I always try to avoid, or if the excessive pixelation can affect image quality of real–life photographs. Having done some test printing, my conclusion has been that the answer will depend on how large you print. In moderately sized prints (original files printed at 300dpi in my tests) the pixelation is mostly invisible. However, it becomes noticeable at close examination if you print at 240dpi, and clearly visible if you print at 180dpi. Thus, this issue needs to be addressed if you intend to produce large prints.

What else is bad about the X100?

I find it rather curious that I started sharing my thoughts on the X100 with mostly negative commentary. Why is this so? Is it because it is always easier to bitch and complain, not to mention the fact that it seems fashionable to bash the X100 on the Internet? Or is it because I wanted to get the negative aspects out of the way first and leave the positives for last? I am not sure, but certainly hope it is the latter. At any rate, now that I have gone down the bitching path it makes sense to go all the way and clear the plate for desert. Without more ado, here goes:

  • Card write performance is dreadful: it takes about five seconds to write a RAW file, and during this time you cannot change most button and menu dependent settings. Thankfully, though, you can continue shooting while file(s) are being written.

  • In manual mode histogram, LCD and EVF show what would be captured if you use the exposure determined by the camera, not the one you set manually; the deviation of manual exposure from the exposure determined by the camera is only indicated on the exposure compensation scale, which does not really tell you much as you do not know how far off the exposure determined by the camera is from what you are trying to achieve. Thus, the only way to see how manual exposure is going to fare is take a shot and review the image. As mentioned above, though, card write speed and, consequently, initial image review is frustratingly slow. If you switch image review on then the shot image will be shown on the LCD screen almost instantly, but without histogram or any other information. This renders manual mode mostly impractical. Fujifilm really should have a look at how manual exposure is implemented in some of the better compact cameras.

  • Buttons need to allow at least some degree of customisation, which, as it is, is pretty much non–existent with the sole exception of the Fn button found on the top of the camera. For example, I really wish I could use the RAW button at the back of the camera for something other than switching between RAW and JPG format (Auto ISO control comes to mind first). As I (and, I reckon, many photographers for whom this camera is intended) only shoot in RAW format, this button is mostly dead in the water.

  • The X100 shows luminance histogram only; there is no RGB histogram. Do we need to remind Fujifilm which year it is? Give us live RGB histogram in the X200, pretty please with sugar on top!

  • Autofocus is okay in daylight, but becomes unreliable and haunted by hunting when photographing in dim conditions. And overall, the camera is not hugely responsive.

  • Battery life leaves a lot to be desired. Consider buying and carrying extra batteries—yes, I mean more than one—a must.

  • The lens, generally, is of very high quality. However, flare is very poorly controlled—in this respect, it is the worst performer that I have ever seen among prime lenses.

You might be surprised that the list has only seven items, as cons lists in other reviews of the X100 tend to be quite a bit longer. The thing about drawbacks of the X100 is that, objectively, one can make a really long list; subjectively, however, its length will depend on your shooting style and what features you use often. The issues that I have mentioned have been consistently—and persistently—getting in the way of my daily shooting. At the same time, I have not commented on drawbacks related to the features that I use seldom, as well as on the issues mentioned in various reviews that I find mostly rhetorical. If you are contemplating buying an X100 you should consider all drawbacks outlined here and in other reviews; once you start using the camera, though, your personal list will most certainly be unique and characteristic to you only.

Yet another glitch?

Just when I thought I was done grumbling about the downsides of the X100, yet another glitch has crept up and seized my attention. And, it may very well prove to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Here is what is going on. When you point the camera at a subject it shows live view of the subject, suggested (or adjusted) exposure and corresponding histogram. Once you half–press the shutter release button, focus is achieved, histogram disappears (why, Fujifilm, why?) and you can take a shot. Quite often, however, at the same time as focus is achieved and histogram disappears, the view in the EVF and on the LCD screen becomes noticeably brighter, and I mean by approximately one stop or sometimes even more, not just slightly. If you continue and take a shot, the shot ends up exposed in accordance with the brightened view. As histogram is not shown after the view becomes brighter, you can no longer know where you are at with respect to exposure, and more often than not such images end up overexposed and ruined. While this does not seem to occur in Program mode, in A and S mode it occurs most of the time.

I have not seen this issue reported elsewhere, so I cannot be sure whether it is a general firmware problem, if my camera has gone over the brink and needs to be serviced, or if this is a user mistake that I, having read the manual and used the camera for over three months, still cannot figure out. Either way, I have to say that the charm of the X100 is starting to quickly wear off giving way to weariness and indifference; concurrently, that Olympus EP–3 is looking more and more attractive with every passing day (recent financial woes of the company notwithstanding). Next week I will be taking the X100 on a non–photographic trip, so we shall see if I still can make peace with the camera...

The end of the road

I have been promising (to myself, at least) to write a long piece on why the X100 is a great camera—and I have been stubbornly refusing to think that it is not—but, well, I am afraid it is not going to happen. I have given the X100 the benefit of the doubt and the utmost of my patience, but, even after four months of use, it still refuses to get out of the way and simply let me photograph. Instead, it childishly and capriciously makes everything about itself, and most of my energy is spent fighting the camera, not making great images.

Our relationships with cameras are often akin to those with human beings: there is only so much energy that you can put into a relationship, and if the relationship consumes more energy than it generates, it is only a question of time when the well runs dry and apathy sets in. Thankfully, though, time gradually puts everything in its right place, and it has shown that, although the X100 most certainly is a character, it also clearly shows traits of an energy vampire (and that the camera perhaps needs to visit a psychiatrist). Reaching a dénouement by depleting one's energy is a costly way out, but sometimes it is the only possible exit. I have run out of energy fighting the X100, and the time to bid the camera adieu has come.

The X100 could have easily been a real winner, but it ended up being only a massive tease—something nearly impossible to resist visiting, yet something incapable of convincing you to stay for the long haul. To me, the X100 has also put a bad mark on other Fujifilm cameras, because I have every reason to suspect that the X100's eccentricity runs in the family. In particular, the X10 looks every bit as impressive and tempting on paper as the X100 did before I bought it, but I am not going down that road—as the saying goes, a good woodsman has only one scar on him. I will continue buying loads of Fujifilm film, but I am through with Fujifilm digital cameras for the foreseeable future.