Friday, March 11, 2011
Posted by Lee Yuan Sheng in "Digital Home Hardware & Accessories" @ 09:00 AM
The Fujifilm Finepix X100 has generated a lot of hype and interest ever since it was first announced at Photokina 2010. In case you missed the hype, the X100 is a retro-styled camera featuring direct controls via knobs for aperture, shutter and exposure compensation. Its main claim to fame is its hybrid viewfinder: Based on a standard rangefinder, which in simplest terms has two viewfinders to focus, one viewfinder is replaced with an EVF which can either be used on its own, or project an overlay over the remaining optical viewfinder. Other highlights include a fine Fujinon 23mm f/2 lens (equivalent to 35mm), and Fuji's latest 12 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. Recently the camera just went on sale in Singapore, and it was launched at the IT Show 2011. I was there, and managed to spend some time with it. What do I think? Read on!
Fujifilm has been praised for putting out a camera that uses direct manual controls, and it certainly is a good idea. The aperture ring around the lens, the large shutter knob near the centre at the top of the camera, and the smaller exposure compensation knob at the top corner of the camera makes exposure settings easy to manipulate. This is especially so if you are coming from a compact camera or a lower-end DSLR with just one command dial. Change the aperture? Turn this dial. Change shutter speeds? Twist the shutter speed knob. One problem though, is that the aperture and shutter controls turn in full stops. No setting the aperture to f/4.8, for instance.
It works quite nicely, and in many ways reminds me of a 1970's fixed lens rangefinder. Until I decided to change the ISO setting, which after all, is an advantage of modern digital cameras. That was the moment the retro-feel ended.
I realised there was no ISO knob, unlike say, the Canon Powershot G12. Instead, the customisable Fn. button to the right of the shutter release is, by default, used to engage ISO changes (and also the only way without going into the menu system). To do so, the button is held down, and either the small rocker on the back of the camera or the jog dial around the directional pad is used to make changes. In practice, this would not be bad (other than removing some of the retro feel), but I felt the tiny rocker and jog dial were poor to use.
In particular, the jog dial is one of the worst I have ever used: The lightest touch would set it off, and Fujifilm decided that not having click stops or detents on the jog dial would be a good idea. There are settings like the white balance and internal flash control that requires the directional pad, and too often attempting to press on them results in me moving the jog dial and inadvertently select the wrong setting. This was especially annoying when trying to change white balance. The light touch also meant that I had to be careful when lifting my finger off the jog dial.
After struggling with the jog dial, I realised that I was back to dealing with the complexity inherent in a digital camera. Make no mistake, despite the camera's "vintage-inspired" design, this is still very much a modern digital camera. Once out of exposure settings, using it is like any other digital camera. Menus are there to customise certain parts of the automation, white balance and ISO settings still need button pressing and jog dial turning. In essence, it felt like a camera of two halves: traditional settings (exposure and manual focus) uses tradition controls, while modern settings (AF, AE, White Balance etc) uses modern controls. All-in-all, Fujifilm could have done a better job in integrating the two halves.
In a word: Brilliant. The optical viewfinder is bright and clear, while the electronic viewfinder on its own is a match for my Panasonic GH1, which is saying something. Combined, the EVF provides information in a way no optical viewfinder can do. At the more advanced setting, the EVF overlay can display the built-in level, a distance scale for focus distance, a live histogram, and grid lines. All very nicely laid out. When the shutter release button is half-pressed, a frame will show which part of the scene will be captured. This is important as rangefinders have parallax error; the closer you are to the subject the greater it is. Switching between the electronic and optical viewfinder is easy, and done via a spring-lever on the front of the camera.
Autofocus works very well. Focus is as fast (or maybe faster) than the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras, and even on dimly light surfaces with low contrast, the camera was still able to focus without much issue.
AF modes are limited to a single point, moveable by holding the AF button and using the directional pad.
Manual focus, while being electronically-controlled, was easy to use. In EVF and LCD mode, the point of focus can be magnified, and is selected in the same way as the autofocus point. The manual focus ring around the lens is beautifully dampened.
I was disappointed with the shutter release button. Instead of using a more professional soft touch release, the X100 uses the more consumer click-type; there is a click when engaging a full-press of the shutter. Not the best for stability. I suspect accessories like Tom Abrahamsson's MiniSoftRelease is going to see an increase in sales once enough X100s are sold.
On the shutter itself: The X100 utilises a leaf shutter, not a focal plane shutter. I made this pleasant discovery while trying to snap a photo. Initially I thought something was wrong. In fact, I already had taken the photo! The lack of noise is a good thing to have, and the ability to sync with flashes at any speed is another plus.
One thing about the X100 is its weight. The use of magnesium alloys instead of the traditional aluminium bodies and brass plates makes it feel a lot lighter than it should be. I expected it to feel like a lump of solid metal, as with older film cameras, but it really feels more like a modern premium compact.