©John Goldsmith – Self-Portraits of Me and the Fuji X100
Excerpt: The new Fuji X100 arrived with great hype. It is marketed as The Professional’s Choice. A Street Photographer’s camera. It is compact and has a retro look that harkens a matured experience but yet comes with the modern convenience of a digital camera. On borrowed time, the camera was loaned to me to use for one week. Since then, numerous street photographers, both friends and strangers, were asking how the it fares on the street in real situations. Below are my impressions of the camera, a selection of photographs taken with it, and a story of my new friendship.
Meeting a Stranger:
It was last Friday when I rode the tram into Melbourne’s Central Business District to meet a local street shooter. I originally connected with the guy online where he goes by screenname, Pachinko. For those who don’t know, Pachinko is the nickname of a Japanese gambling machine. I suppose meeting people through the Internet poses certain risks though it’s one I’ve made often and with success. Most of the people I meet, like Ben Roberts or Jesse Marlow, are great guys so I wasn’t about to get all gun-shy now. Still, you know what The Wire‘s enforcer Chris Partlow says: “You never want to be last to the party. And so, there I was, 30 minutes early.
Pachinko and I were meeting at one of the busiest intersections in the city. As it turns out, it also happens that this is one of the city’s best no flash corners. This being Australia, that says a lot. The lights were blazing from all sides and with the movement on the street, my eyes spun like reels of the slot machine before me. For any street photographer, the combo of free time and great light is almost equivalent to turning a triple-7 and the bonus. All I was missing was the jackpot so I kept pulling the one armed bandit, or in this case, pushing that little button.
At 1pm sharp, he called me out. Pachinko recognized me before I found the basis for his own 48×48 pixel avatar. But he wasn’t some opposing card shark. Rather, he’s a jovial guy. Honest. And this meet-up wasn’t an illicit passing of laundered banknotes. The truth is, Pachinko wasn’t a stranger. Since my arrival in Australia, we have exchanged a few casual emails and, over the last several years, had some friendly exchanges via Flickr’s noted street photography group, HCSP. His real name is Spyro and, as you’ll find out later, he is one of the most generous individuals I have yet to meet.
Spyro and I had little time as he needed to get back to work. Nevertheless, there was a connection. Maybe it’s because we are both passionate street photographers, or maybe it’s because we’re both dads, or maybe it’s because HCSP is one of those things you keep returning to, like Cheers, the bar, where everyone knows your name. But for whatever reason, my new friend offered to lend me his new Fujifilm Finepix X100 for the week. As hesitant as I was, how could I say no? Like just about everyone, I was into the promise of this new (little) camera. And so, we threw waves at one another and departed. I left with his new camera. He left with a promise that I would return it. Another gamble, I suppose, as I cradled his new precious. It was a bit like The House just gave me a $1200 line of credit, and you know how that goes for the gambler. Maybe I should have called it a day and folded, but — how could I? The hype….
Before I give my thoughts about the camera, let me first state that I don’t consider this a camera review. If you want that, there are plenty of the standard, more technical, inspections, such as those as at DPReview, BJP, and, a rather honest looks from Luminous Landscape (1,2). Erik Kim also reports on the camera vis his Street Photography blog but it’s a more high level overview than an in-the-street, get-your-hands-dirty, sort of assessment, that people have been suggesting I put forth.
Because of the hype surrounding this camera, and that it’s billed for professionals, I have taken a rather no-holds-barred approach to my assessment. Furthermore, I’m not a Fuji X100 owner, but rather a borrower, and thus I don’t feel inclined to justify a purchase. Other people, including those who choose to use the camera as I do, may have different expectations and/or skills. To give the reader some background, I’ve been shooting as a hobbyist since 1998 and professionally for more than 5 years. My experience comes from a variety of film and digital cameras including rangefinders and SLRs, such as the Minolta X-700, Canon’s 5DMark II, AE-1, Canonet 28 and the Leica M8 and M9.
All photographs were processed from outside of my normal workflow since Lightroom has yet to update the software to include the camera’s ACR profiles. The images were exported as 16-bit TIFFs from Fuji’s SilkyPix Software and prepared using Lightroom. Obviously this is not optimal but was the best workaround for me. With that, I have processed these in the manner I would normally since it gives me the best understanding as to how the camera compares to my 5DMkII. Photographs were adjusted for color and contrast using a calibrated MacBook Pro monitor. Only minor output sharpening was applied to uncropped images.
Finally, what I present here are my views from using the camera for one week — nothing more and nothing less. What follows is one street photographer’s assessment of whether the Fuji X100 will perform for the kind of photography I most enjoy – street photography. I greatly respect my friend for entrusting me with his camera and allowing me to assess it for my needs. Last but not least, some names may have been changed to respect individuals’ privacy — but not that of the X100!
A Street Photographer’s Assessment:
When my friend first handed me the camera, it immediately felt like one that I would like to hold on to. It wasn’t much different in size or weight to my Canonet 28 rangefinder or my Minolta X-700 SLR. It was a nice fit, maybe even a bit small for my hands, which on a good day can palm a basketball. It felt solid and functional and narrowly slid into the back pocket of my jeans. Over the week, I took approximately 600 pictures. Thanks to the camera’s small size, my wrist didn’t tire as it would normally while shooting with my Canon 5DMkII. While the Fuji X100 is not cheap, it is a considerably smaller investment and far more inconspicuous compared to my full-sized dSLR. With a little effort to disguise the X100′s digital roots, such as gaffer’s tape to cover the LCD, the X100 would offer serious peace of mind when photographing drunken revelers like Cardiff’s Maciej Dakowicz or even strangers with an up-close-flash-pop like Tokyo’s Charlie Kirk.
While some might think the retro look is kitschy, for anyone who has gotten into an argument or has wandered into questionable territory, I will insist that a small, classic looking, camera proves advantageous. More often than not, a street photographer wants to blend in to their surroundings. Unfortunately, any modern dSLR can make one look like an out-of-place, well heeled tourist who is ripe for a snatch-and-grab. As I roamed Melbourne’s streets this week, subjects took considerably less notice of my camera, even when I kept the X100 aimed in their direction for an extended period time. This was true even on the metro. While a digital Leica is also inconspicuous, it might be worth remembering that the investment goes up considerably and, while instances of actual conflict are rare, my good friend had his XA2, or maybe it was his MJU, chucked down the street after one confrontation. I, too, have encountered agitated subjects. In these heated moments, aside from your own personal safety, there is nothing more uncomfortable than the feeling you have nearly $4000 held equidistant between you and an ill-informed grunt.
Sample Photographs: The Zoo:
As you peer through the optical viewfinder (OVR), you will see one of the clearest viewfinders on the market. It’s big and bright. Like a rangefinder, the stubby lens appears in the lower right-hand corner but it’s neither an annoyance nor problem. There is loads of technical information in the heads-up-display (HUD), if you choose, but it’s important to remember that the X100 is neither a rangerfinder nor SLR but a different beast altogether. For those familiar with the overlapping images of a rangefinder or the split prism in an SLR, there nothing of the sort here — and that’s the problem. There is no tool to quickly gauge or “see” focus. It feels very hands-off, particularly in manual focus mode. This is the singularly most frustrating aspect of the camera. There is a means of using the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and digital zoom for an exacting focus but this process is too slow and cumbersome for a typical street shot. The function is more suited to studio shots and non-moving subjects, such as bugs or items to be sold on eBay.
However, with the flick of a conveniently located lever, the clear and bright viewfinder switches to a live feed LCD display – only, it doesn’t look like a plasma TV. It lags in speed and also lightens and dims with the sky’s brightness. The good news is that the 2D-looking image might be more similar to the final photograph, a possible advantage for those who cannot yet see like a camera. The bad news is that as you press the button to autofocus, the image freezes until the focus locks. Yes, it absolutely freezes. This is a serious problem for any street photographer who relies on anticipating the pace of the street. Imagine how this sort of glitch, say a microphone cutting in and out, would affect an improvisational jazz ensemble. I found myself being deaf, dumb and blind for a second or so and by the time the focus-locked live feed returned, the scene was deader than a J.J. Fad concert. The experience is like a bad rendition of the J. Geils’ Band song:
I could see it was a rough-cut Tuesday
Slow-motion weekdays stare me down
Her lipstick reflex got me wound
There were no defects to be found
Snapshot image froze without a sound
–J. Geil’s Bands, Freeze Frame
For those who shoot with a rangefinder and relish their continuous view that extends beyond the border of the frame, they will find this issue unacceptable. Personally, as someone who shoots primarily with a SLR, I accept the momentary blindness from the flipping mirror, but I cannot overlook a blindfold before I press the button. The only workaround is to shoot with the OVF, which would not be a problem if there were a means to adequately gauge a focal plane. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but I’ll say it anyway: My suggestion to Fuji is to remove the on-camera flash and turn the X100 into a true rangefinder; professionals bring their own strobes to the party. On that note, there is a wonderful distance scale in the viewfinder. And for those new to rangefinders, there is some relief as the framelines automatically adjust to compensate for parallax error. It displays both the distance to the focal plane and the range of field. But unless you know the distance of your subject, it could prove difficult to focus on them, particularly when shooting wide open, since the focal plane will be considerably shallow. By stopping down to hyperfocal on a bright day, this problem is essentially alleviated but I can’t consider this a “professional” grade camera when it is only primarily useable in the bright Australian sun. Thus, the only solution for a shooter who doesn’t want to rely on autofocus is pre-focus.
While manual focus is problematic, the autofocus is reasonably fast though not nearly as quick as my 5DMkII, even in great light. In short, I didn’t find the autofocus performance fast enough. In the case of the X100, the freezing EVF, the lack of a focus tool in the OVF, and the relatively slow autofocus, don’t leave any quick and reliable focusing options for speedily composing a street photograph. I suspect it will also be too hands-off for many practitioners. Pre-focusing and hyperfocal zone focusing are the only real options for speed and accuracy. If you enjoy the hands-on feel of manual focusing, this alone will give you serious misgivings about the camera. If you need something small that takes good pictures, it could very well work, particularly in good lighting conditions.
Of particular problem is the throw of the manual focus. A sports car enthusiast will tell you that the shorter the shift distance the faster one can accelerate the car. The same is true for cameras. The faster one can turn the dial, the faster one can find focus. But a street photographer doesn’t have time to stand around spinning a dial. If the light is bright and you are stopped down to a reasonably high f/ number, the problem won’t be significant. In these situations, the depth of field is sufficient and there is a useful distance scale inside the HUD. But if the conditions are low light, and the aperture is positioned at f/2, good luck moving from a close subject to one across the room. It might take you 5 seconds! That’s far too long for unpredictable situations that move. I suspect this is a result of Fuji trying to simultaneously market the X100 for macro horticulturist and street enthusiasts alike; a curious combo indeed. In addition, the focus ring has far too much resistance. I prefer my free spinning Canonet 28. With one good flick, I can be at the opposite end of the distance scale. This focus ring, which seems to have been dipped in high-grade honey, can take as much as 5 full rotations to move to the opposite end of the scale. Fortunately, if I understand the mechanisms of the camera, the focus is electronic, or fly-by-wire, and this suggests that a firmware update could be an easy fix.
Also, while this may be a relatively minor issue, the Fuji X100 is an energy hog. Fortunately I was given a spare battery to use. Even then, I ran out of juice while on a family day trip to the zoo. That’s never happened to me with any of the Canon dSLRs I’ve owned. I’ve shot entire weddings on one battery. What’s more troubling about this is that once the energy gets low, the camera gets as sluggish as Ted Striker’s airplane. The X100 takes near forever to turn on; at least it seems this way as your shot passes you by. The buttons become unresponsive. I believe this is a battery issue but I could never quite isolate the problem. Perhaps it’s buggy software. Regardless, there is little to no warning from the battery meter. Still, the fact remains, the battery holds too little energy. If you were Steve McCurry, you wouldn’t need to sew film into your pants – you’d be sewing in spare batteries.
The worst is that the camera has a “quick start” setting, which I’m guessing keeps the EVF warm. But unlike the Canon 5DMkII sleep mode, the X100’s is highly variable. There are times when it fires up within a second and others where it never does until you reboot the camera by removing the battery; not even the on/off switch works. When I turn on a camera, I want to be able to use it. Like Garry Winogrand says, “There are no photographs while I’m reloading. “ Well, I’m not reloading, so where are my pictures? I missed too many shots while waiting for the camera to become responsive. I half joke, but there are times when I felt so decidedly frustrated that a reading of Edgar Allen Poes’ A Tell Tale Heart would have been quicker than waiting for the camera to come online.
But anything was better than this agony!
Anything was more tolerable than this derision!
I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!
I felt that I must scream or die!
–and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
–Edgar Allen Poe, A Tell Tale Heart
OK. The Poe quote should be categorized as hyperbole but my frustration was very real. Nevertheless, one of the best aspects of the camera is its near silence. There is no beating heart here, just an elegant, quiet as a mouse, 9-blade aperture diaphragm and lens shutter system. Beautiful. In addition, camera shake can be non-existant even at very low shutter speeds (1/8s).
Finally, the camera has a strange behavior of over-exposing — and I’m not talking about some benign issue where the camera might over-expose by a consistent 1/3 stop. Rather, there are times when, and for no apparent reason, the camera completely blows out a shot. In these instances, I was shooting in aperture priority mode with full screen averaging, which is generally my preference. As I review successive shots of the same exact scene, each at f/11, one will be at 1/400s and the other is at 1/45s. This is a full three stops difference and makes for an unusable shot. For manual mode shooters, this may not be an issue, but I can’t say I’ve come across this issue with either my Canon 30D or 5DMkII. It doesn’t happen often but it did occur on multiple occasions.
Sample Photographs: Melbourne:
The Fuji X100 isn’t the terrible camera I feel I’ve made it out to be but I do find it terribly frustrating, at least at its current state. I’m generally pleased with the photos I’ve taken over the course of a week though I’m told by a friend that they are not up to my typical shots; I’ll let you be the judge. I’m also told that the processing isn’t up to par with the images from my Canon 5DMkII in that the blacks are too crushed, even for the low-key processing I most enjoy. Since Lightroom isn’t available yet for the X100, this issue could be as simple as I’m working outside of my normal workflow. I will revisit these pictures once the software update is available and give an update here.
I am encouraged by some of the advances made with the Fuji X100, but most of these seem superficial. The size and retro workings are wonderful.While I am generally satisfied with the picture quality, the camera doesn’t respond quickly enough for my needs and this makes it too frustrating to use at its current state, at least for me. Except for maybe the conclusion, the Luminous Landscape update review comes to similar findings as my own in many respects. While firmware updates will likely improve most of the complaints mentioned here, such as the slow manual focus, the warm up time, and the reliability of it turning on, the lack of a precise method to quickly focusing is unforgivable, in my opinion. Thus, the Fuji X100 is not a professional grade camera and I would never use it for a professional job. Last but not least, a new and longer lasting battery would be an improvement, as well as a bigger buffer, since the camera tends to write for a long time. Although, in fairness, I am not using the fastest SD card. Still, the most troubling issue, and the one with no obvious solution, is the manual focus. The EVF is not at a superior technological state where street photographers could rely on it for off-the-cuff shots. Of course, others might feel differently. I’m well aware that photographers use cameras differently than I do.
I hope the first X100 purchasers, like my new friend Spryo, find this a wholly satisfying camera. I must admit, I’m a bit of a design perfectionist, and it’s rare that I can fully embrace a product, particularly version 1. I suggest that anyone who is interested in this camera, should try one before buying it. In my opinion, it does not live up to the hype. As much as I enjoyed the X100’s strengths and, more-so, my friend’s generosity, regrettably, this is not the poor man’s and poor woman’s Leica. I bought that a few years ago at a swap meet: a mint condition Canonet 28 complete with a leather case. Price? $15. Of course, that doesn’t include film, developing, scanning, or the convenience to use it…