A High Line Perspective

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I’ve been wanting to do a cogent, visually oriented instruction set on the “Brenizer method” for a LONG time, and I have some exciting news on that front to share very soon. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’m really digging the ol’ Nikon 105mm f/1.8 AIS for these.

Camera: Nikon D3s
Lens: 35-image “Brenizer method” panorama with the Nikon 105mm f/1.8 AIS

Fuji X100 review

In-camera “motion panorama” taken with the X100

Specs and Purchasing Info

101223 175042 126mm f25The Fuji X100 has been hotly anticipated for a very long time — in fact, long before it was announced, designed, or conceived. In the film days there were countless great little cameras that paired sharp, fast lenses with nice operation … the Konica Hexar, the Olympus Pen, and on and on and on… Until recently, though, this space was widely underserved by digital camera makers, whose small cameras were either saddled with tiny sensors, giving them high noise, poor dynamic range, and no depth-of-field control, or were just smaller versions of the big, professional DSLRs, which when paired with a good lens made them not truly small at all.

Most of the market was pretty well-served — just want to take snapshots? Buy a pocket camera or use your phone. Want a versatile tool that can create great images in any situation? Go for a professional DSLR with the right lenses and lighting. But a lot of people were left scratching their heads. Why can’t we have a small camera that’s truly great in low-light? How can we recreate the fun and quality of these old film cameras? And then there were a lot of people like me — I own literally the best possible photographic equipment for my purposes. I spend a staggering amount of my waking hours doing or thinking about photography. But my cameras and lenses are heavy, conspicuous, and cumbersome, so if I’m not on the job, I walk around without a camera at all. That’s just … wrong.

Recently camera makers have tried different forays into this space, whether it’s the micro-Four-Thirds cameras of Olympus and Panasonic, Sigma’s DP2, or Leica’s X1 I tried the X1 both before and after the recent firmware upgrade, and the new firmware makes it a nice, but overpriced camera that would be a nice option in a world where the X100 didn’t exist.

But now it does, and I’ve been shooting with it constantly for the past week. I was going to do an extensive comparison to the X1, but this is, as they say, a curb-stomp. The X100 has a lens that is twice as fast as the X1, it has better operations in most aspects (although the X1’s firmware upgrade does make it’s manual-focus more usable than the X100’s), and its vintage aesthetics are, in my opinion, much nicer. I’ve already had people come up to me and jokingly tell me they wanted to steal the X100 from me even though they had no idea what camera it was, and even when I was also carrying a Nikon D3s. All that and it’s cheaper than the X1 (although not cheap, itself). The comparison is done. You can tell Fuji was gunning for the X1 just by the name of the X100, and they succeeded. Unless you have some very specialized needs or are a red-dot fetishist, I can’t imagine someone buying an X1 at market rate now.

So let’s get to the camera itself. I had very high expectations for this camera. Did it live up to them?

You bet it did.

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The first thing you will note about using the X100 is that it’s fun right from the start. The innovative hybrid viewfinder alone will make you want to run around and take pictures with your eye glued to it. You know a camera is fun when it wants to make you take photographs even if you know the composition is garbage, just because the act of taking a photo gives you enjoyment. That’s how we all start when we pick up our first camera, but we lose that joy somewhere along the way as we start drilling down to improve our portfolio or do “serious work” with our cameras. Well, for the first night I immediately started terrorizing my cats, loving that the near-total silence of the camera could let me get right in their faces without fazing them. (The X100 has a special “silent mode” that puts the camera in maximal ninja mode with no sound or flash, but you can turn the shutter sound off in normal modes, too.

But is it suitable for professional work? It can be. Compared to a Nikon D3s with a 35mm f/1.4 lens it has much less depth-of-field control and not as insane low-light performance, but the fact that I used it as part of my arsenal for engagement shoots and a wedding this weekend speaks volumes. I will never sacrifice the quality of my client work for a review, and even though I had the Leica X1 for two weddings I wasn’t comfortable enough with it for it to ever come out of my bag. But at this weekend’s wedding, I shot hundreds of photos with the X100, and would have taken more if it didn’t run out of batteries.

Clearly I like this camera. So let’s start with what I don’t like, given that it’s a shorter list.

The bad:

  • The price: Compared to the $9,000 you’d drop for a Leica M9 with a 35mm f/2 lens, this camera seems like a steal. But it was expensive to start out with and scarcity has made it even more expensive. But the only other camera in its class right now is $2,000. Competition of later models will hopefully bring the price down in years to come, now that makers have seen how much people are hungering for this sort of camera. And honestly, when compared to the competition, the price probably belongs in the “good” section, especially when it comes back down to where it should be. But now that makers see that this isn’t just a tiny niche market, it should eventually come down more.
  • Some of the function placement, particularly ISO. You can map ISO to your function button, but that robs you of a function button, and to turn auto-ISO on and off you have to go menu-diving into the third page of the setup menu. Some sort of Nikon-like “favorite menu items” list is sorely needed in a firmware update.
  • Macro is soft wide open The X100 has a great macro functionality, but it opens itself to sometimes massive veiling flare when shot at f/2. Here’s a macro shot at f/2 and f/4 to show the difference. I selected a slightly backfocused f/2 shot because it creates a worst-case scenario (so usually it’s not this bad, but it’s noticeable). At distance, f/2 is plenty sharp.

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    110507 134619 23mm f4

  • F/2 in general has some funny properties You get the feeling that they had to make some sacrifices to get a lens this small to open this wide. Auto-functions will maximize a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second when using f/2, which can limit your outdoor usage (they have a nice built-in ND filter feature for it, but again you have to menu-dive for it). But you can use shutter speeds of 1/4000th or higher just fine if you manually select them.
  • The long throw of manual focus makes it almost useless Want to set your manual-focus, especially in macro? You have to turn and turn and turn until whatever you wanted to take a photo of is long gone. The X1 had this issue, and it was nicely fixed by a firmware upgrade, so I’m hoping Fuji can do the same.
  • The lens cap. I already lost mine. Rolled into a sewer grate. Just bought an old Leica cap and hood that can be more easily attached.

This camera is a bit quirky, so there may be a lot of other things that make you bag your head at first or until you carefully go through the manual — which I’m not used to, since all DSLRs pretty much work the same way — but in less than a week I’ve figured out pretty much everything else except these things.


The Good

  • Aesthetics. Does it matter whether or not a camera is good-looking? Well, it doesn’t hurt. The entire nature of this sort of camera has a bit of a retro feel to it from the “f/8 and be there” days of photojournalism and street photography, and the form matches the function gorgeously.
  • The viewfinder. Brilliant, and perhaps the main advantage over similar-sized systems like the Sony NEX-5 or the downtrodden X1 again. I haven’t imagined anything Nikon could make me want to upgrade my D3s to a new camera for, but a professional version of this hybrid viewfinder might do it. Sometimes an electronic viewfinder has advantages, as it can show you *exactly* the photo you’re going to get, even if you’re exposing much above or below real-life lighting, or using shallow depth-of-field. If the EVF had “retina resolution,” that alone could tempt me to buy a D4. As it is, the X100’s EVF is pretty good, and I find myself using it more than the optical finder.
  • Unobtrustiveness. I’ve learned to be pretty unobtrusive even with a big camera clicking away. But having a little camera that makes virtually no noise at all brings it to an entirely different level. I would *never* get this close to a singer performing at a wedding ceremony with a shutter-snapping camera:

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    And it was great for little moments during wedding prep when people would get into the rhythm of not even knowing when I was or wasn’t taking a picture, and be themselves:

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  • Responsiveness. No, unlike the D3s or professional DSLRs you can’t just mash the shutter away and know that a picture would be taken ever time, no matter what. If you’re shooting RAW+fine JPEG it will take a second or so to write to the card. But the shutter lag is small enough that you can definitely do photojournalism with this as long as you have a good sense of timing:

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  • Image quality. This is the best low-light sensor I’ve used in any APS-C camera (though I haven’t used recent ones like the D7000 Pentax K-5, etc.) This makes it the best low-light sensor in any current Fuji camera. Though it doesn’t have the dynamic range tricks of the Fuji S5 Pro, dynamic range is good, and it has some built-in dynamic range options that push and pull the JPEGs to maximize it. (Warning — if you use these DR options and then process the RAW files in third-party programs, you will tend toward underexposure). It also has that great Fuji color. Fuji has always had great out-of-camera JPEGs, and I still extract the built-in JPEGS because sometimes they’re better than what I can get with processing. Here’s an image first as the in-camera JPEG and then as the RAW file processed with Aperture (which you can do if you convert it to a DNG). Clicking on either of these will download the full-resolution image. The RAW file is sharper, but the colors of the original are at least as good, with warmer shadows:

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    Processed RAW file:
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    The colors are vibrant, the pictures are sharp, and noise is low. Here’s an ISO 3200 image in tricky light:

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    100 percent crop:

    110509 203653 23mm f2 crop

The autofocus belongs in both categories, but mostly in “good.” It hunts a lot in macro mode, but that’s to be expected. In good or decent light it is zippy and accurate. In really low-light, though … that’s where the phase detection AF system of a good DSLR comes into its own.

I kind of see the X100 as being like the iPad, a fantastic accessory to a main system. Most people who are just looking for their main camera will be better served by something cheaper or by something more versatile. But for people who love that street photography and 1960s photojournalism aesthetic or, like me, have funds, have big, heavy primary cameras and can’t stand the thought of walking around all day without a way to capture the world around you with more response and quality than your cell phone can, this is a great camera for you. You will probably never see me in public again without it*

*Which means I will probably lose it quickly, since I’m used to five pound cameras, but I like it enough that I’ll buy another one.

Some more pictures from the X100.

The small size and weight made getting the right angle in a tight cab a lot easier.
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Out-of-camera JPEG:
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Unobtrusiveness allowed me to shoot a couple in the Apple Store unmolested. As soon as I pulled out the D3s the clerks got uneasy:
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Out-of-camera JPEG. Clicking will download full-res version.
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