I recently purchased and have been using a Fujifilm X100T and now I feel like I should share some thoughts about it, and taking pictures in general. There are lots of people on the internet singing its praises, so I’m going to try not so much to talk about the camera as talk around the camera, especially considering that it has been listed as “discontinued.” Take this post as thoughts from someone who has been out of the digital camera game for a few years.
If you look at my Flickr feed, the rhythm of my posts there correlates pretty closely with my access to a good digital camera. There is a lot of film there, to be sure, but I definitely don’t find myself taking photos nearly as much with a film camera these days as I do with a digital one. I love film, but there are several reasons why I don’t take my Canonet out on a daily basis. That may change soon now that I’ve begun a film stockpiling project, but right now there is definitely a lack of pictures in my life.
That lack of pictures has gotten to my head in recent months. While I’ve been focusing hard on learning to program, the itch to get out and take more pictures has gotten more intense. A mix of shop talk with my wedding photographer and feeling bad about only having a cell phone to take pictures with in Belize got me to finally start getting a sense of what’s out there in the camera market.
When I still took pictures for money or for school, there was essentially only one option out there w/r/t the kind of camera you could or should get, and the choice between the options you did have (back when I was paying attention, it was between Canon or Nikon) was pretty irrelevant in spite of the holy wars that were fought over brand loyalty. As far as I’m aware, the options for pro shooters are mostly the same right now as they were when I was last looking, although other brands that didn’t ever look very serious (Sony, Fuji, Olympus, etc.) are starting to look pretty good these days. The tyranny of the DSLR is still in play with pro shooters.
What’s nice, though, is that now that I get to shoot “for fun” or “for me,” I get to look beyond that realm and try to find a camera that I enjoy using, rather than the one that simply gets the job done. For me, that search began in the rangefinder circle.
From the outside, it seems to me that everybody is trying to figure out how to make a good mirrorless camera right now. This is pretty exciting to me, since it doesn’t seem like a DSLR is a de facto choice for a “good” digital camera anymore (Since Medium doesn’t support footnotes yet, you’ll just have to deal with my long parentheticals for now: let me remind you of the time when the only cameras out there, with the exception of some experimental and niche ones on the fringe, were point-and-shoots, superzooms, and DSLRS. What an awful mess it was trying to recommend something for Grandma or Aunt Sue or the friend who’s trying to Get Into Photography). However, the market doesn’t seem to agree with me on the implementation of a mirrorless system. Rangefinders are still a niche racket, put in a corner by electronic viewfinders and articulated live-view screens.
They’re so niche, in fact, that from my estimate the only “true” digital rangefinder in existence that isn’t a Leica was made by Epson in 2004, and discontinued in 2014. While I’ve promised myself that there is a Leica or two in my future, I decided to go with something a little more affordable for the time being.
Why want a rangefinder?
The first time I used a Leica was while I was still trying to go to school to be a photographer. Using one was a revelation for me, and I absolutely think some of my best photos came from it. You see, I have this thing where I believe in the effect that hardware has on the work produced by its user. A camera demands to be used in a certain way, and the resulting pictures reflect this. The example I’ve discussed the most with others is the medium format SLR, which forces the photographer to slow down the entire process. Things like street shooting aren’t impossible with a Hasselblad, but there are definitely better tools for the job. A Leica, apart from other cameras (including rangefinders) I’ve used, encourages a kind of precision and finesse in a way that’s difficult to describe. I wanted something that invoked that feeling.
The X100T is not a rangefinder, at least by any meaningful account. A rangefinder typically has a second window on the camera body that captures light from the scene at an offset from the viewfinder proper. This projects a small second image of a portion of the scene into the center of the viewfinder which shifts to the left or right as the focus ring is adjusted. If the system is well calibrated, this second image will merge with the rest of the image in the viewfinder when focus is obtained. In other words, an object (technically, a plane) is in focus when the double image in the finder becomes a single image.
(What I always found interesting was the fact that the two mechanisms — the focus adjustment on the lens, and the shifting of the rangefinder’s double image — are completely independent of each other, and yet they manage to be pretty well in sync if your camera is working right. This is more amazing when you consider that, in systems like Leica’s M mount, this works when you swap out lenses, without having to make adjustments to the rangefinder.)
The X100T lacks such a mechanism, so the viewfinder is simply an offset lens with superimposed bright lines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and my judgement of it depends on how it solves the problems of an offset viewfinder that a proper rangefinder attempts to solve, which I’ve listed below.
- There is no 100% certain way of knowing what elements will be in the frame, since the user is not seeing through the same optics that are exposing the sensor.
- Since the finder is at an offset, parallax error needs to be accounted for.
- The finder needs something to indicate when the scene is in focus.
The X100T solves these problems in the following ways. First, the camera uses bright lines in the same fashion as your traditional rangefinder. These lines are superimposed digitally, rather than being built into the viewfinder’s optics. This allows additional information to be displayed in the viewfinder in a way that reminds me of a DSLR. The whole thing looks like an EVF with a true-to-life image.
I should mention for a second that the experience of using bright lines to frame a shot is the coolest thing to me. With a camera like an SLR, you get exactly what the sensor is seeing, and nothing more (in fact, you’re almost always going to get a little less, since very few SLRs have 100% viewfinder coverage). Rangefinders and their ilk allow you to put the image in context, watching figures move in and out of the frame without taking your eye out of the finder. This always seemed to me to be a pretty insubstantial feature, until I actually started using a rangefinder.
Moving on: to briefly touch on the second point, parallax correction is a non issue with the X100T, as the bright lines shift slightly as you adjust the focus. It’s actually pretty cool to see this in action, and it feels even more accurate than a traditional rangefinder’s bright line shift.
Re: the third point, this was something that I was most curious and concerned about in researching cameras. Most of the reviews I read about the camera don’t cover this to a very satisfying degree. They’ll talk about how the autofocus has gotten faster and how there’s now face detection, but what seems to me to be a key feature of this kind of camera doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention. The most I see regarding the mini-EVF, which I’ll discuss in a minute, are comments along the lines of “this is good for manual focus,” giving me the impression that nobody actually uses it.
I wanted to have a camera that I could use like a rangefinder, which in terms of focusing means I wanted two options available for me. First, I wanted to have an accurate way of confirming focus in the viewfinder. There are a lot of ways that to do this, which I’ll describe here. First, we have the traditional rangefinder way, which we discussed above. We also have the “split image” focusing screen that was put into the viewfinders of a lot of SLRs before the age of autofocus. The center of the viewfinder splits a small portion of the image into two, confirming focus when the two split images are aligned. This is not possible with a rangefinder, but I’ve always found it pretty nifty. Most split-image screens also have a second ring around the split image area which distorts the image when it is not in focus.
As far as I’ve seen, digital SLRs never come with a feature like this. The best these cameras can do w/r/t autofocus is flash the appropriate AF square when that part of the frame is in focus. This is pretty slow and not always that reliable when manually focusing, especially in fast scenarios. That being said, you’re probably misguided if you think manually focusing a DSLR is a good idea. I only really recommend it if you’ve replaced the focusing screen with something that’s actually good for that.
Another way to verify focus is to simply look at the ground glass and make your own judgement. This is typically the only game in town if you’re shooting a medium format SLR or a view camera. This is part of why these systems are slow, though, but the ground glass you’ll find in, say, a Hasselblad 501 tends to be much better than the stuff in your Canon 5D. For this reason it is both possible and practical to go this way in those larger systems, especially when you’re able to use a loupe to inspect the ground glass closely. Again, this is not possible with a proper rangefinder, but the X100T decides to go this route (with a different implementation) with the Mini-EVF. More on that in a bit, I promise.
Back to my point, though. I like to manually focus when I’m using a rangefinder. There exist proper rangefinders that do have pretty good autofocus, but I’ve never used them. Don’t get me wrong, though: I’m not a fussy purist who demands that everything throughout the process is done manually (I’d like to point out, too, that most Leica users who do more than stick the thing on a shelf and take pictures of it are probably not purists about manual control, either, in spite of how they seem. Their (and also my) draw toward manual control is more of a fascination of the mechanical precision of the tool than a misguided desire to “do it all by hand.”). If autofocus gave the same speed, consistency, and accuracy as my way of manually focusing does, I’d use that. Autofocus absolutely has its place in many situations, and I’d be crazy not to use it in those situations. And the X100T’s autofocus does a decent enough enough job of it that I’ll probably use it quite a bit. Nevertheless, I still wanted to have the option to manually focus the way I do with a rangefinder.
There’s a second way of focusing that doesn’t involve looking through the lens. A good lens has marks that indicate a correlation between a position on the focus ring and the distance of the plane of focus. A better lens has these marks along with marks indicating how deep the plane of focus (which I guess is not really a plane but a field, hence the term “depth of field”) is at each aperture.
This allows the user to pre-focus without fussing with the viewfinder or depth-of-field preview controls. Let’s talk around that for a second. I’ve always liked the pre-focus technique for a few reasons. It allows me minimize the time I spend standing there with the camera up to my face, while also using that time fully to compose the shot. I can make picture taking a fluid activity and act more as a participant in my surroundings. Pre-focusing also requires you to be aware of the space around you in a way that camera-up focusing prevents. How far away is 10 feet? How will figures at that distance fill my frame if I’m using such-and-such a lens? This opens up an avenue of thinking about pictures that, in my opinion, makes for better pictures. Remember when I mentioned the hardware having a direct effect on the work produced with it? This is what I meant.
Let me say, though, that I have not practiced any of this in a very long time. None of this matters with the kinds of photos I’ve found myself taking lately. However, I purchased the X100T with the intention of getting back into that groove. This is the reason I’m spending so much time talking about the focusing mechanism of this camera, so let’s actually get to doing so.
The X100T has a “hybrid viewfinder,” the likes of which can only be found in its bigger, pro-level brother, the X-Pro2 (which is definitely on my list as a consideration for future upgrades). This means that you have three options for what you see when you look through the finder. We can cycle through these using a small lever on the front of the camera. The feel of this lever reflects the mixed bag that is the build quality of the camera as a whole.
First, you have the optical finder, which as I mentioned earlier has bright lines and shot info superimposed in the field of view. The bright lines shift around the field of view depending on (1) which focus point is selected, and (2) the distance of the focal plane, all to help correct for parallax error. I’ve never tested how well these parallax correction features work — on this camera nor on other rangefinders — and the whole idea seems pretty imprecise, but it seems to work out alright under typical circumstances. The “pure optical viewfinder” mode only really works if you’re using autofocus, since there is no real accurate way of finding focus in this mode. When autofocusing, the focus point flashes in the middle of the bright lines as a green square when focus is achieved.
The optical finder is among the brightest viewfinders I’ve seen in a camera. The bright lines and heads-up display are crisp and easy to see in all lighting situations (the bright lines in a proper rangefinder tend to get very dim when in low light), and the overall clarity is on par with a Leica, and way ahead of my Canonet. This part of the beauty of a rangefinder (or a camera like the X100T): the view through the finder is a revelation, especially when you’ve been using an SLR.
Then you have the pure electronic viewfinder, which works pretty much the way you’d expect. I’ve only used one other modern EVF camera, so I don’t have a whole lot of context in which to judge it. I’ve never liked electronic finders, but as I mentioned above they seem to be the mainstay for mirrorless cameras right now. It’s still better, in my opinion, than holding the camera at arm’s length and using the screen on the back as a viewfinder, but there’s still a sort of detachment I feel when using an EVF. In the case of the X100T, when this mode is activated a shade pops up and obstructs the viewfinder, like an X-Wing targeting computer. All that aside, the refresh rate is fine, and the fact that I can preview the exposure and depth of field in real time is pretty nifty. I don’t use it all that often, but I can see it being useful for macros and and dark scenes in which the optical viewfinder can fail to be useful.
This flip-up EVF has me a little skeptical in terms of the durability of the camera. It’s an additional moving part that seems like it could easily jam or get mucked up. I suppose only time will tell.
The third viewfinder mode, what I call the “mini-EVF” mode, is what makes the X100T truly unique. It’s the optical finder, with a tiny EVF that pops up in the bottom right-hand corner of the field of view. From the looks of it, it’s part of the heads-up display, and thus there is a tiny shade that pops up behind that region to make it easier to see. The display shows a blown-up image of the currently selected AF point, helping you verify the focus.
This is the camera’s substitute for a true rangefinder mechanism, and it’s awesome for quite a few reasons. It gets around the major problem that the Contax G cameras had, which was that the autofocus sensor would disagree with what was shown in the viewfinder, leading to lots of shots in which the focus was missed by a lot. The mini-EVF allows us to see exactly what the autofocus is trying to see, since it takes the form of direct feedback from the sensor. For reason the mini-EVF is absolutely preferred over the pure optical finder mode, even if AF is used.
Okay, so now we can discuss to the manual focus experience. From the top, I’ll say that I have mixed impressions of how the camera handles this. It’s very easy to switch between focusing modes, using a switch on the left-hand side of the camera body. When you’re in manual mode, an additional element appears in the heads-up display which shows both the focal distance and the depth of the focal field. This seems decently accurate, but it’s definitely a far cry from actual markings on the focus ring. I’m happy it’s there, all things considered.
The reason there are no such markings on the focus ring is that the ring is not mechanically attached to the moving elements in the lens. Rather, adjustments to the ring (which, by the way, feels super solid, in line with the knob feel of a high-end piece of stereo equipment) electronically trigger the camera to adjust the focus as you turn it. The adjustments feel a little a little choppy and discrete, but it doesn’t seem to hinder the accuracy of the focus. Furthermore, I could be mistaken, but it feels like the adjustment speed isn’t constant with the speed at which we adjust the ring, the way a normal focus ring works. That is, on the X100T an inch of ring-turn could be interpreted as 1/10 of the full scale of focus or 1/2 or any other ratio, depending on how quickly we move the ring. This makes manual focus feel a little unresponsive, especially since we’re not directly moving the focus elements with the ring.
Focus confirmation in manual mode comes in three flavors, which the menus call “manual focus assist”: the “electronic rangefinder” mode (which has nothing to do with an actual rangefinder), some weird edge highlighting thing, and a split image mode. The first uses the mini-EVF in the way I discussed above: a magnified sensor’s eye view of the active focus point. This works as well as you’d expect, and doesn’t feel all that accurate. I would rely on an EVF display for focus even less than I would rely on a standard DSLR’s focusing screen. I haven’t had any interest in trying out the edge highlighting MF mode.
The split image mode is much more reliable for manual focus. The mini-EVF displays a black-and-white image of the focus point (which is indicated in the heads-up display as a square within the bright lines), at a tighter crop than that in the “electronic rangefinder” mode. The display shows a split image in the same vein as a traditional SLR focusing screen. When the two images are aligned, the subject is in focus. Setting aside the focus ring’s shortcomings, I very much enjoy this feature under bright conditions. It’s accurate and fast enough for most situations. It would be nice if this were put in the center of the display, but that’s definitely difficult to accomplish (Like I mentioned above, a little shade needs to pop up in front of the mini-EVF area in order for it to display clearly). The feature is pretty useless when it gets darker, though, since the display gets too noisy to be able to see the split image reliably.
I find myself alternating between manual focus and autofocus modes with the X100T. I still find pre-focusing to be the way to go with moving subjects — my opinion might change as I get more practice with the center-focus-reframe autofocus technique, which is similar to the technique I use with a manual rangefinder. The only hangup I have with this is the less-than-ideal positioning of the mini-EVF. The manual focus mode is unfortunately not fast or responsive enough to deal with moving subjects. I also wish the focus scale were visible in the viewfinder in AF mode.
Who knew anybody could talk at such great length about ways you can focus a stupid camera?
Let’s Talk About Optics
The X100T does not have a 35mm lens. It has a 23mm lens that stops up to a pretty decent f/2. The only thing it has in common with a 35mm lens is that the camera’s sensor crops the field of view to be roughly equivalent to what a full-frame sensor’s field of view would be with an actual 35mm lens. This seems a little pedantic, but to me there is a pretty major difference between the two. The lens on the X100T looks and feels like a 23mm lens, from the sharpness to the background blur to the distortion. This is not a bad thing, but it’s important to make this distinction lest we forget why full-frame sensors have their place in the world, and why I’m surprised the micro four-thirds system has survived this long. But I digress.
With that in mind, the lens is very sharp, and it accompanies the sensor very well. The ensemble isn’t exactly the pixel peeper’s dream, but it’s certainly a welcome change for me after a couple years’ worth of of cell phone shooting. The focal length makes it difficult to achieve a good amount background blur, but it looks great when it’s there. The fact that the field of view is equivalent to that of a ~35mm lens is perfect for me: I’ve always considered it to be “my” focal length, at least as it was prescribed to me by a wise photo professor I once had.
Fujifilm makes two accessory lenses that can be affixed at the front of the built-in lens. One gives you a 50mm equivalent focal length, the other a 28mm equivalent. Each costs around 350 US these days, and neither seems like anything I would reach for myself. Reviews of both items range from lukewarm to good-ish. The existence of the conversion lenses seems to go against the desire for simplicity and joy that the X100T tries to capture. The camera itself begs to be free from (literal) baggage and attachments. It’s versatile in its own ways, and additional lenses and gizmos paradoxically detract from this kind of versatility.
I should probably qualify that, since I realize it sounds like a deepity. The X100T is a versatile camera in the sense that its design and functionality lends itself to a kind of omnipresence. In the spirit of the Leica, it’s always around your neck and will be available when you call upon it. The 35mm-equivalent field of view is wide but manageable, allowing the photographer to get close when necessary. That being said, any additional stuff you add to the camera necessitates bags or at least full pockets. This camera begs you to leave the bags at home.
To my astonishment, RAW workflows haven’t evolved much since I last shot digital. PhotoMechanic still looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1999, and Lightroom is really starting to show its age. That being said, everything still works as well as it should. Perhaps this lack of change indicates a swing toward a general preference for JPEGs, which I have mixed feelings about, so let’s start there.
Ken Rockwell likes shooting JPEG with the X100T, and it’s pretty clear why. Right out of the box you get “film simulation” modes (Rockwell provides the worst possible examples of these, though) in lieu of the always-vague and never-useful scene modes you’ll find on pretty much any digital camera. These modes are pretty fantastic, and the camera even offers a feature to bracket them if you don’t know which one you prefer. Overall, the X100T’s JPEGs give you excellent color rendition, and the camera’s meter is pretty accurate (although it does have trouble in contrasty scenes: the meter weighs shadows a little too heavily (or maybe it doesn’t weigh highlights enough), resulting in about 1/3 to 2/3 stops of overexposure) that you almost never have to correct the exposure post-hoc.
I’m a little less trusting of the camera’s auto white balance — it seems to lean too much toward magenta and blue, especially when it’s cloudy out. I recommend dialing in your own white balance where possible.
All things considered, most people are probably perfectly happy with the JPEGs out of the X100T, and I’m probably being overly fussy when I set the camera to shoot in RAW. I think this rift has a lot to do with how you perceive the practice of photographing. Let me explain.
I used to like to say that I treat Photoshop like a darkroom, and I’ve always approached editing photos on a computer in a similar vein. To understand this, let’s start with film itself. The image that appears when you develop a negative is not in any way a “final form” of the photograph produced from it. It is merely a representation of the information it recorded during capture, to be interpreted by the printer through printing process. How that information gets presented is a function of many, many decisions made between development and the final print. The negative, developed as such, simply provides constraints on that interpretation. There is no such thing as a direct negative-to-paper reproduction, because the very act of creating a print from a piece of film is an act of interpretation. There was no “original image” to begin with.
The RAW files produced by a digital camera are very similar to a negative. It contains all the information recorded at capture time. This is why you can (to a certain extent) recover “lost detail” when you over- or underexpose an image from a RAW file. (Similarly to how it is with film, it’s not advisable to lean on this capability, since adjusting the exposure post-hoc will never produce as “good” of an image as a properly exposed one). We can take a RAW image into Lightroom or Camera Raw or Photoshop to interpret the information it contains. To this extent the process is almost exactly analogous to working with film.
I’m trying to highlight the act of producing a photograph as an interpretive task. Shooting in RAW gives you more degrees of freedom for controlling the outcome of the process. It allows you to bend the image to your will, especially if you understand the tools at your disposal. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make a judgement about how RAW images look straight out of the camera, because much like the process of producing a print from a negative, the very act of displaying a RAW image on a screen is an act of interpretation (and that interpretation never really looks that good). On top of that, every RAW processor will produce different results from the same file, even if the user leaves everything else untouched.
What about straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs, then? A camera produces a JPEG image by putting the RAW information through its own image processor. Color balance, sharpening, and other settings are applied automatically, resulting in a final, (compressed) bitmap image in a standard format. While most cameras give you a little bit of control over how the image is processed, JPEG shooting essentially equates to a workflow-in-a-box process akin to applying Lighroom presets (VSCO, anyone?) or taking your film to Walgreens to get prints.
I don’t want to paint JPEG shooting as lazy or evil, but it’s helpful to see it for what it is. The JPEG files a camera produces are less inherent to the machine itself than to the opinions of the engineers who built the image processor. There is nothing the camera’s JPEG processor can do that normal imaging software can’t do with the same raw data. The X100T does indeed create beautiful JPEGs with great colors, but it’s a very hard tradeoff to what you lose when you shoot in JPEG vs. RAW.
To further illustrate my point: the color profiles that are built into the camera’s firmware can always be applied post-hoc in Lighroom, which has an option to apply any of the X100T’s film simulation modes. This nullifies the need to choose between them in-camera. The only real sacrifice we make is hard drive space, and perhaps time spent converting RAW files.
This is why I don’t take seriously the people who pride themselves in not ever touching Photoshop with their images.
One last remark on the sensor: there is a slight issue w/r/t detail rendering when the scene gets more busy and random, but it isn’t a huge deal.
The X100T doesn’t do video well. It doesn’t feature image stabilization, its screen doesn’t flip out, and it isn’t very expandable. It presents itself as exactly what it wants to be: a camera. I love it for the same reason I love my Canonet QL-17: it does not wish or need to offer up anything more than what it has. It doesn’t get in the way of itself. I purchased it so I could “just take photos,” and this is exactly what its biggest strength is.
This isn’t a review, so I won’t give a rating or list the kinds of people who I would recommend or not recommend this camera to. Like I said at from the top, the thing’s discontinued, and it’s looking like it’ll get a replacement pretty soon, so I don’t think such formalities would be very appropriate (it looks like you’re only really allowed to review an older camera after it’s turned like 10 years old). I will say, though, that this camera has given me the same joy I felt when I first started “seriously” shooting almost ten years ago. I take it everywhere I go now, and I think that’s the highest praise you can give a camera.