Flame-retardant long johns? Check.
Late 16th-century full plate body armour? Adorned.
Aqualung for when the B.S. fumes turn toxic? Functioning.
Alright then — time for another post in which I detail my impressions of a popular, modern camera.
Truth be told, I rather dislike writing about cameras that are currently on the market. Inevitably, if a camera doesn’t fulfill my needs, I’m labelled ‘an idiot’ by those who are loyal to the brand. If a camera does fulfill my needs, I’m labelled ‘an idiot’ by those who are loyal to competing brands. The implication, therefore, is that I’m an idiot no matter what I think — hence the need for the previously mentioned blogging accoutrements. René Descartes once famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Had the internet been around in Descartes’ time, I’m quite certain the exact quote would have been, “I think, therefore I am an idiot.”
So why do I bother posting camera discussions on the internet? Two reasons — both selfish: First, any article that geeks out over camera gear receives roughly 1000% more readers than one of my prototypically philosophical (and far better, IMHO) ULTRAsomething articles. Second, I like to try out new cameras. And the “price” I pay for borrowing a camera from a manufacturer is that I must agree to write about it on the internet.
Whenever I discuss modern cameras, I begin the article with a disclaimer — one that clearly states that my views are totally, incontrovertibly and unabashedly subjective. For me, photography is a passion, not a science. Consequently, there’s rarely an ounce of objectivity in anything I write when I write about cameras. When I review a camera, I review it for myself. Is this a camera that satisfies my needs? Does it satisfy them better than what I already own? Is there something the manufacturer could do to improve my satisfaction? Never do I proclaim to discuss whether or not a camera satisfies your needs. That’s because I haven’t a clue what your needs are. Only you can know that.
Thus, the only intrinsic value in an ULTRAsomething camera “review” is its entertainment value — unless, of course, it’s your desire to take photos exactly like mine. And frankly, if that’s the case, you’ve got much bigger problems than merely selecting which camera to purchase.
So with this disclaimer firmly in your mind, I’m about to do something unique in the annals of ULTRAsomething — I’m going to begin with the conclusion. Hopefully, by placing the disclaimer and conclusion in such close proximity, I’ll reduce the amount of wear and tear to which I subject my body armour, aqualung and flame resistant underwear.
The Fuji X100T is a lightweight, compact, fully-featured slice of modern circuity. It’s well made, versatile and capable of delivering photographs that are as beautiful as any rational photographer might hope for in a camera of this class. And yet, as much as I was seduced by the X100T’s image quality; as much as I was dazzled by its hybrid viewfinder and impressed by Fuji’s willingness to innovate, the camera failed to captivate me as I had expected. My reason, though I’m aware it might be perceived as overly captious, is simply that the X100T doesn’t fully obviate the need for the one feature it most seeks to emulate — the rangefinder.
For most photographers, this fact will be superfluous. But for me, the advantages inherent in true rangefinder focusing are essential. The bulk of my photography is based on speed — can I grab a shot between the time it reveals itself and the time it disappears? Milliseconds matter to me. Fidelity… not so much.
Of course, there’s more to photography than grabbing candid, fleeting splinters of serendipity. Which is precisely why there are different types of cameras. Like many photographers, I have several “specialist” cameras for those photographic avenues that most interest me, and I have a few “generalist” cameras for all those areas in which I’m more of a dabbler.
“Generalist” cameras perform a multitude of functions well, but are easily bettered at any one specific task by a purpose-built camera. For example, I rarely shoot sports, wildlife or macros, so I have one generalist camera whose job is to scratch all those various itches. Anyone whose primary photographic interest actually is sports, wildlife or macros would never choose to use the camera I use. Their needs are more demanding, specialized and precise than mine.
And this is the perspective from which I must judge the X100T. It is a camera designed for those with a general interest in the same type of photography for which my interests are quite particular. Please don’t misinterpret this statement as pompous. Rather, consider it analogous to someone who lives on a small island and dismisses a perfectly good BMW for failing to meet their needs. It’s not that the BMW is “beneath” them — it’s just that their particular situation would be better served by something like, say, a rowboat. A rangefinder is my rowboat.
Though I’ve never sworn to remain faithful to rangefinders “until death do us part,” I will be loyal until such time that modern technology equals or exceeds the unique capabilities that rangefinders offer. Alas, it’s not there yet.
I have little doubt, should any company ultimately find a way to reinvent the rangefinder using 21st century technology, it will be Fuji. They’ve been narrowing the gap through three generations of X100 development. And perhaps, should Fuji choose to implement some of my suggestions, the X100F might finally be the camera to do it. The question is, will that “F” stand for fourth generation, fifth generation, or fifteenth?
If your photographic aspirations don’t require the tactile benefits of true rangefinder focusing, you should definitely take a good long look at the X100T — particularly if you value cameras that slip effortlessly into jacket pockets. However, if a mechanically coupled focus ring with distance demarcations is essential to your technique, then the X100T is obviously not going to give you this — nor is it going to give you the technological equivalent.
So, having dispensed with the conclusion, I can now commence with discussing how, exactly, I reached it and the path that lead me there.
Over the past few years, Fuji has been carving out a niche for itself as “the camera for photographers who, in the past, would have used rangefinder cameras.” As a man who does, indeed, use rangefinder cameras (past and present), this caught my attention. Each time Fuji released a new model (X-Pro, X100, X-T), I would trudge down to my local dealer, check out the camera, reject it rather quickly, then trudge back home to my rangefinders.
Obviously, my dismissal of each Fuji offering didn’t jive with the opinions of many photographers. Fuji’s loyal and growing fan base is proof positive that my opinions definitely diverge from the norm. How can that be? The answer lies entirely in the reasons why I choose to use rangefinders.
Throughout history, most photographers have wanted one thing above all else: a camera that takes the highest fidelity images their wallet can endure. In the past, if you wanted such a camera and you wanted it to be small and unobtrusive, you would likely choose a rangefinder. For many, the rangefinder was merely a means to a (smaller) end. Today, most photographers who wish to combine high fidelity with reduced size seek the company of so-called “mirrorless” cameras. Today’s mirrorless camera is, in essence, the modern solution to the size problem previously solved by rangefinders.
But size is not the rangefinder’s lone differentiating factor. Consider, for example, the viewfinder. With rangefinders, photographers view the subject through a window beside the lens. With SLRs and mirrorless cameras, photographers view the subject directly through the lens. Each approach offers unique advantages. By looking through the lens, a photographer sees exactly how the photo will be framed and is therefore able to include and exclude elements precisely. By looking through a window, a photographer sees what’s happening outside the photographic borders and is therefore able to time shots more accurately. Different too, is the viewfinder’s focus rendering. A through-the-lens view allows photographers to preview exactly where the plane of focus sits, and the depth-of-field characteristics of the resulting photo. A window view lets photographers see the world with all the brightness and infinite depth-of-field their own eyes can muster, which helps them to find subjects either behind or in front of the current plane of focus.
Neither viewing method is necessarily “better” than the other, since both possess advantages and disadvantages depending on what you’re photographing. As such, the X100T’s dual-mode viewfinder is a revelation — enabling photographers to switch between a rangefinder-style “window view” and an SLR-style “through the lens” view. In other words, you get the best of two worlds in one camera. This feature, alone, makes the X100T (and several other Fuji cameras) highly desirable. It’s certainly the reason I’ve been paying close attention to Fuji products for the past several years. And for many photographers, this is reason enough to choose Fuji over dozens of other mirrorless camera brands.
But there’s an additional benefit to rangefinder cameras. And that’s the manual rangefinder focusing mechanism itself. While I certainly appreciate the size advantages of a rangefinder, and definitely appreciate the window finder advantages of a rangefinder, it’s the focusing advantages of the rangefinder that are most crucial to the way I work. Simply put, a manually focused rangefinder camera allows me to grab shots that always elude me when shooting with auto-focus.
I’m fully aware that the X100T supports manual focusing, and that Fuji has done an excellent job implementing features to make manual focusing more accessible and more reliable. But here’s the thing: Fuji’s manual mode seems best suited to photographers who focus manually because of the extra control it gives them. I choose to focus manually because of the extra speed it gives me. But the way it’s implemented on the X100T, manual focusing actually slows me down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself (an inevitable problem of beginning with the conclusion)…
When Fuji released the X100T, it was the first camera of theirs that didn’t immediately raise any red flags during a cursory camera shop visit. In fact, the X100T solved what I perceived to be the two biggest problems with its predecessor. Specifically, it displayed parallax corrections in real-time when manually focusing, and it finally supported exposure compensation when shooting in “manual mode,” while still letting the camera determine ISO.
Suspecting an X100T might soon find a home in my cabinet o’ cameras, I contacted Fuji and had then ship one to ULTRAsomething’s Vancouver headquarters for further review.
Although Vancouver is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, it’s positioned smack dab in the middle of the largest temperate rainforest on earth. It’s now mid-winter. Most folks here call this “the rainy season.” I call it “camera review season.”
For reasons I can attribute only to Murphy and his silly law, the “rainy season” always seems to coincide precisely with the arrival of review cameras. So when the Purolator man brought me the Fuji X100T, I wasn’t too surprised to see him adorned head-to-toe in his finest monsoon wear. I emailed Fuji to verify that it would be OK to use the camera in the rain. “It’s not weather sealed,” said my contact at Fuji, “so it’s best to avoid moisture as much as possible.”
I glanced at the weather forecast…
… Thanks, Mr. Murphy
My time with the X100T corresponded with some of the wettest weather of the past year. So I had plenty of opportunity to hang out indoors, and familiarize myself with the camera’s many features, menu items and ergonomics. Because there exists a plethora of reviewers who actually make proper use of these many features, I’m not going to bother discussing the majority of them. Instead, I’m going to mention those things, big or small, that impacted me.
Aside from the window viewfinder mentioned earlier in this article, my favorite X100T feature is one many would consider rather insignificant: the inclusion of a threaded shutter release button. Once standard equipment back in the day, modern cameras have all but eliminated threaded shutter buttons. Apparently, today’s manufacturers assume the thread’s only purpose is to attach a remote, mechanical shutter release — a function that’s now replicated electronically (if not wirelessly) on all cameras. But there’s a much more important (and oft forgotten) purpose to that thread: it allows for installation of a “soft release” button. Soft release buttons increase the height and improve the ergonomics of the shutter release button, increasing its sensitivity. More sensitivity means less force is required to trigger the shutter. This allows photographers to employ longer shutter speeds without inducing camera shake, while simultaneously releasing the shutter that much quicker. True, the advantages are mere milliseconds, but as I mentioned earlier, milliseconds matter. Every Leica M camera I own (film or digital) is affixed with a soft release, so it’s a delight that I can use this same technique on a modern camera, like the X100T.
And as long as I’m discussing small features with big payoffs, I’ll mention one way in which Fuji has made the best of an otherwise negative situation — software control of focus distance (aka, “focus by wire”). There is no standard to govern which direction one must turn a manually focussed lens in order to focus it. Leica M-series lenses, for example, rotate counter-clockwise to reach infinity. Old Pentax lenses rotate clockwise to infinity. Since these are geared, mechanical devices, there’s no way to reverse the direction in which they rotate. Consequently, if a photographer is accustom to lenses that rotate in one direction, it can be quite disconcerting to switch to a camera system in which lenses focus in the opposite direction. While I generally dislike cameras that “focus by wire,” there is one potential advantage to having focus fall under software control — the rotational direction can, theoretically, be altered. Surprisingly, I’ve worked with very few cameras that actually enable users to switch this direction. But Fuji, as further proof they’re a company that pays attention to a photographer’s needs, does indeed offer an option to reverse the direction in which the camera focusses. Little things like this make a huge difference in a camera’s ergonomics. In my case, the camera arrived with lenses set to rotate backward from the Leica M standard, which is the one I’m most accustom to. I simply had to scroll to the sixth page of menu options, and change the Focus Ring setting from clockwise to counter-clockwise. Boom! My ‘backward’ focusing camera became a camera that focussed the way I wanted it to.
Before moving on to the inevitable negative issues, I’ll mention one other X100T attribute, which I find quite useful: its whisper-quiet shutter. If, like me, you often photograph in very close proximity to subjects who are unaware of their status as “subjects,” a near-silent shutter is quite a useful characteristic. Because the X100T uses a leaf shutter (and also has the capability of employing an electronic shutter), it is significantly quieter than the rubberized cloth focal plane shutters used in my film-based Leica’s — cameras which, in olden days, were well known and well respected for their discretion.
Since I began this article with the conclusion, it should come as no surprise that the X100T wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. No camera is.
First and foremost is what I’ll call “the thumb problem.” Specifically, I have them — thumbs, that is. I know. It’s crazy. It’s the 21st century. Who needs thumbs? Well, apparently Fuji is hoping to hasten the thumbless future, because they’ve most definitely designed the X100T for thumbless humans.
Why else would Fuji place fidgety little buttons everywhere us legacy humans would likely want to rest our thumbs when gripping the camera? If you’re like me, and walk around with the camera in hand — one finger on the shutter release and ready to pounce on the next ephemeral photo opportunity — then there’s only one logical place for your thumb: smack in the middle of the LCD. Normally I wouldn’t mind — particularly since I never use the LCD when shooting — except that the four selector buttons (which surround the menu button) fall directly under that lumpy area where the thumb’s first phalanx joins the metacarpal bone. So it’s botched shots a-go-go as the base of my thumb is constantly triggering these buttons, modifying the camera’s functionality in all manner of unexpected and undesired ways. In the end, I simply disabled all four selector buttons — insuring the camera wouldn’t accidentally enter some unwanted mode. I’m sure there are some folks with a hand that conforms to the idealized model contained within Fuji World Headquarters, but mine isn’t one of them. And I suspect many people’s aren’t. Unfortunately, rectifying this problem would require a rather significant redesign of the body and the circuit boards beneath.
Perhaps Match Technical’s Thumbs Up™ device would solve the problem? I own several Match Technical products for use on other cameras, and have the utmost confidence in their quality. If I actually did own an X100T, I would definitely take the chance and purchase a Thumbs Up. I have no way of knowing whether it would rectify Fuji’s vision of a thumbless future, but it’s got to be an improvement over the camera’s current design limitations. At the very least, it would probably let me re-enable the four selector buttons I was forced to turn off.
My next two irritants with the X100T are both laughably minor, and are probably indicative of my own shortcomings rather than the camera’s. But I want to get them out of the way before concluding with the more significant issue.
Minor irritant #1 is the camera’s (equivalent) focal length: 35mm. Remember how I said I review cameras from my perspective and my perspective only? Well, for me, 35mm is a “tweener” focal length. My go-to lens is a 28mm and it’s the focal length I default to using about 60% of the time. My secondary focal length is 50mm, which probably accounts for about 30% of my photos. Out of the remaining 10%, 21mm usage commands about half. The remaining 5% is shared amongst all my other focal lengths (15, 35, 75, 90, 135). 35mm is just not a focal length I use much these days. Granted, with time and practice, one can train themselves to see and use any focal length. And the truth is, 35mm used to be my favorite focal length. But somewhere in my photographic journey, it shuffled off into obscurity. So, even though I’m a huge fan of fixed focal length cameras, I would be far more likely to choose an X100T if it came in 28, 50 or even 21mm flavors. Again, that’s just me. For you, 35mm might be perfect.
Minor irritant #2 relates to the third-stop aperture ring. Third-stops may be well and good for some — particularly those coming to the X100T from the SLR world, but I expose manually. I’ve calibrated my brain and my eye to see in half-stops. If I cross from the shady side of the street to the sunny side, I instinctively (and mindlessly) rotate either the shutter dial and/or the aperture dial to compensate for the exposure difference. All these manipulations — all these years of internalizing exposure — have presumed half-stop settings. Honestly (and some would say ridiculously) this is the reason I don’t own any Zeiss M-mount lenses — they have an aperture ring that adjusts in thirds-of-a-stop. Once again, for me, milliseconds matter. If I have to suddenly think about whether the camera I’m blindly adjusting is calibrated in half-stops or third-stops, I’m going to miss the shot.
Of far greater concern to me is the way Fuji has implemented manual focus. I’ve touched on this already, and stated my belief that the X100T’s manual focusing mode is best suited to photographers wishing to increase focus accuracy, and not to those (like me) who need it for speed.
Exhibit A is the camera’s focus ring — a ring so narrow that it’s nearly impossible to rotate it without accidentally turning the aperture ring simultaneously. Slight rotational adjustments for the purpose of fine-tuning focus are no problem. But anyone wanting to grab hold of the focus ring and crank it old-skool will, like me, find themselves inadvertently changing aperture as well. The ergonomics here absolutely prevent me from using the X100T as a grab-and-go manual focus camera.
Exhibit B is the lack of any distance demarcations on the lens itself. Most mechanically-focussed lenses (which this is not) have distance scales printed on the lens barrel. This allows you to pre-focus before the camera even reaches your eye — a technique known as “scale focusing.” The ability to scale focus — and do it instantly — is, for me, the make or break feature when it comes to assessing whether or not a camera is suitable for my own (street) use. Obviously, most modern cameras now have auto-focusing capabilities, meaning most modern lenses perform their manual focusing edicts “by wire,” rather than via mechanical coupling. So, naturally, distance scales have been on the endangered species list for quite some time.
But as I just mentioned, the advantage to having distance markings on the lens barrel is that you can quickly focus a lens before you even point it at your subject. Often, when walking around, I have a rather good idea where the most likely photo opportunities will arise, and thus know how far away they are. If I’m working in a tight, crowded area, I might preset my lens’ focus distance to 1.5 meters or 2.0 meters. If I’m watching events unfold a bit further away, I might preset my lens to somewhere in the 3.0 – 5.0 meter range. That way the camera is “pre-focussed” and ready to shoot. Without these demarcations on the lens, there is no easy way to quickly “dial in” the desired focus distance. You’re stuck looking through the viewfinder or firing up the rear panel LCD if you want to change manual focus distance. And frankly, even with the LCD activated, the distance scale is nigh invisible for the presbyopic segment of the population.
While trying to work around these X100T limitations, I ultimately settled on a technique in which I used the AEL/AFL button to auto-focus while in manual focus mode. For example, if I wanted to set the lens to 3m, I’d simply stop, look for something that I knew was 3m away, bring the camera to my eye, press the AEL/AFL button to focus on it, and I was good to go — the lens was set to 3m and the camera was still in manual focus mode. If I wanted to change to a different focus distance, I’d have to repeat the process. Obviously, this isn’t nearly as desirable, fast or inconspicuous as being able to set the focus directly by simply turning the lens barrel.
Fortunately, there are work-arounds that Fuji could employ to help solve this issue, and I’m going to name two that I’d like to see them implement. One could be done in firmware and, I suspect, retrofitted into the existing X100T. The other would definitely require hardware modifications and, perhaps, a patent search.
I’ll begin with the firmware suggestion, since it’s something I believe Fuji could (and should) execute now: To improve the camera’s immediacy for “street” or “candid” photographers, Fuji should create a set of pre-set focus distances, which can be freely assigned to any function button(s) the photographer chooses. Assuming a Thumbs Up™ solves the thumb problem for me, I’d personally welcome the ability to assign different preset focus distances to the four selector buttons. Maybe I’d assign one button to 1.5m, another to 2.5m, a third to 5.0m and the fourth to infinity. This would enable me to use the camera in manual focus mode, while affording me the ability to instantly change the focus distance without having to look through the viewfinder or check the rear LCD. Another advantage is that you could drop in and out of Autofocus mode at will. For example, if you saw a shot opportunity and had the time to autofocus, you could do so (by either switching to AF mode or using the AEL/AFL button to acquire focus). Then, by simply pressing one of your preset focus distance buttons, you’d be able to drop back into your desired preset focus distance and continue the “hunt.”
This change would go a long way toward making the X100T perform more like the camera it wants to be, and it would alleviate many of the issues I have with the camera.
My second suggestion is, admittedly, an idea ‘borrowed’ from some Olympus lenses — lenses that are also focus-by-wire, but which have implemented an elegant solution for people who prefer mechanically coupled manual focus. Some Olympus lenses feature a clutch ring. When you pull back on the clutch, a distance scale is exposed. With the clutch thus engaged, the rotation of the focus ring is limited — physically stopping when it reaches the minimum focus distance, then stopping again when it reaches infinity. Because the software knows the amount of physical rotation available, it can then map focus distances to rotation angles, meaning printed distance scales are now available on a focus-by-wire lens. Such a system would go a tremendous way toward bridging the gap between manual focusing rings and those that focus by wire.
It may seem silly that I’ve decided not to purchase an X100T because it fails to act like a rangefinder camera. Particularly since it’s obviously not a rangefinder camera, nor does it claim to be one. But the X100T takes so many of its design cues from rangefinders of yore, that one is almost forced to evaluate it in comparison to them. And thusly compared, the camera doesn’t offer the necessary behavioural attributes of a true rangefinder.
This doesn’t mean it’s a bad camera — quite the contrary! If someone pretends to be something they’re not, that doesn’t mean they’re not great at being what they are. If a lawyer dresses up as a surgeon for Halloween, you probably wouldn’t want him operating on you, but you still might want him to represent you in court. And that, in a nutshell, is my issue with the X100T: The camera is an Oscar-caliber thespian — but I find myself more in need of the character it portrays.
©2015 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: Throughout this article, I mention how I often photograph “candid, fleeting splinters of serendipity.” Yet the article contains no such photos. The reason, of course, is that this is a review of the X100T — a camera that stands somewhat in the way of my ability to take these sorts of photos. And since accepted practice dictates that one must populate camera review articles with photos taken by the reviewed camera, it’s rather obvious why I haven’t included the sort of photos I wanted to take with the X100T.
Though the majority of my review days were lost to Fuji’s request that I not use the X100T in the rain, I did lose several additional days trying to coerce it into taking the sort of shots I wanted it to take (and that its body styling suggested it could take). Ultimately, these days weren’t “wasted,” since I learned a lot about the camera, as well as how it might need to be modified before I’d consider buying one.
Toward the end of my review period, I realized I hadn’t yet taken any photos to include with the article. So, instead of trying to make the X100T conform to me, I knew I would instead need to conform to the X100T. As a consequence, most of this article’s photos are a bit, shall we say, “static.” Obviously, my own proclivities regarding subject, processing and a pathological aversion to color did come into play — so anyone hoping to glean some useful information about the X100T’s image quality had best look elsewhere. In my estimation, all modern camera’s produce acceptable images (the X100T included), and it therefore becomes my job to ruin those images as best I see fit. Curiously, after giving up and letting the X100T do its own thing (even though it’s not my thing), I was nearly tempted to purchase the camera in spite of myself!
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