Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fujifilm FinePix X 100 Preview

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First look based on a prototype X100

In amongst all the cameras announced at Photokina 2010 - including enthusiast SLRs such as the Nikon D7000, Canon EOS 60D, Pentax K-5 and Sigma SD1 - one utterly unexpected model stole the show. Fujifilm unveiled the FinePix X100, a compact camera with an SLR-size APS-C sensor and traditional analogue control dials, that hides ground-breaking technology inside a retro-styled body with looks to die for. It's the company's first camera with a large, APS-C sensoraimed at professionals and advanced amateurs since the S5 Pro DSLR of 2006.

Fujifilm may be a company that’s currently best-known for its prolific production of compact cameras, but in reality it has a long tradition of making somewhat left-field, unique cameras aimed at serious enthusiasts and professionals. The company regularly sought out market niches in the days of film, from its Fujica 6x9 format rangefinders, through the GA645Zi medium format ‘zoom compact’, to the TX-1 35mm panoramic rangefinder (better known in Western markets as the Hasselblad XPan), all of which still command premium prices on the used market today. In the digital era it has concentrated mainly on its innovative SuperCCD sensor technology, employing it to provide class-leading dynamic range on cameras such as the S5 Pro and the EXR series of zoom compacts. Along the way it has made some genuine cult classics, including the F30 and F31Fd compacts which earned a reputation as excellent low-light performers.

The X100, though, is something totally different. It’s a beautifully-designed rangefinder-styled camera that squeezes an SLR-size APS-C sensor into its compact body, and sports a fixed, fast F2 maximum aperture semi-wideangle lens with a classic 35mm-equivalent field of view. It uses traditional analogue-style control dials for shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation, alongside an electronically coupled (‘focus-by-wire’) manual focus ring. But the biggest story is its innovative hybrid viewfinder, which combines a conventional direct-vision optical viewfinder with a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, offering the best of both worlds plus a few unique tricks of its own.

The large-sensor, fixed-lens compact isn’t a new idea, of course, and both Sigma’s DP series and the Leica X1 have already visited this territory. However these haven’t been entirely convincing products, plagued by slow operation, low-resolution LCDs and, in the case of the Sigmas, a somewhat quirky interface. For this reason they’ve struggled to establish a compelling raison d’etre, especially in the face of competition from the new breed of interchangeable lens mirrorless compacts typified by the Olympus Pen series and Sony NEXs. So the real question will be whether Fujifilm has managed to refine the concept, and produce a camera that’s as compelling to shoot with as its specifications (and looks) suggest.

The X100 was shown at Photokina as a non-working prototype, slated for an introduction date of March 2011. Fujifilm says it’s on course to meet that target, and has kindly lent us a working prototype model for a first look, on which this article is based. The camera we have is not fully representative of the version that will hit the retailers’ shelves – certain aspects of the cosmetic finish are different, and the firmware is far from finished. So this won’t quite be our usual detailed preview, but instead a first impression of what the camera’s like 'in the flesh'. If you're interested in the X100, Fuji's own special site is also well worth a visit.

There’s no mistaking what Fujifilm’s design team were thinking when they created the X100. Its two-tone body and analogue-style controls hark back to old rangefinder compacts, and it doesn’t look at all out of place in the company of these 1970s classics. Both Olympus and Leica have recently released retro-styled small cameras in the shape of the E-P1/2 and X1, but the X100 takes the concept to a whole different level. Its flash is even placed in the same position as was once occupied by rangefinder windows.12 megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensorFixed 23mm F2 lens (field of view equivalent to a 35mm lens on full frame)2.8" LCD screen, 4:3 aspect ratio, 460,000 dotsHybrid optical / electronic viewfinderOVF with 0.5x magnification, projected framelines indicate approx 90% of field of viewEVF with ca 0.5x magnification, 1,440,000 dotsTraditional-style control dials for shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensationISO 100 (L), 200-6400, 12800 (H)Flash hot shoe and built-in flashBuilt-in neutral density filter (3 stops)1280x720 HD movie recording with stereo sound

The composite image below gives an idea of the X100's size relative to some of its competitors, both fixed- and interchangeable-lensed. It's a bit taller than the Leica X1 with which it most closely competes, but this mainly reflects the X100's built-in hybrid viewfinder (X1 users have to make do with the rear LCD or an add-on optical viewfinder). It's also noticeably larger than interchangeable lens cameras like the Panasonic GF1, and particularly the APS-C Sony NEX-5 (from which it's poles apart in terms of control philosophy), but again, neither of these have an eye-level viewfinder either. Of course the X100 is distinctly smaller and more portable than any DSLR fitted with a similarly-fast lens.

The table below lists some of the key specifications of the X100 and its competitors. What's notable is the combination of an unusually fast lens and a large APS-C sensor, which together bode well for its low-light capability.

(35mm equiv)LCDDimensions & Weight
(with lens, battery + card)Sensor
(effective pixels) 126 x 74 x 54 mm, tbc
5.0 x 3.0 x 2.2 in, tbc12.3 Mp CMOS
(ca. 23.6 x 15.8 mm)124 x 60 x 50 mm, 330g
4.9 x 2.4 x 2.0 in, 10.9 oz
12.2 Mp CMOS
(23.6 x 15.8 mm)119 x 71 x 61 mm, 448g
4.6 x 2.8 x 2.4 in, 15.8 oz
12.1 MP LiveMOS (17.3 x 13 mm)111 x 59 x 54 mm, 361g
4.4 x 2.3 x 2.1 in, 12.7 oz14.2 Mp HD CMOS
(23.4 x 15.6mm)115 x 64 x 56mm, 280g
4.5 x 2.5 x 2.2 in, 9.9 oz4.6 MP x 3 X3F
(20.7 x 13.8 mm)

*The Panasonic DMC-GF1 and Sony NEX-5 both accept interchangeable lenses

If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

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