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The Holy Grail of compact cameras: Fuji X100

8 August 2011

Most people who are serious about photography carry “serious” equipment. These days that usually means a digital SLR, and I have one of those–an excellent Pentax K5. I also have a Leica M8 with a selection of lenses, and I still shoot film with a medium format rangefinder. All of these outfits deliver excellent results. But none of them is compact. Even the Leica M8 is not something I want to carry everywhere.

So, like other serious photographers, I have for many years been looking for small, compact cameras that could be carried everywhere, perhaps not necessarily pocketable, but close to it. Back in the film days I used a Ricoh GR1, a brilliant little camera with a fixed 28mm lens. Since changing to digital in 2004, I have owned various compacts, including a digital version of that Ricoh GR1, a Panasonic LX3 etc. All OK, but all sharing the same problem–a tiny sensor that made any images shot at ISO 400 or above virtually unusable. And since I like to shoot in low light (e.g. in bars) and I consider flash to be the work of the devil, this meant that sooner or later I would invariably conclude that the compact was just not meeting my needs in terms of image quality.

Then came the Micro 4/3 cameras like the Panasonic GF-1. Coupled with the 1.7/20mm pancake lens it makes a very nice little package, and thanks to the larger sensor, image quality is now decent at ISO 400 and usable at ISO 800. And in better light, that lens is absolutely brilliant, on par with Leica, a statement I do not make lightly.

But still, ISO 800 is not that high in a dark bar, and the absence of an optical viewfinder makes the camera less attractive. So, when the Fuji X100 was announced in 2010, I was intrigued by the prospect of a camera roughly the size of the GF-1 but with a nice APS-C sensor like the one found in many DSLRs and with good quality even at high ISOs. After trying a friend’s X100, and viewing the images it produces, I was sold, and about a month ago I got one. It is a bit quirky, with a different menu structure to get used to, and some idiosyncrasies in handling. It also needs a fast SD card to achieve acceptable write speeds when shooting RAW. But…the results are simply wonderful. And the combined optical/electronic viewfinder is pure genius, allowing what is effectively a digital autofocus rangefinder camera to have a highly usable macro mode. The X100 is not perfect by any means, but it is now my “take everywhere” camera.

Here are some samples, all at high ISO speeds. To put things in perspective, my Leica M8, as good as it is, only achieves usable images up to ISO 1250.

Fuji has hit a home run with this camera.

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