August 13, 2017

Fuji X100T

13 minute read

On July 4th, I jetted over to B&H to pick up a new(ly used) camera. I walked out with a Fujifilm X100T mirrorless point-and-shoot camera. This is the story of how I chose that camera, and how I feel about it a few weeks later.

Official FujiFilm website image for X100T

It all begins…

with me staying up until 4 o’clock in the morning one Saturday night. What had begun as an innocent review of my family photos perversely devolved into a compulsive episode of researching cameras with which to upgrade said family photos. Those family photos were recorded almost exclusively with the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6; yet, once printed, the quality left quite a bit to be desired.

Long story short, I resolved to look at cameras which could fundamentally be used as drop-in replacements for my smartphone camera; cameras which are portable, light, fast, usable by lay-people, but yet which produce better results than even the best modern smartphone cameras. Part of my motivation is that I don’t want to pay for an entry level point-and-shoot camera which is inferior to a smartphone camera within its own niche. I still have an old Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS from circa 2008, and to be honest, although it had decent optics, its straight-out-of-camera pictures are universally inferior to what my iPhone 6 produces, in nearly every situation.

With that said, my criteria for a camera were:

  1. Must auto-focus relatively quickly. If it spends too long hunting or re-focusing, it’s unacceptably slow. I’m not shooting kids’ sports games with this but I shouldn’t be missing indoor party shots either.
  2. Exposure, saturation, white balance should be good straight-out-of-camera. I am not interested in post-processing every photo a camera takes because the sensor was bamboozled by tricky lighting.
  3. Depth of field should range from shallow to deep, in order to take a variety of shots.

The contenders

After surfing the net, reading some Ken Rockwell and Digital Photography Review, my final list consisted of the following cameras:

  • Sony RX series (especially the Mark III , which is most aligned with my price range)
  • Ricoh GR Series Mark II
  • Fujifilm X point-and-shoot cameras
    • The X70 for a more compact form-factor and lower price
    • A used X100T as a splurge for a very versatile camera

With these cameras in mind, I journeyed to B&H bright and early that Independence Morning to size up the cameras in person. These are my in-store impressions.

Sony RX Series

The RX series is one of the most outstanding high-end point-and-shoot cameras out there. The aperture can result in some outstanding portraits and its zoom makes it surprisingly versatile as an ultra-portable portrait camera.

Sony RX 100 Mark 3

However, in the store, I wasn’t thoroughly impressed with the photos that I was seeing on the LCD. (I know, the LCD displays aren’t always the best, but short of taking the camera home, that’s all I had to go by.) That’s not to say that the photo quality was bad. I thought it was fairly accurate. But I preferred the images generated by the Fuji(s) and Ricoh.

Ricoh GR Series

The GR series is a small but powerful competitor to the Sony RX series. The size and weight are very similar to the Sony, but with far more flexible aperture than the Sony (as well as a much more svelte interface and in-hand feel). I found the pictures it took to be quite pleasant, and definitely would recommend this to friends. However, I passed in favor of a Fuji.

Ricoh GR Mark 2

Fuji X70 and X100T

The Fuji X70 cost about $100 more than the Ricoh, and is slightly less portable (in that it doesn’t fit into the average pocket). However, it has a fully articulating LCD display and more knobs and dials than either the Ricoh or the Sony (which appeals to my engineering background). Somehow, almost all the JPG’s out of the camera have amazing color balance and softness for shooting portraits (while still doing a decent job at shooting in other day-to-day situations and macro).

Although I liked the overall package and value of the X70, I ended up splurging for the X100T (used), the big brother of the X70. Although the X100T doesn’t have an articulating LCD display, it has a larger sensor and an optical viewfinder which appeals to the way I “grew up” taking photos. This wouldn’t have been an easy decision had I not meticulously looked up opinions by Kevin Mullins1, a British wedding photographer, and Paul Carmody2, a British street photographer. I ended up choosing the X100T because I liked the idea of shooting 35mm (equivalent) and having an optical viewfinder.

X100T technical review

I should preface this technical review by disclaiming that I’m a hobbyist who probably over-indulged in his eagerness to get back into photography. All opinions are my own, formed after some discussions with friends and a few weeks’ use.

Some Legos at a friend’s house taken with the Fuji X100T and the Classic Chrome preset

It’s been about five weeks now that I’ve had this camera. I’ve been taking it with me on my daily commute several times a week; recorded some family outings; shot a friend’s holiday party; created momentos of some work outings; and taken it on a trip across the country. I wouldn’t dare say I’m an expert with this camera, but I believe I’ve put it through its paces as well as I could expect.

Image quality

The image quality out of this camera is generally very pleasant for casual portraits, family functions, and even street photography. The lack of an optical zoom mandates/promotes a more intimate photography style marked by approaching subjects and filling the frame with them. In turn, this camera rewards the intimacy with well-balanced, people-friendly photos, without much effort at all.

The aperture range from f/16 to f/2 permits a fair amount of shooting flexibility, such that candid scenes can be made as easily as portraits. And the large aperture enables decent shots to come out even in soft-lit indoor spots (like bars), while the ISO looks reasonable up until 3200.

On the other hand, at f/2, softness can creep into shots, so it can sometimes be worth taking a hit on the noise with a higher ISO to avoid getting too much softness in shots with the large aperture.

JPG quality

The JPG quality straight-out-of-camera is jaw-droppingly good. There’s something viscerally satisfying about cold-approaching someone on the street, asking to take a portrait of them, and instantly showing it off. It’s hard to imagine any other camera taking such consistently good portrait shots with such little effort. Even in “tough” situations with poor lighting or tricky dynamic range, the camera processor will often thread the needle and choose reasonable contrast, noise reduction, saturation, and dynamic range, to quickly produce a JPG which meets the bill. Even more striking is how difficult it can be to reproduce some of the tricks the JPG engine is producing, even with the RAW files3

RAW Quality

The RAW files produces by the Fuji seem workable enough, although some caveats do seem to apply:

  1. I shelled out $50 for ACDSee Pro recently, and I was dismayed to realize that its RAW processing for the Fuji is strictly inferior to the stock RAW processor.
  2. The SilkyPix RAW Converter which comes with the camera has a goofy interface, but it’s actually fairly usable, and produces solid results. I generally respect the recommended settings unless I have something particular in mind I want to produce from the RAW file before exporting JPG/TIFF.
  3. I’ve heard LightRoom has finally gotten decent Fuji RAW support, although I can’t speak to that.
  4. The RAW files obviously don’t have as much in the way of in-camera processing as the JPGs do. In some tough lighting situations, I find myself torn between the JPGs which have higher noise/saturation/contrast but strong eye-appeal and the RAW files processed through SilkyPix and then run through a filter bank. In practice I will only pull out the RAW workflow when I’m really disappointed with the JPG, due to the poor return-on-invested-time on developing the RAW to the point where they surpass the JPG.

Film simulation

One of Fuji’s claims to fame (which predates me by a decade or three) is its rich film heritage. Fuji has done a good job providing some film simulation presets for the JPG files produced, allowing the rendering of some presets (like Instagram filters but not repulsively overdone) using the RAW sensor information. Reviews online cover the salient details, and I’ll add/repeat my two cents here:

  • The stock color mode, “Provia”, produces solid and consistent portraits and is hard to go wrong with.
  • There’s a Kodachrome simulation called “Classic Chrome”, which seems to soften the contrast and slightly desaturate photos. The Star Wars Lego diorama above and the garden balcony below were shot in Classic Chrome to evoke nostalgia and warmth. Garden balcony shot using Classic Chrome
  • There’s a vivid mode called “Velvia”, which seems to mostly boost the saturation. I might pull it out for shooting gardens and flowers but otherwise I’m not sure whether I’d rather use this or the standard preset. Garden flowers shot using Velvia
  • There are four variations of monochrome: regular, and green/yellow/red, for portraits/moderate contrast/high contrast, respectively. I sometimes bounce between them depending on my purpose, but I most often use regular monochrome unless I know I’m shooting B&W portraits. These are excellent for street photography, where a timeless feel can make more of a scene than color. New York City architecture with monochrome

Macro quality

I’d say that the macro shots that this camera are objectively respectable, and for the size of the camera, exceptionally good. While they won’t compete with images produced by full-frame cameras, they can definitely hold their own.

B&W macro of textbook shot

This camera has a nice feature which does not exist on DSLR’s, called “contrast peaking”, a nifty technique wherein the camera takes the digital image and superimposes bold-colored lines upon a B&W cropped foreground preview for the contours of objects which are estimated to be in focus by the camera sensor. Although this sometimes breaks down in poor lighting, the utility is extremely handy, and produces results which simply are impossible with smartphone sensors.

X100T Quality of Life review

In my limited time with it, this camera has produced some incredibly strong pictures (especially portraits and macros), but also sometimes performed questionably in situations where it should have had an easy time. I’ll try and break down some of the holistic features and failures of the camera, as I see it.

Aesthetic charm

The first thing anyone notices about this camera – indeed, for many, its primary draw – is its charming retro look, which cleanly juggles old-school aesthetics with modern features.

Although some might dismiss the facade as gimmick, it ironically is itself a feature. Nobody on the street or at parties that I’ve met (who isn’t themselves a photographer) has realized that this is a modern digital camera, and not an ancient film shooter. The innocuous appearance and charming facade disarms people, making them more relaxed and receptive than they’d be for an alien, weapon-like telescoping DSLR.

I was recently wandering around the Pike Place market in Seattle before dusk, attempting some street photography. Once there, however, I realized that quite a few people were lounging about enjoying the sunset, and that I had an opportunity to cold-approach some soon-to-be friends for portraits. Not one person declined me, and some even struck me up in conversations about photography and cameras! Rather than throwing up a wall between us, the camera’s facade tore one down!

Man with dog at Pike Place market in Seattle towards sunset

Size and portability

This camera is a true dynamo and I obviously bought it with the express purpose of having it with me wherever I went and whenever I felt like shooting. It’s small enough to fit into any bag (but not most pockets), and I can easily fit it into a bag or suitcase without having to sweat the room and weight it occupies.

Quick access controls

A major reason for purchasing this camera was its preponderance of quick-access controls for the savvy photographer (or me). I love that it has analog dials for aperture and shutter speed, which help me quickly adjust to changing light or environments without digging through menus. The manual focus dial on the lens is also a nice touch for macro shooting. There are seven user-programmable function buttons, some of which are more necessary than others:

  • It seems to be impossible to launch the video recorder without a function button. I seldom want to record video on on a point-and-shoot camera, but just in case the mood hits me, I have this assigned to the left arrow button.
  • ISO adjustment is something that I like to keep an eye on because I dislike thinking in terms of exposure compensation. I have this assingned to the top function button adjacent to the shutter button.
  • This camera has a respectable flash used for fill flash primarily during daytime photography. In dark, ambient environments (like bars) I prefer jacking up the ISO to avoid shocking people with flashes, but in the daytime I have no choice but to introduce more light to counter harsh shadows. I have the flash setting assigned to the top arrow button for quick access (for forcing or disabling). I don’t assign flash compensation to a button because I typically leave it at -2/3.
  • Although I haven’t gotten much use out of it, I’ve assigned the neutral density filter to the arrow down button.
  • There’s a WiFi server built into this camera. I’ve left it at its default location. It’s nice to have but is a bit sluggish to initialize from a smartphone, and having it be quickly accessible ameliorates the issue.

AF hunting

More than once, however, I’ve noticed that the camera can struggle to figure out where to focus, even with face detection on. I’ve experimented with and without facial detection, and either way, the camera seems to miss more often than it should. Perhaps I simply need to pre-expose every single portrait, but I would assume that in certain circumstances, the camera should be able to figure out who is the subject and focus on them.

X100T missing me with auto focus on the beach

Somehow the camera didn’t see me right here and instead appeared to focus on the sand behind me.

Mediocre video recording

The reviews online complain about the poor video capture here, and they’re right, this is definitely not a strong suit of this camera. I attempted this a couple of times while at the Jazz Alley in Seattle, and had iffy results both times.

A nifty jazz band was doing covers of Al Green, and knowing someone special who would enjoy the performance, I attempted to record a brief video of it. Although the audio came out fine, the camera kept hunting for the focus point. Over the course of the video, the autofocus adjusted itself a couple dozen times, losing track of the band each time, sometimes until the next adjustment!

Thankfully, a home video recording of a sopng cover is not a cherished memory which requires high fidelity video recording. But the experience does not inspire faith. If I had to choose between using this camera to shoot photos or video of a cherished moment, I’d choose photos hands down every time. (And that’s okay! But be forewarned if you attempt to record video.)

Concluding thoughts

Now that I’ve had the camera for a few weeks, I think I know it fairly well. I’d say that in my situation and circumstance as a hobbyist knowledgeable in the generalities of photography exposure and keen on a generalist travel camera, this camera fit the bill and then some. However, I definitely wouldn’t argue that this is the best camera out there, and certainly not for a budget-constrained photographer.

Recently, some others asked me for my (poorly informed) opinion on good cameras for travelers or general family photography. To them, I’d say this:

  • If cost is an issue, consider used cameras.
  • The Ricoh GR in my opinion is probably the best bang for the buck if cost is an issue. It has a good range of apertures and is extremely portable and usable.
  • If cost is not an issue and optical zoom is a priority, the RX series is the only real choice. It didn’t make sense for me because I don’t usually care for zoom and I like having better light sensitivity, but it might make sense for you.
  • If cost is not an issue and/or you thought the photos posted here were impressive, then maybe a Fuji X100 series camera is right for you!

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© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2020