Thursday, April 21, 2011

my x100 review

Originally I was not going to do a review, so many other people have done a review as well, but so far I haven't seen a more dedicated portrait photographer give their thoughts. Most of my work on this site is of landscapes, but if you check out my portfolio or lighting blog you can see I specialize in portraiture.

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Two recent photos made with the X100. More from this shoot can be seen here.

To give an example of where I come from photographically: I shoot with a 5D, 35/50/85mm lenses, the 35L being the most used for me. The 35L is a fantastic lens, and coupled on a 5D body it delivers excellent image quality. I tried a canon s90, a panasonic lx-3, and briefly a Nex-3 with 16mm lens, and none of them hit the spot for me. The truly pocketable cameras didn't deliver up the file quality I demand, and the Nex lacked a viewfinder and a fast, autofocus 35mm lens. The x100 interested me a lot when it was announced, and I went to great lengths to be the first (only?) Icelander to get one from the first pre-earthquake production batch. (Mine came from New Zealand)

Short version? I love it. I haven't even touched my 5D since I got it, even for a portrait shoot.

The viewfinder is the reason to get this camera. It has lots of other niceties, but the viewfinder is hands down the best. It's easily as large as the one on my 5D, and it's much brighter, plus I can use it with sunglasses on. (I don't need glasses, but on bright days I wear shades, and there is no need to remove them with the X100, so eyeglass wearers rejoice. My husband wears glasses and can also use the X100 with them on, whereas my 5D he has to take them off). It's so clear, so crisp, so bright, it's really amazing.

There are 3 ways of shooting with the X100. The OVF (Optical ViewFinder) the EVF (Electronic ViewFinder) and the LCD on the back. I use the OVF 90% of the time. I use the EVF when doing macro shots, to avoid focusing and parallax problems. I use the LCD when keeping the camera at waist height and wanting to snap shots without lifting it to my eye and giving away that I'm going to take a photo.

The optical viewfinder, besides being so optically great to use and look at, projects a HUD, two versions. The base version is just a frameline, AF box, distance scale (with focus distance and dof scale) and exposure compensation readout on the side (it's the meter when in manual mode). The second mode is your custom setup, and you can set in the menu what it should display. I have mine to only enable the battery bar, and the electronic level (I would enable the 3rds gridlines too, but as of firmware 1.0, they are not parallax corrected). In the EVF and LCD, it's the same, with a base view similar to the OVF, and a custom view you can setup independently of the OVF. I have it set to the same, but since the EVF/LCD is a live feed, the third grid lines are correct and I have them enabled as well.

What's parallax, you ask? As a DSLR user, it's a good question. A DSLR uses TTL (through the lens) so everything is just as you see it, minus whatever percentage your prism doesn't show (most non pro models have a 90-96% view, meaning you can't see between 4-10% of the outermost portion of the image you will record). But rangefinders (the X100 isn't technically a rangefinder, but uses an offset viewfinder like an RF does) have a window off to the side that has no optical connection to the sensor. Because of this, the closer the object you are trying to focus on, the more parallax error there is between what that offset window sees, and what the lens sees. Most RF cameras offset the framelines inside the OVF to show you what you will capture. Infinity focus and the framelines are in the center. 1 meter away and the frameline will move down and to the right. Because of this, the frameline is only 90% accurate (meaning you will get more in than the frameline shows). Also, as a benefit, it means you see much more around the frameline, allowing an easier time composing the image or anticipating action coming into the frame. You can avoid all of these problems by flicking the level to enable the EVF, which will project a 100% view of the live sensor feed. WYSIWYG in this view. The LCD on the back works just like any P&S, a live feed of what the sensor will capture.

Mechanically, the X100 is superb. It's a solid camera very well made, but not heavy. I use a Hama fabric strap (the included one has a bit too sharp edges for my bare skin to like) and can wear it all day no problems. All the dials are firm, click well, easy to operate with gloves on, and feel great in comparison to plastic wheels and such. Not as true of the back digital buttons. The AFL button (I'll touch on this later) along with play, image magnify, and the disp button are all easy to use and firm. The jog dial is also easy to use even with gloves, but isn't quite as firm, but nothing worrying. The wheel on the back with OK button in the center is the biggest let down. It rolls much too easily with no friction (this is P shift in P mode, so it could result in messed up values if you accidentally nudge it) and the OK button is difficult to press even with bare hands. It is simply impossible with gloves on, not going to happen. I solved this by glueing on a small nub. Shouldn't be needed, but now I can operate the camera with thick gloves on, and I have very little complaints with the camera mechanically.

This image shows the nub. It's a piece of plastic sanded to the right diameter, a concave surface ground into it, then glued on the OK button with simple craft glue.

I will describe my shooting method, since I haven't used the other modes enough to comment on them so well. I shoot in M focus mode. This mean that when you press the shutter button, it does not try to autofocus. Both other focusing modes will try to autofocus when the shutter is half pressed. In M mode, turning the manual focus wheel takes ages with version 1.0 firmware, let's hope this is addressed later. However, in the menus you can set the AFL button (it rest right under where your thumb goes when holding the camera) to engage autofocus. So when I need to focus, I press the AFL button and the AF does it's thing. If I am using OVF, and want to ensure focus worked on the subject I want (and this works the same in EVF mode) I can simply depress the jog dial (it's a setting, called focus check in the menu) and the viewfinder shutter will close, and a 5x magnified view from the EVF pops up. I can now fine tune with the focus ring around the lens. I can also press the AFL button again, and it will attempt to autofocus on what is in view in this magnified view. A half shutter press sends me back to the OVF view. I can see on the distance scale how far away the lens is focused, and with a white bar around that red mark, how much will be in focus in front and behind the subject. As you change the aperture, that focus bracket expands to reflect the extra in-focus area from the smaller aperture.

I also use the camera in Aperture priority mode, something I never did before with my 5D. I manually set the aperture; I mostly shoot in f/2 or f/4. F/2 for people, f/4 for landscapes F4 is the sharpest aperture. The shutter speed dial is turned to A. I have the metering set to center weighted, and it nails exposure every time. If I can see from the scene that it is bright and I want it to stay bright, or dark and I want it to stay dark, I use the easy to adjust exposure compensation dial. One only has to lift the thumb up slightly, and the index finger back from the shutter slightly, and you can spin it. Very convenient. Some users have complained that the exp comp dial spins too easily, but I keep my camera around my neck on a strap and have never had this problem. If you plan to keep it in a coat pocket, it might be. However you can see in the viewfinder at all times what it is set to on the left, and since I adjust it for most shots anyway, I've not had it surprise me in it's setting.

The third setting which is a joy, is auto-ISO. Enabling it is the non-joy. ISO is set in one menu. Auto-ISO is in another menu tree, and on the 3rd page in that tree. It (auto-ISO) really needs to be a setting on the ISO list. In the auto-ISO menu, you set the lowest shutter speed you want it to use before bumping ISO up again (though it will ignore this to get the proper exposure if you are already maxed out in ISO) and the highest ISO you are willing to accept. The ISO is so good on this camera that I leave it set to ISO 6400, and shutter minimum as 1/30.

These settings combined allow me to shoot with much less thought to settings than the 5D. When I see a shot, I lift the camera to my eye, focus with the AFL button and shoot. It's possible to enable a 1.5 or 3 second preview, and if shooting in OVF mode, it closes the viewfinder shutter to show you this. It's very nice, and prevents the need to chimp. I only ever have to think if a change of aperture is needed (but mostly I shoot f/4 if I'm wandering around, or f/2 if it's a portrait, so very little changing needed normally in that regard) and if some exposure compensation should be dialed in.

The shutter lag is .01 seconds. This is shorter than any DSLR, and shorter than any Leica rangefinder. I am fairly certain it is the fastest shutter lag of any commercial camera. It's also quieter than any dslr or leica, with it's in lens leaf shutter. If you shoot it with the AF lamp turned off, no one will ever know you took their photo. It's that quiet.

Psychologically the camera is very non threatening. It's small, it has a retro metal design, and it leaves half your face uncovered, unlike a DSLR that turns you into this one-eyed cyborg, covering your entire face. As photographers we might forget what it's like to be on the other side of the lens, but a large camera can be very intimidating, especially with no face to connect to.

The lens is great. It's sharp at f/2, sharper at f/4. The sensor has no AA filter, so it can record more lines per inch than the 5D, despite being 12.3 mp VS the 5D's 12.8. The 23mm lens on the X100 has much less Chromatic Aberrations than the 35L, less vignetting (mostly because of the offset micro-lenses, custom made to match the fixed lens), and seems just as sharp to my eyes. The singular advantage is the shallower depth of field that the larger sensor of the 5D and larger maximum aperture of the 35L offers. One needs to shoot at f/2.8 on a full frame for the same dof as the X100. There is also no purple fringing. It has a bit of distortion in the center, but the camera removes it for jpegs, and it can be corrected in post easily. It's only needed on geometric photographs however.

My favorite photo from the X100 so far. I needed to use a -3 distortion removal in silkypix to get rid of the distortion.

The number one advantage however, is the size. I carry it with me everywhere, something I'd never do with my 5D. Then, it offers image quality that rivals the 5D in this tiny package, making it a no brainer to shoot what I want, and know I can edit in post or print at any size, and never wish I'd had my "real" camera instead.


  1. You have written my favorite piece on the X100 so far. By relating it to the EOS 5D, a camera I had for a couple of years and used to produce this , and a relevant comparison resolution and quality wise, you provide very useful information and tips on picture taking and camera settings. Thanks a lot for writing it ! Jorge Alban

  2. Thanks Jorge, glad you found it useful. This weekend I plan to do an actual resolution test between the X100 and 5D with 35L

  3. Agreed, thanks so much for the review, as an X100 user myself I learned a lot from your piece on how you use this camera. Best review I've seen yet as it doesn't obsess with the pixel-peeping qualities and focuses on the overall experience of using this camera. I've found exactly the same with mine - it's a quirky camera, but it's inexplicably FUN in ways my D90 could never be. I'm a convert! Anyone want to buy a D90?

  4. This could be related to not having lightroom support, but I've been going back and forth between camera created jpegs, silkypix best conversion for details, plus flat exported 16 bit tiffs and let lightroom do it's job.

    I don't want to make sample images till lightroom is out so I can do a totally fair comparison, but as of right now the 5D+35L is quite a bit sharper at f/2, at f/4, and at 5.6.

    I also tried taking one photo with the X100 at ISO 6400, then another with the 5D 2 stops underexposed at ISO 1600, then boosted 2 stops in lightroom, and the 5D image still has a bit less noise and shows more details and contrast in the darks.

    I guess it shouldn't be too surprising, given how large the 5D sensor is, the extra .5 mp of resolution, and the superb piece of glass that is the 35L, but I was kind of hoping the X100 could match it.

    Now, don't get me wrong, the results are still impressive for such a tiny machine, I'll still be using the X100 most often, and I doubt much difference could be seen in a print, but on screen the resolution difference is definitely there, at all apertures.