The Fuji X100f is the fourth iteration in the series. I had the original X100, but since then we’ve seen the a number of changes and additions to the design, first through an ‘s’ model, a ‘t’ model and now the ‘f’. The series of cameras has been consistently and quite strongly representative of Fuji’s reputation for listening to their users, I just can’t help wondering if they have listened a bit too much…
I remember my experiences with the original X100 with a mixture of fondness and huge frustration. My main issue with it was the autofocus – it was slow and quite stunningly unreliable. It did get slightly better throughout the process of Fuji’s iterative firmware updates, but ultimately never really felt that satisfactory. There were a couple of other issues I remember with the original X100 too – they messed with the digital depth of field scale part way through its lifecycle and it had fairly limited auto-iso functionality.
A circle of confusion
When Fuji released the X100 the digital depth of field scale was based on the standard 0.03mm circle of confusion that film camera lenses have their depth of field scales based upon. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, have a read of the last few paragraphs of this piece of content I wrote for Ilford’s Learning Zone on their website. I actually got on just fine with this 0.03mm CoC based scale, unfortunately at some point in the process of firmware updates Fuji changed the scale to be based off a smaller circle of confusion – probably 0.015mm.
The impact of this is a digital readout that illustrates a much more narrow band of focus. With high resolution digital sensors where the camera users might have the temptation to zoom to 100% in their software packages, this smaller circle of confusion makes a certain amount of sense. But to those of us who tend to view our images as a whole from an appropriate viewing distance, this change made no sense and rendered the scale an entirely useless feature.
I actually talked to the folks on the Fuji stand at the photography show about this. It didn’t really go how I’d have liked – they had no idea what I was talking about, mocked me a bit for being a geek, and attempted to placate me by giving an X shaped key ring. I’m not even joking. They probably had a point about me being a geek.
I can’t entirely remember what my issue with the auto-iso feature was, but I suspect it didn’t let me set a lower limit to the shutter speed. Whatever, it was these issues that eventually saw me move on the original X100 – and despite all the talk of massively improved autofocus etc on newer models, I’ve never been tempted back. Until I had a go with the X100f at the photography show earlier this year – though even then I didn’t bite the bullet; as awesome as it seemed there was something about it that just didn’t sit well with me.
A camera loan
I recently spoke to Fuji about loaning me a camera for review. They agreed too, then subsequently ignored me – I did link them to my Sony A7Rii review, so I do wonder if it’s cynical nature put them off talking to me. What’s possibly more likely is that they didn’t read it, and I’m just background noise in a sea of people wanting to borrow cameras. Either way, the camera I’m basing this post on was in fact loaned to me by a chap called Adam. Thanks again Adam! Of course, my intention when borrowing the camera was to write a full review – unfortunately I’ve not felt inspired to do so, largely because in use I’ve found that this latest addition to the series just doesn’t have enough of the ethos I found and enjoyed in the original X100 concept. Instead it’s inspired my to write a few words on a bit of a paradox I find in the nature of progression with regard to digital cameras.
Looking back at the basic X100 concept
The basic concept of the Fuji x100 series is sound. It’s a small body with a low profile 35mm f/2 lens. The mk1 version was the first digital Fuji to adopt the idea of having a dedicated aperture dial on the barrel of the lens and a shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. It also had a brilliant viewfinder that could be switched from digital to a real viewfinder with superimposed parallax correcting digital frame lines. With the success of the x-pro, x-e, x-t etc series cameras it’s hard to imagine that before the X100 Fuji were known for shoehorning their market disrupting sensors in to Nikon mount SLRs, and little point and shoot cameras like the excellent F30. But whilst these cameras were very nice, the X100 really took Fuji in a new direction and arguably catapulted their reputation upwards.
Simplicity was key
The beauty of the original X100 was its simplicity. In a world where Leica were the only players in the digital rangefinder game, as well as being the only company to offer a digital camera that offered a very simple user experience, the Fuji X100 felt like a really positive step in the right direction. In fact, at the time, Fuji were were often compared to Leica – or at very least, lines of similarity were drawn in their approaches to product design. Say what you like about Leica, but this definitely didn’t do Fuji any harm.
Regular readers will perhaps see why I bought the X100. I wasn’t quite as obsessed with simple gear as I am now, but the desire for kit that gets out of my way as a photographer has always been there. Cameras back then weren’t even as complicated as they are now – in those days (7 years ago), largely speaking buttons on cameras had specific features assigned to them. These days it’s rare to find a camera that doesn’t have a whole series of customisable unlabelled buttons – tech “progresses” fast!
Not quite perfect
Of course, when Fuji released the original X100, whilst there was a lot of rave reviews, there were also cries from most directions about the slow autofocusing, limited auto-iso functionality and the depth of field scale. I remember there being all sorts of other complaints about it too – though none beyond my own have stuck in my mind. Regardless of the specifics, Fuji had complaints… And you know what, they actually listened to them. To kick off, as mentioned above, firmware updates saw the depth of field scale being updated, they even managed to improve the autofocus (a bit) too.
In time they eventually brought out the X100s, and then the X100t. Each model “fixing” more of people’s issues and complaints. I don’t have any motivation whatsoever to go back and scout through feature lists and upgrade specs to work out what happened when, but a lot did happen. In fact, so much has happened, that when I pick up the X100f – whilst the family line is of course very evident – I feel like something very key to the success of the original version has been lost.
Too much listening
To me, it’s seems as though Fuji might just have listened too much. I wanted better autofocus, I wanted better auto-iso features and I wanted quite specifically the option to be able to set the circle of confusion to 0.03mm so the depth of field scale made sense in my world. And you know what, the X100f provides me with all of those things. The option for switching between the two different DOF scales is exactly what I suggested to the bewildered folks on the Fuji stand – if I had even half a suspicion that they understood what I was saying I might have tried to take some credit. But they really didn’t, so I guess I wasn’t the only one who had that frustration.
The problem is, some other people also wanted auto-iso presets, and the ability to be able to select those presets via a wheel under their forefinger on the front of the camera. Someone else wanted an extra wheel on the back of the camera, and an additional directional joystick to add to the direction pad too – I could go on.
None of these requests are that unreasonable by themselves, but combined together they make for a camera that’s so profoundly more complex than the original X100 that it’s somehow lost a whole chunk of its charm. It’s a better camera, but somehow simultaneously, it’s also worse. I even read a rumour that Fuji’s next direction is to start adding more high end video features to their cameras.
Too many solutions
Credit to Fuji, they have tried to keep hold of the core values of a camera that works in a logical easy to understand way – it still has the proper shutter and aperture controls – but in adding every feature under the sun I can’t help feeling that they’ve muddied the waters. Functionally the X100f feels similar to the original, but thanks to the overwhelming sense that its design has just tried to solve too many user issues, the X100f feels too complex, and in some ways it’s abundance of features prevent it from getting out of the way as a camera in use. Without wanting to sound like a stuck record, there are just too many buttons, controls and dials for it to feel as intuitive and fluent as the original camera did.
“Just switch off the controls”
Of course, the logical response to this complaint is to suggest that I disable the controls I don’t wish to use – this was suggested to me by a lot of people in response to my A7rii review. In highly customisable camera like these, this is an option! But, as I talk about in my post about the lure of the uncomplicated camera, for me there is an inherent lack of satisfaction in this.
Not everyone will feel the same as me here, as my opinion comes down my personal desires from cameras combined with other strong feeling I have toward Industrial Design. But rest assured, at least in the case of the latter, I’m not alone in these feelings, in fact there are entire product design ideologies that revolve around my desires.
Keep it simple, stupid
Just to go off on a small but relevant tangent for a moment – If you are unaware of Dieter Rams famous “10 principles of design” or the “KISS principle”, they are well worth looking up and reading about. Rams’ most famous Design principle is “as little design as possible”, and the KISS principle “Keep It Simple, Stupid”, both come from the same place. I have my own terminology around these principles too – I call it “simple up” design.
I’ve talked about this many times on this blog, but the basic premise of these ideas and principles is that good design involves “just enough” features and functions; the minimal required for something to function well. The opposite of this is what I call “complicated down”. A complicated down approach to design involves packing every possible feature or function in to something through the desire to give every possible user a path to their individual ideal user experience. A sort of “chuck enough shit at a wall and some of it will stick” approach.
Neither approach is wrong, both just come from different design ideologies. I suspect it’s clear that my preference is for “the simple” up approach! I do have one strong argument for this too, and fundamentally I feel that it explains the mess that camera manufacturers are getting into by so heavily over-specifying their cameras. You see, if you add more features to a camera, for every feature you add, you’re opening another can of worms. Any new feature in effect provides a tantilasing look at what could be if they’d have just added that bit more to that feature.
Take the concept of the built in light meter as an example. These meters started out as tools for judging the light by pointing the camera at the subject. Given the many years of progress since that initial invovation, and we now have intelligent multi segment metering that makes decisions based what it perceives the subject mater to be… … and three auto-iso presets built into the Fuji X100f. Each iteration from that initial simple solution to the very complex solutions we now see today have been driven by by people – either product designers, or users – saying “that’s great what you’ve done, but what if it also did this, and that, and this, and that”. The beauty of this design ideology in a capitalist world is that it continues to add more to the offer, it continues to dangle more carrots in front of the noses of the consumer, and therefore drives more sales and more tantalising looks at what could have been if only those ten new features all did ten other new other things. This leads naturally on more “progression”, more features, and more tantalising possibility, ad infinitum.
But of course, if you were to ask a Leica M9 user if they feel the meter in their camera would be better if it intelligently knew the subject matter the camera was pointing at, they’d probably give you a funny look. Yet I’d bet £10 someone in some review somewhere is raving about how useful having three auto-iso presets in the X100f is. Neither person is wrong, they just have very different priorities and very different desires for their gear. Neither M9 or Fuji X10f is a better camera, it simply comes down to the fact that some people embrace the endless possibilities of “progression”, whilst others prefer the limitations and elegance of simplicity.
All this is a slightly long way round my trying to explain why for some of us – myself included – manufacturers adding more and more features to a camera like the Fuji X100 is frustrating – especially as someone who actually wished for some of those features myself. I suppose I wanted Fuji to only listen to people like me who wanted simple cameras. As it turns out, it would seem they didn’t find a big enough niche in that market. I am, I guess, one person in a minority of people who have similar desires.
I think I just had different hopes for Fuji. I hoped that was another company alongside Leica that could design and bring to market cameras designed for photographers who’s minds are are a little more keyed into 1950-80’s film cameras. That was after all what the original X100 felt like it offered – it looked like one for a start! Long term, it seems it wasn’t to be.
Of course none of this means that the Fuji X100f is a bad camera. It is in fact quite excellent. It’s much easier to understand and use than my Sony A7Rii, takes great photos, and as I said, at its core still remains the same features that I loved in the original. I still love the way the viewfinder works in these things – especially now they’ve added a little superimposed digital screen inside the real viewfinder to aid focus…
My dissatisfaction in progression
…but don’t worry, I am aware that what I’ve just said contradicts all my previous ranting – but that in itself is my point. It really does seem that there is no pleasing me when it comes to “progression” in digital cameras! As far as I can see into the future, I will never be satisfied by the consistent addition of more features. There will be some features that I like perhaps, but there will be a lot more that I don’t need, many that don’t like and even more that will feel like they get in my way as a photographer. Progression in camera tech just doesn’t feel like a positive thing to me – the Fuji X100f being a perfect example of how elegant concept can be jeopardised.
But, actually, the funny thing is, the dissatisfaction I find in progression translates to even those who revel in all the new features the latest gadget-camera brings. Even they are never entirely satisfied – there’s always something missing, or something that can be improved or built upon…
Thanks for the loan Adam… Now where did I put my Leica M9…
Some more photos I took with the X100f can be found here