Why buy a new camera ?

This post is sort of a follow on from last year when I wrote about how great it was to seek out 5 year old hardware as it can give better results than new. Now, just over a year later I’m saying how great it is to buy new: consistency is great, isn’t it?

Ok, so silly openings aside, what makes this fascinating to me is that it’s all about the Fuji X100, possibly the most talked about pre-announced digital camera I’ve seen so far, and a camera which I dismissed and ignored mainly due to the huge volume of hype and excitement. Once the camera arrived, it’s awkward operation was nearly as painful as something that Olympus or Sony would produce, so again I ignored it.

Yeah, I know: everything has upgradeable firmware these days, but when was the last time any equipment you owned that could be upgraded actually was, and improved every aspect of operation? In my experience there isn’t an upgrade path (“Just buy the new model”) or the improvement makes things worse in four or five other areas, or worst of all, it removes functionality which has now been moved into a separate product line.

Of course, Fuji confounded me by actually releasing a firmware update. A useful update.

So what is so attractive about an (arguably) hideously expensive pocket camera with a fixed focal length lens ? Its handling. I’ve come from a film background so this may not apply to teenagers who have grown up wielding smartphones (actually, demographic breakdown of purchasers would be interesting, or if you are one of the aforementioned pure digital-era photogs please do leave a comment). After the initial confusion of trying to get anything useful out of the printed manual (get a PDF onto an iPad or something similar) with its useless guide and terrible (lack of) index, things start to make sense with the discovery that there are generally 3 ways of doing pretty much everything.

Don’t buy this camera in duty free on your way to a once-in-a-lifetime holiday – you will need a couple of days to experiment with all the ways of operating various functions in order to find a way for it to suit your shooting style. Yup, you read that right: the camera will adapt to you, rather than insisting on training you. For example, I’m a great lover of * button AF on Canon DSLRs, and this little pocket camera has a mode that matches that operation. Stunning.

Yes, the startup time is stupidly long, but given the shorter than average battery life it’s obvious that the camera really does turn off fully rather than being in low power sleep mode like most devices, but I did find that it does become part of a rhythm: see a photo, flick the power switch whilst leisurely bringing the camera up to your eye and it’s pretty much ready to go.

The standout features? They’re personal, but the top three for me are the amazing high ISO performance, practically silent shutter, and stunning lens. Yes, there are cameras out there with numbers that go higher in their ISO menus, but the results from the X100 at ISO3200 are perfectly usable, albeit better in black and white.

No, the shutter isn’t a digital implementation and so isn’t 100% silent, but turn off the stupid synthetic sound (or long press one button to mute all sounds and disable the AF light: genius) and it has the gentlest of ‘snick’ noises. It also has frustrating drawbacks such as a rather low top shutter speed of 1/1000 at f2, but that is actually an advantage: rather than the more common focal plane shutters with high top speeds and fairly pedestrian flash sync speeds, this is a bladed leaf shutter which means that there is no top flash sync speed.

The lens is, quite simply, excellent. As a personal guide I’ve always found that if you’re spending less on a DSLR lens than you did on the body you will find flaws in the output; the cheaper the lens, the sooner the flaws become apparent. An f2 lens is fairly fast, but it’s important to note that wide open, the X100 is not pixel peeping sharp: there is a glow and ‘feel’ to images shot wide, especially closeup or in macro mode. Stop down to f4 and things change dramatically, and f11 is brilliantly usable.

The balance between digital and retro is very well implemented, and having a detailed ‘heads-up’ display superimposed on an optical viewfinder is everything I’ve always wanted in a digital camera. Live histogram, superb depth of field guide, focus indicator, level guide and grid all make for an informative and above all assistive rather than directive shooting experience. For the first time this digital camera actively improves upon the totally film-era technology in my Canon DSLRs in a way that enhances the photographic process rather than impeding it.

Auto ISO. This is not the first body to offer it, but the implementation and low noise of high ISO settings combine to create a brilliantly useable option. I have set it, and only run into issues when in very, very dim conditions when it doesn’t get up to 6400. In all other circumstances it keeps the shutter speed above your chosen minimum without any fuss, and drops down to the lowest possible ISO at all times. Hint to Fuji: one improvement would be to automatically use the built-in ND filter if the image would be overexposed at ISO200, but that’s about all I can think of to change.

For me, this is the ideal street or party camera. Unless I’m on an assignment to cover a party I want to be able to blend in and get properly candid images: this camera is as stealthy as it’s possible to get without using a spy camera. Having had people stop me to talk about my DSLR (the 5D and 70-200 are an imposing pair), literally no-one cares when I start to use the X100. I’ve used it in numerous restaurants and caf├ęs with no comments from staff or other diners, and both on the street and in shopping centres by simply pressing the shutter with it hanging at chest height.

So have I sold my DSLRs? Absolutely not. What camera will I reach for first ? Tricky. Would I unreservedly recommend the X100 ? Probably not. If you have not used a rangefinder camera, then you really need to try the camera out before purchase. If you enjoy telephoto lens work, then don’t get one. For black and white low-light work, I can’t think of much better for the money.

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