IN PRAISE OF THE OPTICAL HYBRID RANGEFINDER
Eleven years on, here's why I love the Fujifilm X100 line of cameras ● 19/12/2022

BY ROBERT FALCONER

If I'm being honest, I'm about 10 years late writing this. As the old saying goes, better late than never.

Growing up as a kid in the 1970s during the proliferation of the Japanese single lens reflex (SLR) camera, I'd always viewed rangefinder cameras as the brands' red-headed stepchildren; entry-level products such as the Canon Canonet G-III QL17 or Minolta Hi-Matic being best left to point & shoot hobbyists, or in the case of the more serious models—as in the Leica M—for photographers whose work largely leaned towards the artistic and not the commercial. After all, WYSIWYG is the most efficient way of shooting, right?

Early use of my father's Leica III during the nascent years of my photography pursuits did little to dissuade this belief.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss...and what do you really know when you're first starting out? In an era awash in SLRs from manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus—and several others (anyone remember Contax, Mamiya, Topcon, Miranda...or Fujica?)—one could easily be forgiven for believing that the single lens reflex camera was the only choice for serious, non-medium format photography; such was the effectiveness of the Japanese SLR marketing machine during that era.

Looking back with the gift of 20/20 hindsight, the truth is much more nuanced. Yes, the small Japanese fixed-lens compact cameras were less capable overall...but they could still produce excellent image quality (by 35mm standards). And even though the mighty Leica M had long since lost the sales battle to professional Japanese SLRs by that time, the brand still had a fierce loyalty and remained an extremely popular choice among a host of photographers, including social documentary specialists such as Gary Winogrand. There were many good reasons for this: smaller size and weight, less environmental obtrusion, a large, bright, offset optical viewfinder that enabled the photographer to keep their left eye more readily on the subject while composing the shot, and, of course, compact, yet stellar lenses.

Reinventing the formula: the Fujifilm X100 (plus S, T, F and V)

And so after 35 years of shooting with reflex cameras, it was perhaps no small irony that yours truly was intrigued when Fujifilm introduced the first X100 camera in 2011. Here was an unabashed homage to the 35mm rangefinders from the 1950s through 1970s, updated for the digital era, and given form by way of today's mirrorless technology. More than just a skin-deep facsimile of something from our nostalgic past, Fujifilm took the concept well beyond the initial mission brief of its progenitors, with features that could only have been dreamt of 50 years ago: all the benefits of today's modern digital technology plus a built-in ND filter to manage exposure and shutter speeds in extremely bright light, lovely color science, and some genuinely intriguing film simulation modes for the jpg engine.

Needless to say, the concept caught on. And as of this writing, the X100 series' popularity has grown so much thanks to social media sites like TikTok, that the cameras are in short supply at retailers and used copies are often fetching more than the retail price. Nothing succeeds like success, and 11 years on the X100 lineup remains as popular and sought-after today as it was when first introduced.

The centerpiece of the camera's aesthetic appeal, and also of its functionality, is really the optical hybrid rangefinder. 

To be clear: rangefinder viewing, not rangefinder focusing. That's an important distinction here. But in a nod to the Leica M's optical rangefinder, the X100 series cameras offer their own version of frame lines (in Fujifilm's case a kind of heads up display) that allow you to see a subject approaching your frame so that you can trip the shutter at the optimal moment - very useful for street shooting. 

The camera's retro look is also far more disarming than a big mirrorless or DSLR camera; subjects tend to be less ill-at-ease when you point an X100 camera at them.

And of course, for those looking to control the exposure triangle without necessarily having to dive into menus, the X100 series (like many Fujifilm cameras) provide the company's signature dedicated shutter speed, ISO and aperture control rings that mimic proper mechanical dials.

Along with design, the X100 series cameras are also small. As that tired meme goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. And again, ideally one that's unobtrusive. I've used these cameras for social documentary and travel photography around the world and thoroughly enjoy their low profile, yet high image quality (well beyond what any smartphone can offer). I've also used them, on occasion, for work. Which brings us to...

Usability

So if you're looking for a small, fixed 35mm (equiv) autofocus camera that provides very good image quality, lovely native color science, the best jpg engine in the world, and is loaded with many unique and valuable features for use in the field—and if you love retro design that includes a dual-function viewfinder—the X100 series really are in a category of one...and should probably be at the top of your list. I won't wax on about all the camera's many other benefits and unique features here; there are plenty of impartial resources on the web that have gone into this in acute detail.

Moans, niggles and nits? A few, but most are minor, and the more significant ones probably fall outside of the X100 series' original design purview anyway. This camera is already much more versatile that most might realize. That said, the three things that chiefly spring to mind are below:

1) If you shoot in low light a lot, I would recommend either a Fujifilm ILC model (X-H, X-T or X-Pro series, for example) with a faster lens (f/1.4, f/1.2), or a camera with a full frame sensor. But for anything up to about ISO 3200, the last two X100 series cameras in particular (F, V) produce absolutely acceptable files at those ISOs.

2) This is more of a wishlist than a moan, but I'd love to see additional tweaks and feature additions in the next iteration of the model, such as some form of stabilization, a bit more assured autofocus tracking (given this camera's intended purpose, the AF is actually pretty darn good overall), and a hybrid viewfinder with a higher resolution EVF (something I hope Fujifilm will introduce on an X-Pro4 as well). 

3) Moreover, I'd feel much more confident if Fujifilm could provide some sort of backup to the camera's single SD card. I realize that to retain anything close to the current design brief, space will likely be at a premium, but perhaps the addition of internal memory might be a possibility, something we're already seeing on certain models from other manufacturers.

A word about APS-C sensors: Up front, it's absolutely true that all things being equal, as the sensor size increases so, too, does the image fidelity. However, today's smaller sensors are now so capable in 2022, that in many, if not most situations, it's not the size of the sensor, it's the size of one's imagination. And with Fujifilm having recently introduced 40MP sensors into the new X-T5 and X-H2 cameras, this format has grown even more versatile. So in reality, for all but the most specific or demanding work, today's APS-C sensors will provide a level of image quality that is good enough for 90 percent of the population, 90% of the time. Which is a better hit rate than we got back in the analogue age, with those old Canonets and Hi-Matics I mentioned.

So there you have it. Just a brief retrospective of a camera model that has achieved near cult status in its first decade. As perhaps a testament to that, there are an endless array of accessories available from both Fujifilm and many third party manufacturers, from cases to hoods to soft releases to grips; pretty much whatever you might need to add both functionality and style to your X100 body.

As that old saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words, so below are a few more images shot with the X100 cameras over the past several years. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!