No, you haven't tumbled back in time to the 1960s. The Fujifilm FinePix X100 is a modern camera with a distinctly retro appearance. This fusion of old and modern is more than just skin-deep too -- the X100 combines up-to-date features with traditional controls. The result is a camera that's really rather unique. At around £950, however, you'll need more than a passing interest in photography to justify the outlay.
Under the influence
Building high-quality digital cameras with authentic period features has, until recently, been more or less the sole preserve of Leica. The German company's designers have unashamedly plundered the past for inspiration, often with phenomenal results. Blending the latest high-end digital technology with retro aesthetics has created a number of truly awesome products, including the current M9 digital SLR, a device that Fujifilm's X100 bears an uncanny resemblance to.
The X100 shares the M9's two-tone metal and leather body, for example, and even the dials, flash, accessory shoe and viewfinder are positioned in roughly the same way. We're not suggesting Fujifilm's design team has just nicked all of Leica's ideas but, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then there's a great deal of flattering going on here.
There are a couple of rather obvious differences between the German and Japanese products, however. The M9 is a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses and costs around £4,900, while the X100 is technically a compact camera with a fixed lens and costs £950 or thereabouts.
Everything about the X100's outward appearance suggests it's been a labour of love for the company. The build quality is exceptionally good. The camera's body is large, tough and reassuringly substantial. The top and bottom of the unit have been cast from a magnesium alloy, the top-mounted dials are fashioned from solid metal, and the plastic controls on the rear are well-placed and well-made. In fact, there's nothing even faintly cheap or nasty about the X100's construction. Even the felt-lined lens cap fits on with a comforting thunk.
That's not to say the design will appeal to everyone. There are plenty of people who don't see the point of retro designs on modern technology, not to mention those who may call into question this camera's size and weight. At nearly half a kilo and measuring 127 by 74 by 54mm, the X100 clearly isn't the most pocketable of compact cameras.
Internally, the camera has been engineered to equally exacting standards. The 12.3-megapixel image sensor, for example, is APS-C-sized, so it's substantially larger than the one you'll find in most compacts and more akin to the type used in high-end dSLRs.
Bigger is most definitely better, too -- the sensor allows each of the 12.3 million pixels to be much larger than those on, say, a standard 1/2.3-inch type sensor. This, in turn, makes the pixels much better at soaking up light, which allows for effective results at high ISO settings. The X100 can reach up to ISO 6,400 when shooting raw files and ISO 12,800 when shooting JPEGs.
The X100's unusual sensor is twinned with an equally unconventional lens. It's a wide-angle lens with a fixed focal length of 23mm and aperture values of f2-f16. For many people, the fixed focal length and lack of optical zoom magnification may be a major sticking point. It certainly has an impact on flexibility, but it allows Fujifilm to concentrate on the camera's performance. The marriage of the bespoke lens to the large sensor apparently ensures that plenty of light reaches all areas of the image, with minimal distortion at the edges of the frame.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the X100 is its hybrid viewfinder. With the flick of a front-mounted switch, you can choose between an old-fashioned optical viewfinder, and a high-resolution, 1,440,000-pixel electronic viewfinder. The optical viewfinder is clear and sharp, offering around 90 per cent coverage. The electronic viewfinder offers 100 per cent coverage and features relevant data concerning the shot you're about to take.
You can also compose your shots using the high-quality, 2.8-inch LCD panel on the rear of the camera. It's otherwise used to display information or to review shots you've already taken.
The X100 doesn't function quite like your average point-and-shoot model. There's an auto mode, but relying on this would be missing the point of the product. If you're already familiar with the fundamentals of manual control, however, then the camera makes it very easy to adjust your settings.
Aperture is controlled via a lens ring, while there are dedicated dials on the top of the device for controlling shutter speed and exposure compensation. The majority of the remaining settings are accessed via on-screen menus. The menus are navigated via a pad that works both as a five-way direction selector and as a scroll wheel.
Turn the X100 on and a good couple of seconds will pass before it's ready to roll. There's a brief pause between shots too, although a continuous-shooting mode allows you to take up to ten JPEGs or eight raw shots at speeds of up to 5 frames per second.
We were knocked out by the X100's image quality. This isn't a camera for casual users -- it's for people who like to take control of the settings themselves. As such, it's quite easy to stuff up a shot unless you know what you're doing. Get it right, though, and the camera will reward you with sumptuous colours and sharp subjects that are thrown into relief by gorgeous bokeh effects. Every frame bursts with detail, without any of the digital artefacts that low-quality cameras are so fond of adding. Purple fringing is almost non-existent too.
You'll also find you can take full advantage of higher ISO settings without having to worry about picture noise when shooting in low light with the flash off. We were extremely happy with everything up to ISO 1,600. Even beyond that point, shots look remarkably noise-free.
In short, the X100 is a highly impressive performer with no obvious weaknesses in its image quality. Okay, the 720p movie mode isn't much to write home about, but for top-notch stills -- particularly portraits -- this camera is quite extraordinary.
If you're looking for features like face recognition, pet detection and blink-proofing, the Fujifilm FinePix X100 isn't for you. Its appeal will also be limited by its high asking price, particularly given that a similarly priced dSLR or compact camera with interchangeable lenses will offer greater flexibility.
But that's not really the point. The X100 is designed for people who love photographic equipment and who want to take control of the camera they're using. It's a beautifully crafted piece of kit, both inside and out, and capable of taking some equally stunning photographs.
Edited by Charles Kloet