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(Pocket-lint) - The Fujifilm FinePix X100 is no ordinary compact. Made for the high-end market, this retro-looking, magnesium alloy beast is built around a large 12.3-megapixel APS-C sized sensor and fixed 23mm F/2.0 lens (that’s 35mm in equivalent terms). There’s no zoom to be found here. In fact there’s practically none of the consumer-friendly perks that modern compacts have. Whip the X100 out on the street or down your local and only the discerning will have any clue that it’s even a modern digital camera. It looks like a beautiful, well-kept relic of years gone by - and that in itself is a reason to love the X100.

Although it may look old skool, the X100 is littered with up-to-date features, including the world’s first reverse-Gallilean viewfinder that merges the benefits of both an optical and electronic viewfinder into one unit. It’s a complex set up that ingeniously offers the best of both worlds. By looking through the optical viewfinder you get a full field of view that’s actually larger than the final frame you’ll capture - ideal for adding that extra edge to see what’s coming in and out of the frame. The high-resolution 1.44 million-dot electronic viewfinder, activated by a small switch on the front of the camera, is an exact 100% field of view - great for framing up shots, but also very useful for checking your shots directly to the eye to ensure accurate focus and exposure. Where it gets that extra bit clever is that the electronic playback can be overlayed in the optical view - adding a precise frame edge, electronic level and autofocus information right in front of your very eyes. Reading about it is one thing, but this feature makes far more sense in actual use. It’s truly next-generation tech quite unlike anything else out there.

Controlling the X100 is equally unique; more akin to an old rangefinder-style camera than current compact. With individual shutter speed (1/4000-1/4 plus Bulb and Time) and exposure compensation (+/-2EV) dials on the top, aperture is adjusted using the F/2.0-16 ring around the lens itself. Third and half stop aperture adjustments can be made using a nudge-wheel on the rear. It is possible to use the camera in Auto mode, though the ISO needs to be user-defined and this can be quickly set using the function (Fn) button to the right of the shutter. If you do set the shutter to “A” (Auto) then it seems to default to not using shutter speeds higher than 1/1000 sec - a slight oddity given that the option to snap away at 1/4000 sec is available.

Should light get a little too much and you want to continue using that bright F/2.0 aperture then the X100 has a little trick tucked up its sleeve. Well, rather more behind the lens: an ND (neutral density) filter. This isn’t something you need to buy in addition, nor screw on - simply select it from the interior menu and a sheet-type filter will cover the incoming light and drop it by an effective three stops. As nothing changes in processing, this is of no consequence to image quality. It’s a very clever and necessary option to got the most out of the lens’s wide F/2.0 aperture setting in daylight conditions.

Autofocus is an area that has some highs and lows. The main issue is that it lacks the rapid pace that some other more consumer-led compacts are capable of. Not by a huge amount, but we were hoping for something just that extra bit special. Where it comes up trumps, however, is with the level of control offered: there are no less than 49 autofocus points that can be individually selected and they cover a wide portion of view for optimum focus control (this is reduced to 25 points when using the optical viewfinder). Manual focusing is possible using the focus ring around the lens, and this can be a better method of close-up focusing as there can be issues in macro mode (10cms from lens is the best focus distance on offer). Furthermore the macro mode will only work using the electronic viewfinder (or in live view) and doesn’t show focusing in real time. Instead it freezes on the initial frame and only shows real time feedback once focus has been attained. This can make taking “macro” pictures or portraits all the trickier, especially where moving subjects are involved.

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Another small but apparent issue is that the camera times out and automatically turns itself off after a short period. This isn’t uncommon and wouldn’t be a problem if a quick button press would reactivate everything ready for shooting. But, no, the X100 needs to be turned right off and then back on again, often presenting an extended delay before it’s back up and ready to go. It is a menu option, so you can adjust the timeframe for this and turn it off completely if you wish. However, if Fujifilm spend yet more time behind the scenes then it would, at least potentially, be possible to give you a faster wake-up and even implement faster autofocus by way of firmware update. Whether anything like this will happen remains to be seen.

Another feature that feels a little underwhelming is the rear 2.8-inch, 460K-dot LCD screen. The X100’s body isn’t exactly small so there was plenty of space to consider at the design stage to fix a larger screen with a better resolution, or even a high-quality OLED screen, onto the rear. This is one design area where Fuji’s missed a trick, though the existing 2.8-inch size is more than useable for live view (real time preview) and playback.

The X100 offers a 5fps (or lower 3fps) burst mode that can reel off up to 8 RAW files though there is a fair wait for all that processing. Better still there are umpteen bracketing options within the Drive mode to capture differing degrees of (take a breath) dynamic range, ISO, AE exposure, WB and Film Simulation modes. That in itself outlines how pro-spec the X100 truly is.

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Unlike some other Fujifilm cameras that have EXR sensors, the X100 has a more standard construction APS-C sized CMOS sensor that utilises the company’s latest EXR Processor. The idea behind this is to output the sensor’s captured information in a different arrangement to that of standard sensors for the benefit of image quality. Exactly how, of course, isn’t explicitly detailed by Fujifilm, though representatives tell us that the EXR Processor mimics an EXR sensor’s construction for the same quality of result. And boy does it work a treat.

With the capacity to shoot from ISO 100-12,800, most compacts falter at relatively low ISO sensitivities. Not so with the X100: shots at ISO 3200 are sublime. Sure, the detail diminishes the higher you step up the ISO range, but the lower ISO 100-800 settings are of unparalleled quality that would give even mid-high spec DSLRs a run for their money.

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There can be the occasional issues with sharpness, though this is usually due to the fact the lens won’t focus particularly close to subject. Shooting at F/2.0 with the camera focusing further back in a scene than expected can be a primary cause of this. Something that more extensive use is likely to overcome.

Dynamic range is also catered for with standard (100%), 200% and 400% options to cram in extra exposure detail in shadow and highlight areas. It’s done in a subtle manner, rather than looking like an over-worked HDR effect.

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And the proper Fujifilm buffs out there will be pleased to see Film Simulation modes that replicate film classics - Provia (Standard), Velvia (Vivid), Astia (Soft), Monochrome (with three filter levels) and Sepia. The latter two may not be traditional film types as such, but still live in this menu area. 

The X100’s 23mm Fujinon lens (35mm in equivalent terms due to 1.5x crop of APS-C sensor size) is of very fine quality. Barrel distortion is kept to a minimum meaning that “straight on” shots retain good horizontals and verticals throughout. However its medium-wide-angle nature is not ideal for portraits, though if you can get in close enough it doesn’t do a bad job (distortion is not overtly prominent).

Moving away from stills for just a moment and the X100 even has a 720p HD movie mode. It’s unlikely to be the clincher for purchase, but it shows the company’s commitment to up-to-the-minute tech. Single or continuous autofocus can be used during recording, though the latter is a little slow to catch up. Alternatively manual focus is available, though it’s tricky to rotate the front lens ring particularly far without getting fingers in the way of your shot.  

To recap

The Fujifilm FinePix X100 is a niche blend of a fixed 23mm (35mm) F/2.0 lens and large APS-C sensor. Its build quality is sublime and the pictures it can take are astounding. It’s a serious slice of retro chic in a modern age, but most certainly isn’t targeted at a mainstream audience (its £1000 asking price sees to that)

Writing by William Perceval.