Fujifilm X-100 – a rangefinder camera for the rest of us?

If like me you’ve used primarily single lens reflex cameras in the time of film, and dSLRs or mirrorless systems after switching to digital, using a rangefinder camera with an optical viewfinder has always been a challenge. I have a Leica CL that I bought second hand a long time ago when I was living a few blocks from an official Leica store (temptation was permanent, I could not resist), but I don’t use it much. Recently, I tried to use a fully restored Canon QL17 (the Canonet GIII, the most sought after model), but in one year I may have taken 20 pictures at the most, and I don’t know how many more months (or years) I’ll need to take the remaining 16 and have the film processed.

DSCF7241
Family Reunion. Fujifilm X100

On the one hand, I like those cameras – they’re compact, silent, and their direct optical viewfinder is easier on the eyes than the focusing screen of the SLRs. Their field of view is greater than the lens in use, and you also see what is going on outside of the frame: it helps me with the composition of the image, and it will help street photographers better anticipate the action.

IMG_6082
Fujifilm X100T – the optical viewfinder – the white frame and the various indications are a digital overlay – you can see the lens hood in the lower right corner of the image.

But it comes at a cost. You have no idea what the depth of field will be like, and if you forget to adjust the focus (which happens to me frequently in the heat of the action), you’ll find out about your mistake when you download your scans, a few weeks too late. There’s a steep learning curve – I find that with a rangefinder camera it’s much more difficult to anticipate what a photo will look like than with an SLR, and in my opinion, a film rangefinder camera has to be used a lot, if you want your success rate to approach what you get with a single lens reflex camera.

IMG_6085
The Fujifilm 100T – the electronic viewfinder – not different from what you get with  millions of mirrorless cameras.

In 2010, Fujifilm tried a new approach – they developed a compact camera, the X100,  with an hybrid viewfinder – that could be switched from a rather conventional direct optical mode, to a more contemporaneous electronic mode (an EVF). Since the camera also had a 2.8 inch LCD display at the back, the photographer could use the camera in three totally different ways: like an auto-focus point and shoot of the film era (with the optical viewfinder), like a simple digicam (composing on the LCD) or like a good mirrorless camera (with the EVF).

2016-11-NYC-2-71
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – NYC (2016)- Fujifim X100

The camera looked like a rangefinder camera from the seventies, and was graced with an analog interface (aperture ring, shutter speed knob), but it was a modern inside, with a very good 12 Megapixel APS-C sensor, and the four PASM exposure modes a photographer expects on a digital camera.

I had a X100 for a few years. It was a great camera for casual portraits, family reunions, or impromptu landscape. Being small and almost silent, it did not draw attention. But its auto-focus was extremely slow and incapable of detecting where the subject was without human assistance, and I was still missing too many pictures – as soon as the subject was moving or was not centered, in fact.

2016-11-NYC-2-7
Hotel Hudson, NY – Fujifim X100

So I finally upgraded to the third generation of the model, the X100T (the X100S is the Second, the X100T the Third, the X100F the Fourth…it’s easy) and I finally have a optical viewfinder camera that gives me an good success rate (let’s say 90% of the pictures are correctly exposed and in focus, which is a huge improvement over the 30% success rate I get with the Leica CL).

DSCF7334
Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Apart from the autofocus, the other big difference between the first and the third generation is the sensor – the X100 still has a conventional 12 Megapixel sensor (with the so-called Bayer matrix), while the X100T has a 16 Megapixel sensor with Phase Detection pixels (to accelerate the auto-focus process) and Fujifilm’s patented Trans-X matrix. The X100T is also the first the X100 series to offer the ability to connect over WiFi to transfer images to a smartphone, which is extremely convenient when you travel without a laptop. (*)

fujix100t-6708
It may look like a small point and shoot from the early seventies – but it’s packed with modern technology. Here, the model T from 2014.

If you use the X100 with the EVF, a recent version (X100S and better) will be reactive enough and provide an experience very similar to what a very light and very compact mirrorless camera with a 35mm fixed focal lens (full frame equivalent) would bring. But the real fun is to use the optical viewfinder.

DSCF7337
Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Like often with optical viewfinders,  the view of the lower right edge of the image is masked by the lens hood, and of course, you never visualize what part of the image will be in focus, and what part will not. But you get the benefit of a clear, un-intermediated view of your subject. Sure, you have to learn – from experience – when you can let the auto-focus and the auto-exposure modes play their magic, and when to take control back from them. There’s a learning curve, but at the end of the curve, lies the reward.

fujix100t-6711
Where the magic happens – push the lever to switch from the optical viewfinder to the EVF – and back.

How much? 

Of course, the X100 can be bought new – the current model (the X100V) sells for approximately $1,400. Brand new copies of older models can be found for approx. $1,000 (X100 F).

Used models are a bit cheaper, in the $800s for the X100F.

The X100S and the X100T are technically very close, and sell for anything between $450 and $700, depending on condition, on the second hand market.

The first X100 is a sort of classic and sells for approximately $300.00. It’s slow, but it still makes great pictures – if your subject is not too mobile.

fujix100t-6716
Fujifilm X100T – a “real” shutter speed knob and a “genuine” aperture ring – for when Programmed Auto Exposure is not good enough – Beware: the exposure compensation dial (bottom right) is very soft – it tends to move to + or – territory on its own…

(*) – there is another a difference between the X100S and the X100T – the so-called “electronic rangefinder” of the latter.
  • a clarification first – simple cameras (such as a Kodak Instamatic or the Rollei 35) have a direct optical viewfinder. Its most refined implementation, “the bright-line viewfinder, is essentially an inverted Galilean telescope system with an optically projected rectangle outlining the frame area”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica); they are NOT rangefinder cameras, because they’re missing … the rangefinder.
  • the Leica M is the perfect example of a rangefinder camera. Its direct optical viewfinder is supplemented by a coupled optical telemeter, the rangefinder, which assists with focusing.
  • technically, the X100 and the X100S are NOT rangefinder cameras: they’re cameras with a direct optical viewfinder, supplemented with an electronic auto-focus system (contrast detection for the X100, contrast and phase detection for the X100S).
  • With the X100T (and all following models), the photographer can enable an “electronic rangefinder” if working with the optical viewfinder in manual focus mode – it’s a very small EVF display projected in the bottom right corner of the optical image, that shows an enlarged view of the section of the image that the photographer will focus on. As per Fujifilm, “this makes manual focusing while using the optical viewfinder much easier, and more like a mechanical rangefinder”.

In my opinion, on a Fujifilm X100, it’s more a marketing gimmick than anything else; if you really want to focus manually, switch to the EVF. Interestingly, the “rangefinder emulation” is also available on other Fujifilm X cameras,  (the ones with interchangeable lenses), even those with an EVF and no optical viewfinder.

IMG_6111
Fujifilm X100T – Optical Viewfinder – AF-S mode.
IMG_6109
Fujifilm X100T – EVF (manual focus) with focusing aid set to “Focus Peak Highlight – Red”. There are other options (Standard and Split Image MF Assist modes are also available)
IMG_6106
Fujifilm X100 in manual focus mode – Optical viewfinder with “electronic rangefinder insert”

In the series …. shooting pictures in Atlanta in times of social distancing…. All those places are generally magnets for residents and tourists alike, and would have been packed in normal circumstances.

ATL_F100T-8203
Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Little Five Points – Fujifilm X100T
ATL_F100T-8208
Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Inman Park – Fujifilm X100T
ATL_F100T-8213
Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T
ATL_F100T-8216
Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T

 

And now for something completely different: the Fujifilm XQ2

My everyday camera is an iPhone 11 – it’s a smartphone, of course, but it’s also a great camera – really – I like the ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent) and its incredible capacity at making nice portraits or group photos in relatively poor lit scenes. But the iPhone 11 still has a few inherent limitations – its longest focal length is equivalent to a 26mm lens in a 35mm film camera (on the wide side even for a wide-angle, then), and the sensor is so small that even with the best digital signal processing, the best picture enhancement algorithms and a dose of “semantic image analysis”, it’s still not that great when there is really not much light.

Fujiflm XQ2-6632
Fujifilm XQ2 with lens and flash extended. The lens covers the same range as a 25-100 zoom on a full frame (135) camera

Enter my latest acquisition, the Fujifilm XQ2, an ultra-compact point and shoot camera launched in 2015. It’s an old camera by digicam standards,  and with a sensor area of 0.58cm2, the XQ2 it’s a sort of tweener. Its sensor is twice the size of the 1/2.3in chip you could find in an entry level digicam, but half the size of the 1 Inch sensor of the current gold standard of ultra-compact digital cameras, the Sony RX100. Using a smaller sensor made the XQ2 smaller (marginally) and cheaper (massively) than the RX100, but took its toll on image quality in poorly lit scenes.

Relative Size of Image Sensors
Relative Size of Image Sensors (courtesy Simon Crisp in new atlas.com) – the Fujifilm XQ2 has a 2/3in sensor – as opposed to the 1/2.5″ sensor of an iPhone

The size of the sensors of small digital cameras is often expressed in Inches. An iPhone 11 has a 1/2.5in sensor, a Sony RX100 has a 1in sensor, and the Fujifilm XQ2 sits in between with a 2/3in sensor.

  • The “Inches” do not represent the actual size of the sensor – the figure is derived from the length of a video tube that would capture an image of a similar size in an old TV camera: for instance, a 1in video tube captures an image with a diagonal of 16mm, so a silicon chip with a 16mm diagonal will be advertised as a 1inch sensor, even if it’s much smaller than one inch in any of its dimensions (*).
Fujiflm XQ2-6631
I leave the camera in full automatic mode most of the time (that’s the SR+ position on the mode selector).
  • Obviously, there is more to image quality than the sole sensor size – but all things being equal, any time the area of the sensor doubles, its ability to deliver noise free images at high ISOs improves by the same factor: if a 1in sensor (area of 1.16cm2) delivers noise free images up to 800 ISO, a 4/3rd sensor (area of 2.25cm2) will deliver noise free images up to 1600 ISO.
Fujiflm XQ2-6630
The Fujifilm conventional commands.
  • In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the realm of very small sensors: a so called full frame camera (Sony A7, Canon RF, Nikon D850 or Z6, ..) has a sensor which has 30 times the area of the sensor of an iPhone, and 12 times the area of a 1in sensor.
0F421249-0EDD-40C7-BD8E-4781A176A0D0
Atlanta – Chattahoochee – iPhone 11. Focal length equivalent : 14mm
DB4A7004-D70A-4DA1-A4D7-6455A70B8216
Atlanta – paddleboard on the Chattahochee – Fujifilm XQ2 F/4.9. Focal length 25mm (100mm équivalent) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

 

9DF12F88-EAA5-4301-825A-66C277DA8206
Horses at the Vinings Polo field, Atlanta – GA – Apple iPhone 11 – f/1.7 – Digital zoom x 3.5 (equivalent to 91mm)
8B213BF4-1F4C-4E90-AB78-2284E22F03D6
Horses at Vinings. Fujifilm XQ2 – f/5.6 – 21mm (equivalent to 85mm) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

In the real life

I’ve already sang the praise of the iPhone’s camera – it’s truly impressive – in particular when the images are viewed on a smartphone screen. The larger the screen (or the monitor), the less convincing the images, as the effects of the digital zoom (and of aggressive noise reduction) become more visible.  The images are pleasant, but very saturated and borderline loud. [images of the horses above]

The XQ2 (under the standard film simulation mode) delivers more subdued images, closer to the output of a conventional camera. In my experience, the XQ2 manages scenes requiring a high dynamic range better than the iPhone, even if it’s not as good as a camera with an APS-C sensor like the Fujifilm X100T. [pictures of the French Bouledogue taking the sun].

The big difference of course is the focal range of the lens(es). With its ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent on a full frame camera), the iPhone lets you create dramatic landscapes. But its longest focal length is a short 26mm (equivalent), and most of the pictures involve a modicum of digital zoom. Which is costly in terms of image quality.

The XQ2, on the other hand, can zoom optically up to 100mm, which is very useful when you want to isolate a detail, or a human being in a wide landscape, without needing to crop the image.

D1BD6313-1A73-415A-A13A-93E5F8829CA3
Max sleeping. Fujifilm XQ2 – shot at f/4.5 – 15mm focal length (equivalent to 70mm full frame)
D76DF4E5-9FED-4F4D-A392-8667B2238915
Max. iPhone 11. F/1.7 Digital Zoom x 2.8
2020-03-Fuji_tests-8147
Max – Fujifilm X100T – for comparison – the APS-C sensor of the X100T has a much better dynamic than the tiny sensor of the XQ2 (or the iPhone’s)

The iPhone particularly shines at night – the images it creates are more dramatic than the images of the XQ2 – even if on a large monitor, they show more noise artifacts. In comparison, the XQ2 uses a more aggressive noise reduction algorithm, and the images lack details and have a distinct artificial look

0E67F7DD-D10B-4D5E-8442-4B051F5D4E96
Long Beach. iPhone 11. F/1.7 40mm équivalent.
608E739B-611B-436F-860E-3802ECC19F58
Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/3.5. 1/8 sec. 3200 iso. 8.7mm focal (equiv to 27mm)
002047E4-443F-4F32-838F-5E31CE738F42
Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/2.6 1/10 sec 3200 ISO Focal Length 7mm

As a conclusion

Honestly, at the beginning, I was a bit disappointed with the output of the Fujifilm XQ2. The images shot on an iPhone are more dramatic, more spectacular, almost brash. And the ultra-wide angle lens has no real equivalent in the world of dedicated amateur cameras, and the iPhone’s night landscapes are spectacular. The iPhone’s camera is incredibly easy and intuitive to use, you just have to pinch and point to adjust the framing and the exposure.

Because it’s a conventional camera, the XQ2 is not as easy to use (no touch screen) and its default output is less pleasing, but more in line with the expectations of seasoned photographers, looking less artificial. The camera can be operated with one hand – the iPhone can’t – and proposes more control options.

Practically, the big difference is the reach of the XQ2’s zoom – 100mm vs 26mm (equivalent) on the iPhone. In both cases you can use a digital zoom to bring you closer to the subject, but the quality suffers rapidly . To get to the field of view of  a short tele-photo lens (100mm), the iPhone will have to rely on a 4 x digital zoom and will in fact crop a very small section of the image at the center of the sensor, while the  XQ2 will still use the full 12 Million pixels of its sensor. And if you don’t mind the loss of quality, a 2.5 crop factor will allow the XQ2 to emulate a 250mm lens.

Lastly, and paradoxically for a photographer like me who had been taught that cameras were precious objets to be treated with the utmost care, I would not be afraid to risk the XQ2 in situations where I would not dare expose my phone. On the second hand market, the XQ2 is far less expensive than a new iPhone 11 (by a factor of 5, maybe). It’s also less important for my professional and personal lives than my iPhone – I would be sad to lose it but it would not have the same consequences as losing or destroying my phone.

ABF118C1-0E28-46EA-9938-D831E23083BC
Long Beach. The marina. Apple iPhone 11. F/1.7. 1/4 sec. 640 ISO – Digital zoom x 2.2. (56mm equiv)
39498BF3-3D2C-4455-93C2-11740B7AD440
Long Beach – Fujifilm XQ2 – f/4.5. 1/8sec 3200 ISO. Focal length: 19mm (equivalent to 76mm)
Fujiflm XQ2-6629
It’s a tiny camera – it’s thicker than an iPhone but smaller in the other dimensions. The case is not an original Fujifilm accessory, and it’s not in leather, but it’s convenient.

Will I keep this camera? Yes. Will I use it? Yes.

Because it’s very light and ultra-compact, it’s not a big burden to carry it around.

Of course the iPhone is more convenient – it’s smaller, you always have it with you and it’s the go-to device when you only have 2 seconds to locate a camera and shoot.

But the XQ2 is a real camera, far better than the iPhone at capturing and isolating remote subjects. Because it’s dedicated to the task of taking pictures, its ergonomics make it easier to hold and to set up than a smartphone, and its output is more similar to what a real camera (film or digital) would deliver.

fujifilm_housing_press_photo
The WP-XQ1 Underwater housing case.

Last by not least, the availability of an OEM underwater housing, specifically designed for the XQ series, and good for a depth of up to 40m (130 ft), is the cherry on the cake. I don’t know if I will ever dive with it, but it came with the camera and could always be used to protect it  from the rain or mud projections on the surface of the earth.


(*) For the anecdote, this nonsense of expressing the size of a sensor in relation to the length of a video tube from the 1950s is not unique to the photo industry – we’re still using Horse Power (HP) as a unit of power for the engines of our cars because in 1782 James Watt (the inventor of the high pressure steam engine)  had found it convenient to express the capabilities of his machines as an equivalent to a source of  power that everybody had experience with: the horse.


More about sensors: a good overview (written in 2013 but still pertinent):

Camera sensor size guide by Simon Crisp

Fuji STX-2, the good, the bad, the ugly

A simple semi-auto 35mm SLR, the Fuji STX-2 is a typical learner’s camera. It is better at this exercise than the over simplified and somehow antique Pentax K1000, although it does not benefit from the huge supply of Pentax K compatible lenses on the second hand market: it uses Fujica’s proprietary X-mount bayonet.

Over the course of the last 18 months, I’ve purchased and tested half a dozen Fujica and Fuji SLRs from the seventies and early eighties.

Some I really liked – the ST801 (1972) is one of the very best m42 (universal screw mount) semi-auto cameras ever built. The AX-3 of 1979 is a very competent aperture-priority camera designed for enthusiast amateurs. Some I did not particularly like – the AZ-1 of 1978, an automatic camera deprived of a semi-auto override and of the digital numeric display of the ST901- or the AX-5, too close to its entry-level siblings in spite of its impressive specs sheet. The worst of the Fuji 35mm SLRs was also the last one, the AX-Multi Program of 1985, with very limited capabilities and a questionable build quality.

Fuji_STX-7486
Fuji tried to make the camera easy to use: the shutter release lock is clearly marked…

When Fuji launched their X-mount bayonet mount in 1979, they presented three new models all based on the same new chassis (the program mode only AX-1, the AX-3 and the top of the line AX-5), as well as an entry level semi-auto camera, the STX-1. The first two letters of its name were telling the whole story: it was a close derivative of the ST series, where the m42 lens mount had simply been replaced with the new Fujica X-mount bayonet. In 1982, its matching needle meter was replaced with 3 LEDs, and it became the STX-1n. In 1985, in parallel to the AX Multi, Fuji also launched an updated version of the semi-auto STX-1n, the STX-2. High level, it is a plastic bodied version of the STX-1n, with a shutter upgraded to go up to 1/1000 sec.

Fuji_STX-7485
…and the battery door is easy to open at the top of the camera.

The good

Contrarily to the AX Multi, the STX-2 is not an over-simplified camera. It’s a true semi-auto camera, with a depth of field preview, a split image telemeter, a big needle showing the pre selected shutter speed in the viewfinder, and a mechanical timer for…selfies, all features that the prototypical learners’ camera, the Pentax K1000, is missing. Its metering system is based on a silicon cell, which controls a set of 3 LEDs at the right of the viewfinder. TTL (Through The Lens) metering not only works  with the Fujica’s X-Fujinon lenses, but also, thanks to an adapter, with almost any m42 screw mount lens (stopped down).

Fuji_STX-7487
At the bottom of the bayonet, 2 levers control the iris of the lens: the lever on the left stops down the m42 lenses, the lever on the right does it for the X bayonet lenses.

The average weighted metering system seems reasonably accurate, and only requires two very common LR-44 batteries (alcaline) or SR-44 (silver oxide).

Fuji_STX-7489
The STX-2 is a good bearer of m42 lenses (with an adapter that Fuji used to sell in the late seventies). The TTL metering still operates, but stopped down.

It can not be equipped with a winder, does not show the pre-selected aperture in the viewfinder, but on an entry level camera it’s not a big issue.

The bad

The biggest disappointment is the viewfinder. It’s narrow, dark, and lacks contrast. It is significantly worse than the viewfinder of the AX-3 and AX-5 cameras (which is somehow OK without being great), and horribly worse than the viewfinder of their common ancestor the ST801, which is at the same time wider, brighter and more precise.

IMG_1697
The viewfinder is informative (shutter speed scale on the left, micro prism and split image telemeter at the center, LEDs to help determine the exposure on the right), but it’s narrow, grainy and suffers from a poor contrast.

The other issue, of course, is the scarcity of X-Fujinon lenses on the market place. The Fujica STX and AX cameras came generally bundled with one of the multiple variants of a 50mm f/1.9 standard lens, which are still abundant today, but very few photographers bothered to buy anything else. Those who did mainly purchased the 43-75mm zoom or the 135mm tele, with the 28mm wide-angle lens finding a few takers. Other lenses (while nominally on Fuji Photo Film’s large catalog of lenses) were probably never stocked by retailers, and are nowhere to be seen today. And the situation is not really better with the independent optical companies: with the exception of Tamron (which had an Adaptall 2 ring for the Fujica X mount), none of the big brands seem to have made lenses for Fuji’s bayonet.

The ugly

The STX-2 does not look as bad as the AX-Multi, but only by a small margin. The fit is correct (no gap between parts, no loose part) but the finish disappoints: black plastics body is dull and easily scratched, and the dials and knobs leave an unmistakable feeling of cheapness.

Fuji_STX-7495
The STX-2 (1985) next to its remote predecessor, the ST801 (1972). The organization of the commands is the same, but the ST801’s build is conventional  (brass and aluminum) and the camera looks much nicer.

As a conclusion

Because it’s a simple mechanical camera closely derived from a long line of m42 screw mount semi-auto SLRs (from the ST701 to the ST605), the STX-2 does not seem to have suffered from the reliability issues of the AX series. It has not been spec’d down to give a false impression of simplicity like the AX-1 or the Multi-AX, and on paper, it has everything a beginner eager to learn the basics of photography will need. Because it’s mainly built out of plastics, it’s also a very light camera (510g), and you will forget it’s in your backpack when you’re hiking. With an adapter, it can use almost any m42 screw mount lens (Fujinon or other) in addition to the difficult to find X-Fujinon lenses.

Fuji_STX-7493
The STX-2 (1985) next to the top of the line AX-5. Being derived from the older ST generation, the STX-2 is a bit larger than the AX-5.

That being said, it’s also an ugly camera with a bad viewfinder. If I had a large collection of m42 screw mount lenses, I would rather use them with a nice Fujica ST801. The 801’s shutter is faster (1/2000 sec, which is sometimes useful now that 400 ISO is the new normal film sensitivity) and its viewfinder much more comfortable to use.

If I had a few really good X-Fujinon lenses (there is a 50mm F/1.2 EBC I’d like to find one day), mounting them on an Fujica AX-3 would make more sense to me: it’s a fully featured aperture priority camera, with a good semi-auto mode, a decent viewfinder and a nice finish. I would simply bring along a STX-2 as a backup, in case the electronics of the AX-3 decides to go on strike.

If you look at the prices on eBay, the STX-2 is almost the most expensive of the Fujica and Fuji bayonet SLRs: only the rare top of the line AX-5 will cost you more. I can understand why it could be worth more than other Fujica and Fuji AX cameras: it’s the best spec’d of the mechanical semi-auto cameras, and it’s simpler and probably more reliable than its siblings of the AX series. But if I was on the market for a learner’s camera, I would also consider cameras such as the Nikon FM or the Olympus OM-2000: they may be slightly more expensive, but the FM is more solidly built, the OM-2000 has a faster shutter,  and both have a better viewfinder and a much wider choice of lenses on the second-hand market. Not to mention that they also look much nicer.

In my opinion, unless you’re a passionate collector of all things Fuji, buying a STX-2 only makes sense if you can get it for real cheap (a few US dollars), or with one or two lenses to sweeten the deal.


Brand salad:

  • the ST, STX and AX 35mm SLR cameras were manufactured in Japan by Fuji Photo Film, and sold under the Fujica brand until 1985, when they were simply rebranded as Fuji. The company is still in business today, and operates under the Fujifilm name. The lenses were sold as Fujinon (m42 mount), X-Fujinon and X-Fujinar (X- mount). Fuji also had lenses branded as X-Kominar in their catalog (from Komine, an independent optics company also working for Vivitar).
  • Fuji film’s current bayonet is also named the X-mount, their current lenses are named Fujinon-XC or XF, but there is absolutely no compatibility between the old and the new generation.
  • Fuji was (and still is very) proud of its lens treatment process, and the lenses that benefit from it are recognized as Fujinon EBC lenses.
  • Fuji also sold its camera and lenses in Germany and Central Europe through the Porst retail network. I don’t think that the STX-2 was every sold by Porst, but the STX-1 was sold as the Porst CR-1, and Fuji’s lenses as Porst UMC X-F lenses.
  • Today, Fujifilm is known for its digital cameras (APS-C and medium format mirrorless systems), and still makes serious money in the film business, with its instant film and cameras (Instax). The majority of the revenues of the company come from their document printing equipment business, and to a lesser extent, from their activities in the chemical and cosmetic industries.

Fuji_STX-7494
The STX-2 (1985) next to its remote predecessor, the ST801 (1972). The timer lever and the depth of field preview button are at the same place.

How much did SLR cameras cost in 1985?

1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially  successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.

Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.

Price of Cameras - 1985
Price of Cameras – 1985

A few interesting points….

Minolta Maxxum 7000 - source Wikipedia
Minolta Maxxum 7000 – source Wikipedia
  • the models most popular with enthusiasts  (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
  • Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
  • Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders  (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).

The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.

In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of  low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their  manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus  commissioned companies  like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).

On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.


Charleston, SC - Shot in 2009 - Nikon FM - Kodak CN400
Charleston, SC – Shot in 2009 – Nikon FM – Kodak CN400

Fuji X-T1 vs Apple iPhone 7 Plus – should we still carry a conventional digital camera with us?

A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Taos area in New Mexico with friends. One of them – a pretty good photographer – had decided to travel light and had left his full frame DSLR at home. He only had brought his smartphone, a brand new Apple 7 Plus. I had brought my Fujifilm X-T1 with the standard 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens. Along the day, we took pictures of the same scenes (natural and urban landscape for the most part), and at the end of the day, we compared our photos. Let’s use two pictures taken from the Rio Grange Gorge Bridge, on Route 64, a few miles from Taos as an example:

Rio Grande from Taos - iPhone 7 Plus
Rio Grande from Taos – iPhone 7 Plus. Photographer: L.C.
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge - Fujifilm X-T1
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge – Fujifilm X-T1

To our surprise, the pictures were virtually indistinguishable when displayed on a smartphone, an iPad Pro or a laptop screen. We did not expect the resolution to be differentiator (at 12 Megapixel, an iPhone 7 has more than enough resolution for pictures shared on social networks). The biggest surprise was the dynamic range of the iPhone 7 Plus, which appears to be better than the Fuji’s on a very difficult subject (black rocks, snow, sun reflections on the river).

At the top of that, the iPhone can publish photos in seconds after they’ve been shot (on iCloud or on the major social networks). The Fujifilm is relatively good at this exercise – for a conventional camera. But you still need to bring up WiFi on the camera (it becomes a WiFi access point), launch the Fujifilm app on a smartphone, connect the smartphone to the camera, and upload the selected pictures to the Photo application of the smartphone. Only then you can edit and share your pictures. Definitely not as fast.

Our goal was not to conduct an exhaustive scientific comparison – we were tourists and just shot landscapes under daylight. There are areas where a dedicated digital camera probably still has a marked advantage: action or wildlife photography, low light or night shots, for instance. And a dedicated camera has a viewfinder, and gives to the photographer a much greater ability to control the technical parameters than the Photo app of a smartphone. But the iPhone, now with a second short telephoto lens and a portrait mode simulating the shallow depth of field you would get with a 55mm f/1.2 lens on a dedicated digital camera, is getting closer to what a dedicated camera can do with every new generation.

Old lenses on new gear – manual focus lenses on mirrorless cameras

One of the most remarkable changes brought by the advent of mirrorless camera systems (micro 4/3rds, Fujifilm X and to an even larger extent Sony E and FE) is the ability to mount and effectively use almost any old lens designed originally for a 35mm camera system.

With SLR and dSLR camera systems, it was pointless to try and mount lenses designed for another system, and very often, lenses from a previous generation of the same camera system:

canon_adapt-7378
Two mount adapters: Canon FD to Fuji X, and Nikon F to Fuji X. Those Fotasy adapters are not fancy but they’re cheap and they do the job.
  • SLRs and dSLRs have optical viewfinders – the photographer needs all the light he/she can get for focusing and composing the picture, and the cameras are therefore designed to work at full aperture with aperture pre-selection – which used to require rods and springs and cams, and since the Canon EOS mount opened the way, now requires electronics. There is no simple way to emulate the pre-selection mechanism of one SLR system  with a lens designed for another one.
  • There are also physical limitations:
    • The adapter designed as the interface between a lens of System A and a camera body of System B is more or less a cylinder with the female part of the mount of System A at one end, and the male part of System B at the other end. Such an adapter would necessarily have a depth of 5 to 15mm, which adds to the flange distance. Unfortunately, all digital single lens reflex cameras derived from 35mm SLR systems have a very similar flange distance (from 44mm for the Canon EF mount up to 46.5mm for the Nikon F), and there is not enough room for an adapter (the adapted lens would sit too far from the camera’s film plane, and would not focus to infinite).

Mirrorless camera systems don’t have such limitations:

canon_adapt-7380
Canon FD to Fuji X (left) and Nikon F to Fuji X (right). The Nikon mount range distance is a bit higher than the FD’s. Therefore the adapter is thicker.
  • They have electronic viewfinders – and offer a clear and bright view of the subject even stopped down at f/16. If fact, most of the mirrorless cameras operate at stopped down aperture even with their native lenses.
  • The flange distance of mirrorless systems is much shorter (17 to 20mm for the most common systems), which leaves plenty of room (almost 30mm ) for the adapter if you want to mount a lens designed for a SLR or DSLR system.
  • Thanks to their electronic viewfinders, mirrorless systems have multiple ways to assist the operator trying to focus manually (magnifier, zebra, focus peaking).

The use of CAD and CNC is now widespread and it’s easy and cheap to manufacture mechanical mount adapters: users of each of the big mirrorless camera systems have access to adapters for :

  • Most pre-AF era mounts for 35mm systems: (39mm and 42mm, Canon FL/FD, Konica, Nikon F, Minolta MD, Olympus OM, Leica M and R, Topcon, …)
  • Stranger or more exotic mounts (C mount, Adaptall,  Holga, medium format cameras)
canon_adapt-7370
Fuji film X-T1, Canon FD to Fuji X adapter (Fotasy), and Canon FL 55mm. The X-T1 is a pleasure to use even with old lenses.

Even if it’s physically possible, mounting recent AF/all electronics lenses is generally pointless – not only you can’t set the aperture for lack of an aperture ring, but you can’t focus the lens because modern lenses are devoid of any mechanical connection between the focusing ring and the focusing mechanism of the lens. Unless a third party vendor develops an adapter which embarks the complex software required to translate the communication protocols of a lens of Brand A into something the body of Brand B will understand.

  • As far as I know, it has only been attempted with some level of success between a few lenses with a Canon or Sigma mount and a few Sony bodies (the A7R II or the A6300).

Therefore, the best candidates are lenses from the manual focus era (up to 1985), and the Nikon and Pentax auto-focus lenses designed before Year 2000 – they all still have aperture rings.

Even if it is possible, mounting an old manual focus lens on a mirrorless body is not necessarily the best thing to do:

  • in spite of all the focus assistance mechanisms, it’s much slower to get the focus with an adapted vintage lens than with the native auto-focus lens – adapted lenses are not a good fit for mobile subjects, unless you adopt old school focusing techniques (pre-focus, wait for subject to be at right distance, and shoot)
  • Older lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and are unnecessarily large and heavy when mounted on M4/3rd and APS-C cameras
  • Lots of older lenses were not that good in their heyday, and become really bad if mounted on a camera with a high resolution sensor. It’s true in particular for zooms and to a lesser extent for wide angle lenses.

As a conclusion, why mount old lens on a modern mirrorless body?

  • Because you can (of course)

    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. It worked pretty well.
    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on a Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. The Nex 3 was surprisingly easy to use with a manual lens. The Metabones adapter is really stiff, and it’s one step above the Fotasy in terms of quality. Not sure it’s worth the price, though.
  • If you already have the lens… Considering adapters sell for $20.00, it’s tempting to buy one to use your old lenses, as a stop gap until you buy a modern equivalent in the mirrorless system, or even permanently
    • All macro lenses are a very good fit because macro photography does not require to focus fast, and old macro lenses are still up to the task, when compared to their modern equivalents
  • If you want to experience really exceptional glass
    • Canon FD Aspherical or “L” lenses (50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2) for instance, or some of the gems that Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax and others have produced in the past…
  • If the modern equivalent does not exist…
    • a 55mm f/1.2 lens – it doesn’t exist for the Sony E/FE mount
    • a teleobjective with Defocus Control – only Nikon has them
    • a tilt and shift lens (only Canon and Nikon have them)
  • or exists but is crazy expensive
    • can an amateur afford the new Sony 85 f/1.4 FE GM?

As a result, old lenses of good reputation hold their value extremely well. Some of the  Canon and Nikon lenses I mentioned above sell for more than $700.00 on eBay.

Jules - Fujifilm X-T1 - Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
Jules – Fujifilm X-T1 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2


Fujifilm and the instant film bonanza


The Photokina took place in Cologne a few weeks ago. To a large extent, it was a Fujikina. Fujifilm announced a brand new medium format digital system, and presented a black and white version of their Instax Mini film. And they pre-announced a square (6cm by 6cm) version of their Instax Color film. And special editions (Michael Kors, Colette, ..) of their Instax instant film cameras. At the same time, Leica was showing a Leica branded Fujifilm camera (the Leica Sofort), a clone of the Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, with Leica branded black and white and color instant film.

Instax Mini Film - Holga 120 CFN camera with Holga 120 -IB back
Instax Mini Film – Holga 120 CFN camera with Holga 120 -IB back.


Fujifilm has been in the instant film business for a very long time – with their own technology and through cross licensing agreements with Polaroid. Until April 2016 Fuji was still producing peel apart film compatible with Polaroid pack film cameras and backs, years after Polaroid themselves had ceased to manufacture instant film. As a sidebar, the conventional Polaroid film was called peel-apart film, because the photographer had to wait for the image to be processed, and then had to peel a sort of negative apart from the developed picture on paper. A more modern implementation of instant photography is the “integral” film, in which  the picture itself contains all the chemicals needed for an automatic development of the photo.


Fujifilm’s integral film success story started at the end of the nineties, when they introduced the Instax Mini, a new small size instant film system in Japan (the Instax Mini image size is approx 6 x 4.5cm, and as a consequence the size of the cameras can be kept reasonably small). The system was adopted with enthusiasm by  pre-teen and teen age Japanese girls, and Fuji has been very intelligently building on this initial success to convert foreign and older customers (first in Asia, and more recently in the West). In addition to the Instax Mini film, Fujifilm also introduced Instax Wide films and cameras. The Instax Wide image is larger than the Mini’s (twice the size at 10cm x 6cm), but the cameras are anything but pocket friendly.


The growth has been phenomenal (3.8 Million cameras sold in 2014, 5 million in 2015, and on target to 6 million in 2016).

sales_Instax_other
Sales of Fujifilm Instax cameras – 1998 to 2014. The sales volume in 2014 is 3.87 million. Source: Fuji film

 
Those volumes are far from being negligible if compared to the 40 million digital cameras  sold in 2015.


More important still for Fujifilm’s bottom line, instant film photography is a repeat business:  each camera consumes film, and a pack of Instax Mini film which costs approximately US$ 10.00  is only good for… 10 pictures.


On the instant film market, Fuji has only one competitor: The Impossible Project, aka TIP. TIP took over a Polaroid plant in the Netherlands when Polaroid left the film business, and started manufacturing their own integral films (they don’t have the original Polaroid recipes, their films are their own creations). I had tested their first black and white integral film just after they started their business a few years ago – and I had not been impressed. They have improved their products massively in terms of predictability and usability, and they’ve extended their product line to include color films and to support more models of Polaroid cameras; I’ve seen really beautiful pictures made with their current line of films. However, compared to Fujifilm, they remain a small scale operations with expensive products and a very limited distribution network. As opposed to Fujifilm, The Impossible Project can only propose one model  to people who want to buy a new camera. Their customers still  primarily use very capable but old SX70 and 600 Polaroid cameras – which are still abundant on the used market, but don’t have a reputation for aging gracefully.

holga2
Holga 120 with 120-IB Instax back.


Lomography (the promoters of Lo-Fi photography and makers of the Lomo, Holga, Diana and Belair cameras) have developed two lines of instant film cameras,  one for the Instax Mini film, one for the Instax Wide, as well as add-on backs for the Holga, the Diana and the Belair.  They offer more control to the photographer but they don’t have the reputation of being user friendly or to offer consistent results. More about it below.


Lastly, a cottage industry has been busy refurbishing old Polaroid cameras (for use with The Impossible Project’s film or with Instax), and converting old medium format cameras – in particular the Mamiya Press – to Instax film. For all sorts of reasons, Fujifilm recently stopped producing the conventional peel and apart instant film that many lovers of high quality instant photography were using. Since Fujifilm’s  own Instax Wide cameras are rather basic, the best option for serious photographers is to convert old medium format cameras to accept Fuji’s integral film. At the moment, it’s a very limited market – the  cameras capable of taking advantage of the size of the Instax Wide film are necessarily very large,  heavy, and difficult to use, and the conversion is as expensive as the camera itself. But the release of the Instax Square film in 2017 will open the door for the conversion to integral film of smaller 6×6 and 6×7 cameras. If the Instax Square cartridge is designed like the Instax Mini, cameras with a deep interchangeable back will be the easiest to convert. It’s time to buy a good medium format SLR system before the prices go up.

holga_1
Holga with 120-IB Instax back (with add-on viewfinder and Neutral density filter)
Jules (French Bouledogue). Holga camera with defective shutter.
Jules (French Bouledogue). Holga camera with defective shutter.


A few weeks ago, I wanted to have a feel for the Instant film phenomenon, and I mounted an Instax Mini back (the Holga 120-IB) on the Holga 120 CFN  I had brough with me to Rome a few years back. I bought the kit from a on-line store in Hong-Kong. It is composed of the back itself, a corrective lens  to place at the front of the Holga’s lens, and an additional viewfinder. It’s very simple – there is no battery as the picture is processed and extracted when the photographer turns a crank hidden under the bottom of the back.


My first test was not devoid of issues: either the back was poorly assembled, or I did not insert the pack of film properly, but I could not extract the pictures from the camera with the crank as I was supposed to: after each shot, I had to go to a dark room, open the camera and extract the picture manually. I finally solved the problem, probably by brute force, and the back worked flawlessly with the subsequent packs of film. Then with  the second pack of film, the shutter of the Holga decided to misbehave. I had to disassemble  it and lube it. The third pack of film gave better results, but almost all of the pictures were over or under exposed:  the exposure latitude of the Instax film is rather narrow, and nailing the right exposure is very difficult: don’t believe the specs sheet, the Holga only has one aperture (there is a sunny day/ cloudy day selector, but the aperture is F/13 in both cases) and the shutter is inconsistent and unreliable. Not the best recipe for success. Overall, it’s a frustrating experience as you feel you are wasting a good film in a poor camera.

But as always with an Holga, some of the pictures – while technically flawed – have an almost surrealistic quality.

Fuji bicycle - Instax Mini film - Holga camera with Instax back (AFAIK Fujifim is not in the bicycle business. It's a coincidence)
Fuji bicycle – Instax Mini film – Holga camera with Instax back (AFAIK Fujifim is not in the bicycle business. It’s a coincidence)

More about Fujifilm’s instant photography adventures:


Fujifim and Instant Photography (camera-wiki.org)


5 Years later

I started this blog in 2009. And wrote most of the entries between September 2009 and Sept 2010.

Between 2012 and 2015, I did not do much in terms of photography. I did not use my film cameras anymore – too cumbersome – forgot about my DSLR – too large, too heavy. I bought a Nikon V1 mirrorless camera – and got rid of it rapidly, very disappointed by the image quality. In fact, I spent the last four years taking pictures with my iPhone.

At the end of last year, while travelling for business, the desire to take better pictures than what an iPhone could do came back. I bought a $200.00 point and shoot Sony camera, and was so impressed by its technical abilities that I … returned it immediately to buy a second-hand Sony mirrorless camera – a rather scruffy NEX 6 with the tiny 16-50mm Power Zoom. I liked the NEX 6 so much that I decided to invest seriously in the Sony system. The week after I bought it, I returned the NEX to the vendor, and upgraded to a clean and shiny A6000 with a Sony-Zeiss prime lens. In the process, I sold my old Nikon DSLR and a few Nikon F mount lenses.

Old lens - new life
Atlanta- Centennial Park – Shot in June 2016 with a Sony A6000 and a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AF (non D) lens

Unfortunately, I could never adjust to the ergonomics and idiosyncrasies of the A6000 (it’s made by engineers specialized in electronics under the guidance of marketing people, not by photographers). The sensor is really great, but I did not like the APS-C Sony zooms – too much distortion with the cheap ones, fear of quality control issues with the expensive ones. I did not like the cost of their prime lenses (the real good ones are very expensive), and had doubts about the commitment of Sony to its APS-C line of products – it’s all about the A7 and its full frame sensor nowadays. Looking for something totally different, I bought a Fujifilm X100. I liked it. A camera designed by photographers for photographers. Comforted by the experience, I decided to bite the bullet, and sold all my Sony equipment to pay for a second hand X-T1 and its 18-55 zoom. I positively love my Fujifilm cameras, and I should keep them for a long time.

With my passion for photography re-ignited, I’m re-activating this blog.

In the first entries, I’ll focus on what changed in the world of photography in the last 5 years – the rise of the smartphone, the disappearance of color film as a mass consumption product, and the parallel rebirth of true black and white and instant film à la Polaroid. Then I will go back to what constitutes the core of this blog – giving old gear a new life.