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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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. (*)
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.