In 2014 I sold my big Nikon camera and all its lenses to help clear my mortgage. I did so without reservation as I knew I was close to my travel goals and had already decided that I wasn’t going to travel with a big camera this time around.
Why? Many reasons. DSLR’s are heavy. They take up huge amounts of space. They are theft magnets. An expensive setup requires costly insurance. Sometimes I feel like a bit of douche walking around with one. But most of all,
big cameras interfere with the travel experience too much.
I carried a DSLR for 7 months through 8 countries in 2006. I never once trusted a place enough to leave the camera in my room. It was on my shoulder everywhere I went. At restaurants and internet cafés I’d loop the strap around my leg to prevent people snatching it. When I slept in a dorm I’d padlock the case and sleep on top of it. I’d have a showdown with every bus driver that tried to get me to relinquish my bag and put it in the cargo hold. I couldn’t even go to the toilet without engaging a travel companion to guard the camera for me.
The camera dominated my travel experience in 2006. I didn’t want that this time around.
Features of a Good Travel Camera
Most innovations in camera technology these days can be found in smartphones. But smartphones are still behind conventional cameras in terms of image quality. I wasn’t ready to be a smartphone photographer just yet.
I wanted something smallish. With no lenses to change and fiddle with. I wanted something with a fast aperture and a pro quality image sensor.
Travel Camera Options
There is only really two cameras that fit that bill.
One is the Sony RX1. It’s a compact camera that costs almost as much as my old Nikon DSLR. Circa £2500.
The other is the Fuji x100T.
Fuji x100t Review
So I bought the Fuji from park cameras in London in August 2015. I won’t bore you with too many specs but just to give you a hint as to this cameras capabilities, here are the bits that count.
APS-C sensor – The Fuji has the same size image sensor as that found in most DSLR cameras. It’s kind of like putting a Ferrari engine into Fiat 500.
23mm f/2 Fujinon lens – The sensor crop factor makes this lens a 35mm focal length in real terms. It was designed specifically for the X100 range. It’s practically flawless. Easily crushing some very expensive DSLR lenses in terms of optical performance at 35mm. Internet agrees.
It has no anti-aliasing filter – This gives the camera exceptional image detail at the cost of video performance. The video is lame. The images however, are as detailed as any pro DSLR.
Everything else about this camera is unimportant. It’s these three things that afford it a seat at the big table.
Limitations of the x100t
Although it performs like a DSLR on paper, it does have one big drawback that DSLR don’t have. A fixed focal length. The Fujinon lens is almost perfect but only at 35mm. You can’t zoom in or out and you can’t unscrew the lens and affix a different one. 35mm is all you have.
For some, that’s part of the cameras appeal. But if you’re used to zooming and changing lenses for certain situations, you will have to rethink the way you take photographs to get the best from the x100T.
Day to Day with the x100t
I’ve used the x100T for about two months now, almost every day. Let me say straight off the bat;
If you’ve ever owned a big DSLR, you will be a hugely disappointed with this camera.
The x100T cost £900 new. More expensive that many top rated DSLR’s, but is nowhere near as good in most situations.
The first time I really tried to use the Fuji x100T I remember feeling gutted. Gutted that I’d sold my Nikon. I wanted to throw the Fuji in the sea I was so frustrated.
There are two main issues with it as far as I can see.
Nothing Works like a DSLR
It sounds obvious but having owned proper cameras from way back in the 80’s I had come to take for granted certain things. When you move into the compact market place though, even at the high end, you need to dumb down your expectations considerably.
I thought all modern cameras just focused when you pressed the shutter. I never knew this was high technology. My previous Nikon and Canon cameras would snap to focus in an instant in almost every lighting condition. Not so with the £900 Fuji. Point it at a sunset and sometimes it gets confused. Use it indoors and it doesn’t handle it well either. The camera just focuses to infinity and back a few times and then the display goes red.
I’m not asking the camera to focus in darkness. Just everyday situations. Yes its low light, but this camera is £900. I’m amazed they couldn’t get the auto-focus right at that price.
On a DSLR you switch it on and it’s fully operational before you can raise it up to take the shot. Not so with the Fuji. I’m sure its only milliseconds but it makes a huge difference. The Fuji is never ready when I want it to be. Sometimes, if I switch it on and off for any reason in quick succession it gets confused and doesn’t power on at all. A deep breath and another reboot always straightens it out but that takes more vital seconds. Often, the thing I wanted to take a picture of has changed or is gone.
The stupid eye sensor doesn’t work fast enough either. Annoyingly I have to pull it away from my face and bring it back a few times before the viewfinder activates and I can start to compose my shot.
With a DSLR, you are always looking through the prism, straight down the barrel of the lens, so this is never a factor.
Everyone on the web raves about the ergonomics and usability of this camera. From the digital menu system to the customisable buttons, pre-set modes, the quality construction and the way it feels in your hands. Photographers everywhere say the Japanese built Fuji is leading the market place.
What? I simply can’t understand what they are seeing. I’m loathing the Fuji ergonomics. So many useful things are buried too many clicks down in the menu. I can’t use this camera one handed without accidentally pressing stuff and unintentionally changing settings. The pre-sets are fiddley and too time consuming to change. The biggest thing on the camera is the shutter speed wheel which I almost never use. Every time I get the camera out of my bag I have to check the exposure compensation dial to make sure it hasn’t shifted. More often than not I miss something and I don’t notice the problem until I blow the pics up on a computer.
I guess that compared to many compact cameras the Fuji x100T is an ergonomic masterpiece. That may be. Of course, I didn’t expect the Fuji to be better than a pro DSLR. But what’s most surprising is that for £900, the Fuji can’t even elbow into the bottom end of the DSLR market place. Even the most basic, plastic £300 DSLR is superior in my opinion.
The Fuji doesn’t handle like a DSLR and it doesn’t work like one either. It feels like a designer toy, which is madness at this price bracket.
Pushing the Limits
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I can’t get near the limits with the Fuji. Let me explain what I mean.
On a nice sunny day you can take any camera in the world, point it at a tree and take a picture. From the cheapest camera to the most expensive, the tree is going to look pretty much the same in the resulting pictures. Now try taking both cameras and shooting jet planes in flight or people inside a dimly lit nightclub. This is where the limits will start to become apparent.
When I got into photography I didn’t do it to take pictures of trees on bright sunny days. I got into photography for the wow pictures. The ones you can’t get with normal cameras or a smartphone. The ones at the limits of photography. Low-light, action, sports, wildlife, architecture and dreamy long exposure landscapes. Of course, I’m no professional, but having professional kit meant I was always able to push the limits. If I cranked up the dials and played with the angles, there was always a chance the next picture could be a show stopper.
The Fuji, disappointingly, shy’s away from those limits, preferring to stick to what its good at. Being slightly better than average. Use this camera and you’ll constantly be wishing for an extra digit on the dials. But there isn’t one. Its stops and backs off before you want it to.
The x100T is like a golfer that always makes par. It’s consistently good, but it can never be great. It simply doesn’t have the enough clubs in its bag to hit that long drive and make a birdie.
I’ve never used a lens that has a 35mm focal length before. Its half way between the much used (24mm and 50mm). I expected 35mm to be a versatile blend of the two. Unfortunately it was the opposite. The 35mm focal length is not a true wide angle lens like the 24 mm. Unlike the 50mm however, it’s just wide enough to make the super-fast f/2 aperture count for pretty much nothing.
This lens sits on the fence right in the damn middle. It’s perfectly positioned just a little too wide or a little too narrow for almost everything you want to photograph.
The worst part though is that the 35mm focal length prevents the camera from making the most of the stunning f/2 aperture.
A True F/2
With a 24mm lens at f/2 you can get very close to your subject and create a beautiful blurry, out of focus background. A 50mm lens at f/2 forces you much further away from your subject to achieve focus but, the narrow field of view creates the same blurry background as the 24mm. With the 35mm lens it’s impossible isolate a subject in the same way. The 35mm forces you back just far enough to bring subject and background into a similar focal plane without the narrower field of the 50mm. The result, average looking flat images.
Portraits and Low Light with the x100t
There is one area where the 35mm lens works well. People. But only the top half. If you try to get the whole body in you have the same problems you’d have with most other subjects. With people, it’s kind of OK to take a picture of someone’s head and shoulders. That’s the only reason it works. But boy does it work.
The x100T takes better pictures of people than any camera I’ve ever owned. Images are sharper even than my Nikon d700 with the legendary 135mm f2 Nikkor lens. Simply beautiful.
Low light is another area where the x100T excels. Assuming you can get it to focus, it performs easily as well as some modern full frame DSLR’s. The Fuji produces excellent natural colours and noise free images up to 3200 ISO.
Unfortunately you really need a wider lens to make the best of the low light performance. You simply can’t get enough sky or ground into the frame for a truly great image.
The Final Word
Overall the Fuji is undeniably a good camera. It beautiful and sturdy. It’s small enough to be unobtrusive but has enough features to give the photographer a wide array of creative control.
Is it worth the £900 price tag? I don’t think so. The camera sits alone in its tiny niche so there really is nothing else to compare it to except the much more expensive Sony RX1. Nevertheless, the niche is small for a reason. Very few people want a camera like this.
I’ve really tried hard to focus on the best aspects of the x100T but I can’t see past the drawbacks.
If I’d never owned a proper DSLR I would probably love this little compact camera. But, you can’t put the genie back in the lamp. I have owned a DSLR and the Fuji is a constant reminder of what I’m missing.
All the reasons I wanted the Fuji still stand true. I won’t backpack with a DSLR. I don’t want to have to change lenses and I don’t want to feel like a douche, pointing a chunky camera in people’s faces everywhere I go. I think I just wanted something more.
Recently I’ve read some great things about the Sony RX100 IV. This camera would certainly tick a few more functional boxes than the Fuji. I do wonder how much quality Sony have had to compromise to pack so many features in though.
Whether or not the perfect travel camera exists at all in the market place or will ever exist is another debate. All I’m sure of is that, for me, it’s not a DSLR and it’s not the cute little Fuji x100T.