So, this is me with my brand new Fujifilm X100T. The little digital rangefinder APS-C camera and its 35mm f2 equivalent lens will be my personal system for the year 2015 and will follow me in my daily walks, family trips, night explorations, and whatever else may happen to happen. It is since 2008 that I yearly upgrade my personal camera, usually around February, when my birthday comes, and until this year it had always been with Sony cameras. Fact is, many used to calle me “the Sony guy”. So, why did I change brand? It’s a long story, almost a ballad.
It all started in 2008 with the Sony A350. It was my first DSLR. It also was the camera that brought me back, violently, into the passion for photography, which I had pun on hold in 2000, when I had to sacrifice almost all of my hobbies in order to keep the pace with my studies in biomedical engineering.
One year later, in 2009, I’ve got my first “serious” assignment, for which I upgraded to a second hand Sony A700. This was the camera that taught me how quick and precisely a professional photographer can (and should be expected to) work. 2010 was the year of the full frame upgrade with a second hand Sony A850, with which I finally gave full power to my old Minolta primes.
At this point it happened that the upgrades, while providing the image quality and system performance I needed to fit in the market of weddings and portraits, had caused such an increase in weight, size and general bulkiness, that I found myself more and more reluctant to bring the camera along in my free time. I had the cameras and lenses I sought for since my youth, and yet I didn’t like to bring them along. I know many photographers can relate with that.
For a while I solved the issue with analog cameras, such as the original LC-A for color positives and the Bessa R2 with the 35mm Color Skopar for bw negatives, but eventually in 2011, while Claudia was expecting Agata, I got a NEX-3 and moved into the mirrorless world. And I loved it. It would have been the perfect camera, especially when coupled with the pancake Voigtlander 35mm f2.5 Color Skopar, if it wasn’t for the absence of a viewfinder and enough dials to quickly control the camera, but luckily for me Sony answered my needs in 2012 when made the NEX-7 finally available in Europe. As you already know, I got one. Was it the perfect camera then?
With the NEX-7 my blog started, and my life changed. The NEX-7, coupled with the Color Skopar, opened my eyes and my mind to a completely different way of experiencing and producing photography, which brought me in a few months to Alaska for the NEX-6 promo and shortly after to one of the major Italian magazines with a whole editorial. My first solo exhibition was entirely produced with this combo, and one of those photos even ended up at the Photolux festival in 2013.
Set in manual mode it was the quickest system I’ve ever used since and even afterwards: I could magnify the scene for precise focusing just by pressing the AEL/AF button or tweak the white balance by pressing the top C button, I could operate the aperture straight from the lens, the shutter speed from one of the top dials of the NEX-7, the ISO from the rear dial, and the amazing electronic viewfinder would adjust the exposition, contrasts and colors in real-time. All with a speed and precision I never found on any system before or afterwards. Fact is, I deeply regret selling it.
What I didn’t like about the NEX-7 and had me sought for a “more perfect” camera where its issues with compact m-mount wide angle lenses (anything wider than a 50mm equivalent and faster than f4 would smear the edges horribly) and its so-and-so image quality above 1600ISO. Those were (at the time felt as) both critical issues for a guy who had just discovered his love (and talent) for night street and urban landscape photography. Luckily for me Sony seemed to listen to my needs and put the RX-1 on the market.
In an attempt solve the wide-angle and the high ISO issues while keeping the experience unaltered, I went for the RX-1, with its full frame 24MPx sensor (which is still one of the top performer for high ISO) and its 35mm f2 Zeiss lens (probably the best 35mm around). With the RX-1 I also tried to replicate the blog experience I had with the NEX-7, this time upgrading to a more challenging “12 projects” approach. It was a crucial and formative year, in which I had to trade improvisation with planning, and sometimes inspiration with commitment.
The high ISO quality and the overall image quality were just outstanding, better than I had hoped. This camera helped me realise my best work in terms of image quality so far. With it I produced artistic series I’m proud of such as Doll’s House, I’m Batman, X/Y PROJECT, Metamorfoodist, and the best portraits I’ve got of my daughter and my dog, as in Family Holidays and in Meet Shadow.
But when it came to the shooting experience, well, it was never even close to the one I had with the NEX-7. I often felt as I had to work around the quirks of the camera to get what I had in mind instead of having a tool opening new photographic approaches and options. Let me be straight: with the RX-1 I had a love-and-hate relationship.
The quirks were subtle and hard to justify, like the colour peaking available only in magnified mode, the focusing ring that required way too much turning to go from the close focus to infinity, no hyperfocal indicator nor anyway to stop the lens to focusing back to infinity every time the camera went into standby, all of which could have been overlooked if it wasn’t for the quite slow AF which became even worse in low-light.
While with the NEX-7 I never missed a shot, but I often had to erase a few of them because of the high ISO noise, with the RX-1 I never had to trash a shot, but I often missed some. Again I needed an upgrade, and this time I knew what I wanted: the RX-1 24MPx sensor with my 35mm Color Skopar on it. And again, Sony answered my prayers with the direct evolution of the NEX-7: the A7. Would that be that I finally could have my “perfect camera”.
In January 2014 I bought the A7, plugged the Color Skopar in it and went out shooting. Sad to say, I didn’t like the results. I couldn’t recognise the lens anymore. It was way softer than it used to be when on the NEX-7, the edges where kind of messy with smearing, and there was a lot of micro-shaking. Sure, once reduced the shutter speed to at least 1/125th or once shot in fast bursts I could avoid the shaking, but the first option worked against my “thirst for light” (with the NEX-7 I was able to shoot as slow as 1/15th without shaking, hence the A7 shaking was making me loose three stops of light, the same I had just gained thanks to high ISO performances), while the second made me way less inconspicuous (while the RX-1 leaf shutter had been a dream of silence, the A7 shutter was DSLR like, and a burst would set anyone on high alert).
In a desperate attempt to make the A7 work for my needs, I sold the Voigtlander lenses, my old Bessa R2, and the NEX-7 to buy the new zeiss lenses specifically designed for the A7 and its fast(er) AF. The 35mm f2.8 was just perfect in size, but way far from the RX-1’s 35mm in terms of quality and personality, while the 55mm f1.8 was bigger but incredibly good. Plus (and not a small one) my two old AF Minolta’s, the 85mm f1.4 and the 100mm f2.8 macro, worked flawlessly on the A7 thanks to the LA-EA4 adapter. So, here I was, finally able to go as wide as 35mm with good results, with the best 50mm around, plus the old-school, dreamy 85mm and 100mm coupled with DSLR-like AF. All with the best EVF around and a crazy good sensor. Did that mean that I was finally happy?
Unfortunately no, Quite the opposite. 2014 had been my saddest years, photographically speaking, and I don’t dare to put it all on the A7. If you look at my flickr account you’ll se how my personal photographic production drastically dropped in March 2014, as soon as I ended my second 365. Sure, I was tired. Sure, I needed sometime far from the blog, the forums (mostly), and flickr. But yet, a production of solely fourteen photographs out of the 2.378 I’ve published in the last seven years are too few to justify as due to tiredness or shyness.
Maybe it was because I didn’t have the blog anymore. That slowed me down a lot, for sure. And truth be told, the A7 is a fantastic camera, with I I produced the photographs published on Vogue Italia, and I’m sure the A7 MKII is even better, if it’s true that Sony managed to fix the few issues with the ergonomic that caused the micro-shaking, and to speed the AF up. So, why didn’t I go for the MKII this 2015, why couldn’t I entrusted it to be my yearly “perfect camera”?
Well, some of the reasons are not fully logical, like “I needed some fresh air” stuff. Some of you may even relate with them, but they would still be useless for camera-evaluation. Once I take them out of the equation, together with the very minor complaints, there’s basically only one remark that remains: full frame won’t get compact. That’s it.
In my search for quality, from the NEX-3 on, I had my “portable equipment” increasing in size until the moment, with the A7, in which it was too close to my DSLR equivalent. The only compact option was the okay-35mm, already with the excellent 50mm the camera was to big to stay in my jacket pocket. Let alone with any fast portrait lens. A good and fast full frame lens will always be a big and heavy lens. I ended up compromising portability for quality. But did I want to? Did it make sense? After all, I already had some DSLR which were as good if not better than the A7. So, why don’t just use them?
While photography is either your prevalent hobby or your main work, you all know that being out LOOKING FOR something to capture it’s all about ENJOYING THE ACT of photographing. Photographs do not take themselves, you need a camera to capture a moment, and you need to enjoy the camera during this act or you won’t be bothering to bring it along. Some lucky photographers have solved the issue with iPhones, but I wasn’t lucky on this one. I (still) need a (non DSLR) camera that looks like a (non DSLR) camera and works like a (DSLR) camera.
Off course when I’m on an assignment this is all different, I actually like to get so visible that people start getting out of the way and stop stepping between me and my subject. But not in my free time. So, you see, I “really needed” my “perfect camera” to be smaller, which, after the A7, meant APS-C or smaller.
In order to stay with Sony and go APS-C I would have had to downgrade to the A6000, which however lacks the control and customisation of the NEX-7, RX-1, and A7. Because the a6000 is not pro-designed. Why on Earth did they stop producing pro-designed APS-C mirrorless if they were the ones who invented them with the NEX-7?
Once I settled to look for solutions other than Sony I discovered the mirrorless world had quite expanded since my first look at it in 2011. The m4/3 had an incredible variety of excellent lenses and the DSLR-like performances in terms of responsiveness, AF, and roughness. Nikon and Canon had entered the market with mixed results. Samsung was producing some of the best reviewed cameras. Sigma had gone for the weirdest look. And Fujifilm, well Fujifilm was still the sexiest.
It took me three painful months to get to the point when I placed my order for the X100T, and I won’t bother you with all the research, nightmares, comparisons, etc. What I’ll tell you is that I tried really hard to buy me an Olympus E-M1, but I failed because I was unwilling to pay the current price for a 2013 camera while I know that the MKII is around the corner (probably end of 2015, according to most of the rumors around). But for a while I really wanted it, and maybe the 2016 “perfect camera” will be a m4/3.
But when I eventually read about the X100T and its “electronic rangefinder” technology I knew I had to give it a try. The X100T is compact, the high ISO performances are excellent, the AF is excellent, and the manual focus experience is just top notch. With it I can use the optical viewfinder while having a small EVF on the lower right corner to assess the exposition and to get perfect focusing. If it isn’t the best of both (OVF and EVF) worlds, well it’s damn close. And its lens is wide (35mm equivalent), fast (f2), and can be converted to either a 50mm equivalent and a 28mm equivalent by screwing a converter.
The X100T is also a weird camera. For example it comes without a filter ring or a hood. Once you put any of them on it, you understand why: they would protrude and become visible in the OVF (the hood goes further and actually obscures part of the frame, something any range finder shooter is well used to).
To activate the flash I have to deactivate two major options (silent mode and electronic shutter). It is unclear why the camera doesn’t do that by itself once instructed to activate the flash.
EDIT: The new firmware 1.10 partially fixed this issue. Now if shutter is on M+E (the best option) the camera is able to automatically shut down the Electronic part and use the flash (when required). So it is “just” the silent mode that has to be disabled (if previously enabled) to “grey-out” the flash mode.
If I shoot in RAW (why should I shoot anything else than RAW?) the ISO settings are reduced to 200-6400.
It is impossible to scroll through zoomed-in photos. It’s something I’m used to in order to assess the shots with the best focus, but with the X100T I’m forced to zoom-in/zoom-out to scroll and check through a series of shots.
EDIT – while zooming in the preview it is possible to scroll through the photos and keep the zoom positioned in the same area by turning the focus ring. I know it is weird. But it works.
The X100T is definitely a downgrade in terms of image quality if compared to the A7 (low iso, high iso, even at pixel level). It’s not a bold statement, it’s just the same reality that every single honest review on the internet agrees on. But if I was concerned only about quality I could have just walked around with my D800 and the Sigma Art 35mm f1.4 on it. No, I was looking for the shooting experience, and when it comes down to it the X100T really shines. The X100T is the first camera I feel compelled to use at least as much as my old and beloved Bessa R2. Even my lovely NEX-7 had always been second to that one.
Does it mean I like the X100T more than I liked the NEX-7? It’s too early to answer that question, after all I lived a whole, intense year with the NEX-7 around my neck, and I knew it as it was part of my body. I’m still learning the X100T, I’m now in the phase in which every day I change something in the configuration, trying to make it fitter to my needs. What I like is to see that my needs are changing together with me using the camera. I think this is the discriminant of any really good camera system, that it answers to your needs while teaching you new ones.
Do you know the common sentence “it is not the camera, is just the photographer” the media like to sell to the public? Well, every photographer knows it is a lie. While it is obvious that any good photographer can take good photos regardless the camera, as well as any good soccer player is better than me regardless the shoes or the ball, it is also true that the camera plays a major role, and not only in terms of functions, but especially in terms of experience. The camera has the responsibility to help the photographer “enter the spot” and to keep him there. Otherwise all the time we spend choosing the camera to buy would be just pointless. We would buy the cheapest, wouldn’t we? Wait a moment… should we?