Camera designs like the Leica X1 and the Olympus E-P have paid homage to rangefinder cameras, but those cameras were rangefinder-inspired. The X100 however, is rangefinder-like, from its looks to the optical viewfinder, which lets you look straight through like a real rangefinder.
There's no denying the X100 is an exceptionally attractive camera. However else the rest of this review goes, the X100 gets full, bonus and distinction marks for its design alone.
The upper control deck and bottom surface of the camera are cast from magnesium alloy (semi-solid metal casting). While it sounds impressive, it looks less so in person. Even though its metal, the upper deck looks and feels almost plastic at times - it doesn't look very metallic. It certainly feels as strong and rigid as metal though, and the X100 feels like a camera which can take some hard knocks. The leather accent is synthetic leather, embossed with a distressed leather pattern. The scaly textures don't just add to the looks, but are functional; they give your fingers a better grip while holding on to the camera.
While the camera body may be able to take some rough and tumble, the lens certainly can't, and lens protection is one area where the X100 stumbles. The lens cover is aluminum, which doesn't clip on to the lens to secure itself, nor does it have any pegs to string it to the camera body. It's prone to simply popping off the lens if dislodged in a bag, and because it's not tethered, when you're out shooting and you uncap your lens, you have to find somewhere to put it.
An alternative might be to attach the optional lens hood and use that to protect the lens while in transit, so you won't have to uncap your lens in a hurry. Despite sounding negative about the cap, its construction is solid; the aluminum build is rigid and the fabric lining the inside of the cap gives it a better grip on the lens.
Fujifilm calls the X100's viewfinder a 'hybrid' viewfinder, a design which combines both an optical and electronic viewfinder into one. It's the first of its kind, and Fujifilm deserves kudos for its innovative invention. Like a rangefinder camera, the optical viewfinder (OVF) lets you see directly through the viewfinder itself, instead of through the lens like an SLR/DSLR camera. This offers both advantages and disadvantages.
The optical viewfinder gives you a view which is larger than the frame. You see more than what your lens sees and captures, letting you anticipate elements coming into and out of the frame. The picture frame is highlighted with a white, electronic rectangle in the OVF, and its part of the beauty of Fujifilm's 'hybrid' system.
Instead of looking through plain old glass, the X100 overlays electronic information on the OVF, including information like shutter speed, aperture setting and ISO. When you tap the Menu button, it also pops up in the OVF. Even photo previews can be overlaid on the OVF. This means that while shooting through the optical viewfinder, you can change settings without taking your eyes off the scene.
While the framing grid gives you an approximation of where your framing is, it's not exact. When you're shooting through the OVF, you need to frame for the difference, as what you see is not what you get in the capture. It's a characteristic of rangefinder cameras, and one that you'll either love or hate (it's one reason why SLR cameras were able to overtake rangefinders in popularity, because SLR cameras see through the lens and can frame precisely).
Another advantage with shooting through the OVF is how, like traditional rangefinders, the shutter doesn't close and block your view of the scene the moment you take a picture (if you turn image previews off). You can continue looking at the scene without missing any moments.
And like a rangefinder, the X100's shutter click is pleasantly soft, much softer than a DSLR camera's. The shutter sound is artificial, and you can choose between three different sounds, from a soft leaf-shutter to the clack of a DSLR. You can also determine the volume, but even though there's an option to switch the sound completely off, a sound is still produced - we're not sure if this is a bug or intentional. Still, the X100 is a very quiet camera, even more so when you switch system and AF sounds off, making it perfect for the inconspicuous photographer.
One big disadvantage is that you can't preview manual focus using the OVF. You can only preview manual focus (and depth of field) using the electronic viewfinder (EVF); and macro mode only works with the EVF.
If you prefer having precise control over your framing, then simply flip the viewfinder lever right next to the lens. A cover closes the front of the optical viewfinder and it's transformed into an electronic viewfinder (EVF), feeding you a direct view from the camera sensor through the lens.
At 1,440,000 dots, it doesn't have as many pixels as the current best-of-class electronic viewfinder such as the one which sits inside Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds flagship GH-2 (1,533,600 dots). But it's close, and it performs well with enough clarity. Not only can you shoot electronically through the EVF, you can also use the back LCD to frame and shoot, just like a compact camera.
The proximity sensor around the viewfinder will intelligently switches the EVF on and the LCD off once you put your eye near the latter. One oddity we discovered while shooting using the EVF is that while auto-focusing, the camera doesn't display the actual process of focusing; the display freezes for a moment and then refreshes with a focused frame.
As mentioned, manual focus can only be previewed using the EVF. The manual focus ring around the lens is easily distinguished from the aperture ring with its ribbed texture. While focusing manually, press the rear control dial and it magnifies the EVF view, helping you check your focus. But using the focus ring is ponderous; it takes a lot of turns of the ring for it to change focus, enough that you're better off either using auto-focus or only using manual focus on still subjects.
According to Fujifilm, the speed of the focus ring relative to the speed of turning it is determined by software. On the X100 website, Fujifilm writes:
Unlike a mechanical-type focus ring, this photo-reflector approach also enables control of the amount of focus adjustment according to the speed of the ring rotation using software. In other words, the user’s quick rotation of the ring results in a fast change in the focus position, and a slow ring rotation, a slow change in the focus. The result is a focus ring that smoothly reflects the intent of the photographer.
But no matter how much we tried to turn the ring faster, it seemed to focus as slowly as when we turned the ring at normal speeds. Since the relative speed is controlled by software, we can hope that Fujifilm will speed up the focus ring's response in future firmware updates.