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X100T: Some other things while we’re here

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Since the original piece inadvertently left out a few items, here they are.

Effects of face recognition. The prolonged use of face recognition brings a few things to light:

  • The X100T’s lens (essentially an unchanged X100 23mm f/2 lens) is much better close-up and wide-open than you might have been led to believe by using the focus-and-recompose method (which you will use if face detection fails).
  • Face recognition (or more accurately, its confusion with two faces in-frame) encourages compositions either with one visible face or two in much different planes of focus.
  • The problem, at least initially, is a conditioned inhibition from framing a face at the extreme left or right side of the frame.
  • A profound sense of disappointment ensues when one considers that the face recognition of the original NEX-5 works faster and keeps working during video recording.

Electronic shutter. This feature takes advantage of the electronic front curtain function of the X-Trans II sensor. The upside is that you can now expose at ISO 3200 and f/2 during a nuclear explosion. The downside is that you cannot use flash to do it. In terms of actually needing a shutter that can fire for 1/32,000 of a second, there are virtually no such applications in real life. The real purpose of the electronic shutter is to cut shutter lag. Ordinarily, the X100-type shutter would have to close and then open to fire; with electronic shutter selected, it fires and then closes. There is a tiny bit of lag before the next shot, but this makes the camera much better at capturing the right moment (“decisive” for those who would pretend to be Catier-Bresson).

“Rolling shutter.” Granted, this can be a problem if you shoot F1 racing from the sideline on the straightaway, but there is no real rolling shutter issue with the X100T. This “problem” has been trotted out in quite a few online reviews, but it is very difficult to show in real life. In fact, the X100T shutter captures much faster than a normal SLR shutter (which typically scans a slit in 1/320 sec max) – so if your application were going to present an issue with the X100T, you would already have seen it on a DSLR.

Fuji WiFi vs. EyeFi. The Fuji internal system has a few advantages over EyeFi,

  • It can automatically resize on the fly for transmission.
  • It can select shots for transmission without having to trip the “protect” flag.
  • It does not burn power to project a WiFi signal unless you specifically tell it to.
  • It does not take so much work to get it to wake up to transmit.
  • It does not dictate the maximum storage size of the camera.
  • It does not physically fall apart or slow down/ jam up under heavy use.

On the other hand, EyeFi still has a few advantages up its sleeve:

  • It can be moved between cameras.
  • In connection with moving it, any camera you use it in will show up with the same SSID.
  • It is better when you are shooting in a quasi-tethered manner (i.e., you want all photos to flow to a handheld) because it lets you use the camera like a camera. The Fuji requires its somewhat clumsy remote mode.

The nice thing is that you can use either system.

Exposure counter. What.the.hell? It’s bad enough that Fuji invented this on the GW and GSW cameras; it’s worse that people flip out over it when buying any used digital camera; and it’s worse yet that Fuji somehow decided to put a shot counter on the setup menu. And while we are reaching for superlatives, does someone have an explanation for why this is even a thing when according to the documentation, the counter is incremented by various operations that don’t even take pictures?

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Fuji X100T: Ch-ch-changes (from the X100)

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It would not be a Machine Planet kind of Friday afternoon if we didn’t boot up a 1970s Pioneer SA-9500II, crank up the David Bowie’s Young Americans on the Wheels of Steel, and pray that the protection circuits don’t open prematurely. There is a mild short somewhere. Maybe in a speaker wire, maybe in the brain. But while you’re remembering your President Nixon and the bills you have to pay, remember the Leica sold during that presidency: the M4. For its third (and perhaps final) iteration of Fujifilm’s Kleinerersatzmesssucherkamera (to clumsily and incorrectly coin a German compound), the Japanese company dropped the frame around the viewfinder window – just as Leica dropped that frame from the M3 to the M4 (let’s ignore the M2 because it doesn’t fit with this theory). If Leica had old-man shills instead of effusive wedding photographer shills, someone would have pointed this out sooner. But let’s face it, this entry is highly unlikely to be linked to the enthusiastic Fujirumors.com.

There is a superstition that says to upgrade on the odd numbers for Nikon (F to F3 to F5) and on even-numbered ones for Leica Leicas (M2, M4, M6). If you consider the F2 ugly, the F4 clumsy, and the M5 weird, you might also think about upgrading from the X100 to the X100T.

This piece will concentrate on differences between the original X100 and X100T, on the assumption that people are not considering incremental upgrades between the S and T. Let me know if I succeed in telling you some things that other writers have not. So let’s go point by point.

Design. The X100T is roughly the same dimensions as the X100; however, almost every exterior part has been changed between the two cameras. This is indicative of Japanese consumer product design – things get redesigned even with no apparent purpose, apparently without regards to the costs of tooling all new parts. That said. the X100T oddly has the same rubber plug near the battery door that the original X100 does – despite the fact that Fuji does not officially support AC adapters for this camera. The black version, which I tested, has a speckled finish that is not unlike a finer-grained version of what Nikon uses on its higher-end bodies. The frame around the front window is gone, as is the divot in which the ambient light sensor sits.

Layout. Compared to the original, the layout has changed somewhat.

The top deck is the same, the front its same (with the exception of focusing mode, which has been revised to reorder focusing modes as S-C-M (bottom to top) rather than the accident-prone C-S-M. This brings the camera in line with current DSLRs and eliminates an annoying tendency of the original to end up in continuous or manual by accident. And no one understands quite what continuous is supposed to do on the X100 or X-Pro1.

The rear left button layout is considerably different, and it has not changed for the better. The original X100 had four highly tactile buttons running down the left side, from top to bottom, Play, AE (doubling as zoom-in in playback), AF (zoom-out), and View Mode. The X100T has changed these to View Mode, Play, Trash, and WiFi. The Trash and WiFi buttons are re-programmable, but the cardinal sin lies in moving the play button to a position where in reaching for it, the user constantly cycles view modes: viewfinder, LCD, eye sensor, and many permutations in between (like the strangely useless viewfinder only plus eye sensor, which shuts all views off when not looking through the VF. This causes unexpected problems if shooting and even occasionally checking pictures on the back of the camera. The smaller, lower-profile size of the buttons is even less helpful.

The rear right is similarly a mess. Display mode is in the same place though much smaller. Drive has thankfully been moved to its own button, out of the way of accidental pushes on the scroll wheel (which is not abolished). The problem is that the Drive button is now directly in the path of any accessory thumb rest (like the Thumbs Up). The magnification control has been moved from the left buttons to a full-fledged control wheel (occupying the space of the former rocker switch). But this too is subtended by a thumb rest. AE/AF lock is its own button, smaller than on the X100 and right in line with the button the activates the useless Q menu, a tactile failure just as it is on the X-Pro1.

Fortunately, the X100T has seven re-programmable function buttons:

  • FN (still in the same place on the top deck – default function is to start video recording without any intermediate menus).
  • Up arrow
  • Left Arrow
  • Right Arrow
  • Down Arrow
  • Trash
  • WiFi

Here are some suggested things to program to these buttons:

  • Video (because otherwise you would have to wade through the Drive menu) (FN)
  • Focusing area (Up)
  • Film simulation (Left) – still has a bunch of films whose names most users of this camera would not recognize, plus “Classic Chrome,” a pretty obvious knockoff of Kodachrome, a film Fuji never made.
  • Flash mode (Right)
  • White balance (Down)
  • Face Detection (Trash) – this is new. Face detection (described in more detail in Focusing, below) detects human faces to set focus and exposure.
  • WiFi (WiFi) – this activates the connection memo used to connect the camera to the Camera Remote app.

This is the full menu of things that can be mapped to the seven function buttons:

  1. Advanced filter (the “artsy” effect filters). For those who can’t wait for Photoshop, you can do all of your fakey selective color, cross-processed, toy camera, and tilt-shift effects. Also soft focus.
  2. Multiple exposure
  3. Macro
  4. Preview depth of field
  5. Iso – this now includes the option to program up to three different auto-ISO presets. And they don’t work with flash unless you use a Fuji unit.
  6. Self-Timer
  7. Image size
  8. Image quality
  9. Dynamic range
  10. Film Simulation
  11. White balance
  12. ND filter
  13. Photometry (i.e., “Metering Mode”)
  14. AF mode (area/spot)
  15. Corrected AF frame
  16. Flash compensation
  17. Select custom setting
  18. Preview Pic. Effect
  19. High performance this makes everything go faster, including your batteries.
  20. Raw
  21. Conversion Lens – this is for the TCL-X100 and WCL-X100, the 28mm and 43mm conversion lenses.
  22. Shutter Type – you can use this to trigger the new electronic shutter, which goes up to 1/32,000 second. This is a teats-on-a-bull proposition, because to need that shutter speed, you would need to have the camera at 3200 ISO and f/2, on the surface of the sun. The super-fast shutter does not work with flash, nor does it capture action well.
  23. None (mercifully)

Operation. Assuming you can keep your fingers in the right places, the camera is snappy, responsive and quick to take pictures. And that’s all you can really ask. All controls have much more solid clicks (particularly the top dials). The 1/3 aperture stops are actually annoying.

Focusing. The X100S and -T introduced phase-detect focus to the X100. This is supposed to speed up focusing, which it does in very bright light (as in EV 11 and over); contrast does not seem to enter into the picture. Focusing is very, very quick in this mode. But note that this mode does not cover the entire frame and does not operate at all when faces are detected in frame. You can tell when phase-detect is working because the focusing reticle just goes green with no hunting. Phase-detect is used to support the “split image” focusing aid that is available in M mode (and in the “tab”). The contrast-detect focus is faster than on the X100. There are two things that are actually exciting about the X100T if you are used to the X100.

  • Face detection. Although not perfect and often arbitrarily selecting between faces in a shot, this feature eliminates a lot of focus-and-recompose shooting. Exposure then adjusts for the face. When no face is detected, the camera reverts to the chosen focus point and either phase-detect or contrast-detect as necessary. Note that face detection requires that (1) the camera be focused enough to pick out some face at least vaguely and (2) that the face be larger than the focusing reticle. Face-detection does not work in OVF mode, though with the “tab” (see below), it should be possible.
  • Focus tracking during continuous shooting. Focus continues through continuous shots. It might fall behind the subject, but it is a considerable step up from the locked focus that the X100 exhibited wile in continuous. Continuous focus locks out face detection in multiple-shot sequences.

There is a “pre” focus setting that seems to mirror the “continuous” function on the X100. But here it is actually useful because it facilitates face detection. The “real time” parallax correction operates only in manual focus. Why is this a marquis feature of the X100T?

Imaging. See any review of any camera with any 16MP X-Trans sensor. The face detection tends to up the sharpness of faces (compared to focusing and re-composing). Your subjects will hate you.The X100T has a lens modulation optimizer (LMO), which is designed to combat diffraction. In general, versus the X100 sensor, this picks up about a stop of low light capability, four extra megapixels, and a bit more decoding time on Lightroom.

Viewfinder. Two major observations here. First, there are more megapixels, and the menu text does look finer. Second, this is not the revelation that some people seem to suggest. The pixelation during contrast-detect focusing is much smaller, but that’s about it. There is a new “Daylight” mode that makes the screen incredibly bright – but makes everything look overexposed snd washed-out indoors. Finally, the fast refresh rate causes strange interactions with fluorescent lights. The fonts and arrangements for the in-viewfinder displays have changed. They are more comprehensive but also less legible. A helpful feature in EVF is an indicator that – even when you are in photo mode – tells you how much recording time you would have if you hit the instant-on button for video (internal memory holds a whopping 8 seconds).

The “tab.” As if switching between EVF and OVF were not enough to lose track of, pushing repeatedly to the right toggles the  “tab,” which is a small semi reflective mirror in the lower right corner in OVF mode. In autofocus modes, this operates to show what is actually in focus. In manual focus, it can show your choice of focus peaking or a split image view. Pressing the control wheel gives you a choice between actual and 5x magnification; holding it switches between focus peaking and split image. The tab is dangerously close to the long-fantasized “digital rangefinder” that Leica users have begged for: it is an electronic superimposition in an optical finder. It is brilliant. The unfortunate thing is that it cannot be put in the center of the frame. The problem appears to be that the finder itself does not have enough contrast in bright light to mask ambient light and replace it with a usable split image. That can be fixed in the corner, but in the center frame, it would require a permanent silvered square.

Batteries. Alleged improved battery life is not a big deal. There is only so much power in a battery the size of an NP-95, and the chemistry has not changed. What is a big deal is that you can now charge the batteries via the USB 3.0 port on the camera – meaning that you can plug it into your computer, your car, that dodgy 15,000 MaH battery pack you bought on Ebay, etc. It is nice that Fuji has decided to continue to use the matchbook-sized NP-95 battery. Although it doesn’t have the greatest capacity, you can reuse your old batteries and chargers and interchange them between cameras as needed. Video. Aside from the ability to trigger video instantly (welcome to 2009!), the video has been upgraded to 1080p, 60fps (not obviously car whether -p or -i). A variable-level mic jack has been added (it also operates as a remote release), manual focus is available for video, and ISO is adjustable for video.

Wireless. The camera has a built-in wireless function that allows remote focusing and shooting of the camera and viewing what the lens sees via an iPhone app (note: Camera Remote, not the other three Fuji apps on the App Store). It can be somewhat slow. The camera can geotag (allegedly) by picking up WiFi signals. Transfers work well, though it is still far easier to use a WiFi Mobi card. The camera does thoughtfully have a 3Mp down-sample mode for social media. Dumb things that won’t go away. Although we keep hearing the word “Kaizen” in connection with Fuji, heaven help the things that Fuji won’t let go:

  1. Making people buy the AR-X100 adapter to use 49mm filters. Come on. This is a $5 part that most people buy for $5 from Chinese eBay sellers. And the one Fuji makes ($49) doesn’t really match the black cameras.
  2. Not allowing the use of flash in continuous shooting, and holding up shooting while slow flashes recharge.
  3. Not making a small flash that shoots off the lens axis.
  4. Finishing the shutter release and flash shoe in quick-weaning black paint.
  5. Leaving the diopter wheel open to the elements. How often is this really adjusted that it needs to be prone to contamination and bumping off the setting.
  6. Continuing to recess the eye sensor so that it doesn’t work well with sunglasses or eyeglasses.
  7. Continuing to disaggregate in the menus the selection of composition grids and the setting that actually shows them in the viewfinder.
  8. Poor strap rings. The new steel inserts are nice, but loop lugs (such as on older Fujis like the GA645) would be better.

Conclusions. The X100T is indeed a serious step up from the X100. Although its sensor is nothing new (and indeed, neither is its lens), the X-Trans sensor gets more out of the lens, and the more sophisticated focusing system in turn gets more out of the X-trans sensor. The general responsiveness boost is welcome, and the improved power options are making it easier to carry this camera about anywhere. Fuji does need to cut the ADD when it comes to changing physical controls.

Fisher-Price W1458 Kid-Tough Digital Camera

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Children interact poorly with adult cameras. At best, an adult camera is confusing and annoying to a child – and at worst, your expensive camera ends up with impact damage, liquid incursion, or the ever-familiar fingerprint(s) on the nano-coated front element. Unless your child is good at reading menus (and some adults are not), your old point-and-shoot becomes a throwaway. It is highly more likely that your iPhone will become a target.

Santa Claus brought a Fisher-Price W1458 this year. Prior to its unwrapping, we had no idea that something like this existed. In our day, a toy camera was either a 110-style wooden box with a rotating “flashcube,” or at best, a Tomy Snappy Shots that simulated instant pictures – it had six plastic pictures that when wet, revealed pictures. In an odd bow to coater-style Polaroid film, the camera had sponge inside. Children of today fare much better, apparently.

The Fisher-Price is, oddly, a real camera. And by real, one means, “takes digital pictures.” The imager is a SQ Tech SQ907B, a basic VGA (640×400; 0.3 Mp; 100kb files, 1,000 fit in memory) camera that has a fixed-focus f/2,8 meniscus lens (sitting in a very recessed cone, with an entrance pupil that small fingers will have trouble entering). The camera appears to have a sole ISO of 60, a fixed aperture, fixed focus (4 feet to ∞), and shutter speeds running from 1/10 to at least 1/600 sec. For what it is worth, this imager is used in other things, like about 20 other brands of child cameras and some deer-hunting cameras. There are implementations with and without flash, and it appears that Fisher-Price dropped the flash feature (although intuitively, you would think you would want flash, small children could misuse it at close range).

In terms of handling, the camera a solid brick of plastic (as thick as and slightly taller than an Argus C3). The end caps and bottom are rubberized. The viewfinder is an interesting binocular design with the two oculars at about the spacing of a toddler’s eyes, and they are in a projecting binnacle that allows an adult nose to fit underneath (grown-up digital camera manufacturers, note…). The screen is a 1.5″ square LCD. The controls are quite simple: an on/off button, up and down arrows for digital zoom; left and right arrows for navigating past pictures (there is no model “play/review” switch – hitting these triggers playback, and touching the shutter button puts the camera back in shooting mode), a red “X” button for deleting (press twice), and a shutter release. There is close to zero shutter lag (in no small part due to the fact that it does not focus).

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In operation, it is simple enough for a child – and the entire reason why this review appears here is to make a point: that user interface is very, very important on consumer cameras, and Fisher-Price has nailed it without going to the absurd lengths of the Leica M typ 60. There is no date setting, no manual ISO, nothing to get in the way of youthful glee. There is, however, a spring-loaded door to protect the mini-USB connector (this camera does not use SD cards, and you have to supply your own USB cable) and a screw-protected battery compartment to load three AA batteries.

As to image quality, let’s put it this way: on an iMac Retina 5K, the thumbnail in Photoshop is pretty close to the same size as the whole picture. With a base ISO of 60, you can expect tons of motion blur – and noise when the light drops too low. But just like consumer digital cameras of the early 2000s, if you can work carefully, it actually works. You can see the digital zoom in one of the pictures. Not pretty. But considering that this a toy designed for children, it does the job. This type of camera may be the next PXL2000 when it comes to the low-fidelity cult.

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Fuji X100: Into darkness with the B+W 093 filter

We have been in dark places with an infrared-converted X100. Sometimes these dark places have been in bright sunlight; it’s just that what the camera sees is another world, defined by light humans can’t see. The Marche du Nain Rouge, a parade through some of the world’s most non-gentrified areas, is an excellent place to demonstrate the capabilities of this fully operational battle station device.

The B+W 093 passes an insignificant amount of visible light and creates monochrome infrared; at this wavelength, light pretty much slices through the RGB filter array (and we have been able to test this using a beta of Accuraw Monochrome). With a converted camera, sensitivity is a couple of stops less than with visible light (and about 8 stops higher than trying to use an IR filter on an unconverted camera). We have noted this before but are noting it again: the 1/4 wave multicoating used on modern cameras is completely ineffective against flare and ghosting from infrared frequencies. This makes lens hoods important and imparts a little bit of glow to everything. It is not the hazy, slightly out-of-focus effect you get with DSLRs that can’t focus IR and older IR film. It is more the look of an old Tessar on Plus-X. That said, with no color information, there is no color-specific tonal correction or false color work.

First up: your standard foliage picture, taken just before local noon. Yawn. You know what might spice this up? A pale “art nude.” Oh wait, that’s been done like a million times already.

This is your standard 930nm foliage shot. Yawn. This would be better if it had some pale nudes in it. Wait, that's been done only one million times.

Next: dragons. Yes, large mechanical dragons that travel on wheels and belch huge orange flames. Check out the reflectivity of average winter wear. Architectural details are rendered mostly normally, though red objects show up white.

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And now the Nain Rouge addresses his attackers:

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Whose winter coats are dazzling:

 

All of this happens in the shadow of the world’s largest Masonic temple..

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…which is located in a neighborhood that may be completely mowed down for a new hockey stadium and entertainment zone.

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This is the kitty-corner, limestone.

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Up the street is the old Chinatown.

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Fuji X100: the Pitch Black project (infrared and beyond the infinite)

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In the corner of my office, there is a small cabinet full of old Persol sunglasses, almost all of which have Havana Brown frames and bottle-brown tempered glass lenses. They are brilliant for photography because that shade of brown makes everything look so beautiful, and it takes a lot more than the metal eyepiece of a camera to scratch glass. The problem is that virtually all of them are now derelict, with cracked frames, missing lenses (dropping onto cement causes tempered glass to shatter into a million blunt cubes), and general acetate decay.

I worried for a little while that my Fuji X100 would eventually meet this same fate, slipping bit by bit out of use until it became a paperweight or a bludgeon-style weapon for a small child to use. So I wondered, “why not make it see something I can’t?” And so the project began to build a full-spectrum X100 (UV + visible light + infrared). It’s a little like eyeshine in Pitch Black, the rather interesting indie movie that spawned the awful Riddick sequels.

Here are some examples of what the X100 can do with its intrinsic IR capability, a Polaroid 720nm filter (like a Hoya RM72), and difficult-to-handhold exposures (as in things like 1/10 sec at f/2 at ISO 3200 – which would not be too bad if you were used to using infrared film back in the day.

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Standard landscape, shadow side, unmodified camera.

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Standard landscape, lit side, unmodified camera.

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Backlit tortoise-shell Persol glasses, unmodified camera.

The X100 actually turned out to be the best camera for a conversion for a number of reasons:

  • It has live view for focusing and a glass viewfinder for framing. This solves almost every focusing and framing problem that plagues the conversion of DSLRs. You can’t really do a full-spectrum DSLR because sticking an infrared filter on the lens blocks the viewing and focusing mechnism. And putting a filter on the sensor not only limits your options – it also means that your phase-detect focus can only be optimized for visible or IR – not both.
  • It can be fitted with 49mm filters. Pretty much every bandpass filter ever made comes in this size.
  • It has a color balance fine-tuning facility that works on the red-magenta axis. This is important because it helps cut down on the number and strength of filters used to shoot visible light.
  • Its conventional Bayer pattern and files are supported by a considerable number of platforms, and some are coming down the pipeline (like Accuraw Monochrome) that will be able to do uninterpolated conversions.
  • It is a very small camera with a very big sensor.

The filter pack. The X100 has a package of filters that sits right in front of its APS-C sensor. These consist of a UV/IR blocking filter (interference type), two layers of filters that act as the antialiasing filter, and a thin sheet of S8612 filter glass, a bluish rare-earth glass filter that knocks out the rest of the UV and IR. Most cameras have a package like this, usually adhered to the sensor.

To convert a camera to infrared only, you pick your wavelength, usually 590, 650, 720, 830nm, etc. and install the appropriate filter. The lower the number, the more visible light gets in. More visible light means that you can differentiate colors better, leading to something called “false color.” At around 830nm, something really magic happens, and everything goes monochrome (well, at least mostly; see below). It does this because the R-G-B (or Bayer) filter on the sensor does not work at all with infrared light – it all goes right through. On film cameras, there was no infrared conversion – you would put some infrared film in and slap an infrared filter over the lens. That led to a very low-performance arrangement: focusing had to be adjusted, the film picked up a very large range of light (an “infrared” filter usually started well into the visible light range, so not everything could be focused perfectly), and so things always looked a little soft. With a closed-loop focusing system on a digital camera, you don’t have to stop down – and the advent of cheap filters 830nm and up, it is easier to concentrate only on IR light.

To convert a camera to full spectrum involves replacing the filter pack with a piece of colorless glass. Shot without a filter, this leads to a reddish picture – because you have dropped a cyan filter from inside the camera and because there is significant infrared contamination in the red channel. So for visible light shots, you need to stick something on the front of the lens to block everything but the visible. Your basic choices are (and they are by no means mutually exclusive, since the X100 can use two full-size filters with no vignetting):

  • Interference filter: the X100 has a 35mm FOV (@35mm), which means that you can use a B+W 486 filter with no color shift. The 486 knocks out pretty much all UV and all IR. It cannot be used on wider-angled lenses. The 486 is not actually a bad idea with any camera; it does not screw up color balance and it kills the remaining IR bleed (the X100 attenuates IR 10 stops, but that’s still an amount you might want to cut).
  • BG38, BG39, or S8612: these can be in many instances the only solution you need – they knock out most IR, a tiny bit of UV, and re-compensate the color balance of the camera. The problem is that these filters are made of fluorite glass impregnated with rare earth metals, which gives you fragility (or scratchability) combined with vulnerability to moisture (Schott publishes warnings with all of them that they will decay over time). To do a really good job, you also need to block UV.

It is of some note that if you can get away without an aqua filter, then you pick up some sensitivity in the red and green channels – meaning that if you are shooting b/w, you might get a speed boost.

Filters. The big complaint about full-spectrum cameras is that you always have to use filters. This is not such a big deal if you are like me and use a B+W MRC UV to seal off the end of the X100 lens tube anyway. And certainly, you are not cabined to a camera that shoots one band of IR and has zero ability to shoot normal pictures. This is more of a consideration when you start talking about more expensive cameras.

Should you go with an IR-only camera? On an SLR camera, the answer is probably yes, because you can’t slap an IR filter on the lens and still be able to see through the viewfinder (the filter would be behind the mirror and not in your line of sight). Additionally, an SLR can’t be set up to autofocus both IR and visible light (the focus points are different). The downside on an SLR done like this is that the metering is usually in the viewfinder, so you are not metering through the IR filter.  The other thing to consider is that, contrary to some statements you have seen on the interwebs, slapping an 830nm filter over a 720nm conversion is not the same as just using the 830nm (due in part to the fact that you have to multiply the transmission curves).

The conversion. The camera went to LDP LLC (MaxMax), an outfit in New Jersey that has a pretty impressive array of optical conversion services, almost like the armorer in The Man with the Golden Gun (Bond: “Of course, yet you make guns for fingerless hoodlums, bullets for assassins…”). Why LDP? The simple reason is cleanliness. I saw the dust test from another service that converted X100s, an I was not impressed. The other thing is turnaround; LDP gets your camera back within a week.  And indeed, the camera arrived there on a Thursday and shipped out on the following Monday. The conversion was more expensive than the $450 shown on the website; it was actually even more than the $500 someone reported paying for an X-Pro.

The conversion did not change anything visibly on the camera except a tiny amount of stress on some of the leatherette. Here are some preliminary observations (and some sample shots will come with the next installment).

General exposure: with 720nm and 830nm (B+W 093) filters, there is little predicting where exposures will end up (unless you pay very close attention to whether CFL bulbs are the light source – they emit very little usable light). The 720nm filters generally expose similarly to the uncoverted camera. That points to absolutely huge sensitivity to IR in the CMOS sensor, since you are basically lighting an entire scens with wavelengths that humans can’t even see. At 830, you lose about two stops in most situations that involve sunlight or incandescent light. Fluorescent lights produce very little IR, and exposure times rise radically.

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093 filter, hot lights

Color. You’ll obviously want to pick a pleasing color balance, but this is where you land with the various permutations as they show in auto white balance and with some tuning:

  • No filter – big red cast
  • No filter (cyan +9, blue +4 to +9): reasonably good auto white balance; blue “wood” effect.
  • 720nm (no trim): pink or blue to white. Many woods and some plastics look blue.
  • 720nm (cyan +9): neutral plus blue.
  • 830nm – monochrome red-violet to white. Don’t worry about false color; just put the camera in black and white mode or convert to b/w in Lightroom.

The AWB on the camera will generally get you to a place where for 720nm, things will look like Frankie Avalon in heaven in Grease. Strike that in part. The clothes look like Gene Kelly’s suit in Xanadu. Faces still render fairly normally; some synthetics look pinkish or bluish. Wood looks blue. With 830nm, it’s monochrome purple (easy to turn to grey).

DSCF0552-small

AWB for hot lights (720nm). Note the ghosting that occurs – lens multicoating is ineffective in IR light.

You can, of course, do what you want with false color to suit your mood.

720nm, false color

720nm, false color

Monochromaticism. There seems to be a little bit of misinformation about monochromatic operation in infrared. You hear that in the high infrared range, Bayer filters become transparent. With the 093 filter, which may be as far as you want to go to shoot available light, the apparent effect is monochromatic in files, but a dump of the raw file using the Unix command-line program dcraw (use the -d flag) reveals that the various channels are not exposing exactly evenly.* Accuraw Monochrome promises to fix this and prevent the false noise that occurs.

*Why are all off-the-shelf OS X builds of dcraw so old that they can’t do the X100 (let alone the X-Pro1)? To get dcraw to work, you need to install xCode (1.72Gb plus) and then do a recompile. Getting xCode for a machine with OS 10.7 or earlier is a lot like pulling teeth. I will see if I can’t find a way to make this build available. That said, dcraw does not do a great job with 093 to monochrome conversions, particularly at high ISOs.

Take for example Mr. Spats (the insets are at 200%, so you can see the effect more clearly).

Overall view, made mono in Lightroom

Overall view, made mono in Lightroom

DSCF0523-LR

Detailed view, LR conversion (200%)

Straight dcraw conversion (200%)

Straight dcraw conversion (200%)

dcraw RAW dump (200%)

dcraw RAW dump (200%)

Cautions for social photography. IR photography has two uses that are interesting. One is landscapes, where you can help cut some haze and get more dramatic skies and plant tones. The other is for available-light social photography, where people’s faces light up much more brightly in IR than they do visibly (I have no idea why this is; my guess is that ceiling mounted can lights, even when apparently dim, can emit a lot of IR radiation that we just can’t see).  Aside from that, there are many practical observations about taking pictures of your friends.

  • Red-eye is fierce when you use IR and flash. Everyone is a Replicant, and Lightroom does not see the red-eye to correct.
  • IR pictures without flash can sometimes give “doll eyes,” depending on the iris color.
  • Be careful with some clothes that go from black to white; nothing becomes see-through, but you can see undershirt lines and the shadows of other bulges that you wouldn’t notice on a black background.
  • At 720nm, it’s very easy to spot where people have hit the Just for Men or the Clairol hair coloring products because they come out in unusual colors (most hair and some skin looks blue, but there is a hyper blue from the dyes). For some reason, dyed hair has a distinctive signature. I need to do more testing to confirm this.
  • Note that the X100’s focus assist lamp does not transmit any usable focusing assistance for 830nm and up filters.
DSCF0365-small

The icy effect of rebalanced 720nm. Or is that the cold shoulder? This shows you how you can get quite a bit of usable light in environments where you can barely see.

And another. Here is some fierce IR lens flare.

And another. Here is some fierce IR lens flare.

Not for X-Ray. There seem to be some pervs who think that infrared is great for “see-through” effects. Let me offer some observations on this:

  • If your goal is pornographic, there are many better ways to spend $550.
  • Most people wear more than one layer of clothing.
  • Forget about fabrics – most materials in general are not sufficiently IR porous to allow light to go in one way, bounce off something underneath, and then make it back to the camera. That “fake check” thing is very hard to reproduce.
  • I’m sure you can teach to the test by going outside in massively strong sunlight and make an attack on the thinnest, chintziest synthetics, but most synthetic materials actually reflect IR brightly, to the point that black becomes bright white.

My suspicion is that wherever these effects do exist, it’s at wavelengths that are very difficult to shoot anyway (950nm and up).

Upshot. This is still under heavy testing, but on balance, the better low-light capabilities of a converted camera are fun – and open up some doors you might nor otherwise see. That said, where the camera has a lot of IR capability already, you may be better off living with the longer exposures (or getting a tripod). We’ll update over the next few months.  The issues currently under study are false noise (or high ISO noise, as the case might be) and ways to improve 830nm focusing operation.  But it’s been fun so far.

Fuji X100: the dirt on the dirt

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Updated: May 24, 2011 (moved the close-range AF discussion to the end to accommodate some illustrations).

One does not need to comment on the X100’s picture-taking ability. If you want to see performance evaluations, some good, some half-baked, some systematic, some useless, and some by people who saw a spec sheet and freaked out (note that the last two are separate categories…) you can go to the usual sites. There, you can also see, variously, sample pictures of liquor bottles, small-town riff-raff, anodyne Scandinavian scenes, flowers, and felines. On this last point, with all of the other strange auto modes showing up on cameras, why no “cat” mode?!

I would shortcut the performance issue by looking at DxOMark, concluding that the camera is fine for most purposes, and move on. Your application may be different and more demanding, covering things we humans can’t even believe. Perhaps taking pictures of attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion. Or capturing sea beams glittering at the Tannhauser Gate. You should probably wait for the perfect camera and herniate, while your photographic prospects are lost in time, like tears in rain.

But what might merit some discussion is correcting (or supplementing) some misinformation about what the X100 is like in person in terms of how it handles. I was able to pick this much up from a couple days. It is not certain whether any of the information or opinion below will impel you to buy an X100 (or not), but there are many things that just don’t appear to be the way people describe them. So here, labeled in a Snopes-style fashion, we have what we hear versus what we see.

1. “The X100 is as big as a Leica M [Hexar AF, etc.].” False. In overall volume, it’s only about 2/3 the size and less than 80% of the weight. In terms of feel, it seems a lot smaller and lighter than it is. It’s still about triple the volume of a GR Digital I/II/III, though. It’s a little bit bigger than a late-model Canonet 28.

2. “The X100’s build quality is fantastic.” Unclear. Expectations regarding build quality must have slipped a lot. The X100 is made of metal, but it has a very lightweight feel in the hand that is suggestive of a Bessa R or a compact SLR of the 1980s. Magnesium does not create the same heft in the hand that the typical silicon-aluminum alloy does. The top-deck switchgear and the aperture ring are excellent quality.

Finishing of the filter trim ring is unremarkable, as is the finishing of the lens cap. These are revelations if you grew up with Sony’s plastic accessories, but they are pretty mediocre even by the standards of third-tier SLRs of the 1970s. All of that said, this feels a bit more solid than the Olympuses and a little less solid than an NEX-5.

By the way, this camera comes with the flimsiest triangular strap rings ever. You don’t need the included spreader to get them on – just your fingernail. By the way, other than some bizarre nostalgia, why not just put a modern strap loop on both sides of the camera (and two on one end, in Fuji fashion)? It seems strange to go crazy making a metal top cover only to make a strap attachment mechanism (rings) that is likely to damage it. And speaking of nostalgia, I am not sure how I feel about the Leica M2/M3 styling. This could have looked a bit cleaner and more modern, like the Hexar RF. And why does the viewfinder selector lever look so much like the self-timer lever on an Olympus 35RC?

3. “The X100’s OVF is nothing to write home about.” False. Are you kidding? It is bright, clear, undistorted, and has the most visible framelines every put into a camera. It also has the ability to project a lot of data that has never been seen in a rangefinder camera, such as depth of field against a distance scale, a digital level, and composition lines. It even has parallax and field corrections. If you use Leica Ms, the X100 ‘s optical viewfinder is like something that came back through a time warp (naked), stole a biker’s clothes, and then started punching holes in brick walls.

4. “The X100’s image-review-in-viewfinder is annoying.” Unclear. You can always turn it off, but it is impressive to be able to see – for a second or three – what you just shot, without taking your eye out of the viewfinder. You take the shot, the blind closes, you see the image, blind opens, next shot. Suum cuique… but do consider that if you set auto-review and b/w simulation, it looks just like in a movie: color image (seen through the OVF) followed by momentary b/w freeze-frame (instant EVF-in-finder review).

5. “The X100’s flash is a joke.” False. Well, it will light up a white wall to white at 15 feet away at ISO 200, so it is not exactly impotent. If you think that’s insufficient, bolt another flash onto the hot shoe. After all, you won’t need that shoe for an accessory viewfinder. Just watch the sync voltage. But bear in mind the following: (1) the hot shoe contact must be activated through a menu – and that option shuts down the internal flash; and (2 ) the locking pin is in the same position as on a Nikon or Leica flash (following the ISO standard).

6. “The X100’s charger is poorly designed.” True. Get the Digipower TC-55F compact charger for about $25. Very small; plugs in without a separate cord; runs on 220; seems to have fully charged a Delkin NP-95 (1800 mah) from new in about 3 hours. It also has a nice, clean display and has a USB port to charge your phone.

7. “You can screw in a 49mm filter upside-down, right onto the filter threads.” Unclear. This is physically possible in a pinch, but (a) it is not clear whethe alloy filter threads will bind to the accessory threads and (b) you can’t use a hood easily. A 49mm Hoya filter, for example, does not seat completely and may end up falling off. Also be aware that if you get too close and try to autofocus, the lens front will bump into the filter and prompt you to restart the camera. There is also an issue with scratching up what is normally the inside glass surface of filters (B+W MRC, for example, is not hydrophobically coated, to my knowledge, except on the front side). Get the double-female 49mm spacer ring from photofilters.com for $5. It’s ugly, it’s crudely finished (like many Sonia products), but it works perfectly (and it’s black).

8. “The X100’s menus are confusing.” Depends. An adult of moderate intelligence (I’ll be the guinea pig) can figure out where the various controls are in half an hour or less and have the camera completely set up in two. What is confusingis having different settings apply in different modes (M, A, S, P), and it is the same thing the Ricoh GR digitals have done forever (MY1, MY2, and then settings associated with the individual exposure modes). Is there only one firmware writer in Japan?

9. “The X100’s manual focus is useless.” Depends or False. It beggars belief that people think to replicate a mechanical rangefinder mechanism with an electronic one. But it is true that the manual focus “ring” is vestigial on the X100. They could make it more functional – but the question is, why?

The theory of a prism rangefinder is that you point the camera at what you want to be in focus, you use a defined focus aid to line things up in a go/no-go fashion, and you shoot. Since rangefinders have no groundglass to illustrate what is happening in the rest of the field, most rangefinder users are doing manually the exact same thing that single-point AF is. Sorry, guys, but if you’re a slave to the RF, you can be replaced by contrast-detect or phase-detect autofocus. View camera users can, of course, move on to management… if you can find that elusive 8×10 film in your favorite variety.

The X100 actually does the same thing in MF mode when you point the focusing spot at the subject you want and hit the AE/AF button. The camera focuses on the selected item and stops focusing when you let go of that button. That cuts the lag and prevents refocusing. It’s the functional equivalent of using a rangefinder, but it just requires different hand movements.

10. “The “shutter sound” is for tyros.” Depends or False. You can tell that Fuji must have acquired some people from Konica-Minolta (or Fuji management spent a lot of time watching Airwolf) because the camera has a “silent mode.” This mode cuts off the AF assist light and all sounds (on the Hexar AF, it slowed down all of the camera’s motors to half-speed). You can also dial down individual sounds. The default shutter sound is a cheezy p/s noise, but there are two others. I am a big fan of sound #2, which sounds like a louder version of the clicks and whirrs that occur in the process of focusing and taking pictures – because at least you know you’ve taken the picture (unless you have instant-review turned on, it’s not always obvious that you shot the picture). And the practical reality of camera noises is that no one really hears them unless they are listening for them.

11. It would look better in black. False. For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, black-painted (or -finished) cameras were viewed as workmanlike, plebeian, cheap – and with good reason. Chrome was a tougher, more elegant finish – and photographers rarely felt the need to sneak around.

Some people think tha having a black camera makes it more unobtrusive. Arguably, this is false; people are least freaked-out by camera phones and silver point-and-shoots. A black camera signifies professional (or spy). And you lose any element of surprise when you actually try to shoot with anything. Sometimes you never had an element of surprise. To put it in a crude and potentially politically incorrect way, a western tourist in Bangkok shooting is still a western tourist- regardless of whether the camera he holds is black or silver.

Seriously, though, there is a case to be made for chrome cameras where heat dissipation is needed. You never really think about the 140º F maximum operating temperature of your black, electronic camera until you are in Luxor in June at 11 in the morning – with no shade in sight. You will be surprised at how fast a camera can start acting strangely.

Also, the silver color is very popular with infants. Had I kept that little Hi-Matic F, I may have been able to deflect unwanted baby attention.

12. “The menus are too hard to use/inconsistent/anti-intuitive.” Depends. If my 14-month-old son can figure out how to press buttons on a stereo receiver until music comes out, you can probably make it through the menus on the X100 to take a picture. Once you settle on how you want the camera set up, many of the most commonly-accessed controls are buttons and dials. The only two things that are somewhat buried are the on/off controls for external flash and Auto ISO (whose “on” should be popping up in the menu of ISOs when you hit FN).

The menus in general could be a little “flatter,” and that is something that is true of most digital cameras. The Leica M8/M9 menu structure is simpler in that regard – but those camera have intentionally limited settings. Perhaps the easier solution is to do what Kodak used to do on its Nikon-based SLRs – and have a selectable one screen “basic” mode that shows commonly used functions and a complete hierarchy of menus for everything else.

The relationship between the “view mode” button and finder selection lever on the front requires some practice. The switch is actually electronic, not manual, so it only has a resting position and an activate position.

13. “You can’t hit the OK button on the control dial without selecting something else.” True but pointless. It is true that you need microscopic fingers to reliably press the OK button. The catch, however, is that you don’t need the OK button – all you need is the directional control. The way the Fuji menus are set up, selecting an item and pressing left (back) selects it just the same way OK would. And for the controls accessed while using the camera, you don’t need an OK. Whatever option the cursor comes to rest on automatically is selected when you release the particular buttton. The exception is in deleting files, but that should be difficult anyway.

14. “It doesn’t work with Lightroom.” False. But for some strange reason, you first see the JPG preview (film simulation) on importing the files. But when you click on the Lightroom preview, the picture reverts to the raw file. Frustrating, to be sure.

15. “The X100’s OVF has inaccurate AF at close range.” False. Actually, it is fine down to the minimum focus possible in OVF mode, which is not particularly close (in the film era, compact film cameras’ closest AF focus was always about two feet). There are three things at work here. First, what people don’t seem to grasp is that it is an AF zone – so if everything in the zone is at the same distance from the camera (or you get closer to fill up more of the zone), it all works out fine. If you don’t fill up the zone, the camera does not know the focusing intent. This is true of every AF camera ever made, whether a DSLR using TTL phase-detection or a viewfinder-type using external active or passive AF.

Second, there is also parallax error for which to account. You might be totally ignorant of how AF works with viewfinder cameras, but you need to recognize that focusing misses are largely a lack of practice on your part, not a product or design defect. Fuji did a pretty reasonable job at attacking a very tricky problem – what do you do when you are using one optical path to frame and another to focus?

  • On a camera where the focusing is external to the optical path (Leica rangefinder, infrared on a point-and-shoot, hybrid on a Fuji GA-series camera), the AF sensing target/point is simply looking to find range to an object and make sure the lens is set, arbitrarily (through a coupling or encoder), to that distance.
  • The basic system is one in which the focusing mechanism (zone, square, crosshairs) shown in the viewfinder in the same relative position, no matter what the focusing distance. So when you focus, if your framelines shift or shrink (depending on the camera) to account for parallax and field size, all you have to do is recompose – because the accuracy of focusing has zero to do with what is going on at the imaging (or film) plane.
  • Leica-style rangefinders will also move the focusing spot along with the framelines as you close in. But the idea is the same: the you are sensing a distance to which to set the lens, through a mechanical coupling – and as the RF spot shifts, you naturally and continuously adjust the focus.

But the real pain comes when you use a focusing target in the (offset) viewfinder but put the focus mechanism on the image plane. Here is an illustration of what happens:

This is the base case. At infinity (or some preselected distance – the Fuji appears to be set for about 2m), the field shown in a separate viewfinder and captured on-frame is identical

This is field shrinkage (seriously exaggerted so that you can see where the focusing zone ends up). This happens because you are getting closer to the subject than infinity or the preselected distance, effective magnification increases, and the viewfinder or framelines are showing too much. Because Fuji’s preselected distance is relatively close, you don’t see this as much as you might expect (but it’s there). Shrinkage alone doesn’t have a huge effect on focusing accuracy in the center spot, because the position relative to the frame is the same. Other focusing spots change their radial distance from the center – as well as their size.

This is parallax error. Closer than the preselected distance, the fact that the finder is above and to one side of the lens comes into play more. Framelines move to compensate.

This is parallax error plus field shrinkage. Note that the focusing spot (in the middle of the frame) is different from where it appears to be in the viewfinder. You can see how both moving the spot and changing its size could cause a little bit of a problem.

Fuji’s solution was to disable the AF at very close distances when the OVF was activated. This does not entirely solve the problem, but it is not unlike what Leica did in making the M3 stop focusing at 1 meter. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all. Think of SLR lenses. There is nothing that theorectically stops you from infinitely extending a lens barrel to get closer focus – but size, weight, and piled-up optical aberrations get in the way.

Finally, as you may have gathered from some of the discussion above, all cameras have mismatches between the focus indicators and the actual focusing sensing. DSLRs are a great case in point – those brackets in the VF can be off a very close distances. Other mismatches occur because focusing mechanisms assume that the lens throws a perfectly flat plane of focus. Most lenses do not.

The bottom line – as it always has been, with every camera, is this: if you find yourself shooting pictures with subjects smaller than the focusing zone or inside of a meter, you might want to switch to the EVF so that you get a true TTL representation of the picture. And as you approach a meter, you should always make sure that the focused subject more than fills the selected focusing zone. Fuji could have gone the extra mile by having the framelines shrink and grow in real time with the camera in AF-C mode (where it continuously focuses, even without the shutter pressed) – and that may be something for firmware.

* * * * *

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that seem a little off in other accounts of the X100. The camera looks fairly functional so far, and it is a nice piece of design and engineering work by Fujifilm. We’ll see how it goes and report back in a couple of months.