Thoughts on the “Retro” Interface of the Fuji X100

[singlepic id=434 w=350 h=400 float=right]There’s a new camera in town that’s been getting a lot of press and stirring up a lot of debate among photographers. Marketers promise the Fuji FinePix X100 will “rekindle your passion for photography” in several ways. Mostly, it tugs at your heart strings by calling up the memory of “your father’s camera” with it’s very retro interface and classic styling. Many digital photographers may not understand the point of the retro design because they’ve only ever shot with modern digital cameras. They don’t know why it’s so important to have dials and levers and aperture rings. It just strikes them as nostalgic and pointless. But the X100 is not pointless… It’s a marriage of very advanced digital technologies of today and very refined mechanical ergonomics from the past. It sports an exciting hybrid optical / electronic viewfinder with digital information overlay along with very refined mechanical controls for aperture and shutter speed, two of the primary ingredients for any photo recipe.

The Fuji X100 is both evolutionary and revolutionary.

Digital camera technologies have evolved significantly over the past decade. My first digital captured a whopping 1.3 million pixels. My first digital SLR was only 6 megapixels. Then it was 10, and then 13. Now the Canon 5D mkII captures 21 megapixels. But resolution isn’t all that’s evolved. We’re now achieving better and better noise performance at higher and higher ISO’s. We’ve got more bit depth and better color than we had… faster auto focus and weather-sealed bodies… HD video, face detection, and live-view. Now we’re moving toward Micro 4/3 with tiny lenses and tiny bodies with relatively large sensors at only 2x crop factor.

Along the way, cameras started shedding all those classic looking dials and levers that gave them their old-fashioned styling. Camera makers figured “in the digital world, we don’t need all those mechanical controls.” Better autoexposure systems means less need for the user to control exposure. More advanced digital post processing means more room for making the image better later. When a few people started asking for more manual controls, they added menus to the digital screen and said “there you go… manual controls for you!” When people said the menus are busy and confusing, they said “here’s a shiny new touch screen!” Again and again, the technology evolved, moving on, leaving the old ways behind.

Touch sensitive LCD screens and sleek, button-less designs are all the rage and many people say “good riddance” to all those confusing levers and dials and “hello sexy touch screen!” But what about the ergonomics? How does one control a camera if you remove the mechanical dials and switches that used to control something inside? Some would say we don’t need them anymore and snap-shooters are probably happier without the mechanical controls… but I’d bet anyone interested in creating artistic images by manually controlling shutter speed and aperture either misses the old days of aperture rings or doesn’t know what they’re missing.

Back in the days before digital, with no need to worry about film/sensor quality or digital data transfer issues, camera makers focused ENTIRELY on lens design and user interface (ergonomics). It was understood by most serious photographers that the physical interface of the tool was all that mattered besides having a decent lens. Figure durability into the equation and you have the 3 primary reasons that Leica has survived into this modern era.

[singlepic id=436 w=300 h=240 float=left]Today’s Leica is the product of almost 100 years of evolution in rangefinder camera design. That’s 100 years of collecting observations and input from photographers along with 100 years adjusting and refining the camera design for better fit in your hand, clearer viewing through the finder, faster, more intuitive control of exposure settings. This is why Leica cameras command so much respect and such high prices. (Yes, the lenses are fabulous, too… but you knew that already.)

Digital cameras today are built on technologies evolved from the electronics industry over the past two or three decades. For the most part, camera makers have moved away from designing interfaces which allow the photographer to shoot and make adjustments relying on touch and muscle memory. They used to design machines for the hands that could disappear from the forefront of the photographer’s consciousness. What we mostly have today are pocket computers with powerful technologies that are truly amazing imaging devices with rather clumsy interfaces that require looking at an LCD screen nearly all the time. Even the very best menu design still requires looking away from your subject and disengaging yourself from the scene you’re photographing.

Case in point: I have a Panasonic GF1 for walking around and traveling light. I love it’s combination of compact size and versatility and lots of buttons for manual control. It really is one of the most natural interfaces I’ve found on a digital camera… but it is still very digital. I feel rather foolish holding a camera out 18″ from my face. It’s distracting in the moment to use controls that share multiple functions. I can’t change any setting without looking at the screen for confirmation even with an optical finder on top. Easy as it is to operate, I don’t feel connected to the camera. It never disappears from my conscious thought process, always drawing attention away from being present with my subject.

Follow an analogy, if you will:

Think of a surgeon. Surgeons train for many years to operate almost without looking. They often must “see” without their eyes, relying only on experience and muscle memory. The hands know exactly where everything is. The tools of the trade are designed to disappear in the hand. These tools are truly extensions of the surgeon’s hands, making very fine movements without hesitation or confusion. The surgeon is so comfortable with these tools that he doesn’t have to think about what his hands are actually doing… he’s focused on repairing the damaged organ and ultimately saving a life. Now imagine a surgeon operating on your heart through a touch screen control interface with a bunch of menus and virtual buttons. I’m sure it can be done and I know it often is… but it wouldn’t be my first choice if I were on the cutting table.

All of this adds up to the fact that cameras requiring more operator attention distract the photographer from focusing full attention on the scene. It doesn’t matter if the scene is static or moving… the more you have to look away to set the controls, the less present you are and the less connected you are to truly SEEING what’s in front of you.

[singlepic id=435 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Fuji X100 is a camera that is designed to disappear from your conscious thought process as much as it can so that you can be remain present and focused on capturing the scene. The mechanical dials and switches allow for a level of blind, instinctive control that no menu driven camera could ever hope to offer. This is the revolutionary aspect of the X100. It brings back some of the old ergonomic wisdom evolved over more than a century of camera industry. Wisdom that seems to have been discarded in the name of digital advancement. Combine this with advanced technologies like the high resolution sensor (with exceptional noise performance at higher ISO settings) and the hybrid viewfinder which overlays digital exposure information in an optical view and I think you’ve got a great marriage.

[singlepic id=433 w=350 h=240 float=left]Is the X100 amazing enough to launch Fuji into the financial stratosphere mostly occupied by Canon, Nikon and others? Not likely. The reality of today’s market is that only a small percentage of the camera buyers are genuinely interested in using tools that disappear in the hand. The vast majority of photo enthusiasts are snap-shooters who don’t yet have a deep understanding of the fundamentals of photography. They are not attracted to ergonomic manual controls brought back from the dead because they mostly use full-auto modes. I dare say that most digital photographers today have never used an older film camera and have no idea what they are missing without these controls. As such, the X100’s $1,200 price tag makes it even less attractive to these consumers when compared to the interchangeable lens, touch-screen wonders of micro 4/3.

Those of us, however, who want to be our own masters of exposure and love the feel of mechanical controls, will rejoice at the X100 for its simple MECHANICAL-esque interface. We have been waiting for a digital camera that disappears in the hand, allowing us to connect with the scene more than the LCD. I think most of us in this group would gladly pay a bit more for what the X100 promises. Consider the very large group of aspiring photographers that drool over the Leica gear at every opportunity but simply can’t afford the price of owning such exquisite instruments. As it stands, Fuji is the only other company in the market with a product that even comes close to Leica-esque handling combined with high quality digital results. I know what you’re thinking… can we really compare the X100 to a Leica M9 with a 35mm Sumicron f/2.0? Maybe not… But the Leica kit is $10,000. You do the math.

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