The Myth of More (not just another Fuji X100T review)
I'll say this right up front- what you’re about to read is not a review of the Fujifilm X100T. That’s a good thing, because I’m a lousy camera reviewer. So if that’s what you’re looking for, stop reading right now and hightail it over to one of the many excellent camera review sites instead. You know the ones. Just don’t forget to help support those reviewers’ growing families and camera collections by clicking thru to one of their fine sponsoring vendors.
You see, I’m in this for the pictures. I’m not a paid shill or toady for Fuji or any other manufacturer, although if they were to read this essay and call me collect, you can bet I'd accept the charges. I just bought a new Fuji X100T with my own hard earned income tax refund and I’m really impressed by it. But let’s get one thing straight here, OK?
All modern digital cameras are better than they need to be. Anyone who tells you otherwise needs to have their head examined.
Evaluated sanely, anything on the market today at any price point can produce results that easily surpass equivalent film cameras, and the very best of them produce results that trump much larger format film cameras. Film is an outdated and irrelevant standard of comparison anymore, anyway. Add to that the scope of mind-blowing additional features like broadcast quality video, old-timey styling and superficial in-camera processing effects, and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s truly not a fair fight to compare today’s highly evolved digital cameras against their knuckle dragging forebears.
That means that by any reasonable technical standard of image quality and overall capability, we’re all set, and we have been for a number of years now. So of course I like my new camera– I’d need to have my head examined if I didn’t!
But here’s the thing- if our cameras are already so much smarter, more capable and better looking than we are, why are we always griping so much about our equipment? Why are we always pining away for a newer, hotter version of what we already have? Worse yet, why are we convinced that photography was so much better back when we were kids in the good old film and darkroom days? What are we, middle aged men? Don't answer that.
I think it’s because so many of us believe in what I call the Myth of More, that photo fairy tale we tell ourselves about how if we just had more pixels, more features, more lenses, more gear, it will somehow make us more better at shooting pictures that are worth looking at. I'm sure I’m not the first person to tell you this, but I wouldn’t have much of an essay if I didn’t repeat it here.
The big question for photographers today remains the same as it’s been since our earliest ancestor picked up a hunk of charcoal, scratched her head and stared at a blank spot on the cave wall above the sofa: just what, exactly, are we supposed to do with these damn things? And maybe more importantly, why? The answer, then as now, had nothing to do with the burnt wood in our hand or the camera around our neck. If it did, solving it would be a cinch for anybody with a campfire or a credit card.
The answer is harder than that, because if we take the power and potential of a photograph seriously, it speaks to our ability to communicate our experiences, feelings and ideas in a compelling way. We dig down on the technical problems with our pictures and our gear, because we believe we can solve them pretty easily by applying some degree of MORE. Trying to do the same thing with our experiences, feelings and ideas brings with it the fear of judgement about how interesting, curious or talented we are.
Criticize my sensor size and lack of “L” lenses? That’s fair. Criticize the fact that all I ever do is take boring pictures of my cat, my kid, my breakfast and my all-inclusive tropical vacations? That’s my life you’re talking about, pal, and them’s fightin’ words!
The Myth of More can get in the way of being inquisitive and thoughtful about what is right in front of you, right now. You can use whatever gear you have to examine your own astonishingly varied, nuanced and personal universe, the one all around you and the one that exists uniquely inside your head. Pictures and ideas are around us and in us, everywhere, all the time, but because we often become so obsessed with the tools that record them, we all too often never get to create them, let alone see them.
There was a time when, if you were crazy enough to go to school to study photography formally, you were advised to spend about 200 bucks for something like a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm "normal" lens. Those were the days. If your instructors knew what they were doing, they would push you to push that camera and lens combination to its absolute limit before considering the purchase of anything else.
They would try to beat into your gear lovin’ noggin the fact that the greatest photographs in the history of the medium were made with equally uncomplicated equipment assisted by some decent shoe leather, a one way ticket or a full tank of hi-test, and most importantly, curiosity, tenacity, instinct, guts and a point of view.
With any luck, you would then spend the rest of your life learning how to do something interesting with your newfound perceptual skills, and that right there might still be the most useful thing any credible photo guru will ever tell you. You're welcome.
Maybe you've heard what the grand poobahs of the medium had to say about all this:
- “Photography doesn’t take any brains. It takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
- “Sometimes too many choices are just that. Too many choices.” (Jerry Uelsmann).
- “The camera was faithfully used” (Minor White, when asked about technical details)
- “Look. I’m no intellectual. I just take pictures” (Helmut Newton)
- “Photographers tell me what I know… You’d have to be a refrigerator to not be moved by the beauty of Yosemite… I’m interested in what I don’t know.” (Duane Michals)
- “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. (Robert Capa, before he stepped on a land mine).
Sadly, in the digital age, statements like these remain relevant mostly to hipsters, historians, histrionics and hectagenarians. Guess which one I am? But they’re as wise and true today as they were when first uttered, if only we could learn to put all those choices competing for our click-throughs and our credit cards in their rightful places in the pecking order.
All of which, oddly, brings me back to the Fuji X100T. This dinky little camera represents an opportunity to spit in the eye of the Myth of More, even though it means you would have to buy yet another camera in order to hawk up a smug gob of gooey austerity of your own. Tasteless, I know, and worse yet, hypocritical. Get over it.
Fuji’s not stupid. They designed this thing to look, feel and perform like a retired cardiologist's Leica M, even down to its non-reflex, “hybrid” optical peephole viewfinder and parallax-correcting white frame lines! It appeals to the poets, purists and other similar knuckleheads like me who appreciate that kind of thing. But it also delivers the goods, big time, and it does so for nearly $10,000 less than a brand new Leica M equipped with a 35mm Summicron.
The X100T is not too big, too fancy, too expensive, too much or too little. It represents less, not more, but less in its current state of the art. It’s simply a relatively inexpensive, exceptionally high quality half frame digital camera with a moderately wide, permanently attached prime lens that forces you to “zoom with your feet” if you need to get closer or further away from something. Just like Robert Frank had to do. Imagine that!
I refuse to use the word “superb” to describe that lens. Ditto for “bokeh". I won’t say that the camera is “built like a tank”, either. If I ever do, you have my permission to shoot me. I’ll just say that in realistic terms the lens is as good as or better than anything available anywhere for any amount of money. I know. I’ve used them all extensively. And even though the camera/lens combination is compact, it feels like a serious tool in your hand, not like a toy.
I like the idea of the X100T. It doesn’t give you very many choices, at least it doesn’t after you turn all the JPEG and other nonsense off. Luckily, Fuji includes something called the Q menu, a customizable one-screen display of your most-used camera functions. The Q menu ships with all kinds of stuff set by default, 16 possible functions total. Because I shoot RAW (and you should too) I immediately went to work dumbing everything down, assigning only the functions that fuddy duddies like me need: ISO, White Balance, Self Timer, Metering Mode, Flash, Flash Exposure Compensation, Silent Mode, Neutral Density, Conversion Lenses, Autofocus Mode.
I know that's only 10 functions. Those 6 empty positions would probably bug some of you so badly that you would fill them in with something, anything, whether you use it or not. You know who you are.
Exposure’s a breeze. You want aperture priority so you can control how motion is rendered? Just turn the real aperture ring on the lens away from its A position and pick a stop, then watch the shutter speed change in the hybrid viewfinder. Shutter priority, so you can control depth of field? Do the same with the real shutter speed dial and watch the aperture change. Professional mode? Leave them both on A. Exposure compensation? There’s three stops’ worth in either direction on another real dial next to the shutter release. Male (Manual) mode? Just like the old days.
So far, it sounds like the greatest thing since canned beer, doesn't it? There must be something wrong with it.
Alas, the battery life is embarrassing. Buy several.
I think the idea of Film Emulation modes is completely bogus. Even if I didn’t, I’d apply them in Lightroom, not in the camera, because they load in the Camera Calibration panel of Lightroom’s Develop module. And what is this obsession with making our digital images look artificially crappy, anyway? I know they look all retro and cool, but still. Don’t get me started on that.
The Advanced filters are awesome, which is why I don't like them. They rub my nose in the fact that interesting things seen clearly and processed faithfully just don't cut it anymore.
My biggest issue with the X100T is its size. Right out of the box, it’s a little small for my big mitts. I found that the fleshy part of my thumb tends to accidentally push all the little buttons on the back of the camera. I rectified that minor ergonomic issue by bulking it up with a Really Right Stuff tripod plate/grip combo and one of those clever Lensmate thumb doohickies. Hypocrisy!
A shoulder strap on such a small camera just gets in the way, so I hooked up an old Gordy’s leather wriststrap that I swiped from my now useless Canon G11 instead. For times when I do need a shoulder strap, I keep a rangefinder-sized UpStrap attached to a CustomSLR swivel in my camera bag- it quickly screws on and off the 1/4” hole on the bottom of the RRS tripod plate. I've seen some quick-drawing photographers using sling straps with the X100T, but the scale seems all wrong, kind of like if the bandito in an old spaghetti western pulled a cap gun from his bandolier instead of a six-shooter.
Anyway, my pimped out rig tucks neatly into a Think Tank Retrospective 5, with plenty of room left over for my wallet, keys, spectacles and….never mind.
Using the X100T makes me feel like what I naively thought being a photographer was all about, back before I started shaving. When I see something interesting, I grab the thing and figure out where I have to stand. If it's an aperture picture, I pick the f-stop I want. If it's a shutter speed picture, ditto. If it’s dark I use a tripod, otherwise, I leave Auto ISO set to max out at 800, and I push the button. I then develop and print the RAW files with Adobe Lightroom CC to the very best of my ability. It actually sounds an awful lot like how my film-loving friends work, come to think of it (and don't get me started on those guys, either). I’ve yet to feel like I missed a shot I would normally make with my whopper of a Nikon D700. As a matter of fact, if I was my Nikon gear, I’d be a little nervous right now.
Look. I don’t care if you buy this camera or not. I’m happy I did, and I intend to shoot with it until I wear out every one of its 16 million pixels. Even if I hadn’t bought it, I’d use some other camera the same way and for the same reason that I’ve always used a camera- to try to communicate how I feel about the wonders and absurdities of my world. And to try to make a living, but that’s another story.
Just about every real review of the X100T I’ve come across concludes with a statement along the lines of “this camera isn’t for everybody, but if you can live with a fixed lens with no vibration reduction, a half frame sensor and a body that’s not weather sealed…blah, blah, blah”
Ptooey. I think this little bugger belongs in the photo vest of any serious shooter who might otherwise drop $1300 on the latest image stabilized camera strap. The current breed of mirrorless cameras in general, and the Fuji X100T in particular, bring the promise of sanity back into the world of camera equipment in the digital age.
We all believe in the Myth of More to one degree or another. We’ve all been driven to nearly mindless, drooling insolvency by the endless array of choices pushed at us through our computer screens by both paid spokeshooters and blowhards like me with opinions and a blog. I submit to you that by turning down all that noise and learning how to take full advantage of a camera that delivers a whole lot less a whole lot better, you may be surprised at the emptiness of most of those choices.
At least, that is, if you’re in this for the pictures.*
*Although I did read somewhere that the video sucks, so if you want to make movies, use your phone.