Review: The Fuji X10 Camera

f/10, 1/110, ISO 400. Note the slight barrel distortion.
The Fuji X10: A flash of brilliance, or a flash in the pan? Read to find out.

Fuji turned a lot of heads last year with the introduction of the X100, a stylish, retro-looking compactish APS-C camera that was about the last thing anyone expected from a company widely viewed as a perpetual also-ran. Despite some quirks (such as a fixed 35mm lens, which some shooters found a bit too limiting) and issues (not least of which were chronic shortages and a poky autofocus system), the company clearly had a hit on their hands. Many people – myself included – wondered if this would be a flash in the pan, or if the company would follow up with something equally promising.

With the Fujifilm X10, it appears as though they’ve done just that. A smaller camera, with a smaller sensor, it nonetheless combines respectable image quality with the same balance of form and function that made its bigger brother a hot commodity. After a week shooting with the X10, here are some early impressions.

Specs and features: The X10 features a 28mm – 112mm equivalent 4x optical zoom (pancake) lens with f/2.0 to f/2.8 aperture, a 2/3” 12mp CMOS sensor, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), auto bracketing, RAW shooting, 2.8″ 460K dot high contrast LCD screen, magnesium alloy body, macro focusing to 1cm (at 28mm equivalent), 1080p full HD, full manual controls, optical viewfinder, built-in flash plus flash hotshoe, burst rates of 7fps full resolution/10fps at 6mp.

Build: Metal, and lots of it. Metal body, metal control dials, metal housing for the zoom, even a metal lens cap. The build is pleasantly solid, yet the X10 doesn’t feel like an albatross around your neck. Two features on the X10 take some getting used to. First, unlike other cameras in its class (most notably the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100), the X10 features a smooth and precise manual zoom, rather than the motorized zoom more commonly found on compacts. The on-off switch, interestingly, is built into the zoom ring as well. The cam is stiff, but not frustratingly so, and there’s likewise just enough resistance from the on-off switch to keep you from accidentally shutting the camera off, provided you don’t jerk the zoom ring.

The only downsides to the build are small ones. First, when you first pick this camera up, you’ll find yourself looking for buttons (like zoom and power) that aren’t there or have other buttons in their place. Not a flaw, exactly, but something that takes some getting used to. Second, there’s the odd thread size on the lens, which won’t take any filters currently available (the threading is 40.3mm, and the smallest filters I’ve seen are 40.5mm) and requires the purchase of a lens hood/adapter that costs eighty bucks. Nothing like mandatory “accessories.”

Controls and menus:  I’ve heard complaints about the menu layout on Fuji cameras, but I didn’t find it to be an issue here. For one thing, the menus aren’t that much of a nightmare. For another, the wealth of buttons, switches, and dials (P, A, S, M, EXR, user modes and an “Advanced” mode on the main dial, dedicated exposure compensation, a Function softkey, and a handful of other knobbies) on the camera’s exterior means being able to do quite a bit on the fly without having to trudge through menus and submenus to do what you want to do. An assignable function button and two user-programmable modes add even more flexibility. The biggest adjustment – especially once you get used to having your key settings in your viewfinder on an SLR – is having to take your eye away from the finder if you want to adjust your shutter speed or aperture, or double check your metering. While I wasn’t expecting the lovely and innovative hybrid viewfinder from the X100, I would at least have appreciated an AF indicator in-finder. One of my previous film cameras – as luck would have it, a cheap Fuji compact – had the feature, so you’d think this wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge.

f/2.5, 1/1000, ISO 100, Macro mode.

Optics: The X10’s lens is “only” a 4x zoom, covering the equivalent of 28-112mm.* That doesn’t sound like much when some available superzooms boast up to 36x zoom. However, it’s a useful range, and by keeping the range reasonable, Fuji avoided the optical compromises that inherently come with superzoom cameras (including their own). There’s slight barrel distortion at the wide end, but it’s easily corrected with the right software. The maximum aperture ranges from f/2.0 to a still-bright f/2.8 at the long end; because of the size of the sensor, f/2 isn’t going to give you quite the same control over depth of field, or the pleasing bokeh, that you’d get from a fast 50mm on an SLR, but it’s useful in low light nonetheless. The minimum aperture is f/11 throughout.

Autofocus: Not SLR fast, and not even Olympus PEN fast. However, compared to many compacts I’ve tried, it’s quick and doesn’t hunt much in low light. It’s also noticeably faster than its notoriously poky bigger brother. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a soccer game, but under normal conditions it performs acceptably well.

Video: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a stills guy. As such, I shot a couple of cursory test videos. They’re about what you’d expect from a camera of this size… fine for home viewing, but unlike, say, a Canon 60D, not something you’d use for cinematic shooting. The stereo condenser mics are merely acceptable, and there’s no jack for an external microphone, so your movies will pick up the noises from zoom and autofocus.

f/5, 1/480, ISO 1600. As expected, there's noise from the ISO setting, but the photo is still useable.

EXR and High ISO Performance: Given that I tend to do a lot of shooting in low light, I wanted something with good (read: low noise) performance in the upper reaches of the ISO range. As it turns out, high ISO shots are good at 800, acceptable through 1,600, questionable at 3,200, and go downhill sharply after that. The EXR setting for High ISO/Low Noise performs quite well in low light, as does an “Advanced Mode” that fires off four shots in sequence and then merges them. Both are useful indoors for situations where you’ve got some light but would prefer not to use flash (especially since the built-in flash has all the limitations you usually get from a built-in flash). The EXR for dynamic range, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a disappointment. After trying a number of metering, exposure and DR settings in EXR with the same results (only a moderate improvement in dynamic range, but nothing that’d knock your socks off), I’m less than impressed.

Image Quality: There are a number of image sizes, compression options, and aspect ratios to choose from if you’re shooting in JPG. While this is a 12MP camera, keep in mind that it’s much smaller than an APS-C sensor, so those are 12 million really tiny pixels.  You won’t be able to crop with the same kind of impunity that you can with, say, a D90. To further complicate things, certain modes (EXR and high-speed burst, for instance) cut the resolution from 12MP to 6MP. While the IQ is still good, it doesn’t leave as much wiggle room in post. RAW shooting is also an option, whether full-time RAW, RAW + JPG, or (using a dedicated RAW button on the camera body) the ability to shoot single RAW frames. RAW processing can be handled in-camera, or via the software that comes bundled with the camera.

The X10 has a few different saturation settings that simulate Provia, Velvia, and Astia film, in addition to filtered black and white modes, and control over noise reduction. The film simulations are competent, the black and whites pleasing, and the NR a decidedly mixed bag; as with most other cameras, the more NR that’s applied, there’s a loss of detail, but there’s also a change in the overall color cast of the photos when too much is applied. Auto White Balance is generally reliable, though there are presets for certain lighting situations, and custom WB is quick and easy on this camera.

The Short Version:

Pros: Top-notch build quality; optical finder; a mostly well-corrected lens that’s fast throughout the zoom range; good low-light performance; thoughtful, discrete design; good image quality; minimal shutter lag; SLR-worthy burst rates at full resolution; whisper-quiet performance.

Cons: It’s nice to have a viewfinder (for me it’s mandatory, actually), but this finder’s lack of AF indicator, lack of parallax correction, and 85% coverage have been a bit frustrating.  While the AF is much improved over the X100, this isn’t a camera for sports shooting (unless it’s competitive chess).  The metering can be a bit iffy in less-than-optimal lighting (not consistently, but it does happen). Also, battery life –whether you’re using the Fuji NP 50 battery that ships with the camera or the Kodak KLIC-7004 which also happens to fit – is rated at a merely “meh” 250 shots.**

f/10, 1/110, ISO 400. Note the slight barrel distortion.

In Conclusion: Let’s not forget the price. I’m certainly not listing it under Pros (right now, the camera has a street price of $600.00, not counting the price gouging from some vendors that comes from a product being more in demand than in supply), but I’d have an equally hard time calling it a Con. You either need what this camera offers (the build quality, the faster lens, manual zoom, larger sensor, brighter optical finder, good performance at high ISO) or you don’t. If you need it, and have some idea what these things add to the cost of a camera, you likely understand why the camera costs what it does. If you don’t need those things, it stops being an expensive camera because you likely would’ve bought something else anyway.

A fair amount of whether this camera (or any other, really) “works” for you comes down to your expectations, and the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make. If you’re expecting the Fuji X10 have the same level of performance as a Micro 4/3 camera, much less an SLR, you will be disappointed, the same as you’d be if you expected a spork to perform like a Swiss Army knife. If, however, you approach the camera on its own terms, remaining mindful of what it is and what it’s designed to do, it’s a perfectly competent – and in many ways, quite good – piece of kit.

*There’s a digital zoom option that extends this to 8x, but camera shake (even with image stabilization turned on) and digital crop on an already smallish sensor makes this a last resort rather than a go-to option. If you really need 8x zoom, get a camera that’s built to do it optically.

**Real world results — that is to say, yours — may vary. On its first couple of uses, the battery that shipped with the camera actually shot less than that, while the older, broken in, Kodak batteries I was using as backup actually managed to surpass it by a bit. Other steps, like turning off automatic review and not using maximum illumination on the LCD, can further stretch battery life. If you’re using this as a backup or supplement to an SLR, though, you’re going to have to get used to changing batteries much more often.

The Fuji X10 Manual (PDF format)

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