A year with the FujiFilm X70

A year with the FujiFilm X70 (NSFW)

When I bought the X70 a year ago, I chose it over the Ricoh GR II (basically the only other camera in the same class, APS-C premium…

FujiFilm X70 (with filter adapter and UV filter mounted)

A year with the FujiFilm X70 (NSFW)

When I bought the X70 a year ago, I chose it over the Ricoh GR II (basically the only other camera in the same class, APS-C premium compacts).

I made my decision then primarily based on specifications; the X70 was the newer model, has phase-detect autofocus (which is theoretically quicker than the GR’s contrast only AF) a tilt and touch-enabled LCD, and better video capabilities. The X70 further distinguishes itself from the GR by having absolute value physical controls for aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation (but not for flash).

Both cameras are aimed at a specific kind of photography use case: that of the high quality pocketable camera; a camera for street photographers, its small size and discreet appearance of making it more likely that you’ll have the camera with you to capture spontaneous, intimate scenes which could otherwise be missed.

The most most noticeable difference between the two cameras is probably the size and weight: the X70 is about 92 grams heavier than the GR, and slightly larger (just large enough to keep it from fitting in a jeans pocket). Both cameras have similar image quality, the Ricoh being slightly superior in both optics and sensor.

This is not a intended to be a complete review or comparison, just a re-cap of my experience in using the X70 in the real world for a year.

Macro (Close up)

One area where the X70 excels is in shooting close ups. The minimum focus distance is 10cm, there is no need to switch into a special “macro” focus mode, and the built in flash illuminates the subject fairly evenly at this distance. The lens is also sharp close-up and wide-open (unlike many other Fujinon lenses).

General Street/Documentary

Although the X70 is fairly discrete, it is not really pocketable. No more than say an X100T anyway (which is only another 93 grams heavier and has a viewfinder). It’s heavy enough that carrying it in a coat pocket requires a counterweight in the opposite pocket to maintain the balance of the garment, and you’re definitely not going to fit it in a pants pocket (unless they’re cargo pants). If you do put it in a jacket pocket, or a bag, or anything else, expect the settings to be different upon removing it, as the dials are quite easily disturbed by handling.

While the X70’s tilt screen is an asset in theory and sets it apart from the Ricoh GR, in practice I found that it was it was too slow to deploy for use on the street. Most of the time, in the interest of speed, I left it flat and squatted or shot blindly from the hip just as I would have done with a fixed-screen or a camera having a viewfinder. It did occasionally come in handy — just not while shooting street. I will say that the tilt screen is robustly made — it’s actually quite a bit sturdier feeling than the one on the newer and much more expensive X-T2.

The lens cap situation is another speed bump. The GR has an integrated leaf-style lens cover that opens and closes automatically. The X70, however, comes with a 1970s style metal and felt slip on lens cap, which is just too fiddly to use. Instead, one must buy the lens hood/filter adapter accessory, which permits both the use of a pinch-style cap and (my preference) a protective clear glass filter (which has the benefit of preventing the camera from ingesting dust through the lens).

One absolute physical control the X70 has and the Ricoh GR lacks that I do find useful is the power switch — the X70 has the power switch around the shutter button, like the shutter lock switch found on many film cameras. However, like all of the other dials, this one tended to move on its own, so I would sometimes remove the camera from my bag and find the switch already in the “on” position, but the camera “asleep.” This switch needs to be stiffer, which seems to be a common theme with the X-Series.

The physical control that is conspicuously absent is that for enabling the flash; in order to turn the flash on and off, you have to look at the screen and enter a series of button presses into the back of the camera. This makes it difficult to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of street shooting.

Even though it’s not truly pocketable, it is a small camera, and, as such, is less intimidating to subjects. This can allow one to get very close indeed without startling people — unless you look like me, anyway, in which case you’ll still get reactions like this:

The results are a little better when the subject is too absorbed in their activity to make eye contact…


Nature/Landscape

Due to its size and weight and having a tilt screen, I thought the X70 would be a great camera to take hiking. I thought wrong. I took it as my only camera on the Silver Falls Trail of Ten Falls loop and took a plenty of pictures, but none of them turned out to my satisfaction. This is partly due to the 18mm (28mm equiv.) focal length. It isn’t quite wide enough to capture a waterfall close up and isn’t long enough to get one from a distance. Perhaps the WCL-X70 adapter (21mm equiv) would have made a difference here. However, the X-Trans sensor struggles to render detail in foliage and rock, and I think with a wider angle optical adapter the results would have still been disappointing.

I took it to the Oregon coast and found that the X70 came up short there too (although on this trip it wasn’t my only camera and I did get some good shots with the X-Pro1 and 14mm F2.8).

In summary, I’ve never got a landscape shot out of this camera that I liked, and it’s not for want of trying.

For a little more money (depending on sale prices) than the the X70 + WCL-X70 (533 grams combined), one could get an X-Pro1 and 14mm F2.8 (689 grams combined) and get better results.

Too tight!
Too wide!

World Naked Bike Ride (2016, Portland, Oregon)

The WNBR turned out to be a very interesting use case for this camera and the one in which it performed its best.

WNBR outfit

I had a severe case of battery anxiety, so I brought a spare battery for the X70 and a USB power bank, and used an external flash powered by two AAA batteries (with spares for those too). The flash was the FujiFilm EF-X20, which has its own quirks…

The EF-X20 turns turns off whenever the camera is turned off or goes to sleep, or after a timeout period of 15 minutes. And, unlike other flashes which go to sleep, the EF-X20 never wakes back up on its own. The flash turning off when the camera goes to sleep can be prevented by taping over the TTL pins (in which case the flash can only be used in manual power mode), however the timeout cannot be disabled. I had to regularly check the if the flash was on and, if it had turned off, and turn it back on — while riding. The only positive thing I have to say about the EF-X20 is that it’s very small and it has manual power control, and I say that through gritted teeth.

I wore the camera on a strap around my neck. I disabled the touch screen function, as contact the bare skin of my chest would otherwise have moved the focus point around.

I used AF-S in the central zone mode and a relatively wide aperture (for this kind of thing) of around f/4-f/5.6 (the aperture tended to move around on its own as I handled the camera) to admit more ambient light and reduce the flash power requirement. I shot at ISO 800 and with a slow shutter speed for the same reasons. The manual power setting of the EF-X20 varied from 1/16th to 1/64th, depending on subject distance (and of course this setting also moved around unbidden).

It turned out that I didn’t need all those batteries — I ended the night only 30% into the first one. I’m not a spray and pray type though, and I only shot 118 frames, 15 of which (12.7%) were keepers. Most of the missed shots were due to AF failures and flash failures (flash had turned itself off or the power dial had moved by itself). Even so, 12.7% is a pretty good keeper rate for street shooting — especially one handed while riding a bicycle naked.

The AF worked OK for subjects at a fixed distance (it took a few seconds to lock on), but failed miserably for subjects at a varying distance (i.e. approaching or receding). The shutter lag was difficult to adapt to due to its variable duration.

Many people remarked on the camera and found it stylish. I think it was most successful as a fashion accessory (however, the gold fanny-pack received just as much, if not more, attention).


Conclusions

Although I have written several articles discussing the shortcomings of FujiFilm’s X-Trans technology, the issues of usability and ergonomics are of far greater practical importance, especially in consideration of the demanding constraints of street photography.

It is because of these deficiencies that I have decided to part with the X70. Many of the ergonomic and usability problems with the X70 are common to all X-Series cameras and seem to be a core part of FujiFilm’s design language. It seems highly unlikely that FujiFilm would do away with their absolute value physical dials, for instance. With the other cameras in the X-Series, this design presents less of a problem. But with the X70’s ostensible pocketability, the easily bumped absolute value controls are more hindrance than help. The camera is just heavy and large enough to keep it from being truly pocketable, which was the main thing I wanted it to be.

The upcoming replacement model (X80?) may improve the size and weight situation, but all of the other problems are likely to remain unaddressed.

Overall, while I have enjoyed the images I made with it, I never reached a point where using the X70 was comfortable and convenient. It was always a bit of a hassle, requiring constant vigilance with the settings, fiddling with lens cap, navigating the flash menu, etc.

If you want to carry it on a strap and have time and free hands enough to adjust the settings, this could be a good camera for you (although with those constraints you might as well go for a model with a viewfinder).

If you want to carry it in a pocket and be able to draw quick and shoot from the hip, then you might want to keep looking.

It is certainly a stylish camera, but, in my opinion, it is a case of placing form over function. It’s clear that FujiFilm doesn’t really understand the needs of photographers in this market segment. Performance in the lab or the showroom floor is an entirely different thing from performance on the streets and specs don’t matter really matter if you don’t get the shot.

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