The X Factor: Digital Rangefinders are Here to Stay

While the Fujifilm and Leica have different looks, the concept is the same: upscale compacts with large sensors, fixed high-speed lenses, and lots of exterior controls

Xfactor Main
Xfactor Main
Leica X1: 36mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens, LCD used as viewfinder, offers dials for aperture, shutter, features sensor-shift image stabilization. Looks like the Leica A (1925). Where's the video? Fujifilm FinePix X100: 35mm-equivalent f/2.0 lens, has a hybrid optical/electronic finder, offers aperture and focusing rings as well as dials for shutter speed and AE comp. Looks like the Leica M3 (1954). Where's the image stabilization?Satoshi

The X Factor

We call them the X-cameras, not just for the crossed letters of their model names but because they have the sort of mystique that turns heads. The Fujifilm FinePix X100 and the Leica X1 unabashedly emulate the look and feel, not to mention the upscale hauteur, of rangefinder-type cameras from days gone by. Will this new generation of modern classics spark a retro riot?

Bet You NeVer thought we'd do a shootout between a Leica A and a Leica M3, huh? Given a passing glance at the Fujifilm FinePix X100 and the Leica X1, you might leap to that conclusion. To complete their film-camera look, the 12-megapixel APS-C-sensor compacts, clad in brushed metal and faux leather, sport gnurly analog control dials and rings.

Readers of a certain vintage by now are chuckling: This is nothing new. When film was king, such modern classics as the Contax T2, Konica Hexar, and Nikon 35Ti captured the hearts (and wallets) of photographers with their handsome metal bodies and clearcut knob-and-dial controls. And like the new X-cameras, those erstwhile film compacts had noninterchangeable, fast optics, usually of 35mm focal length or close to it. Just as the rationale for their purchase was to get SLR-quality images from a stylish compact, the new competitors promise DSLR-grade imaging in small, elegant packages. (Do they make the grade? See our complete lab tests to find out: Lecia X1, Fujifilm X100).

Another parallel between the X-cams and their spiritual forebears: They are bundles of quirks, some lovable, some not. Suffice it to say these are not cameras for those people who dislike eccentricity.

First off, let’s clear up what a rangefinder is. True rangefinder cameras (such as the current Leica film M7 and digital M9) have optical viewfinders for composing pictures. Within the viewfinder frame, you’ll see a focusing aid called a coincidence-type rangefinder; to focus, you turn the focusing ring on the lens until two superimposed images in the finder are aligned.

The M-Leicas also have bright frames showing the field of different focal-length lenses, and the frames adjust their positions to compensate for parallax as you focus.

Now that that’s out of the way, we have to inform you that neither the Fujifilm FinePix X100 nor the Leica X1 is a rangefinder. The Fujifilm comes closer, having an optical viewfinder with a superimposed LCD bright frame that adjusts for parallax, besides an aperture ring and a focusing ring (albeit an electronic, not mechanical, linkage). The Leica X1 is more rudimentary; if you want an optical viewfinder, you have to add a shoe-mount accessory bright-frame finder, which we find a winsomely retro touch. The nicely knurled ring around the lens operates nothing—it unscrews to allow accessories.

But there’s more to the rangefinder experience than an actual coupled rangefinder. Many are the street shooters who don’t bother to focus at all; they simply set the lens to a medium-close distance and dial in an f-stop that will keep subjects in within the depth of field.

The new Fujifilm and Leica are particularly well suited for this, as they both have depth-of-field scales. Moreover, their APS-C sensors provide more depth of field at any given f-stop than a full-frame digital or 35mm camera. With the lens manually set to 6 feet, for example, and an aperture of f/11, the depth of field will cover about 3.5 to 20 feet.

Preset the camera to evaluative metering, a high enough ISO to guarantee fast shutter speeds, disable any audio alerts, and you’re ready to shoot from the hip, perhaps even literally. “When shooting on the street, I often hold the camera at my hip and shoot behind me, even though I can’t see what’s back there,” says Senior Editor Peter Kolonia, an inveterate street shooter. “It’s always a pleasant surprise when I get something, and is actually a good technique for getting eye level with children and dogs, who have no idea that the camera a foot from their heads is taking a picture. Ground-level street shooting is fun, so I sometimes shoot with the self-timer while kneeling to ‘tie my shoes.’”

In those situations where you do want to compose the picture, a viewfinder is much faster than the LCD, and keeps the camera steadier. And in bright light, a viewfinder is much, much better.

Of course, keeping inconspicuous with the Leica and particularly the Fujifilm is problematical. Editors found themselves peppered with questions when out and about with these cameras (a frequent one being “Oh, is that a film camera?”).

Back in the day, remember, the street shooters’ Leica M3’s and Canon 7’s and Nikon S’s looked pretty much like ordinary cameras, similar to the cameras snapshooters used: Not so with the new modern classics. (Today, the ultimate street shooter’s camera would be a cellphone with an APS-C-size sensor.)

So will this trendlet turn into an actual trend? We can see it happening. Cameras like this are about cult status as much as they are performance. And while early sales appear to be driven by photo enthusiasts, we predict that once critical mass is reached, these models will turn into The New Cool Thing I Must Have. We have, after all, seen it happen before with the luxe 35mm models.

And while we can’t say for sure whether, say, Canon or Nikon will get into this game, we’re certain that people in those companies will be taking notice. We just hope that, if they do jump in, they won’t use “X” in their model names.

Rangefinder Look-alikes, Can They Compete?

Sigma DP2S: Foveon Sensor

Olympus E-P2: Top PEN Model

Panasonic GF2: Four Thirds ILC

With sensors considerably smaller than those of the X-cameras, advanced compacts such as the Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7000 are not really in the same league. The only truly comparable cameras are the Sigma DP-series, the DP1x and DP2s (each $650, street). These use the unique Foveon X3 sensor, made up of three 4.7MP layers sensitive to red, green, and blue, and slightly smaller in area than an APS-C sensor. The Sigmas sport fixed 28mm f/4 and 41mm f/2.8 equivalent lenses, respectively. Like the Leica X1, they lack an optical viewfinder, although you can opt for an accessory shoe-mount bright-frame finder ($120, street).

We tested the DP2, predecessor of the DP2s (the newer model has an updated processor) back in September 2009 and gave it a High overall rating based on 1925 lines of resolution and noise that stayed at least Low up to ISO 400; noise went into Unacceptable territory at ISO 1600. Color accuracy was Excellent. Contrast-detection autofocus was slow, although Sigma states it has been sped up in the “s” version. All in all, we’d say both the Fujifilm X100 and Leica X1 offer a nicer shooting experience.

That leaves the rangefinder-style ILC cameras—the Olympus Pens, Panasonic Lumix GF2, Samsung NX100, and Sony Alpha NEX series. These offer the advantage of interchangeable lenses, although, even wearing a super-compact pancake lens, they will need a bigger pocket to hide in than the Fujifilm X100 or Leica X1. Their imaging ability is roughly on a par with the X-cameras, although the Fujifilm actually outperformed all those ILCs we have tested.

Another compelling argument for the ILCs is price: You can get some of these models, with zoom lens, for half the price of the Fujifilm—or one-third the price of the Leica.