A Simple Camera

Now that Fujifilm has released the X100F, an updated version of their carry-anywhere, photograph-anything-other-than-wildlife-from-a-distance digital rangefinder-style camera, I decided that it wasn't too late to offer my opinion of its predecessor, the joy-inducing X100T (even if I have had it for two years). 

I recognize that cameras are machines, inanimate complex tools designed to serve the whims of photographers, and that perhaps it isn't right to suggest that such a device might have a personality. The idea of the camera's personality emerges from its traditional design and the layout of its controls, how it renders images, and how it operates in the field. When someone unfamiliar with Fuji cameras asks me about the X100T, the consistent question is whether it is a vintage 35mm film-shooting rangefinder. I respond that it's an advanced digital camera with cutting edge design, and that I haven't been as satisfied with a camera since the mid-90's, when my standard kit was two Nikon F3HP SLR's with 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm manual focus lenses. 

Some camera review readers may find that statement puzzling, but this camera encourages a simpler style of shooting that does the most important thing. Used with thought and consideration, the X100T can make you a better photographer. I am convinced it has done that for me. The comparison with the Nikon F3HP comes to this point- I started my career using those sturdy, simple cameras (when I bought both bodies and and the aforementioned lenses everything was already fairly old and well-used), and my work evolved rapidly. The evolution was  due to concentrated effort, excitement about new adventures and the infinite possibilities of photography, but also the luxurious feeling of a reliable camera that essentially disappeared while taking taking pictures.

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To me, basic well-designed controls laid out in a way that enables their use to become intuitive is the key to a good camera. Perhaps I am a Luddite, but working with Canon and Nikon digital SLRs and their brethren always left me cold, longing for the large and bright viewfinder of the Nikon F3HP. Reverting to using vintage cameras and shooting film for work wasn't an option, but so much of the joy of taking a photo was vanishing- blotted out by the need to perform gymnastics while pressing intricate combinations of buttons, navigating Byzantine menus, and the feeling I was holding a computerized brick to my eye.

Simplicity in technique and equipment was drilled into me early in my career from studying the books of Cartier-Bresson, who created most of his legendary body of work with one Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens. Limiting the amount of gear to carry gives the freedom to concentrate on your subject, forces you to think creatively within the limitations of your tools, and gives you the agility to embrace the physical aspects of photography on the move. And after studying in 1994 with iconic war photographer James Nachtwey, who described using two cameras with 28mm and 35mm lenses, the power of the idea of simplicity with technique and equipment was confirmed. 

The X100T insists the photographer embrace limitations. The 23mm lens (equivalent to the field of view of a 35mm lens on an old-fashioned 35mm film camera) is built into the camera. You can't change the lens to a super wide angle or to a telephoto. To get closer to or farther away from your subject, you have to use a primitive form of zoom - your feet. You can buy a camera that has the ability to zoom from the ultra-wide to the extreme telephoto, but it won't necessarily make you a better photographer. Having a camera with those sorts of capabilities may be convenient, but convenience makes you lazy. You won't move as much, you won't think as much about your compositions, or how the light falls on your subject. You'll think about figuring out how your camera works, and you'll wonder at its technical complexity. Unfortunately that may also lead to photographing in such a way that excludes feeling or emotion from your pictures.

If you want to photograph people, whether as a street photographer or in a documentary situation as a reportage photographer, the X100T calls on you to confront any anxiety you might have of strangers - you have to get close to them to make interesting photos. The X100T is also so fast and quiet - silent, if you set it up that way - that many people won't even be aware that you have taken a picture. This silent performance doesn't disrupt the atmosphere where you're shooting. While any printed photograph is a representation of a moment in time, (an actual physical object that is separate and different from the moment itself), photographers working with daily life as their raw material want to make images that recreate the experience of being there  in the moment for their viewers. They want to transmit those uncorrupted candid glimpses into something that can be held, savored, and studied. I contend that the X100T with its simplicity, speed of operation, light weight, and reliability of performance helps me transmit those experiences through light into emotion and feeling. It gets out of the way, and it does its job. This camera makes me feel like a photographer again.

This all may be old news, but I celebrate the thought that the X100T brings photography back to the idea that content, narrative, and even poetry, are the most important things. You don't need 50 megapixels and a $4,000 camera body to make someone's heart sing. Many people intrigued by photography today have more interest in the technical capabilities of cameras, rather than in the power of an emotive photograph. It feels liberating to use this small camera to focus on aspects of photography that matter most. Photography can reflect life. It can reveal beauty in unexpected places. It can celebrate joy. It can show tragedy and pain. My partner in this process, the X100T, helps me share those things I see, and it reminds again and again how enjoyable this practice is, and how lucky I am to have lived a photographer's life.