I recently visited Hong Kong and two cities in China. Certainly inspired by DigitalRev TV, I knew going into it that Hong Kong in particular is a street photographer’s dream. This trip was going to be a great chance to hone my photography skills.
I only brought one messenger bag for the whole two weeks. Weight and size were major considerations for all items.
My weapon of choice was a Fujifilm X100. A used eBay purchase from a few months prior, I hadn’t gotten super comfortable with it. Scratches and all, it was an elegant but slightly intimidating machine.
The most notable feature of this compact camera is its fixed 23mm f/2 prime lens. Because the camera has a slightly smaller sensor than film, the lens is the equivalent of the 35mm focal length on a full-frame camera.
The X100 was the first X-Series camera Fuji released, and it started a revolution in the photography world. Direct, manual controls on the top of the camera harken back to an earlier age of photography. The fixed lens does not zoom and cannot be removed, but the upside is a wider maximum aperture. The camera is extremely quiet and relatively discrete.
The viewfinder on the X100 and successors is unique in the digital camera world. It works almost exactly like a rangefinder camera, with a frame drawn around the composition inside a wider window to the world. At any time, one can switch from the optical viewfinder to an electronic one, which only shows the composition. The electronic viewfinder pops up after every exposure, no matter the mode, to review the shot.
Reviews of this camera, which was released in 2011, laud the concept but point out the camera’s numerous flaws. Users found the accuracy of autofocus especially infuriating. Manual focusing aides on the camera are lacking. Later X-series models would improve on image quality, speed, and focusing (both manual and autofocus). Let’s put it this way: the tool has personality.
I was used to the 35mm (roughly 50mm full-frame equivalent) prime lens on my Nikon D7000, a much larger DSLR from the same era. The 50mm focal length is a little tighter and less personal than 35mm. You can stand farther away from your subject, ideal for the timid photographer. Conversely, it is harder to get wider shots on the street with the 50mm focal length.
So, why in the world would a slow camera with no zoom be a great travel choice? Constraints, as well as the opportunity to become intimate with a flawed, yet very powerful tool in an unfamiliar focal length.
On the first day in Hong Kong, I learned that autofocus works well only about half the time with the optical viewfinder. Despite the focus point changing from red to green soon after a half-press of the shutter, half of the shots I reviewed that night were not in focus. The preview shown in the electronic viewfinder is not large, bright, or high-resolution enough to scrutinize focus, and I did not think to review the shots on the larger display on the camera back.
After realizing the focusing issue, I started using the electronic viewfinder exclusively. Although this move doesn’t take advantage of one of this camera’s most unique features, the hope was I that I would not have to reject so many shots. The move paid off, as about 90% of the shots were now in focus.
Initially, I found the 35mm focal length uncomfortable. It was great for capturing the immensely varied and colorful backgrounds of Hong Kong, but I was just too far away from many subjects. I desired images with those colorful backdrops but my subjects taking center stage in the foreground. These are the shots that tell a good story, and I would have to get much closer to achieve them.
As I got used to the wider lens, I found the experience liberating. A 50 might make it a little easier to capture people without getting too close, but a 35 allows you to take a wider variety of photos: buildings, cars, urban landscapes, and of course, people. I’m still working with the 35, and I know it’s going to be a long time before I’m truly proficient and comfortable getting that close to people. But I’ll keep practicing.