I spent five of ten vacation days shooting a Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 point-and-shoot film camera. I also spent five of ten vacation days with flu-like symptoms. Surprisingly, the two experiences weren’t all that dissimilar.
With the sickness, I stubbornly forced myself to have fun while doing my best to ignore fleeting spasms of misery in the form of sweats, nausea, and occasional dizziness. With the camera, I stubbornly forced myself to have fun while doing my best to ignore fleeting spasms of misery in the form of distortion, a confoundingly wide lens, and egregious vignetting.
Alright, so the flu and the Fuji aren’t all that analogous. You try to come up with a new way to talk about cameras every two days. It’s hard.
What is a Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9?
Back in 2001, Fujifilm released a new 35mm film camera (in Japan only) called the Fujifilm Natura S. This point-and-shoot camera wasn’t just another point-and-shoot camera. Indeed it had no real competition, for two reasons. The first and most obvious – it’s equipped with a 24mm wide-angle lens. That’s one of the widest angles of view ever offered in a compact camera, and reason alone to make the Natura S an interesting machine. But what’s even more interesting, is its maximum aperture of F/1.9.
Take a moment to digest that.
In addition to this rather outrageous combination of ultra-wide lens and super-fast aperture, the camera offers something more. Fuji’s engineers designed the camera with a specific mind for low-light photography. The name Natura indicates its designers’ intention for the camera to be coupled with the brand’s Natura 1600 color film (known outside Japan as Superia 1600). When loaded with Natura 1600 (or any other film with a DX-coded ISO of 1600 or higher) the camera enters NP mode (Natural Photography). In NP mode, the Natura S deactivates the camera’s built-in flash, exposes at +2 exposure compensation, and shoots at its maximum aperture of f/1.9.
With this combination of programming for low-light photography and ultra fast optics, the Natura S was (and remains) a camera with no real equal, and one that most photo geeks in-the-know assume to be the best low-light compact film camera ever made.
The version I used, the Fuji Natura Black F1.9, is essentially a Natura S with some additions and subtractions. Most notably, the Black replaces the Natura S’s date function with the far more useful ability to manually control exposure compensation. Additional design flourishes amount to a combined name badge and handgrip which stands vertically on the front of the machine (making the Black a far more ergonomically pleasant version of its progenitor), and branding to ensure that we all notice the f/1.9 maximum aperture.
Plus, obviously, it’s black.
Shooting the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9
The most difficult part of shooting the Natura Black (for those of us who don’t read Japanese) is understanding its menus. The camera was made in Japan and Fujifilm never sold it anywhere else. Naturally its menus and controls are labeled in Japanese syllabaries. Those who can’t read the text will have to overcome the hurdle. Luckily, this metaphorical hurdle stands about two inches from the ground – don’t drag your feet and you won’t trip.
The most prominent button on the back is the On/Off switch. Press it and the camera comes to life. The lens cover retracts with a delicious Thwick! and the lens protrudes from its flush-mounted rest position with a Whirr, ready to shoot. The only other control is fairly obvious – a directional pad and a centralized select button. For shooters looking to adjust settings, this will become familiar very quickly. It controls the readout on the massive LCD display, and allows us to adjust every adjustment that the Fuji Natura allows us to adjust.
Pressing the centralized select button activates the menu adjustment mode. From here, it’s time to play Pictionary.
The top menu adjustment item shows a number of flash option symbols, and thus, is the flash control (auto, off, daylight and night modes, etc.). Just below that we find self-timer and remote timer icons – pretty obvious. Below that is a toggle-able menu that switches between Autofocus or an infinity focus lock denoted by a mountain (Fujiyama, if I had to guess). And below that (the final menu item) we find the exposure compensation readout, adjusted via the left and right directional pads.
It reads as more complicated than it is (even if it reads pretty simply). Shooters who are interested in this camera should not be worried over being lost in a Japanese menu. If you have eyes and a brain, and a thumb or finger or nose to press buttons, you’ll be okay.
One last note on the menu system and its LCD display – I’d be furious with myself if I didn’t mention this. When we turn the camera on, the bland and boring LCD display bursts to instant beauty with a brilliant green light.
I love this color.
Readers who’ve read enough of my writing or listened to my annoying voice in video might get an idea of the inflection I’m intending when I write that I love this color. For those unsure, let’s make it clear. Pause between words for effect.
I, love, this color.
It is the rich green of the solid wall of swaying bamboo stalks that lined the pathway to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto when I was a young and carefree traveling idiot of age twenty. It is the warm green of Tokyo’s sun dappled Imperial Palace Garden where I laid on the ground and ate my first mochi ice cream. It is the electroluminescent green of the Timex Indiglo watch face that I’d stare into to fall asleep as a nine-year-old boy.
Imagine my surprise and subsequent rush of endorphins when I pressed the button to adjust the settings on this glorious green menu, only to see the menu flash instantly to an even more succulent, orange hue.
This orange is the hot orange of a glowing jack-o-lantern. It is the orange twinkle behind the dash controls of my childhood friend’s 1984 BMW 325i as we first extended our teenage freedom beyond the bounds of mere bicycling. It is the warm, orange light that bathed my fifteen-year-old retinas the first time electricity flowed through the light emitting diode of my brand new Sega Dreamcast’s power status indicator.
I love this color as well.
Performance and Image Quality
Shooting a camera that I’ve never shot before is a risk, made even riskier when I’m shooting important, must-capture moments. I take one vacation per year. For me, that’s a must-capture event. And I kind of hate point-and-shoot cameras. The entire time I was shooting the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9, I wasn’t sure if I was making a mistake in pouring half of my vacation photos into this little black box.
But my pal, Miguel, assured me that the camera would not disappoint.
On the whole, he was right. The camera performed really well, in most cases, and the times when it didn’t make a flattering image are the times when this could have (or should have) been predicted.
Let’s start with the failures.
The image area of a 35mm film frame is a rectangular section measuring 36 x 24 millimeters. By definition, a wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length shorter than the long end of an image area, in the case of a 35mm film frame, that means that any lens with a focal length less than 36mm can be considered a wide-angle lens. By the same definition, an ultra wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length shorter than the short end of an image area – 24mm in this case.
That’s right; this point-and-shoot camera has an ultra wide-angle lens. And like any ultra wide-angle lens, it brings all the foibles of the class. Vignetting is heavy when shot wide open. It distorts like mad when shooting up-close subjects. It pushes backgrounds far, far away, and overloads the frame with so many distant details that compositions can feel empty and vacuous. The short focal length and uncontrollable aperture make images that are often flat and lifeless, with unpleasantly far-reaching depth-of-field.
Faces look grotesque at traditional portrait distance, spreading eyes apart, pushing ears to the background, and exaggerating noses. Architectural shots are challenged by vertical lines that converge drastically. This makes buildings to appear to fall away whenever the focal plane is held at an indirect angle. Filling the frame becomes a challenge in footwork, as this prime lens offers no zoom.
In addition to the problems inherent to the ultra wide-angle lens, remember that the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 is also a point-and-shoot camera. It brings all of the foibles of this class as well.
It heavily favors automation – the only really useful user controls are for flash and exposure compensation in plus or minus two stops. Decent, this, but there’s no aperture control, no shutter speed control, and no ISO control (the Natura reads the DX code of the inserted film automatically, choosing NP mode when it deems it necessary and offering no possibility of overriding).
The flash mode selection automatically resets after powering off the camera, so users who want to shoot without flash (when not in NP mode, where flash is always off) will need to manually turn off the flash every time the camera’s turned on. Plenty of other point-and-shoot cameras do this, and often there’s a simple workaround – don’t turn the camera off. The Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 automatically powers down after five minutes. The flash is direct, and overpowers images, creating the typically blown out look of cheaper point-and-shoots. The viewfinder is tiny, and while it’s not dim, it’s not bright either.
Not looking good, is it? Well, I said we’d start with the failings. Let’s talk about the reasons these failings might not matter.
The optical aberrations born of the lens’ ultra wide-angle field of view are overcome with knowledge and practice. Vignetting? Ignore it, or frame the subject in the center of the frame, or use it for dramatic effect. It only shows itself in certain low-light situations anyway. Distortion of up-close subjects? Let’s not shoot our kids’ beautiful faces from twelve inches away. That rarely looks good, no matter the focal length. Empty compositions? Be like Robert Capa and get closer (just not too close).
The problems inherent in the point-and-shoot are less easily vanquished. But even this point-and-shoot hater has warmed up a bit. Flash mode selection isn’t as painful as people have us believe. It’s a few button presses, and by turning off the flash every time I power up the camera I’m able to revisit both the gorgeous, green gleam and the soft, orange warmth of that LCD display (I did mention that, yes?).
The flash, sure, it’s gross. But I know that some young shooter in the bowels of a New York City basement bubble party is going to use this camera and its overblown flash to get really popular on Instagram. Just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for everyone. The viewfinder – no, it’s not good. But it’s not too bad, either. At least, it’s better than the one in that seventy-year-old Zeiss I shot in 2012.
Listen, it’s my job to nitpick. The camera makes really nice images most of the time. Fuji’s Super EBC (Electron Beam Coating) technology helps make shots that are punchy, full of contrast, sharp, and detailed. The seven-elements-in-six-groups lens that’s packed into the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 is a good lens, if we know how to use it. Getting thirty good photos from a roll of thirty-six often requires little more than a bit of thought, followed by pointing and shooting.
And then there’s that NP mode. It works as advertised. Low-light shooting was as similar to daylight shooting as to be virtually unchanged. Point and then shoot, and maybe hold still for just an extra half second. Paired with Kodak’s T-Max P3200, I made really interesting photos in a style that may not actually be a style (Disney World street photography?), and it would’ve been hard, if not impossible, to make those shots with any other point-and-shoot.
Who Should Buy the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9
As a travel camera, the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 is hard to beat, and as a technical achievement it’s even more impressive. Imagine sitting down before a trip (or even a daily walking commute or a night out) and saying, “I want to bring an ultra-wide and ultra-fast lens with me today.”
Assuming we could even find one, we’d be packing, what? A gigantic wide-angle prime lens with a humongous and heavy front element, plus an SLR or DSLR on which to mount it? That sounds about right. And there’d be five pounds of photo gear hanging from a neck strap for the duration of our trip, the proverbial albatross carcass indeed.
The Fuji Natura Black F1.9 weighs 195 grams (6.8 ounces). That’s ridiculous and amazing. It’s also small enough to comfortably (and I mean, comfortably) fit into the pocket of my jeans, jeans which a Floridian jerk did mockingly describe as “skinny jeans” (I don’t wear skinny jeans – not that there’s anything wrong with that). The important point is that the camera is small to a degree that defies comparison.
For shooters who want to travel light, who are looking to shoot in the evening or at night, and who are interested in making sharp, punchy images, the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 is a singular choice. It’s virtually the only camera that offers the combination of assets that it offers. Unfortunately, people know this.
As a result, the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 is really, very expensive. In cost, it rivals cult sensations like the Contax T3 and the later of the Yashica T series cameras. But unlike those criminally expensive cameras, the Fujifilm Natura Black F1.9 actually does things that no other point-and-shoot can do. And maybe that makes it the best buy of all the pricey point-and-shoots.