An Amateur’s Take on the Fujifilm X100S

by Jeff V. on April 26, 2013

Today’s post is about a camera. So, photography geeks, grab a coffee, because we’re gonna get our nerd on.

Backstory

For almost two years, I’ve been looking for a camera that can serve as a travel/everyday backup to my big-rig Canon 5D Mark III DSLR. The full-frame Canon is more camera than just about anyone needs, and its files are flat-out astonishing. But – it’s big. Carrying the Canon with pro glass I feel less like a photographer and more like a Navy SEAL. I need something that fits between the Canon and my iPhone.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve tried (and sold) more cameras than I care to admit: the Fuji X100 (the original model), Sony NEX–5N, Sony NEX–7, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Sony RX–100. Not a bad camera in the bunch, but they weren’t what I needed.

I wanted something fairly small (pocketable not necessary) with a big enough sensor to let me do decent available-light shooting and occasionally get some reasonable bokeh at a wide aperture. I shoot family, pets, daily life and some street photography when I have a chance.

What I didn’t know is that I really wanted a fixed-lens camera. I learned through many trips and photowalks that (a) I didn’t use much zoom at all, and (b) I found big, protruding lenses (even small ones like the Sony E-mount and Micro Four-Thirds glass) bothersome. A prime lens became a natural fit for me.

This is the problem with being an amateur whose skills are (slowly) growing: you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know. Until you do know.

Enter the Fujifilm X100S

Let me be very clear: I am an amateur photographer. This mini-review is coming form someone who is used to DSLRs but still learning, but is beyond simplified cameras that make access to key settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering mode, autofocus point selection) difficult without wading through endless menus. I’m a tweener, as it were.

There are dozens of excellent X100S reviews on the web, most notably those from Zack Arias and David Hobby. Both of these guys are expert photogs who have forgotten more than I know, so I figured some impressions of the camera from a rank amateur/enthusiast might be welcome.

ISO 400, f/4, 1/210

ISO 400, f/4, 1/210

A Note About Images

All pictures in this post are JPG fine quality, straight out-of-camera, most using full program mode with stock JPG settings (some are shot in aperture priority). I tweaked nothing to get better pictures (except for EV in one shot), so this is factory-spec output (no adjustments to color, sharpness, shadow tone, etc.). I imported them into Apple Aperture, then exported them full size to a local folder, then uploaded them here. I had to downsize them a bit so they didn’t argue with WordPress. So yes, you’re seeing a resized JPG of a JPG. It still gives you some idea of what’s what. Click on each image to see a bigger version. If you want to see full size images, I’ve uploaded them to SmugMug here.

Also, these pictures were taken in the following expert fashion: running around the house and aimlessly clicking on things (mainly cats) without working on composition or settings. I do this with every camera to see how ‘usable’ it is right out of the box with minimal fussing. I am clearly very scientific.

ISO 800, f/2.5, 1/140, Dynamic Range filter on

ISO 800, f/2.5, 1/140, Dynamic Tone filter on

Expectations

I would bet that unless you’re an old rangefinder/film camera buff, the Fuji’s system will present as awkward to you. For the first few days, I found it cumbersome and just a little annoying. I can fly around my Canon’s menus very quickly, and the idea of learning a new menu system isn’t my idea of fun, but I pushed through the early resistance and familiarized myself with it. There are some excellent videos on YouTube that helped me quite a bit.

Still, it was weird. I struggled early on. I shot quite a few crappy shots before figuring out how to tweak my auto ISO settings, especially minimum shutter speed.

If you expect something greatly simplified to accommodate the novice (like some Sony cameras), the X100S might not be your camera. There is a learning curve. But if you can get past the initial disorientation and lack of features like image stabilization, something funny begins to happen.

fuji 11ISO 400, f/2, 1/60

I started reaching for the X100S more and more, even when the DSLR was within convenient reach. For the first time since I got my Canon, I began to connect with a camera.

fuji 9ISO 400, f/2, 1/250

Using the X100S

The first thing you notice about the X100S is the build quality – it’s excellent. Crafted from magnesium and faux leather with all manaul controls within thumb’s reach, it feels solid with just the right about of heft to it. Yes, it does have a distinctly retro-hipster look to it, and some might find it over the top. I happen to like it, because it’s subdued and blends in to crowds quite well, whereas some of the flashier monolithic cameras like the NEX–7, despite being all black, drew quite a few looks. The X100S is certainly less conspicuous than your average DSLR rig.

5D3_2626The Fujifilm X100S

I learned through my (brief) love affairs with previous cameras that I absolutely need a viewfinder – framing all my shots on an LCD is not my gig. And in this area, the Fuji utterly dominates. The X100S has an innovative optical viewfinder (OVF) and electronic viewfinder (EVF), both of which are genius and wrapped in the moniker Hybrid Viewfinder. When in OVF mode, the X100S actually superimposes shot data (histogram, aperture, shutter speed, horizon level, etc.) right onto the optical display, giving you an excellent hybrid picture. There is some parallax adjustment to account for given the viewfinder’s position relative to the lens, but that’s automatically calculated by the camera via a simple settings menu option. You can flip between OVF and EVF modes via a switch on the front of the camera.

fuji 8ISO 200, f/6.4, 1/950, +.33 ev exposure bias

The EVF is the best I’ve ever seen, besting even that of the NEX–7 (by a longshot). The 2,360K dot viewfinder has very little lag, and has the ability to show you exactly how your shot will look when captured. That’s brilliant: if I stop down, change film simulation modes, or jack around with ISO, the result is instantly displayed via the EVF. This helps me take way fewer lousy pictures and do less chimping after shots.

fuji 7My son, geeking out on Minecraft. ISO 400, f/2, 1/125

As far as picture modes go, Fuji offers three now-famous film simulation types based on its old-school film lineup (Provia, the standard; Velvia, with more saturation; and Astia, for softer contrast) as well as some advanced filters like Dynamic Tone, Toy Camera, and Partial Color modes.

fuji 14Sometimes, the cat is the only willing subject. ISO 800, f/2.5, 1/120, Soft Focus filter on

But the real killer among these are Fuji’s black-and-white settings, particularly the red filter setting. I’ve not seen better monochrome from any camera ever, and even a dirty hack like me has been able to nail some good low-light B/W shots with the X100S. Very impressive stuff.

fuji 12ISO 800, f/2, 1/60, handheld

fuji 4ISO 200, f/2, 1/30, handheld

Oh, lest I forget: the X100S is very, very quiet, so much so that some folks won’t even know you took a shot. And that’s in regular mode. Put the camera in silent mode (which disables all sounds and AF-assist lamps), and the thing is barely audible. Hooray leaf shutters.

I could go on about each and every feature, but I won’t. There are tons of those out there already. As they say, Google is your friend.

fuji 1ISO 320, f/2, 1/60, handheld

Did I mention there’s a learning curve?

Two years ago, when I tried the original X100 (no ‘S’), I liked it. I ‘accidentally’ took a few excellent shots with it, and even my wife liked what I was making with it. But I hated the slow autofocus, and the manual focusing was a serious pain in the pants. So, even though I felt the camera was indeed something special, I returned it.

The X100S improves upon every single weakness the X100 had and then some. Focus is much faster (although still can hunt a bit in low light, but then again, so can my Canon), manual focusing is aided by either focus peaking or a digital split image (which reminds me of my first film camera many millions of years ago), and file output is enhanced due to the new 16MP X-Trans II sensor. Colors, long a Fuji trademark, are excellent. I’d say it’s among the very best APS-C output I’ve ever seen, coming, at times, close to FX quality.

fuji 5ISO 200, f/2, 1/52

So what’s to learn?

First, the Fuji menuing system. It’s way improved over the X100, but it’s still its own particular hairy beast and must be tinkered and played with to learn fully. If you are familiar with any other Fuji X-series camera, it won’t be nearly as much work.

Second, the fact that there is no real full-auto mode in the sense of scene recognition or face recognition – basically, there’s no dummy mode. The closest you can come is program mode, which handles aperture and shutter but still allows you to adjust things like ISO and metering mode. It still assumes you have some understanding of what variables are in play to create whatever picture you’re trying to take.

fuji 6Cat fight. ISO 400, f/2, 1/950, fill flash

Third, you need to understand what a fixed-lens is and isn’t. The Fujinon glass is quite good and fast (f/2), but a 35mm effective focal length might be limiting for some people. Me, I find it liberating – I don’t need to worry about zoom. I can just frame my shot, hope and pray that I didn’t forget something, and click away. I firmly believe that sometimes restriction is actually a way of fostering creativity instead of limiting it.

Finally, the camera has nuances. Example: you can use the front control ring to adjust apertures in increments on full stops, but what if you want something finer? Well then you need to use the “Command Dial” on the back of the camera, which easily adjust f-stop to incremental values. Hard to do? Nope. Hard to find? Yep. There are a few instances of this sort of thing as you learn the camera.

Verdict

I still have three more weeks to return the camera, but I’ll be keeping it. The more I use it, the more I appreciate what Fujifilm has done with the X100S. Someone on Amazon called it a ‘generational camera,’ and now that I have one, I agree. Five years from now, the X100S will be held in rarified regard among camera nerds, much like Leicas. As others have said, this very well might be my desert island camera.

fujiISO 800, f/2, 1/60, handheld

If you are willing to learn and deal with the limitations (mainly of a fixed lens), the X100S is a camera that will be a peerless second camera to a pro DSLR shooter, or maybe even a main body for those who shoot portraiture or documentary material. It’s absolutely that good. There’s a reason the camera is still so hard to find at most retailers.

To really familiarize yourself with all the features and functions of this camera, read the reviews. All of them. Again, I recommend starting with Zack Arias’ and David Hobby’s takes on the machine. Go from there. And then start apologizing in advance to your wallet.

If you have questions or want me to clarify anything, give me a shout in the comments and I’ll do my best.

Thanks for reading.

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