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.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Tor Berg April 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Hi Jeff.
Great storry and thx for shearing your testdrive on the X100s.
A bit sceary how simular your storry is to mine ;).
Keep on shooting and take care!

Daniel Ho April 26, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Great review

Kenneth WedMore Lund April 27, 2013 at 1:25 am

Hi! I really enjoyed this as I’m also testing the X100s for our danish TV gadget show :)

As you, I also had the X100 and “by accident” took some pictures that just stood out as phenomenal – we absolutely love the silky smooth look of the images.

I actually didn’t know about the digital split focus but one thing I still think is a problem (that certainly was a pain about the x100) is the battery. Let me give you a specific example:

When reading about the B/W red filter here, I thought “Oh, I need to try that” …….. turned on my X100s and saw that there was 2 out of 3 let on the battery……… took ONE picture and the battery died and had to be recharged. I had similar “problem” with X100 – the battery indicator is quite strange :)

Just as a last thought: I also have the Nikon D3s and some of the really, really best Nikon lenses……….. but I really DO prefer the look of the images comming from the X100 …….. and it doesn’t even cost as much as ONE of my Nikon lenses……….. Hmmm :)

Jeff Ventura April 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

Thanks Ken.

The one or two pictures we have framed around our house were taken with the X100. You’re right: it had a very smooth, very film-like 12MP sensor. But I just couldn’t stick with the camera for everyday use.

Now, the X100S is a different beast, but like I say, there is a learning curve. I’ve been shooting it a lot over the last few days, and my appreciation for it just keeps growing.

Also, re: battery — it’s wacky. You’ll show full battery for hours and hours, then it will drop to 3/4, and in 20 mins, it’s red and dead. I think Fuji needs to do something about the status readout so it degrades more linearly.

I have to keep my Canon because I shoot too many sports for my son’s sports. If I didn’t have that task, I’d be all X100S, I think. It’s that good of a cam.

Oh, last thing: I keep my B/W on Ye filter, because I still get that nice contrasty sky without skin tones looking so luminescent. Try it. Your mileage may vary.

Jeff Ventura April 27, 2013 at 8:04 am

Thanks a bunch, Daniel.

Jeff Ventura April 27, 2013 at 8:05 am

Hi Tor,

I’m in Wildwood, FL this weekend and I’ve been shooting the X100S non-stop. My appreciation for it continues to grow. I’ve taken some amazing shots with it already, but also a number of bad ones because I’ve forgotten to set something right. Again, there’s no handholding mode, really.

Thanks for reading.

Heather @ MirrorLessons April 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Love your review. I, too, am a tweener as you put it, and the x100s has taken some serious getting used to after using primarily the E-M5. All that sweat and blood is worth it for the image quality though. :-)

Jeff Ventura April 28, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Heather, let’s be honest: that E-M5 is a great camera, still probably the leader of the m43 market. I had one, and while I found the menus and ergos to be a bit of a mess, I made some sweet pictures, esp with the Panny 17mm. Great camera, and the AF is lightning.

I shot the X100S for five days straight, and the more I shot it, the more I came to love it. It’s one for the ages, just wait and see. I can’t fault it, except maybe on video lines and perhaps the slightly-fickle learning curve.

Eric May 16, 2013 at 4:27 am

Hi,
Thank for your review. It clearly proves that all products are now overadvertised. Your truly JPG of a JPG shows how nature of the lens is. It is soft at f/2.0. The image is quite flat and a bit uncomfortable with my eyes. Could you upload some more truly JPG. Thank you.

Jeff Ventura May 16, 2013 at 8:46 am

Not sure I agree with that, Eric. The JPGs are truly outstanding from this camera, coming close to the JPG files from my 5D Mark III. What stinks about some web platforms is they compress the images such that a lot of dimension is flattened and cause artifacts.

I think there’s hype surrounding all new products (especially cameras and smartphones, it seems), but we have to remember that a camera is just a tool, and a tool is only as good as the user.

If you want to see full-size JPGs unmolested by Wordpress, check out my SmugMug gallery.

Thanks for reading.

Eric May 16, 2013 at 11:28 pm

After checking your original image with the provided link, I think I was so negligent to say that. Actually, I have considered to purchase a X100s since Jan, due to its sexy style and compact size benefits. I think we are looking at the same point, something to fit the gap between the heavy Canon SLR stystem and the versatile iPhone. No any more doubt. I am going to buy it this weekend.
Thank you very much.

Jeff Ventura May 17, 2013 at 9:05 am

Your use case is the same as mine: I need something between my iPhone (which is surprisingly capable, actually, at least for web stuff) and my 5D3.

The Fuji takes a bit to learn — seriously, you need to be patient and work with it, because it’s not a DSLR, and it’s not a basic compact point-n-shoot — but after a while, you find yourself reaching for it all the time. As a matter of fact, this weekend I’m heading up north to do some Jeeping for a charity here in MI, and the camera I’m taking is the X100S.

It grows on you, big time.

Good luck finding one. I got mine on Amazon. Not sure if they’re any easier to get. A month ago, they were pretty hard to find.

Have fun and let me know if you have questions.

Derren Hodson May 17, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Your story is very similar to mine and I’ve had most cameras you’ve mentioned. The X100s is such a premium and satisfying camera to use the IQ is amazing and I love using it. It actually teaches you how to photography and get great results in camera. A keeper yes, until I saw the Olympus Pen E-P5…….. :)

AlexK May 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm

My current camera is an Olympus E-M5, and I just rented the X100S for a week. On the E-M5, I usually prefer the output I get from RAW in Lightroom over in-camera JPG. Takes a little work, but not much (e.g., a tweak to the blue hues — LR often renders the sky too turquoise for my taste; some highlight/shadow when having to shoot in harsh light).

On the X100S, I found that often *no* amount of RAW tweaking in LR gives me results quite as nice-looking as the in-camera JPG. In particular, skin tones are almost always perfect, and the dynamic range compression deals with harsh light in a very pleasing, film-like way. As a result, I am actually contemplating buying the X100S and shooting JPGs as the primaries, with RAW just as a backup for the (so far rare, though nonzero) cases where the X100S’s jpeg engine cannot quite cope. That’s the first digital camera for which I have considered this desirable. I am impressed.

Jeff Ventura May 21, 2013 at 9:35 am

Alex,

I tell you: I love the OM-D because its AF is lightning. It was ahead of its time in the mirrorless world. (Side note: the upcoming E-P5 has the same system, but *improved* somehow, if you can imagine that.)

I find the JPGs out of the X100S just as good as RAW, if not better. I think the reason is twofold:

1. Fuji’s JPG engine is, candidly, awesome. Probably the best I’ve seen anywhere, on any camera.

2. Due to the X-Trans II sensor’s non-Bayer array, I think the RAW files are especially tricky, and therefore you might not see as much headroom in the X100S RAWs to work with. As of now, Adobe and Apple (Aperture) “support” the X100S RAW files. The question is, how well?

But yeah, overall, the easy setting with the X100S is JPG. Plain and refreshingly simple, for a change.

Thanks for reading.

Tom June 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm
Karen Johnson July 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Excellent review Jeff and for pictures snapped around your house they looked really, really good. I shoot with a DSLR and I am seriously looking at the x100s as a between the DSLR and camera phone. Your article has helped push me to the x100s! Thank you!

Jeff Ventura July 11, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Glad it was helpful, Karen. I’ve been using the X100S a ton, and it continues to impress me. Take some time to learn the machine’s nuances and it’s a pretty amazing tool. I think you’ll find the same thing. Enjoy!

Tonya July 12, 2013 at 4:35 pm

thank you for the review. I get tired of all the numbers and what they are equivalent to. makes no sense to me. But this I understand and sooo appreciate the candid shots around the house since I’ll be doing a lot of that with whatever camera I buy. That and and how-to step-by-step art instructions and pictures of the final product. I need those to be really good for publication. But seriously, no handholding on this camera? I love the output but don’t know how much time I’m willing to commit to it. Wonder if the Fuji X20 would be a better fit for me.

Clueless Steve August 30, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Hi,

Thanks for writing this, it is the only review i have been able to understand so far. You see, i have never taken a picture with anything but an iphone but i have a Fuji X100S on the way. I am renting it for a weekend so i can take nature pics that i can blow up to extra large size for framing. Cant do that with my iphone pics. I am beginning to think i made a huge mistake, as i have no clue how to work a real camera. Shutter speed, exposure, etc. are all forreign concepts to me. Here is my question for anyone who is willing to help:

What is the easiest, dummy proof way to take a nature picture (probably deep woods and river pictures) with this camera without having to fully understand the variable that go into taking a good picture? If you tell me it is not possible, that is fine. Any tips you can give would be helpful, I will have one day to practive before i head into the woods.

Thanks in advance for any tips you can offer…

Steve

Jeff Ventura August 30, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Hey Steve (and Tonya!).

I can help. What you seek is super easy.

As you learn the camera, simply turn the aperture ring (on the lens) to “A”. Then turn the shutter speed dial to “A”. Boom, you’re done. The camera is now in full-auto mode, and it will set aperture and shutter for you.

I would encourage you to learn more about the photographic triangle, which involves aperture, shutter speed and ISO (sensitivity). These sound bananas to the novice, but once you realize they are present in every single picture you take in some capacity or another, it all makes sense.

The X100S is a great camera. In full-auto, it’s a near-DSLR quality point and shoot. In manual, aperture-priority or shutter-priority mode (you’ll learn about those as you go along), it’s a pro photographers dream.

Don’t be intimidated. At first, just go full-auto and enjoy the shots you make.

Chris January 10, 2014 at 1:01 am

Hi Jeff

First off, props on the review! It’s a great insight into a camera I’m considering purchasing.

I am much like Clueless Steve in terms of not knowing much about DSLR’s and the various settings like aperture, ISO and shutting speed etc. However, I am more than willing to learn. The main reasons I like it is that it’s not bulky when compared to DSLR’s, I barely use zoom (so the fixed lens is good enough for me) and the quality is superb.

Following on from your response to Clueless Steve, would you consider the Fujifilm x100s a camera that is still okay for a DSLR beginner despite all the fancy features?

Thanks mate

Chris

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