UPDATE: The latest version of ACR is doing a much better job of converting the Fuji RAW files than when I first tested the camera so you can pretty much ignore the stuff below relating to RAW files – other than this camera still produces what I consider to be the best in-camera JPEGs I’ve seen. Carry on.
There’s no doubt that Fuji has been shaking up the photography world lately. They’ve come up with some cameras that some describe as retro. I’d call them oddly wonderful. They all have a learning curve and they all have one other thing in common. They are hot commodities. Not everyone is taken with Fuji. Their first efforts in this space came up short in my opinion. And the X line is a bit polarizing. It’s like owning a Fiat 500. Some people run up and tell you it’s the coolest car they’ve ever seen. Others think it’s stupid. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, you should take another look at Fuji because their second iteration X100s is worth your consideration.
I decided to buy the Fujifilm X100S camera for review. I had no idea how hard it would be to try to find one. It was no easy task. The cameras is quickly gaining a reputation as a fun little unit that can be used for serious work. All the usual big name camera stores are sold out of the X100s. But the great folks at PRO PHOTO SUPPLY in Portland were able to get their hands on the last one anywhere and shipped it to me right away. I got the camera Friday, installed the latest firmware (version 1.02), charged the battery and went to work.
The basics of the X100s are simple. The camera uses a rangefinder metaphor and looks a little like the famous Leica cameras of old. (Specifically – it reminds me of the M3.) The internals are however quite different. The camera uses an APS-C 16M X-Trans CMOS sensor. (This is a very innovative sensor that delivers extraordinary low-light performance and super clean, sharp images.) There is no other company producing such a sensor and this is just the first place where the X100s is different. The sensor on the X100s (like the one on the Nikon D800e) doesn’t have an anti-alias filter. Instead Fuji uses what they call a color filter matrix (whatever that is) to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, Adobe Camera Raw doesn’t quite know what to do with it – more on that in a minute.
Fuji has also developed a new hybrid viewfinder. Most cameras in this class use an electronic view finder, but Fuji figured out a way to make a cross-over viewfinder that gives you both an optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder. It’s not only different, it’s amazing. It’s quirky and takes a few days to get used to, but once I got the hang of it I found myself thinking (“Why isn’t everyone doing this?”) I prefer an optical viewfinder every time.
The camera has a fixed focal length lens (23mm f/2) EFL of 35mm f/2. So in some ways it might be tempting to consider this no more than a point and shoot or pocket camera, but it is much more. And it will only fit in your pocket if you’re big like me! Regardless of how you classify it, the technology and the results it generates are both very sophisticated and professional.
The camera handles well. Because of its overall quirkiness you need to shoot with it a while before you get comfortable. But it’s rock solid and well-constructed. It offers a die-cast magnesium alloy top and base plate. While it’s solid, it doesn’t feel heavy. In fact, it feels downright light.
Like other mirror-less cameras I’ve tested, battery life is nothing to write home about. I got between 250 and 275 shots per charge depending on how I used the camera. I’d suggest buying a second battery when you get the camera. Heck I’d suggest getting three. One problem with the camera is the battery life indicator is sort of like a fuel gauge on a motorcycle. It says you have a full tank, then 3/4 and then half and thenthen nothing. The battery dies off pretty much right after you get to the half-way point on the battery meter. Fuji should tune this up in the next firmware update.
If you read the reviews of the original X100 you might be worried about the camera’s autofocus. Well no need to. The AF is just fine. It’s not lightening-quick like the Olympus OMD but it’s not far behind. There is also a neat option to allow focus peaking (used typically in video cameras) that aides in manual focus. A fellow who is famous for reviewing cameras he’s never seen says the manual focus ring isn’t that easy to use. I completely disagree. In my opinion, the Fuji X100s is one of the easier cameras in the world to manually focus. And while the focus peaking doesn’t work as well as it might in a video camera, it works well enough. There is also an option that allows you to use an old-fashioned split-prism (found in most rangefinder cameras) to manually focus. My eyesight isn’t good enough to use this feature but I also like the custom setting that allows you to just touch the manual focus ring, and the camera zooms to 100% of the center of the image. Olympus offers this on some of its cameras, including the OMD and I really like it. In most cases I just use autofocus with great results.
The Fuji lens fitted to the X100s is very sharp. It’s a just a tiny tad soft wide open (not distressingly so) but f/2.8 and beyond it’s spot on and ultra-sharp. It also has amazing close-focusing distance (0.21 meters.) Did I mention the lens is sharp? Well it really, really is. And it provides a very pleasing bokeh. The distortion on the lens, even wide open is almost immeasurable. Oh and one more astounding feature offered with this lens – it uses a leaf shutter. Yep you can use 1/800th of a second sync shutter speeds (the shutter sync speeds depend on how much you stop down.) This is great for using flash outdoors or in bright or backlit conditions. It’s also dead quiet. This camera is quieter than any camera I’ve shot with in a blimp. You could shoot movie stills all day with this and nobody on set would even notice. If stealth is your game, then this is your camera.
The camera also comes with a cute little built-in flash that’s perfect when you just need a little catchlight in the eye. If you know what you’re doing, you can actually use it to overpower harsh sun for a little fill on the face or a nice catchlight. It’s actually useful. It also acts as a trigger for optical slave strobes.
In the field I started my tests shooting the Fuji in JPG mode. The only other Fuji digital camera I ever tested worked well in this mode but I can safely say that jpegs from the X100s are simply the best out of the camera jpegs I’ve ever seen. Period. The color is magnificent, skin tones perfect and overall look enjoyable. This may be the first camera I’ve ever owned that I won’t shoot full-time in RAW mode.
Even in jpeg mode the camera seems to have a very wide dynamic range. And since you’re using a fast lens, Fuji throws in a built-in, three-stop ND filter to help knock down the light on bright days. I’ve been saying for years someone needs to do this and Fuji is the one to get it right. Man I love this feature.
I like that you can shoot in square format or 16×9 or 3×2, etc. This helps pre-visualize the scene. I also like playing with the art filters. Some of them are pretty good. I was less impressed with the in-camera panoramic stitching. It works better in scenes without solid color. There’s plenty of banding (which you can remove in post) but it’s just easier to stitch panos in Photoshop.
The meter is solid. The camera response time is good. The image quality – well that is freaking amazing. IQ is all that matters to me when I select a camera and the X100s has stupendous image quality. Up to ISO 1600 the camera is superb. Even at ISO 3200 it’s very good. The noise there isn’t the kind that stands out. I am blown away by the low-light performance of a camera with this size sensor. It’s superior to anything I’ve tested.
You’ve seen me say this is an odd – quirky camera. Here’s an example: The camera does take a while to wake up from sleep so I set mine to high-performance mode and the maximum time before shutting off. It is still very sluggish to come back to life. I find that I have to turn the camera off and back on to wake it up reliably and quickly. Not a deal breaker but something that you should be aware of.
Accessing all the cool features of this camera takes practice. The shutter speed, exposure compensation, and aperture control are all dials. Aperture control is on the lens, where it belongs (older photographers will rejoice at this – we are used to this being how to set the aperture.) You set the “drive mode” by pressing the drive button and then using the scroll wheel to make your selection. This lets you choose single shot, three or six frames per second, multiple exposure mode, auto bracket mode, movie mode, and panoramic mode. The view mode button lets you select between LCD, viewfinder or both. The AE button lets you set your meter mode. The AEL/AFL lock button works as expected. You can cycle between three different info display modes using the display button. There is a command wheel that makes it easy to get to WB, Flash and and Macro mode. There is also a function button that you can assign to do about any job (I have mine set to ISO) and that’s where things become dicey. I would have really liked an actual ISO dial because most of the camera’s controls are buried in nested menus. That function button could come in handy for lots of other features. Thankfully, Fuji took most (not all) of the sting out of the deep menu system with a quick menu button (also called a “Q” button,) Olympus has made these popular. The Q-botton gives you quick and convenient access to the camera’s important functions. You can see the quick menu in either the viewfinder or on the LCD.
With all this cool stuff you’d expect a stiff price tag and you’d be right. The camera cost $1299. You can buy a D7100 for that. You can buy many other low-end DSLR’s with kit lens for much less. And for that kind of money you would think that Fuji threw in the kitchen sink. But oddly, there are a few things missing. There is also no GPS or WiFi. There is no intervalometer. There is no lens hood. (Fuji must be copying Olympus. Come on Fuji. $1300 and no lens hood? Really?) In fact, you can’t even screw on a filter without the Fuji adapter. They sell the hood and the 49mm filter adapter as a kit for under $80 (Fujifilm LH-x100 Lens Hood And 49mm Thread Adapter.) So really, you have to consider the cost of the camera to be $1379 since you can’t really use it without the hood and adapter. (Nickel and dime stuff always bugs me but it’s the way things are.)
It seems that the younger generation care more about what their cameras look like than my generation did. And retro is in. There’s no disappointment here. The X100s has loads of character and lots of folks think it’s an old time camera at first blush. To make it feel even more retro, check out the LC-X100 leather case. Now your ticket is punched at more than $1500, but in for a penny in for a pound.
1. Super sharp lens
2. Amazing, professional-level image quality
3. Lightweight, compact and stealthy
4. Best in-camera jpegs in the world
5. Film-emulation built in
6. Leaf-shutter lens
7. One of the best low-light performing cameras I’ve tested
8. Just plain fun
2. Limited to built-in lens (EFL 35mm) NOTE A screw-on wider-angle adapter is also available for this camera from Fuji. I did not test it.
3. Short battery life
4. Too many nested menus
5. The tripod socket is too close to the battery door making it impossible to use straps like the Black Rapid strap.
6. There is no way to mount a filter to the fixed lens without buying an expensive adapter.
The Fuji X100s is a quirky, odd, retro camera with a fixed focal length lens and it cost more than most DSLRs. But it’s also quieter, smaller and easier to carry than most DSLRs. It’s expensive for sure. But it happens to offer some of the finest in-camera image quality I’ve seen in any digital format and at any price. Those of you who practice the religion of low-light will also be thrilled with its dynamic range and low-light performance up to ISO 6400.
The camera’s competition is not the DSLR, it’s the other retro-style, compact cameras. On paper, the X100s does not stand up well to cameras like the Olympus PEN E-P5 (just announced and untested so I said “on-paper.”) But I doubt that will deter many potential buyers. Fuji has done a good job of marketing this camera and while it has its quirks, I am certain it’s the most fun camera I’ve owned in a long time. It’s worth waiting for.
Street and travel photographers will love this camera. It also has a place in landscape, event and automotive photographers’ cases. The EFL 35mm lens is not ideal for standard portraiture but would be fine for environmental portraits. If you can live with the fixed lens, you could conceivably use this as your only camera and do well.
You can find more versatile cameras and cheaper cameras but you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler camera that delivered perfect jpegs without the need for post-processing and stellar image quality.