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Friday, May 10, 2013

Rediscover Photography with the Fuji X100S



Just a couple of short months ago, I was browsing one of my favorite tech blogs (Engadget) when I ran across an announcement for the Nikon Coolpix A, a relatively tiny camera with a massive APS-C sensor crammed in. As a gadget-head, that certainly got my attention. However, what ended up piquing my interest even further wasn't the article, but rather a number of reader comments referencing the Fuji X100S. I like to pride myself in being well appraised of new technology announcements, but here was something I had never heard of. “Fuji? Didn't they used to make film? What are they doing now?” I thought. 

I can say with absolute certainty that I’m now fully aware of what Fuji is doing, and I’m very impressed. So impressed, in fact, that I quickly ditched my Sony RX100, cashed in a bunch of Southwest Airlines miles (that I earned while playing the frequent flyer game) for Amazon gift cards, and bought myself a shiny new X100S. 

After a few weeks with it, I’ve decided that it’s time to share my impressions. I thought I had learned the basics of photography in the three years since I took up this hobby, but the X100S has taught me that I have so much more to learn. Even those of you who have been shooting for much longer than I have, will definitely want to take note of this camera. It very well could encourage you to rediscover photography all over again. 

 “Wow” becomes a reality

When I wrote my Sony RX1 post last year, I never thought I’d soon own a camera that wowed me nearly as much as that one did. No, the X100S doesn't have a full frame sensor like the RX1, but it nails so many other areas that it doesn't seem to matter much anymore. Even if I could have afforded the RX1, I think I would have been seriously jealous of the hybrid viewfinder in the X100S (more on that later).

The X100S is such an impressive camera that it has gotten the attention of a number of pros. Many have ventured out with it on serious gigs and come back impressed. Some have even shot weddings with it! I’ll list a number of reviews by professional photographers at the end of this post that will show you what this camera is capable of in the most experienced of hands.

A couple of reviews were so impressive that I have to mention them right now. They come from two well-respected professionals. The first is by David Hobby (aka The Strobist). He goes in depth with the X100S in this review.

Update 5-16-13: I just found this great video by David in which he goes through all of the camera's features in detail:


Another review you simply must read is by the hilariously funny (and talented) Zack Arias. I’d say his review is THE review to read if you only have time to read one. Read his story about a camera walking into a bar here. Also, check out the very well-done accompanying video below:


What really blew me away about X100S, is that it's so good that I found many comparing it to the RX1. I would never have imagined that these cameras would be in the same league, much less hear people suggesting that you buy one over an RX1 (even if cost isn't a factor). Don’t believe me? Check out this video from Digital Rev comparing the two in a hilarious “Battle of the X's”. 


What I love about this camera

The hybrid viewfinder is an amazing piece of engineering. It was the first feature of the camera that really caught my attention, and the biggest feature that is currently unique to Fuji. Check out this detailed explanation from Fuji on how it works. I’m often shooting indoors at close range with my kids, so the electronic viewfinder (EVF) tends to be my mode of choice, as it has no issues with the parallax effect. However, the optical viewfinder is certainly crisper, as well as more useful in bright light. I could get by with just the EVF, but I love the flexibility of having both. The integration of the two, gives you the option to do really sweet things like overlay a histogram on the optical viewfinder, or have it switch briefly to the EVF to display the image that you just captured. Way cool.

High ISO performance that blows most other cameras in the APS-C (and smaller) class out of the water. If you don’t believe me, check out some of these image comparison tools to compare the X100S to your favorite cameras. It's really astonishing to me that I can take a picture at ISO 3200 or 6400 and still have the final image be eminently usable.

I was really impressed by some of the low-light examples in David Hobby’s review above. Here is one of my attempts to replicate the shot he has of his daughter lit by an iPhone screen. My attempt is of my wife, lit only by a distant 75W bulb and a laptop screen. This is SOOC at 1/75s, f/2, and ISO 6400 (!!). I'll admit though, it is soft at f/2 and close range. 

High ISO
SOOC at 1/75s, f/2, and ISO 6400

The fixed, 35mm equivalent, f/2.0 Fujinon lens might turn away some. There are of course times when it will be overly restrictive, but for the most part, I find it liberating. It forces me to think out of the box a bit, consider different angles, and move myself rather than the lens. In doing so, I am also forced to think more about my surroundings which, in turn, ends up causing me to think more about unrelated (but important) things like the source and strength of the light.  I also like that the focal length captures very close to what my eye sees. That’s important to me when I am travelling, as I prefer to capture memories the way I saw them. I know there's a lot of debate about which focal length accomplishes this. For me, I find 35mm to be ideal. Oh, and man is this lens sharp! Check out the tight crop at f/4 below:

Click on the image to see how sharp this is!

Dedicated physical dials that really help drive home the key concepts of photography. One reason I bought this camera, was to learn more about photography. The X100S certainly does that in spades. Sure you can change aperture or shutter speed on just about any high-end camera with a variety of general purpose buttons and wheels, but having dedicated dials really encourages me to use them. For example, I’ve always seen the exposure compensation menu option on other cameras, but never really bothered to futz with it. Now that I have a dedicated dial right at my fingertips, I find myself using it more often to explore what it can do for my images. Take a look at the various dedicated dials and buttons below:



The built-in 3 stop neutral density (ND) filter nearly made me scramble to find my credit card when I first read about it. I’ve always wanted to explore the idea of using ND filters to do things in broad daylight that you normally can’t such as, shoot at wide open apertures, or capture smooth flowing water with a slow shutter speed. The problem was I just never got around to spending the money on high-quality filters. Even if I had, I know the lazy side of me wouldn't have wanted to stop what I was doing to dig into my gear bag, find the filter, spin it on the lens, then reverse the process when I was done with a handful of shots. Sounds stupid, but that little bit of extra inconvenience or time is often enough to discourage me from trying new things. Having a built-in physical ND filter that can swing into the optical path at the press of a button is beyond awesome. Once again, an X100S feature is helping expand the depth of my photography skills.

The huge APS-C 16MP X-Trans sensor was a major draw for me. Ever since I picked up my first DSLR, I’ve been looking for a camera will allow me to enjoy the benefits of a large sensor camera, without having the bulk of a DSLR body. I’ve finally found that camera. Fuji really likes to tout the advantages of the unique pixel array in their X-Trans sensor. I’m not sure I buy into all that marketing just yet, but I have yet to be disappointed by the images it produces. See the difference between the standard Bayer pattern on most sensors, and the X-Trans pattern first introduced in the Fuji X-Pro1 here.

The built-in flash actually does work well, and the EXR II processor does an amazing job of compensating for it to produce natural looking images. I don’t use a flash often, but usually any built-in flash is beyond useless to me. This, on the other hand, is one I actually plan to experiment with.  Here’s an example using the fill-flash with one of my boys (Small contrast and highlight adjustments have been made in Lightroom. The image is also cropped):

Fill Flash Example
Example of the Fuji's great fill-flash

Manual focus features that are actually very useful. I’ve never used manual focus in the past. I simply don’t trust my eyesight. The X100S has two cool manual focus aids that I love. They really work too! I find focus peaking to be the most useful, but digital split image is fun to experiment with as well. Watch a demonstration of the two manual focus aids below:


Stellar build quality that matches what I would expect from a $1300 camera. I really have nothing bad to say about the materials used. Everything about the design is highly polished. The nostalgic retro look of the X100S might be what initially attracts those who used to shoot film, but it was actually a little off-putting to me at first. However, the design has really grown on me, and I like that it stands out in a crowd. It stands out so much, in fact, that the Strobist covered his in gaffer tape to reduce the “steal me” quality it exudes.

Dynamic Range (DR) and Film Simulation bracketing modes that really help me learn more about the camera’s features. I can’t believe that I’ve spent three years on this hobby, and never learned about DR. The DR bracketing mode clarified this concept for me real quick by taking three photos in succession (one each at 100%, 200%, and 400% DR). In certain situations (like a backlit subject) I was able to clearly see the difference between these modes.

Fuji has also been known for years for their wide array of film products. The X100S includes an interesting film simulation mode that lets you alter the image characteristics to emulate these old films (such as Provia, Velvia, and Astia). I really couldn't decide at times whether or not I liked a certain film simulation. This film simulation bracketing mode takes the stress out of the decision by taking three successive shots with a different film simulation for each (the three chosen simulations can be customized in the menus). I'm then able to compare them in post and decide what looks best. 

What don’t I like?

There's a lot to love about this camera, but nothing is perfect. None of these were deal breakers for me but they could be for you. 

No Image Stabilization (IS) is both a con and a blessing. There is no doubt that it can help in certain situations. I used to have this be a mandatory requirement when buying a camera or lens, but now I’ve accepted the loss of it. I realize that it was a crutch that I relied on far too much. I still do miss it though. Perhaps I’m still not over my IS addiction.

The low resolution screen isn't the end of the world, but I’ve gotten used to the 1.04 million dot resolution of my DSLR screen. Having a little less than half the resolution on the X100S is noticeable when coming down from a higher-res display. Does it affect the quality of my pictures? No, but it would have been nice for reviewing them on-site. I just find it to be an incredibly curious omission on a $1300 camera. How much more could the part have cost Fuji? I’d have paid $1350 for that. Perhaps it was a concession to accommodate for the poor battery life of the X100S (relative to a DSLR).

On that note, it’s the battery meter, not the battery life, that I lament most. No, the battery life isn't great, but the battery is small and cheap. I bought a second one and moved on. What really annoys me, is that the camera will display three out of three bars of battery life for a very long time, then two, followed very suddenly by one…and then you’re done. Two out of three bars does not mean 67% power remaining. Rather, it means more like 10% power remaining. If you see two out of three bars on the battery meter, change the battery as soon as you are able. If you see one bar, do it immediately lest you miss a critical shot. Why can’t camera manufacturers take a page from the smartphone playbook and display battery life as a percentage? Seems like an ultra simple software tweak to me. 

I wish it was a little more compact than it is. If you’re coming down from a DSLR, the size will seem diminutive. I bought this camera to replace high-end compacts that I’ve used in the past such as the S95 and the RX100. From that perspective, the X100S seems huge. That said, when I’m shooting, it really doesn't bother me all that much. I end up getting lost in taking pictures, and in the end, the pictures are all that matter. If you care about something “pants pocketable”, I don’t think photography is the hobby for you.

You’ll need to rethink your case and lens cap strategy if you opt to use the lens hood or a filter. Once the accessory ring and lens hood are attached, you can no longer use the stock lens cap. I find this to be a bizarre design oversight from Fuji considering the attention they've given to every other aspect of the camera. You’ll also need a much larger case to accommodate the camera with the hood attached. Yes, I realize that I can remove the hood when I don’t need it, but if I take it off, I’ll be less likely to have it with me when I do need it. See my recommendations for overcoming this con in the accessories section below.

Raw support is limited at the moment as popular image editing tools have yet to master the X-Trans pixel array. The big names like Lightroom and Aperture support it, but I’ve seen enough articles to suggest that things aren't quite perfect yet. I am happy with the JPEG output though, so this really isn't an emergency for me right now.

Autofocus speed is good but not great. It has supposedly been improved from the older X100 model (which I’ve never used), but I still wouldn't describe this as blazing fast. At least not by DSLR standards that is. It’s plenty quick for most situations, but I occasionally miss shots of my VERY fast moving kids. Fuji claims it has the fastest autofocus in the world right now. I don’t believe that at all. It can be very fast in great light, but not in low light. There are also suggestions that the current firmware may have something to do with autofocus speed degradation over the early units tested by pro photographers and review sites. Don’t buy this camera if you’re expecting to become a sports photographer. 

The eye-watering $1300 price tag makes me feel like I’m stealing from my children’s college fund. If that price sounds like a lot to you, I’d say that you would understandably be labeled a normal, rational human being. It is a lot of money. It is especially a lot of money if you, like me, aren't earning any money for your photos. If it wasn't for the fact that I had a hefty sum of unused airline miles (that converted to $1100 in Amazon gift cards), I wouldn't even be writing this post.

This camera isn't for everyone

The more you read about the X100S, the more you’ll want one. Be aware though that the X100S is a complicated camera. There is no dial on the top with a green “Auto” setting. The camera has the standard PASM shooting modes, but rather than a single dial to switch between them, you now have a bunch of buttons and dials. You can effectively get auto in the form of the Program mode (P), but you need to know what constitutes that mode and how to manipulate the various settings to get there. 

If you are a beginner to photography, and really want to learn the ins and outs of it, I stand by a comment I made in my DSLR plunge post: Don’t buy a mirrorless camera as your first step up from a point-and-shoot. They are great cameras, but to get to the point where you can really consider replacing a DSLR, you need to spend a lot of money to get an absolutely essential optical or electronic viewfinder. Those just starting out, will serve themselves much better by buying a “cheap” $500 DSLR for learning the basics. I’d liken buying an X100S straight out of the gate, to buying a BMW 5 series right after passing your driver’s test. It’s complicated enough that you might just scare yourself off before you've even gotten started.

So why did I buy it when I’m just an amateur? Well, the X100S is a fantastic camera for learning photography, and I am using it to do just that. With that in mind, I do still suffer from Gear Acquisition Syndrome, and I’m trying to save you from falling into the same trap. I started with a DSLR and don’t regret it, but I moved too quickly to more expensive gear.

Useful Tips

Here are just a couple of quick tips to save you some of the grief I experienced out of the box. For some reason, my camera came by default with the rear screen set to an info display that can’t be used to compose the image. Perhaps Fuji wants to show off their hybrid viewfinder and force me to use it? I spent many frustrating minutes digging through menus to change this. In the end, all I had to do was press the DISP/BACK button once. Ooops.

The second tip applies to those that prefer to shoot in continuous drive mode. I’m usually taking rapid-fire pictures of fast-moving children, so I switched to this mode immediately. Within minutes, I discovered I couldn't zoom in on images in playback mode. It took me a very long time to realize that this was connected to my act of switching drive modes. As it turns out, Fuji has some bizzaro “feature” where images that are taken in a single burst get named differently and sorted into sets in the playback mode. Before you can zoom in on an image, you first have to press down on the command dial to enter the set, THEN you can zoom in. This is mentioned briefly on page 59 of the user manual

Other useful tips can be found by perusing the very active discussion boards in the Fuji X-Forum. There’s the general X100S forum, as well as useful pinned discussions like these tips that apply to both the X100 and the X100S. I’ve also been exposed to a great deal of information by following the Fuji Rumors site.

Last but not least, Fuji frequently releases firmware updates, so keep a close eye on their firmware page, or just watch the forums above. It is entirely possible that a firmware update may improve the auto focus speed in the future.

Accessories

As with most cameras, but especially the X100S, you can go completely accessory crazy if you want to. I didn't go crazy, but it did take me a long time to assemble a kit that I felt was complete. Much of this is subjective in nature, but this list may save you a lot of time. For even more suggestions, check out this forum.

Lens Hood: If you are going to buy a hood, get this third-party JJC hood from Amazon. The color matches the X100S perfectly and it is four times cheaper than the authentic Fuji version (which you can find if you prefer at Amazon, Adorama or B&H). If the hood doesn't fit tightly at first, follow this tip. Also, if you are like me and couldn't figure out how to get the stock lens ring off in order to install the hood, watch this helpful video:


Lens Cap: As I mentioned in the cons, you will have to get a new lens cap once you start using the hood. You could also choose to use a lens filter full-time to act as a cap, but I just can’t bring myself to do that. As heinous as it might seem to Fuji acolytes, the best pinch-style lens cap I found was a Sony model originally intended for their competitive NEX line. This is a perfect fit with the filter below. I don’t use a filter full-time though, so instead I have an empty filter ring attached with the glass removed. The hood can click directly into the X100S accessory ring, but my own paranoia prefers a little more separating the cap from the lens, and having the ring on there makes it a little easier to attach the cap when sticking my fingers inside the hood. This lens cap can be found at Amazon, Adorama, or direct from Sony

B+W 49mm Multi Coated Filter: I only use filters when I absolutely need them. When I do have one on, I refuse to use a cheap, uncoated filter in front of an expensive lens. Do yourself a favor and buy a nice B+W or Hoya filter. The good news is that at 49mm, even the high-end filters are relatively cheap. The B+W F-Pro mount has the perfect amount of depth to accommodate a pinch cap. Don’t make the mistake I initially made by purchasing the seemingly better XS-Pro mount. That is a slim filter that will NOT work with a pinch cap. See the difference between the two below. The 49mm F-Pro mount with a multi-resistant coating can be found at AmazonAdorama, or B&H.

Buy the filter on the left!

Snapr-35 Case: Finding a case that fits the camera with the hood attached was difficult. The Snapr-35 works very well, and has ample room for a spare battery, memory card, filter, cleaning cloth, etc. It is bulkier than I would have liked, but such is life if you want to keep the hood permanently attached. Find it at Amazon, AdoramaB&H,or direct from the manufacturer.

Extra Authentic Fuji Battery:  Don’t even think about this one. Buy a second battery. This is one area I don’t trust Amazon for as there are hoards of imitations being passed off as authentic. Buy an extra NP-95 from  Adorama, or B&H.

Gordy’s Wrist Strap? Extra emphasis on the question mark. Some prefer neck straps, I prefer wrist straps. Had I known I would eventually buy the Snapr-35 (which comes with a useful wrist strap), I may not have bought the Gordy's strap. A great many X100/X100S owners rave about this strap, but I’m not entirely sold on it.  I find it pretty uncomfortable. I decided to keep using it for now to see if my opinion changes as the leather softens. I bought the lug-mount model which was crazy difficult to attach. I ended up switching out the circular attachment ring that came with it, for the triangular one that comes with the X100S. I found that to be more comfortable. You might like the string mount model (which is easier to attach), but I’m not sure I trust the strength of the string. Buy it direct at Gordy’s Camera Straps (lug mount, or string mount).

Fast Memory Card: You will definitely want a fast memory card if you shoot in RAW+Fine JPEG as I’ve been fond of doing lately (I usually use the JPEGs and keep the RAW files on Bitcasa just in case). Read more about my SD card of choice here.

Accidental Damage Warranty: Whether you should buy this or not all depends on your level of risk tolerance. Given that I knew I’d be shooting around damage-prone children, I decided that a good warranty was a logical investment. I’ve never had to use a SquareTrade warranty, but I hear good things about them. I bought a 2 year SquareTrade plan from Amazon ($20 cheaper than buying direct from SquareTrade). Learn more about what it covers here.

Optional Tom Abrahamsson Soft Release: Some people swear that these things allow you to shoot a stop slower. I’m not sure I believe that, but I am hopeful it will help. Beyond that, I just think it looks cool. This is yet another thing the X100S has taught me about photography. I'd never even heard of a soft release prior to owning this camera. It's available in five colors at the Photo Village.

Sample Images

Below is a small sample of some of the shots I’m proud of so far. Most of what I have are shots of my family. You can find more of my work at: www.emmanuelcanaan.com

Simple Joy

Crazy sharp, and crazy cute!

Sharp!

Very Sharp!

Sharp Kitty

Pondering life

Exploring

Vroom

Imagination

Playing with cars

Spring time fun on the deck

A boy and his ball

Fun with Water

Sleeping at ISO 3200

X100S Low Light

Twins

Colors

Other Reviews

Aside from the David Hobby and Zack Arias reviews, also check out the great reviews below for many additional details and sample images from the X100S:


Let me know if I'm missing any other good ones!

Final Thoughts

If you skipped right to the bottom, here is the tl;dr version: This camera rocks. If you’re a pro that wants a second camera that will go places your DSLR can’t, buy this camera. If you’re a hobbyist that can afford it (and you aren't just starting out), buy this camera. If you’re brand new to photography, don’t buy this camera. Start with something cheaper, learn the basics of photography, discover what it is you want to shoot most, and then buy the inevitable successor if you find that this will suit your needs.  

Lastly, if you found anything useful in this post at all, please do me a favor and use this Amazon referral link to purchase your X100S. I get a small referral credit, and you pay the same price. Note: At the time of writing the X100S has very limited availability. You can track the stock status here.