I just got back from a business trip to California where I shot the Fujifilm X100S for several days. I realized that borrowlenses.com was close to SFO (San Francisco International Airport) and I was able to pop into their facility to borrow the X100S before they closed. A nice option which saved the shipping and handling costs. So here is a report on the camera after using it in San Francisco for 4 days, from a perspective of a Olympus micro 4/3 user.
There is a lot of interest and even hype about the X100S and the interchangeable lens Fuji X cameras lately. I’ve observed this from a distance, researching and playing with them at Precision Camera here in Austin. I’ve got some great results with the small Fuji XF1 that I bought recently so my curiosity for the larger Fuji’s was piqued. As you may also recall, the X100S is the only remaining camera on my watch list.
Here is my disclaimer. 4 days is not a lot of time to get to know a camera, especially one as feature rich as the X100S. I’ll need more time to truly become familiar with the camera. For example, I don’t know if high-performance mode was turned on — I didn’t even know about this mode while using the camera. Would this have affected focusing speed? The online boards seems to give conflicting answers. Despite my novice status with the camera, I was able take loads of great images which really satisfied me. As always, I will sprinkle these photos throughout the post.
Most of the photos were taking around Market Street, SOMA, Union Square and Chinatown in San Francisco. You will see similar scenes from my review of the Olympus EP-5. You can compare those E-P5 images (with the 17mm lens) to ones from the Fuji X100S — both cameras have a 35mm equivalent focal length.
Let’s start with focusing speed. Is the Fuji X100S a fast camera? Well, despite the addition of a phase detect focusing system, it’s not. At least compared to the current generation Olympus micro 4/3 cameras. My entry-level Olympus E-PM2 is noticeably faster focusing in all lighting conditions. The newer Olympus E-P5 and OM-D E-M1 are even quicker. I would categorize the X100S focusing speed as mostly adequate. It reminds me a lot of my first Olympus, the E-PL1. In good light the X100S may be faster than the old E-PL1 but certainly not at night.
In darker conditions, the X100S switches from phase detect to contrast detect focusing. Several reviews said that this camera was still marginal in the dark. This was what concerned me the most and why I wanted to test the camera. I often shoot indoors or at night so low light focusing was essential. I’m happy to report that for my urban landscape photos, the low light focusing was good, reliable and accurate, though not particularly fast. It’s going to be tough to do high-speed street photography at night, however, for stationary scenes it did a fine job. As reported, the X100S greatly improves focusing speed over its predecessor. I used my friend’s X100 and in low light. I found it completely frustrating. Not so with the X100S.
Operational speed was fine but not snappy. There are slight delays when hitting the preview button and scrolling through photos. In general, there is certain roughness to the operation. Small delays and behaviors to the interface that doesn’t seem refined like the latest generation Olympus. Overall, the camera speed and interface encourages a slower paced, deliberate approach. This is not necessarily a bad thing and it feels in sync with the type of camera this is. The Olympus micro 4/3 cameras are now challenging DSLRs for speed. This Fuji is meant for a different kind of photography.
I enjoy shooting the Olympus more because of its blazing speed and its compact size however the Fuji X100S was fast enough for me. I had to be more careful and think about the shot. And this deliberate approach could be a positive which might improve my photography. There is more of a meditative quality to using this camera.
The Fuji has a larger APS-C sensor and it certainly shows. ISO 6400 looks great while on the Olympus I shoot at a max of ISO 3200 — so there is a least a 1 stop advantage for the X100S. This however is offset somewhat with the Fuji’s lack of image stabilization. I shot at 1/30 second using the EVF to yield consistently sharp images. If I tried, sometimes 1/15s was possible, but less likely. With the Olympus in-body image stabilization 1/15s, 1/10s or even slower is possible. For non-action shots, this gives the low light advantage to Olympus, despite its smaller sensor.
Dynamic range is becoming more important for me. I shoot in HDR to increase dynamic range, but this is a pain to do. Certainly, I would prefer to capture the bright areas and dark shadows without resorting to HDR. Many of the Fuji cameras have a special dynamic range (DR) function that I find intriguing. It seems to work well on my XF1 and this is something I wanted to test with the X100S. I shot these photos with DR400. While not a huge difference, I find Fuji are better than the Olympus. And the Olympus is no slouch. Believe it or not, I find that my Olympus E-PM2 has more dynamic range than my full frame Canon 6D. So that extra Fuji dynamic range boost is a big deal.
Fujifilm along with Olympus are known for their great color. I prefer them over Canon, Nikon and especially Sony. I haven’t decided which I like better. It’s also fun to play with Fuji’s film simulation modes. I never shot film seriously so I can’t tell you how good these simulations are but they do render a different look. I shot most of these photos in Velvia, which is the most saturated simulation. I wouldn’t use it for portraits but I wanted to amp up the colors of the city at night. I still, however, end up tweaking the images in post anyway, even when I shoot in JPEG. I also think Fuji’s auto white balance is superior to Olympus’, especially in complex mixed light.
The Fuji’s seem to shoot brightly, which I like. I found this similar characteristic with both the XF1 and the X100S. Images are not overexposed but they do generally have less contrast and sort of a slightly washed out appearance. In post, I add a bit of contrast which makes them pop nicely. I prefer this to the Sonys, for example, which are too underexposed. I find the Olympus to be in the middle but I still brighten these images in post. The Fujis might be the first system where I more often darken the photos rather than lighten.
The most amazing thing about Fujifilm is their JPEG engine. I shot these photos in RAW + JPEG. Surprisingly, when I compare the Fuji RAWs vs the Olympus RAWs they look very similar, at least in Aperture 3. The colors are similar and the exposures are similar. Much of the Fuji color, dynamic range expansion and exposure seems to happen in their RAW conversion. And I am hard pressed to duplicate what Fuji does to create their JPEGs, especially how they recover highlights from overexposed areas. With very few exceptions, I prefer the JPEGS over the RAWs. With Olympus as well as Canon and Sony, I prefer to tweak the RAWs.
Many people online as well as my friend Mike have said how they love the Fuji JPEGs and that they didn’t need the RAWs. I admit I was skeptical about this but I’m a believer now. Perhaps you can go through a bunch of rigmarole or use special presets to get better results from RAW. But for me, through Aperture, I’m happy with the JPEGs. About the only weakness I’ve seen so far is in the reds. I found that the Fuji JPEG reds tend to be more orange. The underlying RAW generally captures deeper reds but the JPEG conversion seems to mess this up sometimes.
The photo on the left was the JPEG created by the Fuji. Notice that the Hunan sign is a dull orange. The one on the right is the RAW file. The deep red is what the sign originally looked like. The reds are not always affected this badly as you can see from other JPEG examples. I didn’t get to test this but I’m wondering if the in-camera DR400 setting caused this color shift. I often notice that in post processing, reds particularly seem to be susceptible to color changes.
Is it worth using RAWs for certain cases? Perhaps. I don’t do product photography so accurate color is usually not critical. Color for me is a way to express mood and I manipulate color to what I think looks good, whether or not it’s accurate. However, this example above is particularly egregious.
Believe it or not, the ability to do subtle fill flash is important for me. I would use this most often for my family snapshots where I want to capture background details while still maintaining good exposure on my subjects. Typical flash systems produce that over exposed flash look and the background is rendered dark or almost black. There are ways to counteract this by reducing flash output and doing a slow sync. But these are time-consuming and fiddly. Fuji’s Super Intelligent Flash system does this automatically.
Here you can see that that the fill flash has lit the trumpeter on the photo on the right. Without fill, the person looks dark. Notice that even with the flash, the X100S has maintained detail in the background.
The Olympus has a conventional flash system. Intelligent flash is one of the main reasons I am looking at a Fuji camera. However, I really wish the X100S has face detection, this makes the flash system and exposure setting work even better. The Fuji X-E2 has this so hopefully a future firmware update will add this feature. Face Detection is also important when I hand the camera to a novice. Explaining half-press focus and recompose is a pain.
The photo of the cable card operator above also used fill flash. However, the flash blended with the ambient light so well that you can barely tell. The flash added some light in the foreground to brighten the operator.
Using the X100S is entirely different from Olympus, and it’s not just because of the manual, aperture, shutter and exposure compensation dials. However, because I use Fuji XF1 point and shoot, it’s helped me to more quickly understand the X100S interface.
Apparently, the previous X100 menu system was a mess but I find the X100S’ menu to be decent. Certainly it’s not as bad as Sony’s NEX interface. There are a lot of thoughtful shortcuts with the X100S that make it a usable camera. I prefer more function buttons and ironically the inexpensive XF1 point and shoot’s interface beats the X100S in a couple of places. But with practice, the X100S interface should be easier than my E-PM2, though not as good as the very configurable OM-D E-M1 flagship.
Build Quality and Appearance
There is a chunkiness and heft to the camera, but in a good way. It’s a well made metal camera and most everything has a quality feel except for perhaps the rear jog dial. It has a wonderful retro, old world appearance that I find very attractive. The Olympus E-P5 has a superior build, but I prefer the look of the X100S. The EVF is not an afterthought or an appendage like with the E-P5.
I’ve always like the way the X100 looked. It had enough quirks and slow focus, however, that I knew it would drive me crazy. The X100S fixes many of these quirks. It makes it an acceptable camera for speed, especially if you want something of a deliberate, contemplative camera. Perhaps for me, it’s a poor man’s Leica. A Leica M is wonderfully constructed but I can never fathom spending $10,000 for it. At $1,300 the Fujifilm X100S is more palatable, even for someone like me that already owns too many cameras.
I’m really happy with the image quality I’ve gotten. I think it’s a notch above the Olympus. The X100S is not as versatile as an Olympus E-P5 and certainly something like an OM-D E-M1 would run rings around the faux-range finder X100S. However, it’s fun to play with different kinds of cameras and certainly the X100S is very different. It gives me the illusion of a return to a simpler time, in the past, where things were less busy and you bought well made machines that lasted a long time. I know this is only an illusion and the electronics in the Fuji can break or become obsolete as fast as any modern camera.
I’m going to hit the half century mark next year and I’m already shopping for my special birthday gift. The Fujifilm X100S is still on my watch list. Perhaps it’s a sign that my photography is maturing. DSLRs and speed are no longer the most important. Small, elegant and beautiful are beginning to hold more attraction these days.