Fallin'in Love all Over Again:
The Fuji X100s
by Nick Devlin @onelittlecamera
Chinatown Alley, Toronto, April 2012
Fuji X100s, 1/180th, f5.6, ISO 200
A Little Sibling Rivalry
So you're dating this great gal. She's smart, cute, and good company. She seems to really care for you and gives you most of what you need. You take her everywhere. Your friends like her. You think this could be the one. Then, one day, her folks invite you over and introduce you to her sister.
See where I'm going with this?
At first glance, they look just like twins. If you look closely, the younger sister's hair is done a little different, and she's in slightly better shape. For the most part, however, the differences seem trivial. But then she comes over and sits down, and you start to talk. She got a quick wit. Real quick. Smarter than her sister, clearly, and a lot more insightful. Her tastes are more refined and she can hold her own on any topic. And man, she gets you like you've know each other forever! She finishes your sentences and laughs at your jokes. You're in serious trouble brother....
And so it is with the Fuji X100s. So much like her older sister, but with so much more going on beneath the skin.
Because this is a romance-rekindled kind of article, a lot of what follows focuses on improvements on shortcomings over the X100, and things I would still like to see improved. All of that might give the impression that the X100s isn't a great camera in it's own right. It ain't so. If this were a stand-alone review of a brand-new machine, without a rich family history, the bottom line would be this: the X100s is the best rangefinder-style camera Fuji has made. It produces superb images, focuses fast, processes fast and breaks every meaningful barrier to working in low light. All-around it is all good. That said, my detailed review follows.
Good Genes Run in the Family
Any review of the X100s has to begin with family, and the context of where this camera has come from. Starting with the original X100, Fuji began to carve a unique niche for its prosumer cameras, trying to hit the sweet-spot at the convergence of rangefinder-style photography and digital modernity. The defining elements of this genre of cameras are compactness, an organic subject-viewing experience and near-full frame image quality.
Some things Fuji got right immediately. The most obvious is form-factor. The X100 is just about perfect in the hand and an ideal street and travel companion. It's also the most attractively designed camera in its class, indeed perhaps anywhere. So, not surprisingly, the exterior on the X100s has stayed largely unchanged. That's mostly a good thing.
On the inside, the original X100 was revolutionary because it introduced the first ever hybrid viewfinder, allowing the photographer to switch between OVF and EVF shooting. It was good, but not perfect. AF was slow and not sufficiently responsive.
The X-Pro1 took the development of this camera-style a quantum step further, attempting to fully integrate real-time digital crop and focus information with an OVF experience, and with multiple focal lengths. It was also very good, but again not perfect.
The challenges for Fuji's machines have always been AF speed and overall control layout. To their enormous credit, Fuji virtually re-invented both the X-Pro1 and X100 with mid-model firmware updates that markedly improved performance and usability. Now, in its latest incarnation, with the new 18-55mm zoom, the X-Pro1 has hit new levels of goodness, having basically become a zoom-Leica M, leading to Michael's current infatuation.
And so the X100s hits the scene.
Arrival, NYC, April 2013
Fuji X100s, 1/80th @ f2, ISO 1600
The key new feature in the X100s is the introduction/transplantation of the very fine X-Trans sensor, which premiered in the X-Pro1, coupled with what Fuji touts as vastly improved autofocus and manual focus capabilities. This latest iteration of the X-Trans has phase-detection capabilities built right into the sensor at points close to the centre of the image. Fuji tells us that tells allows the the camera to focus much faster than its predecessor. So is the hype true?
Well, to some extent, yes. The X100s is a bit faster to focus than the X100. I say "a bit" because I didn't do any formal testing -- not sure even how one would do that in the real world -- but rather just picked up the camera and went shooting.
With the latest firmware, the X100 is already "ok". To my eye, the X100s is "better than ok". It doesn't focus like a laser-guided missile locking down on target. If you look closely, the lens still moves a lot through the range. Focusing isn't instant. It is, however, very good. The biggest improvement I sensed was in 'positiveness'. It seemed to have less trouble, less often. Only once in a week did the camera fail to pull focus on the first try. This isn't meant to be a case of damning with faint praise. Focus had simply come a long way in the X100 and the X100s clearly improves on that. But that improvement feels less dramatic than Fuji seems to suggest. The OM-D still feels faster, as does my D800, though the difference is less relevant than it was before.
Perhaps the best summation on autofocus is that it works well enough for pretty much any application this camera will be put to. In particular, it is no longer the obstructionist annoyance it was when the X100 first came out. The AF won't cause you any agro. Good enough for me.
Low Light Performance
The more significant development, in my mind, is that the autofocus can see in the dark. It was able to focus in light levels approach EV -6. It focused on my cat in the sink at midnight with only reflected street light to see with. Why I am taking pictures of my cat in the can in the middle of the night is a whole other story, but should your photographic perambulations take you into the outhouses of Borneo under a full moon, rest assured, any rare felines co-inhabiting the facilities will be autofocused-upon accurately.
Seriously, though, this thing sees in the dark. Walking the streets of NYC at night, I was able to focus readily on passersby, in conditions that would have been a real challenge with the best rangefinder. You will run out hand-steadying ability four or five stops before you run out of AF. This is truly impressive.
Coco66, Brooklyn, April 2013
Fuji X100s, 1/60th @ f4, ISO 3200
Fuji is really excited about the new manual focus-assist technologies on the X100s. First, they fixed the focus-throw. No longer does one have to crank the dial like a boxcar brakeman to move the lens. Focusing is much faster and smoother than with the X100, and eminently usable. No, it still doesn't feel like a Leica. Not anything like it. This is still fly-by-wire focus in all its (lack of) glory. But it's much improved. The second major set of improvements in aid of manual focusing are the introduction of focus "peaking" and a faux split-screen effect, which simulates the DSLR focusing screens of old.
Peaking is so-so, because, for now, the shimmering outlines can only be drawn in white. This makes it far too easy for the "peaks" to blend with highlights on the EVF screen. White is, simply put, the least useful colour for focus-peaking. Red or yellow are far preferable, which is why they are found on most other implementations of this technology. The choice of white is a mystery, which may have some technical reason I'm not privy to. The Fuji folks warned me about the white-only peaking even before they put the camera in my hand, so they know this is an area for improvement. Hopefully, a firmware update can do the trick. Given Fuji's terrific track-record on improving cameras with user-driven firmware updates, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this fixed.
But none of this impairs the usability of manual focusing much, since the split-screen effect is so much better that most users will consistently chose it over peaking. The split-screen effect has to be seen to be understood, but it looks a lot like an old-school ground-glass with a split microprism centre. It works really quite accurately, or so I am told.
You see, I have a confession to make. In a bit over a week with the X100s, I totally forgot to try the manual focusing in real world use. Just plain forgot. I had every intention of doing it, but when I actually got out with the camera it never even crossed my mind. Why? Because manual focusing is dead. Dead, dead, dead. Like Myspace and Osama bin Laden.
We Need to Talk
So this is where the haters will get all worked up. Manual focus is how artists work. Real Photographers focus their own cameras. Zone focusing is key to successful street shooting. Blah, blah, blah. Bullshit, I say. Focusing is not a sport, or a hobby or a religion. It's a necessary evil. And machines now do it better than humans. Way better, way faster, way more accurately than we do. I say this as someone who shot NHL hockey with manual focus 80-200mms and 300mms, and will be buried with my Mamiya 6. But I am also someone who wants my camera to become one with me as much as possible and who has seen the results of less than absolutely precise focusing with current digital sensors.
A truly modern camera focuses quickly, accurately, often with little light, and at the spot in the frame where the photographer wants it to. The X100s does that. Case closed.
Playground Abstraction, Toronto, April 2013
Fuji X100s, 1/480th @ f5.6, ISO 200
In-Hand -- Shooting with the X100s
The X100s is mostly a pleasure to work with. It is light, small, discrete and utterly silent. By comparison, the buzzy whirring of a Leica M9, or even the more refined sound of the M240, seem jarring. Now, as others have pointed out, it is a tad eerie to use a completely soundless camera. Working without the usual audio and vibrational feedback that tells you a picture has been taken requires some head-space adjustment. But you get over it, fast. A silent camera is a great blessing, and the X100s is the best yet.
In fact, if you turn off its various chirps and tweets, the only sound the X100s makes is the occasional groan and curse emanating from its user. You see, all is not yet perfect in the land of AF selection.
The greatest potential strength of hybrid viewfinders is their ability to project multiple focus points, theoretically anywhere in the field of view, and let the photographer select to the point of focus from these. In street and travel work, this has to happen quickly. The X100 and X-Pro1 could do this, but not quickly, because the manoeuvre required pressing a button on the left side of the back of the camera, exactly under when any right-eyed photographer's nose rests. In effect, you had to take the camera away from your eye to press a button before changing focus points. Shot missed.
I lamented this, as did others, and Fuji listened. Thus, on the X100s, the "AF" button now finds itself in the 12 o'clock position on the multicontroller. Nice.
But here's the catch. You still have to press the "AF" button first, every time before you can use the multi-controller to change focus points. I just want to change points NOW, quickly, in real time. Consequently, I usually forget and just press the multicontroller without engaging the "AF" function. This then brings up some other function, costing me the shot. ARGHH!!!
I must have had this happen three or four dozen times in a week.
So, my request to Fuji: the single most important improvement you can make to this camera is to allow the user to chose a mode in which the Multicontroller always and without any other input changes the focus point. This could be done through a custom mode or, EVEN BETTER, the focusing ring on the lens could be used to cycle through the focusing points in AF mode! That would be pure genius.
Fuji X100s, 1/80th, f2, ISO 2500
The X100s is armed with the same X-trans CMOS which premiered more than a year ago in the X-Pro1 and is also found in the X-E1. This sensor is a known-quantity, which I discussed in detail in my reviews of those cameras (X-Pro-1) (X-E1) and there's not much more to say about it. In those reviews I called this "the best APS-C sensor in the business". Strong words, but I stick by them. The imager in the Pentax K5-IIr would give it a run for its money, but we're probably down to the level of quibbles. At 16 megapixels, this sensor may reside in the sweet-spot for this format, and offers awesome performance with a high level of detail.
High ISO performance is superb. Images up to 6400 are entirely usable. Just as with focusing, the light will run out before this camera does. The chip matches the AF performance: the camera simply sees in the dark. I took a lot of shots on the subway in New York City with the X100s, and it never even broke a sweat. The shot above was taken at ISO 2500, and I ran it through Silver Efex just to add some grain and make it feel less smooth and more like 400 ASA film.
The X100s is a professional camera. Take it on assignment, no problem. But it also has some distinctly amateur functions which, truth be told, are a whole lot of fun. Principle amongst these are the "effects" one can generate by choosing various of the toy-camera modes. At the same time, the camera can be set to shoot square. Resist the urge to write to Michael asking him to remind me that cropping exists. Yes, it does. But so does square-format toy camera mode! And damn if it ain't a blast to play with.
Psychedelic Sunday, Toronto, April 2013
Fuji X100s, "Dynamic Colour Mode"
Colour and RAW vs. Jpeg
Fuji is rightly known for great colour performance. The in-camera jpegs from the X100s are as good as most people will achieve with RAW software, and thus completely usable. Skin tones are beautifully rendered and the camera's palette is as rich or muted as you want it to be. Personally, I will still end up shooting in RAW most of the time, as LR 4 now has decent support for the XTrans chip and I prefer the added robustness and durability of a RAW file. However, most users will be totally satisfied to chose either the STD or ASTIA settings and shoot merrily away.
I find the X-trans sensor produces a really nice palette, even at higher ISOs.
Symphony of Flaps, Brooklyn, April 2013
Fuji X100s, 1/80th, f11, ISO 1000
I am thrilled to report that Fuji has totally fixed the glitch in their previous cameras which did not allow the photographer to chose the minimum shutter speed. Auto ISO is now fully user-configurable, and works perfectly.
Fuji has added a "Q" button to the back of the camera, allowing instant access to the main menu controls. Nice. The exposure comp dial is also much "grippier", making it much less likely that you will dial-in "minus 2" by throwing the camera over your shoulder.
I do have one last quibble, however. This may well be out of place in a review of a $1000 camera, but since the X100s is so good, it warrants mentioning what holds it back from being truly great. And that is the fit and feel of the rear controls. Personally, I don't really care for how anything on the back of the camera feels. The controls are too numerous, and don't match the rest of the camera in tactile quality. This is slightly unfair, because my baseline of comparison is the top and front of the camera (which are lovely) as well as the Leica M9. But still, you're only as good as your weakest link. For the X100s, that is the rear control set. There are too many controls (who needs an "AE" or "AE Lock" or "Flash" or "WB" control on the back of a street and travel camera? No one, I wager. If those controls are needed, they can be buried in menus, or the "Q" menu.
The best thing that could happen on the next-gen Fuji is a serious simplification of controls. AND, spending another $25 a camera on buttons. Nice buttons. Expensive, metal-feeling buttons. That small step would take the Fuji to a real "premium" level. It may seem trivial to raise something like this, but a camera is a tactile experience, and the X100s is otherwise so superb, that it's worth mentioning in the hopes of future development.
Otherwise, the X100s is just beautiful to use. It's a real photographers' camera.
Hoops 'n sky, Toronto, April 2013
Fuji X100s, 1/900th @f8, ISO 400
The X100s' Fatal Flaw
Ok, so it's a great camera. It's a DSLR killer for a lot of serious shooters (like Zack Arias whose review is linked here). But it has one problem that no firmware update can fix. It's fucking silver. Shiny, plastic silver. Why, dear God, why? The same thing happened to the X100. Eventually, Fuji produced the gorgeous Limited Edition X100 in Black, which is a work of art. If the X100s were available in black, I'd buy one today. I'm not the only one who feels this way.
David Hobby over at Strobist (a veteran photojournalist and as "real" a photographer as will ever pick up the X100s) raved about this little sweet-heart in his review (which I highly recommend) but didn't take her out until she had been appropriately "de-chromed" with black gaffer's tape. This is only a partial solution, since the dials and lens barrel are still silver. Please Fuji, make it in black. Charge us more. Make us promise to sell our DSLRs. Have us throw in our first born children. Just please make it in black :-)
Ahhhhh, that's Better
Courtesy of David Hobby at Strobist
(Read his excellent review here)
Fuji has momentum, and it's not stopping. While the market for point-and-shoots has been dramatically eroded by smartphones, and APS-C SLRs are under pressure from ever more-capable EVF machines, Fuji has created a vibrant market of retro-yet-ultra-contemporary cameras -- like the X100s. These machines capture perfectly the ethos of hassle-free Instagram-style photography, yet do it in a fully professional package.
Work remains to be done on their control-set, but Fuji has made tremendous strides with this innovative line of cameras. I can't wait to see what they come up with next. In the meantime, let the new street and travel king be crowned!