Photography

Fuji X100S Hands-on Review.

I’ve put this little thing through every imaginable shooting situation, and tried most, if not all, of its settings, shooting more than 8,200 images on four different assignments in 5 countries in less than a month’s time. And yeah, I know, I’m almost a year late to the Fuji party.
But, as I tell my students who seem to be magnetized to the flatiron building after moving to New York, it doesn’t matter if other people have photographed or written about the same subject that you are interested in. It’s exciting to see how each of us uniquely interprets our surroundings. So, here are my personal impressions of the Fuji X100S.

It is important to mention that I am not being paid by Fuji, or anyone else for that matter, to use the camera or write this review. I’m doing this just as a way to give back to the photo community, so if you are inclined to purchase this system, please consider using our Amazon link. It won’t cost you a penny more, and it would definitely allow us to spend more time working on projects like this:

Why the hype?
The Fuji X100S is a small and light, retro-looking 16MP APC-C magnesium body camera with a fixed 23mm f2.0 lens (equivalent to a 35mm focal length on a 35mm camera) that captures 14-bit RAW. It looks and feels like a Leica M8 or M9, but it comes in at about a fourth of the price.

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Size and weight
I was going to spend 26 days working in five Asian countries. With a limited amount of free time to explore on my own, I wanted a camera that would allow me to use any form of transportation (biking with a backpack full of lenses and accessories was not an option), that would capture RAW (a cellphone wouldn’t cut it here), and that was inconspicuous (the Canon 70–200mm f2.8 was out).

So, the main reason I chose this system was weight. Many years ago I was willing to carry two bodies with two lenses and a small daypack with water and accessories (monopod, memory cards, filters, batteries, more lenses, cable releases, etc.). Not anymore. I want to travel as light as possible and be able to fit ALL of my clothes and gear in a carry-on rolling backpack.

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When I travel, I break all the rules my mom taught me: I talk to strangers, I eat all kinds of weird food (especially street food), I sleep as little as possible, and I intentionally try to get lost. I enjoy discovering cities on foot, often walking 12 hours in a single day. Deep inside myself, and for some masochistic reason, I also wanted to push the limits of my comfort zone. Not having a set of super-fast zoom lenses with me would be a major restriction—but also a liberation.

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The Macro Mode focuses as close as 3.9″ (10cm). It works great and focusing is fast. Something to keep in mind when using the Macro mode is that if the Optical Viewfinder is on, the camera will switch to the Electronic Viewfinder.

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Day 1. First issue.
After years of using Canon and Nikon DSLR systems, I naively assumed that all camera companies were up to date on battery technology. I was terribly mistaken. If there’s one issue with the X100S it is the battery life. Thankfully, and with proper planning, this is something that can be worked out.

The ONE battery I brought with me lasted a couple hundred images. Assuming I had not charged it completely I went through the same issue the following day. Finding digital gear overseas is often difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Locating batteries for this system in northern Thailand was a nightmare.

If you are planning to buy this camera, I’d recommend getting at least a couple of extra batteries. The original Fuji NP-95 is $38, but you can obtain much cheaper ($10) generic batteries, too. The best deal I’ve seen is this Wasabi kit with two batteries, charger, European plug, and car adapter for $20. A no brainer investment.

Why do you need a second charger? Well, it so happens that the Fuji charger does not tell you the percentage of charge that you have. It is either charging (the light on the charger is on) or full (the light goes off). For some reason, if you take a fully charged battery and attach it to the charger, it can take 10–15 minutes to show that it is full. To add insult to injury, it takes 180 minutes (three hours!) for one NP-95 to charge from dead to full. That’s 50% of the time the battery lasts under normal use without the LCD display. Fuji’s battery charger has no folding plug so it requires a long separate cord. One more thing to pack.

The battery issues continue on the camera: the battery-level meter simply goes from normal to dead in a few images. Just like that. Unlike a DSLR, a mirrorless camera sensor is powered up all the time, even if you are just focusing or reviewing images. If you use mostly the optical finder, turn the “OVF power save mode” on. The display’s info will be dimmed a bit, and the live histogram is no longer available, but it will greatly extend the battery life. I strongly recommend reading pages 18, 36, 41, 47, and 91 from the Camera’s Instruction Manual (available here as a PDF).

On paper, the NP-95 is rated for 300 shots per charge. After all these tweaks, I’m getting an average of 450 shots if I switch from EVF to OVF when possible, if I turn the camera off instead of keeping it on standby mode, and if I don’t use the viewfinder.
That’s a lot of ifs! The battery’s design is also poor, as it allows you to insert the batteries incorrectly and still be able to close the “battery-chamber cover.” You will know if you’ve done it wrong because the camera won’t turn on.

Having the battery life improved to a maximum of 450 pictures gives me about five hours, which is about a third of my working day when traveling. The poor battery performance and long charging cycles were by far the biggest drawbacks using this system on the road.

Focus
On several occasions I could not get the AF to lock, even in bright daylight. In low light the AF does hunt and it is slow. I also had a few instances where the camera “back focused” for no apparent reason.

The AF-C Mode (continuous auto focus mode) was extremely unreliable. The camera is simply too slow to track, lock, and capture a moving subject. Additionally, on AF-C Mode you can only focus on the dead center of the sensor. In my opinion, these two issues defeat the purpose of AF-C.

The manual focus works great. I love the focus peaking feature.

I absolutely love the hybrid viewfinder. It took me a couple of days to realize that the little switch on the front of the camera almost magically changes between the optical and electronic viewfinder.

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Lens
The fixed 23mm f2 lens is very sharp, and impressively corrected for distortion. In combination with the sensor’s ability to capture noise-free images up to 3,200 ISO this makes shooting under low-light conditions bliss.

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Low Light performance.
As you can see, low light performance is impressive. The sensor performs very well up to ISO 3,200 and decently up to 6,400. Relatively long exposures are not an issue.

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ISO 6,400

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1-second exposure

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ISO 1,600 at f2

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Dynamic Range – Highlights and Shadows detail.
Another excellent spec; the detail that this tiny sensor can capture is truly remarkable.

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Movie Mode
If shooting video is extremely important to you, stop reading this right now and consider another camera. The camera offers Full HD (1920 x 1080) at 30fps or 60fps and a decent 36MBps bit-rate. But, to access the video mode, you have to select “Movie” in the drive mode menu. You can’t use the optical viewfinder. Manual exposure can only be modified before you start recording. The ISO and ND are inaccessible while in video mode. In terms of quality, if you have good light, perfect exposure, don’t care about sound, can pre-focus, and the camera doesn’t move, the footage is decent.

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A three-stop neutral density filter is a welcomed feature. Unfortunately, it is not accessible during Movie Mode.

The built-in Panorama works well. 

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Workflow

I download and back up my images at the end of each day when I’m on the road. I also add key captions (locations, names, etc.) and a few general keywords. I wanted to create Smart Previews and edit them in my “down time” (doctors offices, the DMV, and long flights are ideal locations). That didn’t quite work out. On a two-year-old Mac Book Pro and a fast portable external Hard Drive, Lightroom 5 took on average two-and-a-half hours to import 450 RAW images, convert them to DNG, and build Smart Previews, which I still consider the best feature in Adobe Lightroom 5.

So, every night, after a day of working and lots of walking, I’d download the cards through Lightroom and charge the batteries, take a shower, grab something to eat, call my wife, return emails and phone calls, plan the following day, and…continue to wait because neither Lightroom nor the battery were ready.

Future enhancements
• I wish the camera had built-in GPS, which in combination with Lightroom’s Maps Module would make captioning images MUCH easier. My poor-man’s workaround is to simultaneously snap a picture with my cellphone at key locations. Since the phone adds the GPS information to the image I can later copy and paste the GPS coordinates to the relevant RAW and video files. Nothing fancy, but it works.

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Lightroom Maps 01

• It takes an annoying “long press” of the shutter button to wake up the camera from stand-by mode.

• If you’re shooting in burst mode, you can’t review individual images or zoom in/out. The images play back in a pointless slideshow. This was truly frustrating, as you can’t know if you got the desired image until you download the files.

Final thoughts
One day, many moons ago, as a student shooting for a newspaper, the photo editor asked me if I had more than one lens. I proudly answered, “Yes, I have three!” To which he replied, “Then use them! All your pictures look the same.”

That was a serious concern I had about spending a month with a single fixed wide-angle lens. I’m glad to report that the advantages in quality and weight greatly outperform this challenge.

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The Auto White Balance works very well. The custom white balance is close to perfect.

Is this camera going to help me take better pictures?
Cameras are tools, no different from hammers or toasters, when you get down to it. I own very little gear because I prefer to rent the best tool for each job. That way I keep my overhead low and have access to the latest technologies.

That being said, after a few days getting used to the cluttered and somewhat illogical Camera Menu, I felt like shooting with my first Nikon FE-2, except now I had more than 36 frames and could switch the ISO as I pleased. There was, and is, an inexplicable emotional connection with the X100S—a feeling that I haven’t felt in a decade. Technically speaking, the camera is wonderful. But, there’s more to it. I can and want to take it with me everywhere I go. I have been taking more “snapshots” than ever before. I can get closer to my subjects, and shoot silently and almost invisibly.

If you have been drooling over this camera and are ready to pull the trigger, I hope this review provides that extra little push. It’s OK, go ahead and make the jump! You can tell your spouse that it was my fault. Please consider using our Amazon link. It won’t cost you a penny more, and it would definitively help support this site.

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