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.

I chose the images below to illus­trate the pros and cons of the cam­era. The best images from this adven­ture will be posted here in a few days.
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.

Lightroom Maps 02
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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