Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Fuji X-100S is Stylish but Powerful

1/280 sec F/8 @ ISO 800 using Motion Panorama swept vertically and 120 deg





FUJIFILM Holdings Corporation, Japan 

The camera industry is fast moving and brutal. Trends come and go, and if a company invests in the wrong trend or stays in one too long, you can see your company exiting the photo industry, or merging with a larger firm very quickly. That's what happened in the 60s-70's when the Japanese SLR industry overwhelmed the existing rangefinder industry. Many European brands went out of business, famous brands (like Contax) were bought out by newer unknown companies (Kyocera), and even Leica had to team up with Minolta to create a success SLR line-up (Leicaflex was an utter failure). The same thing happened again in the early 2000's with the digital revolution, with household names such as Kodak, Konica, Minolta and Polaroid going from something to nothing overnight. Other companies seem to adapt well to changes, investing in the right thing at the right time, often leading the industry with innovative design and/or technology. Enter Fujifilm.

Yes, the official name still has the word "film" in it, and yes Fuji still produces a wide range of really great films. Coming from the wholesale photofinishing industry, when I think of Fuji I think of their industry leading photo labs and photo paper, solid machines, solid paper. However, in the minds of most consumers, Fuji makes really cool looking digital cameras. What most might not know is that Fuji has a very long history of well designed and innovative cameras, including some very unique medium formats (the first autofocus compact rangefinder 645) and a full frame 35mm panorama cameras (re-labelled in N.America as a Hasselblad XPAN). 

What's trending right now in the photo industry? For the first time in history DSLRs are outselling point and shoots, completely changing the camera shelves at our local electronic retailers. How are companies adapting their R&D and sales focus amid this new retail landscape? Some have focused on the highest volume to survive (Canon has 56 DSLR kits selling at B&H), while others have ventured into new territory by creating new categories, such as  the mirror-less market, including micro 4/3, Sony's NEX system, and Fuji's X series. This new category of no more than 4-5 years old has exploded, and has lead to another new category: high-end, mirrorless point and shoots with large sensors. Welcome the Fuji X-100S. 

1/1500 sec F/5.6 @ ISO 400






Fuji X-100 versus X-100S. Is there a difference?

When I first tested the Fuji X-100 a year ago, I was very excited to play with it. It was beautiful to look at, and felt great in the hands. Most importantly though, it was a technological triumph with its hybrid OVF/EVF, unlike anything else in the industry. It looked like it could take great pictures, but could it? Yes...but not without some issues. In certain situations (non-moving objects) it was great, and in others (moving objects and people) it was a struggle. It also was very tedious to try and manually focus, something the camera looked like it was built to do. In the end, I was undecided about the camera, and I didn't publish a review (I only publish reviews of cameras that I enjoy using). 

A month ago, Fujifilm Canada asked if I wanted to test the new and very popular Fuji X-100S, and I said yes. This new camera, like its predecessor, has stood out as different from the rest of the pack, and has sold very well. So well in fact, that you can't find them anywhere. Amazon.com, B&H, Adorama, Best Buy, they're all sold out, back-ordered, or have very limited stock. In Japan and Canada, Amazon has raised the price $500-600 above MSRP! I think Fuji misjudged how popular this camera would be. That's a good mistake, and I'm sure their production facility in Japan is working overtime to meet world wide demand.

1/1400 sec F/5.6 @ ISO 400 zone focus








Why So Great?

What makes the new Fuji X-100S so popular, and what makes it that much better than the previous X-100? I won't go through a detailed list (Fuji claims 70 improvements), but I think the key features that make the new X100S much improved and "the camera" to buy for 2013 are: image quality improvement, focus speed improvement, manual focus improvement. Anyone who used the previous X-100, the last two improvements were the biggest complaints, and Fuji listened.  

Let's start with the new X-Trans II sensor. The image quality was very good on the X100, but its class leading on the X100S. If you go to DPReview, look at the X100S performance in high ISO performance, change the other cameras to the Ricoh GR, Nikon Coolpix A, and Leica X2, you will see a clear distinction, especially when it comes to noise performance. Dynamic range is amazing, and resolution is improved over the previous version. However, the images are a bit soft at F/2, but stopping it down to F/2.8 sharpens things up significantly, and by F/4 it's sharp edge to edge. Conclusion: the X-Trans II sensor is very good. 


1/2000 sec F/4 @ ISO 1600 zone focus

But you all know I'm not a pixel peeper. As important to me as image quality is ergonomics, handling and functionality; and a key function on any digital camera is focus performance. Has the Fuji improved in the area of AF and manual focus? Significantly so. The autofocus on the X100 was unsure and slow and mis-focused 30-40% of the time, especially if the subject was moving. The new X100S focuses confidently and accurately. It struggles a bit in low light, but this is where the EVF with 3 different types of manual focus comes to the rescue. Although I prefer the split image in regular lighting, focus peaking comes in handy in low light. The EVF gains up really nice, and when using it in conjunction with focus peaking, the white light contrasts nicely against the dark subject. You can pretty much focus in pitch dark and makes focusing manually as accurate as the best autofocus on any system. The focus ring has also been improved over the previous X-100, so no more turning 10 times to go from macro to infinity!


Ergonomics and Handling

The ergonomics and handling of the X-100S (and X-100) is another great feature that makes it popular with photographers. Like the Leica X-Vario which I really enjoyed using, the X-100S has most of the main functions as external dials. Shutter speed dial, aperture ring (slightly narrow but you get use to it quickly), reasonably dampened manual focus ring, exposure compensation dial (+/-2), and EVF/OVF switching are all placed intuitively and within reach. If you do have to dig into the menu, the handy Q button displays the 16 most common functions (jpeg setting, DR, NR, aspect ratio, file type, WB, ISO, etc...) and you can quickly adjust from there. As a wishlist, I thought it would be nice if the user could choose which 16 functions to have displayed and the order within the Q-button feature. This could be an easy firmware update don't you think?  No complaints here though. Overall the Q button is a very well thought out feature and a welcome addition to the X-100S.


1/400 sec F/8 @ ISO 400 zone focus

Before I move on, let's talk about two small complaints I have. First, there's no dedicated ISO button or dial. I know you can program the custom function button next to the shutter as the ISO control (I'm sure 90% of people set it as such), but I think it's probably the most used control feature after shutter speed and aperture, and should be a dedicated button, or even better a dial. I'm not picking on Fuji either, as most manufacturers don't give you a dedicated ISO button or dial (except Leica and the new Ricoh GR, sort of...). 

Another small complaint is the lens cap, or lens cover. It fits over the manual focus ring, and is lined with a well cushioned, velvety material that slips over snug. I'm not use to it, and I was always worried it would slip off while I was walking with the camera slung over my shoulder. I wish it was a proper lens cap, and while walking around, I just decided to keep the lens cover in my pocket for safe keeping. I guess it's more of a preference than a complaint, and if you order the screw-on 49mm adapter ring, you can easily buy a $5 lens cap. Problem solved.



1/210 sec F/2 @ ISO 200




Hybrid OVF/EVF Street Photographer's Dream Camera

There is one feature that is so special on the X-100S (and the X-100 and X-Pro 1) that it's the main reason why I would buy it over its competition, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the hybrid optical viewfinder (OVF). Actually, I should say it's the hybrid optical viewfinder that really got me excited. I tested the X-E1 back in December, and I loved everything about that camera except the EVF. It was fine for static objects, but it was laggy and it just wasn't enjoyable using it. I wanting a bright optical viewfinder, similar to a Leica or an old school rangefinder camera. 

When I finally got to use the OVF in the X-100S, I will say it was superior to any traditional OVF because the Fuji has a digital display overlay that makes it so you don't have to move your eye away from the finder to see your vital stats. What I liked doing was to use the main LCD display as an info display only and use the OVF to show me the essential info, including a large focus distance and DOF scale (see below for an example). Another nice thing about the OVF is that the outer frame moves to compensate for parallax error, and for focus, you will see a double green confirmation box to adjust for parallax. It's pretty accurate from 8-10ft to infinity. Anything closer, switch to the EVF which shows 100% view, which includes shooting in macro mode (OVF turns off in macro mode for obvious reasons).


Use hybrid OVF as main view, and use the LCD panel as main information screen

As a street photographer, I love the OVF because I can see outside the frame and watch subjects walk into my image, no surprises, no mistakes. This is a big reason why street photographers enjoy shooting with Leica rangefinder cameras, and a big reason why many have adopted the Fuji X-100S so quickly. In fact, many reviews and photographers compare the $1299 Fuji X-100S with the $7000 Leica M240 without lens!! For a street photographer it's a bargain, and you can see why the Fuji is sold out everywhere. So significant the optical viewfinder, imagine the X-100 series without it? it would be a great looking camera, but not innovative, nor as popular. It's this singular feature on the Fuji that will make me choose it over its competition, especially the Ricoh GR V which I adore!! In fact, at this time, I still haven't decided between these two cameras as my high performance street photography camera, but I'm definitely leaning towards the Fuji...oh the misery of a decision!!  

1/1200 sec F/5.6 @ ISO 400

Pros and Cons

Like anything in life, every camera has a pro and every camera has a con. I've said many positive things about the X-100S, and there's lots to like. At the same time, I haven't mentioned too many things I don't like about the X-100S, so let's do a proper Pros and Cons list and I'll try and be balanced:

Pros
-Amazing image quality, super sharp images sans the Bayer filter array. Best in class for high ISO noise.
-Industry only hybrid OVF/EVF perfect for street photographers and low light shooters
-Very good manual focus ability, with 3 different manual focus options
-Very well designed and solidly built camera with lots of external dials and buttons
-Q Button is fast way to access 16 of the most commonly used functions
-Decent autofocus in good light, huge improvement from X100 and better than competition
-The styling. Need I say more?

Cons
-Lens a bit soft at F/2. Stop down to F/4 for critical work
-Poor low light autofocus, still not equal to DSLRs (however manual focus to the rescue!)
-OK battery life (you'll need 2-3 for all day shooting for sure)
-Sleep mode takes up to 5 seconds to wake up. It's faster to turn camera off and back on
-460K LCD screen below industry standard, most are close to 1 million pixel these days
-Unusual lens cover, although you can use 49mm lens cap with optional screw-on adapter
-Slightly narrow aperture ring, although it helps to keep lens profile slim
-Exposure compensation should be more than +/-2 stops, perhaps +/-3 or 4 like competition
-Dedicated ISO button or dial would be appreciated, although Fn button can be set to ISO
-Although silver is sexy, it attracts a lot of attention. Waiting for all black edition!!

There you go folks, I think I was more than fair with my Pros and Cons, as I gave more Cons than Pros, although its in no way an indication of how I feel about this camera. It's my number 1 choice for a personal camera for me right now, slightly ahead of the new Ricoh GR.

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun with this camera. At one point I had the Fuji X-100S, Leica X-Vario and the Ricoh GR all at the same time, and I was a bit overwhelmed as a camera nerd. I couldn't say which one was better than the other. It was like comparing a Rolls Royce Wraith, a Lexus LFA, and a Nissan Skyline GTR. I would enjoy driving each one of them for different reasons.
The "best car" isn't always about the most horse power, the fastest top speed, quickest 1/4 mile, or even bang for the buck.

I would say the Fuji has the best sensor and hands down, no competition the very unique OVF and EVF (the other two have neither). The Leica has the best lens with zoom, best build and best manual focus. Finally, the GR is the most compact, unique SNAP focus and has the quickest handling. Which camera is the best overall? Yes, its the Fuji X-100S, no question. Now, the best overall doesn't mean it's the best for everyone. A mini-van might be the best overall vehicle, but its not going to fullfill everyone's needs and wants. I'm not calling the X-100S a mini-van...far from it. A DSLR is probably closer to the mini-van analogy (soccer moms and grandparents are now using and carrying DSLRs).

The X-100S does everything well, and it has all the features that a street photographer would want, and that retro look that most hipsters want. But if money were no object, and you asked 100 street photographers which camera they would choose, I'm willing to bet 90 of them would pick a Leica rangefinder camera. I would probably choose a Leica MP with a 28, 35 and 50 lens. The problem is, I don't have $20K to spend on a single body and 3 lenses. Instead, my hobby street kit is a Minolta XD with a 24, 28, 45 and 50 lens. We all buy what we can afford and what we budget based on what priority it takes in our lives. The beauty of the Fuji is that it's priced well within the budget of most photographers. That's why it's sold out everywhere. 


1/320 sec F/4 @ ISO 200

So the best in class for street photography that takes into consideration functionality, size, and affordability is the Fuji X-100S. Considering what the Fuji can do in comparison to a Leica set-up at 1/10th the price, it's easy to pick it as the winner. Yes it has some things that needs improving, like a longer battery life, quicker revival from sleep mode, and faster low light autofocus. But with great handling, an effective OVF/EVF, sharp images, good high ISO performance, and great design and style, the Fuji is definitely best overall in class.

Yes, you can use a DSLR (mini-van) that can do most things better, including high iso performance, autofocus, and a variety of lenses, but the X-100S has something that DSLRs don't have (at least not most of them). It packages ergonomics and functionality in a compact size, and does so with style. How important are these factors? Again, it depends. But my guess is if you're reading this article and you've gotten this far, style is important to you. If you don't like how a camera looks or feels in your hands or around your neck, you won't want to carry it around and you won't shoot with it. I have a whole line of pro SLR lenses, mostly F/1.4 and F/2.8 prime lenses, but I rarely use it for street photography. It's too big, heavy, and not conducive for my style of photography. I choose to shoot with a camera with lower image quality and less versatility (for the past 3 years I was using a Pansonic LX-3, and now a Ricoh GRD IV) because these cameras are compact and discreet. I take a hit in image quality, but I end up getting way better pictures because of my state of mind.

The Fuji X-100S has style, ergonomics, handling, performance and price point (I really like the X-Vario but I can't afford it!). It's closest competition? The Ricoh GR. Both cameras are either backordered, or limited stock at all major retailers. If you choose either camera, you won't be disappointed. The Fuji edges out the Ricoh because of its overall image quality and its unique OVF, but if compactness or discreetness is the highest of priorities, then you know which to choose. If only Fuji came out with an all black version of the X-100S, or a 28mm equiv version...You never know, Fuji has always surprised us with cool and unique cameras. I'm excited for what's coming in the next few years.  We don't need more types of minivans, we need more convertibles...

Thank you Fuji Canada for loaning me the X-100S. I had a great time with it. I look forward to testing more great cameras from you. Perhaps another head-to-head with Leica, like the X-Pro 1 versus the M 240? Let's make it happen!! Happy shooting and see you again!

8 comments:

  1. You need to correct your review. X100 of course did not have Xtrans sensor, it has a regular crop sensor (12MP) which was CMOS and it was pretty good one, but it was a regular non X-trans sensor. Xpro1 was the first camera with Xtrans sensor. Now that is why some people swear by X100 (not S) because they just cannot stand the Xtrans sensor colors and quality and say it is just not the same as it was on X100. I am on the other hand love what I am seeing from Xtrans sensor (on my XE1, I have no intention of getting X100s as 35mm is not my preferred focal length, plus 23/1.4 lens is coming out very soon and it will be better 35mm equivalent than the 23/2.0 on X100s). So Give me Xtrans any day of the week.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your correction. I confused their wording of APS-C CMOS sensor with EXR Processor as meaning X-Trans, but it's completely different.

      As for the lens on the X-100S, I find that its a bit too soft for me at F/2. If they made a more humble F/2.8 like Ricoh, I believe it would be acceptably sharp wide open. The way it is now, I usually shot at F/2.8-4 to make sure it's sharp, which I'm ok with. The new 23mm F/1.4 is great, as long as it's sharp wide open.

      Thanks for your correction, opinion, and comments! Keep them coming!

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  2. those photos are very sharp!! is it jpeg directly? or raw after effect?

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    Replies
    1. Jpegs only. I didn't find a need to shoot RAW with this camera, as Fuji has great Jpegs. As for sharpening, I always add a bit of sharpening, but nothing aggressive. I find Fuji is not aggressive with sharpening on their Jpegs, which is a good thing. You lose detail when you're too aggressive. So after uploading, a bit of sharpening is needed on these files.

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  3. Thought you might be interested to know, in Japan the word Fuji is extremely common as a business name, usually appended somehow with other words to help differentiate each company or corporation.

    I just wrote a bit more about this on my blog here, if you're interested (not trying to spam you - honest)
    http://fujifilmxseries.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/on-names/

    Take care.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi again. Just realised (starting with your blog header photo and ending with your 'about' info) that you absolutely don't need to read my blog entry, cos it contains nothing that you don't already know. You even have a Fuji bike!

    Right, after making a public idiot of myself, I'm giving up on blogs for today, and going back to watching Sazaesan.

    Take care.

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    Replies
    1. Hey Xseriesthinker,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, being from Japan, I know Fuji is a very common name. Mt.Fuji, Fuji Television (major TV network), Fuji Heavy Industries (they own Subaru), the Fuji apple (named after town that invented it, Fujisaki); there's even a chain of grocery stores in Vancouver named Fuji-Ya (or Fuji Store)!! And yes, I love my Fuji track bike, very nice indeed.

      One day when film will no longer be mainstream, and our grandchildren ask us why a company that makes solar powered digital optical glasses has the word "film" in it, we can tell them the history of photography and the good old film days of long, long ago (as we take out our relic Leica M6 out from storage).

      Delete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete