Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fujifilm X100s Review

All the world loves a Leica. The next best lovable thing is Leica-like styling, which the Fujifilm X100s has in spades. However, a camera can't stand on it's own if it's sole purpose is to be reminiscent of something else,so to that end, is the Fujifilm X100s merely a poor man's Japanese Leica M, or is it something more?

Body and Design

The X100s is a svelte camera to hold on to. The body is slim, so you tend to hold it with more of a precision grip than what you would ordinarily use with a camera of this size. The AFL/AEL button is just a tad bit too close to the area where your thumb would be resting to be comfortable holding the camera in care-free manner. The faux-leather bottom portion of the camera is a hard resin-like plastic that has a bit of texture to hold onto, but doesn't have the same tactile comfort as a rubberized finish.

The hybrid viewfinder operates in two modes, one that is a pure optical display with information overlaid, and a purely video-esqe mode. When you are shooting in optical mode, the information layout is not dissimilar to how a rangefinder display is arranged. You have the frame line marking off the field of view, but the viewfinder actually lets you see outside of that, just as would be the case in a Leica M series. The focus box takes the place of the rangefinder patch, but because it's digital, it more accurately represents what the camera is focusing at it. You can move the focus square around as you like, and the display will even accommodate parallax due to focusing distance changes.

In fully electronic mode, the viewfinder operates like a miniature version of the rear LCD screen. The manual focus aids are available in this mode, either the phase-detection enabled split-image focusing aid or focus peaking. If you are used to how focus peaking works in other cameras (such as the Sony NEX-6 or the Olympus OM-D cameras) then that will likely be the mode that you settle for. The split-image focusing aid works well for non-moving subjects, but is limited to the center of the frame.

The viewfinder is quite large, but it does have a downside. The eye point is at 15mm, which means that you have to hold the viewfinder quite close to your eye to see the whole frame. If you wear glasses, this means that the the eye-cup will be pressed right up against your eyeglass lens. In comparison, the X-E2 has an eye point of 23mm, while the Nikon D7100 is 19.5mm. Both of these cameras are more comfortable to use for people requiring glasses.

Turning back to the lens, the unit is quite small; there's not a lot to grab onto. That's why the aperture ring has two flanges on the side to aid with gripping. The aperture increments are set to 1/2 stop. The focus control ring is a focus-by-wire design, and as a very long "focus throw" when the camera is operated in manual focus mode. This makes manual focusing precise, but the overall operation time borders on the aggravatingly slow. 

The lens can focus as close as 10cm in  macro mode, which is a useful feature for a fixed wide-angle lens. An optional wide angle converter can be attached to the X100s to bring the field of view to the full frame equivalent of 28mm. Unfortunately, you have to purchase an adapter ring first before you can mount this. In fact, you have to add the adapter ring before you can even use a filter on this camera. This wouldn't ordinarily be so much of a problem except for the prices that Fujifilm is asking for these items. Needless to say, there's a business case for third-party adapter rings and lens hoods for this camera.

X100s with WCL-X100 Wide-Angle Conversion Lens mounted on AR-X100 adapter. With Artesian & Artist* cloth neck strap, Gariz half leather case and soft release button.

One design oversight that has curiously not been addressed since the original X100 is the fact that there is more than one way to insert the battery; only one of them is the proper way. This is an issue that has been eliminated from virtually every other digital camera on the market.

Image Quality

There's a certain expectation of image quality for fixed-lens cameras that utilize only one focal length. It goes without saying, the X100s lives up to that expectation. Even though there's probably a fair bit of electronic correction going with the in-camera image processing, out of camera JPEG's appear fairly clean and un-distorted.

35mm equivalent field of view.

Wide-open at f/2, the center of the frame appears crisp. Global contrast across the frame is good, and the quality of the bokeh is smooth and free of nervousness. Notice how the highlights at the edge of the frame retain their circular shape.

Props if you've noticed that this X-E1 is a dummy unit and not a real camera!
This is the second iteration of the X-Trans sensor. Resolution remains the same, but on-chip phase detection has been added. JPEG's from out of the camera appear crisp, with strong edge definition up to ISO 1600. Even past that, the images are curiously free of grain. Dynamic range wise, the highlights and reflections on the bottles remain fairly under control. (The pattern of the reflection on refrigerator doors changes as people walk buy. This is one of the pitfalls of doing ad hoc testing, and as such, these results are meant to convey an overall qualitative sense of the camera's capabilities)

This is where the caveats come in, though. The first one is that despite whatever weakness this sensor has (and all sensors have them), the images are nonetheless pleasing to the eye. Fujifilm knew what they were doing when they came up withe the X-Trans sensor, and they tuned it to give up a little bit in areas that the eye is not quite so drawn to in order to strengthen what is immediately noticeable. In other words, those crisp edges come at the expense of fine detail in areas that have lots of red or blue information. Check out the labels on the bottles of the ISO-100 sample... the lettering would normally be more distinct on a conventional Bayer sensor camera. However, few casual shooters actually see the drop in red/blue channel detail, and for its intended audience, the X-Trans sensor fulfills its purpose.

As with most APS-C cameras, the comfort point is roughly ISO 3200. However, there is an caveat to this as well, as the X-Trans sensor, depending on how you measure it, tends to report exposure values that are 1/3 of a stop more sensitive than similar cameras. That is to say, for the same ISO rating, the X100s will require shutter speeds that are longer than what a Sony NEX or Canon T5i would require. Detractors have accused Fujifilm of cheating their ISO ratings, but this is actually within the accepted tolerance because there is actually no one right way to rate the ISO power of a digital camera. 

ISO - 100
ISO - 800
ISO - 1600

ISO - 3200
ISO - 6400

Fujifilm X100s vs Sony NEX-6

The Sony NEX-6 isn't a direct competitor to the X100s, but a case can be made that it's a more practical and affordable alternative. Roughly the same wide, but not as tall and a bit thicker, the NEX-6 is nonetheless a fairly small device for something that houses an APS-C sensor. Even though the 16-50mm retractable kit lens is small by interchangeable lens standards, it looks positively bulky next to the X100s' tiny fixed lens. 

Left: Fujifilm X100s    Right: Sony NEX-6
  Left: Sony NEX-6    Right: Fujifilm X100s 

As an interchangeable lens camera, the NEX-6 is obviously the more versatile of the two, but for walk-around shooting, the X100s gives the user a superior experience in terms of build quality and handling. Simply put, the Sony SELP1650 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens feels cheap. There's perceptible wobble to it, both in the zoom barrel and on the focus ring. If you are carrying around any Sony camera that uses this lens, you are followed by a faint clicking sensation due to the mechanical tolerance in the lens. This is more of an annoyance than it is a concern, but it does detract from the joy of the utter smallness of the NEX-6 kit compared to equivalent APS-C cameras like the Fufjifilm X-M1 or the Samsung NX-300 and their respective kit lenses. As well, there's a noticeable delay upon startup due to the time (~2s) that it takes to deploy the lens. It's also worth noting that replacing the kit lens with a 24mm prime to match the X100s  (SEL24F18Z) means spending over $1,000 USD.

Simply put, the X100s is more expensive than the kit version of the NEX-6, but it feels like it as well. It's quicker to use overall and is more pocket friendly than the Sony. The downside is that the X100s means that you are wed to the 35mm equivalent focal length, where as the Sony gives you lens options. The NEX-6 could be anybody's primary camera, but the X100s is only a good primary camera if most of what you are shooting is done at mildly wide angles. 

Note what consideration doesn't come into play: the sensor. Is the 16mp X-Trans sensor better than 16mp Sony sensor? Yes.... but with some caveats. However, the differences in image quality take a back seat to the differences in design. Even though these cameras overlap in purpose and general size, the choice of what kind of camera system and shooting style that you want to invest in is a much more important factor in this case than outright image quality.

Fujifilm X100s vs Leica X2

It wouldn't be a complete comparison if this review didn't end the way that it started, comparing the Leica-esque x100s to the "real" thing. In this case, not quite the classic Leica M rangefinder, but the X2, which if you ignore the price, is a direct technical competitor to the Fujifilm. Despite the difference in market positioning, these are fairly similar cameras. APS-C sized sensor, 16mp, roughly the same dimensions but a bit shorter, and roughly the same weight.  It's no use arguing which is the better camera, that would be the Fujifilm. The sensor technology is newer and is tuned to produce better JPEG images out of the camera, the autofocus incorporates phase detection, the viewfinder is one of the most unique on the market whereas it's an optional accessory on the Leica... the list goes on.

However.... a case could be made for the X2 giving the better "photographic experience." This is a tough point to convey in print, and it has nothing to do with the Leica mystique. The X2 is by modern standards a primitive camera... but that's its virtue. The controls are simple, the menus are simple and the operational speed is "quick enough," even if the menu operations are dog-slow . In other words, as a capture-the-moment tool that's in keeping with the street-shooting ethos, the X2 is still fairly close to its basic mission. The X100s is just as good a camera, but it's also the flag-bearer for Fujifilm's innovation prowess, and there's just enough complexity layered on top of the simplicity of a fixed-lens camera that makes the X100s less "pure" than the Leica. With it's fancy viewfinder, the X100s comes closer to the "ideal" of an M series in miniature... and that is why the X2 feels more elemental in purpose, precisely because it has shed the historical burden of the viewfinder, and is at heart, a digital camera paired down to the absolute very basics.

Think of how hard it is for the camera companies to do "simple." Many in the Nikon community want the digital equivalent of the FM-2.... simple, basic elemental. Nikon met them half-way with the retro-themed Df, but that camera is anything but simple. That's what these two cameras are: the X2 is deliberately simple whereas the X100s gave into the temptation of jazzing up "simple," hoping that it could get away with it.

There's no arguing that the X100s is the more practical camera of the two. If you are going to have a knock-about street shooting camera, it ought to be fairly affordable and tough. That's not the case with the Leica, which is $2,800 CDN as you see it here in this special edition incarnation.

Closing Thoughts

This is a full featured , small , take anywhere kind of camera... the kind of camera that used to mean giving up the image quality of something bigger. However small the camera is, though, the price remains big, meaning that it's expensive as a second camera. As a primary camera, it would be a brave choice for somebody to use as their only camera given the fixed focal length. Therein lies the rub; the X100s is brilliant at what it does, and is a beautiful looking camera as well; but it's the sort of camera that tends to inspire a lot of passion amongst its users because of the focused nature of its design. That also seems to describe Fujifilm users in general as well.

Once again, with thanks to Broadway Camera:

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