Goodbye SLR, Hello Little Viewfinder: The Fujifilm X100s

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Well I’m not exactly getting rid of my SLRs and my army of lenses, but all that gear has been locked away for the past week. A little viewfinder camera has hit the market that scratches me right where I itch. Since the advent of digital cameras, I’ve been waiting and waiting for the killer small camera to hit the scene and that day has finally arrived. While the original Fujifilm X100 was off to a good start, it was plagued with a long list of shortcomings, and these weaknesses have been addressed in the new X100s. This baby is hands-down the best camera around for its size. I’m talking to you, Leica.

Design

The X100s is modeled after the beautiful classic 1954 Leica M3 rangefinder and does a great job recreating the retro look. She’s packed with many of the same classic dials and switches of yesteryear, but upon closer inspection, not everything what it appears. For one, the timer lever is really just a toggle to switch between optical and digital viewfinder while the timer functions are handled via digital display. But other controls like the shutter and aperture dials remain true to their functional origins, completing that nice analog feel. But despite the deceiving looks, the X100s really is an honest-to-goodness rangefinder thanks to the digital rangefinder focus option.

This is little camera just begs to be slung over the shoulder on the way out the door. No choosing lenses or strapping on a backpack full of gear. Since there are no changeable lenses, you’re locked in with the built-in (and very capable) 23mm lens. This gives you a 35mm full-frame SLR equivalent focal length. No zooming in and out, just shoot things the way you see them. A refreshing benefit to having a fixed lens is you can kiss sensor dust spots goodbye–the camera’s innards stay nice and clean. Of course, not being able to zoom is a limitation in itself, but this focal length is really photography in its purest form.

The Controls

All the switches, dials, and menus take some getting used to. You have an option of composing photos using the electronic viewfinder, the lcd back display, or the optical viewfinder. I prefer the latter because it just feels more natural (not to mention kinder to the battery life). I found using the optical viewfinder in combination with the informational display on the lcd back worked best for me.

I love the old-fashioned hardware ring dials for aperture and shutter speed, but that also adds to one of my biggest frustrations: it really limits what you can store in the custom functions presets. In fact I have not found a single use for the three custom presets. They can’t store shutter speed, aperture, drive mode, or focus mode. The only useful thing you can store is your ISO setting. If you’re using all the photo effects features (like toy camera, etc.), then maybe you’ll have a use for it, but I haven’t played around with all those things. I just shoot RAW and add effects later in Lightroom. Since there’s no sense in making custom presets with just ISO presents, I reprogrammed the Fn button to simply pull up the ISO menu so I can just dial in any ISO I want. My three presets remain empty.

Unless I’m shooting from the hip, I stay locked in with the manual focus mode. In the X100s’s case, manual focus mode gives you not only the ability to manually focus with the ring, but it is also where you go if you’re like me and like to autofocus with a separate button than a half-press of the shutter button. This allows you to lock in your focus point, recompose the frame, and then hit the shutter. I like having the AFL/AEL button where your thumb sits do the focusing, just like on my trusty Canon.

One nice little touch is the 3-stop ND filter that mechanically pops between the lens and the sensor when you want it. I tried some test shots of water flowing through fountains in bright light, but even at f/16 and the minimum ISO 200, I wasn’t able to get much of that nice blurred water effect. I would have rather had something closer to a 5-stop filter. It would also be really nice to go down to ISO 100, but Fuji inexplicably decided to make ISO 200 the minimum ISO when you shoot RAW, while you can go down to 100 if you shoot JPG. That one still has me scratching my head. It would also be nice to be able to get to the ND filter faster than digging through the full menu to toggle it into place.

Accessorizing

It seems that every new Canon SLR I buy means automatically dropping another grand on accessories. I couldn’t believe how kind to my wallet the X100s was: a nice leather case, leather strap, UV filter, filter adapter, lens hood, and two spare batteries totaled less than $100.

Here’s what I added to protect the body and lens while staying true to the retro styling of the X100s. You can see all this stuff in my cover photo of the X100s dangling over the old pay phone above.

Click to open in Amazon:

Shooting

Here are a few test photos I took over the past few days in San Francisco. I am blown away by this baby’s high ISO performance. It shoots cleaner at ISO 3200 or 6400 than the Canon 5d Mark III. And the true f/2 lens shoots nice razor-thin depth of field wide open with some not-too-shabby bokeh. Not Canon f/1.2L-caliber bokeh, but very nice and buttery nonetheless.

I’ve found the camera tends to overexpose things. Maybe it’s just what I shoot, who knows. But I usually keep the exposure compensation (again a nice analog dial) set down to -1/3 or sometimes even -2/3.

And its tripod mount is still virgin–this is my new handheld camera and I have no intention of dragging around a tripod to pair it with.

On the Street

I love shooting from the hip, and with a little experimenting over a day or two, I’m happy with what you can do with this little marvel. With my Canon SLR, I have a custom program that I can quickly get to for this purpose, but as I mentioned above, there’s a lot of dialing and button-pushing involved to get the camera set up for quick incognito street photos. What works well for me is setting ISO 1600, dialing in f/4, setting continuous drive 3fps burst, and AF-C focus mode. Each one of these needs to be dialed in separately because the custom functions cannot store anything but ISO.

Here are a few shots. No one ever even noticed I was shooting except the guy in the Busted photo below:

4:27 PM
Grandma's
16th & Mission
Open Board
The N Judah
That 70s Girl
Cookie Dance
Outside J-Town
5:49 PM
Busted
A Day, He Calls It
Swipe left or right to view photos:

HDR

HDR haters, move along. Move along.

First off, the best you can do with auto-bracketing is set the camera to fire off three bracketed shots, no more than one stop away for each. This means the most dynamic autobracket you can program is -1, 0, +1. Of course you can manually spin the dial through a series of brackets if you want to take it further, but it would be really nice if Fuji changed the firmware to allow more brackets and more range with the AE bracketing. It could be handled by a simple firmware update.

Here are a few test HDRs, all AE bracketed at -1, 0, 1 and merged in Photomatix and adjusted in Lightroom. It’s a fairly mild HDR effect but I like it:

Hotel Civic Center
The Center of the City
Fujifilm X100s Test: HDR
Down On the Corner
Trickle Down
Rally Cat
The Hotel
11:53 AM
12:09 AM
Bug Blue
Swipe left or right to view photos:

Panoramas

And it can automatically stitch together panoramas quite handily. Rat-tat-tat-tat fires the shutter as you pan across following the artificial horizon line in the viewfinder (or on screen). There’s obviously no RAW option here because the camera is doing the stitching work for you and producing a jpg:

Straight-Out-Of-The-Camera ISO Test

Fuji X100s Test: ISO 1600

Fuji X100s Test: ISO 1600

Fuji X100s Test: ISO 200

Fuji X100s Test: ISO 200

And finally, two photos side by side without edits (just converted from RAW to JPG), one at ISO 200 and the other at ISO 1600. You’ve got to zoom really close to see any noise at all in the 1600 photo. (This is the dome at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco.) I don’t need to spend a bunch of time doing ISO tests because the fine folks at DPreview do a much better job at that, but this was more of an accident because I forgot to dial the ISO down for the first shot:

In Conclusion

Overall I absolutely love this little viewfinder. I won’t really be ditching my Canons anytime soon for things like sports, portraits, and landscapes, but the little Fujifilm X100s is just about everything I could ask for in a compact camera to hit the street with.

 

 

The Mediocre

  • Limited use for custom presets
  • AE bracketing only goes out 1 stop
  • No ISO 100 in RAW mode
  • People might think I’m a hipster

The Awesome

  • Amazingly clean at high ISOs
  • Nice bokeh when wide open
  • Goodbye sensor dust spots
  • Retro dials work to perfection
  • Internal pop-in pop-out ND filter

  • thomas d

    does that little hood from amazon block what you can see through the viewfinder

  • Yes it blocks about 1/8 of the frame as a little arc in the lower left corner if you’re in optical viewfinder mode. It doesn’t really bother me though.

  • Chris Patterson

    Nice review Shawn. Love the tram car and the busted shot

  • Claudia

    The Fuji X100s isn’t a rangefinder.

  • The s has a digital split-image rangefinder function. This is how it works: http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/01/10/Fujifilm-X100S-digital-split-image-focusing-how-it-works

  • Sorry, but that does not make the camera a rangefinder. A digital split-image prism is not using a built-in rangefinder to manually focus on subjects.

  • Ok thanks for the comments. To me it’s like saying a digital watch isn’t a timepiece, but in the pure focusing sense I realize it’s not a true rangefinder. I have several old rangefinders so I understand how they work.

  • I use the three presets to store all sorts of different looks for when I’m happy to use the JPGs – i.e., personal stuff as opposed to stuff I’m getting paid for. I have one set up for a basic look with no shadow or highlight adjustments, standard colour; then I have one set up to use the B&W with red filter, with +2 highlights and +2 shadows, for strongly constrasty B&W; and I have one that I occasional save a different look to if I come up with something i want to keep going back to.

    I’m quite happy it doesn’t store shutter speed and aperture – those change all the time for me, I’m not sure of the point of having them on a preset. Myabe that’s just me.

  • Ben

    yonas will shoot only Leica, in other words.

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  • Paul

    Nice review. For quick access to the ND filter I just programme the Fn button to do that. Click-on, click-off. Easy. I don’t understand your comment, “manual focus is a misnomer because manual focus really means autofocus, it just gives you the ability to lock in your focus point before you hit the shutter.” The manual focus allows you to turn the focus ring on the lens to set the focal point – nothing automatic about it, unless you mean that it is not a mechanical connection between the ring and the lens, but electronic. But this is transparent to the user – it behaves just like a manual focus ring should.

  • Thank you Paul. I reworded that paragraph for clarity. What I was trying to say was that the manual focus mode allows using autofocus lock so a half-shutter button press doesn’t refocus. I do actually find myself using the focus ring often also. And good tip with setting the Fn button to the ND filter–I’ve got mine set to adjust ISO now but I’ll play around with it.

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  • Norman Lee

    You said there’s no sense in using the presets for just ISO, but that’s exactly what I did so that I could free up the Fn button for the ND filter. One has ISO 200, one has auto-ISO up to 800, and one has auto-ISO up to 6400, so switching ISO is as easy as pressing the Q button and then spinning the dial.

    Having quick access to the ND filter has been surprisingly useful for opening up the aperture to isolate the subject with depth of field in daylight, especially when you combine it with the built-in flash for fill.