Fujifilm X100S Review
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Successor to the popular X100 camera, the Fujifilm Finepix X100S is a new compact camera that's still quite unlike any other available today. Featuring a retro design that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Leica M-series, the X100S is a blend of old and new, bringing together a very traditional control system with some distinctly cutting edge features. At the heart of the X100S is a new 16.3 megapixel APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor and the removal of the optical low pass filter, along with the same 23mm fixed focal length F/2 lens and Hybrid Viewfinder as the original X100. This cleverly combines an optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder together, with the former similar to those found in rangefinder-type film cameras but overlaid with vital shooting information. Other new features offered by the X100S include an ultra-fast hybrid AF system with built-in Phase Detection pixels, the world’s first “Digital Split Image” feature for precise manual focussing, and a new EXR Processor II for faster response times. The X100S has a number of other features that are indebted to the film past, from the quiet leaf shutter, the ring around the lens for setting the aperture, dials for the shutter speed and exposure compensation, to the range of film simulation effects and the leather-like finish. Costing £1099 / $1299, such attention to detail still doesn't come cheap, so carry on reading our Fujifilm X100S review to find out if it can justify its price tag.
Ease of Use
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S is almost identical in appearance to the X100, so a lot of comments that we made about that model apply equally to the new X100S. As the "S" moniker suggests, a lot of improvements have been made to the speed of the X100S, which we'll talk about below.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S is a classically styled camera that recalls film rangefinders from the past, most notably the Leica M3, with a breathtakingly beautiful retro design that elicits "oohs" and "aahs" from everyone that sees it. Importantly the X100S isn't simply mimicking what's gone before it, though, instead combining some of the stand-out features from the past with some of the most recent innovations of today. Fujifilm have built on their film heritage to create a unique digital camera that offers the best of both worlds.
That isn't to say that everyone should immediately rush out and buy this hotly anticipated camera. Despite its popularity amongst seasoned photographers, the X100S is still very much a niche product, with its non-interchangeable fixed focal length lens, comparatively large body, and the emphasis on a manual way of shooting that requires some experience on the part of the user. The X100S will most appeal to the street photographer, with its 23mm lens being equivalent to the classic focal length of 35mm, the oversized optical viewfinder crucially showing the subject before it moves into the frame, and the various dials making it quick and easy to control the camera while it's held up to your eye.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S is an amazingly well-built camera, with absolutely no flex or movement in it chassis thanks to the die-cast magnesium alloy top and base plates and machined control dials. At the same time, it's actually a little lighter than a first glance might suggest, weighing in at 445g with the battery and memory card fitted. Measuring 126.5mm (W) x 74.4mm (H) x 53.9mm (D), it's taller than its closest rival, the Leica X1, although that camera doesn't have a built-in viewfinder, and as slim as compact system cameras like the Panasonic GF2 or Sony NEX-5 with a comparable pancake lens fitted. There are still some plastic buttons and controls on the X100S, most notably the memory card / battery compartment door and the rear circular control wheel, both of which wouldn't look or feel out of place on a cheap compact, but other that that the X100S offers the best build quality of any camera that we've ever tested.
The X100S is supplied with a push-on, lined lens cap to help protect its 23mm optic, although there's no way to connect it to the camera. You can use filters with the X100S, but only by removing the ring at the front of the lens and buying the optional 49mm accessory. There's a subtle but effective hand-grip at the front and a space at the rear for your thumb, with your grip helped in no small part by the textured faux-leather surface that runs around the full width of the camera. Two small metal eyelets on either side of the body are used for connecting the supplied shoulder strap, which isn't quite as luxurious as the rest of the package. A metal tripod mount is positioned slightly off-centre from the lens and next to the memory card / battery compartment, so you'll have to remove the camera from the tripod to change either of them.
At the heart of the X100S is a 16.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, a size that's more commonly used by the majority of DSLR cameras than by your average compact. The X100S joins the very short list of compact cameras that use an APS-C sensor, which is about 10x bigger than those found in most compacts, and also larger than those in most compact system cameras. It promises to deliver image quality at least on par with DSLRs, and as our test photos and sample images show on the next two pages, the X100S actually surpasses a lot of them. We won't say any more at this point other than to recommend that you take a look at our Sample Images for yourself.
Helping to keep the image quality high is the X100S's fixed 23mm lens. Fujifilm revealed quite early on that they opted for a fixed lens rather than an interchangeable system to deliver the best images possible from the sensor, and although this will undoubtedly put many prospective users off the camera, we feel it's a worthwhile compromise. 35mm is a classic focal length, half-way between true wide-angle and the standard 50mm, which is roughly equivalent to human eyesight. Instead of relying on a zoom lens, the X100S forces you to get up close and personal with whatever or whoever you're photographing, adding a level of intimacy to your photographs that is often missing when shooting with a zoom.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S's lens has a fast aperture of F/2.0, which in conjunction with the large APS-C sensor makes it easy to throw the background out of focus and achieve some nice bokeh effects, helped by the 9-blade aspherical lens. The combination of the F/2.0 aperture and the extensive ISO range of 100-25,600 makes the X100S very well suited to low-light shooting, allowing you to hand-hold the camera in places where you'd usually be reaching for a tripod (if allowed) or other support. The clever ISO Auto Control setting allows you to set the default sensitivity, a maximum sensitivity (up to 6400) and a minimum shutter speed (1/30th is a good starting point), with the camera over-riding your ISO choice if it thinks you're being too ambitious whilst maintaining a shutter speed that won't introduce camera shake.
Indeed, we ran into more issues in bright sunlight than darkness, where the top shutter-speed limit of 1/1000th second at F/2 often caused over-exposure. Fujifilm have compensated for this limitation by incorporating a 3-stop Neutral Density filter, which allows the aperture to remain wide-open at F/2 even in very bright conditions, perfect for outdoor portraits where you want an out-of-focus background. You do have to delve into the menu system to turn this on, or map it to the Fn button on top of the camera, although that control is already handily assigned to the ISO speed. The ND filter can also be used to creatively slow down the shutter speed for shooting bright, fast-moving subjects like waterfalls.
Despite having a fixed focal lens, the X100S still offers a respectable close focusing distance of 10cms, so macro shooting certainly isn't out of the question. There is one small fly in the ointment though. Normal focusing is now from 50cms to infinity, an improvement on the X100's minimum 80cm focusing distance, but if you want to get closer to your subject than that and still be able to auto-focus, you still have to select the Macro mode, which in turn prohibits the use of the optical viewfinder, instead relying on the electronic one. You then have to turn off the Macro mode to return to normal focusing beyond 2ms. It's not the steps that you have to go through that's problematic, but the 50cm distance, which you'll often find yourself on the cusp of when grabbing a candid shot, especially if you're trying to fill the 35mm angle of view. Seasoned street photographers will completely circumvent this by manual focusing, but it is annoying for us mere mortals who rely on auto-focusing.
Talking of which, the Fujifilm Finepix X100S's auto-focusing speed is thankfully much improved on the original X100, which wasn't exactly the quickest in the world. The X100S has an ultra-fast hybrid AF system with both a conventional contrast-detection system and built-in Phase Detection pixels which enables the camera to achieve a focus lock in as little as 0.08 second. Compared side-by-side with the X100, even with the latest firmware, the difference is night and day, so if you mostly use auto-focus rather than manual then this one improvement alone is reason to upgrade (or indeed buy) the X100S. Hats off to Fujifilm for addressing one of the major criticisms of the X100.
Manual focusing is activated by setting the focusing switch on the side of the camera to Manual and using the ring that encircles the lens to focus. The X100S has an electronically coupled focus-by-wire manual focusing ring, rather than a physical one. We criticised the X100 for taking a lot of turns to change the focus from 0.1m to infinity, commenting that it was a much better idea to use the AFL/AEL button on the rear of the camera to set the focus automatically, then use the focusing ring to micro-adjust the focus manually, if required. This is still a viable technique, but is perhaps no longer required as Fujifilm have cleverly made the focusing ring more sensitive to how you use it - turn it slowly and the focusing distance changes slowly, but turn it more quickly and the camera quickly moves through the distance scale. It now takes less than 2 full turns and a couple of seconds to jump from the closest focus distance to infinity, a big improvement on the X100.
The X100S also now offers not one, not two, but three ways of manually focusing. Firstly, there's a handy blue distance scale along the bottom of the viewfinder (both the OVF and EVF) and on the LCD screen if you're using that for composition, with a red bar indicating the the focusing distance and a white bar showing the depth of field, which actually changes in line with the current aperture - very clever. In addition to the AFL/AEL button, the X100S has another trick up its manual focusing sleeve in the shape of the rear command control (the dial which sits under your right thumb). You can press this in to magnify the view in the electronic viewfinder, with the ability to then pan around the frame by pressing the AF button and spinning the command dial. This makes it much easier to judge precise focusing.
The second manual focusing method is the new Digital Split Image feature. Harking back to film cameras of the past, this displays dual images on the left and right which then need to be lined up together for accurate manual focusing, enabling accurate focusing especially when shooting wide-open or for macro shooting. It's much easier to understand in practice than written down. The third and final method is the Focus Peak Highlight function, which displays a white line around the subject when it's in focus, something that Sony NEX users in particular have been enjoying for a while. Both of these additions make manual focusing on the X100S more of a pleasure than a chore, although the revised fly-by-wire manual focusing ring operation is arguably more important.
The X100S utilises a leaf-shutter rather than the focal-plane shutter that DSLR cameras have. This is a small circular shutter that's built into the lens itself, the chief benefits being near-silent operation and extremely high flash-sync speeds (up to 1/4000 second). To make the camera even less obtrusive, there's a Silent menu option which turns off the speaker, flash, AF-assist lamp and most importantly the artificially-created shutter-release sound, instantly making the X100S perfectly suited to candid photography.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S offers not one, not two, but three ways of composing your images. In addition to the high-resolution 2.8 inch LCD monitor on the back, which has 460k dots and offers 100% scene coverage, the X100S also features the much-talked-about hybrid optical viewfinder / electronic viewfinder system. Optical viewfinders are something of a dying breed amongst modern cameras, so it's very refreshing to see the reverse Galilean model on the X100S, with a 0.5x magnification and low chromatic aberration and distortion. A parallax corrected framing rectangle shows roughly what the picture will include (about 90%), with the framing lines and focus point moving when the shutter button is half-pressed to show the correct framing for the current focusing distance.
So far, so good - but this is no ordinary optical viewfinder. Fujifilm have implemented an integrated prism for the electronic viewfinder onto the optical viewfinder, with the latter able to show the shooting frame and a variety of shooting data. So you get a large, bright optical viewfinder which shows a bigger area than what the camera actually captures when you take a photo, useful for seeing when moving subjects are about to enter the frame, overlaid with useful information including exposure compensation, shutter speed, aperture, focusing distance scale, an electronic level and histogram (there are 14 options in total) - even the focusing point is highlighted! And at the flick of the Viewfinder switch on the front of the camera, you can easily switch from the OVF to the EVF, which provides the same exact 100% coverage as the rear LCD screen, a parallax corrected view, accurate preview of exposure and depth of field, and the ability to see all of the information that you can view on the rear LCD. The EVF also has an increased resolution of 2.36 million dots, making it sharper and more detailed than on the X100.
Written down, the hybrid optical viewfinder / electronic viewfinder sounds pretty complicated, but in practice it's actually very intuitive to use. The X100S has a built-in eye sensor so that you only have to hold the camera up to eye-level to switch between the rear LCD and the hybrid optical viewfinder / electronic viewfinder (or you can press the View Mode button). Then it's simply a case of using either the bright OVF or the slightly darker EVF. I used the former for 90% of the time, helped by the camera automatically switching to the EVF to instantly playback the image, with the latter as a backup for moments when more precise framing was required or when I wanted to make a menu selection. Just make sure that you turn the electronic level on when using the OVF to help combat parallax error and keep your horizontals and verticals straight.
In terms of operational speed, the Fujifilm Finepix X100S has some real standout highlights and very few weak points. Shutter lag is virtually non-existent on this camera, so once you have set the focus, you'll never miss the moment because the camera can't fire the shutter quickly enough. Continuous shooting speeds are better than the X100, with a top rate of 6fps for 29 JPEGs if a shutter speed faster than 1/100th is used, dropping to 3fps for shutter speeds between 1/10th and 1/100th of a second. Note that both the focus and the exposure are set according to the first frame in each series, so it's not a particularly good system for tracking fast-moving subjects in varied lighting conditions.
The write speeds from pressing the shutter button to recording to the SD / SDHC / SDXC memory card are now perfectly respectable. Shooting a single RAW + Fine JPEG takes about 6 seconds to record to the card, although thankfully you can take another shot almost straight away (a delay of just 0.5 second). We used a 64Gb SanDisk Ultra SDXC card for this review, which has a write speed of 15MB/s, not the fastest around, but not the slowest either. Taking a 6 frame burst took the camera around 25 seconds to save, during which you can take more pictures, but not at the 6fps rate. Still, the X100 locked up completely while the camera was writing the original burst, so again another step forward by the X100S.
One area in which the Fujifilm Finepix X100S excels is its handling, thanks in no small part to the numerous external controls that make changing the key settings a breeze, especially when holding the camera at eye-level. Surrounding the lens is a circular aperture ring, with 7 markings from F/2 to F/16 and an Auto setting just in case you want the camera to take control. This dial doesn't allow you to choose half-stop apertures, but you can achieve this by using the rear command control dial. On top of the X100S is a large, tactile control dial for setting the shutter speed, with settings ranging from 1/4th to 4000th second, an Auto option, a T setting for longer exposures (1/2th to 30 seconds, set via the circular command wheel) and a Bulb mode for exposures up to a whopping 60 minutes in length. Alongside the shutter speed dial is another tactile dial for changing the exposure compensation - together these three controls make it a cinch to set the exposure.
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Three other controls complete the X100S's top-plate. The small but responsive shutter release button is encircled by the On/Off switch, and it has a thread for a very traditional mechanical cable release - there's no need to buy an expensive dedicated accessory for this camera. Alongside is the tiny Fn button, which by default provides quick access to the ISO speeds, but can be customised to suit your own needs from one of 10 different settings. Finally there's an external flash hotshoe for suitable dedicated external units, supplemented by the camera's built-in flash positioned just above the lens, which has a range of 50cm - 9m at ISO 1600.
The X100S's LCD screen is large enough at 2.8 inches and of sufficiently high resolution (460k dots) to match the rest of the camera's high specification. I actually found myself using it much less than with a DSLR, due to the ability to use the menu system and review images via the electronic viewfinder, and you could conceivably turn off the LCD altogether to help eke out the 300 shot battery life even further. The LCD screen does have a handy Info view which presents all of the key settings at once, or you can switch to the Standard or Custom Live View modes, with the latter offering 14 customisable options (these are also used for the electronic viewfinder). New to the X100S is the very handy Quick View screen, a feature borrowed from the X-E1 and X-Pro1 mirrorless cameras. Opened via the Q button on the rear, this provides quick access to lots of frequently used shooting settings including the ISO speed, White Balance, File Size and File Quality, with the 4-way controller and command dial used to quickly change them.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S can now record full 10800p movies at 60 or 30fps with stereo sound, with the option for turning this mode on curiously buried at the bottom of the Drive menu (you can, as with most things on the X100S, customise this and assign the Fn button to the movie mode). It's fair to say that the X100S's movie mode isn't overly advanced. You can set the aperture and shutter speed before recording begins, but not during, and you can also set the Film Simulation mode, so black and white footage is possible. Continuous auto-focusing is possible, and you can now manually focus too, which encourages some more creative effects. There is a HDMI port for connecting the X100S to a high-definition TV, although as usual there's no cable supplied in the box. Also missing is a paper copy of the otherwise helpful manual, which is supplied on CD-ROM instead, along with the consumer MyFinepix software the slow and rather unintuitive RAW convertor (essentially a specially customised version of the commercial Silkypix application).
The X100S has a logical rear control layout. There's a vertical row of four buttons on the left of the LCD screen for image playback, exposure modes,drive modes, and the View Mode button for switching between the LCD and the OVF/EVF. On the right are the rear control dial and customisable AFL/AEL button, a circular control wheel which can be used to change the shutter speed and aperture and select other settings, and four options around it for setting the auto-focus point, flash mode, white balance and focusing mode. In the middle of the control wheel is the Menu button, which accesses the Shooting and Set-up menus. Underneath are two buttons, the first for changing the LCD display or going back, and the second for enabling the new Q button mentioned above.
The Fujifilm Finepix X100S may look virtually identical to the original X100, but it contains a number of major operational improvements focused on speed that make it a much more enjoyable camera to use. Now let's find out what the X100S' image quality is like...