THERE’S A BETTER WAY – Fuji X100s review

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Remember when you bought your first digital SLR camera? You thought, “What a piece of engineering!” You opened the box and took the first glance as excitement and joy ran through your veins. No more film, no more limitations and the ability to take as many photos as you want. The world was your oyster.

You went through the manual and the number of options, menus and settings left you gasping. While the battery was still charging you were already planning your first photo endeavour.

Then you ran outside with your shiny new camera and started shooting like mad. After all, with digital there are no limits.

In the evenings you hit the Internet. You were sure you had the best camera on the market. You read all the reviews that were proving your point. But wait, you thought, “Maybe I should get a better lens, a better-rated lens.”

You scratched together all the money you could and bought a huge, beautiful pro-rated lens. “Now I can take really stunning photos!” you cried.

You drove to the nearest park and photographed everything around you: benches, trees, leaves, people, even hydrants. You uploaded your photos, looked at them at 100%, and admired sharpness and dynamic range.

Again, you went on the Internet, hit the blogs, forums and ratings and thought, “If only I had a telephoto lens, I could take even more amazing photos.” The next day you visited your local dealer and came back with a massive telephoto 2.8 pro-rated. WOW!

But wait! Another question hit you. “How I am going to carry all this equipment?” You ran back to the store and picked the largest and best camera backpack you could afford.

Daily you carried the backpack with your expensive SLR and superb lenses and took hundreds of photos. Sure the bag was heavy and the camera overwhelming but you told yourself, “This is the price I have to pay for top quality.” You justified an inconvenience. You kept uploading your photos to the computer, then processing and uploading them on the Internet. Next, you repeated your mantra about your camera’s superiority.   

You followed this sequence religiously every day. But despite your best efforts, photography had become an almost robot-like endeavour. Then it hit you. Something was not right!

You noticed that others were taking much more interesting photos that were more engaging, more powerful. You went through them, you counted every pixel and you compared. Sure their photos were not as sharp as yours, the resolution was lower, the dynamic range was nowhere near yours but somehow their images were so much better and more interesting. You grumbled to yourself, “It is not possible! After all, I spent thousands on my equipment and I feel I am going nowhere!”

You nervously studied the 300-page manual and asked yourself, “Maybe I am missing some settings? If only I knew how to set up…” You fell asleep with the manual as your pillow.

Next day in the field you set up a tripod, put your brand new, huge, super-fast lens on your camera, went through your settings, played with all the buttons and you came back home… with even more mediocre photos.

Your frustration was growing. Where is the joy? Where is the passion? Should I buy a better lens? Should I change my in-camera settings?

Weeks and months passed and you left your heavy backpack at home more often. You became unengaged and uninspired. You started avoiding photography. What a chore it had become! You think, “Maybe that’s just how it is. Maybe I am overreacting. Maybe this is the new normal.” 

The following day you bumped into a kid next door and he showed you a few photos he had taken with his iPhone. You immediately dismissed the quality and told him to buy a real camera but deep down you admired his images, creativity and passion. You went home depressed and discouraged.

Then, one day you came across your old friend who was holding a small and interesting camera. Out of respect and curiosity, you took it, looked through the viewfinder and played with the controls. At first, you felt hostile towards this tiny camera. After all, at home you had whole backpack of expensive gear.

But deep inside you had a strange feeling. Something drew you closer. It was the strange but familiar feeling you had when you shot Leica or Contax film cameras. You could not stop thinking about the little camera you held in your hands today.

After a few days of internal struggle you decided to go for it. You realized what had been missing.

How many of you have had a similar experience? I did.

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As the owner of an SLR with expensive, professional lenses, it wasn’t an easy decision to buy the Fuji X100. In fact, I cannot explain what drew me closer to this purchase. I thought, “People say it is such a slow camera with so many quirks. Maybe they are right.” Despite those concerns one day I went to my local store and bought a Fuji X100.

The first thing I noticed was that it felt so right in my hands. It was solid but not too heavy. The build quality and materials were first rate, unlike many other glitzy “plastic” cameras nowadays. The next things that drew my attention were the key control dials: the aperture on the lens, the exposure compensation and shutter speed – on the top – at hand and exposed. They were simple and engaging. I thought, “WOW! This is really great.”

And the viewfinder – two in one! Wow, what a concept. I had never seen anything so essential yet simple at the same time. How come nobody had come up with this before?

Then every day, I shouldered my heavy backpack with my expensive gear along with my Fuji X100. I tried to shoot with both, sometimes in the same locations with the same subjects and in the same lighting. When I came home and downloaded my photos I was really surprised. The majority of images taken with this small camera were more interesting, engaging, more creative and even sharper and with better colours than the photos taken with my professional bag of gear.

Indeed, with this little camera I forgot about using a tripod. Quite the opposite! I crawled, climbed, looked for new perspectives and walked back and forth. I adjusted my major settings on the fly without thinking about it. This little camera became a part of me. I stopped thinking about menus and submenus. My attention turned to the light, subject and composition. I was bursting with creativity. Most importantly, I always carried it with me.

The joy has returned! It was like shooting photos with a film camera… digitally.

After a while I noticed I was no longer taking my backpack with me. My X100 was the only companion I needed: one lens, one camera. Many people would think it was limiting but I found it liberating.

After a while, I sold all my SLR gear and replaced it with the Fuji X-Pro1. Although I have been enjoying the interchangeable X-Pro1, I missed my X100. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Last week I received the X100s, a new iteration of my beloved X100.

Outside, it is the same camera. Fuji made it smart by not fooling around with a great physical design. It feels good and solid in my hands unlike many other cameras. The only downside I see is that the strap is made of poor quality material, which after extensive use starts to fray.

The controls remain the same but with a few key improvements. The aperture compensation dial is now stiffer, which is a welcome change. In the first iteration of the camera it was too easy to turn the dial by mistake. Fuji removed the RAW button and replaced it with the Q (Quick) menu, which gives access to all major settings at once, without hassle. Finally, the button that lets you choose the focus point was moved to the right so now it can be moved with just one hand! Thank you, Fuji, for listening.  

The greatest improvement is the operations and, in particular, the speed. Once you turn on the camera it is instantly ready for action. The greatest complaint about the X100 (slow autofocus) has been improved dramatically. I took the camera to the annual Vancouver Sun Run and didn’t have any problems locking focus even on moving subjects. Of course, it doesn’t have the D4 speed but this camera was never intended to be a sport shooter camera.

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Straight from a camera, minor contrast adjustment in LR4.

The fact that all the major problems with the original X100 have been addressed in such a short time speaks volumes about Fuji’s commitment to the platform. It is so refreshing to see a company that actually listens to photographers and reacts to their concerns. Despite that, I would be delighted if Fuji would simplify the camera even more. I am waiting for a camera without a video mode, without in-camera processing options (I don’t know anybody who processes images in the camera) that clutter the menu. Wouldn’t it be great if all jpeg settings disappeared when you chose the RAW-only option? Finally, a little bit of weather sealing and double card slots would be the icing on the cake.   

I found the image quality slightly better than the X-Pro1 and XE-1 cameras, which use a similar X-Trans sensor. Part of it could be the perfect pairing of an excellent, fast lens and part of it the improvement in sensor technology.

The in-camera jpegs are the best in the industry, period. I have used Nikon, Canon, Olympus and many other brands and I have never liked jpegs straight from the camera. Fuji is the only company that does it right. The colour is accurate, skin tones are beautiful and sharpness is right on. The only film simulation that may still need some tweaking on Fuji’s part is Velvia. Many of us remember the brilliance of Velvia film and in my view Fuji still hasn’t figured it out in its digital incarnation.

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Fuji Velvia, minor contrast adjustments in LR4, saturation could get pretty crazy but it has its appeal for some people

Then there are RAW files. What a saga it has been since the introduction of the X-Trans sensor! Adobe Lightroom was the first usable software that supported the platform (Silkypix was first but an extremely slow) and it was far from perfect. Many observers and photographers quickly jumped on the X-Trans RAW “doom and gloom” demosaic bandwagon. Then, Capture One 7 announced its support with a much-improved algorithm, which prioritized details over moiré and in my view, did a fantastic job. Most recently Aperture joined the party (I haven’t had an opportunity to test it yet).     

From my own observations, Capture One 7 remains the best RAW converter for the X-Trans sensor files today. I hope Adobe will improve its conversion soup even more than it did in the most recent incarnation. My personal choice would be details over other concerns such as smearing, moiré, etc. One thing is for sure, the demosaic algorithm for the X-Trans files is already very good and it is going to get even better, as further improvements are expected.     

I know that many of you would like to see 100%, 200%, 300% crops to indulge in a pixel orgy; after all, this is an equipment review. I figured if you are looking for that, there are plenty of places on the Internet that will offer you just that. I view this and any other camera as an artistic tool, not a pixelmator. Therefore, my choice of images was guided mostly by an artistic/visual principle. I chose a variety of photographs: jpegs straight from the camera and some processed in Lightroom 4, some B&Ws and others with strong saturation just to show the versatility of this camera and its files. You choose, and please let me know which ones you liked the most.

Of course, there’s lots more technical data about this camera and its menus. I am not going to write about it all. You will find plenty of technical data on the Internet.

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Playing with a new in-camera filter “miniature”, it is fun to play with but it must be used with the right subjects

Who is this camera for? First of all, this is a great camera for newcomers to the field of photography and for those who want to learn photography the right way. The Fuji X100s with major controls at hand along with the fixed focal length lens is something every student should start with. Unfortunately, today the majority of people begin with a big zoom and a complicated camera with the main knob turned to green (automatic). It’s a recipe for mediocre photography.

Secondly, this is the camera for people hungry for great imagery. It’s for those who never stop creating and challenging the status quo, and for those who speak with their images, not their words. Finally, it’s perfect for those who seek emotions and the pivotal moment, light and creativity in a photograph, rather than pixels and ratings.

While you may have plenty of gear at home, the strength of the X100s is its simplicity, mobility and silence. This camera will be always with you! You will grab it without concern about weight, security or complications. With your constant companion, you will take photos you wouldn’t otherwise take.

With the X100s you will find perspective unlike any other. It will force you to think before you press the button. Most importantly, you will regain the joy of photography and rediscover the art of creating an image.

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Great websites and reviews:

My favourite review of the X100s is by Zack Arias (but is there anybody out there who hasn’t read it yet?). This is a review I wish I had written. Yes, Fuji is the new Leica.

Make sure to check out Montreal photographer Patrick LaRogue whose work is unique and brilliant.

Fujirumors is a must for everyone shooting or considering Fuji X-cameras. Patrick is doing a great job keeping us updated and motivated.

Finally, “Scoop It” by Thomas Menk should be bookmarked and followed; it has great photographs and insights.

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Kasia and I recently returned from a photographic trip to some of the forgotten places of British Columbia. We have many more images and stories to share. Stay tuned. 

 

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© Olaf Sztaba. All rights reserved.