Every once in a while, a camera comes along that makes people sit up and take notice. A couple of years ago, that camera was the Fuji X100. Its retro styling, ergonomics, and image quality struck a serious chord in many photographers, especially those brought up in the days of film. Unfortunately it was not without its problems, autofocus being one of them.
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Early in 2013, Fuji introduced an upgrade to the original; the X100s, sporting a new X-Trans sensor, upgraded autofocus and a host of other internal improvements all in the same beautiful retro body of the original. Again heads were turned, including my own; however, I decided to hold off, waiting to see what the reaction to the camera was. By mid-August, the general consensus was extremely good, so I purchased one. Rather than a long-winded technical review, this article contains my personal impressions of the camera after spending a week with it in Ukraine.
The first thing you notice about the X100s is its looks. It is styled on the legendary Leica M3, and sits in my big, clumsy hands really well. The controls fall beautifully to the hand, the highlights of the controls being the proper aperture ring in the lens, and the solid shutter-speed dial.
There are no fancy scene modes. In fact, to set shutter priority for example, you click the aperture ring to the A setting and set your shutter speed accordingly. The same is true for the aperture priority; you click the shutter speed dial to A and set the aperture. To get a full program mode, simply set both the aperture and shutter speed controls to A. To photographers of a certain age, this is delightfully simple and natural.
One of my concerns was whether, coming from a DSLR, I would find the viewfinder restricting. As soon as I picked the camera up, this worry dissipated. The viewfinder is an absolute joy. It is what Fuji calls a hybrid viewfinder, in that it has a traditional rangefinder-style optical viewfinder combined with an extremely good electronic viewfinder. I found myself spending most of my time in the optical viewfinder. It is bright, covers more than 100% of the image area, and has customizable electronic overlay that can give you a wealth of information.
When you half-press the shutter, the camera will focus and show the actual image area. Remember, this is a rangefinder and what you see is not what you get. This takes a little getting used to, but after a while, like many other aspects of this camera it becomes a very natural way to shoot.
For shooting close up, the electronic viewfinder comes into its own, giving an exact representation of the image. The optical and electronic viewfinders can be easily switched using a “depth of field” style lever on the front of the camera. When using the camera’s built-in macro mode, the X100s will automatically switch to the electronic viewfinder. It can be a bit confusing if you start to shoot distance shots without switching off macro, as you cannot switch from electronic to optical.
On the back of the camera as well as on the bright LCD screen, there are well-placed buttons on the left to change the meter mode, shooting speed, and viewfinder options. Again, at first they can seem a little confusing but when the penny drops they work well. To the right, there is a four-way dial to control the menu system, which is well-designed and has some well-thought-out shortcuts to useful functions. The bottom-right of the back has a Q button. This allows you to access all the most important aspects of the menu, such as film speed and white balance.
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Using the X100s
The feel of the controls, the weight of the camera, and the viewfinder inspire you to take photos. The X100s begs to be used manually. Turning an aperture ring not only feels natural, it seems to me to be by far the best way to control aperture. It inspires you to shoot in aperture priority or manual, as does the fixed 23mm lens. Giving an effective full-frame length of 35mm, the lens has a wide f2 aperture allowing for fantastic shallow depth of field even though it’s a moderate wide angle.
The fixed lens was a potential issue for me. I wondered whether I would find it restricting, and to be honest, I did at first. After a while, though, I found myself looking for the little details. The X100s seems to have a magical property that allows you to see things that maybe you would not attempt with a DSLR.
The autofocus is superb, even in low light. Switching to manual focus also is a good experience. You can even preset the way the lens turns.
When it comes to image quality, I am still left speechless. It sports the Fuji 16mp X-Trans APS-C size sensor, which has no optical low-pass filter. It also has a unique layout to the pixels that mimic the randomness in film grain. The upshot of this is an image quality that, in my opinion, is the closest I have ever seen to film. Without the optical low-pass filter, the actual image resolution seems higher than most 16mp sensors. In low light, the camera is phenomenal; dare I say, better than my D3 and getting close to most full-frame cameras on the market.
I found that the small, yet perfectly-formed body of the X100s, combined with the image quality brought back a joy to shooting that I hadn’t even realized I was missing.
Put simply, the Fuji X100s made shooting with a DSLR seem soulless and disconnected. For the first time in a long time, I am using a camera that seems a part of me, yet connects me seamlessly to my subject.