Wednesday, 2 October 2013

My New Toy: The Fuji X100s

My new toy
This is not a gear review site - I have neither the time nor the money to test every new gadget that comes along. However, after weeks of deliberation and reading of such sites, I decided to buy myself a Fuji X100s, and in this post I'll share my impressions of this lovely little camera as well as some pictures I took with it in Moscow and Paternoster.




Why the x100s?


 I'm extremely lucky to have a job which allows me to travel to interesting places - most recently I got to spend two weeks in Moscow - and in the past I would carry an entire backpack full of camera gear with me wherever I went. This is a huge pain, especially since there does not exist an ideal camera bag, i.e. one which (1) has space for a DSLR and several lenses, (2) fits my laptop and bunch of A4-sized papers and books for work, and (3) is comfortable to carry on my back for extended periods. In practice, you get to pick at most two out of three. In my case, I have a nice backpack that satisfies (1) and (3), and a fancy airport case satisfying (1) and (2).

So I needed something more portable, especially for work trips. I considered switching to a more portable camera system - the Fuji X system comes to mind - but again this involves compromises (not to mention expenditure) that I don't want make right now: An ideal camera (1) has excellent image quality, (2) is very portable and (3) is highly flexible. Again, pick two! My solution is to keep my DSLR system [(1) & (3)] and get a second, portable camera [(1) & (2)]. The X100s fits the bill perfectly. Moreover, it is very pretty, so even my finance minister approved of the purchase :)

Handling



This little camera is a dream. It is small and light, yet feels quite robust so you can take it along anywhere. As you can see above, shutter speed is controlled by an old-fashioned shutter speed dial on the top plate, and aperture via an aperture ring around the lens. Both dials have an A (automatic) setting; I usually leave shutter speed on A and choose the aperture I want; this is effectively aperture priority mode, which I also use most often on my DSLR. Unlike my DSLR, however, I also keep this baby on auto ISO (one can set the used ISO range anywhere within 200-6400, and also dictate minimum allowed shutter speed), which works brilliantly. As my pixel-peeping below may convince you, the Fuji has such excellent high ISO performance that I really don't care what ISO it chooses most of the time.

Focus


One source of frustration is that, when in autofocus mode, the camera wants to refocus every time you press the shutter release (I set up my Canon 40D so that it only focuses when I press the "AF-on" button under my right thumb). There are two ways around this. First, you can just leave it in manual focus, and tap the "AFL-AEL" button under your thumb to autofocus (this is what Ken Rockwell recommends). The disadvantage to this is that you don't see the selected autofocus spot, and I suspect it just uses the center point. Also, you can easily accidentally move the focus ring on the lens. Second, you can focus where you want, then press the AFL-AEL button, which locks the focus there until further notice (or until the camera goes to sleep - after 30 seconds!) and you can shoot without any stupid refocussing. This is my preferred method, but I would really appreciate a firmware update that lets you set up the AFL-AEL button as the sole autofocus button.

That said, autofocus isn't amazingly fast, but since the camera is anyway not suited for sports or wildlife, this is not an issue. Manual focus works quite well, with focus peaking as well as a digital split image focusing aid. 

Viewfinder


The most brilliant thing about the Fuji X100s is the viewfinder. At a flick of a conveniently located little lever, you can switch between an optical and an electronic image. The optical finder is HUGE (now my Canon 40D's finder feels like I'm looking down a tunnel at the little image), has all the information you might want overlaid on it (fully customizable, of course), and shows a lot more of the scene than what will end up in the shot, so you can really anticipate the perfect moment, when things are about to line up just so in the frame lines. This is of special interest to street photographers, who used range-finder cameras in the film era for just this reason. Of course, the optical finder does not look through the lens, so there is some parallax error. The frame lines do shift as a function of focus distance, but if you want truly accurate framing (or any framing, in macro mode), you need to switch to the electronic finder. This has high resolution and shows 100% of the frame (another thing my old Canon can't do), but I simply don't like electronic finders, which is why I ultimately didn't switch to the Fuji XE-1 system.

Speaking of switching between optical and electronic finders: If you ever play with an X100 or X100s (or X-Pro) in a shop, and can't seem to switch off the electronic viewfinder, don't panic - just turn off the macro mode!

Lens


The little X100s has a very fine 23mm f/2 fixed lens (about 35mm equivalent field of view). You can't change it, and you zoom by walking backwards and forwards. This sure changes the way I usually shoot, but I found I got used to it pretty quickly. There are plenty of pundits who advocate shooting with a fixed focal length, anyway, as this is supposed to stimulate your creativity. I haven't noticed any rise in my creativity yet, but maybe my faith is not strong enough... The lens is extremely sharp, even at f/2.

Image Quality


The X100s uses Fuji's radical x-trans sensor. Basically, this 16 megapixel sensor has an unusual color filter layout, which reduces color moire artifacts, and thus eliminates the need for an anti-aliasing filter. Details? See Fuji's explanation (their high-end X-pro1 uses the same sensor) or this very basic Wikipedia page. The take-home message is that the sensor should be capable of producing more detailed images than a conventional 16MP sensor. Much ink and blood has been spilled on the net on whether this actually pans out in practice.

One result, though, is that RAW converters have a hard time making sense of Fuji's RAW files, and only recently (e.g. Lightroom version 5.2) have been able to compete with the camera's own (excellent) JPG engine. I haven't done much comparative pixel-peeping myself, but I find that the images look slightly soft at the pixel level, but respond very well to sharpening. Note that looking sharp is quite independent of containing fine detail. An unsharpened image from the X100s certainly contains plenty of fine detail, i.e. the information is there, but it looks a lot crisper if you apply some sharpening. To illustrate what I mean, look at the following tourist snapshot of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow (which was demolished in communist times and rebuilt in the 1990's):

Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow - Fuji X100s, 1/340, f/8. ISO 400

Here is a completely unsharpened 100% crop:

100% crop, no sharpening, no noise reduction - Fuji X100s, handheld, 1/340, f/8, ISO 400
Looks a bit soft? Remember that this is a tiny crop - assuming the above is about 15cm wide on your screen, the full image would be 85cm tall at this magnification - and that is already a crop of a larger image still (the disadvantage of not having a zoom: you zoom in by cropping) - the uncropped image would be 120cm tall. Besides, look what a little sharpening can do for you:

100% crop, sharpen 30 in Lightroom - Fuji X100s, handheld, 1/340, f/8, ISO 400

I think if you stick your nose up against a 120cm print and see this, you won't be too disappointed.

The settings used in Lightroom

Noise


As you may have noticed from the screenshot of my sharpening settings above, I've dialed noise reduction all the way down, with even color noise reduction down to 5 (from a default of 25 in Lightroom). Obviously, I can't do aggressive noise reduction when I'm trying to show off my baby's sharpness, but the fact is that the x-trans sensor has surprisingly low noise, even at high-ISO settings. Even better, the character of the noise is far less unpleasant than from my Canon 40D. Even at very high ISO, there is almost no color noise, hence my color noise reduction of 5 above is actually my default value, even at very high ISO, where I just add some luminance NR. The noise looks much more like film grain that typical digital sensor noise. See for yourself:

Roses - Fuji X100s, handheld, 1/60, f/2, ISO 5000

Sorry about this shot - it was one of the first pictures I took while playing with my new toy. I know that hand-holding in low light with a wide-open aperture is not a recipe for producing crisp macro shots... but look at the following 100% crop:

100 crop, color NR 5, luminance NR 0, Fuji X100s, handheld, 1/60, f/2, ISO 5000

Sure, there's plenty of luminance noise at ISO 5000, but it doesn't look so ugly. I applied my usual 5 color noise reduction, and the color noise is completely gone.

In summary, my own experience is that the image quality is top notch, certainly far better than what my old Canon 40D can manage (I know that's not a fair comparison. If you want to see how the X100s measures up against current models, go pixel-peep to your heart's content at dpreview.com). However, the RAW conversion is tricky, so if you use a bad RAW converter (e.g. early versions), or sharpen too much or too little, or kill your colors with a high color noise reduction, chances are you'll find something to complain about. I don't and I'm happy.

A tourist in Moscow


Okay, enough talk. Here are some pretty pictures from Moscow.

Saint Basil's Cathedral - Fuji X100s, 10sec, f/16, ISO 200, 3-stop ND filter (built in)

Another cool feature: the X100s has a built-in 3-stop ND filter. It's mainly there to help you get over the 1/1000 shutter speed limit at f/2 (the camera has an in-lens shutter - this means you can flash sync at any shutter speed, and the shutter is super quiet, but the maximal shutter speed depends on your aperture). I would prefer it if I didn't have to dive into the menus every time I want to use it. To be fair, everything else I need is available either via a direct button press or in the excellent "quick menu". Also, the above shot shows what nice sun stars f/16 will produce.

Onion Domes - Fuji X100s, 1/950, f/8, ISO 800
Looks like it should be made of Lego, no? This is an amazing building - unlike typical western cathedrals, St. Basil's Caethedral does not contain any single large room. Instead, it consists of a bunch of smaller churches clustered like barnacles; essentially each church is a tall tube capped by an onion dome, and dedicated to one or another saint. None of them have space for more than 30 or 40 people.

Another thing you may notice is that I shot at ISO 800, despite the fast shutter speed suggesting that there was more than enough light. The reason is that the X100s has an extremely useful dynamic range extension tool, which requires you to shoot at higher ISOs, and in return you get to keep much brighter highlights. I suspect it works by capturing at ISO 200, under-exposing to save the highlights, and then boosting the shadows and midtones by two stops (so shadow noise should correspond to a normal ISO 800 capture). The dynamic range extension has 0 (off), 1- and 2-stop settings, and you can leave the choice to the camera - which works especially well in conjunction to Auto ISO.

Defending the Faith - Fuji X100s, 1/320, f/5.6, ISO 800
This Tsar's Cannon in the Kremlin was never meant to be fired; it would probably blow up if you tried.

G.U.M. - Fuji X100s, 1/60, f/5.6, ISO 1250
 This study in symmetry was taken in the G.U.M. shopping mall next to the Red Square. It's a JPG direct from the camera, but I have since decided that I still prefer shooting in RAW - I don't want to have to make all my color decisions before shooting. Oh, and yes, those walkways do have railings. Look closer.

Pushkin Cafe - Fuji X100s, 1/40, f/2.8, ISO 3200
This "Napoleon Style" of interior decorating is very popular in Russia. Opulent. Stylish. Kitch?


Pushkin Cafe's Bar - Fuji X100s, 1/50, f/2, ISO 3200

Icon-snapper - Fuji X100s, 1/100, f/2, ISO 2500
 This is possibly my favorite image from Moscow, taken in the Tretyakov Gallery (an amazing art museum). This Orthodox priest was very intent on photographing icons. For his own pleasure? Officially for the church? Who knows? Anyway, St. Nicholas looks the other way, so it must be ok.

The Moscow Underground is Not a Political Movement


Otto wouldn't have known, but the Moscow Metro is absolutely amazing. Started in the 1930's under Stalin, the metro stations are built on a grand scale, often with granite floors and marble walls, sculptures, meticulous mosaics and other artwork. And it is spectacularly efficient, trains running every 90 seconds or so, even late into the night. I've heard the Moscow Metro referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. I think that's not far off. Oh, and it's a lot cheaper than the slow, ugly, crappy metros of Paris, London, Berlin etc.

Protecting the Revolution - Fuji X100s, 1/60, f/2, ISO 3200
These are some of the sculptures at the Ploshad Revolutsii station.

Ambushing the Commuters - Fuji X100s, 1/60, f/2, ISO 2000
Komsomolskaya Station - Fuji X100s, 1/100, f/4, ISO 1600
Novoslobodskaya Station - Fuji X100s, 1/4, f/8, ISO 200
 My only regret is not having a wide-angle lens with me in the metro. The place really lends itself to panoramas, maybe I should go back one day.

Mayakovskaya Station 1 - Fuji X100s, 15sec, f/16, ISO 200
Notice the ghosts of commuters, blurred away courtesy of the built-in ND filter.

Mayakovskaya Station 2 - Fuji X100s, 15sec, f/16, ISO 200


 Paternoster


The weekend after my return from Moscow, my finance minister and I had a lovely long weekend at Paternoster, our favorite little touristic fishing village on the South African west coast. I brought both my cameras with me, but to be honest, I used the Fuji almost exclusively - it is just so much smaller and nimbler than my bulky DSLR.

Gentle Start to a New Day - Fuji X100s, 1/60, f/11, ISO 400

While there, I tried out the sweep panorama mode some more - it had frustrated me in Moscow. In principle it is very easy to use, you just slowly sweep the camera through a 120 or 180 degree angle, and the camera does the rest. In practice, however, the resulting panorama has stitching errors more often than not, and if the brightness varies too much across the scene, you can get vertical banding from different exposures. Also, if the camera uses a slowish shutter speed (1/125 is slow) then the individual exposures are motion-blurred.

The above shot is just a crop from a normal photo, but below are some of the few sweep panoramas that worked out. Interestingly, sweep panoramas work fine with moving waves, but as soon as you have lots of hard edges (e.g. buildings) you'll see stitching errors.

Paternoster - Fuji X100s, sweep panorama, 1/220, f/4, ISO 800
Sunset at the Beach - Fuji X100s, sweep panorama, 1/125, f/11, ISO 1000
The Promise of Light - Fuji X100s, sweep panorama, 1/170, f/4, ISO 800
A New Day - Fuji X100s, sweep panorama, 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 800



7 comments:

  1. nice collection of best beautiful pictures and they looking are awesome quality images.
    best photographer in jaipur

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  2. Thank you! This was very helpful!. I had the same problem... to much gear. I just ordered x100s and looking forward to no more heavy gear travel :)

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  3. Thx for this test and for all this very good pictures. :-)

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  4. Schöne Bilder. Ich habe sie in schwarz bestellt. Kommt hoffentlich am Montag. Bin sehr gespannt.

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