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In-Depth: The New Fujifilm X100s

UPDATE: I recorded a ~40-min webcam walk-thru of the camera's best features and how to use them at the bottom of the post.

Short Version: It's a remarkable, sync-at-any-speed camera with a no-apologies 16mp chip. I'll probably make more pictures with this camera over the next year than all of my other cameras combined.

Why, below.


It Sees in the Dark

With great high ISO performance, a lens that is respectable wide open at f/2, and a camera that is sooo hand-holdable at slow shutter speeds, if you can see it you can shoot it. Here's my daughter Em, lit by an iPhone:

At ISO 3200, 1/150th at f/2, this is not anywhere close to pushing the envelope. The camera is useable at ISO 6400, and I can handhold it on a still subject easily at ¼ second. That means I could have shot this same image with six stops less light. The aspheric 35/2 equivalent lens is pretty sharp wide open—see 100% medium size jpeg here.

Remember, there is no mirror flopping around to induce vibration in slow shutter speed shots. This shot of Dubai Knowledge Village was handheld at ¼ sec at f/2.5 at ISO 800. Yeah, there's a tiny bit of movement that you can see at 100%. But holy crap, this camera is hand-holdable.

Both of these are straight out of the camera, too. No post at all. The NYC skyline below is a two-shot stitched pano, shot handheld as the mix light got gorgeous:

The Fujifilm X100s is a machine purpose-built for documentary and street shooters. When I shot for papers, many photographers I knew shot with Nikons for dailies but kept a Leica M and a 35/2 for project work that really mattered. This is the first digital camera I have ever used that totally meets that bar.

And it is dead quiet. Not Leica-quiet. Dead quiet. So much so that you might miss the sonic feedback that helps you to handhold better at slow shutter speeds. You can set a variety of artificial sounds at various volumes if you miss the feedback (one sounding almost exactly like an M6) but pretty soon you'll let go of even that. Silent is good.

Sync at Any Speed

This is huge, and of special interest to readers of this site. There are some limitations, namely your flash's t.1 time at a given power setting and the fact that a leaf shutter won't evenly expose wide open at super-high speeds. But that is a physics balancing act that is worth learning.

For that reason, you're always gonna want to use a sync cord of some kind (using a long OCF cord here) or a slave, or a combo of both. That's because every microsecond (1/1000th of a millisecond) counts and all radios have inherent X-microsecond delays.

The sweet spot with the X100s is to shoot on (L)100 ISO, at 1/1000th of a sec at f/2 with the built-in 3-stop ND filter engaged. That will underexpose full daylight. You can then overpower the sun with a small flash and shoot wide open in the process for gorgeous backgrounds at f/2:

(UPDATE: I have since written a full post on this feature, here.)

Because of the ND filter, the equivalent exposure for your flash would be as if it were exposing something fully at f/5.6 at ISO 100. Doable, at modest range with a speedlight in an umbrella. This was shot at 1/2000th of a sec at f/4, at ISO 400 with the ND filter engaged. It was lit with two speedlights (one top, one bottom) in 43" umbrellas:

And with a monobloc, you can effortlessly dominate full sun on low power settings. It's a wonderful thing. (Full post here.)

The artistic limitation, of course, is the fixed 35mm equivalent lens. Fuji: gimme an aux portrait tele for this camera and I will love you long time. Suffice to say, leaf shutter + awesome chip = lighting heaven.

Choose Your Palette

Fuji's film-based knowledge and experience shows in the X100s. I did some all-other-things equal sequences below. But the light was changing enough to where there was different light in different sequences. So basically, judge comparatively inside the separate sequences, but not between them.

A Provia look is their standard-contrast slide film, but you can swap out to Velvia (more punch) Astia (softer) as shown here, in that order:

C-41 shooters will appreciate the nod to color neg, from which you can choose high or low contrast:

Within any preset, you can alter and fine-tweak white balances. But you can also tweak the contrast curve, too, as opposed to just the overall contrast. As with the X100 before it, they do it by giving you separate control of the highlight and shadow contrast (-2 to +2 on each). Here is an Astia frame, spanning -2, 0, and +2 on highlight and shadows together.

Mind you, you can choose to alter highlight and shadow contrast individually, too.

These tonal controls also apply to black and white, as do a series of color filter overlays. For instance, choose BW+red for silvery skin tones. Or choose BW+red and low-contrast highlights for rich dark open skies and clouds with full detail in your landscapes. Is it stuff you could do in Photoshop or Lightroom? Sure. But the point is you can choose to dial in a very personal look right from the camera. If you work in RAW+jpeg, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

And honestly, the jpegs are good enough to where I have not yet been tempted to shoot RAW. But fortunately, their use of the new X-Trans sensor means more RAW support from the big boys in software. But again, you can build a personal style into your jpegs—even if that style is completely neutral—that happens every time you press the button. And they are good jpegs.

Speaking of White Balance

The custom white balance is outstanding. It's better than auto white balance (which it also has) because you grab a custom WB exposure just like with a high-end DSLR. Except it is better than most. Here is a shot into a room lit with a gaggle of mystery fluorescents:

And as with any white balance or color palette you choose, you can quickly move it around via a one-button color shift matrix. You see the effect instantly, too, if you are looking through the electronic viewfinder. (And while on the subject of viewfinders, both the EVF and the optical are excellent. And having the choice is awesome.)

Hip to Be Square

In addition to the 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios, you can choose square. It's a mind gimmick of course, but one that helps me see shots differently. Especially when...

Shooting in Toy Camera Mode

Yep, it does built-in "advanced" filters. This is the kind of Instagrammy stuff is something I would normally turn my nose up at. But few of the filters are pretty cool. I like soft focus (think layered gaussian blur, done in-camera) and high key (which shifts the entire tonal scale relatively—this is far more than an exposure shift).

But the one I might find myself using most is the "toy camera" filter. Think Holga, right out of the camera, with weird color shifts and darkened corners, shot on square format:

And while the advanced filters are not themselves stackable, the different settings are. Meaning I can shoot wide-open fuzzy-background flash in full daylight with a square format and a Holga look applied to it, all in-camera.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, a hipster's head just exploded.

Finally, Pitch-Perfect Focusing

The autofocus is light years ahead of its predecessor. Fast and sure, even in near-dark. Which is cool because you will be shooting in the dark with this camera.

And as good as the autofocus is, the manual focus is better. This is especially cool because MF in the old model was all but unusable—bad pitch and no good feedback. Using the electronic viewfinder and one of three chosen "manual assist" modes, you can accurately focus in light that is literally too dark to see in. It's almost creepy.

When manually focusing, you touch the button under your right thumb and a louped center section appears. You can choose straight magnification, a digital version of split image, or something called "focus peaking," in which you can choose two different strengths. They all work surprisingly well. It's just a matter of personal choice. (And the pitch on the focusing ring is perfect.)

Menu Evolution

The menus, a little clunky in the X100, have been intelligently redesigned. The best feature is the Q button, for quick menu, which gives you instant access to most of the commonly used items.

And the other items are arranged in an intelligent menu tree, making many of the things you often need dedicated-button selections. It's quickly intuitive. There is a user-defined function button that sits right near the shutter button. I like it for instant access to ISO. But you can choose to use it for multi-exposure, depth of field preview, self timer, image size, ND filter, etc.

That's the beauty of this camera (or, one of the beauties)—you can dial it into just about any preferred workflow. It fits you like a glove. And if all of this sounds complicated, it's not. It's just that the camera begs to be learned. You adjust it to fit your style and tweak it until it is basically an extension of your mind.

Zack said it very well: the camera totally gets out of the way.

Is it The Perfect Camera?

Nope, nothing is. But it's close. Actually, for what it is, it is damn close. But there are a couple of quibbles.

For one, the shade should come with it. As the X100s ships—with a "slip-off" lens cap and no shade—it is incomplete to me. And while the lens cap is nostalgic (and true to early Leica models) it begs to be lost, leaving you with an unprotected camera.

So you want a hood, but the Fuji model is … shockingly expensive. And there are third-party options available. (I prefer a black hood anyway, so I had little choice but to go third party.) But make sure you get one that bayonets rather than screws. You'll want to quick-swap it out when using built-in flash. (Which I warm-gelled with some Scotch tape.)

So, lose the slip-on lens cap and get a hood and a quality 49mm skylight filter. And not a crap filter, either, as the aspherical 23mm/2 (35mm/2 equiv.) lens deserves good glass in front. Put the lens cap in a drawer and go filter/hood full-time. That's why we wear cotton shirts. One less thing to lose, and the camera is always ready.

Speaking of the flash, I'd like to see more control. It only goes TTL +- ⅔ stop. I am going to lobby for for a firmware upgrade to -3.0 stops TTL, with full manual control, say 1/1 to 1/32. I think people will want a wink light to set of slaved flashes in manual, and the TTL needs to go well below -⅔ stop to be useful. (Obviously, you can use manual off-camera flash with the hot shoe sync.)

And while the built-in flash is not empirically powerful, remember that you can always jack the sync speed and open the aperture for more reach. God, I love leaf shutters.

Last thing is batteries. The X100s eats them, but not as bad as the X100 did. Still, you'll want a couple extra matchbook-sized batts for all-day shooting. Once again, you can choose OEM or less expensive after-market options. Oh, and it is still possible to easily slip the batteries in the wrong way. Sigh. Just assume you did that when your camera won't power up until you learn to pay attention when installing.

But truly, these are small quibbles compared to the remarkable package offered by the X100s.

Fuji Is the New Leica

Essentially, what you have in the X100s is a tiny, super capable camera with fast, sharp glass that handles like a Leica M. The 16MP X-Trans chip is the best APS-sized chip I have seen—in skin tones, high ISO and sharpness. (They changed the distribution of the RGB pixels and lost the low-pass filter without getting moiré.) It is also insanely customizable. And silent.

Again, echoing Zack Arias here when I agree that Fuji is the new Leica. (UPDATE: Zack's review is now up.) As someone who used many different Leica M film rangefinders, this thing is more Leica M than any digital camera Leica has made yet. By a long shot. And at a small fraction of the cost. If you woulda just used your film M camera with a 35/2 lens permanently on it, as many did, this is your camera.

My prediction: this will be the personal, auxiliary camera of many a working photographer and photojournalist. Heck, it'll be the prime body for many, as this is a camera you could build a career on. David Alan Harvey spent several decades toting around just an M6 and a 35 Summicron. I am enjoying watching him get to know the Fuji X100s. As for myself, I am starting my 2013 round of HCAC assignments and many will be shot with this camera. It's that good.

UPDATE: A Webcam Video Walk-Thru

UPDATE: April 25th -- After passing the 10k frames mark I archived a full, ~40-minute walk-thru of the features on the X100s. Hope it helps anyone new to the camera. Enjoy.

The Dreaded Question

I know every current X100 owner is thinking, "Should I upgrade?"

Agonizing call, as your camera is (a) really decent and (b) not that old. Here's my suggestion, if a bit ironic. If you are totally in love with your X100 and use it a lot, sell it right now and upgrade if you can afford it. The X100s is $1299, so figure prolly $500 difference, depending on how long you wait. But it is $500 better, that's for sure.

FWIW, Fuji sent me an early production model to play with. So I knew what to expect. On the day GPP opened in Dubai, I heard they were flying in a dozen of them to sell along with the launch. I was first in line before the booth opened, to buy the first one.

If you just use your X100 as an occasional, knock-around, travel-light camera, maybe stick with it. But do not handle an X100s because, just don't. You'll be powerless. But the more you use your X100 original, the more you should think about upgrading.

I know. Sorry.

Fujifilm X100s (Amazon.com)

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