HELLO AND WELCOME TO MY PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG
Hello and welcome to my review of the new Fujifilm X100S. This is not a formal style review. Instead, its a review of how the camera performed when I used it for half a day down at Dungeness beach on the coast of Kent - a typical location for an outdoor photographer.
I bought this camera because I wanted a lightweight camera capable of high image quality with me when out and about, for ad-hoc photography in contrast to my more usual pre-planned outings. However, I'd read several comments suggesting that the camera would be less suited to landscape/scenic photography and so was curious to see how it performed in this kind of environment. I also thought it worthwhile to extend the use of the camera to a more demanding environment; a cold, windy beach which presented compositional challenges. I would normally use a Canon EOS 5D MkIII with a selection of lenses, typically tilt-shift lenses, for this kind of location and subject matter, so the X100S really is a different kind of animal to my usual camera.
While I shot 178 images during the outing, I've presented here the 15 images which I think show off the camera's capabilities. One clear difference to my usual camera is obviously that the X100S has a fixed lens of 23mm, equivalent to a standard 35mm lens on a full frame SLR. Usually I would take three lenses with me on such an outing, a 24mm, 45mm and 90mm.
During the outing I stuck with colour images rather than test out the X100S's monochrome capabilities, as I'd read a lot about the good colour rendering of the X100S, and colour is something I generally find disappointing in the digital world. I was shooting in RAW+Jpeg mode, and in the images presented here I've either used the jpeg with minimal adjustments straight from the camera, or the RAW where I thought I could improve on the in-camera processing (processed with Lightroom 4.4).
In this first image I've used my own processed RAW file because I found the in-camera jpeg under-exposed the scene. It was a bright day, with a lot of reflected light from the pebbles on the beach, from the weathered wood of the boat and the shed, and with a bright blue sky, so I should maybe have added a 1-1.5 stops of exposure compensation, but this was the first real shot with the camera. Image sharpness is very good, better than my Panasonic Lumix's (GF1/GH2), and almost as good as the 5D MkIII. I had purposely left the camera at its default settings on leaving the house in order to see how easy it was to tweek the camera's settings on location. This is the first point about the usability of the camera when out and about; the smaller size of the camera does make it a bit more difficult to deal with. While this scene would suggest a nice warm spring afternoon, it was actually blowing a gale, with a wind chill factor of about 7 degrees, meaning the actual temperature was not much above freezing. My fingers were soon numb, making the small focus dial and close proximity of the aperture dial a touch more difficult to manipulate while looking through the viewfinder.
In addition to the 'big vista', I'll often shoot details, particularly at Dungeness where detail photographers are spoilt for choice. In this image I've again used my own RAW conversion as I felt that the camera jpeg, even using the 'Velvia' film simulation, didn't quite capture the range of colours in the the woodwork (i.e blue/magenta hues) and nails (greens and reds). At this point in the outing I was still getting used to the X100S's interface, and finding the 'Quick' menu very useful for quickly changing the main settings of the camera. However, I wanted to try the film simulation bracketing function yet was completely unable to find it either in the 'quick' menu or in the 'Drive' menu, which is where I would have expected it to be. Later, back at home, I discovered that certain bracketing functions (film simulation, ISO, and Dynamic Range) only work in jpeg mode, and not when shooting RAW - which is a shame. [update: as pointed out in a reply to this review, it IS possible to process an Raw file in-camera after the fact, as many times as you want using different film simulations, and this works well]. Again, this image is very sharp, and despite using f16 to maximise depth of field at this close focusing distance, the effects of diffraction don't seem too evident.
I tried several times to produce a better RAW conversion of my own using Lightroom, but in the end decided that this out-of-camera jpeg image was the best one. I really like the blues of the boat in this image, and could not find a combination to replicate them in Lightroom. I used a LEE RF75 2 stop neutral density filter for this image, slanted from bottom left to top right in order to control the brightness of the sky and the sunlit patch of beach on the left, and to allow me to lift the shadows in the foreground 'in-camera'. I think the RF 75 filter systems works well with the X100S. It connects to the camera via the Fuji adapter which has a 49mm thread, requiring a Lee 49mm filter ring. The downside to using a filter system with this camera is that it increases the difficulty of accessing the focus and aperture rings - its still possible, just a bit less space for photographers with 'podgy' fingers, like me.
I think this image compares in sharpness, detail, and colour with anything I've ever taken on the 5D MkIII (or MkII or MkI!). I did my own RAW file processing again as I felt that the jpeg had missed the depth of colour in the scene, but in total the tweeks are relatively minor. Compositionally I could have done a better job - specifically I don't like the two half nails, one on the right hand side, and one along the top edge, but this illustrates that the smaller viewfinder requires greater scrutiny than that of the 5D. The amount of information presented in the viewfinder also can be obstructive, making a clean composition more difficult to achieve (more on this later).
Another good example above of the X100S's ability to capture fine details, and to render pleasing colours - albeit tweaked again by me in Lightroom.
Of all the images presented in this review, this is the one that illustrates how sharp the lens/sensor combination of the X100S can be. While it may not be evident at this small size, the fibres on the rope are superbly sharp in the full size image. This image also goes to show the effectiveness of the X100S's focus peaking assistance when in manual focus mode. The focus distance in this image was very short, and so focus accuracy was required, even though I was shooting at f11. I found focus peaking to be a very useful means of achieving critical focus with the X100S. It was at this point that I noticed that every image I had made so far in this outing had involved the electronic viewfinder rather than the optical viewfinder. This reflected in part my approach using the Canon 5D, where I often focus using Liveview on the rear screen. The benefit of the X100S over the 5D MkIII is that this kind of manual focus assist is available in the viewfinder, enabling the user to shut out extraneous light which can be difficult when using the rear screen to focus.
Excellent colour from the out-of-camera jpeg in this image above, and lots of fine detail in the rusting corrugated panel which has fractured to reveal the wood beneath, also discolored from the decaying process.
While the colours in this image above are similar to those of the previous image, I was not happy with the jpeg version and so made my own RAW conversion in Lightroom. This detail scene was facing the full force of the sun (see the shadow in the rusted-out hole on the right hand side), and the wood section on the left was about 2 stops brighter than the rusted metal. I used a LEE 2-stop ND filter again to balance the exposure - perhaps this had some impact on the in-camera colour rendering.
Back to the in-camera jpeg rendering for this image of the fishermen's storage containers on the beach. The out-of-camera image had too much depth in the shadows on the right side of the main container so I've lifted those a touch in Lightroom with the shadows slider. Otherwise the image is as it came out of the camera. I often switch between aspect ratios during a shoot, and had expected to find this a chore on the X100S given the ease of using the slider switch on the LX5, my existing compact of choice. However, the quick menu on the X100S is well thought out and switching aspect ratios was really a breeze, as was switching ISO, dynamic range, white balance, noise reduction, file type, film simulation, highlight tone, shadow tone, colour, sharpness, self-timer, AF mode, flash mode, and LCD brightness, all of which are accessible from the Quick menu.
By the time I made this image the light was starting to get interesting, with a little colouration in the clouds, and a low angle to the sunlight which for this shot was over my right shoulder. This is an in-camera jpeg with no adjustments made in Lightroom. I again used a 2 stop Lee ND filter, requiring me to again use the electronic viewfinder instead of the optical viewfinder, which was blocked by the filter system. This image bought home to me the importance of deciding in advance exactly what information you really want to see in the view either through the electronic viewfinder, or via the rear screen when composing. Without knowing it, I had all the check boxes ticked in the 'Display Custom Settings', presenting me with a whole screen full of data during composition. Unfortunately a lot of this data gets in the way, so in this image I was unsure of what was in the frame in the lower left corner because it was blocked by the histogram display. In manual focus mode too, the focus scale runs along the bottom of the image, intruding into the composition.
One important thing to understand is that while much of this data is visible through the EVF and on the rear-screen during composition, some of it disappears when you half-press the shutter, enabling you to check the edges of the composition are clean. The three details that I find intruded the most in the composition were the exposure compensation scale, the histogram, and the manual focus scale. After some initial confusion as to how the 'custom display options' worked, and with feedback from replies to this review, I now understand that it is possible to set up the OVF, and the EVF/rear-screen with their own customised appearances, so you can, for example, remove the exposure compensation scale, histogram and manual focus scales if you want. You just have to remember to cycle through to the custom screen using the 'Disp.Back' button during viewing. I now have my X100S set up so that in all three viewfinders (the OVF, EVF and rear-screen) the exposure compensation scale and manual focus scale are not present, but the histogram is present. The histogram then disappears on half-pressing the shutter. Thanks to those replies that clarified this for me.
Perhaps the most helpful discovery I made that goes some way to addressing the issue of a crowded viewfinder is that when you half depress the shutter, much of the in-viewfinder information is removed, allowing you a better view of the edges of the composition. To further aid composition I suggest un-ticking the check-boxes for AF and MF distance indicators, and for exposure compensation in the 'Display Custom Settings' menu. I prefer to leave the histogram box checked as I find it a useful aid for judging exposure, at least when composing on the rear screen.
Two more images above straight out of the camera, in jpeg format. The light was really starting to warm up now, and the rusting diesel stacks in the bow of the boat were just glowing. Again, a lot of detail in these images which are very sharp in closeup, and the colour rendering using the Velvia film simulation is very rich.
One annoying little characteristic of the X100S occurs when the camera goes into sleep mode. One setting I like to use on an ad-hoc basis is the self timer, with a setting of 2 seconds. While the leaf shutter of the X100S probably makes the use of the self timer to avoid camera shake redundant, its a habit I have gotten into using the 5D's and wanted to use on the X100S. However, I found that if I set the self timer and then let the camera go into sleep mode it lost the setting. I have not checked whether other settings are lost when in sleep mode, but I found this one to be quite annoying.
And finally, two more in-camera jpegs above and below from the X100S. Lots of detail, fine sharpness, and pleasing colour. In total I used the in-camera jpeg for 9 of the 15 images presented here, with one of the RAWs used simply because I did not like the underexposure of a particularly bright scene early on in the session.
To conclude, let me try and summarise the things I thought worked and those that hindered me in trying to the use the X100S:
In-camera jpegs seem fine most of the time, with the need to revert to a RAW conversion where there is a particularly difficultly with exposure or colour.
Autofocus worked well when I used it.
Manual focus worked very well - focus peaking is a revelation and worked particularly well through the electronic viewfinder.
The 'Quick' menu was well configured and made switching between important settings very easy.
Good levels of customisation of the OVF, EVF and rear-screen information present when framing and shooting.
The lens/sensor combination produces very sharp images, noticeably better than images from my existing preferred compacts in the Panasonic Lumix range (GF1/GH2/LX5).
The X100S plus Lee RF75 filter system make a good combination for such a small camera, albeit access to the focus and aperture rings is a touch more difficult.
The compact size of the camera gave my back a real rest. Although I was using the camera on a tripod most of the time, my kit for the session comprised of just the camera, the tripod, and a small pouch with the Lee RF75 filter set (filter holder + 1 x 49mm filter ring + three ND graduated filters), significant less weight than my usual kit for such an outing.
ND graduated filter placement worked well using the EVF and/or rear-screen to judge placement.
Whinge whinge, moan moan!
Optical viewfinder - I didn't use it once when actually shooting, the lens shade significantly cuts into the viewfinder image, and its pointless to even try when using the RF75 filter system - as far as I'm concerned the OVF is redundant.
Can't bracket certain functions (e.g. film simulation mode, ISO, dynamic range) unless in jpeg-only mode.
I need more aspect ratios - in particular 4x5, 3x4 and 6x7.
I feel that the focus ring really needs to be about twice the size. At its current size its too difficult to grasp being so close to the aperture ring, whose two lugs tend to get in the way and/or get moved when focusing. This issue may have been exaggerated due to the cold and windy conditions encountered on this outing.
While the crowded EVF/rear-screen view can be partly resolved by judicious un-checking of check-boxes in the Display Custom Settings menu, the exposure compensation dial remains in place in the EVF, even on half pressing the shutter. It would be better if this disappeared on half pressing the shutter, so as to allow for a completely clear review of the composition through the EVF.
The self-timer function is lost when the camera goes into sleep mode. It would be nice for the camera to retain ad-hoc settings in sleep mode as periods of temporary inactivity are often encountered in this type of photography
Battery life! I did follow the advice of other reviews and buy a second battery, and on this trip, with 178 images in the bag, I needed it.
In short, this is a fantastic little camera, and will I am sure serve its purpose as my preferred camera for ad-hoc outings where I do not want to take along my full 5D MkIII kit. More worrying I think for the likes of Canon and Nikon is where Fuji and its competitors may take these high quality smaller cameras in the future. For example, if Fuji made an X150S with a 35mm lens, and maybe an X250S with 50mm lens, would I buy them and then dump the 5D MkII? Tempting. Progress in image quality is bound to continue to improve, so its not a crazy notion to think of taking along 2-3 fixed-lens compacts instead of a DSLR body and 3-4 lenses. Alternatively, given my conclusions about the redundancy of the optical viewfinder for this kind of photography, maybe the X-E1 plus lenses is the better middle path. I can feel the slippery slope looming! I hope you've found this review useful.
We stopped off at Mono Lake in the mid-afternoon after visiting the abandoned mining town of Bodie, but we initially stopped on the northern shore at the small visitors centre (not the main centre). This was not the best side to visit for photography as access to the shoreline is restricted to wooden boardwalks. These take you through the marshy edges of the lake and closer to some of the tufas on that side, but it was too restricted to get a good shot. I returned that evening to the southern side which had unrestricted access to the lake shore, and the most amazing tufas, some of which are now on the shore due to the ongoing receding of the water level in the lake. The shoreline is about 10-15 minutes walk from the car park, and there are several large tufa formations on this side. I'd arrived just before sundown and took a few images on the way down to the lake. By the time I got to the lake the sun had disappeared over the horizon, the sky was taking on a modest magenta edge, but the ambient colour was predominantly blue. However, the grasses were this bright reddish, orange hue which contrasted well with the sky. Compositions close to the waters edge were difficult due to the large amount of foam collecting at the water's edge, so I stepped back and tried to include some of the colourful vegetation in the foreground.
I used my new TSE 24mm lens for this shot, applying a little drop and some tilt in order to get the image sharp from front to back. The lens is very easy to use on a 5D mkII as you can use the live-view feature to ensure accurate focus, even when tilting the lens. I took several other images some of which I'll post later. The walk back to the car through some of the stranded tufas and long grass was quite eerie as all the other photographers who;d been there when I'd arrived had quit as soon as the sun dipped over the horizon.
You expect to see dunes in a desert, and Death Valley is the closest thing to a desert that I've every visited. Mesquite Dunes are at the northen end of Death Valley, about 30 minutes from Furnace Creek. The dunes are very conspicuous, the golden sand standing out amidst the sea of rock and sandstone. The place was heaving with RVs and tourists, meaning the ideal of photographing a section of footprint-free dune was extremely difficult. The National Park service advises those seeking dunes undisturbed by the hand (or feet) of man, should head out to the eastern side of the dunes where the casual visitor rarely goes. Unfiortunately the biggest and best dunes are the ones in the middle, and with the sun setting to the west, you really want to be either around the middle, or towards the western edge of the dunes. Even so, for this image, I headed out for the 30 minute walk into the dunes expecting to have to keep veering east to avoid footprints. In the end I wandered a long way over to the east and snapped this composition which was the closest I could get to a curvaceous dune edge. At the time I didn't really notice that the hills in the background had taken on a magenta hue, catching the last rays of the setting sun, I was paying to much attention to the foreground. There was a fair breeze that evening, and the camera soon attracted a covering of light dust whcih made me very nervous about changing lenses, which I did several times. This shot was taken with a 135mm F2L lens on my Canon 5D MkII.
Later in our road trip we encounted other dune systems which we'd never heard of, particularly as we crossed the Mojave desert where we drove past two systems, one of which was huge, about twice the size of Mesquite Dunes, and only accesible via dirt track. I guess Mesquite gets all the attention because it is close to the centre of Death Valley, and is accessible from the car park on the main route. The other dune systems seemed a better option for the photogrpaher though, given that they seemed devoid of other people.
Ambient light filtered through snowfall is among the most difficult to capture on camera in my view. At Lake Tahoe, six days into our California road trip, we encounted snowfall and temperatures down to -10-15 overnight. During the day it was cold, but not that windy, and we took a drive up to Emerald Bay, the most scenic part of the Lake Tahoe area (although that's like saying the sweest part of the trifle). Lake Tahoe has much to offer the photographer. During our 2 night stay I searched in vain for Bonzai Rock along the eastern edge of the lake. Emerald bay, on the south-western corner of the lake, offered huge photographic potential, but unfortunately we were constrained by the weather conditions and stayed off the hiking trails which were several feet deep in snow not far from the road. This photo of a california pine tree was taken just outside the car park overlooking Emerald Bat, and will never rank among my finest photographic compositions, but I wanted to try to photograph it because it just stood out in the gently filtered light, with a saturated reddish trunk set agains the blueish backdrop of the lake, and fragments of blue sky visible through the snowclouds. I'm pretty sure the tree was actually dead, but in colour at least, it seemed to live.
For once I wished I had my film camera loaded with Fuji Velvia as I think it would have set the colours off nicely, even if the falling snow would have caused a problem with such a slow speed film. Instead, I used my Canon 5D MkII, handheld, with a 50mm F2.5 lens (a great lens for using in bad weather due to the fact that the front element of the lens is recessed by about 2 cms, shielding it from rain and snow.
Zabriskie Point was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was only 10 minutes from our hotel (Furnace Creek Resort), and didn't require any hiking in order to get a decent viewpoint, which all made for some relatively lazy photography - at least compared with the 5am wakeup call and 50 minute drive in order to get to Yosemite valley for sunrise a few days earlier. While most people (there were about a dozen people there by sun-up) took the opportunity to photograph 'the bigger picture', I was mesmerised by the incredible detail and undulating nature of the landscape, and preferred to focus on a smaller 'vignette' of the landscape. This was pre-dawn, with a brightening blue sky overhead, and the colour of the light was the second key feature of the landscape for me. The rocks themselves are a sandy brown colour, and during the day in full sun there is no doubt about their colour. But at this time of the morning, with indirect light, there was a curious mixture of blue-light and sandy brown which contrasted beautifully.
I shot this image with my Canon 5D MkII, and 45mm TSE lens coupled to a 2x extender which gave me a 90mm lens. From the viewing area a focal length of 70-130mm is needed for this kind of closely cropped composition. Shorter focal lengths could work for those prepared to risk the wrath of their fellow photographers and venture out onto the rocks, but then you lose elevation and the effect of 'depth' due to the receding ridgelines would be lost I think. As far as I can remember I didn't tilt the lens for depth of field, relying on F16 to do the job for me.