photoluma | Fujifilm X100S - outdoor photography usability review

Fujifilm X100S - outdoor photography usability review

May 06, 2013  •  6 Comments

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).


Dungeness #1DSCF0048

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.


Dungess #2DSCF0055 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. 


Dungeness #3DSCF0066

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.


Dungeness #4DSCF0071 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).


Dungeness #5DSCF0080 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. 


Dungeness #6DSCF0084 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.


Dungeness #7DSCF0090 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.


Dungeness #8DSCF0095 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.


Dungeness #9DSCF0098 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.


Dungeness #10DSCF0120 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.


Dungeness #10DSCF0121 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.


Dungeness #11DSCF0127 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.


Dungeness #13DSCF0130

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.


Dungeness #14DSCF0132

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. 


Dungeness #15DSCF0138

To conclude, let me try and summarise the things I thought worked and those that hindered me in trying to the use the X100S:

It works!

  • 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. 


Flax Seed(non-registered)
Histogram in OVF/EVF

With my X-Pro1:

Make sure it's checked in the menu 'display custom setting'.

While looking thru the OVF/EVF cycle the display with the disp/back button.
David Nusbaum(non-registered)
While you cannot bracket film simulations when shooting RAW+JPEG, the X-Pro1, and I'm assuming the 100S, have the unique ability reprocess a RAW file in camera. What this means is that you can bring up the RAW image on the back of the camera, adjust the processing (including push or pull a couple of stops) and then generate a new JPEG. While this may not be as handy as processing in LR or CO, it works great if you like the cameras film simulations and it gives you a better understanding of the processing so you are more prepared next time you shoot.

Of course you may have already noticed this, but it's not exactly obvious unless you are really digging around in the manuals.
Thanks for the review. I use the X-E1 with the 18-55, and the 35 but still all in all it's basically the same processor.
Outstanding images. I too shoot for the details. I photograph the Maine coast and am always looking for the rotted, worn, weathered stuff :)
Love your photos, and your review. I have a (stock capturing) trip planned in August to capture the Nova Scotia coast and am deciding whether I want to pack the D800, D700 and all my lenses, or just take the X-E1.
Stephen McCullough(non-registered)
Very useful post, thank you.

One thing, in response to this bit:

"First, the manual focus scale is still displayed in the EVF when manual focus is enable, even if you un-check 'manual focus scale' in 'Display Custom Settings'. Second, when you un-check 'Exposure Compensation' in the 'Display Custom Settings' to remove it from the view, it is removed from the rear screen view, but not in the EVF"

The features visible on the rear screen and EVF are managed separately. It seems that you know about this. I have the histogram showing in both. Try this. Go to the menu and select the settings you want. Go back out of the menu, and select the screen you want, for example the EVF. Then press the Disp Back button.
I have an X-E1, first mirrorless I've touched, and the 35mm has been sort of permanently attached so maybe this interchangeable-lenses thing is overrated. Anyhow, the EVF is brilliant, trying to remember why it is my SLR is so wonderful despite being immensely larger and heavier and not actually making dramatically better images.


Anyhow, good piece. Thanks.
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