Fujifilm X100S review

Don't be fooled by the Fujifilm X100S's retro exterior; it's a modern, full-featured digital camera that impressed us enough to earn our Editors' Choice award.
Photo of Fujifilm X100S

The Fujifilm X100S ($1,299.95 list) is the follow-up to Fuji’s groundbreaking X100 digital camera. Like its predecessor it features a retro design that makes it look more like a 1960s-era Leica than a modern digital camera, a hybrid viewfinder system that can toggle between a big, bright optical view and an EVF, and a fast f/2 lens with a 35mm (full-frame equivalent) field of view. The sensor has been upgraded to a 16-megapixel X-Trans CMOS design that is capable of producing some incredible results at extremely high ISO settings, and a notoriously sluggish autofocus system is now a reasonably quick one.

The X100S’s field of view is a little narrower than our current Editors’ Choice prime-lens compact camera, the 28mm-equivalent Ricoh GR. The Ricoh has some things working in its favor that the X100S can’t match—it’s small enough to slide into the pocket of your jeans, and its asking price is $500 less. The X100S is a low-light king, and even though its lens isn’t as sharp edge-to-edge as the Ricoh’s, you’ll be anything but disappointed with the images that it captures. It too deserves to be called Editors’ Choice.

Design and Features
Olympus was the first company to wow us with a chic retro design camera with its original digital PEN Micro Four Thirds body. But Fujifilm took the torch and ran with it when it announced the X100 in 2010. From a distance it looks a bit like a chrome Leica M camera, albeit with a few extra dials and a smaller footprint. A silver finish adorns the top plate, bottom plate, and lens, and black leatherette surrounds the body of the camera. It measures just 2.9 by 5 by 2.1 inches (HWD) and weighs just a smidge under a pound. That’s a bit heavy for its size, but there’s no skimping on the build quality—the X100S feels like a solidly built product. The Leica X2 is almost the same size (2.7 by 4.9 by 2 inches), but a bit lighter at 11.2 ounces. That camera features a 35mm f/2.8 equivalent lens and an image sensor of equal size, but doesn’t include any sort of built-in viewfinder.

The lens is a 23mm f/2 design, which delivers the field of view of a 35mm lens in terms of full-frame photography. It’s a classic prime design that delivers a moderately wide-angle field of view. There are a few other premium compacts that match that perspective, including the full-frame Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. There is a wide-angle adapter available ($349) that broadens the perspective of the X100S to match the 28mm field of view delivered by the Ricoh GR, but it adds a good amount of size and cost to the camera.

Rather than using a mode dial, the X100S takes a more classic approach to setting a shooting mode. The lens has a physical aperture ring with 1-stop clicks from f/2 through f/16, as well as an A setting. The shutter speed dial, located on the top plate, allows you to set the shutter in one-stop increments from 1/4-second to 1/4,000-second, and also has an A setting. Setting the shutter to A and controlling the aperture ring manually puts you in aperture priority mode; setting the aperture to A and adjusting the shutter speed is the equivalent of shutter priority mode. And if you leave both settings to A, you’ll experience the equivalent of program shooting. Full manual shooting is also available—just set your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture and go to town. There’s an EV indicator bar on the left of the rear LCD and visible in the optical finder as well; it lets you know if you are under or overexposed at current settings. A half-press of the shutter will also show you what the scene will look like when captured, assuming you are using the EVF or rear LCD at that time.

Any shift in exposure can be dialed in using the top-mounted exposure compensation dial. It ranges from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3-stop increments. There’s also a programmable Fn button on the top plate, to the right of the shutter release; by default it adjusts the current ISO setting. It can be set manually, or to auto; it’s also from here that you’ll be able to set the desired minimum shutter speed for auto ISO shooting. The default is 1/60, but you can set it to values ranging from 1/4 to 1/125-second.

There’s one way to take control of your shooting, which is essentially an ISO priority mode. If you set the camera to auto ISO but manually select the shutter speed and aperture, the camera will do its best to capture the correct exposure. It’s still possible to select a combination that will result in an over or underexposed image. The camera will tell you that you’ve done this in a couple ways: The shutter speed will turn to red on the information display, and the EV bar will let you know how far over or underexposed that the shot will be. Pentax SLRs have had this feature for years, and it carried on to the Ricoh GR as TAv mode. Recent Nikon SLRs, including the D800 and D7100 have it as well.

There are some additional controls on the rear of the camera. There’s a jog switch at the top—pressing it left or right will shift the aperture or shutter speed when shooting in program mode, but only if the ISO is set to a specific value. Pressing it in magnifies the live view frame, helpful for confirming focus. There’s also an AEL/AFL button, a button to select the active autofocus point, one to enable macro shooting, another to control the flash output, and a button for white balance control. These last four are at each point of a four-way controller/control wheel that is used to navigate through menus and to move the active autofocus point.

To the left of the LCD you’ll find controls to enter playback mode, change the metering pattern, select from continuous drive shooting options, and change between the rear LCD, eye-level finder, or activate an eye-sensor to make that changeover automatic; there’s also a control button to the right of the rear LCD that changes how much information is overlaid over the optical finder and live view frame. Finally there’s the Q button, in the rear right corner. It brings up a menu that allows you to change most of the settings that we’ve just listed off, as well as some that relate to the JPG output. These include the color balance (there are some film emulation modes that emulate classic Fuji emulsions like Velvia and Provia) as well as image sharpening and noise reduction, and the LCD brightness. This is also the quickest way to enable or disable the self-timer—you’ll have to dive into the camera’s main menu to do so if you don’t utilize the Q function.

The hybrid viewfinder is a gem. In optical mode it gives you a bright, clear view of the world, with an overlaid white frame that shows you what the lens is going to capture. The frameline moves with a half-press of the shutter button, to let you know your exact frame at the focus point which you’re aiming at. If the premium-priced Sony RX1 had managed to incorporate a hybrid finder of this quality in its design it would be a little easier to justify its $2,800 price tag. But that camera is limited to using an add-on Electronic Viewfinder that, while excellent, adds both bulk and price to the RX1.

There were a few times that I had some issues focusing on exactly what I wanted to in autofocus mode, but I found that enabling a setting that is buried in the menu helped. Set Corrected AF Frame (on the fourth page of the shooting menu) to on and a second box will appear, below and to the right of the box that represents the active focus point. The standard, solid outline, is what you normally see—it represents the current focus point at infinity. The additional box only has its corners outlined; it represents the focus point at the closet focus distance, corrected for parallax. Pressing down halfway adds a third box, outlined in green, that surrounds the point on which the camera has locked focus.

If all of these shifting frame lines and focus boxes don’t sound like your cup of tea, you can switch the finder to EVF mode. There’s a toggle switch on the front of the camera—it looks like the film rewind release on a Leica M3. Just move it down and the viewing mode will switch. You’ll be peering into a 2.4-megapixel electronic viewfinder that shows you exact framing and focus. It’s not the best EVF we’ve seen built into a camera, that honor goes to the OLED EVF in compact interchangeable lens cameras from Sony, including the NEX-6, but it’s pretty darned good.

You’ll need to use the EVF (or rear LCD) in order to shoot in macro mode, as the close focus is just too close for the optical finder to show. The EVF also switches on when you’re in manual focus mode. You can still use the optical finder for framing, but the moment you move the focus ring, it switches over to help you nail focus. There are a few different focus aids available—one is magnification, which simply magnifies the center of the frame. There’s a unique split mode, which gives you a magnified black and white image that, when out of focus, is misaligned. To bring it into focus you’ll need to align the four strips. It’s most useful if you have straight lines to match up, and isn’t too far off from a traditional rangefinder patch in terms of operation. Finally there’s focus peaking, which outlines in-focus parts of an image in bright white. This has appeared on more cameras as of late, and can speed manual focus in many instances. Of the three, my favorite was the split mode—it’s very similar in operation to a rangefinder, a style of camera with which I’m very comfortable. (But don’t call this camera a rangefinder, as some have—that’s a term reserved for cameras that have an optical rangefinder system. The X100S does not.)

The rear LCD is one of the few weak points. It’s 2.8 inches in size, which is just a bit small but necessary in order keep the body size where it is. The resolution is only 460k dots, which is paltry when compared to the EVF. The 3-inch 921k-dot display on the Nikon Coolpix A is noticeably sharper. The X100S is primarily an eye-level camera, but at its price point a sharper rear LCD should come standard.

Performance and Conclusions
The X100S is pretty speedy, directly addressing criticisms about the operation speed of its predecessor. It starts and grabs a shot in about 1.3 seconds, and in good light can focus and fire in about 0.2-second. In low light, focus took an average of 0.9-second. Burst shooting is surprisingly fast. Even though you don’t buy a camera with a fixed wide-angle prime lens to shoot sports or heron swooping down to snatch fish from the ocean, Fuji put a 6fps burst mode into the camera. Our lab tests showed that it’s actually closer to 4.8fps in practice, but that’s still plenty fast. If you’re shooting in JPG mode you can keep that pace going for an amazing 200 shots, but Raw and Raw+JPG is limited to 8 frames before slowing down. Compare this with the Sigma DP2 Merrill, which delivers amazing image quality but is not a speed demon. It starts and shoots in 2.9 seconds, records a 0.3-second shutter lag, and only manages a short burst of photos at 3.8 frames per second.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the X100S’s 35mm f/2 lens. The results were impressive across the board; at its maximum aperture it records 2,279 lines per picture height, better than the 1,800 lines we require for an image to be considered sharp. Narrowing the aperture improves sharpness by around 100 lines per full stop. It peaks at 2,719 lines at f/8. Edge performance at wider apertures is a bit of an issue. Edges are very soft at f/2, only 1,249 lines, but improve to a more reasonable 1,533 lines at f/2.8, and 1,869 lines at f/4. Barrel distortion is minimal, only 0.8 percent. The Sony RX1 also features a 35mm f/2 lens, but it’s a true 35mm design as that camera has a larger, full-frame image sensor. It manages 2,275 lines at f/2, but only increases to about 2,400 lines as you stop down. It delivers more consistently across the frame, they hover around 2,000 lines at all tested apertures, but it does show a lot of barrel distortion—about 2.5 percent. The full-frame design allows for a shallower depth of field with similar framing, but you’ll pay for that privilege—the RX1 is more than double the price of the X100S.

Fuji doesn’t recommend using the camera at macro distances at f/2. When you do so, the images are very, very soft, with a glow around the edges of your subject. This can be very pleasant with certain subjects—I loved it for flowers—but you may prefer a more realistic look for your shots. The lens sharpens a bit at f/2.8, but if you’re trying to capture the most detail, you’re best bet is to set the lens at f/4 or f/5.6—the depth of field will still be shallow because of the working distance. This is the only prime-lens compact we’ve seen that behaves like this. The minimum shooting distance for standard mode is 1.6 feet, but enabling the macro function lets you focus as close as 3.9 inches. The Ricoh GR, which can focus as close as 4 inches in macro mode, and other big-sensor compacts with macro shooting modes don’t require you to stop the lens down—they produce sharp photos at close distances.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can rob detail and make them appear grainy at high ISO settings. The camera keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 12800. That’s one of the best results we’ve seen from any camera with an APS-C sensor, though a couple of full-frame models—the Sony RX1 also controls noise through ISO 12800, and Nikon’s top-end D4 D-SLR keeps it under our threshold all the way through ISO 20000. We took a close look at our test images on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. Image detail at ISO 12800 is just about equal to the RX1; both cameras start to smudge away textures at this setting. The X100S cannot shoot in Raw format at this ISO setting; 6400 is its top Raw ISO. Detail is much better here, with only 1 percent noise. A comparison of Raw files at 6400 shows that the Fuji shows a little bit less noise than the RX1, but the RX1 has a slight edge in terms of detail. Nitpicking aside, as someone who works primarily with Raw formats, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot the X100S at ISO 6400. If the shot necessitated it, I’d prefer to shoot in Raw and underexpose by a stop at 6400, with the intention of bringing up the exposure in Lightroom, rather than switching to JPG capture for an ISO 12800 shot.

One of the reasons for the X100S’s low light dominance is its sensor design. Fujifilm has never been one to stray from trying something new with image sensors—the SuperCCD sensor in its S3 Pro D-SLR was the king of high ISO in its day. The X100S uses a sensor with an X-Trans design, first introduced in the company’s X-Pro1 mirrorless camera. It uses a color filter with a six-by-six array of repeating red, green, and blue pixels; a traditional Bayer camera sensor uses a similar grid with a four-by-four pattern. Fuji promises images with a more film-like grain pattern, and from what we’ve seen with the X-Trans cameras that we’ve reviewed, it delivers. There’s also an inherent sharpness advantage—X-Trans cameras don’t use optical low-pass filters, and because of the more complicated pixel pattern, aren’t prone to the color moiré effects that Bayer sensors that lack that filter can display under certain conditions. X-Trans isn’t the only innovative sensor design in this style of camera. Sigma uses a Foveon image sensor, which features three separate layers of red, green, and blue pixels, in its DP1, DP2, and DP3 Merrill series of cameras. Unlike X-Trans, which is supported by popular Raw conversion software, Foveon cameras require you to perform Raw conversions in Sigma’s software. The three-layer design produces images with outstanding image quality at low ISOs, but they suffer greatly at higher settings. X-Trans delivers impressive sharpness and has proven to perform spectacularly at very high ISOs.

The camera has impressive video specs, capturing video at 1080p60 quality in QuickTime format. The footage looks great—it’s sharp and smooth with rich colors and lots of detail. But the autofocus experience is disappointing. The camera is a little slow to refocus when recording, and you can hear the lens clicking away as it adjusts. There’s also no way to change the aperture during a clip—even though there’s a physical ring around the lens. If you’re the type of shooter who takes the occasional video, or doesn’t mind focusing manually, the X100S will be fine, but it’s not suitable for serious video work. There’s no microphone input, and there’s no optical stabilization system to help steady handheld shots. There is a mini HDMI port, so you can connect the camera to an HDTV, as well as a proprietary USB port and a card slot that supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.

The Fujifilm X100S is an outstanding camera, but it’s not one that is going to appeal to casual snapshooters. Pros who don’t want to lug around a heavy D-SLR for personal shooting will appreciate its image quality and size, and rangefinder enthusiasts who can’t afford a digital Leica will be drawn to its design and bright optical viewfinder. Its autofocus system is quick, and it the fast lens and excellent high ISO performance will allow you to capture some seriously impressive images in low light. It’s not perfect—the edge-to-edge sharpness isn’t on par with the full-frame Sony RX1, and you’ll need to stop down the lens when grabbing a macro shot.

We like the X100S enough to award it Editors’ Choice. We don’t think that it’s a better camera than our other Editors’ Choice in this category, the Ricoh GR; just a different one. The GR is truly compact, omitting a viewfinder so that it can fit into pockets that the X100S simply can’t, and features a 28mm-equivalent lens with a slightly less ambitious f/2.8 aperture. The difference between 28mm and 35mm might not sound that big on paper, but in practice they deliver very different shooting experiences. If 28mm is your preferred focal length and you can live without a viewfinder, get the Ricoh. But if that’s too wide of a field of view, or if you just need a camera with a real viewfinder, the X100S is the one to get. It won’t let you get as shallow of a depth of field as the $2,800 full-frame Sony RX1, but at less than half the price, it delivers a more rewarding shooting experience and images that run neck-and-neck in terms of quality.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.9 x 5 x 2.1 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, mini HDMI
Sensor Type X-Trans CMOS
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.2 seconds
LCD dots 460000
LCD size 2.8 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact
GPS No
Boot time 1.3 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 35 mm
Weight 15.7 oz
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 2279
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization None
Shutter Lag 0.2 seconds
Sensor Size 23.6 x 15.8 (APS-C) mm
EVF Resolution 2360000 dpi
Viewfinder Type Hybrid

Verdict
Don't be fooled by the Fujifilm X100S's retro exterior; it's a modern, full-featured digital camera that impressed us enough to earn our Editors' Choice award.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc