The Fuji X100S -- Performance Under Pressure

I've posted a number of things here that could be considered critical of the Fuji X-Series cameras, including my lovely little Fuji X100S. If you do the twitter thing, a casual observer may think I had some sort of axe to grind with Fuji. For clarity's sake I want to set the record strait. The way I look at it I'm one of Fuji's biggest fans – not to be mistaken as a fan-boy in the sense that utterance of any critique is some sort of sacrilege.

I tend to criticize products I actually care about. Most things don't even rate high enough for me to give a hoot let alone part me with hard earned cash. You can tell I like something when I actually buy it. Even more so if I use it a lot. I have a very low tolerance level for things that I don't like – just cannot be bothered. I love my little X100S along with some of the other X-products as well. Possibly enough to purchase a few down the road if they fit the need. Heck, I've even been spending my time writing an eBook on the X100/X100S. As usual, I'm behind in my endeavors by about a month according to original plan.

Yesterday I decided to use the little Fuji as my one and only camera to during the window light mini-workshop I was instructing. It gave me a little bit of perspective on some of my criticisms when using it under pressure. There were a ton of participants – that stresses me out – I have a one track mind. I find it amazingly difficult to make pictures and instruct participants at the same time. Most of my criticisms I confirmed to be spot on relative to a more mature camera system. While all this was fresh in my mind I did want to recount a few things I've mentioned widely and put them into context.

Focus

All cameras leave little to be desired if there is a lot of light. The differentiator is when there's not a whole lot of light and adverse conditions. The X100S – and by extension the entire X-Series line – um, not so good. I personally switch to manual focus and focus peak for any sort of adverse conditions. I had to do so yesterday. Yea, yea, yea, you're going to tell me the XE-2 and even more so the XT-1 is so so so so much better. Doubtful, they might be better by a hair but in comparison to say the current gen Nikon or Canon top-line AF modules they blow. I am not a sports shooter or speed freak or doing what could be considered academic comparisons for comparisons sake. I only care about real world results.

Yesterday was an ISO 800 day. I left the ISO alone and varied shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/250 and aperture from f/8 to f/2 for every single setup. No matter how you slice it that's not crazy dark using any combo of stuff in that range at ISO 800. Performance? Ummm so so. There were two setups where AF just could not get a lock on a static subject, both of those were back lit. The camera either refused to focus multiple times with multiple "targets" giving me the red box or worse focused way off but confirmed it to be okay.

Let's contrast this with say a higher end Nikon. Even a lower end Nikon like my Nikon D600 or the same AF in the horrid Nikon Df (You see, I blast products and companies with no bias). I've shot in the garage of our new Baltimore location a bunch of times. That's ISO 3200 and 6400 conditions at 1/60 wide open f/1.4. Do the math. Crazy dark, far worse than the conditions above. Issue? Nope. Even when backlit? Nope. The top end sensor in the D7100, D800, D4, D4s… even better faster stronger. Just food for thought in all the non-relative Fuji wonderful-ness described in such gushing terms constantly.

Noise Performance

That brings us to noise performance in the dark. Hell forget the dark, how about where I shoot which is what could be considered normal-ish very useful ISO's. Static tests of various cameras focus on degrees of horrid lousy-ness at max ISO and things like that. Performance where all cameras are suboptimal. I rarely shoot at those ISO values. Sometimes – sure. Most of the time I'm shooting at 400 and 800. Is the noise performance decent on the Fuji at those values – sure it is. What camera isn't. It's about the same as any other current APS-C camera. Does it somehow magically compare to the best full-frame has to offer? Not a chance in hell. Especially in the critical (for me) ISO 800 to 1600 range. Nikon and Canon Full frame of current generation look pristine at ISO 800. I never think twice about shooting there. Is it okay on the X100S? Yep. Oooops, wait a second what about adding a bunch of contrast as defined by say your typical garden variety VSCO preset. Night and day compared to the big-boy cameras. The X100S and all the other cameras with that same sensor are nowhere near as good. Exposure off by a stop? Push ISO 800 at all and it looks like crap from a relative point of view. Screw which cameras look "less bad" at or sorta close in performance crazy ISO's – how does the stuff in the middle look when you push the files at all.

Combine that with what I am absolutely certain is about a stop less real ISO sensitivity compared to the D600 shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all being the same and full-frame boring old Nikon and Canon still win the day by a considerable margin. This is coming from someone that is absolutely not any sort of noise nazi. Not my primary consideration for deciding on a camera. I could say similar things regarding dynamic range but you get the idea.

Controls

Do I like the simplicity of an aperture ring and shutter speed dial for controlling exposure? Absolutely. How does that actually play in manual exposure mode – where I spend a good deal of my time. Truth be told they suck. Not the actual dials – those are fine. The problem is as soon as your in manual mode you now have four, that's right FOUR different controls that need to be futzed with for shutter and aperture. You have the aperture ring and the corresponding flippy-lever on the back, the shutter speed top dial, and the idiotically hair trigger spin-wheel control on the back of the camera. Intolerable – as you need to mess with both controls to set exposure. I might be okay if maybe the aperture ring for the X100S was updated to have 1/3 stop increments then I would just use that and whole steps for shutter but you have no choice when in manual. What makes this worse is even looking at the camera at an odd angle is enough to change either the aperture or shutter speed or both constantly with those sub-controls. Not good.

Oh - you say just use some sort of AE with AE-lock and exposure compensation instead of fiddly-diddling with manual. Hmmmm, I won't go into all the horrors there but it's almost useless as a substitute. Let's take a look at the one thing that makes that useless without enumerating all of the idiocy. AE lock resets after you chimp an image. WTF? It also resets after sleep/wake and on/off. What good is AE lock if you can't check exposure. Oh I get it you can use the fancy hi-tech EVF and or the real-time histogram. Cancel that – they both are different and far more conservative than the actual capture when viewed in playback? How different are they? Hard to tell but definitely not precise.

Most of the buttons and controls on the back of the camera need some serious work. Especially the spin-wheel, four directional, okay/menu combo control thing. It absolutely sucks compared to Nikon or Canon controls.

Operational Fluidity

All of this brings us to a term I use a lot when comparing the new Fuji's to the "establishment". Operational Fluidity is just not close to on-par. Just about everything is slower to use and slower to react. Is this a problem? For me it was a pain in the ass yesterday as I was under time pressure to set-up a scene, do an exposure calibration, a couple of variations of use and exposure choices of that scene and get out of the way so the participants could shoot. This was a two hour mini-workshop with ten people.

Everything is fiddly. Setting exposure and evaluating it was fiddly and slow relatively speaking. Looking at the results takes at least twice if not four times as much time just hitting playback and waiting for the machinations to sorta whirl around and pop up the full-size preview for a micro second while the camera then figures out that it's actually set to the info/histogram view so it blacks out and then re-pops up what was set last time in a sort of epileptic fit kind of action. Switching from full sized playback to histogram is a two button procedure with the hair-trigger spin-wheel involved and then hang out for a second until the stupid little HUD disappears.

I know all of that sounds innocuous and for the most part I put up with it because I like the other combinations of assets the Fuji X100S has. Does it really compare to best of breed handling and fluidity where the rubber meets the road. Not a chance. Do any of the other Fuji-cams? Nope. Does this mean they are bad? No they are okay but they have not yet arrived. It's actually a little crazy if you take emotion out of the equation – the search for something new. The addiction to never-ending new-ness and improvement. What have you heard over the last two years? It sounds a lot like "This is it", "No, this is now it, just so much better', "No, wait a second, this is it chuck the XE-1, the XE-2, and go out and get the XT-1".

I praise Fuji for finally getting a lot of the smaller camera/APS-C thing right. Neither Nikon or Canon has really treated the APS-C seriously in the glass department. For the most part Fuji is delivering on that front in a big way. Revolutionary… no, but better than what you can get from the establishment players in their APS-C line-up.

I am not one that thinks it's a great idea to focus on what's right with products. People vote with their money. I've voted. Let's get past that and take a look at what would make what I consider a reasonable start into a system that's really on par. How do we tell we're not there yet? A "new" more wonderful camera body about every five minutes that if you take a step back is actually the same camera body over and over and over and over again but with minor improvements on what could be considered fatal flaws.

Riddle me this – the entire line up is pretty new. A couple years, that's it, not a decade. How the hell can every single body be a "DSLR replacement" and "so so so great" and "almost as good as" and then be completely trumped in a few months but still have exactly the same reviews as last time? How can this be? Let's reverse that a tiny bit. If any of these bodies were released as top of the line from either Canon or Nikon they would be completely unacceptable from just about any measure or point of view. In another universe pretend The D800 or the 5DIII or the D4 follow-on camera had any of the performance, handling, or any of the attributes similar to the current "best" Fuji? How would that be received? Hell, let's just pretend the D7100 had any of the downsides. It's really not a whole lot bigger. In just about every way it will run circles around any of the Fuji's. Will assure you it's more durable as well. Would any of this be acceptable from Nikon? Nope.

I like my X100S for a lot of reasons. None of them are because it handles as well or somehow takes better pictures than My D600 or even my old D7000. Fuji get's the "under dog" break. I guess that was fine for their first try out but I personally want Fuji not to be just an underdog. I would absolutely love if they produced a camera that handled as well and was as responsive as what is par-for-the-course in similarly priced Canon and Nikon APS-C bodies.

RB

Ps. Included shot was one of the exposure test calibrations where I just could not achieve focus at all.

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