Fujifilm X100S review

4 out of 5
£1099

For

Retro design, hybrid viewfinder with wider-than-100% optical viewfinder and electronic overlay/full-time EVF options, improvements to autofocus compared to original X100, solid build quality, decent image quality, digital split image and peaking make for intricate fine manual focus, fast flash sync and leaf shutter built into lens

Against

At over a grand its undeniably expensive (X-E1 with a lens is less), no true ISO 100 sensitivity, exposure compensation dial still knocks out of place fairly easily, small LCD screen given chunky overall design, autofocus can be inaccurate/fail to focus, autofocus sounds are mildly audible, 35mm equivalent lens won't suit all (no zoom), continuous autofocus really isn't all that, 1/4000th sec can only be properly used at f/8.0 or less, close-focus using wide apertures is extremely soft with halo-like effect at f/2.0

The Fujifilm X100S rests in its own niche. It won't really suit all that many picture-takers because there's no zoom available from its fixed 35mm f/2.0 equivalent lens and physical dials are set up in a retro fashion that may confuse the mass market. Oh, and there's little change from £1,100 either.

Our view? All that - excluding, perhaps, the last part about the price - is some of what makes the X100S so appealing in many respects. This isn't a camera for the mass market. This street-shooter is a nod to the past, a wink to the flanneur and a wave to those reportage greats - and it'll be many existing photographers' dream camera thanks to the optical benefits from its fixed lens.

But there's more: when the X100 first hit the shelves in 2011 it was received with critical acclaim - largely thanks to its innovative hybrid viewfinder and APS-C sensor size all wrapped up in the single body - as there was nothing else like it out there. The X100S takes that original concept and - still using the very same body design - adds in the second-generation 16-megapixel X-Trans CMOS II sensor, similar to that found in the X-E1 compact system camera. That means no low-pass filter to yield greater reproducible sharpness and the X100S's autofocus speed has also been amped up to new heights.

READ: Fujifilm X-E1 review

There is said to be a total of 70 tweaks from first to second-generation models, and while some of these X100S developments may be nominal, it's the larger adjustments that make this camera well worth a look in, even for the X100 user contemplating an upgrade. Is this the ultimate compact camera for a demanding audience, or does it fail to click?

Swanky in silver

Those familiar with the original Fujifilm X100 will take one look at the X100S and, as even the name suggests, see nothing more than an "S" on the front and another red-coloured letter on the name that etched into the camera top plate. And that's because, quite simply, that is all that's different in exterior build terms

On the one hand there's a lot of good in that: the X100S has the same magnesium alloy top and rear panels, is built like a tank and has an array of separate control dials - one for shutter and another for exposure compensation on the camera's top, and an aperture control ring around the lens itself - that are well placed around its black and silver-like body.

The X100S's lens features a manual focus ring that's also well positioned just a little forward, away from the manual aperture control ring that, as well as auto (A), has user-selectable apertures from f/2.0 through to f/16.0 and the rear nudge dial can be used to skip in third or half apertures should you find the need for it.

The X100S is a slice of retro-style camera pie that sure does look rather swanky to our eyes - although we get that others will take one look and say no thanks from a visual standpoint; the retro chic isn't going to be for everyone.

But despite the good aspects, there are still complaints: The exposure compensation dial is fairly easy to knock out of place - whether by 0.3EV or 0.7EV in either direction - and the rear LCD screen is a paltry 2.8-inch 460k-dot offering. C'mon Fujifilm - for over a grand we'd have thought that the X100S would at least incorporate the X-Pro1's 3-inch, 1.23-million dot WRGB LCD screen instead. But no such luck.

READ: Fujifilm X-Pro1 review

Galileo, Galileo

The rear LCD screen may not particularly impress, but the X100S's hybrid optical viewfinder sure does. Aligned to the top left of the camera's rear this is what Fujifilm describes as a reverse-Galilean viewfinder - yes, we unavoidably get that Queen chorus pop into our heads too - which merges the benefits of both an optical and an electronic viewfinder into the one system.

Mind-boggling though that may sound, it's fair to say it takes a touch of explaining: look through the finder and you'll see a wider-than-100 per cent optical frame which is so wide it reveals part of the lens barrel in the preview frame. But this is no worry, as it's all just for guide purposes and the point is that the extra space can be used to see subjects outside of the frame coming into it.

Secondly there's an electronic viewfinder overlay that sets the boundaries of the frame within the optical view. It's also there to show up focus points, shooting settings and, rather importantly, adjust the frame position to counter parallax error - the frame area shift relative to the lens and finder positions, as the optical view is not a through-the-lens equivalent, whereas the electronic one is - that occurs dependent on the focus distance. A permanent optical frame marking wouldn't work as it'd be inaccurate for all scenes, so instead you'll see the frame edge dive from one position to another in some instances. It's this electronic aspect that's a sound improvement over the original X100 too - and not in functionality terms - because it's now a 2.36-million-dot resolution which is as good as it currently gets.

If that hybrid use all sounds a bit much then there's a dedicated electronic view too, which shows up as a 100 per cent field of view at all times. For certain modes, such as when macro is selected, only the electronic viewfinder is possible to use as, from what we can understand, the lens position would be too close to the subject to produce a sensible view and parallax error would be so great that it wouldn't be possible to preview a shot. Manual focus also deploys the electronic-only viewfinder if MF Assist - used to magnify the focus area to actual size - is selected, but then happily pops back into the hybrid mode after.

A raft of improvements, yet some issues

In use the X100S moves swiftly and this is among the biggest pushes forward from the new model. Compared to the X100 before, it's a fair whack faster, but is it up to its claim of having the "world's fastest autofocus"? - we're a little less convinced. A definite kick up the rear has occurred, and it's faster than plenty of nearby competitor models, which speaks for itself. The selectable 49 focus points - the same as the X100 model - cover a wide portion of the screen which means specific, user-defined focus is no problem.

But then focus accuracy isn't always on top form. Sometimes it' wil just say "no thanks" and misfocus, dim conditions further throw out the claim of world's fastest AF, while the accompanying focus sounds - reminiscent of a distant dot matrix printer - unfortunately can't be assigned to the bin. 

The X100S - and we've received two separate final firmware sample bodies to verify - does not like the combination of macro mode and the wider apertures. While forgivable at f/2.0, we found that even some f/4.0 shots didn't deliver crystal-like clarity and contained a slight halo-like "haze" that diminished overall quality. This seems more prominent than any known afflictions with the original X100 in this department.

Manual focus - activated by the small switch to the side of the camera - is up there with the best that we've seen on a compact camera, but the softness issue outlined above can rear its head here too. As the camera may opt to use the wider apertures for preview purposes in manual focus, you'll need to half depress the shutter for an accurate depth of field preview - which feels as though it's working a little against the otherwise excellent manual focus options on offer.

 

There are lots of great aspects to speak of: first up that focus ring has a super smooth motion which is a delight to use and rotates infinitely in either direction - you'll know you've reached maximum close focus  or infinity when the marker on the virtual focus distance measure shown on the LCD reaches its maximum. This display is the same as that on the Fujifilm X20, which also takes full benefit of displaying the aperture-dependent "acceptable focus" area on this focus distance measure - otherwise known as hyperfocal distance. It's approximate, but it's a good guide to have on board.

READ: Fujifilm X20 review

Also just like the X20, the X100S comes equipped with a variety of manual focus assistance features, including some exclusive to the latter model. As well as a "peak" option - where an embossed highlight peak helps to display what's in focus - there's also the brand new digital split image option which is like using what we can only really describe to be like a mock rangefinder camera. Here a black and white box displays in the centre of the electronic preview where four opposing banded areas sit misaligned on top of one another. Adjust the focus to bring the alignment into a sharp image and that's where focus is made - it's like a digitised version of what Leica fans have revelled about for generations. Not quite the same, but a lot of fun and our preferred mode in manual focus for sure.

Unlike the X20, however, the X100S does come with a built-in Neutral Density (ND) filter to make best use of that f/2.0 aperture, while the 1/4000th second shutter speed is also available throughout the aperture range. Well, sort of. The maximum speed is a bit of a misnomer, however, given that the full breadth of the aperture can't be cleared by the shutter at 1/4000th second - that only becomes mechanically possible once you've stopped down to f/8.0 or less.

So while it is possible to shoot at, say, 1/4000th second with f/2.0 in manual, you'll find the exposure may be off and bokeh effects are "squashed" as the full circle of the aperture has never been exposed to the sensor at such a fast shutter speed. It's down to mechanics - the shutter can't clear that distance in the given time frame, even though the camera allows for the combination of these settings. We think it's the right thing to have all the settings open, and the shutter value will always display in red when it shouldn't be used.

As the Fujifilm X100S has a leaf shutter - ie, a circular shutter within the lens itself - the camera is also capable of synching with flash at much faster speeds than a traditional shutter would be able. This can make for some really cool flash effects - rather like a limited depth of field where only a given amount of flash will reflect back and so illuminate an isolated slice of a scene - that are ideal for advanced portraits. Not many compact cameras, or indeed cameras at all short of medium format systems, open up such creative possibilities.

At arm's length: picture perfection?

We're already big fans of the Fujifilm X-E1 compact system camera's images and the X100S is akin to that with a 35mm equivalent lens attached.

You'll notice, however, that Fujifilm doesn't offer a 35mm equivalent X-series lens similar to the X100S, presumably to maintain more power. Think about it: the X-E1 with the 18mm (27mm equivalent) lens is actually cheaper than the brand new X100S. It may be larger and lack the leaf shutter, but the compact system camera's potential for expandability is something the X100S ultimately lacks. Still, not to dwell on thoughts of which makes most purchase sense, it's all about the images. And its here that the X100S, by and large, impresses - to us the results feel like 16-megapixel versions of the original X100's shots without any image quality degredation to speak of. Now that's a grand thing.

Keep your subjects at arm's length and the full aperture range does deliver. It's typical that any lens won't be at its very sharpest at its widest aperture, but dip to f/4.0 and the X100S can produce crisp-focused subjects against sublime soft-bokeh backgrounds.

Shots are rich in detail and usable throughout the full ISO 200-6400 standard range. It's a shame there's no true ISO 100 option - it's only a "low" setting available by post-processing - but otherwise this camera puts DSLR quality shots in your hands without a shadow of a doubt. There's little interfering grain or image noise to speak of, and while there is some presence of the latter from ISO 1600 and above it's subtle and not a huge cost to sharpness.

There are all manner of in-camera adjustments that can be made too: noise reduction, sharpness, colour, shadow and highlight tone levels are all independently adjustable by +/-2 via the quick menu to tailor shots to your liking.

As well as automatic dynamic range compensation for backlit scenes - available at 100, 200, and 400 per cent options, as well as auto - there's also a complex white balance system with dual-axis in-camera adjustment available on the red/green and blue/yellow axes, plus a variety of available presets, including custom set and manual white balance from 2,500-10,000K. Oh yes, there's a lot of detail in this here camera.

There are also film simulation modes, including a black and white option that will capture monochrome JPEG images while reserving the full-colour original in the raw file - the best of both worlds is available. That's our preferred shooting mode: raw & JPEG Fine with in-camera mono set up; that feels like the true street photographer's experience.

Verdict

When it comes to buying a specialist camera there's a lot to dissect and chew on. As we alluded to in our opening words of this review, the X100S isn't going to be suitable for a huge audience - but that, in some regard, is part of what makes this high-end compact so appealing. We've got a lot of praise for the X100S, but that comes with a sprinkling of negatives too.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first: we wish the X100S had a slightly smaller design, larger LCD screen, firmer exposure compensation dial and more steadfast accurate autofocus system. The inability to use wide apertures in macro mode - both from a preview focus point of view as well as in the resulting soft images - is a bit of a shame, although with that APS-C sensor such a tight depth of field in close-up shots would be best avoided. There are also other mechanical limitations which mean the full range of the shutter isn't usable at the wider apertures - but nothing can be done about that.

Then on to the good stuff: the X100S's image quality, when it's on point, is grand. The 35mm f/2.0 lens is sharp, particularly when stopped down a touch, the camera's build is second to none and the speed improvements compared to the original X100 model are definitely welcome. The hybrid viewfinder - unique among a handful of Fujifilm models - is quite something to behold too, and manual focus options, ignoring the camera's use of wide-open apertures in preview, are among the best we've seen in a compact camera of this type.

Of course, it's also a lot of cash to part with. With a mere pound change from the £1100 asking price, some may slide the way of the more versatile X-E1 compact system camera for a touch less cash. Even so, for what it is, the X100S represents something that few competitors have neared: for the right audience it's up there among the best of compact cameras; but it's the sprinkling of minor issues which stop it from being that future classic that, upon initial inspection, we at first thought it was going to be.