The lure of the mirror-less camera…
Since I began getting pretty serious about my photography, I have collected a few pounds, to say the least, of gear. I guess it finally hit home when I had to make a serious investment in the bag to carry all that weight in gear.
Needless to say much of the talk about lightweight mirror-less systems has piqued my curiosity. Last month, I finally had an opportunity to give one of the cameras I’ve been reading about a try by renting it while on a weekend trip to Chicago with my brother. My brother, Steve, is also an avid photographer and our plan was to hang out in the city and roam with our cameras some.
There were a few cameras that had caught my attention. The Sony A7 systems, The Olympus OMD, and Fuji’s line of X Series cameras, particularly the X100S and XT-1. After a lot of research, I leaned heavily towards the Fuji cameras for the raves I was hearing about their sensors. The XT-1 is an interchangeable lens system, and the X100 series is a fixed 23mm f/2.0. My decision between these two came down to money. To rent the XT-1 body with no lens was about the same cost as renting the X100S with an extra battery. When I tossed in just the kit lens, things got a little out of my price range for a rental. So decided on the X100S.
My initial thoughts were to bring the X100S with me and leave all the rest of the gear at home. One camera, one lens – one option.
At the last minute, though, I did toss in my bag my Canon 5D Mark II body and and 16-35mm lens. It was insurance, I guess, in case I became frustrated with the Fuji for any reason.
Little did I know that my only frustrations would lie with the Canon in the end.
I had my rental arrive the Monday before my weekend away. I wanted some time with this thing to get to know it. After all, we would be spending some time together, and I didn’t really want to be fiddling too much with it while walking around Chicago. I spent the first half of the week playing with the settings, exploring the menus and familiarizing myself with the controls.
What I liked right away:
Dials! – There is something about having an aperture ring on the lens and a dial to control shutter speed. It’s how I learned to use a camera and it just makes sense to me. Now I will concede, I am not a huge nostalgic kind of film guy. I was excited the day that digital went mainstream. The darkroom I always wanted was now accessible on my computer. But I learned how to shoot on a Pentax K1000 – This X100S brought me back to that and it actually felt pretty natural.
Size! – It’s small! This is a compact camera. The initial reaction, I think, of my family and even my brother was – “OK. You want to bring a toy camera with you when you have thousands of dollars worth of equipment!” Well, this is no toy, and the size may be the single most important factor in the fact that I love this camera.
What I didn’t like:
Learning curve- I have been really only using one camera for the last 3 years or so. I have been a Canon guy from the day I bought my first Powershot. It’s been a good brand for me and I’ve stuck with them. Everything about the X100S was brand new. That’s not a knock on Fuji- it was just different and I wondered if I had given myself enough time to get accustomed to it before heading to the city.
The Menu Dial! – Not good! It has a combo dial on the back which can be pressed for certain functions and rotated for others and it was always being touched or spun the wrong way. It was as if it was made for very delicate fingers, which mine are not.
Soon enough, I got used to some of the controls and explored the set up menus. I experimented with Auto ISO as you have the ability to set your Max limit. So I could use aperture priority, auto shutter, and auto ISO while cruising the streets with this thing. That was nice. I like to compose and shoot while walking about, not fiddle with dials or menus. The camera does have an exposure compensation dial handy that allows +/- up to two stops of comp. I used this frequently.
Overall, after bit of exploring, the camera became familiar enough to use and I liked a lot of the functionality of it. For instance, it has a quick menu button that gives you quick access to some more common settings. This can be customized a bit so you can have a couple of set-ups within this menu. If I were keeping the camera and not renting, I would certainly be customizing a lot more than I ever did.
I had some doubts and reservations about a 16MP sensor. Would I love the files and be able to work them in post to my liking? The answer was a resounding “Yes!”
I found I was able to pull highlights back and extract detail from shadows from the raw files even easier than some of my images from my Canon. I hardly had to mess with the white balance of many of my shots as the Auto WB setting did a wonderful job.
For those interested in Fuji’s renowned film simulation modes, I have to say that I did not use too many of these in camera. I still shoot in RAW to give me more control and options in post. One of the nice things, however, is that Fuji’s film simulation modes can be accessed in Lightroom via Camera Calibration settings. This allows you to give each setting a look and still allow you to make adjustments to a RAW file.
For me, the Standard and Velvia were the go-to options when processing. The Velvia gives a nice punch of color when you want it and I used this often as I processed my photos.
Above is a shot from a single frame taken mid day underneath the El near Wrigley Field. Lots of shadows and sunlight combined here, yet I was able to nicely recover my highlights to the point where there was still nice color in some of flags. I think this image gives a pretty good example of this cameras excellent dynamic range.
Night time and high ISO performance were brilliant. I pushed my ISO to 6400 on occasion and though noise was certainly noticeable, it was easily cleaned up in Lightroom.
I can’t quite put my finger on what I love about the images from this camera. It must be a combination of a really good sensor and the beautiful 23mm f/2.0 lens. I get an idea now of what others have mentioned when they say these images have some soul. With the compact size I was much more comfortable shooting in crowds. It is silent, very small and that helps when trying to capture some candid shots on the street. Having a 5D Mark II with a battery grip and 70-200mm just makes everyone’s eyes divert to your camera. It was nice being able to blend in with the point and shooters even though this camera is far more advanced.
So, even though my messenger bag felt nearly empty carrying an extra battery and memory card along with a small gorilla pod, I decided to head out one afternoon with nothing but the camera. I put the extra battery in my pocket along with the memory card. Other than that, I had my phone and wallet. I had literally not walked around a city like this since I purchased the Canon. I would never have allowed myself to leave my rig or even a couple of the lenses back at the hotel room. This may be the single best thing I experienced. My brother and I put in some miles walking during the days we were there and I know I would have hated those last few miles walk back each evening as my backpack full of gear started to weigh me down. The freedom I had with tis little camera and it’s fixed focal length was something I want to get back to.
On that note, of all day walking, you must be prepared to bring along another battery (or two). The battery life pretty much sucks. I was often dead after 200-300 shots and I am a pretty frequent shooter in situations like this. I was very thankful I had read enough to rent the extra battery too. Otherwise, I would have spent a lot of time walking around watching my brother take pictures.
My conclusion after processing most of the photos from the trip, is that this camera lives up to its hype. At the time I write this blog post, Fuji has announced the next version of this – the X100T. Though still built around the same sensor and lens, improvements have been made. An electronic shutter speed option allows an amazing 1/32000 speed, 1/3 stops are available on the aperture ring, and the exposure compensation dial now gives you 3 stops of adjustment instead of two. They have added their praised wifi into this camera, similar to the X-T1. They have apparently fixed the tricky menu button the back that so many complained of. Autofocus has been improved and a new film simulation has been added – Classic Chrome.
This camera comes out next month and I am already making arrangements to purchase. I can’t wait to have this in my hands once again. I will literally never be without a camera. I will never walk out the door with the excuse “I don’t want to haul all that stuff out today.” I am holding on to my Canon and the lenses for now, but looking forward to having this everyday walk about camera with me at all times. It is a powerful little piece of gear and my interest has only gained in full systems like the X-T1 and the ever growing range of glass Fuji is making to accompany their X mount cameras.