Charles Lanteigne Photo
 

The Fuji X100S

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Fuji X100S — 1/320 @ ƒ/2, ISO 200 (flash in a large brolly at camera right, triggered with PocketWizards)

In my previous post, I discussed my long search for a smaller camera than my DSLR that I could carry with me everywhere. At the conclusion of the post, I told you that I had decided to take the leap and buy the Fuji X100S, as it seemed to wonderfully fulfill my requirements. I loved its size, its promises, its premium build and its good looks. I was buying a photographer's camera, designed with someone like me in mind, who wants meticulous control and efficiency.

Well, sometimes when you take a leap, you fall on your face. The moment I started playing with it, I rapidly lost all the excitement I had felt when ordering it, a few weeks earlier. My reaction, with almost everything I came across in the camera, was one of dismay. "Why in the world would they have made this this way? That can't be right. There has to be an option to fix this." I tried desperately to keep the hope alive as I turned the pages of the instructions manual, but alas, it was not to be. How could I not like the camera, when it seemed like most people were falling in love with it or even declaring it was the nicest camera they'd ever owned?

Often, when a device lacks a feature or does not perform as well as you'd expect, you can chalk it up to compromises that had to be made to keep the cost down, or to keep the size and weight down, or simply because the marketing department tried to appeal to a broader audience that didn't include you—which is understandable. In this case, for the most part, this is not what I felt was going on. The camera is not buggy nor lacking power under the hood. I'm also not suggesting that the camera is not capable of producing beautiful images—this is obviously and demonstrably false.

But it's not enough that the camera looks good and can produce beautiful images if its usability is deficient. To my mind, this is clearly a case of bad design, where doing it better would not have cost anything more nor alienated a segment of the target audience. This is a perfect example of all the things a spec list won't tell you about a product that only using it can convey.

"What I want is to efficiently frame, focus and expose, and end up with quality files," said my previous post. If you care to find out why, in my mind, this is not the down-to-brass-tacks device I believed it was, but rather fails at everything that matters, the tedious post that follows will attempt to highlight many of the ways the camera is a pain in the ass. There are so many things to address that I will use my list of basic requirements as a reference, but keep in mind that the same bewilderment applies to the rest of the camera as well.

Before I start...

This is not a review, per se—there are tons of those available elsewhere—so I won't go into details about which F-stops are usable and compare crops of different cameras at various ISOs. It is simply my observations about a camera I was very disappointed with—which is interesting if only because I seem to be among a minority who feels that way.

I will also discuss this based on the way that I work, which might not all be relevant for the way that you work. For example, I never shoot JPEG, I don't care about videos and automatic panoramas, I never use the main LCD to frame my shots, I don't care about filters and film looks, I don't use on-camera flash, I would only have shot handheld with this camera, etc. It isn't a matter of dogma—it's simply my personal preference. As George Carlin said: "These are my rules, I make 'em up!" I don't feel in the least obligated to tolerate a product I am not happy with for the way that I work—I can simply choose to live without it.

Still, I believe that most of the things I will discuss are universally bad—like the fact that even at the second generation, there's still nothing preventing you from inserting the battery the wrong way. You might not think it's a big deal (it really isn't, it's just an example), but it's still a failure of design, and it makes you wonder what else was overlooked.

Here we go...

"It should have an integrated viewfinder"

Not only does this camera have a viewfinder, it actually has two viewfinders in one! The hybrid solution offers either an optical viewfinder (with an overlay that tells you all the current parameters) or, at the flip of a switch, an electronic viewfinder where you see precisely what the camera sees.

The optical viewfinder (OVF) is nice because it's big and bright, but like a rangefinder, it presents a parallax error (which gets worse as you get closer to your subject) and loose frame lines to help you frame your shot. That's understandable, no complaint here, you know what you're getting. (It also cannot tell you where the focus is, so you're blind in this respect, but I'll come back to this.) The beauty of the "live" overlay is that the camera can move the frame lines as you focus closer to correct for the parallax error. Brilliant!

In practice, the frame lines (as well as the focus point!) only move to their proper final position when you half-press the shutter button. This is staggering, considering that the camera obviously always knows where the lens focus is set, because it shows you (in the viewfinder) a ruler with the focus distance (and even an estimated depth of field). Why in the world would it not "live" update the frame lines as you change the focus? As it is, you carefully frame your shot, and when you half-press the shutter button, you realize that you are completely off! This is the first of many incomprehensibly wasted opportunities.

The electronic viewfinder (EVF), on the other hand, tells you precisely the frame the camera sees, as well as where the focus is set. Where it is not so great is that the contrast is way, way exaggerated. It's not only much worse than the actual files you're getting (which have a lot more exposure range), but it's also much worse than the main LCD. In low light, the refresh rate of the EVF also drops significantly, but this is not totally surprising, as it's always been the bane of EVFs.

When you take a shot, you can have the EVF come on for 0.5 second, or 1.5, or continuously (until you half-press the shutter) to show you a preview of the shot you've taken, which can be very useful. If you were using the OVF, the delay to switch between OVF and EVF is very short, so it works neatly. In practice, the shot you're seeing, as said before, is amazingly contrasty, so you're left wondering if you blew your highlights or killed your shadows (or both). Yet, even though the two viewfinder modes are able to provide you with live histograms, the preview image you're seeing only shows you the image, without any additional information nor blinkies and, frustratingly, no option to change this, so you can't confirm the alarming exposure.

Additionally, you might be in a situation where you want to take a few frames in rapid succession (not a burst per say, but a few successive shots). If you're using the continuous preview, forget it: you can only get out of this preview when the camera has finished writing the file. Why is this? What's different with continuous that prevents you from taking another shot, where the other modes don't? As it is, continuous preview is unusable (because it locks you in there for a few seconds), and 0.5-1.5 seconds are too short to study your shot and make sure you've got the framing or the expression of your subject right. You'll either have to rely on the main LCD, or cross your fingers.

Surely they've made it speedy to see the image on the main LCD, to compensate for this? You take your eye away from the viewfinder, press the "Play" button and wait—it takes a moment, during which the camera emits a few clicks, writes the file on the card and flickers the screen until, finally, you see what you want to see (providing you are at the correct playback mode, since there are four of them, including a useless "star rating" one you'll have to endure every time you switch modes).

Some information -> No information -> Rating (!?) -> More information. You're allowed to laugh.

This is a good time to make a comment about the way the playback mode selection behaves. When you press the button, it doesn't cycle to the next mode, it just brings up a menu showing you the current setting and where you can go if you further press buttons. This is a useless additional button press every single time you use the option.

But what's worse is that the menu is not persistent; it stays on for a rather short time. What ends up happening is that you press the button once, the menu shows, and the time it takes for you to figure out if you want to go left or right, the menu has disappeared, so your click accidentally performs a different unrelated action (moving to the previous or next image). Worse, still, once you've reached the mode you wanted to reach, you have to either dismiss the menu manually or wait for the menu to get out of the way of what you're trying to see.

This is pretty much the worst possible way to design a mode change behavior. It's so easy to fix: don't display anything, just move to the next mode when pressing the button. Done! Efficient, no accidental clicks, no annoying overlay. This is just one example, but multiple menus behave in this inefficient manner.

Anyway, once you're done reviewing your shot, you half-press the shutter button, approach your eye to the viewfinder and there's another slight delay before the OVF comes back online and you're back to business.

This can't reasonably be called lethargic, but coming from a DSLR, it is laborious. I'm used to shooting, glancing down at the screen (which is already up) and taking another frame in the time it takes me to press the shutter. The X100S makes you annoyingly wait a bit at every turn. THERE'S AN EVF! If only it could have stayed on, showed the histogram, and got out of the way immediately when I pressed the shutter, it would have been perfect. Wasted opportunity, again.

Why is there a slight shutter lag, by the way, even when I am using manual focus and manual exposure? Why can't the photo be taken immediately? This reminds me of the behavior of a compact camera, not of an efficient picture-taking device. Another mystery.

Since the camera has an OVF with resizable/movable frame lines and an EVF, it lets you change the aspect ratio of the frame on the fly. (That's awesome, because I find that "seeing" the actual aspect ratio of the images I have in mind really helps when framing, rather than trying to frame loosely based on the estimated crop I intend to use.) In practice, it only allows you to choose between 3:2 (the original format), 1:1 (square) and 16:9 (video). Why? Why not allow 4:5, 6:7, or any other aspect ratio imaginable? Wasted opportunity. In any case, all of this discussion is moot, because as soon as you set the file format to raw (which in my case is always), the camera prevents you from setting an alternate aspect ratio! Why? I don't care that I still get the full frame raw file; the frame lines are useful for me when framing! Another squandered opportunity.

Hang on; I've only set the table for what's to come.

Fuji X100S — 1/125 @ ƒ/5.6, ISO 200

"It should provide good image quality"

With its 16 megapixel sensor, the camera has (theoretically) plenty of resolution to offer. The problem is that the files are "painterly" (for a lack of a better word) at the pixel level. I don't know if that's just temporary because Adobe hasn't quite figured out how to do the demosaicing on X-Trans files (as of CR 7.4/LR 4.4), but it's not great. It's the kind of detail that can't be helped with sharpening, as sharpening only worsens the demosaicing artifacts—the kind of behavior you'd expect when working with JPEG files.

Regardless of the absence of a low-pass filter, those 16 megapixels are not worth all that. Is the point of the X-Trans array simply to avoid moiré while not using a low-pass filter? Seeing how the demosaicing (so far, anyway) is muddying up the micro-details, I remain to be convinced that it is better than just removing the low-pass filter in front of a regular Bayer array.

Beware of the highlights! The files have plenty of headroom in the shadows (and high ISO noise levels are great), but the highlights cut off quickly and unforgivingly (again, this reminded me of trying to salvage JPEGs—i.e.: you can't). This is rather disconcerting for a Canon DSLR user, as they have tons of information in the highlights.

It should offer a way to ensure that the pictures are in focus

I know what you're thinking: I can't complain this time, because everybody knows they've fixed the slow autofocus and unusable focus ring of the X100! That's true: in good light, the AF is very fast (not DSLR fast, but close). In low (or very low) light, the camera tends to hunt (or give up) where I wouldn't expect my main camera to. For all the expletives I've used to describe the autofocus on my 5D Mark II, I concede that it's actually quite amazing in comparison...

Luckily, you don't have to rely on AF because the manual focus mode was designed to assist you in achieving perfect results (and you can still manually trigger the AF with the push of a button on the back of the camera, which is my preferred configuration). When you want to set the focus, you can press on the command control in the back for the camera to zoom in on a small portion of the frame and, optionally, show you a virtual split image or focus peaking. (Even when you're using the OVF—which otherwise has no way to tell you where the focus is—pressing the button switches to the EVF zoomed, and goes back to the OVF when you half-press the shutter. It's neatly done.)

There's an option for the focus assist mode to appear automatically as soon as you start focusing, but the focus ring is so sensitive that this mode is accidentally triggered all the time. So annoying! As it is, you can't use this option, so you have to revert back to manually entering this mode.

The problem is that the split image is very difficult to discern. It works like a charm if you're shooting a vertical line, like a telephone pole, but on a face or irregular detail, you're having a hard time figuring out what should be lined up where. Well, never mind that, let's use the focus peaking! In theory, it actually shows you what's in focus, so it's super intuitive. In practice, when using this mode, the zoomed image becomes very muddy and the tolerance level of the peaking is much too loose: you thought it was in focus, but it isn't necessarily. In the end, the best assist mode is just the "regular" zoom, which is much sharper and tells you all you need to know. But then you're back to the problem of all EVFs: in low light, it's noisy and laggy, so you're having a hard time anyway. Not such a great manual focus mode after all.

Fuji X100S — 1/400 @ ƒ/2, ISO 200

"It should offer simple, direct, manual control of the exposure parameters"

If there's one thing this camera has, is simple, direct, manual control of the exposure parameters, right? Believe it or not, they've managed to screw this up beyond anything I could have imagined.

The camera has an aperture ring around the lens and a shutter speed knob on top of the camera. What could be more straightforward? Unfortunately, it doesn't work like your old film camera from the '70s: the ring and the knob both only allow full stop increments! Wait a minute; a full stop is too large a jump, so how can I set intermediary values? Get this: to change the aperture by thirds (or halves, optionally), you have to first set the aperture to the "closest" stop, and then use the command control left or right to "soft" shift the value one way or the other.

How to kill an otherwise straightforward interface.

Confusingly, you could be at ƒ/4 - 1/3 or at ƒ/2.8 + 2/3 (identical): there's two ways to reach the same value. Let's say you've set the aperture at ƒ/2 + 2/3, moving the aperture ring to ƒ/2.8 (i.e.: a one stop jump on the ring), you're actually just moving by 1/3, because turning the ring resets the shift! The shutter speed works the same terrible way, but "soft" shifts are made using the command dial.

Oh for crying out loud! Can you think of a more convoluted design? This completely kills the outward straightforwardness of the design and forces you to use four distinct affordances (in two steps) to set the values. This is downright heinous. How hard would it have been to allow the aperture ring and shutter knob to click at half stops? DONE! Half-stop increments are fine! Didn't they try placing this camera in the hands of, I don't know, one single photographer, and quickly realize that this was abominable?

The two abominable command buttons on the back of the camera.

Speaking of the command dial... It's barely usable. It's a ring that's also a 4-direction button. You see where I'm going. If you don't press hard enough on the ring, you can't get it to turn because it is so small and can barely be gripped. But if you press it more, you accidentally press buttons that you didn't intend to press.

Haven't we learned from generations of industrial design that this is a bad idea? Haven't they tried using their prototype and noticed that this was a problem? I am stunned that this got green lit. How hard would it have been to place four distinct buttons in the middle of an unconnected dial? Unbelievable.

This tortuousness alone pretty much kills manual exposure, but it gets worse, as you'll see. I understand the sexiness of the aperture ring and shutter knob, but the two-wheel design of most DSLRs remains significantly more efficient. Form, in this case, has trumped function.

What about ISO? No direct ring or knob or button for ISO. A-ha, but there's a little "Fn" button next to the shutter button which can be assigned to it! In this case, when using the OVF, pressing this button shows a drop-down kind of menu to select an ISO. In the EVF, incomprehensibly, it hides the image and shows you a dedicated ISO menu. Why the different presentation? It's a mystery. (At this point I am starting to believe that the designers are doing this on purpose.)

In any case, assigning the ISO to the "Fn" button would do the trick if it wasn't for a separate problem. Because the camera uses a central shutter and that for physical limitations this shutter cannot be set to a faster speed than 1/1000 at ƒ/2 (or 1/2000 at ƒ/4, with 1/4000 only available at ƒ/8 or more), you'll be in trouble in bright light if you want to use a large aperture. This is understandable. The good news is that the camera also has a built-in 3-stop ND filter (an actual filter that slides into place, close to the front of the lens). Brilliant!

This presents a complication, of course: how to activate said ND filter. This, too, needs a button, because when you're out walking around shooting stuff, you can be in bright light a moment, and in a dark entryway the next moment. This limitation of the shutter means that you'll have to toggle the ND filter frequently. Surely they thought of this and made the ND filter option easy to access.

Of course not! The only way to reach the option is by going in the main menu, leaving sub-menu 1, going down once, entering sub-menu 2, clicking on the option, going down once, and confirming (the camera forgets your position in the menu every time it is turned off). That's right: every single time you want to switch the option on or off. So, you tell yourself, I'll just assign the "Fn" button to the ND filter and access the ISO in the convenient "Q" menu! (Of course, you could ask why the ND filter option is not found in the "Q" menu. The reason is that they had to fit all the vitally important innumerable JPEG processing options in there, such as noise reduction, sharpening, saturation, film look, highlights, shadows, and on and on—all entirely useless when shooting raw, of course.)

The "Q" menu, containing about four useful parameters out of a possible sixteen.

Now, when you want to change the ISO (which is also a very frequent affair), you have to use the main LCD, move to the ISO option (because the camera forgets your position in the "Q" menu every time you turn the camera off) and set it. That's if you're using the OVF. With the EVF, you stupidly move your eye away from the viewfinder as you press the "Q" button, expecting, in the same manner, to change the value on the main LCD, only this time, it's showing the menu inside the viewfinder... More inconsistency.

I can see multiple ways this complexity could have been reduced. One good idea, in keeping with the rest of the legacy hard controls, would have been to also include a knob for the ISO. My 1976 Canon AE-1 has a knob on the left side of the camera to designate the ASA of the film—works like a charm. Still, there are many ways to do this. Take a look at how two generations of Canon G-series compact cameras (which are even smaller than the X100S, incidentally) make use of limited space to intelligently incorporate additional knobs:

Left, stacked knobs on the Canon PowerShot G12. Right, overlapped knobs on the Canon PowerShot G15.

As for the ND, there could be an option to automatically enable it when the camera needs it. Or one of the buttons could be pressed and held for a second to toggle it on or off, a mechanism the camera uses (on three of its buttons) for other arguably less important features. Or there could have been multiple customizable buttons. So many ways to make it right!

As it is, setting the three (well, four) most important values in the camera requires at least five buttons/knobs plus a frequent visit to a menu (on the main LCD or in the viewfinder, depending which viewfinder you're using). They failed so thoroughly at the most fundamental part of the design, I am at a loss for words. They should have seen this coming even before building a prototype and gone back to the drawing board.

"It should offer a way to ensure that the exposure is appropriate"

Both viewfinders offer a live histogram overlay. Perfect! How could this go wrong? Simple: make it so that when you're using manual exposure, the live histogram does not reflect the values you've changed! Imagine that: you have the unique opportunity, even when using an OVF, to show a live histogram of the shot I'm about to make, but you don't. Why does it work in aperture and shutter priority, but not when it matters most? There is no excuse for such an oversight.

Worse, even. In the EVF, you have the opportunity to show me not only a representative histogram, but also the actual brightness of the upcoming image (my Canon camera calls this "Exposure Simulation", but it's optional, in case you're working with flash and the exposure value doesn't make any sense for the ambient light). The camera does this in aperture or shutter priority modes as I use exposure compensation, so clearly it has the capability. But it doesn't do it! In manual exposure, both the screen and the histogram are entirely useless to estimate the exposure. When you press the shutter button half-way, surprise, it shows you the correct estimated exposure!

This camera definitely does not want you to use manual exposure. Give me a moment while I go bang my head against the wall. Again, you're back to using the main LCD to confirm your exposure, another completely wasted opportunity.

Oddly enough, if you're using the EVF, pressing the "Play" button shows the image on the main LCD, but all the other menu options appear directly in the EVF. Why this inconsistent behavior? You can't just use the camera in a single manner and forget about which viewfinder is on: you have to constantly remember which one you're using and adapt your expectations. This is gratuitously confusing. Here's a hint for you: there is an eye sensor right next to the viewfinder window, why not use it to determine where to show me stuff? Done!

And speaking of eye sensors... Why can't the camera use it to turn off the (image) sensor (and all of the sophisticated circuitry involved) and EVF when I am not even shooting? As it is, the OVF or EVF (both needing the sensor running to provide with live information or an image) keep doing their job carelessly for minutes on end even when you're not using the camera, happily draining your battery at record speeds. The only alternative to this is to turn the camera off every time you're not shooting! An advice if you're going to buy this camera: buy a couple of spare batteries, not just one. It's that insane.

Fuji X100S — 1/40 @ ƒ/2, ISO 400

"It should boast a fast lens"

And it does! Considering that the camera uses an APS-C-sized sensor, the ƒ/2 lens gathers a lot of light, but behaves closer to an ƒ/2.8 lens on a 35mm camera, in terms of depth of field. That's still pretty good in that it allows a sufficiently blurry background for your environmental portraits. That's, of course, if you presume that shooting the lens wide open is a viable option.

Reading in review after review how the lens was amazing, I expected it to blow me away. Turns out that it's ... well ... a run-of-the-mill 35mm lens. As you close down, the center becomes very sharp, no complaint there, but the periphery is never amazing, and more importantly, it's just "okay" wide open. At close focus, beware of contrasty edges, as the lens then blooms like I've rarely witnessed.

This totally non-scientific test is pretty clear to me—it's not a matter of hair splitting:

Plenty sharp in the center, not so good at the edges. Note that this is at ƒ/5.6—three stops down from wide open.
(Did I mention that this is cropped somewhat, so it's actually worse? Oops.)

I somehow believed that because it was a fixed lens, designed specifically for this sensor and all, that it would perform much better than you'd expect your common interchangeable lens. I was planning to use this camera with the aperture basically glued at ƒ/2, but seeing the results, at this aperture the overall value of the "system's" image quality dropped down to a mere average, for me.

Conclusion

Fuji is to be commended for its innovations and conquering the hearts of many with its X-series of cameras, and I believe they are aiming in the right direction. They have the specs nailed, superb aesthetics, and now everybody is paying attention to their work. But they still have work ahead of them to come up with a well-rounded product.

With the incomprehensible ways in which the camera's behavior shatters your expectations by doing things incorrectly and inconsistently (and here I've just skimmed the surface, believe me), and with the innumerable wasted opportunities that it bafflingly does not take advantage of, even if the sensor's files could be interpreted properly and the lens was super sharp wide open, I don't see how I could have endured this camera's flawed, exasperating design.

The camera is capable of great things. It's just very badly implemented. The OVF's frame lines are dumb, the EVF is too contrasty and laggy, the autofocus is unreliable in low light, the manual focus is a challenge, the exposure cannot be easily assessed in manual mode, the image previews are useless, it's laborious to playback images on the LCD, it's a pain to configure the exposure parameters, the interface is uselessly complex and requires lots of clicks... Long story short: the camera simply was getting in the way of my photography.

In the end, I sold it to a person who will be perfectly happy using it in fully automatic modes. Despite how much I wanted to love this camera, I have to say: good riddance! If anything, this experience has reminded me how flawlessly my main camera was designed. My search for a small camera continues...

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