As I vacationed with my family in Hawaii last week, I was testing a new, compact mirrorless camera as an alternative to carrying a heavy DSLR.
If you’re anything like me, lugging around a big camera, plus lenses, on a pleasure trip has become so burdensome that I often end up just leaving it at home and doing without a camera entirely. Which, for a photographer, is a tragic sign that something needs to change.
Last summer I wrote about traveling with just an iPhone as my camera. While that was certainly super-convenient, I found that the camera-phone solution didn’t really meet my needs as a photographer, especially in low light.
So the FujiFilm X100S is my new experiment in lightweight travel. The Fuji is one of a new and rapidly expanding breed of mirrorless cameras that offer image quality similar to a DSLR, in a camera not much larger than a traditional pocket point-and-shoot.
If that sounds too good to be true, well of course, it is. There are always trade-offs in photography, and this is no exception. Below I’ll detail my first impressions of the pros and cons of travel with a small but serious camera.
Size and Sensor
The big selling point of the new mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X series (and the Sony NEX series and similar cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, and others) is the presence of a large image sensor — in the Fuji it’s an APS-C sensor equivalent to those found in crop-sensor DSLR cameras like my Canon 7D.
Another popular category of mirrorless cameras is the “micro-four-thirds” group, which have a slightly smaller sensor than the Fuji — but all of these cameras have sensors much larger than the traditional point-and-shoot camera. And because of this large, light-loving sensor, they offer image quality that can rival a DSLR’s.
And by getting rid of the mirror that allows through-the-lens viewing on a DSLR, these new cameras can fit into much more compact bodies. My Fuji is just slightly larger than a pocket point-and-shoot, and I easily carried it on the plane to Hawaii in my briefcase, along with my laptop, iPhone, iPad, books, and other briefcase stuff. No separate camera bag! Hurrah!
In the field, compared to carrying a DSLR with a big zoom lens, the weight of the Fuji feels like nothing. It was a pure pleasure to walk around with this camera. (And I must admit to feeling a touch of smugness as I watched fellow shooters lugging big, heavy DSLR’s in the Hawaii heat while I carried my lightweight, retro-stylish alternative.)
The Fixed Lens Drawback
Based on reviews, I chose the Fuji X100S for its (1) Superb image quality (2) full manual controls, (3) sync-at-any-speed flash control, and (4) a reputation for just being “fun” to handle.
I haven’t fully tested the compatibility with external and remote flashes yet, but I can now confirm that the other three points are accurate. This camera is a ton of fun to carry, and it offers all the manual control any photographer could want.
My greatest worry in choosing the X100S was its fixed 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm on a full-frame camera.)
I’m a zoom lens kind of guy, especially when traveling, because I love the convenience of carrying one lens (or at most two) that meets all of my needs.
So, I knew that carrying a camera forever locked at a 35mm (equivalent) field of view was sure to be a challenge. But it’s a challenge I chose intentionally, hoping to break myself out of my lazy zoom rut, to go old school, to force myself to move my body around to compose my shots.
Of course, not all mirrorless cameras have a fixed lens like the X100S. Some have zoom lenses, and some have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR.
But I already have a shelf full of DSLR’s with interchangeable lenses. I’ve got that need covered. I was looking for a compact, one-piece camera with no extra parts, one that I could put in a briefcase or in the pocket of my cargo shorts, and just go. None of the small cameras with zoom lenses had a reputation for crisp image quality to match the X100S, and the cameras with interchangeable lenses violated my “one piece” rule, thus my choice to experiment with the Fuji and its fixed lens.
And after shooting with the Fuji for a week, I have to say the fixed focal length was less of a frustration than I had anticipated. Sure there were times when I really wished for a wide angle lens to capture the spectacular Hawaiian scenery. And times when I really wished I could zoom in for a portrait. But about 80% of the time I was content to think like a street photographer and work with with the field of view that Fuji gave me.
And that’s the key. With a camera like this, you are a street photographer, a documentary photographer. This is definitely not a portrait camera, but you can take decent environmental portraits if you keep your subject in the center of the frame and don’t get too close, to avoid distortion.
A Low Light Miracle — With Quirks
One of the best features of the X100S is its sensitivity in low light. I could shoot hand-held at 3200 ISO with no flash in dim light and get perfectly usable photos.
The large sensor and Fuji’s image-processing wizardry create beautiful results. The only camera I’ve ever used with better low-light response is the Canon 5D Mark III, which is a beast to carry by comparison.
Despite its awesome performance in ambient low light, the X100S lost some points with me for its weak and quirky built-in flash. My flash photos were often over lit, or under lit, and the flash exposure compensation range of -2/3 to +2/3 stop is insufficient control. And don’t even get me started on the way the lens hood blocks the flash. (I only remembered to remove the hood after ruining several shots *each time* I used the flash).
Also, the autofocus has some occasional quirks, too.
Sometimes I just could not get the camera to focus on my subject instead of the background, despite centering the focus rectangle on my subject. Ironically, this happened most often with portraits where the X100S displayed a “Face Detected” label on the photo in playback, as it did on the photo above at left.
So, if face detection is not helping the camera lock focus on faces, then what exactly is it for? (I looked this up later and found that Face Detection on the X100S appears in playback to help you locate and tag photos that have faces, but it does nothing at all help you focus when taking the shot! Many far less expensive cameras have this feature, so this is a major blunder by Fuji in my opinion. They should add it, and let photographers who don’t want the feature turn it off.)
Multiple Points of View
For a small camera, the X100S abounds in viewfinders, offering essentially three. There’s the typical rear LCD screen found on most point-and-shoots. But the real joy for me was using the hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. (Which works far better for people with a dominant right eye. Lefties will find it awkward with their nose pressed against the LCD). I love that viewfinder, especially its ability to zoom in on your subject, and to use “focus peaking” to aid in manual focus.
The manual focus assist features on this camera are so great that they almost make up for the quirky autofocus — almost. But glorious manual focus is only useful if you like to focus manually. I prefer not to, most of the time, so the autofocus quirks are a real strike against this camera. (If Fuji enabled face-detection autofocus with a firmware upgrade, the camera would become twice as usable.)
- Small and light. A joy to hold
- Superb image quality
- Extensive manual control and customization
- Great low light performance
- Ability to control remote flashes and sync at any speed
- Fun retro Leica look
- Fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) field of view
- Quirky autofocus (and no face detection)
- Quirky built-in flash
- Poor battery life (buy extras)
- Steep learning curve
For me, this was an experiment to answer the question: Can I leave the heavy DSLR at home and travel with a small, fixed-lens camera, while still getting the creative satisfaction I need as a photographer?
The answer was a resounding yes. The great image quality, full manual control, and extensive, customizable functions of the X100S make it a true photographer’s camera. You can get as creative as you want with this thing.
The downside to all that manual control is that it’s not as quick or as foolproof as a traditional point-and-shoot camera. This is not a camera you can hand off to someone else to take your picture. After a while I just stopped trying, because the photos were always out of focus. This is a camera with a learning curve and some quirks to it.
Will it replace your DSLR?
Can you get by with just a camera like the FujuFilm X100S? Not unless you’re a street photographer. This will never be a portrait camera, and the fixed lens is just too limiting for most professional work.
But it just might replace your DSLR as your travel camera, when you want to pack light and still be able to take high-quality photos.
And it might serve as a great backup or second camera to your DSLR in any kind of shooting situation.
Personally, I’m still not sure whether the X100S will become my main travel camera, or whether I’ll succumb to the need for interchangeable lenses (like the Sony NEX-6) or for image stabilization (like the Olympus OM-D E-M5).
But this experiment has convinced me that mirrorless cameras are here to stay, and that one of them will probably be my main travel camera in the future.
If you’re looking for a holiday gift for a special photographer on your list, the X100S might be just the ticket, if that person (a) is a bit of a technical camera geek who likes manual control, and (b) has started leaving the DSLR at home because it’s just too much trouble to carry.
If you decide to buy the X100S I recommend watching David Hobby’s 40-minute video walkthrough of its features. (Also his blog review covers many additional features I didn’t mention. This camera has a lot of features!)
Check the current price on Amazon.com
Price the Fuji X100S on Amazon.com
As always, if you shop from my Amazon affiliate links you buy me a beer!
Update June 2014: See my updated review after shooting with this camera for six months: Fuji X100S – A Second Look