Monday, January 26, 2015

Fuji X100S for Family Photos? A Candid Assessment



The Fuji X100S has been out for a while and there are already plenty of reviews for it.  Instead of being a general review, this user review will focus on the X100s' suitability for family and candid photos.  I will first discuss how a 35mm* lens is useful for candid shots.  Next, I will discuss how the X100S is different from other 35mm lens/camera combinations.  I will then discuss how the X100S performs.  Of particular concern is whether it can capture fast-moving subjects (e.g. kids and pets).  Lastly, I will also list some possible alternatives for those who are interested in this camera.

*By "35mm" I mean a lens and camera combination that has the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a full frame 35mm (36x24mm) sensor.


Yes, that's a shot of my daughter on a swing.  But you shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the X100S is good for candid action shots.  Because the truth is that capturing fast action on the X100S is possible but only under some circumstances.

Note: unless otherwise noted, the sample shots here were taken in raw, then converted in Lightroom, with minimal adjustments.  Shots of the X100S itself were taken with the Stylus 1.





USING A 35MM LENS FOR CANDID SHOTS

The X100S has a fixed focal length equivalent to 35mm on a full frame camera.  35mm is slightly wider than the field of view of a 50mm lens, but 35mm is still normal-ish.  Depending on how you use it, it can look like a wide lens, or a normal lens.  It is a popular focal length for street photography and reportage because it provides more context than a 50mm lens.




It is probably my favorite focal length for family photos for the same reason.  The context gives you greater story-telling potential.  I also like it because it begs you to come closer, providing a more intimate perspective.



One of my favorite lenses (35mm or otherwise) had been the Sigma 35 1.4, used with my Nikon D600.  Optically, it was superb, even legendary, and is at this time probably the sharpest 35mm lens, bar none (Leica and Zeiss included).  However, I ended up selling it (and most of my Nikons) because I felt it was too large for a 35mm lens, which is often used close to the subject, and in my opinion, I felt the Sigma 35's imposing size was much too intrusive.

Sony RX1 next to Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4 (both are 35mm focal length)

I mention the Sigma 35 1.4 here because it is a good contrast for the X100S and explain its appeal.  The X100S has the same 35mm focal length (equivalent) but it is very inconspicuous and is ideally suited for shooting with a 35mm lens.



First, the X100S has a rangefinder-style body.  Besides being retro cool and looking like a Leica, a rangefinder-style body has several practical advantages.  Instead of attracting unwanted attention, it looks low-profile.  Like a DSLR-style body, it has a viewfinder but on a rangefinder body, looking through the viewfinder doesn't cover up your face.  You can therefore maintain rapport and continue to interact with your subject.  You can even open the other eye and continue to see outside of the viewfinder.

Another advantage of the X100S is its versatility.  Although it has a fixed lens, Fuji has a wide angle converter to change the effective focal length to 28mm, and a teleconverter to change the focal length to 50mm equivalent. Both converters maintain the same f/2 aperture.

Because of these advantages, I had been interested in the X100S for a while, although it was too expensive for me.  I was thinking of waiting one more product cycle (after the successor to the X100T comes out), when the price of a used X100S would probably be less than $500, but I chanced upon a great Black Friday deal so I snapped it up.


IN THE REAL WORLD

The X100s is indeed very compact.  It is definitely thinner than either a Sony rx1, or a Sony a6000 with 35 1.8 or 24 1.8.  It is similar in size to an Olympus E-P5 with the 20 1.7 pancake.

X100S (with a dome-style hood and UV filter) next to a Sony a6000 with Sony 35 1.8 OSS (hood reversed)


X100S (with a dome-style hood and UV filter) next to a Sony a6000 with Sony 35 1.8 OSS (hood reversed)

The X100S is among the most discreet cameras I have used. Besides having a compact body, it has a leaf shutter instead of a focal plane shutter used by interchangeable lens cameras, and of course has no DSLR mirror slap, therefore if you turn off the shutter sound effect, it is almost silent. The only cameras I can think of that would be more discreet are a compact point and shoot or a phone.  The X100S is small enough to fit in a coat pocket although I prefer to use a small camera bag like the BlackRapid SnapR (reviewed here) which is perfect for its size.

BUILD QUALITY



The X100S' build quality is very good although not quite pro grade.  It does have a magnesium coverplate on its top and bottom which is a nice touch.  The weight feels just right, not too light or too heavy.

 In terms of quality control, it is generally good but not perfect. My X100S has dust on the rear element which makes some bokeh balls look "dirty". Unfortunately I can't clean it and it needs to be cleaned by Fuji. By contrast, my Sony RX1 had zero dust even though I bought it used.

The spots on the bokeh balls are dirt from the rear element.

Some early X100 units had suffered from a sticky aperture blade, where the aperture was stuck wide open. It appears that this issue is usually not a problem with the X100S although I have seen one report of an X100s with sticky aperture blade.

There have been reports of camera strap eyelets failing from wear caused by friction with metal strap rings. The eyelet on my X100s seems reinforced with a metal ring that seems to be designed to protect against wear but I haven't tested it. Instead I use a wrist strap with a nylon attachment to avoid wearing down the eyelet.


Color vs. Mono

VIEWFINDER

Ever since the X100 came out, users had been raving about its hybrid viewfinder.  Here's how it works: like a classic rangefinder (not merely in appearance), the X100S has a small window that you can see through as an optical (as opposed to electronic) viewfinder.  The viewfinder has a lens of its own that gives a field of view a little wider than what the X100S would capture.  A rectangular frame shows the area that will be captured.  However, because the viewfinder is above and to the right of the lens, its view is slightly different from the captured image, unlike the WYSIWYG view of a DSLR viewfinder.

The X100's viewfinder is unique because it adds an LCD overlay to the viewfinder.  It's not just the simple LCD on the viewfinder of DSLRs (or even film cameras) but more like the graphical LCD of your camera's screen.  It is kind of like a heads-up display for an optical viewfinder.  Besides showing useful information such as your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc., the overlay can even show a live histogram.

The viewfinder has a bright rectangular frame that gives you a better idea of the image that will be captured.  The bright frame adjusts depending on how far you are from the subject, to partially correct for parallax error.  In addition to providing information about your shot, the optical viewfinder even has a movable AF point.  In fact, the AF point can adjust automatically for parallax error as well.  Therefore, relative to a classic rangefinder viewfinder or any optical viewfinder, the X100S' hybrid viewfinder is beyond compare.

But, if you don't normally shoot with an optical viewfinder, then you may be wondering how is a hybrid viewfinder better than the live view on an LCD on any point and shoot or mirrorless camera?  On an LCD, you get all the information that can be shown by the hybrid viewfinder, but better yet, it's WYSIWYG.  No such thing as parallax error, whether in composition or in focusing.  Your view is also not obstructed by the lens hood, as it is with the hybrid viewfinder. Moreover, you can see the exposure and the effect of a picture style (e.g. black and white) in realtime.  And if you're using a mirrorless with electronic viewfinder, then it's even better because your view is shielded from the sun.   Furthermore, a disadvantage of the X100S hybrid viewfinder is that your AF points are more limited: you can't select the outermost AF points.

Some say that an advantage of the hybrid viewfinder is that the viewfinder shows an area larger than the area that will be captured.  By seeing outside the frame, you're able to anticipate objects coming into the frame.  However, I don't think this is a real advantage because with a rangefinder style body, your other eye is not obstructed and you can see the periphery far better than any OVF.

Rather, compared to an EVF or even LCD, the hybrid viewfinder offers two advantages: it has zero lag and has no viewfinder blackout.  On the X100S those are significant benefits because the LCD (and EVF) is somewhat laggy, and has a long viewfinder blackout as discussed below.  Users have to weigh those benefits against the WYSIWYG benefits of an LCD or EVF, and take into account the fact that your view is partially obstructed by the lens hood, and you have a more limited AF area.

As discussed, the X100S has an electronic viewfinder as well.  You can switch between the EVF and the optical viewfinder by flipping a lever in front.  The EVF has noticeable lag but is usable in most cases.  I use it more often than the optical viewfinder unless I'm trying to save battery.  For situations where the lag would be a serious impediment, I don't look through the viewfinder at all and instead look at the scene with my eyes.

The X100S EVF or LCD can show the exposure level in realtime, brightening or darkening the preview as you adjust the settings. However, the DOF is not in realtime. You can only preview the DOF by half-pressing the shutter, or by assigning the Fn button to DOF Preview (which is pointless because half-press is faster and frees up the Fn for another function).


A nice view.


CONTROLS



Exposure controls:
The X100S famously has retro controls, with dedicated analog controls for aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation.  To control the aperture, you use the aperture ring.  To control the shutter speed, you use a dedicated dial.  There is also a dedicated dial for exposure compensation (+/- 2EV; on the X100T it is +/- 3EV).

There is no dedicated ISO dial but by default, the customizable Fn button is assigned to ISO.  Many experienced photographers laud these analog controls.  Having all these dedicated analog dials has the advantage of allowing you to set your exposure even while the camera is off.  However, in practice I'm not so enamored with it because it is often slower:

- There is no exposure mode.  Instead, to switch to aperture priority mode, you set the shutter speed to Auto.  If you want to change to shutter speed priority, you set the aperture to Auto.  If you want to use Program exposure mode, you set both the aperture and shutter speed to Auto.  On my other cameras with an exposure dial, the aperture priority usually retains the last chosen aperture, and shutter priority uses the last chosen shutter speed, therefore I can use the exposure dial to switch between two ways of shooting (e.g. switching between a shallow DOF and a slow shutter speed).  On the X100S, I can't switch as quickly.

- The aperture ring has aperture settings only in full stops (by contrast, the X100T aperture ring does have 1/3 stops).  If you want to use an aperture in between full stops, you first set the aperture ring to the closest full stop, then you push a rocker switch above the cursor keys (called the command control) in 1/3 stops, but it cannot go to the next full stop, which requires turning the aperture ring.  The maximum aperture is limited by the shutter speed and vice-versa.  At f/2 or f/2.8, the maximum shutter speed is 1/1000.  At f/4 or f/5.6, the maximum shutter is 1/2000.  At f/8 or narrower, the maximum shutter is 1/4000.  If you go above these shutter speed limits, the camera will indicate the shutter speed you want (though the indicator will look red) but in reality, it is actually taking the shot at the shutter speed limit for the chosen aperture.

- The shutter speed dial is also in full stops.  Again, if you want to switch to a shutter speed in 1/3 stops, you choose the nearest full stop, then adjust the shutter speed upward or downward with the command dial that surrounds the cursor keys.  The dial can only be used for speeds as slow as 1/4 sec.  To go slower, you switch to the T shutter speed, which lets you choose shutter speeds as slow as 30 seconds, in 1/3 stops.  There is also a Bulb mode on the dial (up to 60 minutes).  One issue with the shutter speed dial is that the indicator is on its left side.  Therefore, if you use a flash or even some remote triggers such as the Yongnuo RF603, the flash or accessory will block the shutter speed indicator.  You can still turn the shutter speed dial but you won't see the current setting unless you look at the LCD or viewfinder.

- Auto ISO can be adjusted for maximum ISO, and minimum shutter speed.  The fastest minimum shutter speed is 1/125 (if you want a faster shutter speed, you need to switch it yourself in shutter priority or manual exposure).  The maximum ISO for Auto ISO is 6400, whether shooting in Raw or JPEG.  To select ISO 12,800 or 25,600, you need to shoot in JPEG, and select the ISO manually.  Auto ISO works in manual exposure mode as well, although without exposure compensation.

- In manual exposure mode, if you're not using Auto ISO, adjusting the exposure to the desired level can involve jumping back and forth between the aperture ring, command control, shutter speed dial, command dial, and/or Fn button.  Exposure compensation has no effect in manual mode, even with Auto ISO activated (on the X100T, exposure compensation works in manual mode when Auto ISO is active).  This means that if you often use manual exposure, you'll be forced to assign the Fn button to ISO.  Moreover, when adjusting ISO, you cannot see the meter, and can only rely on the LCD preview.  If you didn't assign ISO to the Fn button, then you can change ISO only through the Q menu or the camera menu, and in either case you can't even see a preview of the exposure, nor can you see the exposure meter.

- Another quirk is that when half-pressing the shutter, it locks both AF and AE.  There is no option to set half-press only for AF lock.  I'm forced to use the AEL / AFL button for AFL. I focus on the target, lock focus with AFL, then re-compose.

In my opinion, setting exposure in the X100S is unnecessarily cumbersome, and to be honest, I'm not impressed by the controls, even though they look cool.  I haven't tried the X100T but it seems significantly better - although whether it is worth the extra money is a subjective issue.



Other shooting controls:
In addition to the exposure controls, there are buttons for changing settings:
- The command dial can be pressed up, down, left or right.  Pressing these directions will bring up certain commands: up to change the AF point, left to switch between Macro and regular AF, right to switch the flash mode, and down to change white balance.  Fuji's decision to switch the up button to the AF point and to move the Drive button (now on the left of the LCD) is one of the biggest differences between the X100 and the X100S.  It allows you to use one hand to change the AF point.  Unfortunately, these buttons cannot be customized (on the X100T, they are customizable, or can be assigned to move the AF point directly without pressing the AF button).

- There is an AFL/AEL button that can be partially customized between AE lock only, AF lock only, or both.

- There are dedicated buttons on the left for metering ("AE"), Drive and View Mode.  Metering switches between matrix, spot or average.  Drive is used to switch to a continuous burst.  It can also be used to switch to multiple exposure, bracketing, or panorama.  View mode switches between viewfinder only (even for playback), LCD only, or automatic switching between viewfinder and LCD using the eye sensor.  The eye sensor usually works pretty well and is less sensitive than the overly-eager eye sensor of the Sony a6000.

- There is a Q button that brings up commonly changed settings, similar to Olympus' Super Control Panel, or Sony's Fn menu button.  You can change a setting by selecting the setting then using the command control rocker switch.  The Q menu has 16 settings, although 9 of them are irrelevant to those who shoot only with raw. The Q menu is not customizable but does cover important settings such as ISO, DR mode, timer, AF mode, and switching memory banks (on the X100T, the Q menu is customizable).  Strangely, the Q menu includes settings for white balance and flash mode which are already directly accessible through the 4-way controller.  Notable omissions from the Q menu include the ability to toggle the ND filter and flash compensation (which requires going in the cameras menus... ugh!).

the Q menu
Overall, I would say the controls of the X100S look cool because of their retro design, but functionally, it's not great, and I'm actually not sure why people are commending the X100S' controls.

MENUS


The X100S menu is quite disorganized.  It uses the side tab format, like Nikon or Olympus (as opposed to a top tab format like Canon or Sony).  There are 8 tabs, but the tabs have only TWO major groups.  The first group of 5 tabs are for shooting-related options.  The second group of 3 tabs are for setup-related options.  The listing of the options is somewhat haphazard and sometimes logically inconsistent.  For example, you can store banks of settings which are called "custom setting."  But selecting Disp. Custom Setting will lead you to specify which indicators will show up on the OVF or the LCD.  Speaking of which, specifying the indicators on the OVF or LCD is in the shooting group, but specifying whether the LCD will show the realtime exposure is in the setup group.  Another example: selecting the MF Assist mode is in the shooting group, while MF Focus Check is in the setup group.

The options are pretty typical.  Some of the more noteworthy ones:
  • Built-in ND filter (3 stops).  Very useful for wide aperture or a slow shutter in bright ambient conditions.
  • The option to specify whether the exposure is previewed on the screen.  If you're shooting with flash and want to negate the ambient, then you can turn off this option so you can still see your subject.
  • Silent mode.  When activated, it will deactivate the AF assist, turn off the shutter sound, and disable flash.  You can toggle silent mode without the menus by holding down the Disp/Back button.
  • Raw conversion:  the X100S' built-in raw conversion options are quite extensive, with a very wide range of adjustments, including pushing or pulling the exposure, pushing white balance temperature (blue/yellow) and/or tint (Green/Magenta), or applying one of the film simulations.  The drawback is that the adjustments cannot be previewed in realtime, so you have to use trial and error.
  • Multiple exposure (2 shots, JPEG only).  The exposure can be adjusted in between the shots (i.e. you can change the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or exposure compensation for the second shot).
multiple exposure

AUTOFOCUS

The X100S improves on its predecessor's autofocus performance by adding phase detection AF points.  (It appears that the 9 AF points in the middle of the frame are the phase detect AF points, although I can't find any Fuji literature that confirms the number or location of the PDAF points.)  The question for parents is whether the X100S is fast enough to capture kids or pets in action.

AF controls:
The X100S has three focus modes: single, continuous and manual.  You switch between them with a slide on the left side of the camera.  The slide is somewhat hard to move.  I would have preferred a dial or lever.  Fortunately, the two more frequently used modes, single and manual, are at the edges of the slide, making it a little easier to switch between them.

Let's talk about the single AF mode.  The X100S has only two AF areas: one AF point, or multi.  Multi mode basically means the camera will choose the AF point.  It is unpredictable, unlike for example the a6000 which consistently focuses on the closest subject within the AF frame.  I can't figure out how the X100S chooses its AF point in multi AF area.  In the single AF point mode, you position the AF point yourself.  You can choose any of 5 sizes for the AF point, although the largest size is not so large that it can be used like the AF group or AF zone of some other cameras.  The AF point can be moved along a 7x7 grid that covers most of the screen (pls. note that when using the hybrid viewfinder, you're limited to a 6x6 grid).  If you move the AF point, it can be reset to the middle by pressing the Display/Back button.

Now let's talk about continuous AF: it's next to useless.  First, you can't move the AF point around.  It will only focus on the middle of the frame.  Worse, the continuous AF mode is extremely slow (like that of a normal point and shoot, not a fast-focusing point and shoot) -- so slow as to be practically unusable.  Fortunately, the continuous AF mode does have a use in very narrow circumstances as explained below.

The absence of a usable continuous AF is a serious problem for capturing action.  Normally, when shooting moving subjects, I rely on continuous AF because the subject often moves from the time I half-press the shutter to the time I release the shutter.  Without continuous AF, I'm forced to mash the shutter all the way so that there the shutter is released as soon as the camera acquires focus, minimizing any change in the subject's position.  However, even this workaround is not easy to do on the X100S due to lag issues (see below).


Instant 100% Zoom:  On a positive note, a cool feature of the X100S is that when reviewing shots, the X100S can instantly show a 100% zoom of the AF point by pressing down.  Once zoomed in, rotating the command dial switches to the previous or next photo, showing the same part of the frame, which assists in determining which shot of a series was the sharpest.  If there are faces detected in the image, then pressing down will zoom to each face in sequence.  Instead of being a 100% zoom on the face, it will zoom to the level that will show the entire face.

another swing shot

AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE
So how is the X100S for capturing action?  There are two challenges for the X100S when capturing action: AF speed and shutter lag, both discussed below.

Speed and accuracy:
The good news is that in decent light, the X100S is pretty fast for a mirrorless camera.  It is definitely faster than most point and shoots but is not as fast as compact cameras with very fast AF such as the Stylus 1.  Like any camera with contrast detection, the X100S autofocus is immune from front- or backfocusing and is therefore almost always accurate, missing only when the camera focuses on the wrong target.

One issue that slows down the X100S is that it refocuses after every shot.  On most cameras, if you want to take several shots in succession, you half-press the shutter, press it and half-release, then press it again.  If you do that on the X100S, the camera will refocus each time.  My workaround for this is to assign the AEL/AFL button to AF lock.  If I want to take several shots, I half-press to focus, press the AFL button, then I can repeatedly press the shutter without forcing the camera to refocus.

Shutter lag:

Timing the shot is more challenging on the X100S compared to other cameras I've used because of several characteristics that can trip up your timing.  First, the LCD or EVF has more lag than contemporary cameras I've used.  Therefore if you base your timing on the image you are watching in the LCD or EVF, the shot will be too late.  There are at least two solutions: first, you can use the OVF which of course has no lag. However, you give up the WYSIWYG view of the LCD or EVF.  Another solution is to compose with the LCD or EVF, but when timing the shutter release, I look at the scene, not at the EVF/LCD.

Second, when using the LCD or EVF, there is a relatively long (~1 sec.) blackout when you press the shutter.  I would use the same solutions as above: either using the OVF or timing the shot by looking at the scene.
You might start getting the idea that you should therefore use OVF to avoid shutter lag.  But there's a third source of lag: the aperture dance.  Actually, the X100S has two kinds of aperture dance.  The first type is when you are using the LCD or EVF.  In that mode, the aperture will constantly adjust for the light, narrowing when it's bright, widening when it's dark.  This slows the camera down because when you half-press, it goes from this ambient-adjusted aperture, to wide open, then finally down to the chosen aperture, then the camera autofocuses.

The second type of shutter dance is when you're using the OVF.  When you use the OVF, the aperture starts out fully closed.  When the shutter is half-pressed, the aperture opens to wide open, narrows to f/16, then opens up to selected aperture, then the camera autofocuses.  Again, this dance slows the X100S' response time.

There's a way to avoid the delay from the aperture dance: you can half-press the shutter before you shoot, to finish the dance before you need the shot. Half-pressing, however, runs counter to the shutter mash workaround for the lack of a usable continuous AF.  Recall also that on the X100S, half-pressing locks both the exposure and focus.


The shot was a little late due to shutter lag.
Capturing action:
These little sources of delay add up.  It makes it difficult to capture anything that is fleeting - such as a particular facial expression.  If the action is repetitive or cyclical (e.g. a swing), or in situations that you can anticipate early enough to half-press at an appropriate target, you have a good chance of capturing the shot.  If the action is unpredictable, the probability of being able to capture the shot simply by mashing the shutter all the way is not very high.  I just try to press the button before the peak moment, and hope for the best.   When I have to mash the shutter, here are some of the things I do to improve the X100S' ability to capture action:
  • Use the largest AF point. 
  • Try to use of the middle 9 AF points.  These are the phase detection AF points therefore they can focus faster.
  • The X100S' AF speed is dependent on how much it needs to adjust.  Therefore you can let it focus more quickly by prefocusing at a distance where you expect the subject will be.
  • After prefocusing, follow the subject (keep the af area over the subject).
  • If you can't half-press, then take the lag into account in choosing when to release the shutter.
  • The X100S takes longer to focus when the subject is closer.  Therefore if possible, don't shoot too close to the subject.
  • If possible, use a narrower aperture to increase DOF
  • AF speed is affected by the exposure.  If the exposure is too dark (e.g. when negating the ambient while shooting with a flash), the X100S will have a hard time focusing and may fail to focus even though there is actually more than enough light.  If you are intentionally underexposing, go to the menus, and turn off "preview exposure in manual mode" (under "screen setup" in the setup group).
  • Don't forget to use a sufficiently high shutter speed to freeze action.
In the shot of my daughter on the swing, I prefocused the X100S at the estimated distance of the final shot.  I tried to follow her with the AF point, moving in time with the swing.  I could not half-press the shutter because that would lock the autofocus, which would probably be at a different distance from the one in the final shot, resulting in missed focus.  Instead, I had to mash the shutter.  Factoring in the lag, I mashed the shutter before the peak moment.  Even while doing all this, the percentage of keepers was low -- somewhere between 1/2 to 1/3.  Whether this is acceptable varies by user (how unpredictable their subjects are, and what is their tolerance for missed focus), but in general, I would not consider the X100S good at capturing candid action shots.

Low light autofocus:
By default, the X100S has a difficult time focusing in low light.  Sometimes, it has problems focusing on dark-toned subjects even in bright light.  It needs a highlight to grab focus.  You can use the AF assist lamp, but it is very bright and can affects the subjects' expression.  Fortunately there are a couple of workarounds that don't require the AF lamp:

Option 1. Switch to Manual focus then press AEL/AFL (set it to AFL).  In manual focus mode, pressing the AFL button acts like an AF-ON button (back button focus).  The drawback is that it moves slower than the normal autofocus in normal conditions.  However, in dark conditions, I can get lock focus more quickly this way than with the regular autofocus.

Option 2: Switch to continuous AF, then half-press the shutter.  Somehow, the camera can lock-on autofocus in this mode.  It won't be super fast, but it's as fast as can be expected in low light.

With either of these workarounds, the X100S can autofocus in low light even with very close subjects.  It won't be fast, and sometimes it misfocuses, but at least it's reasonable compared to other cameras.

With either of the workarounds, the X100S can focus in low light conditions.  f/2, 1/40, ISO 6400


MANUAL FOCUS
The X100S' manual focus works well.  The focus ring is focus-by-wire (there's no mechanical connection between the focus ring and the lens).  The speed that you rotate the focus ring affects the rate that the focal distance is adjusted.  For example, if you rotate the focus ring very slowly, then getting from 3ft. to infinity takes perhaps one full rotation.  Rotating the focus ring quickly gets you there in half a rotation.  Also, as you focus at closer distances, the focus ring adjusts at a slower rate, which makes it more controllable.

The X100S has several focus aids.  First, you can use focus peaking.  It surrounds the objects in focus with a white highlight.  I wish I could change the color because the white highlight can sometimes be hard to see.  In most cases, however, the focus peaking works well.  Another manual focusing aid is the split image focus, which works similarly to a split image circle in some film cameras.  When this is activated, the middle part of the frame is divided into four horizontal segments.  If an object is not in focus, it will look split up.  To focus on an object, you adjust the focus ring until the object doesn't look split up.  It's a nifty focusing aid but the reality is that the focus peaking enables me to focus much more quickly.  In the shot below, I was focusing on the reflections, which is difficult for almost any camera's autofocus.  With focus peaking, I was able to focus on the pink balloon.

pink blob
Another feature that can help manual focus is the manual focus check, which automatically zooms to the part where you are focusing on whenever you are focusing.  The manual focus point can be moved around the frame just like an AF point so that the part that is zoomed in is your target, not just the middle of the frame.  Whether or not you use manual focus check, pressing the middle of the command control (the rocker switch) also zooms in on the AF point (or MF point) to help confirm that the subject is in focus.  I prefer to use the command control to zoom rather than the MF check.

A useful feature of the X100S is that in manual focus mode, you can press the AEL/AFL button to autofocus, similar to back-button focusing.  However, the autofocusing speed with AFL is slower than regular autofocus.

The X100S works very well for zone focusing.  Besides the aforementioned focus peaking, the X100S has a depth of field indicator.  However, the indicator is far too conservative (and seems to be based on an actual focal length of 35mm instead of 23mm).  In any case, it helps that the X100S has an optional distance scale whether in MF or AF, which can help determine range.  Thankfully, the X100S does not reset the focal distance when it is turned off.  So you can focus on your desired target, turn off the camera until a suitable subject comes, then turn the camera back on and get ready for the shot.


EXPOSURE

The X100S exposure is not that smart in my opinion.  For example, the SOOC shot below is underexposed.  In some of my cameras, they will notice the white cream and dark chocolate and figure out that the cream and plate are supposed to be white, not gray.


SOOC


corrected +1.25EV (note: I intentionally used a warmer white balance)

In contrasty conditions, it has a tendency blow out highlights, i.e. overexpose.  On the other hand, in backlit situations, the subject tends to appear underexposed (not necessarily a bad thing if you want to retain highlight detail in the background).

This means that I end up adjusting exposure compensation much more than on my other cameras.  Fortunately, the dial is easily accessible, and there's no mistaking it for an exposure mode dial (there isn't one).  On the other hand, note that the exposure compensation is limited to +/- 2EV (on the X100T, it's expanded to +/- 3EV).

DYNAMIC RANGE SETTING
The X100S has a setting for dynamic range, allowing you to choose 100% (i.e. normal range), 200%, 400% or Auto.  These settings don't do anything at the hardware level.  What it actually does is underexpose to preserve the highlights, then boost the shadows (and to some extent, the midtones) in post to normalize the underexposed image.  In the case of DR200%, it underexposes by 1 stop, then when processing the image, boosts the shadows by one stop.  For 400%, it underexposes 2 stops, then boosts shadows 2 stops.  Because it is boosting shadows by 1 or 2 stops, the X100S considers these to be increasing the ISO by 1 or 2 stops.  Therefore the minimum ISO for DR200 is ISO 400, and for DR400 is ISO 800.  That's why if you take an image at DR400 (or DR-Auto), the camera will take shots at "ISO 800" even in bright sunlight.

In older versions of ACR or Lightroom, the raw file looks simply as though it was underexposed by 1 or 2 stops. With the current version of Lightroom (5.7 at this time), the raw file understands the DR setting and the raw image will look similar to the JPEG image in terms of having the shadows and midtones boosted.

A more detailed explanation: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/FujifilmX100/page18.asp (but the discussion about raw no longer applies).

Bottom line:
1. Do not permanently set the X100S on DR-400.  Otherwise, you are underexposing by 2 stops every time, even when you don't need to (e.g. in low contrast situations).  Instead use DR-Auto on an as-needed basis, when have a scene with wide dynamic range and you want to preserve highlights.
2. Don't worry if it's on Auto ISO and DR-Auto, and chooses ISO "800" or higher.  It boosts only the shadows, and to some extent midtones, therefore the highlights and midtones are not at an unnecessarily high ISO.

Because of DR-Auto, the camera set itself to ISO 1250 even though the conditions were bright.

LENS QUALITY
I won't spend too much time here because this has been covered by other reviewers and there's nothing different about the lens quality in the case of candid photos.  Briefly, the lens of the X100S is very good overall:

Lobster mashed potatoes
f/5.6, 1/125, ISO 500 with built-in flash as fill

​​
Sharpness: quite good, even wide open (though the RX1 is sharper).  Stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6 it is exceptional.  However, at close distances, the lens is soft/hazy ("dreamy," if you want to call it that) when used wide open.  When this happens, it sharpens significantly when stopped down to f/2.8.  In the sample shots below at f/2 and f/2.8 respectively, note the hazy appearance of the shot at f/2, and the dramatic improvement in sharpness when stopped down to f/2.8.  This is not just because of the depth of field, but an actual difference in sharpness -- check out the parts that are within the DOF of the shot at f/2.
softness at f/2

dramatic improvement at f/2.8

Bokeh: bokeh is smooth enough and is even decent against difficult backgrounds (e.g. thin lines).  However, the bokeh is not quite as ultra-smooth as that of the Sony RX1.  The shot below, with its many thin lines, is typically a difficult background (i.e. on a lens with average bokeh, it looks harsh).  In my opinion, the X100S renders it acceptably and it doesn't look that harsh, which speaks well of the X100S' bokeh.



Flare: the lens is susceptible to glare.  Bright light sources in the frame or around the frame reduce the contrast considerably, as in the SOOC shot below.  Unless that's the effect you're after, a lens hood is highly recommended.

candlelight vigil

Distortion: yes there's noticeable barrel distortion.
Vignetting: there's some vignetting wide open.
Chromatic aberration: excellent. I have yet to see chromatic aberration in a real world shot.

If you're using Lightroom or ACR, there is a lens correction profile for the X100S that corrects the distortion and vignetting.

IMAGE QUALITY

Sharpness
I already mentioned this in the context of the lens.  However, I also wanted to add that the X100S has a couple of other features that help improve sharpness: First, the leaf shutter produces no vibration.  You can get a sharp handheld shot even at slow speeds.  Second, the X100S has an X-Trans II sensor.  The X-Trans has a more random arrangement of RGB pixels which makes false color from moire much less likely (compared to a sensor with Bayer arrangement), which in turn makes an anti-aliasing filter unnecessary.

f/5, 1/6, ISO 200

Noise

My first impression of the X100S was that the high ISO was surprisingly good, with very little chroma noise, and well controlled luminance noise, with good color accuracy and saturation.  However, note that you can only use raw at up to 6400 ISO.  At ISO 12,800 or 25,600, it's JPEG only.

f/2, 1/50, ISO 6400
How does it compare to the Sony RX1?  I sold my RX1 a long time ago, but here are some shots from the X100S compared with similar shots that I took from the RX1 last year:

X100S (from raw).  f/2, 1/60, ISO 6400.

Sony RX1 in similar conditions (from raw), f/2, 1/60, ISO 5000.
Here are a couple of shots at ISO 25,600:


X100S at ISO 25,600 (JPEG only)

Sony RX1 at ISO 25,600 (with no noise reduction)

100% crops:


X100S 100% crop


RX1 100% crop


The X100S fares surprisingly well with the full frame RX1 if you don't look closely.  However, even without pixel peeping, the RX1 clearly has more detail.  It seems that the X100S uses aggressive noise reduction (even in raw).  Here is a comparison of raw images using DPReview's widget, between the X100T (the same sensor as the X100S), the Nikon D7000 (which also has 16mp), the Sony a6000, and the Sony RX1R (to which the X100S is frequently compared).  However, as far as I can tell, the noise reduction is applied selectively.  The camera can seemingly distinguish between areas of fine detail such as eyes and throttles back on the noise reduction in those detailed areas.

One issue with the X100S is its ISO sensitivity.  Fuji's ISO is reportedly less sensitive than indicated (ISO inflation).  Some users have reported a discrepancy of about 2/3 EV to 1EV.  I'm still pinning this down and will post back when I have more definitive findings.

Colors
Although we had already talked about noise, the first thing that I noticed about the X100S' image quality actually was that the colors are pleasant and realistic, especially the reds, which are faithfully reproduced.  In the shots below, my son was wearing a red sweater.  The X100S reproduced the red accurately, whereas my Sony a6000 made the red look like vermilion (an issue that affects many cameras, albeit NOT the Sony RX1, which has very accurate colors).
X100S default colors.  Note the red hue of my son's sweater.  This hue was how I saw it.


Sony a6000 default colors.  Note the vermilion hue of the same sweater.

I also really like the X100S' reproduction of skin tones.  My past Fuji cameras had a tendency to give a pinkish hue to skin (which many people like but does not look neutral).  In the X100S, that tendency is much more subtle and natural looking.  However, the X100S does still attempt to suppress specular highlights on skin. In general that makes skin look less oily and it's a good thing, but I just want to note it here for purists.





Postprocessing

One of the drawbacks of Fuji cameras with the X-Trans sensor had been finding a good raw converter.  The best raw converter was considered to be Iridient, and the Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom raw conversion was not that good, producing strange color shifts.  The need for Iridient or some other raw converter was a significant workflow issue for the many photographers who use Adobe products.

Beginning with Lightroom 5.4, however, Lightroom improved the raw converter for cameras with X-Trans sensors including the X100S.  With the new raw support, Lightroom has become a pretty good raw converter for the X100S.  It even has camera profiles to simulate the X100S' film simulations.  In my opinion, the profiles come very close to the look of Fujis' JPEGs. The only adjustment I would suggest if you want to copy the look of the JPEG is to change the Tone Curve to medium instead of linear.  Lightroom's raw processing has improved so much that I almost always prefer the raw over the JPEG, because the JPEG noise reduction is too strong at high ISOs, especially with skin, which looks too smooth.


JPEG



raw (after adjustments)
I'm also pleased with the latitude of X100S raw files.  I can push the raw files without premature banding or excessive noise.  In the test shot below (at ISO 800), you can see that the table was in deep shadow.  In post, I was able to boost the shadows +100 and increase exposure +1.98EV.  I also tried increasing exposure +5EV with only slight banding.


Bottom part: +100 Shadows, +1.98EV

+5EV

LIGHTING
The X100S has a leaf shutter and therefore has unlimited sync speed.  You can use flash in broad daylight without the need to use narrow apertures (which would otherwise be needed if you are limited to a sync speed of 1/250 or slower), or being forced to resort to high speed sync (which decreases the output of your flash by around 2 stops).

In practical terms, the limit becomes the flash duration, which for a speedlight at full power is usually around 1/800 or so, with shorter durations at lower power levels.  If you're using a radio trigger, the maximum sync speed with the radio trigger also needs to be taken into account.  I tried the X100S with the Yongnuo RF603II and YN560III and have been able to sync at up to 1/1600.  (Note again that the highest shutter speed is limited by the aperture therefore if you take a shot at f/2, "1/4000" it will sync because the shot is actually taken at 1/1000.  If you take a shot at f/4, "1/4000," it will not sync because the shot is actually at 1/2000.)

I also want to mention the built-in flash.  The built-in flash is very close to axis of the lens, therefore it casts only a thin shadow that is barely noticeable.  It therefore works great as fill.

f/4, 1/1000, ISO 1600.  Built-in flash as fill.
Unfortunately, the utility of the built-in flash is limited by several issues.  First, the flash exposure compensation can only be adjusted within a very narrow range of +/- 2/3EV.  That is the narrowest adjustment range I've ever seen for any camera that allows adjusting the flash compensation.  Second, you only have TTL -- there is no manual flash mode.  Third, if you're using a continuous burst, flash will be disabled (it would have been nice to be able to use flash at least for the first shot).

Fuji claims that the built-in flash has a 'commander mode,' however, it seems that it's just an optical slave mode (not wireless TTL, much less wireless adjustment).  In fact it seems to be nothing more than a simple flash pop with no embedded codes because if I use the commander mode, and I use the YN560III's simple optical slave (S1), the 560III will be triggered.  On the other hand if I use commander mode, and the 560III's digital optical slave (S2), the 560III will not be triggered.  I haven't tested with a dedicated Fuji flash so I can't be 100% sure but it seems that way.  So, does that mean the commander mode is effectively the low-power manual flash mode that David Hobby wanted for optical triggering?  No, because the commander mode flash is still far too bright - visible even at f/11 @ ISO 200.  On the plus side, the output of the commander mode does not adjust with aperture (thankfully) therefore it can be made less apparent by using a narrow aperture.

The X100S' flash has a few quirks:
  • If you use the Fuji lens hood, the built-in flash will cast a shadow.  If you use the Pentax MH-RC49 dome-style hood, there will only be a very slight shadow, unless you use a filter, in which case there will be a small shadow.
  • The hotshoe is deactivated by default.  To use it, you have to not only mount your external flash or trigger, but you also have to manually select "external flash" in the flash menu.
  • The X100S seems to use some kind of abbreviated version of TTL that has almost no preflash.  I tried using the digital optical slave mode (S2) of the YN560III (a digital slave means it is triggered after a TTL preflash) and the YN560III was not triggered at all (i.e. the 560III did not detect the preflash).  On the other hand, the simple optical slave mode (S1) was triggered, but the flash would not sync, i.e., the image does not show the external flash.  Instead, to trigger the 560III optically, I have to switch the 560III to S1 mode and use "commander mode."  Alternatively, I can use the RF603 as a radio trigger.

CONCLUSION

Is the x100S good at capturing action? Not really. Can it be made to capture action? Yes, with certain limits. Why would you want to put up with its limitations? There are several reasons. First, image quality is excellent, with very usable high ISOs, and Fujis' famous colors.  The lens is also very good.  It is not perfect but it performs very well under most conditions. Third, the X100S is very compact and discreet. There are many situations where you could use an X100 where a larger camera would not be practical, and a smaller camera would sacrifice too much image quality.  Fourth, for strobists, it has an unlimited sync speed.  And perhaps it should not be left out that the X100S is undeniably one of the sexiest-looking cameras, although it sacrifices handling a little bit because of its retro controls.  In summary, for deliberate shooting, the X100S is great - maybe even ideal, second only to the much more expensive Sony RX1.  For candid shots of fast moving subjects, it is not quite fast enough, but it can work if you can anticipate the shot.



ALTERNATIVES

There are many alternative camera and lens combinations if you want a 35mm equivalent focal length.  It depends on a number of factors such as how much you need to capture action, how much you care about camera size and image quality.  Here are some cameras you may want to consider:

First, do you need an autofocus that can capture fast action?  If yes then go to Group 1.  If not, then go to Group 2.

Group 1 (if you need autofocus that can keep up with fast action):

1.  If size is not an issue and you want the highest image quality, get a current Nikon full frame (D600 or later) + Sigma 35 1.4 or Nikon 35 1.8 FX.  Note: the Sigma 35 1.4 does not always focus accurately when used wide open.  Alternatively, if you prefer a 50mm focal length, get a Nikon full frame + Sigma 50 1.4 Art, Nikon 50 1.4G, Nikon 50 1.8G.

2.  If size is not an issue but you want something more affordable than a Nikon full frame, get a Nikon APS-C with the Sigma 18-35, which is exceptionally sharp.  If you prefer a 50mm equivalent that is more affordable and more compact, the Nikon 35 1.8DX may be for you.  Alternatively, you can get a used Nikon D700 which still produces pretty good image quality (you would pair it with the lenses in #1).

3.  If size is an issue, you again have a few alternatives:

a.  For a combination of the very good autofocus and image quality, check out the Sony a6000 with either the Sony 24 1.8 or 35 1.8 OSS.

b.  For an even more compact system with very good autofocus, check out the Olympus E-M1 or Panasonic GH4 with either the Olympus 17 1.8, Panasonic 20 1.7, Panasonic 25 1.4 or Olympus 25 1.8.  Note that the GH4 uses Panasonic's DFD (depth from defocus) which enables it to focus very quickly -- reportedly even faster than the a6000 -- but works only with Panasonic lenses.

c.  For a camera with a great selection of lenses and also has pretty good autofocus and very good image quality, check out the Fuji X-T1 and 23 1.4 or 35 1.4.  The X-T1's continuous AF works but PDAF is limited to the 9 AF points in the middle of the frame.

d.  For a compact system with excellent autofocus, although a smaller 1-inch sensor, check out the Nikon 1 cameras, paired with a 10 2.8 (28mm equivalent) or 18.5 1.8 (50mm equivalent).  However, note that on some models, the flash is practically unusable in daylight (the sync speed is 1/60).

Group 2 (if you don't need autofocus for fast action):

1.  If you want the highest image quality, get the Sony RX1. Compared to the X100S, it has a 1 stop shallower dof, better high ISO, it's sharper, it has gorgeous bokeh (possibly the best I've seen).  But note that it doesn't have AF-C, and its AF-S is slightly slower than X100S.  Also, note that the RX2 is rumored to be around the corner.

2.  If image quality is a priority but you want something more affordable than the RX1, then the X100S would be a good choice.  Also consider the X100T for better handling and controls, or the X100 for a lower price (sacrificing some AF speed, some image quality due to an older sensor, and less convenient controls).

3.  If you want an interchangeable lens camera with excellent autofocus for static subjects and a great lens selection, consider the Olympus E-M5, E-M10, E-PL5 or Panasonic GX7.  I can't speak for the GX7 which I haven't used, but the E-M5, E-M10, or E-PL5 all have faster autofocus than the X100S, though still not quite fast enough to capture active kids, IMO.  You can pair them with the Olympus 17 1.8 (focuses quickly but is not super sharp), Panasonic 20 1.7 (exceptionally sharp but slower AF on the Olympus bodies), Panasonic 25 1.4 or Olympus 25 1.8 (both are very sharp).

4.  If you want an interchangeable lens camera with a higher image quality than MFT, consider a Fuji X camera (e.g. X-E2) paired with the 23 1.4 or 35 1.4.  The disadvantage compared to MFT is the higher cost, larger size of the bodies and lenses, and slower autofocus compared to Olympus.

5.  If image quality is a priority but you want something very affordable and you don't mind a slow autofocus, consider the Canon M with 22 f/2 lens.  The 22 f/2 is very sharp (rated at 13 Pmp on the 18mp EOS M).  If you don't mind slow AF, this has comparable image quality, smaller size, at a much lower price than the X100S.

RELATED POSTS
Sony RX1 Review
Sigma 35 1.4 Preliminary Review
Best Lens Hood for the X100S
Blackrapid SnapR Review (a great camera bag for the X100S)
X100S Larmor GGS Screen Protector

MORE SAMPLE SHOTS

f/2.2, 1/125, ISO 320

f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 1600

f/2, 1/125, ISO 1000

f/2, 1/125, ISO 1000


f/5.6, 1/8, ISO 200
f/2, 1/15, ISO 3200