Your Second Camera - The One You Always Have With You

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I want to change that blather about the best camera being "the one that you have with you" to "the best camera to always have with you".  Face it, smartphones are wonderful devices, but great foundations for photography they are not.  There's a massive difference between taking pictures and making photographs, and if photography is important to you, you want to do the latter, not the former.

Smartphones killed off the traditional point and shoot market.  Except for a few makers busily denying reality, the rest of the world has figured this out.  What has happened, somewhat quietly amidst all the other noise is the evolution of the small but powerful high image quality camera.

The High Quality Image Producer You Have With You

The Fujifilm X100F is the latest in the X100 family that exemplifies this concept.  The first fundamental difference is the sensor.  The X100F uses a 24.3 MP X-Trans III APS-C sized sensor in a tiny body.  Sensor size makes a difference to overall image quality.  Megapixels measure native resolution but not overall quality.  Want a higher resolution image, get a bigger sensor.  Want better overall quality?  Get a real camera and save your smartphone for selfies and pictures of lunch.

The image quality available from modern APS-C sensors should not surprise anyone.  There are pro grade cameras such as Nikon's D500 that are built around the APS-C sensor.  There are also some really fine interchangeable lens cameras at relatively low cost built around the same sized sensor.  But this alone does not mean that users will carry the camera all the time.

Lenses are wonderful.  And a pain in the back.  Get a camera with interchangeable lenses and you want to change lenses.  It's a given.  That means weight, bulk and a loss of speed and convenience.  Odds are good that you already have a camera with interchangeable lenses.  Why get another one?  The X100F takes a different route, perhaps even somewhat heretical.  There is one lens, that is permanently attached.  It is a 23mm f/2.0 which equates to a 35mm on a full frame.  That this is often cited as the best all around focal length, for tourism, for family, for street and general purpose photography is no accident.  Keeping the lens permanently part of the body, reduces size, reduces weight and still allows for a decent level of optical speed.

Any serious photographer can tell you that shooting off the LCD is sub-optimal.  There is the loss in stability holding your arms out, there is the glare of external light on the LCD glass and there is the constant dealing with fingerprints and other smudging.  There has been this ongoing whiner battle over optical versus electronic viewfinders.  You can certainly have a preference, so Fujifilm gives you both, as well as an interesting hybrid option.

Some creatives really get all wound up in specs, others could care less, being more concerned about ease of use, being unobtrusive or looking the part.  Your choice, but let's look at ease of use first.

First Look and Basic Specs

When you see the X100F it's extremely easy to use, because it has a very simple design.  Certainly there is a paean to old school rangefinders in the design.  It appeals to me in the silver finish for that very reason, it reminds me of old Leicas.  More to the point, the buttons are large and easy to navigate with larger fingers and there are not so many of them that you risking launching a satellite to Venus, when looking to dial in some exposure compensation.  In fact, the old school feel is mirrored by the controls.  There are actual dials for everything.  Shutter speed is a dial. ISO is a lift and turn dial.  Exposure compensation is a dial and aperture is a physical ring on the lens.  You are shooting in no time, because you do not have to drill down through a bunch of ill conceived menus to find the things that you want, or engage in a twister like game of button pushing to get to a function.  Most modern cameras have gone to buttons, LCDs and menus.  They're ok, but I prefer direct action.  The learning curve is shallow and short.  Less time futzing around and more time making images.

 Whether you call it retro or classic, it matters not to me.  I call it usable.  Quickly.

Whether you call it retro or classic, it matters not to me.  I call it usable.  Quickly.

The sensor is Fujifilm's proven 24.3 megapixel APS-C sensor.  Internal aspect ratio options include 3:2, square and 16:9.

Technically, the camera is superb as well.  In addition to the mentioned high performance sensor, we have an ISO range from 200 to 12800 where the noise only starts to really show at 6400.  You can push the ISO as high as 51200 although in my opinion, the noise outweighs the image at that point.  The camera can shoot both RAW at 14 bit depth and regular JPEGs for stills and up to 1920x1080 video at up to 59.94 fps.  Video is compressed using the common but aging H.264 codec.  You can crank out stills at up to 8fps as well.

Images are stored on an SD family card, with the camera handling all UHS-I cards up to the SDXC space specifications.  There is only one card slot.  Connectivity includes USB2, which is rather old, I would much prefer to see USB3 which is already moving on to USB-C.  USB2 is just an outdated and poor interface.  There is a micro HDMI output, and a microphone input.  There is no headphone jack.  The X100F has Wifi built in, and Fujifilm's smartphone app is both reliable and easy to use.  Other OEMs should look at this as an example of what a good WiFi remote looks like.

The battery is Fujifilm's standard NP-W126S.  It's quite small and is CIPA rated in this camera for 270 frames.  Best to get a couple of spares.  I am always pleased to see that Fujifilm does not require you to charge the battery in camera, a particularly stupid design point in my perspective.

The camera has both a mechanical and electronic shutter.  The mechanical speed range is 4s to 1/4000, and the electronic shutter has a range from 30s to 1/32000.  While the electronic shutter offers extremely short durations, the smearing that can be found with most electronic shutters can show up here as well. 

The rear LCD is a 3" design and has good brightness and colour.  It is fixed in position.   The back of the camera is clean and not cluttered.

 3 inch bright and legible LCD display.  Simple back panel layout not cluttered with stuff

3 inch bright and legible LCD display.  Simple back panel layout not cluttered with stuff

Autofocus is available in single shot or continuous modes with selectable group frames or single point otions.  The AF is a hybrid combining contrast detection and phase detection.  It's very fast.

The usual shooting modes of Program, Aperture Preferred, Shutter Preferred and Manual are included.  While there are a variety of picture styles and even film looks (more on that later), this is not a camera for folks who like auto-everything.  There is some work to be done by the mind behind the camera. 

Metering is TTL across 256 distinct zones, selectable for Spot, Average, Multi and Centre Weighted.  I found it to be very accurate in testing, as one would expect.  Exposure compensation is +-3EV on the mechanical dial, +-5EV if using the wheel option with the dial set at C.

When we hear the term bracketing, we usually think of automatic exposure bracketing, which the X100F does, but also offers white balance bracketing, film simulation bracketing, dynamic range bracketing and ISO bracketing. To be candid, I have not found a practical use for anything other than AE bracketing, and what is called DR bracketing is really pushing exposure to the right by raising ISO, not an actual change in dynamic range.

The lens is a Fujinon 23mm f/2.0 with aspheric elements and a nine bladed aperture system.  Like other Fujinon lenses, the image quality is superb with excellent sharpness edge to edge, superior contrast and very solid control of distortions and chromatic aberration.  While these things can be fixed in post, it is great to have them right in camera if one is only shooting in JPEG with no post processing intent.  F stop range is from f/2.0 to f/16.0  Given the native base ISO of 200, I would prefer to see it go to f/22.

There is a small built in flash and also a top deck hotshoe with multi-pin connectors.  The flash can be set to 1st or 2nd curtain sync as well as TTL, Manual, Slow Sync, Commander Mode and off.  That's a lot of flexibility in such a small package.  Sadly there are limited off camera flash options for the Commander mode, it is all optical, and mounting a high power flash on the small body completely disrupts the balance and pleasure of shooting this camera.

I should make note that you can purchase the X100F in a classic matte silver with black finish or an all black finish that is semi-glossy.  Both look great but the camera is the same so choose the colour scheme that pleases you most.

The Shooting

The X100F is nowhere near as small as the similarly priced Sony RX100 Mark V.  It is physically larger, but while it will not fit in a shirt pocket, the larger size gives you more to grab onto.  I never felt at risk of dropping the X100F as I have felt with other small, larger sensor offerings.  It's actually just a bit bigger than Nikon's 1 V3 with the 10-30 lens, but smaller than the old Leica that the design emulates.  All this means is that it is small and light enough not to be a burden on you.  You can fit it in an old style leather case, I just put it in a pocket of my jacket.   You choose.

The friction fit metal lens cap looks and feels great, but I worried about losing the darn thing constantly.  I am not to the point of using one of those sticky until they aren't cap keeper thingmes, but in the case of the X100F, I might be inclined to put a tough protective filter on the lens and leave the cap at home.   FURTHER  By the end of my trial, I had done exactly this.  After dropping the cap too many times I use it for storage and while the camera is being transported but otherwise, I use a B+W filter as my lens protection.

The controls fall perfectly to hand.  I was fully operational in no time, not having to move my eye from the viewfinder while making dial changes.  The internal display is easy to read and super informative so I could see what was happening in real time.

 Love the clean and straightforward layout with mechanical styled controls for all the major functions.  I particularly appreciate the large positive exposure compensation control.

Love the clean and straightforward layout with mechanical styled controls for all the major functions.  I particularly appreciate the large positive exposure compensation control.

I got to really like the hybrid viewfinder, not for the zoomed in digital overlay but for the automatic parallax correction of the focus point depending on subject distance.  This is a legit challenge with optical viewfinders that EVFs never have, but I prefer the optical look to the micro TV look of the full EVF.

I even shot this little fellow in the studio with big strobes.  The optical finder is pretty dim, but by turning exposure simulation off, I was able to get a better sense for composition and focus in the dark surroundings before the strobes went off.  I was shooting all manual flash as I did not have an external TTL flash during my test.

You can find all the specs on the Fujifilm web site if you need more information or are of a technical bent and just like to learn that kind of thing.

Samples

All the images here are processed from Fuji RAF RAW files.  There is no doubt that the out of camera JPEGs are superb, and that Fujifilm's JPEG picture styles, that are based on film emulations, are superb.  I just almost never shoot JPEGs.  I like spending time in the digital darkroom as part of my process.  If you just want great images right out of camera, in my opinion, the straight out of camera JPEGs that Fujifilm delivers are top notch.    Some folks may feel that the single focal length is a constraint, and to some extent it is, but it is also a great enabler because it places more impetus on you the photographer to see your shot.

Summary

The X100F is a superb second, or first camera.  I have a number of friends working full time in the wedding and engagement photography business who use the X100F for location scouting, couples prep, site selection and just to get people at ease.  The image quality is excellent, Fujinon lenses are sharp and have great contrast and the size means you are less likely to leave it behind.  The downside is the cost.  I think it's easily as good as any mid level ILC using an APS-C sensor but must admit that the price makes me wonder.  The X100F sells for about $1700 CDN before discount, and you can certainly get a DSLR or Interchangeable lens mirrorless with equal image quality for quite a bit less, albeit nothing this small.

What do you think?  Does a small camera with superb imagery fit your needs?  What would you like to see differently?  How would you use a small camera with DSLR level image quality?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.

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