Is That A Leica? Trial by Fire with the Fuji X100F at Rehoboth Beach, DE

We love going to Rehoboth Beach so much that sometimes we end up going twice a year, so whenever that's the case and I already have a zillion photos, I always like to try new things. This year, I only brought one camera with its one lens, the new Fuji X100F.

Warning. This blog is a bit tech heavy. It'd take too long to fully explain some things unless you're already a photog and know, so if you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about here, don't worry about it and just enjoy the photos. :)

I've wanted a Fuji X100 since the line first came out in 2010, but had just blown my wad on a new at the time full-frame Canon 5D Mark II camera, and was acquiring lenses for the Canon system after switching from Nikon. The first X100 was intriguing, but seemed a bit rough around the edges. Fuji made some nice improvements to the camera with the X100S successor a few years later, and I still wanted one. Then they made yet more improvements with the third generation X100T, which had finally become a very well-rounded camera, but still didn't get one. Now they've just released the fourth generation X100F with yet more improvements, and I finally bit the bullet and got one. 

I'd actually been patiently waiting for the new full-frame Canon 5D Mark IV to come down in price to replace my aging 5D Mark II. That camera still takes phenomenal photos, but it's starting to show a bit of "digital rot" without built in WiFi, and also only takes big clunky CF cards rather than SD, which means I'm continually tied to not just taking my laptop everywhere if I want to get photos off of the camera, but to also rememberingto bring my external CF card reader on top of that, which I sometimes forget! There's absolutely nothing wrong with a camera like the 5D Mark II as far as the photos that you can make with it even today, but I'm hooked on the modern tech in my Canon 7D Mark II. The optional W-E1 WiFi adapter is fast and the app works great, which means I'm no longer tied to my laptop, and the far more modern autofocus and a zillion other things about the camera are just "better", even though it's "only" a crop frame APS-C camera. But is that really a bad thing these days?

As much as I love the look that you can get out of full frame cameras, APS-C just seems to work better for me as a format. DSLR sensors have really matured, and you no longer "need" to buy a full-frame camera if you want great looking photos even in low light or at high ISO. Modern APS-C crop frame sensors are like turbocharged 6-cylinder engines. No, they're not quite as sexy as a V-8, but for all intents and purposes, they're just as good, while costing a lot less and saving weight. I still remember my APS-C Nikon D80 and D200 cameras from the late-2000's. They looked good up to about ISO 400, or if you really wanted to push it, you could maybe get decent looking photos up to about ISO 800, but beyond that good luck. The full-frame Canon 5D Mark II that I switched to from the same era looked great all the way up to ISO 3200, but these days cameras like my APS-C Canon 7D Mark II can still give you perfectly usable photos all the way out to ISO 16,000 or more. It's not just mature sensor technology, but the matured image processing engines (the ASICs) that they put into camera as well, that are putting together the photos from the raw data off of the sensor.

I have some secondary issues with the full-frame format, also. Ergonomically, Canon omits the pop-up flash on their full-frame cameras to keep the profile lower. I'm big on fill-flash, and the fact that the Canon's don't even have a quick and dirty pop-up flash for daylight fill means means having to dork around with clumsy external flashes all the time, which is a pain. A few Nikon full-frame cameras do have pop-up flashes, but there's too many things that drive me insane about the Nikon system to want to go back, so that's not an option. Another issue I have is that I also like taking a lot of food photos. Get a full frame camera at or near close focus on a plate of food, and trying to keep any of it in focus at all due to the thin depth of field that you get on larger format cameras is an exercise in futility. It just doesn't work, unless you buy a pricey tilt-shift lens that I'm not going to buy, so that's that.

The bottom line is that I don't really "need" a Canon 5D Mark IV enough to warrant buying one, and it wouldn't work well enough for me to pay north of $3000 for one either, so I've kinda gotten cold feet on getting one, and am glad I figured this out before I dropped three large on one! There's the Canon 6D, which is Canon's somewhat feature stripped entry-level full-frame camera. It's an "old" camera now, but has a slightly newer sensor from the 5D Mark III vs my 5D Mark II, and it also has GPS and WiFi built-in. It could work pretty well for me, except for the existing challenges I have with the format, and always needing to carry around an external flash and big heavy lenses again. I'm on the fence about getting a 6D Mark II, but it's tough to make a judgement call on something that isn't even out yet, meanwhile I still hadn't gotten myself a birthday, anniversary, or Christmas gift from last year, because I was saving my money for a camera that I wasn't even sure that I wanted anymore! 

Well, enough of that.

Here's my new Fuji X100F, and everything that I love about it so far.

Yes, somebody really did ask me if this camera was a Leica at the beach. It does look just like an old rangefinder film camera! 

Basically Unlimited Flash Sync Speed

Back in the day when I shot Nikon, I had a little D40 among other DSLRs, and a unique feature of that camera was that it had a faster 1/500s flash sync speed vs. 1/250s or 1/200s for many of Nikon's other cameras including their professional ones. A 1/500s flash sync speed vs 1/200s made a huge difference for when you were trying to get some fill lighting on people's faces during the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead and creating deep shadows on people's faces. If your eyes are already glazing over and you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, photo blogger Ken Rockwell as a nice article about flash sync speed and what it means at his website, and why faster flash sync speeds are so useful.

Because of its leaf shutter design, the Fuji X100 basically has an unlimited flash sync speed of anywhere from 1/1000s to 1/4000s depending on aperture setting. That's awesome, and lets the camera's tiny little built-in flash work more effectively than massive external flash units on other cameras that are limited to much slower typical 1/200s flash sync speeds. 

1/680s, f/2.8, ND Filter On, perfect fill flash against harsh backlighting. With a much slower 1/250s exposure, there's already so much exposure contribution from the natural environment and you're already at such a small aperture as a result, that it's just about impossible for even a big flash to work, and then you're in Photoshop making heavy lighting adjustments afterwards. But even small flashes work great when they can sync with the exposure to much faster shutter speeds than 1/250s!

Skin Tones

See below. Need I say more? I've never had a camera that renders nice and vivid colors, yet still has such natural looking skin tones all at the same time. Now I do. The first two photos below are in Velvia mode +4 saturation, and it still delivers decent looking skin tones. The bottom two are Standard color +4 saturation, and skin tones are looking even better there. My wife is already in love with this camera because it makes her skin look natural, rather than more orangish. DSLR color palletes just aren't optimized for skin tones, but the Fuji is, and it really shows.

Dynamic Range

Almost every DSLR camera I've ever owned including the new ones, all love to blow out highlights, which results in really ugly and nasty looking backgrounds if you're not careful. Sure, you can engage the special hack modes if you can figure out how to use them, or shoot in RAW and do HDR stuff, but who has time for that? Not me. Between daddy, husband, engineer, and young adult cancer advocate and non-profit director, I already have way too many hats to wear as it is. As they say, "don'ts gots no time for that!" It really just needs to work, otherwise it's no good to me.

In the extreme example below which is heavily backlit, you can still see yellow accents from the setting sun at the bottom, and then blue accents from the sky elsewhere and especially at the upper left. I've never had a camera that looks more "film like" than this Fuji, which I guess makes a lot of sense considering that Fuji still does make a ton of film! There's a huge film "shoulder" here that you can use, and this is actually causing my brain to retrain itself back to how I shot when I shot film. Depending on the film you were shooting and the look you were going for, you could easily go +1 or +2 EV exposure compensation and have a really nice looking photo, and you can do the same with this Fuji. 

The Perfect Social And Foodie Camera

Another issue with DSLRs is that they just don't work well in many social situations. They're big and clunky things as it is, and most of the lenses for them make them even bigger and clunkier, which is awkward in close quarters.

We're foodies and love to go to nice places to eat, and I take pictures of it all for the memories and to share with friends. You can't park a DSLR and any typical lens on a table for dinner without it being in the way somehow, which is why I have the Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens for my Canon system. That setup actually works pretty well and it can usually sit on a table without it being in the way, but then I run into another issue in that I can't actually dial down the power of the pop-up flash enough for it to work well on a plate of food. You end up looking like a complete idiot with a massive flash going off, which can disturb other guests, so that's not cool.

When it comes to getting balanced fill lighting on dinner guests and friends, good luck with that too. Canon's flash system just isn't very smart. I'm sure if you fiddle around with settings for long enough you can get what you want, but by that time the moment has passed, and you've missed it. Plus if you're out at a Michelin Star rated place with friends, do you really want to spend a ton of time wrestling with your camera to get optimal photos, or would you prefer to use one that just "gets it" and does what you want automatically? This Fuji is brilliant here.

Mechanical + Electronic Shutter AND a Built-In ND Filter

A common issue at the beach is that you're going to have a lot of distracting elements in the background. Ideally you'd want to run as large of an aperture as possible for less depth of field to keep distracting elements out of focus, but at the same time it's very bright at the beach, which forces you to use smaller apertures which will give you more depth of field, and not less! Even setting the maximum shutter speed of your camera, typically 1/4000s, you might only be able to use a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6, which isn't large enough to yank backgrounds and distracting elements out of focus.

The mechanical leaf shutter in the Fuji X100F does max out at 1/4000s, but then it has a secondary electronic shutter that goes all the way up to 1/32,000s if you need it. Or if that isn't enough and you still want to run flash at a large aperture in bright conditions, the lens has a trick switchable 3-stop ND filter that you can turn either on or off. I actually programmed the ND filter to the front function button, and loved the flexibility of being able to instantly switch it in or out, depending on what I was doing. 

If you have no idea what in the hell I just said, like I said, don't worry about it and just enjoy the photos! :)

1/16,000s at f/2, Electronic Shutter, ND Filter OFF

1/2200s, f/2, Mechanical Shutter, ND Filter ON. The people in the background aren't in focus enough for your eyes to be drawn to them, making for a much better photo!

1/2200s, f/2, Mechanical Shutter, ND Filter ON. The people in the background aren't in focus enough for your eyes to be drawn to them, making for a much better photo!

I like to do motion blurred and panned photos also, but it can be tricky to get the shutter speed slow enough for that in daytime conditions, even at the minimum aperture of the lens and base ISO. Here, the switchable 3-stop ND filter is a great help too.

1/8s at f/16 and Base ISO of 200, 3-stop ND Filter ON. Without the ND filter, that would have put the shutter speed up at 1/60s, which would have been too fast for a nice motion-blurred shot in this situation. (I hadn't figured out how to drop the ISO down to 100 (L) yet, but that would have helped too, by letting me get the shutter speed even slower at 1/4s.)

So What Don't I Like?

No camera is perfect, and this one isn't either. For starters, you can knock the battery door open by mistake way too easily. As some reviews have said, the EVF auto brightness is defective, and gets way too dark in indoor conditions. The camera apparently won't let you add the custom EVF brightness setting menu to the quick menu either, or I haven't figured out how, so there's no quick way to adjust it when you need to. The color palette of the camera is clearly optimize for great people photos, but landscapes can look a bit pastel like as a result. They're not bad, just different, just like different films gave different looks back in the day. Fuji's menus are pretty messy because the camera is loaded with way too many features, and it's not always intuitive that certain features or functions of the camera won't work when certain other modes are engaged. I nearly went crazy trying to figure out how to get the camera into center-weighted metering mode, only to realize later that only matrix metering was allowed if you had face detection turned on. What?? And then the AF Assist beam ended up being way too bright, washing out my subject in dark conditions, and actually jammed the autofocus system. I got better indoor low light autofocus results without the AF assist light. Uhh... that's not how that's supposed to work! LOL!

I have to dedicate an entire paragraph just to the disgraceful WiFi, because it sucks that bad. It's disgracefully slow at transferring photos, and the phone app is junk. It can take 30 to 60 seconds just to transfer one image, and even dropping the camera down to only transfer downsized 3MP images over the air doesn't seem to speed things up very much. And there's no ability to sort photos by rating or date on the app. So if you rate a bunch of photos quickly on your camera, there's no ability to select just the rated images through the app, and just transfer those images. And good luck going from a single photo view on the phone app and then back to a grid view. Half of the time the app crashes when you do that, and you're out of business, which means you have to select the photos that you want to transfer from the tiny thumbnail views, which you might not be able to see clearly enough. In comparison, the little Canon W-E1 WiFi card for my Canon 7D Mark II is professional grade. Transfer speeds are 10x faster, and you'll have a few dozen full-sized images on your camera in just a few minutes. The app gives you the ability to sort photos by specific date ranges and ratings also, and allows you to pre-select all 5-star rated images from a certain date for transfer, and then transfers them with just one more tap. Viola. Fuji, take note. This is how it should work. I won't say the X100F's WiFi isn't usable, but it's just barely usable. I'll probably just get the Lightning to SD card dongle for my iPhone 6s Plus, rather than having to futz around with the really pathetic WiFi functionality on the X100F.

So Fuji didn't get everything right, but who ever does? There's tons of features, yes, but the feature quality isn't always there, and occasionally is completely absent. A feature isn't much good if it doesn't actually work. It has been and still is a bit of a quirky camera, but I really like what you can do with it, it can do things that other cameras can't at worst or would really struggle to at their best, and am incredibly pleased with it as a whole, and the photos that I can make with it.

Click the banner below for the full album from Rehoboth Beach. Enjoy! :)

PS: Oh funny! Literally today as I'm wrapping this blog up, Canon has finally announced the long-awaited update to their 6D, the 6D Mark II, and it looks like a pretty nice camera too with an introductory price of $1999. I just can't justify a 5D Mark IV for my needs and usage, so this is probably what I'll get next year sometime to replace my old 5D Mark II.