Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S

bonfire, Cedar Mesa, Utah, stars

Bonfire Under the Stars : Prints Available

This last weekend we drove out to Cedar Mesa, Utah for one last desert camping trip for the season. We arrived a few hours prior to sunset, found a nice spot to car camp, and eventually lit a little fire to enjoy. After being glued to the computer the last few weeks, the fire, stars, and open space were balm for my soul! The next morning we would wake up early and embark on a three-day backpacking loop through Fish Creek and Owl Creek Canyons.

For this trip I decided to leave my workhorse Canon camera and lenses at home, instead opting to travel light with only my new little Fujifilm X100S large sensor compact camera. These three days in the canyons provided a good opportunity to get to know the X100S. Since it’s a popular new camera I will write a “mini review” of my first impressions below, and this post will be more of a camera report than a trip report. All these photos were taken with the X100S, but please note that some are stitched panos and most of them are adjusted in photoshop to some degree.

The photo above is a two-shot stitch taken with the X100 28mm wide-angle conversion lens (the X100S has a fixed 35mm equivalent lens, and the 28mm conversion lens screws on top of that).

Fish Creek Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah
Hiking past one of the many attractive pools along Fish Creek Canyon. It’s best to camp the first night somewhere mid-canyon like here rather than continuing to the confluence which is drier and less photogenic.

My main purpose for purchasing the X100S was as a supplemental snapshot/action camera. My full frame Canon with tilt/shift lenses is definitely my go-to camera for serious landscape photography, but it’s nice to have a compact camera that I can carry on the chest strap of my backpack for shots while hiking, snowboarding, etc. For the last several years I’ve been using Panasonic GF1 and GX1 cameras with 20mm (40mm equivalent) pancake lens for this purpose. From what I read the X100S seems like a major upgrade in this department, with a similar focal length but with far superior resolution and high ISO capabilities (the achilles heel of the micro-4/3 cameras).

Owl Creek Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah, cottonwood, reflection

Sandstone Cottonwood : Prints Available

A cottonwood reflects in a pond in Owl Creek Canyon.

Despite my original intention of using the X100S solely as a supplemental action/snapshot camera, I wanted to give this camera the full test on this trip to see if it would be possible to use as primary system when I really want to travel fast and light.

Cedar Mesa, Utah, sandstone, reflections

Sandstone Reflections #2 : Prints Available

Like many photographers, when I’m interested in new camera gear I do lots of research – probably too much. Most reviewers of the Fujifilm X100S have been enamored with the camera, singing praises like “It brings the joy back to photography!” and “the X100S is the greatest camera I’ve ever owned.

My crash course experience with this camera in the field was not quite so rosy; in fact, I was repeatedly frustrated and had to refer to the owner’s manual to figure out how to do certain simple things. Granted part of this is just a steep learning curve for a new Fuji user, but I do think that the camera operations and menu systems are inherently quirky and unintuitive compared to other cameras I use. I often found myself having to take two or three steps to do things that should be accomplished in one. More on that below.

Owl Creek Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah, camping, stars, canyon

Canyon Camping : Prints Available

Camping under the stars in Owl Creek Canyon.

This photo is another two-shot stitch with the wide-angle conversion lens, each exposure at 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

After three days working with this camera, I have decided that I will be returning the wide-angle conversion lens. The main deal breaker is that when you put the conversion lens on, you’re supposed to change a camera setting that applies some image distortion correction to the image files. The lens is not automatically detected; you have to change this setting manually. To avoid diving into the menu system every time, I programmed the customizable Fn button to make this menu option more quickly accessible, but still it’s nearly impossible to always remember to switch this setting! Numerous times I accidentally shot a series of photos with the wide-angle lens on and the correction off, or vice versa. Just maddening. I can only imagine how many times this would happen when some killer shot (or series of shots) is marred by having the wrong lens correction setting.

Owl Creek Canyon pools
A couple of the inviting pour-off pools along Owl Creek Canyon. It’s so amazing to visit these little slices of paradise in the midst of the hot desert!

Both of the images above are two-shot vertical stitches put together in Autopano Pro; the one on the left with the standard/fixed 35mm lens, the one on the right with the add-on 28mm conversion lens. The 35mm lens seems to have very low distortion and makes for easy panorama stitching. The wide-angle conversion lens has quite a bit of distortion and about half my pano attempts with that lens failed.

Owl Creek Canyon, ruins, Cedar Mesa, Utah, ancient

Ancient Echos : Prints Available

No hike in Cedar Mesa would be complete without seeing some ancient ruins! These ruins are located under a large alcove in Owl Creek Canyon.

The photo above was another pano, this time a vertical stitch of three horizontal shots also taken with the 28mm conversion lens.

So far, I’ve griped a bit about the X100S’s menu operations and the wide-angle conversion lens, but there’s a whole lot of great things going for this camera.

FUJIFILM X100S: WHAT I LIKE

• Compact size with very high image-quality/weight ratio.

• Very impressive image resolution! The innovative X-Trans sensor technology delivers sharpness of detail greater that you’d expect from a 16 megapixel camera.

• Really good high ISO image quality. I can’t really tell any difference between ISO 200 or 800; even ISOs of 1000, 2000, or even higher are very clean and useable. Combined with the large f/2 maximum aperture, this is definitely a low-light shooter’s camera!

• Out of camera JPG files are very sharp – every bit as sharp as what can be produced from RAW files. This is quite rare in the camera world, and it is very very tempting to shoot all JPG with this camera!

• Fast 6 frame per second continuous shooting.

• Quick and reliable autofocus.

• Manual aperture ring, shutter speed dial, and exposure compensation dials make for easy manual exposure shooting.

• Short macro focus range of 10cm allows for close up framing options.

• Focus Peak Highlight feature is great for quick manual focussing. (Though magnified manual focussing is terrible, see below).

• Almost totally silent shutter noise could be advantageous in certain situations.

• The camera uses the same NP-95 batteries that Fujifilm has been using for years. That means the extra batteries I had from my ancient Fujifilm F30 camera still work with the X100S. Very cool.

FUJIFILM X100S: WHAT I DON’T LIKE

• Magnified manual focussing is flawed. When you need to zoom in to check focus on certain parts of the image, you cannot simply move around the image while zoomed in; you have to press the AF button, change the focus point selector, then zoom in again. So dumb.

• The camera resets the Timer setting every time you turn it off. This means that if you’re shooting on a tripod with the 2 second timer to reduce camera shake, you have to reselect the 2 second timer from the Q menu every single time you turn the camera on. Again, dumb.

• The three programmable custom settings are too limited in what they can remember. For example they don’t remember the Drive mode, Timer setting, or Wide-angle conversion correction setting – all of which would have been the most useful to me for the custom settings.

• The Wide-angle conversion lens image correction setting must be selected manually and it’s easy to forget to switch it on, or to switch it off after removing the lens – which can result in many ruined images.

• Playback options are too limited. For example, I always set my cameras to show the blinking blown highlights, but with the X100S you can only view those on the histogram display screen, where the image is super tiny. Pretty useless.

• Continuous Drive shooting mode generates different filenames than Single-shot mode, with a convoluted numbering system that jumbles up the file sequences when viewing the images on the computer.

If you’re an optimist, the bright side is that all of the bad things I just listed are firmware-related issues that could potentially be solved by future firmware updates.

FUJIFILM X100S: TIPS

• The Lowepro Apex 60 AW is a perfect size pouch for the X100S.

• The tripod screw thread is located right next to the battery door, which is kind of a poor design since most quick release plates will then block the battery door. However, Hejnar Photo’s 1.25 inch plate with ridge, model D20 is a perfect quick release plate for the Fujifilm X100S – small and minimal, allowing access to the battery door.

• They ship this camera with a battery charger that has an enormously long thick power cord which is bigger than the camera itself. Why do so many camera manufactures do this?! Anyhow, a hack for this is to replace the power cord with an Apple power adaptor plug, which fits perfectly and is far more compact for traveling. You can pick these up on eBay for a couple bucks.

FUJIFILM X100S: IN A NUTSHELL

Fujifilm X100S full res image sample
Fujifilm X100S full res image sample – click to view larger (6.8 mb). Shot as a JPG at f/8, 1/180 sec, ISO 400.

My three day trial by fire of the Fujifilm X100S gave me a clear perspective on this camera and where it will fit in my photography pursuits. I had some small hope that this camera could be a viable option as a streamlined standalone camera system for fast and light backpacking trips. But, I have concluded that this is not feasible due to the inherent limitation of a fixed 35mm lens, the usability issues with the 28mm conversion lens, and the flawed manual focus operation and other frustrating operational quirks.

I should mention that most of those operational quirks are mainly relevant to tripod work, something that I will normally be doing with my Canon SLR setup anyways. For what I bought the X100S for – as a supplemental compact, handheld, autofocus, snapshot/action/street camera – this camera will do its job and will do it very well, with its superb image quality and high ISO performance. And for this type of photography, I’ve found that in some ways having a fixed focal length is liberating in that once I’ve grow accustomed to it, I’m able to visualize and frame shots faster than with a zoom lens. When I absolutely need a wider angle of view, I can take two or three photos to stitch together later.

I would not recommend the 28mm wide-angle conversion lens for the X100S, mainly because of the annoying lens correction setting issue that I described above, but also because one of the main advantages of the X100S is its compact size, and once you add the conversion lens you’ve got a bigger camera necessitating a bigger pouch. If you’re looking for a similar do-it-all camera system, consider the Fujifilm X-E1 instead, which is a small interchangeable lens camera.

All in all I’m stoked on the Fujifilm X100S – it’s not a do-it-all camera but it’s a real upgrade from the Panasonic GX1 that it’s replacing, and I look forward to sharing many more photos from it over the next years.

20 thoughts on “Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S

  1. Ah, if only I could get away for such trips! Really beautiful.

    If you plan to shoot only or primarily 28mm then take a look at the Ricoh GR )also has a 21mm adapter) or Nikon A. Both smaller and lighter than the X100s. The usability issues with using the 28mm adapter on the X100 were a huge annoyance for me too! I always forgot the setting switch.

    1. Thanks Andrew! I used to shoot a Ricoh GX100 as my compact camera, and LOVED that camera – talk about an intuitive fit-like-a-glove interface. Though the image quality is of course archaic for today’s standards.

      I briefly considered the Ricoh and Nikon options, but actually prefer the 35mm fixed length to 28mm. Most of the photos I’ll be using this camera for will be for hiking or snowboarding, and I think 35mm is just right for those purposes most of the time. Not too tight, but not too wide either. If this were primarily for landscapes then I would prefer the 28mm or even a 24mm.

      1. Hi Andrew, I’ve got to follow up here and retract my comments… I went ahead and bought a Ricoh GR recently and LOVE it and the 28mm length. On a recent 7-day trek in the Alps I was so grateful to have the wider angle. Also, the Ricoh’s firmware is light years ahead of the Fujifilm’s. Just an all around better, more thought out camera. I wrote a little bit more about it at the end of this post: http://www.mountainphotographer.com/allgauer-alps/

  2. Gems! Some of those images are gems! The tent shot is one of your best (ever think about an all tent shot post?) and ancient echos, and sandstone cottonwood are really beautiful. Reading through your comments and outstanding review, I was thinking the weight and results must be simply amazing for you to keep this camera in your bag. Thanks for doing, and sharing the research. I think I’ll wait for my holy grail point and shoot.

  3. After carting around an SLR for 20 years on hiking trips, I bought a Panasonic GF1 a few years back and am now converted to the smaller format. Will probably get the Panasonic GX2 when it is released but am always interested in finding out other peoples experiences with cameras, so thanks. I’m surprised how little user testing the camera companies do, otherwise they would pick up the user design problems.

    1. Hi Ken, yes it sure was a luxury to carry a light backpack on this trip, without the 10 lbs of SLR gear. I’m realizing that the older I get, the lower my too-much-weight threshold for backpacking becomes. I’ll still be hauling around my SLR gear for the foreseeable future, but it’s probably just a matter of time before I switch to a fully mirrorless system for good.

      I feel like perhaps the last thing this world needs is another camera review, but these thoughts were freshly bouncing around in my head so I figured I’d put them out there. I’m glad you appreciated it!

  4. Hi Jack,
    Glad you liked your X100s. I loved my x100 in a recent trip to el Chalten. Used it like a back up camera for my 4×5 loaded with BW stuff. Did several night shots.
    Liked it so much actually that wrote a minireview (in spanish) for a local photoforum (with quite a few samples :)):
    http://www.digireflex.net/threads/61238-Paisajear-con-una-Fujifilm-x100-(microgu%C3%ADa-y-microreview-personal).?p=740541&viewfull=1#post740541

    Ahh and great photos as usual!

    1. Sweet photos, Nicolas! I’m excited to keep shooting the x100s and take it into the mountains! Hopefully back down to Patagonia as well someday in the not too distant future.

      Hope all is well down there,
      Jack

  5. Great write up on the Fuji! I am just starting to look into backpacking with my SLR and I’ve entertained the Fuji or Olympus OMD as lighter alternatives. What backpack do you use when carrying your SLR when backpacking?

  6. perhaps you could tape a ‘note to self’ on the wide angle lense to help you remember to adjust camera settings…and read instruction booklet
    This is a great camera and I like the fact that it lets me be in control…this is a plus for people who are smarter than the camera

    1. Ha! Now THAT was a good dig. Touché! 🙂

      Wideangle converter already sent back to the store. This camera might indeed be smarter than me… but it’s still got its dumb moments, as mentioned above. My gripes, in fact, were/are mostly about the things that are difficult or impossible to control.

      Anyhow, I do think it’s a great camera too. Just not as perfect as it could be with some firmware improvements.

      1. Hehe 😉

        Jack, it is great posts like yours that Fuji will take note of when designing the next firmware update or next camera. They listen to their customers…I like that. The improvements on this camera from the original x100 is a proof of this.

        I am excited to see the x200 (or whatever they will call it). I can imagine this next camera with fixed 50mm equivalent being offered along side this 35mm…perhaps even a 24mm!

        I also expect the xPro2 to have a full frame sensor!

        Yet at the moment I can only wish in one hand and take pics with the existing fujis in the other.

  7. Thanks for your write up! It was very informative, especially the tips! I have an Apple power adaptor plug sitting around and one of the things that I did not like is that the battery charger had that lame cord. I am not ready for my trip next month! Thanks!!!

  8. Cedar Mesa is one of my favorite places; I have many fond memories of backpacking there, and I hope to get back this spring for a short backpacking trip.

    I can appreciate the need/desire for a smaller-than-dSLR camera for these sorts of trips. I’ve been using a Canon G12 for several years now, mostly for canyoneering trips and other related activities when I still want to be able to shoot in RAW, but the ability to bring full photo gear just isn’t feasible.

    Cheers,
    Greg Russell

  9. Loved your photos and comments; I’m planning a trip to Cedar Mesa next week. I’m curious about all the lights on the horizon in your photo of sitting around the campfire. Is there really that much civilization around there? I’ve been studying maps lately and I can’t figure out where all those light sources could be.

    1. Hi Bill, thanks for your compliment! I am not absolutely certain, but I believe all those lights are from drilling pads, probably mostly natural gas. It’s a bit scary the amount of “development” happening in such remote wild areas nowadays.

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