Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Parts Undefined (The X100s Keeps Getting Better)

The rapidly approaching spring will take me to a couple of destinations in which being an American is more of an impediment than an advantage. Adding to the complication of nationality, I'll be working as a street photographer. The prospect of a range of difficulties (from censorship to incarceration) has gotten me to evaluate my equipment in a very objective and serious way. (And, for obvious reasons, I've chosen not to disclose those locations yet.)

I always try to shoot light. I prefer to work with only one camera and one lens out at a time. Previsualization is easier, which means making the image is faster and more discrete. For the majority of my street work, this means using a Leica M6 with a 35mm (or sometimes a 50mm) for film, and  the Fuji X100s for digital.**

However, the street is the street, and one never knows what one will encounter. Because the Leica and Fuji gear is so small, I usually carry options on my shoulder. For film, I have a second Leica M6 with a different ISO film. For digital, I carry a Fuji X-E1 with 8mm (reviewed here) and 14mm (reviewed here) primes, and the XF 18-55mm zoom. When needed, I'll also carry the XF 50-200mm zoom. As small as this equipment is, however, it still requires a bag. And for my Spring travels to parts undefined, having a bag will make me stand out more than I'd like.

Standard travel fare. Passport not included.
As much as I like having the flexibility to adapt to different situations with different optics, there is something to be said for the discipline of one camera and a couple of lenses small enough to fit in one's jacket pockets.

If the only criteria was a single camera and a couple of small lenses, the Leica would be the obvious answer. But for my upcoming travels, I'll likely be shooting digital exclusively—which means the Fujis. Between the X100s and the X-E1 with a single prime, I would opt for the X100s.

I've written glowingly about the X100s in past posts, and how it might possibly be the ultimate achromatic camera. (I'm waiting on other manufacturers to pick up the gauntlet and send me review hardware to dispute my findings. No takers yet!) To recap:
  • The X100s has a form factor that's better than the Leica, being slightly smaller and lighter. 
  • It has a leaf shutter which is all but silent. (The X-E1 is quiet, but not silent.)
  • It has a fixed 35mm lens, which is an excellent focal length for more than half of all the images I make.
  • It has excellent macro capability.
  • It has an f/2 lens with an aperture ring. (Faster than any of the Fuji primes I have.)
  • The APS-C sized 16M X-Trans CMOS II Sensor produces incredibly sharp and detailed images because Fuji eliminated the optical low-pass filter by using a random-patterned color filer array.
  • It has both a rangefinder and an EVF.
  • The EVF can be set to display achromatically. 
  • The camera has a built-in neutral density filter.
  • When shooting achromatic jpegs, you can select Yellow, Red, or Green filter simulations.
  • ISO up 25600 means you can shoot in the dark.
  • In addition to the lens's aperture ring, the X100s has a shutter speed dial and an exposure compensation dial, eliminating the need to use menus during shooting.
These are fantastic features, and I depend upon them all every time I use the X100s. But the Achilles' Heel of the X100s is the fixed lens. It's an outstanding bit of optics, and it works very well for me on the open street. Inside a home, or spending time with others at a table, however, and that 35mm is too tight. In situations where discretion is needed, the 35mm is too wide.

This depressing state of affairs had me worried. With the luxury of shooting mostly in countries where photography is not an issue, I've endeavored not to overlap my equipment. The lenses for the X-E1 are great for what they are, but only because I have the X100s to fill in the hugely important gap of an f/2 wide, which I use more than half the time. Buying a duplicate prime would be a waste of resources, and I'd also miss some of the X100s unique features, like its silence. I also prefer the X100s' button layout, and the option of the macro capability would be a huge loss that wouldn't be addressed with Fuji's XF 23mm.

But then, like an epiphany, I remembered that Fuji had made two remarkable pieces of glass that just might solve all my problems: the engineer-named WCL-X100 and the TCL-X100. The WCL is a Wide Conversion Lens, and the TCL is a Tele Conversion Lens. What they do is give the X100s a 28mm and a 50mm lens, respectively.

The WCL on the X100s. The TCL on hand. I opted for black, but they make them in silver, too.
These are not "lenses" in the normal camera kit sense: there is no aperture ring, focus ring, or electronic coupling. There is no aperture inside the lens, and no focusing motor. Instead, these are precision optics. Screw-mounted to the the X100s' built in lens, these optics only add new glass in front. This means that all of the X100s' features remain just as they were, including that very important f/2. And because they don't have aperture blades, electronics, or motors, they're all substantially less expensive than their equivalent primes.

These optics are offered in both silver and black. Over my years as a newspaper photographer, I became very skeptical of the sales pitch around black versus silver bodies. Through various batches of Canon and Nikon gear in both silver and black, I never noticed that subjects were more aware of one over the other. I think what subjects notice is that you're suddenly lifting something to your eye and distorting your body position—the camera color is rather irrelevant. (The only exception to this is the absurd white Canon lenses. But those are garish so that a photographer standing on the sidelines might not get run over by a football player.)

I generally pick color for a purpose: for example, the black Leica has day film in it, and the silver Leica has night film in it. Lenses I buy in black because I think they look prettier when they wear. And so both my WCL and TCL are black rather than silver.

In the hand, the camera feels good with either of these optics attached. They're both made out of metal and glass and have a reassuringly substantial heft. But the taper falls in a good place in the hand, making them easy to hold. Screwed on, they feel very secure. Shooting with them is a breeze.

The TCL is tack sharp.
The bokeh at f/2 is enhanced with the TCL.
TCL, from a RAW. The sharpness and contrast look just as good with the TCL as without it.
I've seen no practical difference in the quality of images with either the TCL or the WCL.
What you lose is automatic EXIF data, if that matters to you. I rarely, if ever, refer to EXIF data, so I don't care. But if it's a consideration for you, then know that there isn't any EXIF data for the TCL, and the focal length shows as EXIF for the WCL only when the WCL setting in the menus is toggled on. Of course, you can always add the EXIF data when you import the images.

Fuji glass is great, but it's not Leica. Accordingly, there is some distortion with the 28mm. Fuji addresses that two ways: 1) for in-camera JPEGs, there is a "Wide Conversion Lens" setting which will "correct" the image before saving it to the card. 2) There is a Lightroom lens profile that will "correct" an image edited from RAW. Because I use the X100s as the Fuji Monochrom, I assigned the Fn button to the Wide Conversion Lens setting for those times when I might care about distortion (which is more apparent in vertical pictures than horizontal ones). As a general rule, though, I don't find wide angle distortion a problem, and would prefer to let the lens have the character it does.

Pancake time was a good time for practical testing in challenging light.
This image was shot with the WCL, and is a straight jpeg, uncorrected.
WCL, jpeg corrected in camera. There is still distortion.
But in this case I shot low for effect, so the distortion doesn't trouble me since it enhances the perspective a bit.
WCL, uncorrected from a RAW file. 
Fuji says that the macro capabilities are unaffected by the lenses. In my sophisticated testing of shooting pictures of a Mac keyboard, I found that I could get a bit closer with the TCL than without it. But, there is noticeable distortion with the TCL when used at macro distances. This is more a curiosity than a practical issue, since spinning the lens off is not a problem. For most purposes I can imagine, it really won't make a difference anyway: the X100s is a camera, not a copy stand.

Macro, with the fixed lens.

Macro with the TCL has noticeable distortion, but also gets in a bit closer.
The images included in this post were to test what I care about: how the optics work in real-world applications, and if the images are as sharp as I get without them. In practice, switching the optics is inconsequential. Screwing them on is slightly different than the click and turn of a regular lens, and may take a second longer, but when I'm switching lenses I'm in a transition frame of mind anyway, so it doesn't feel too much different. With an optic in a designated pocket, though, it's actually faster because I don't have to locate the lens in my bag and make sure it's the correct one.

I find the 28/35/50 to be the holy trinity of my previsualization, so this set up has made the X100s even better than it was. The WCL and TCL can't replace the X-E1's ability to handle the ultra-wide and the long, but they expand the flexibility of the X100s so much that I feel confident I'll be able to carry a single camera and no bag. Time will tell, and assuming I don't get incarcerated abroad, I'll continue to update this post!


**Fuji's line of X100 cameras includes the X100, X100s, and X100t. Other than technical changes with the sensor in the later models, this article applies to them all.