Back in May, I rented the Leica X2, Fujifilm Finepix X100S, and Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens (the latter mounted on my Olympus OM-D E-M5) sequentially, to determine whether any of these cameras (or camera + lens) could solve a problem that I (imaged that I) had. It turned out to just be a case of G.A.S., though.
I'm quite happy with my OM-D and the lenses that I have for it: except for a high quality normal zoom, my current kit pretty much covers my photographic wants and needs. I have thought that my OM-D kit falls down in one way: I feel like it's just too big to be an everyday, carry everywhere camera, even with the not very large Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 mounted.
I noticed this problem most glaringly at a wedding in April: the OM-D + 25mm was rather cumbersome for the occasion. I'm happy that I had it with me, though, because I made some great images of my niece that I otherwise wouldn't have made, but the combo definitely wasn't an ideal companion that day.
I had time to think on it during the long drive back to the Bay from Orange County. I noticed that a few common threads connect such situations where the OM-D is less than ideal to have with me: I'm not in photographer mode, so I don't want to be encumbered by a relatively big camera, but I still want to be able to create a great image if the situation presents itself. These situations tend to be lower light situations, such as at museums or weddings, or when out for dinner, or they're situations where having as little bulk as possible is a benefit, such as when I'm just out with my wife and/or friends, or am out on a hike and I'd rather have my pack full of food, layers, and water instead of camera gear.
So given the above, what attributes would satisfy my needs?
- A compact/slim enough total package to be able to go everywhere with me. It wouldn't necessarily need to be pants pocketable, but jacket pocketable would be great. At the largest, it would have to be able to be tucked out of the way and not be cumbersome.
- A camera capable of producing great images with tonal range, tonal smoothness, colors, and detail (collectively, image quality) that appeal to me.
- A camera with enough low light capability (in terms of higher ISO ability and focus acquisition speed and ability) to perform well in the aforementioned situations.
- An enjoyable shooting/handling experience: if I don't like using the camera, I won't.
- Images that are easy and fast to edit. I don't particularly enjoy post processing. I want to be able to get what I want out of the image with minimal fuss and bother.
I theoretically had a solution to this problem until I sold it in April: the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. The 20mm + OM-D is a fairly small and demure package. Despite the 20mm's many good qualities, though, I never connected with it, even after using it extensively over almost three years on both my E-P1 and OM-D. The image quality just didn't particularly appeal to me. It wasn't bad, just not the tonality, focus fall off, or rendering that really appealed to me. Most importantly, the focal length was always just a little odd to me - either too wide or not tight enough - and it focused rather slowly in lower light. It pretty much fell apart on most of my requirements.
The 20mm suited me so poorly that I used the 20mm exactly once in the six months after I bought my 25mm. That single time was when I set out to see if I'd really miss the 20mm if I sold it. Except for the size, the answer was a resounding no, and I passed the 20mm on to a more appreciative home.
Alternatively, my Canon S95 could suffice. It's a solid compact, small sensor camera, and it is pants pocketable. The second and third requirements make it falter, though. Some recent 8x10" prints that I had made of S95-captured photos were very disappointing, even at base ISO: they lacked in detail, demonstrated a limited tonal range, and tonal transitions were quite abrupt. At higher ISO's, images are grainy, and low light focusing isn't great. Images also exhibits a weird ghostly glowing flare when slightly over exposed in low light that, while can be a cool effect at times, can also ruin an image. I have no doubt that I wouldn't have been able to capture most of my favorite images from that aforementioned wedding, had i carried the S95 instead of the OM-D.
So something new then? Hm....
Narrowing The Options
For this exercise, I had a trade-off to weigh: zoom-equipped, small sensor cameras or fixed focal length, large sensor cameras. The trade-off is better quality images of what I do capture versus being able to capture a wider range of images.
Comparing everything in both categories in one go would take forever, so I ruled out all compact zoomers. Based on my perusal of professional reviews, the state of compact zoom-equiped cameras hadn't progressed all that far in the three years since my S95 came out, so it didn't seem particularly worthwhile to spend time and money on a marginal upgrade.
The concept of the fixed focal length, large sensor camera has captivated photography gear heads as of late, though, so I too was of course intrigued. I narrowed my options for this test down to the Fuji X100S and the Leica X2. The X100S is a starlet right now, with glowing reviews from every corner, and back orders for months. The Leica X2 is rather unloved in comparison, perhaps for good reason. It lists for $2,000 compared to $1,300 for the Fuji and lacks a lot of features, like a built in viewfinder or video mode. A used model can be had for about the same as a new X100S, however, so it's not that much different a financial decision (used X100S's are fairly rare).
I did rule out the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR. While the reviews of both are quite positive, and they both have a sweet size - on the edge of pocketable - the angle of view is really wide. If I'm going to be locked to a single focal length, something a bit narrower made a bit more sense to me.
I did throw one wild card in the mix. Given that I'm looking at two cameras with a fairly similar focal length, why not also compare them against my OM-D with the Olympus 17mm f/1.8, which provides a similar angle of view? Since I already have the camera body, it would be the economical option (assuming that a $500 lens can be called economical). All three cameras will then have a roughly equivalent field of view of 63 degrees. The big question with that lens, though, is whether it makes the OM-D too big a package for what I want. I don't think the 20mm pancake and the OM-D was too big, but the 17mm is just that much bigger. Is it too big for what I want? We'll see. We'll also see if this interest in a new bit of kit is nothing more than Gear Acquisition Syndrome, too.
I rented each item (X2, X100S, and 17mm lens) sequentially, so they weren't compared head-to-head. I need a good amount of dedicated time to get to know a camera (or lens), and I couldn't justify renting each piece for more than a week at a time. So, no, it's not a scientific test, but that's okay: this whole test is about my subjective needs and likes anyway and how it fulfills my requirements.
I took each piece of equipment with me during its week long rental, and used it as my primary camera to see how it works as my primary camera and how well it fulfills the specific role I think I need filled.
A couple things of note.
First - as opposed to just about every other review of the X2, X100S, or Olympus 17mm f/1.8 - I did no street shooting in this review. I'm not interested in the genre, so I don't do it. Landscapes, cityscapes, and candids and portraits of friends and family interest me, and that's what I shoot. If you want to know which of these options are the best for street shooting, more qualified people than me can give you that answer. All I can answer is what I think is best for me.
Second, all images have seen some processing in Lightroom, unless specifically noted. What's important to me is whether I can get images I like out of the camera, and every keeper I take sees post processing adjustment. Straight out of camera is only relevant to the extent that it's as close to what I want in the end, and how little adjustment I need to do is a criteria, as mentioned before.
Third, I'm assuming you have at least a passing familiarity with the three products. Spec sheet rundowns and product shots exist elsewhere on the web.
Proponents of the Leica X2 argue that it is classical and harkens back to glory days of film. Well, yes - it operates and feels as primitive technologically as something from the film days. After a week of use, including a solid weekend with it constantly in my hands, I still hated using it. I don't get the ergonomics of the camera at all.
The camera features four dials: Independent physical shutter speed and aperture dials, a dial that's dedicated to manual focus when the camera is in that mode (and doubles as a thumb rest), and a wheel around the four way selector. Looking at images of the camera, I imagined that the surfeit of dials would enable nigh instant settings adjustments.
Nope. Leica saw fit to make all of those wheels controlled by the left thumb. It's simply too many controls for a single finger to adjust quickly, especially when their spacing requires constant grip-shifting. Independent dials for everything is a great idea, but the execution is poor.
Leica should have copied Fuji and moved the aperture and focus controls to lens rings. One hand would then be responsible for adjusting shutter and exposure compensation (and ISO when needed), while the other can adjust aperture and/or focus. The camera would be so much faster and intuitive to operate. As is, the ring out the lens is just there to be protective of the lens mechanism and provide an attachment point for the non-integrated lens cap (boo!); a not particularly well thought out design.
Size-wise, though, it's sweet. It fits in most jacket pockets and can be tucked under an arm and not be noticed at all. It takes up hardly any room in a hiking pack. I had the camera with me when I went to Point Reyes National Seashore, and I had no problem stuffing it in the hand pocket of my jacket. The camera simply fits well in hand when not taking a photo. It's perfectly unobtrusive; Leica should be commended for that.
Seeing how I found the camera difficult to adjust, I usually left the camera in auto and let it drive. The camera makes good decisions on exposure in good light, so letting it drive is fine, but I did need to make exposure adjustments when the light faded.
Most problematic: I couldn't figure out how to way to move the focus box around. Ugh. The four way pad looks perfect for that, but I didn't see a way to make it work. The camera has very few menu options, so I don't think I missed anything, but it's possible that I did.
The live view functionality is a mess. The live view shows an optimized view of the scene, not an approximation of how the camera would record the scene under current settings. It's fine when the camera is fully driving and under good light, but you don't know you need to adjust exposure compensation until you half press the shutter button and the camera takes an official exposure reading. This implementation of live view is poor. I want the camera to show me what it would record so that I can change exposure before locking in my composition and focus. Otherwise, I have to take an exposure reading, adjust, take another reading, adjust, etc. The OM-D has a much more sensible way of going about it: it constantly adjusts the live view to give an approximation of exposure under current settings (including exposure compensation), so I can make adjustments and see the results in real time and before touching the shutter. When live view is the only way to compose, such an implementation is critical.
Live view in low light is even more atrocious. It becomes really choppy, and the image freezes momentarily while trying to acquire focus. Not good at all.
The buttons here are terrible. They are clicky and cheap feeling: absolutely inexcusable for a $2,000 camera that's marketed as a luxury item.
The screen is on the small size, but couldn't be any bigger without making the camera correspondingly larger. It's not a panel that'll wow anyone, and its flaws are more software based with the poor live view execution than anything particularly wrong with the LCD itself. It's fine for a viewfinder and quick exposure review.
Focusing is two-generations-old slow. In good light it's tolerable, unless you're trying to capture fast moving action. Good luck with that. In lower light - i.e, a restaurant in the evening - it's abysmal. I'm pretty certain that my old Olympus PEN E-P1 focuses faster. Leica really ought to be ashamed at the performance.
What makes the autofocus performance even worse is the bad manual focus implementation. Tuning focus with a little dial isn't intuitive, and the dial takes many turns to get from close focus distance to infinity.
The menu interface is also aged. It's rudimentary and overly simplistic. The camera has (cheap feeling) buttons for most functions, obviating the need for a quick menu, though. That's fortunate, because the quick menu would probably be horrible, given the rest of the interface. Also, Leica doesn't allow for just RAW file capture, only RAW+JPG. I'm utterly baffled by that; it effectively reduces the amount of images I can capture on a single card by 20-30%.
But once I popped the memory card into my computer and took a look at the photos … almost all was forgiven. Image quality is very appealing, especially at low ISO. Images have rich color, great tonality, accurate exposure, smooth tonal transitions, and solid highlight/shadow recoverability. I needed all of 20 seconds to get this image adjusted how I wanted:
Wow. I was absolutely stunned when I saw that on my screen, given how poor my experience with the camera had been to that point. X2 colors just pop. Here's another example:
Again, I needed minimal processing time to get the image to look like that.
But what about for a less saturated scene? The X2 shines there as well.
Tones are spot on, microcontrast of tones are very nice, allowing me to make out the fine gradations between coast and water and sky very well, and the weathered pier post looks great. Very nice. The lens shows negligible distortion. Great job there.
At higher ISO's, things get grainy, though. They aren't awful, but definitely not on the same level as the OM-D:
The X2 isn't just good for landscapes; people look great, as well.
Depth of field control is quite good too, even though the maximum aperture is "just" f/2.8. The ginger ale bottle and table number are only a few inches apart in the following photos, but even at f/2.8, each is practically obliterated when the camera is focused on the other.
If the X2's image quality has a flaw, though, it's resolution. Images just don't seem as detailed as they ought to be, given that it's an 16MP APS-C sensor. Check out these two images of the same Queen Anne's Lace, one taken with my S95, the other taken with the X2 (click to enbiggen).
The photo on the left is from the X2 - the dead giveaway is the depth of field: the S95's depth of field goes forever, while the X2's is well controlled. Even so, the flower itself is pretty close, tight? I should note that the only post processing was some white balancing
Here are a couple 100% crops as well, X2 on the left, S95 on the right:
Again, pretty close, right? By all rights, the X2 should blow the S95 out of the water ... but it simply doesn't. I didn't do similar comparisons with the other two cameras, but I have compared S95 images in the past against my OM-D, and there's no comparison. It's odd and disappointing to see such similar results with the X2.
Summing up the X2 experience, I didn't like it. While the size is great and the images are very pleasing - apart from just satisfactory high ISO results and a troubling lack of detail advantage over a 3 year old point and shoot - the handling is just atrocious. The camera fails the enjoyment criteria completely, and the low light focusing issues are bad enough that I'd say it's almost unusable in all but good light. I was really rooting for the Leica here, but was ultimately quite disappointed.
My response to the Fuji X100S is mostly polar opposite to the X2. It handles beautifully (though has low light focusing issues), is quite flashy, allows very quick setting adjustment, but I just don't care for the results it produces.
Ergonomically, the X100S is super logical: rings around the lens for aperture and focus, and dials for exposure compensation and shutter speed. The camera also has a ring around the four way pad, that's not used for much, but is nice to have when needed. Leica - you should have taken note when the X100 came out and learned from Fuji on how to make a camera with good controls.
It's a very good looking camera, but it is quite ostentatious. I received more comments on it from non-camera folk in the few days that I had it than in the year-plus that I've had the OM-D. Between the retro looks and shiny silver body, it's, well, rather shouty. Film cameras are an anachronism nowadays, and a camera that looks like one will be a conversation piece. Until the black version inevitably comes out, be prepared for a lot of comments if you choose to acquire one.
The camera isn't all that demure though. Having an integrated viewfinder means that it's not pocketable at all. While it is smaller than an OM-D, it also has a much smaller LCD - about the same size as the Leica. The OM-D's LCD is articulated, big, and beautiful (and touch sensitive), necessitating the viewfinder hump. The X100S is small enough to tuck under my arm, but I'd need some sort of bag/case to put it away, while the X2 can fit in mostly any jacket pocket. It is still small enough to fit into a backpack without worry (well, almost without worry; I'll get to that later). The X100S' size isn't a flaw, though - it's a reality of the compromises needed to make a functional digital camera with both a decent sized LCD and an integrated viewfinder.
If the exterior camera design has a flaw, it's the non-integrated lens cap. It's a very nice lens cap, with microfiber, but still - if Fuji could have integrated the lens cap into the body, the camera would be nigh physically perfect.
The camera also has a good quick menu for adjusting everything else (i.e., ISO, white balance, recording format, etc.). It's not quite as good as the E-M5's Super Control Panel, but it's good enough. The only parameter that's a bit clunky is that I have to press up on the four way pad first before moving the focus selection box. At least it's easy to figure out how to the focus point (unlike the X2), but I'd prefer an option that let m have direct access to focus point, which the OM-D allows. The functions that are assigned to the other directions on the four way pad could just as easily live in the quick menu.
Speaking of viewfinders - the X100S' is the camera's selling point for good reason. In electronic viewfinder mode, it's not quite as good as the OM-D's as far as refresh rate, but it's solid. It has a great info display, showing as much or as little info as is desired, including a histogram or virtual horizon. The optical viewfinder is neat, with all sorts of info. The ability to instantly switch between the two is great. One thing to notice: some modes, like macro mode, won't allow OVF operation. I thought the camera was malfunctioning until I realized this. It's a feature, not a bug, but it's just something to be aware of.
I prefer an EVF to an OVF, though, especially on the Fuji, since Fuji's OVF doesn't see through the lens, making the view off from what'll be recorded. Someone who owns the camera will learn to compose and frame properly with the OVF though. More importantly, though, the EVF allows for more focus points to be selected than OVF operation does, and it can show a lot more info. I prefer to see what the camera is going to record, so I can accurately make white balance and exposure adjustments (yes, I know you can adjust white balance in post, but I try to nail as much as possible in camera so I don't have to be in Lightroom any more than I have to). The OVF does better in low light relative to the EVF, however, since the X100S' live view starts to suffer when light levels drop.
And suffer it does in low light. The refresh rate gets choppy, and the image freezes momentarily when it acquires focus. Not good.
Even worse, the AF speed suffers in low light much worse than I would have thought, given the hype around the hybrid contract detect/phase detect autofocus that the camera has. In good light, it's marginally slower than the OM-D; it's not enough of a gap to matter, though. In low light, it's mediocre at best; maybe a bit better than the original Olympus PEN E-P1 with the 20mm?
The camera also missed focus a good amount more than I ever have with my OM-D, or with the X2. On the photo below, I had it on center focus, yet it completely missed, getting just about everything else in focus, and not the subject
The Fuji also exhibits one more pet peeve of mine: it doesn't totally simulate exposure until the shutter is half pressed. The E-M5 does a much better job of simulating exposure in live view, and I'm rather spoiled by that. It means I get the shot much faster.
Image quality is where the Fuji truly falls down for me. It's not bad, but it is very different than what I look for, and it isn't all that detailed (as I'll show below). Images seem muddier straight out of camera and colors just don't seem quite right, especially under artificial light.
I spent way too much time editing this photo, and I still don't like it. The colors are accurate, but it's just not pleasant to me. Skin tones are just hard to get right as well. Perhaps that's the X-Trans sensor at work. Most user reviews I read said to just leave it in JPG and skip RAW, and I can see why. I needed to work a lot harder to get an image that I like out of it. Others really like how the images look, though, so horses for courses.
Higher ISO is pretty good; the camera can go to ISO 3200 without worrying about noise, and it's fine at ISO 6400 at web resolutions.
For black and white images, though, the camera is great, full stop. The color issues disappear, and the X100S produces smooth, pleasing monochrome images that are easy to edit.
On the plus side of optical performance, the X100S can focus very close up, which is great.
That statue is only 10 inches or so tall, so you can see how close the camera can get to a subject.
In macro mode, the camera can achieve very narrow depth of field. That hand is maybe an inch in front of the face of the statue, yet it's already blurred. The spines of the books, which are roughly 7-9 inches behind the statue, have no hope of being legible at f/2.0. If you're a shallow depth of field freak, you'll be happy. But again, I just don't like the colors in this image
The distortion that the camera produces is really troubling, however, and is enough that it's a deal breaker for me.
This image is illustrative. both the buildings on the left are canted towards the middle, as is the tower on the right. I couldn't figure out how to get everything straight. I downloaded Lightroom lens profiles, too, which helped, but this is as close as I could get to good. That's just not acceptable to me. The X100S is a very tightly integrated lens-sensor-software system, and features a wide-normal angle of view. Making a distortion free system, whether in lens design or in software, shouldn't be difficult here. Neither the X2 or the 17mm suffered from this much distortion.
All in all, the Fuji X100S is simply let down by its image quality. As enjoyable as it is to shoot with (in moderate to good light, at least), Its images just doesn't have the vibrancy or pop that the X2 or OM-D images have.
One final note, and about being able to throw the X100S in a bag and go: be careful with it, because I'm not sure it can handle much jostling, even when properly protected. My rental period was cut short by a broken LCD panel. I'm not sure how it happened - I took the X100S out of my camera bag, and the LCD had an internal breakage; it had no visible exterior damage, scrapes, or dings. My rental house absolved me of liability - their investigation found that the damage was caused by internal pressure. I bought the damage insurance, but it was still reassuring to know that I didn't do anything to harm the piece. From my online research, it seems broken LCD's on the camera aren't that rare. The panel just might be fragile, or might be under some internal stress that makes it prone to breaking. Just something to know.
Olympus 17mm f/1.8
Now, what about the 17mm metal lens on the OM-D?
I'm happy with the OM-D's handling, especially after setting it up properly, so I don't need to go over those issues here. So I'll dive into what i like and don't like about the lens itself.
Though I can imagine why people would still get the silver finished lens, since it's eye-catching in silver. It's a properly good looking bit of glass and metal. if stealth is a goal, wait for the black versionI, of course.
My fear about it being just that much bigger than the 20mm pancake were well founded. It makes the OM-D into a quite a decent bit bigger, snub-nosed package, and definitely the biggest of the three options presented here. It's still small enough to tuck under my arm, though.
Performance-wise, the 17mm is a good lens. It focuses super fast, like all Olympus lenses do. The snap focus functionality is pretty cool for when you want to manually focus. It's implementation is only halfway, though: when the ring gets pulled back, the camera should know that it's been switched to manual focus and bring up the magnification box when manually focusing via snap focus. Olympus needs to issue a firmware update to make that happen.
The 17mm's image quality is very good. I really like the images the OM-D and it put out. Well detailed, with good skin tones, and smooth enough out of focus bits when opened up.
In both of the above images, colors are spot on, and the rendering and tonality are very pleasing. It's not quite as pleasing as the X2's images, but it's very good, and far more pleasing to my eye than anything the X100S can put out. I am very happy with how the lens performs.
I also set up a 'studio' scene to test the 17mm against the X100S for detail and depth of field control. I should have done the same for the X2, but I didn't think of it when I had the X2, and I think the Queen Anne's Lace photos give a good idea about depth of field control and detail from that camera.
I took two images with each camera - one focused on the Buddha's head, and the other focused on the sari, with 100% crops from each's focus point inserted below as well. The sari is roughly 16 inches behind the Buddha's head, for reference.
The first set are from the OM-D + 17mm, while the second are from the X100S. The only post processing was to correct for white balance, and a slight exposure boost for the 17mm images because I accidentally had exposure compensation a bit negative on those images.
Unlike the rest of the photos here, these are all full size, so, downloading may take a bit.
I think the Olympus combo equipped itself very well here. If the X100S can provide a narrower depth of field than the OM-D + 17mm offer, it's hard to tell. Detail-wise, I think the 17mm does a far better job: I can see more of the fine detail in the sari fabric with the 17mm than I can with the X100S, and the wood grain in the Buddha's head is much more apparent. I'm sure they both would perform better stopped down, but I wanted to see what they do wide open, which is where I'd more often than not be shooting.
Really, other than being slightly bigger than I'd prefer and being an eye health risk with the silver finish, I really have no complaints about the 17mm f/1.8 lens. I think it's priced decently enough, and if you want this angle of view and already have a Micro Four Thirds body, it's a no brainer of a buy. The X2 has a more pleasing tonal quality, but I think the 17mm beats on detail. The X100S is a very good camera, but the image quality just doesn't appeal to me, the distortion is bothersome, and it doesn't outresolve the 17mm. It is smaller than the OM-D + 17mm, but I don't think it's enough of a difference to matter. The X2 produced very pleasing images and is a great size, but I just would never use it, since I hate the way it handles. So for me - and your mileage may vary dramatically - the 17mm is the best option of these three.
But I'm Still Not Buying It.
I really should have known this going in, since the Panasonic 20mm didn't suit me much, but the angle of view provided by all three of these options suits me even less. I thought maybe that a bit wider would be a good thing, but no - it's even worse. The angle of view is just unnatural to me: it's too wide for how my eye sees, and when I want a wider angle, 63 degrees isn't enough. For landscapes, it can be fine, but most of my favorite landscape images tend be taken with a telephoto lens. For portraits, people tend to be distorted if they take up most of the frame. It's fine for environmental portraits, of course, as I've demonstrated.
If I have to have a normal angle of view, I'll take the ~47 degree angle of view (that provided by a 50mm on a 135-format camera, 35mm on an APS-C camera, or 25mm on a Micro Four Thirds camera).