Compact Camera, Serious Sensor: Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A, and Ricoh GR Roundup, Part II

The Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR being reviewed. The Nikon 1 V1 photobombed the group shot by showing up at the back.

Welcome back for part two of our look at three compact cameras with large imaging sensors. Here we will look at the cameras’ performance and image quality, followed by our conclusions. If you have not, read part one first!

Performance and Image Quality

YS: Ah, the part where everyone skips to and ignores the previous parts. Sadly, too many people don’t pay attention to how a camera works and then moan afterwards how hard or awkward or different it is to use. So just a reminder, go through the previous bits and pay attention to the parts you might have an issue with. You might save yourself some time and hard-earned money.

Now, on to the operation performance. First thing that needs to be said: Despite the marketing departments claims of speed and what not, these are not DSLR-class leading performance. They are not bad, and certainly more than adequate for most users.

The 28mm equivalent lens on the Ricoh GR have very little distortion. (Photo by CK)
The 28mm equivalent lens on the Ricoh GR have very little distortion. (Photo by CK)

David: None of the 3 cameras can focus as fast as a mid class DSLR in low light, with the X100S the fastest, but they are adequate for most tasks – unless one of the tasks one is performing happens to be focusing on moving subjects in low light, in which case none of these cameras are appropriate for focus tracking.

At Little India with the X100S using scale focus (Photo by David)
At Little India with the X100S using scale focus (Photo by David)
Hair Light at Shibuya, Tokyo with the Ricoh GR (Photo by David)
Hair Light at Shibuya, Tokyo with the Ricoh GR (Photo by David)

But one can still use manual focus the good old way, using technique like trap focus (focusing on a fixed distance and waiting for the subject to move right in). Here the GR shows its class again, with easily configurable snap focus distance (with one handed operation, may I add). You can manual focus with the X100S and the Coolpix A, but good luck with the EVF’s laggy performance with the X100S and the Coolpix A is quite hard to use with the distance scale being just a rough gauge.

(Photo by David)
At China town, hyperfocusing with the Coolpix A (Photo by David)

CK: When the Fujifilm X100 was first released, its bugbear was the abysmally slow autofocus. The superior image quality won the photographers over, and they were able to “forgive” the slow autofocus in exchange for the excellent images. Fujifilm has fixed that over a series of firmware upgrades during the X100’s lifecycle.

The X100S represents a major improvement in the AF. It’s significantly faster than the original X100 and is now able to lock on to your subject without much hesitation, even in low light.

YS: That was what really impressed me. Even in low light, aimed at an unlit part of the scene, the X100S could still get a lock, and in pretty good speed. Definitely in the sub-seconds, and a step up from the X100.

CK: The Coolpix A and Ricoh GR performs similarly in terms of AF speed under bright conditions. However, in darker conditions, I found that the GR sometimes fail to achieve an AF lock when both the Coolpix A and GR had no problems.

YS: The autofocus of the Coolpix A and the GR, without the phase detect sensors, are not quite as sure-footed in locking focus, especially when I was doing the high ISO night test. Focusing on a near black portion of the scene was way beyond what the contrast detect systems could do.

CK: An annoying thing that all the 3 cameras do is that they require you to engage the “macro mode” if you need to get really close to your subject. This always catch me by surprise – I’d try in vain to achieve an AF lock, only to remember “Oh yeah, I need the macro mode.” Now if you then forget to disengage the macro mode, you’ll spend a few moments wondering why the AF is now so slow all of a sudden or it may refuse to lock at infinity.

I guess this is to improve the AF speeds under non-macro situations as the lens wouldn’t have be racked all the way from the minimum focussing distance to infinity to achieve focus.

Macro with the Ricoh GR (Photo by YS)
Macro with the Ricoh GR (Photo by YS)

YS: Well, given that these cameras have large sensors, close focusing lenses will have a greater helical travel – this is unavoidable until some special breakthrough in lens technology is made.

In terms of shot-to-shot speed, all three cameras take photos immediately after a shot has been fired. For buffer depth, I tested with a slow Class 4 SD card in RAW+JPEG. The Ricoh GR starts slowing down after two consecutive shots in single-shot mode, the Coolpix A after three shots, and the X100S after nine shots. Guess their relative prices? Sometimes, you do get what you pay for.

CK: Yes, unlike a Leica M9.

David: With the M9, you get a superbly over-engineered camera with write speeds fast enough for most applications.

YS: So why is it that you can’t stop buying all those Sandisk Extreme/Extreme Pro/whatever cards?

CK: Right. A Class 2 will probably be good enough for the M9.

YS: Anyway, the next part is what everyone wants to read about: Image quality! I must confess, while I do pixel-peep when evaluating absolute image quality, most modern cameras are really good. It is hard to find a camera in the upper ranges that produces terrible images that cannot be used.

Even a Leica M9. Well, maybe a Sony NEX with native lenses would qualify.

So, remember, unless stated, if anything that is highlighted as inferior in comparison, it does not mean the camera will produce lousy images! It just means you have to work a little harder to compensate for it.

CK: That’s right. Nowadays, if a decent modern camera produces lousy images, it’s usually the photographer’s fault. Even modern smart phone cameras produce decent images these days.

David: Strangely, for this image quality section I probably have nothing much to say. Most cameras on the market today produce results that are the envy of film shooters years ago, and the files produced by all three cameras are of sufficiently high quality to the point I no longer worry about image quality, even with the raw processing woes of the X-Trans sensor (aka RAW processing with third party raw converters). To me, how the camera works, and handles and shoots is more important. In case it’s not obvious, I really love the X100S and the new GR. The Coolpix A, the less said the better.

Sunset inside Cloud Forest with the X100S (Photo by David)
Sunset inside Cloud Forest with the X100S (Photo by David)

YS: The new versions of Adobe Camera RAW do handle the X-Trans sensor quite well however.

CK: Without the anti-aliasing filter, the images from the Coolpix A and Ricoh GR look very sharp and detailed indeed. Like the X100, the X100S’s also produce excellent JPEG files with great colour rendition. Hardly any processing is needed. The following are one shot each from the cameras, images are not processed other than aligning them in Photoshop for the 100% crop below. As you can see, the sharpness and detail are both excellent.

Coolpix A
Coolpix A
Skyline-X100S
Fujifilm X100S
Skyline - Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR
100% crop of the yellow-boxed area above.
100% crop of the yellow-boxed area above.

YS: By default, the Coolpix A has a very nice and pleasing palette out of the camera. Like some Canons, the saturation and contrast is boosted a bit. So for out of the camera images, I think it’s a close fight between the Fujifilm and the Nikon, especially at lower ISOs.

Without doing a strict benchmark test on the lenses, all three cameras perform quite well in that regard, with an exception. The X100S lens is less-than stellar when set to macro mode, especially at the closest distances and the lens set to f/2.0. Spherical aberrations and a general softness are present throughout the entire image.

High ISO Performance

CK: Every review/comparison is not complete without talking about the obligatory high ISO performance.

YS: Yes, otherwise the review is not fit for publication. Nevermind how the rest of the camera works.

Here’s the raw comparison image. The cameras were shot in manual exposure mode, at the same exposure values. The files were processed in Lightroom 4.4 at the default settings.

High ISO Comparison Example
Above image is 1920×3360 at full size. Click to enlarge.

CK: The Coolpix A produces reasonably clean images up to ISO 1600. At 3200, things start to get a bit splotchy but is probably still usable in a pinch. At 6400 and above, the images are very grainy indeed. You wouldn’t want to use them except for web purposes or you have a very newsworthy image which you want to sell to the media.

The Fuji X100S appears to have cleaner files straight out of the camera compared to the Coolpix A. I am not sure if this is due to the X-Trans sensor or the Fuji applying some noise reduction (even in RAW mode.) Files up to ISO 3200 were noticeably cleaner than the Coolpix A’s. Comparing the two, I’d say the Fuji appears to have a 1-stop advantage over the Coolpix A.

I did not manage to compare the Ricoh GR’s high ISO performance as the camera was not with me when I tested the Coolpix A vs. the Fuji X100S.

YS: I’d say all three cameras are very close up to ISO 800, with the Fujifilm X100s a touch cleaner. Once at ISO 1600, the Coolpix A and GR show increased grain and slight loss of detail (note the leaves in the shadow), and gets progressively worse at the higher ISOs. Impressively, with some careful post processing, I believe even ISO 6400 is usable, though like what CK said, most will probably limit these cameras to ISO 3200.

The Fujifilm’s X-trans sensor seems to be in a class of its own. Perceptually, it looks like a good stop more, though on closer examination, it looks closer to half a stop. Still, it is a very good performance, and one that I would be happy to see in a DSLR!

Also note that the X100S seems to be a bit brighter at the similar settings, with ISO 3200 and 6400 being a lot brighter. I thought I had messed up the settings, but the EXIF data showed I had not. It only appears with the raw files in Lightroom, so it could be a quirk of Adobe Camera Raw.

CK: The high ISO performance is no full-frame DSLR quality, but given that these are essentially high-end compact cameras, I’d still rate them as very good for its class. Most small-sensor compact cameras will not achieve this level of performance.

YS: Actually, I would say that for the X100S, it can put up a fight with some 35mm DSLRs, especially the older ones. That X-Trans sensor produces some amazing results.

CK: Yeah, I remember YS telling me (and I agree) that Nikon or even Fujifilm should take that sensor and put it on a Nikon SLR body. I’d buy that whether it’s full frame or APS-C.

Other Points of Note

CK: In trying to be as compact as possible, both the Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR does not come with built-in viewfinders. Optical viewfinders are available for the GR in the form of the GV-1 at US$239 or the GV-2 at US$229. Joining the ranks of luxury German camera-maker Leica, Nikon offers the DF-CP1 viewfinder for the Coolpix A at a ridiculous US$379. If you want the Coolpix A and want a viewfinder, I believe the Ricohs will do just as well.

YS: Ye gods, who did they hire in Pricing? First the Nikon 1 cameras, now this?

Also, the Ricoh GR only comes in black. I want my gun metal grey GR!

David: X100S should really come in all black. And maybe customisable leatherette. Custom engraving, the works!

CK: David, maybe you can consider the Hasselblad Lunar(tic) and the Stellar, both of which offers gorgeous wooden grips.

YS: Then there is the issue of Fujifilm’s RAF format. 16 megapixel images at 32 megabytes each? Can we have more compression in those files please?

On the same topic of raw files, why oh why do camera manufacturers insist on embedding small JPEGs in their raw files? It makes it impossible to check on image sharpness when shooting in raw-only mode. Having to shoot RAW+JPEG is just a waste of time and card space. At this rate, only the Nikons and the Canons do that, making them the exception, not the rule. This is a silly state of affairs.

CK: Actually, space aside, it’s not a bad idea to shoot RAW+JPEG. You get a set of JPEGs of which you can use to base your RAW development on, or to give to clients as a first cut, post to social media sites etc. Hard disks and memory cards are really cheap nowadays.

YS: Time is not though. Having an extra step of culling the jpegs is just unnecessary and annoying.

Conclusion

YS: This is the hard part. Firstly, we are not going to pick a direct winner. The cameras are all good enough for many kinds of photography, and different people have different preferences. That said, we will give our general recommendations, then pick our personal favourites.

CK: Indeed, all three of the cameras are excellent, but not without their own quirks. They all produce excellent pictures, so it’ll come down to your personal preferences as to which to choose. If you’re into the retro look and feel, and/or want a decently-sized camera, look no further than the Fujifilm X100S. It is what the X100 should have been.

David: If you are a retro / Leica shooter like me, you will love the X100S, with its direct window finder resminiscent of Leica’s window finder, equipped with AF and even a rangefinder like patch in EVF mode. In terms of functional appeal it’s a winner too with the traditional (and still, the best) direct dials and knobs for aperture and shutter speed (and exposure compensation too). And the look of the camera is very similar to that of a Leica M6 film rangefinder.

YS: Not to mention, it really produces some truly remarkable images. I know I said that high ISO is not the be all and end all of image quality, but the images from the X100S are on another level. Fujifilm’s X-trans sensor is something they should be proud of.

CK: If the X100S is too bulky for you, consider the Ricoh GR or the Coolpix A. Personally, I’d pick the Ricoh as 1) It’s cheaper and 2) the controls are much better designed and can be easily changed with a single hand. The camera body also feels better, and there’s no sense of worry that you might drop the camera. Having said that, you probably won’t go wrong picking one over the other, as they are very similar in terms of performance and image quality.

As for the Nikon Coolpix A, I think somehow Nikon just can’t get pricing for some of the cameras right. The Coolpix A is a little expensive compared to its contemporaries. This mis-pricing can also be seen in the Nikon 1 series, where they are priced higher than the other equivalent (and sometimes better) mirrorless cameras. And we’ve previously also mentioned the ridiculously priced optional viewfinder.

YS: There certainly seems to be some confusion at Nikon with regards to their non-DSLR line up. It seems Nikon can’t decide how to position these products.

David: As a Leica user however, personally I opted (with my own money, no less) for the Ricoh GR instead (one main reason being I already have a 35mm lens for my Leica M9) – it’s a beautifully made camera optimised for one handed operation and I found it perfectly suited to complement my existing gear – a pocketable (well, cargo pants to be comfortable) camera made for one handed operation which I can whip out just like my iPhone and snap shots. Plus, with the snap focus modes it’s a perfect street shooter (sometimes more so than the Leica to be honest, due to the deeper DOF of the APS-C sensor with the 18.3mm lens, and the silent electronic shutter). Versatility wise, I got the GW-3 wide ange adapter, turning the GR into a 21mm equivalent camera for those times when I need the wide angle. So it’s really 2 cameras in one.

Super trees at Gardens by the Bay with the 21mm wide adapter (Photo by David)
Super trees at Gardens by the Bay with the 21mm wide adapter (Photo by David)
Shibuya Crossing with the GR and the GW3 21mm conversion lens (Photo by David)
Shibuya Crossing with the GR and the GW3 21mm conversion lens (Photo by David)

As for the Coolpix A, I found it usable only in manual focus mode on the streets, pre-focusing to a set distance. I can’t get used to the interface despite spending nearly an entire day with it – the 2 handed operation of the camera on such a compact body really gets in the way of fluid shooting. It is honestly, my least favorite camera of the three.

YS: The Coolpix A attempts to borrow elements from its DSLR brethren probably was not to its benefit.

As for myself, it is a lot harder than I thought it would be initially. I was drawn to the Ricoh GR’s combination of ergonomics, user interface, size and price. Out of all the three cameras, it was the camera that I enjoyed using the most. The image quality it produced was very good, and the camera just felt right to use. Being the smallest and lightest helped here as well, since if I were to be looking for a compact camera, being as small as possible is a plus point.

The Nikon Coolpix A is no slouch either, but unfortunately, it does not distinguish itself enough from the GR for me, though it has some nice advantages, like proper embedded JPEGs in its raw files, direct AF point selection, and a very pleasing set of colours from the default tone curve.

Then there is Fujifilm’s X100S. It is bigger and heavier, with a serviceable but not exciting UI. It however has a viewfinder, very reliable phase-detect autofocus that is decent in speed, as well as a really outstanding sensor capable of some amazing results. On the downside, it also does have a 35mm f/2 equivalent lens, which unfortunately, is a focal length I very much dislike.

In the end, I am going to very narrowly decide that for me, the pick of the bunch is the Ricoh GR. If the X100S had a 28mm equivalent lens on it however, I might have decided on that instead. Ask me again on another day, and it is likely I would give you a different answer. They are that close!

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