A little over a year ago I was out in Dubai for the Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) training event, chatting to Zack Arias over a morning coffee. I can't remember where the conversation started - pre-caffeine conversations are not ones that I can easily bring to mind - but I do remember we ended up talking about his Fujifilm X100S.
I played around with it for a few minutes, liked a couple of the features, but ended up feeling smug because I had a Sony RX1 instead: 24MP instead of 16, a full-frame sensor, and an f/2 Zeiss lens on the front. I did agree that the X100S had better autofocus, I liked the built-in hybrid viewfinder (the EVF for the RX1 is good, but it's an add-on), and it's certainly a much better looking camera than the RX1, but I couldn't see why it had generated so much hype.
To be honest, I viewed the X-Series as a great exercise in marketing: The X100S, the X-Pro 1 and so on are all competent cameras, but I kind of thought that some of their success could be put down to Fuji mystique: hipster appeal, retro styling and the fact that they're promoted by industry gurus such as Zack and David Hobby.
In short, I can't say I had anything against the X-Series cameras, but I did think there was a bit of a fanboy thing going on.
Wind forward a year and I'm back in Dubai, for another GPP event, trying to negotiate a good price with Sony MEA on an A7R: which at the time I though was pretty much the ultimate in small cameras - 36MP, full-frame sensor, no anti-aliasing filter - the ideal camera for the type of stuff I shoot. While I was waiting for Sony to get back to me I ended up chatting to the Fujifilm guys who asked me if I'd like an XT-1. "To borrow?", "No, to keep. We'd just like some feedback". I'd love to tell you that I took the time to seriously consider whether I should take them up on their offer, but I didn't.
At worst I'd have a competent little camera to play around with, and at best I'd find it genuinely useful. They gave me the XT-1, battery grip and the 18-55mm XF f2.8-4 kit lens. They also loaned me the 14mm XF f/2.8 (equivalent to a 21mm lens on a full-frame) and the 56mm XF f/1.2 (85mm equivalent), which I also got to keep.
When they gave me the camera I began to worry I might succumb to the Fuji mystique as the serial number of the one they gave me is 00008. They also told me that David Hobby has 00001; Arias, Zack Arias has (00)007; and my good friend Bobbi Lane has 00005, so I was up there with some illustrious and more or less trendy company. I'd joined the Fuji club. As I was still sceptical at this point I resisted the urge to buy a cool leather strap (pretty much de-rigour for any serious Fujifilm shooter) and didn't feel the need to invest in a small retro-satchel for the assortment of tiny lenses I'd no doubt be tempted to buy, so went off to put the XT-1 through its paces.
To summarise, I started out thinking that the XT-1 might prove to be a useful addition to my camera bag but after a few weeks of using it, as you'll see, I've ended up somewhere I really didn't expect, ... more of which below.
Before we get into much more detail, and if you're not familiar with the XT-1, here are the technical highlights:
- 16MP X-Trans CMOS II sensor
- APS-C sensor (1.5 crop factor)
- Weather-resistant body
- ISO 200-6400, plus 100 - 25600
- A huge 2.36M dot OLED electronic viewfinder with 0.77x (equiv.) magnification
- 'Dual view' in EVF, which shows the standard view plus an enlarged focus peaking/digital split image
- Top-plate controls for ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, drive mode and metering
- Six programmable function buttons
- 3.0" 1.04M dot 3:2 tilting LCD
- 8 fps continuous shooting with continuous AF (for a burst of around 20 frames)
- Built-in Wi-Fi including remote control from a smartphone or tablet
- HD movie recording (1080/60p, 36Mbps bitrate) and built-in stereo microphone
- Clip-on external flash (Guide Number 11)
- Optional battery grip or hand grip
So what do I like about the XT-1? There are four main things: Image quality; colour reproduction, particularly skin tones; ergonomics and handling; and the system support (lenses and so on).
Despite the hype over the performance of the X-Series cameras over the last couple of years there are two things that put me off: they all have APS-C sensors, and 16MP seemed like a backward step for me. I shoot a lot of buildings and landscapes and seriously considered switching to Nikon when the D800 was first released (and have drooled over the D800E on more than one occasion) simply because more pixels seemed like the way to go: better resolution, more detail, and so on.
But the more I thought about it, the less sense this made. Sure, if I was routinely producing huge prints, shooting high-end fashion, or working for clients that either expected or demanded huge files, then 36MP would probably be better than the 24MP I have with my Sony A99 or RX1. But none of those are the case: I shoot personal projects, some weddings, and the occasional commercial job for a variety of clients who's needs are more modest. In fact, even if I managed to land a job with National Geographic - which would be a dream commission for me - I wouldn't need anything like 36MP. A double page spread in Nat Geo is 14" x 10 1/4", which at 300dpi equates to 4200px by 3075px - a measly 12.915MP. 16MP would give me plenty of room to crop.
As for the APS-C sensor: up until shooting with the XT-1 I wouldn't have considered shooting with anything other than a full-frame sensor, for two main reasons. First, the bigger the sensor the bigger the size of each pixel. This is significant insofar as larger pixels are inherently more accurate, leading to less noise, and the dynamic range of the sensor will generally be higher. In a nutshell, it's much easier to produce a high quality full-frame sensor than it is to produce a smaller one with the same pixel count.
Second, I much prefer shooting wide. My favourite Sony lens is my 16-35mm f/2.8 Zeiss. Put this on a ASP-C sensor and it becomes the equivalent of a 24-52mm. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. More on lenses below.
I haven't really tested the XT-1 at high ISO yet, which would be a good measure of the sensor's performance, but I've seen sufficient images elsewhere that indicate that it can more than hold its own. What I can say is that the XT-1 produces stellar images. I've included two images below, along with 100% crops from each. I should add that both of these were processed from RAW images using Iridient Developer, as Camera Raw didn't support the XT-1 when I first processed them, and this does add a bit more capture sharpening than CR, but both illustrate the high quality of the images it can produce.
A couple of days after getting the XT-1 I was down in the fish market in Dubai shooting portraits during my Shoot the Street workshop. I've shot some great portraits in Dubai over the years, but one of the things I've always struggled with is getting the skin tones right, often to the point where I've just given up and just switched to black and white. Don't get me wrong, I know how to fix skin tones in Photoshop, but some of the portraits I've shot on both my Canon and Sony gear were so far off that I just couldn't be bothered trying to fix them, particularly those shot under mixed lighting. And I wasn't expecting anything different from the XT-1, but only because I wasn't aware that portraiture and skin tones are generally considered to be one of Fujifilm's major strengths. I don't know why - probably some combination of the X-Trans sensor and the XT-1's ability to set an accurate white balance - but the portraits I've been getting out of the XT-1 have required absolutely no colour correction. Both the image above and the one below are great examples. Both have been tweaked in terms of brightness and contrast, but the colours are straight out of the camera.
ergonomics and handling
If you read Gordon Laing's review that I mentioned earlier you may have noticed that he wasn't a huge fan of the XT-1's controls: finding them both fiddly and lacking in fine scale control. For example, you can only use the shutter speed dial to vary the shutter speed in whole stop increments - 1/60s, 1/30s and so on. If you want to use a finer increment you can, but only by using one of the soft control wheels to do so.
Generally, I like the controls on the XT-1; there are dedicated dials for ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation on the top plate, and the aperture is controlled on the lens. Significantly, there's no mode dial. If you want to shoot in aperture priority you set the shutter speed dial to 'A'. Likewise, to use shutter priority you set the lens to its 'A' position. And if you set both to 'A' you're in program mode. I can see this being dismissed as retro nostalgia, but it works for me - I much prefer being able to see the settings I'm using rather than control them using soft dials. It's fast, and it's intuitive. Put another way, for me the XT-1 gives the impression that it was designed and built by photographers, not electronic engineers and software developers, and while I'm sure there are things I'll find buried in the menus that I'll wish were more easily accessible, all the important controls are where they should be: where I can see them, and change them, even when the camera's turned off.
The autofocus was also a pleasant surprise. On my RX1 the autofocus is slow, not to the point of being unusable, but slow enough to mean that I missed quite a few shots as a result. Fujifilm claim that the XT-1 has one of the fastest autofocus systems in its class, and while I can't confirm or deny that claim I can say that it was more than fast enough for everything I've thrown at it so far.
That's not to say that the XT-1's handling is flawless. For example, it's really easy to set up back-button autofocus - you just switch to manual then use the AF-L button on the back - but this is tucked away above the thumb grip and is difficult to access. Ideally I'd like to switch the AF-L button with the Focus Assist button - which falls much more naturally to hand (or thumb) when I'm shooting - so I'm really hoping that Fujifilm will add this to their next firmware update.
Of all the things I like about the XT-1, one of the most significant is its size and weight: it's small and light, even with the optional battery grip attached. For casual shooting this doesn't really make much of a difference, but for extended shooting sessions I think this will prove to be much more significant. For example, I shot a wedding last year and by the end of the day my neck had seized up, I had blisters on my fingers, and I never wanted to lift a camera again, ... ever. In real terms the XT-1 and a comparable lens weighs in at about half the weight of my A99, but in practice it feels lighter still.
I'm also a big fan of the EVF, which I believe is the largest in its class. I've shot with EVF's for almost two years now, and the XT-1's electronic viewfinder works pretty much as well as those in my Sony A99 and RX1. That said, it's not perfect: it flickers in artificial light (I guess the refresh rate must be close to AC frequency), seems overly noisy in low light, and not as easy to use in bright light as an optical viewfinder. If you've used EVF's before none of these issues will be deal breakers, but if you haven't, make sure you check it out before you buy.
I should also say that I wasn't impressed with the focus peaking. If you're not familiar with focus peaking: it's a facility that provides you with feedback on what's in focus by outlining those areas of the image in a user defined colour. This can be particularly useful when manual focussing as it gives you very precise feedback on both the focus point and depth of field. Unfortunately I don't think this is quite as well implemented on the XT-1 as it is on my Sony A99: it works, but it adds quite a bit of visual distortion to other areas of the image and doesn't always seem 100% accurate. As I previously said, the autofocus on the XT-1 is good, to the point where I can't really see why I'd need focus peaking, so this isn't an issue for me.
I've only been shooting with the XT-1 for a few weeks, but to date it's been a joy to use. There are some issues, as there are with any camera, but I can honestly say that shooting with the XT-1 has proved to be a thoroughly pleasurable experience.
As I mentioned earlier, before getting my hands on the XT-1 I was pondering getting a Sony A7R, but one of the things that put me off was Sony's limited range of lenses. Admittedly, I could have used the A7R with an adapter for my Sony lenses, but this would defeat the purpose of getting a smaller and lighter camera.
Fujifilm have a much better range, with fast, fixed focal length lenses covering the 14mm to 60mm range (equivalent to 21mm to 90mm for a full-frame camera), a new 10-24mm zoom (which is right at the top of my wish list), and a range of great zooms scheduled for release later this year, including a 16-55mm f/2.8 and a 50-140mm f/2.8 both of which will be weather resistant. Their 18-55mm f/2.8-4 kit lens is also superbly sharp (see below for an example). Admittedly, it's not as cheap as the kit lenses supplied by Canon or Nikon (it's currently £449 in the UK, about four times the price of the comparable Canon lens), but it's a lens I'll use.
I mentioned above that I wasn't a huge fan of APS-C sensors as a full-frame sensor with the same pixel count will invariably produce a cleaner image with a better dynamic range, but there's also an additional problem that relates to depth of field. To explain this: the smaller the sensor the shorter the focal length of lens you need in order to produce a specific angle of view. For example, an ideal focal length for portraiture on a full frame camera is 85mm. To get the same angle of view and camera to subject distance on an APS-C based camera you need to shoot with a 56mm lens. In itself, that isn't a problem, until you consider that the shorter the focal length the greater the depth of field at any given aperture.
For example, if I shoot a portrait using an 85mm on a full-frame camera at f/1.8 with a camera to subject distance of 2m the depth of field extends from 1.97m to 2.03m (a total of 6cm). If I then switch to using a 56mm on an APS-C sensor, maintaing the same subject distance and aperture, the depth of field extends from 1.96m to 2.05m (9cm rather than 6cm). To have the same depth of field I would need to open up to f/1.2 on the 56mm lens. In this example the difference isn't huge, but it is significant if you're trying to isolate your subject from the background. For me, this isn't a huge issue - I rarely shoot wide open, even though I have quite a few fast lenses - but it is something to bear in mind if you're pondering switching from a full frame system.
On a more positive note there's also an upside. For example, if I'm shooting male portraits with the 85mm on my Sony I'll often shoot at f/5.6 as this gives me enough depth of field to have most of my subject's features in focus, while still adding a reasonable amount of blur to the background. To achieve the same depth of field with the XT-1 and 56mm lens I need to shoot at f/3.7 - 1 1/3 stops wider. In ideal light this doesn't make the slightest bit of difference, but in low light this is a positive advantage. For example, on my Sony I might need to shoot at ISO 1600 in order to maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, but with the XT-1, because I've opened up the aperture by 1 1/3 stops I can shoot at a correspondingly lower ISO: 640 rather than 1600.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, when Fujifilm gave me the XT-1 my best hope was that it would prove to be a useful addition to my Sony gear, but I've ended up thinking that it might replace it: it's a joy to use, it's light and convenient, it does a much better job with skin tones than any digital camera I've used previously, the lenses are great and more are on their way. In short, it's a camera system that seems to meet all my requirements. Am I ready to take the plunge and sell all my Sony gear? No, not quite just yet - a few weeks shooting isn't enough to be certain - but it's certainly something I'm considering.
If you're interested in seeing more of the shots I've produced with the XT-1, take a look at the following gallery:
I'm updating this on a daily basis at the moment, so check back frequently.
and finally …
If you have any questions about the above, or would like to ask anything else about the XT-1 and my recent experiences, feel free to do so in the comments below.