The Fujifilm XPro-1. The unexpurgated user review.
I tried to keep both arts alive, but the camera won. I found that while the camera does not express the soul, perhaps a photograph can!
The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.
Kia ora tatou:
As promised, here is my final review of the Fujifilm XPro-1, including some stuff I didn’t include while on the road in China. the review is long ( really long), so I would suggest you scroll to the bottom, where you have the Print Friendly option to convert it to a pdf and save it for later perusal.
Camera reviews seem to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand there are the technical reviews, which pick the camera to pieces and analyse it, function by function, screw by screw, and menu item by menu item. It has always seemed to me that so many of them are aimed at the Fearful Purchaser, afraid of making a mistake. Inevitably the exemplar pictures, almost always shot in the studio, tell me absolutely nothing about how the camera will function on a job or in the real world. Unsurprisingly. the website forums are full of people dissecting and comparing the minutiae of the camera in question. Frankly, if we all took this approach, nobody would buy a camera at all. But reviews of this type serve their purpose.
The other type of camera review, and there are fewer of them, leans towards the user experience. In this instance the reviewer attempts to use the camera and real-world situations, and to make judgements based upon experience in the field. It has always seemed to me, since every camera has its strong and weak points, that these are more useful, because they allow you to decide whether a particular camera will meet your shooting needs, and whether or not it will be suitable for the type of photography you do. After all, cameras make really terrible bookends, and the only real use for a camera is making photographs.
This review then is the result of taking a Fujifilm XPro-1 for a month to China as my camera of choice, and shooting 15,000 files. When I agreed to write the review, I made it plain that I would only do so if I could be honest, and point out its strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to see what I could achieve across a wide range of photographic genres, including landscape, portraiture, documentary, street and even performance photography. Having worked with it and shot with it, and had time to reflect upon how useful it is, these are my thoughts on the camera as a working tool. Since I am a professional photographer, I need my tools to do the job, whatever that may be. I am only interested in whether it is fit for the purpose. Those of you wanting one of those Type 1 nuts-and-bolts reviews will need to look elsewhere.
The Fuji film XPro-1 is, in many ways a unique camera, one which sits in a space of its own. At first glance it has a lot of Leica genes, being similar in its design and size. I have heard it referred to as the Poor Man’s Leica, but that is doing it a disservice. To my mind it is a brave move by the engineers at Fujifilm, being a lot closer to a rangefinder, and therefore traditional in its design, and yet being digital in its use.
I am often asked to describe the perfect travel camera, one which has quality approaching a DSLR, and yet is lighter and more portable. On the one hand we want full-frame quality from the file without the size and bulk of a large full frame camera. So, however it is engineered, compromise is going to be required.
The XPro-1 is about the same size as a Leica M9, with many of the same design cues. The small engraving on the top deck and the viewfinder switching lever on the upper right of the front face of the camera make this conclusion hard to avoid. But who cares? You can buy a complete XPro-1 kit for the same price as a single Leica lens.
The camera sits nicely in the hand, being large enough that small hands will not feel overpowered, and large hands like mine will feel as if they have something substantial to hold. All the controls seem to be logically placed, and getting to know the layout quickly becomes intuitive. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the arrangement of the controls.
First impressions are of a camera which is being built to a standard, not a price.
When I first picked up the XPro-1, it took me back to the camera I owned back in the 1970s, a Yashica Electro TL. Same size in more or less the same layout. I have never owned a Leica M-series, although I have used them on a number of occasions. This had the same genes. The viewfinder is placed out on the top left, so it favours right eye shooters . Left eye shooters are going to quickly smear the LCD with nose grease. Like the other rangefinder cameras before it, the XPro uses bright lines within the viewfinder space to indicate the frame edge and the focal length being used. This changes in size as you change lenses, automatically becoming smaller for a longer focal lengths, and larger for shorter ones. The advantage of this type of viewfinder is that you can see outside the frame and therefore make more informed decisions about framing. It also means that you suffer none of the blackout associated with using a DSLR.
However, while the camera has a switchable bright lines frame system, it also has a full electronic viewfinder (EVF), which allows you to customise it, including such things as a live histogram, and electronic distance scale, frame lines and an artificial horizon. It is easy to switch between them by flicking the lever on the top right of the front face of the camera with the second finger of the right hand. At first I found myself hunting for it, but then it quickly became second nature to locate it and change if need be.
This brings me to my first beef about the camera. Anyone with 20/20 vision is going to be perfectly happy with this camera, but those of us who are optically challenged (myself included) are going to be less than happy. It seems to me a remarkable oversight that the engineers should omit a dioptre control, especially when just about any camera I can think of in this price bracket, including a lot of cheaper ones, has it is a matter of control. When I read the manual, it informed me that if I needed to adjust a dioptre is for the camera, I should purchase Cosina ones. The other alternative, and one I will probably pursue, because the camera is that good, is to see my optometrist and ask him to make me a custom dioptre, preferably one which takes my astigmatism into account. That said, before you reject the camera out of hand for this reason, I would strongly suggest you pick one up and see if it is an issue for you. In practice, I found that while it was an irritation, I could live with it and, when I saw the quality of the files the camera can produce (more about that later) I was prepared to persevere.
The exposure controls are analogue, with an aperture ring on the lens barrel, a shutter dial on the top deck, and a dial for exposure compensation marked in one-third stops. This immediately sets the camera apart from its competitors, including those in the mirrorless camp. Again the camera says that it is old school, but with modern genes.
When you first take the camera up and attach a lens, it sits beautifully in the hand. Its balance is almost perfect and it has that X factor that makes you want to head out the camera shop door and start shooting (some shops will even allow you to do that!). All the controls fall naturally to hand and, like a great shot gun, when you bring it up to your eye it just somehow finds its way to the right place.
The Fuji film XPro-1 is a camera for making photographs. It is probably worth pointing out at this stage that I began my photographic career on film, which is a completely different way of thinking and working to shooting digital. With a digital camera, especially a DSLR, you can take your photography in any one of a number of directions, and the camera encourages you to see your finished image in a digital way, one where you will almost certainly use postproduction to enhance your intention. With a DSLR there is no restraint on the number of files you can shoot, provided you have sufficient card space, and it encourages you to shoot prolifically, exploring your subject.
The XPro-1 is the closest thing to a digital film camera I have ever used and perhaps, subconsciously, one of the reasons I love it so much. I think I have the answer.
One of the things that happen when shooting film is that you tend to make each frame count, since every time you press the shutter it is costing you money. Because you are aware of the cost factor, you tend to shoot more carefully (unless you have won Lotto), to be more careful in your technique and give greater thought to what you are trying to say. It encourages you to give much more thought to framing and the arrangement of content within the frame, and to perhaps linger on the idea before you finally press the shutter.
This is a camera which makes you think.
One thing which needs to be mentioned here is the unique sensor, a Fujifilm-designed 16MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS sensor, with a different colour array to the common Bayer system used in almost all other digital cameras. The sensor has a greater number of green photosites than a conventional Bayer pattern, which is possibly why it has much lower noise than many of its competitors, since noise, particularly at high ISOs, tends to build in the green channel first.
What Fuji has done is to leave out the conventional anti-aliasing filter, which, while it reduces the incidence of moiré, tends to smear micro-detail. In this sense it follows the Leica M9, which has an enviable reputation for rendering Micro contrast and micro-detail. However, unlike the M9, its response at high ISOs is astonishing.
The downside is that, at the time of writing, there is really very little in the way of a suitable raw converter (including that supplied by the manufacturer) to make the most of what the sensor can deliver. Part of the reason for this, I understand, is that such a different sensor requires a considerable amount of engineering on the part of the raw converter engineers to extract the best from it. But these are early days.
At the time of writing, there were three lenses available for the camera; an 18/2.0 (28 mm equivalent), a 35/1.4 (50 mm equivalent) and a 16mm/2.4 (90 mm equivalent). I am led to believe that other lenses are under development, including a couple of zooms. The initial however is, again, an old school one. Many of us who came up through medium format film use these three focal lengths to do everything, and so by doing so, Fuji are, in a way, reinforcing the retro nature of this camera. Speaking personally, for me 18 mm is a focal length which is too long on the one hand and two short on the other. I would prefer either a 24 mm equivalent, which would oblige me to explore the nature of wide-angle and accentuated perspective, or a simple 35mm equivalent which, to my mind, is infinitely preferable for documentary and street photography.
In practice I found myself using the 60mm from time to time but, since I shot very little portraiture, I tend to use it for landscape work.
In practice my favourite lens quickly became the 35mm/1.4, the ubiquitous “standard” lens which most of us tended to discard early on in our photographic careers but which, in many ways is possibly the most useful focal length of all. It
All three lenses are small, light and exquisitely built, with metal barrels and all the elements made of glass and using at least one aspherical component. All use Fujinon’s Super EBC coating. Again, these lenses are like small jewels, built to a standard and not to a price. Each of them comes with its own custom metal lens hood, a rather weird design when you first look at them, until you realise they are designed to extract the maximum shielding from lens flare without intruding overly when using the optical viewfinder.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a camera which demands a more considered approach to photography then a point-and-shoot or a DSLR. After a lot of trial and even more error, I eventually evolved a philosophy which has led to a setup and shooting style to make the most of what the camera has to offer.
When you get all the ducks in a row, the file quality from this camera is staggering. Zooming all the way in, when in review mode, will reveal an amazing amount of detail. When you get all the ducks in a row. Doing so however requires you to be absolutely on top of your game in respect to capture. Granted, the camera is happy to go along as a very expensive point-and-shoot and the results will be more than acceptable. However, get your technique absolutely right and this camera will reward you in spades. It quickly taught me to up my game to a new level because, once I had seen what it could deliver, I wanted that quality of result all the time.
The old 1/focal length rule simply does not apply with this camera. You really need to use a shutter speed at least twice that of the focal length. To get what was possible with a 35/1.4, I found I needed to use at least 1/125 second or use a tripod/monopod. I also needed to be very careful in how I d the shutter, to it gently in mid-breath rather than stabbing at it. I needed to be calculated and calm when making an exposure. Part of this is due to the fact that the camera is not stabilised, and as a consequence you cannot get away with anything. Poor technique will produce poor results, or at best, results which will have you reaching for your Sharpening Toolbox in postproduction.
Focus achievement on this camera is extremely accurate, and requires no Micro adjustments, which is important, since there is no Micro adjustment. Because shifting the point of focus is a rather laborious process, if not well-nigh impossible, I avoided using it, preferring to focus, lock focus and then recompose. Again this is old school, and not something I am used to. All of my Sony DSLR’s allow me to quickly shift the point of focus, something which is simply too hard to do with the Fuji film XPro-1.
Achieving focus is nowhere near as quick as that of my DSLRs. The focusing speed of the XPro-1 was significantly better than that of the X-100, but requires you to calculate in some leadtime and think about the shot before you make it. Similarly the shutter has a small but perceptible lag, which means you need to learn to anticipate the moment. I preferred to leave the camera with Power Save off and QuickStart on, in spite of the fact I knew it was draining the battery, to get the fastest possible response time which, while it is not blazingly fast is more than acceptable. But learning to anticipate is an important shooting technique to employ when using this camera.
Because I have never had high respect for manufacturer-supplied raw converters, and because I was waiting for Adobe to a converter for Lightroom for the XPro-1, I opted to shoot RAW +fine jpeg. Because I wanted to post to my blog from the road, I opted for JPEG is a compromise.
However JPEGs on this camera are no compromise at all. In fact they are a revelation.
There are all manner of reasons why raw is preferable to JPEG, too many to go into here. Suffice it to say that most manufacturers’ out-of-the-camera JPEG is usually inferior beasts, lacking the quality possible from the RAW file.
Not the Fujifilm XPro-1 however.
Put simply, the JPEG files from this camera are of such high quality that I would be more than happy to supply them to a client. They are simply that good. No, they are better than that. They are unbelievably good. I found that after a while I was shooting the JPEG first and the RAW file second and that of course meant a mental adjustment in the way I worked. Because I began to aim for the perfect JPEG rather than the perfect raw file, the old Expose to the Right technique went out the window, and I began to shoot for the highlights, being careful to make sure they did not blow out.
I began to approach my subjects as if I were shooting slide film, being ultra-fussy with my exposures and making sure that I took great care to ensure my highlights were textured.
Yet again this camera was taking me back to the future.
Because of this, I began to experiment with the highlight button in the menu and eventually I settled upon a Highlight Reduction setting of -1.
This left controlling the shadows and, assuming that the engineers at Fujifilm knew what they were doing, I left the DR (dynamic range expansion/contraction) and auto. By and large this worked, and I have few files with noisy shadows.
I have always been a believer in doing my own sharpening, since I would sooner add sharpness in postproduction rather than leaving it to the camera, and for that reason I set my JPEG Sharpening to -1. Even when I did this, the micro-detail in the files reviewed on the LCD in the camera left me gasping.
The camera comes with a number of film “looks”. Because it is a Fuji film camera, the profiles attempt to emulate films such as Provia, Astia and Velvia, along with two colour negative emulsions. There are also black-and-white settings, including three which give the effect of using a yellow, red or green filter. Oh, and there is a sepia look as well… If you really need it. I found the standard setting, which emulates Fujichrome Provia was the one I used the most, although in flat light I often switched to the Velvia setting, partly to cope with peering through the pollution of a Chinese city. These worked extremely well, although, at times, I found the Provia setting a little wishy-washy for my tastes. When I visited the paddy fields of Hunan in south-west China, I could see that the camera was doing its best to replicate what was in front of me. However, as somebody who came up through film, I can remember being blown away by the astonishing blues and Greens of the venerable RD50, and the amazing ability of Fuji film to explore the range of greens in a scene. For that reason, when I reviewed the pictures in the field, I found myself going to the custom white balance settings and creating a profile which leaned more towards the blue-green part of the spectrum.
As a practice with my Sony cameras, particularly when I am working on the streets, I tend to use Auto ISO as a matter of habit. I attempted to do the same with the XPro-1, but after a time and some unnecessarily blurred photographs, I gave up and went back to manually selecting the ISO I wanted. I found the same irritating idiosyncrasy which other reviewers have commented upon. When shooting in low light the camera tends to lock the shutter speed on 1/52 second and adjust the ISO accordingly. This is simply too slow when using a camera capable of such mind-boggling results. Fortunately I am led to believe that the engineers at Fujifilm listen to their end-users, and so I am hoping they will rewrite the code in a future firmware update so that it is possible to use higher ISO’s and faster shutter speeds at the same time. There is a reason for this.
Shooting on the streets of Hong Kong late at night yields a target-rich environment, where the use of flash would be a dead giveaway (perhaps literally!). Fortunately the higher ISO’s on this camera are eminently usable, with 1600 and 3200 ISO yielding photographs with a slight but creamy noise and yards of crisp detail. Even 6400 ISO can be pressed into service if need be.
I really wanted to create a series of custom settings for different shooting situations and, while the camera allowed me to do so, each time I turn the camera off it returned to the default settings. In the end I gave up trying to get it to hold its settings, and resorted to using a custom setup each time I went out on the streets. Another firmware fix please, Mr Fuji.
The standard battery supplied with the camera is good for approximately 300 frames and considerably less if you have a Quick Start on and the Power Save off. The camera manual (which I actually read), makes this quite clear. My suggestion is that you carry at least one spare and, when you buy it, get another charger, unless you want to get up in the middle of the night to switch batteries.
Use fast cards. The buffer on the XPro-1 is not that quick, and it is easy to lock up the camera if you blaze away. Use the fastest SD cards you can afford, and make sure they are Class 10. That said, I come back to the genetics of this camera, a picture making tool for someone prepared to work carefully and thoughtfully and be ultra-fussy about their technique.
Over the months I spent on the road with the Fujifilm XPro-1, one thought began to push itself to the front:
Who is this camera for?
While it is not in the same league (or order of magnitude) in terms of price as the Leica M-series, it is still a substantial investment and one which will cause most people to think twice before committing. Admittedly there will be those hobbyists who will buy it for its cool factor (or perhaps retro factor), but most of the rest of us will be buying it for a purpose, for a reason, or to meet a perceived need.
The key, I think, lies in the fact that Fujifilm have added the word “Professional” to the camera’s title. The word “professional” implies that it will be used by somebody with a high level of skill and knowledge (although this is not always the case with professionals), and the ability to extract the most from its considerable talents. A professional works for a client in return for monetary reward, and as a consequence, is expected to deliver work to an agreed standard, usually an exemplary one. For that reason most professionals will tend to spend carefully but wisely on their equipment, ensuring that every piece of gear is able to deliver to the appropriate standard.
I think that, in using the word “Professional” in the title of the camera, the manufacturers are making it clear that this is a tool capable of delivering work to a phenomenally high standard.
Provided the photographer is up to the task.
To my mind, anyone with a sloppy technique is not going to get the best out of this camera. Put simply, if the results are not good enough, it is because you are not good enough.
On my trip to China, because it was the only camera I had (correction: the only camera I chose to use), it had to do everything. I shot landscape with it, I shot street and documentary with it, and I shot live performances with it. Had I been working for a magazine or publication, and imagining the type of brief I might have been given, it would have delivered everything I needed. In spades.
However, an amateur willing to work on his technique, willing to get to know the camera and willing to work within the paradigm which this camera embodies and represents will be rewarded with files of astonishing quality, rich in detail and nuances of colour.
The Fujifilm XPro-1 is simply that good.
As a travel camera, it has an enormous amount to offer. Life will be much easier with one of the smaller DSLRs, particularly the mirrorless ones, with their wider range of focal lengths and ease-of-use. However cameras of this type will struggle to stay in the race when the acid test becomes:
how good are the files?
Getting to know and work with the Fujifilm XPro-1 is not a simple and easy process; you have to learn to see differently, think differently and shoot differently.
Once you have done so, however, the results will justify the effort you put in.