The Fujifilm X-T1-the wheel comes full circle
Fujifilm X-T1, 60/2.4 R. ISO 200, 1/80s @ f2.4
As soon as the X-T1 was announced, a friend emailed me rather grumpily. I suppose, he said, you are going to do a rave review of it. It would be nice if you could point out a few shortcomings.
Well, X ( you know who you are), let me put you out of your misery. This is a rave review. And yes, I do have a few niggles, but you will have to read on to see them. However, they are minor.
In the two years since Fujifilm first introduced the X-series interchangeable lens mirror less cameras, they have built it from a single model (the X-Pro 1) into a fully-fledged system with a range of cameras from entry-level to fully professional, along with a glittering array of lenses to fit almost any purpose. And the lenses are still coming, with new ones to be released this year. The X-T1 is the latest in the range, and notable simply by following the DSLR form factor, a major departure (or perhaps evolution) from previous models, which have all followed the rangefinder gestalt. Now, for the first time, we have the option to use existing X-series lenses on a DSLR style body.
So what is it?
I had the use of New Zealand’s only preproduction model for about a week. It came with a charger and a spare battery, but there was no manual or software. It was really a case of taking it out of the box and getting to know it. And that did not take long. The camera has the same ergonomics and functionality as its X series brethren. In so many ways it can be summed up as an X-E2 with a centrally-placed prism style viewfinder. It is in fact almost exactly the same size, and the weight is very close. However it is only when you lift the hood and look into the menu system that you realise how much extra functionality has been built-in.
How do I love the X-T1? Let me count the ways…
The camera is small, about the same size as the Olympus OM1 which got me interested in photography a long time ago. And, like that legendary camera, it is in many ways a game changer. When the OM-1 was released it was competing with large ‘professional’ SLRs from companies like Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta. Its small form factor made sense for people concerned about size, wanting something which delivered the same results as the Big Boys without the bulk and weight. The OM-series was incredibly popular and Olympus sold hordes of them. Now, half a century later, the same thing is happening again.
The camera design continues Fujifilm’s back-to-the-future philosophy with engraved knobs instead of buttons to be pushed. The ISO button lies left of the viewfinder, and shutter speed and exposure compensation dials are on the top deck to the right. And this tried-and-true design really works, especially the compensation dial. Because the X-T1 has an ‘in-viewfinder’ histogram, it is easy to adjust exposure without taking the camera away from your eye. Likewise, setting shutter controls and metering is done by rings below the large dials. This at-a-glance functionality makes setting up the camera for a shoot easy and intuitive – even sans manual as I was.
One small button got me really excited. Labelled Wi-Fi, it enables you to connect to a smartphone or tablet. By downloading a free app for iOs or Android, it is possible to control the camera from your phone or tablet. You sync the camera with your device and all the major controls can be manipulated remotely. A techie fungi photographer is going to love this. No more lying on the cold, wet forest floor as you attempt to capture that tiny natural masterpiece. You can also use the app to transfer files from camera to device. How cool is that? I found releasing the shutter from my Galaxy SIII was at least as quick as the shutter button, if not more so. There is no lag whatsoever in the Wi-Fi shutter.
The camera is weather-sealed, although the lenses are not. Apparently the 24-70mm and 70-200mm /2.8 FF equivalent lenses to be released later this year will offer weather-sealing. Fujifilm have used O-rings and seals in the camera and because of that, it is no longer possible to use a screw-in cable release. You must either use Fujifilm’s proprietary electronic release or one of the many third-party offerings available.
The X-T1 comes with a flip-out screen, a massive 3” in fact, and because of that, the familiar buttons for AF and drive have either gone onto the top deck or disappeared into the menu. The card slot has been moved from the base of the camera to the right side, a la most DSLRs. The camera will also take the new SDXC (UHS-II) memory cards. My test-drive unit came with one, and there was no delay in writing, even when I shot on continuous high 8 fps.
The camera feels solid and purposeful and built for years of abuse – sorry, careful use. A battery grip will be available shortly which will take a second battery, and I suspect those of us who are prolific shooters or have big hands will want to get one for comfort or convenience.
Let me put it simply. This is the best EVF I have ever used, so good in fact that it gives the Texas optical viewfinder on my D800 a run for its money. It is large and glorious, and very clear. There is no lag when panning, a result of the increased frame rate, and it is bright and contrasty. A suggestion? To get a better sense of the dynamic range which the raw files offer, set the OLED viewfinder to standard or Astia mode and turn the shadow and highlight buttons to -2 (very soft), and the image comes closer to the reality of an optical viewfinder.
But wait. There is more.
The viewfinder offer three modes. You can have a regular viewfinder with as much or as little fruit as you chose in the setup menu – grid, horizon lines, histogram etc; and you also have the option to have the full 100% without any peripheral information – perfect for the purist.
However it was when I tired of fiddling and poking around and took the X-T1 into the field that I discovered some really cool stuff, and the third viewfinder option.
I am not that interested in pixel-peeping. A camera should do what I want it to do, and without fuss. And the best way to test one is to use it.
With several days of bad weather, my window of opportunity had shrunk. After a particularly wet storm had retreated, I headed out down into the forest near my home in Hanmer Springs. It is a lovely forest with a vast array of exotic species, planted in the early 1900s to see what European, Asian and American species would provide the best basis for a forestry industry here in New Zealand.
I drove down to Dog Stream, a small creek that runs through the forest. I do not normally do nature writ small, but seemed a perfect opportunity to put both myself and the camera under pressure. I restricted myself to the 60 mm f2.4 prime and set out to see what the camera would do.
And I opened the lid on a cabinet of infinite wonders.
Close-up photography is very dependent on critical focus and depth of field. When I switched the camera to manual focus, I discovered the third of the viewfinder options; available only in manual focus. Here you have the option to select a split-screen mode. In the viewfinder (or on the LCD) you get two screens. On the left is a larger one which displays the image in its entirety, and on the right is a smaller screen which gives you a magnified (hundred percent) view for critical focusing. This makes precise focusing a breeze. It is such a stroke of genius, albeit a small one, that I cannot believe somebody has not thought of it before.
However, things get better. The peak focusing mode has now caught up with Sony, and you have the option of a tricolore of colours, blue, white and red, each with a normal or high value. This makes establishing the plane of focus really easy.
What really blew me away, however, was when I half-depressed the shutter before making the exposure. To my absolute amazement it stopped down to the selected aperture without darkening the viewfinder. Unlike a conventional DSLR with an optical viewfinder, which darkens horribly when you are trying to establish depth of field at, say, f11, this one shows you the depth of field, but does so at full aperture! This makes it really easy to establish the plane of focus and use creative depth of field techniques. Mr Fujifilm, you have seriously hit a home run.
I took a break and had some more fiddling with the menu, finding that they have built an interval timer function into the camera. You can specify a start time, interval and number of shots. Just think of it-you point the camera at the South (or North) Pole, tell it when to start, how many shots to take, and then you go to bed. No more freezing to death in the middle of the night on some lonely mountain top.
I had a play with the multiple exposure function, unfortunately limited to only two exposures. What it does do however is allow you to see the second exposure transparently overlaid on the first in real time before you make the final exposure. This allows you to change focus or focal length, or simply align framing before you commit. Brilliant, and perfect for impressionist photographers.
It was when I saw the files coming out of the camera that I became really excited. Back in the day, as a film shooter, I became accustomed to transparencies which had a beautiful luminosity and three-dimensionality, a sense of light emanating from within the image. No digital camera I have ever used has been able to create that sense of inner light which is one of the great gifts of film. Until now. Fujifilm apparently spend an enormous amount of their R&D on recreating the feel of their great films – Provia, Velvia et al. And it shows. The photograph of the leaf gives a response akin to film, and in fact improves upon the reality, a leaf which was somewhat duller in both hue and tonality than the file would indicate.
I do have a few.
The battery grip connectors are hidden under a soft rubber plate, which comes off rather easily. The first thing to do on attaching the grip will be to put the cover somewhere safe – never to be seen again.
The shutter release is still, to my mind, not as hair-trigger as I would like. The Sony A7/R and Olympus OMD-EM-1 are quicker. The button has a considerable distance to travel, relatively speaking, before it trips the shutter. It would be nice if it could be made more instantaneous.
The four-way menu button is awkward to use. It has been recessed, and people who chew their fingernails are going to find it difficult to use. My preproduction model came with no markings, so I had to fiddle with the controls to work out what each one did. Sony’s joystick system is much better.
Battery life is not that flash. Using all of the electronic bells and whistles (and why wouldn’t you?) I got perhaps 240 shots per charge. Double that if you are using a battery grip, and you have perhaps 5 to 600 shots. A big wedding or editorial shoot will mean carrying several spare batteries, and hoping it does not run out just as they are about to take their vows.
So who is it for?
Wedding photographers. Unless you are Arnold Schwarzenegger, after a long day of full coverage with traditional DSLR rigs your arms are going to be dropping off as you stagger home from the cutting-of-the-cake. Carrying smaller cameras like X-T1 is a revelation, even a pair of them and a bag of lenses. The jpegs from the camera are so good that you can confidently shoot that wedding as jpegs in Astia mode and save a lot of time in post. Good for the bottom line and your muscles.
Travel photographers. Again the quality is so good that you can use this for travel or assignments for clients. No more battles with the check-in counter over those unwelcome kilos.
Sports and editorial photographers on assignment. If you can overcome the shutter latency issue, the focus tracking is so good that you can confidently shoot for your editor or agency. They don’t need to know that you are using a little camera.
Anyone who appreciates exquisite design and a camera made by a company which understands photography and what photographers need.
Over the last few months I have had a lot of telephone and email conversations with people looking to dump their huge full-frame DSLR outfits, either because they are over the weight factor, or they have some physical reason to need to downsize, such as a bad back. However, almost all of them are concerned that by switching to a small system like the X-series, they are going to have to concede image quality. After all, the reasoning goes, to make a big pictures you need a big camera. That certainly seems to be the case in the US, where mirrorless has not made the inroads it might have, a result perhaps, of this mistaken belief.
Fujifilm’s philosophy of better pixels, not more pixels, appears to be paying off. While it uses a 16.3Mp X-Trans II APS-C size sensor, properly captured and post-produced files are capable of generating high quality A1 prints with exquisite resolution and micro-detail. Subtle mid-tone separation is still no match for the creamy tonalities from a D 800 or Phase 1, but it comes close. Damned close. Use Photo Ninja and you will be blown away by the quality of the files.
The Fujifilm X-T1, it seems to me, is truly a case of back to the future, a small camera with an enormous amount of functionality built into it, with flashes of design genius which are destined, I believe, to make it a classic. I happened to call in on a friend whom I am helping to make the transition from film, and he showed me his collection of antique Minolta cameras, including one covered in faux-lizard sscreen. It was when I put the two side by side (see picture), that I realised just how much they had in common. The wheel has come full circle, and digital cameras have finally begun to mature.
But I do really like the faux-lizard skin. Truly tacky, but rather wonderful.
Can I have mine in lizard skin, Mr Fujifilm?