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    May 24th, 2012

    Fuji X-Pro 1 Review – Good goods come in small packages

    You can tell a lot by the camera you choose for a job. Late last week I had a shoot to do, and although my DSLR kit was sitting beside me, I reached for the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. I’m that impressed with the hip black slab.

    So what is it about this camera that only sports an APS-C sized sensor, only has 3 lenses available and costs $1700 that makes it so endearing? This review breaks down my experiences with it, and shows some sample images. As with all my reviews, there’s no photographs of brick walls, no ISO tests with wine bottle labels or collections of kitchen items – just my impressions of using the thing in real-world situations, to shoot the real world.

    All the images here were taken with the X-Pro 1. Most received minor contrast and definition adjustments to the JPGs in Aperture, and sharpening for the web. Except where stated, black and white conversions were done in Aperture. You can click on any of the image for a larger (1024px) version.

    (This is a long review – you might want to eat it in chunks. Like an elephant.)

    Physical characteristics

    Olympus EPL-2 w. Panasonic 20mm and VF-2 viewfinder, Fujifilm X-Pro 1 w. 18mm, Canon 5D w. 50mm f/1.4

    It’s bigger than my micro Four-Thirds Olympus EPL-2 in every dimension, but when the VF-2 viewfinder is on the Olympus (which it is with me all the time), the Oly is actually taller. And something about the lump sticking up makes the Oly slightly more awkward than the squared-off Fuji. The X-Pro 1 feels solid but it’s actually pretty light, and I could certainly see carrying it around all day without any trouble.

    When I headed to the office today I brought one bag with a laptop, iPad, 2 external hard drives, the X-Pro 1 and the 18mm and 35mm lenses. The bag wasn’t light, but it was about comparable to the other bag I brought, which only had my 2 Canon bodies, a 35mm f/2, 85mm f/1.8 and the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8. After a weekend of shooting the Fuji, picking up the 5DII again made my wrists complain.

    Oh, and it looks great. People give it the retro tag because it has real dials, but I’d argue that it’s as much good interface design as old-school affectation – watches still have hands and cars speedometers with needles because they’re easier to interact with than a bunch of digital menus and displays.

    The lenses are light but solidly well made, It’s a great to be able to drop the 18mm into a pocket while heading out the door with the 35mm attached to have some options. People have complained about the ‘squashed tin can’ lens hoods, but I like the look of them personally, and really like that they’re metal and attach so firmly to the lenses. I’d probably leave the lens caps at home, which is good since once the hoods are on, you can’t extract the lens caps (one of the few signs of lack of joined-up thinking in the whole system).

    The black color, size and low-key design (especially when looking at the bare front) means the camera is much less imposing than DSLRs. Depending on what and who you shoot this is a big deal. The X-Pro 1 lends itself particularly to documentary-style work, where you’re trying to be unobtrusive and not influence the subjects too much.

    I’ve seen a couple of wedding shooters saying it’s great for the getting-ready shots, and I could see street and war (or street war) photographers also liking the nondescript impression it gives. I shot it all over the place for the last four days, and the only person who even commented on it was a Leica shooter who wanted to know what I thought about it. I told him it was good but expensive, although for him it’s a giant bargain.

    Everything in its place

    So the size and feel is right, but what about the usability? In some ways, the Oly EPL-2 is a little too small for me. The lack of physical controls leads to lots of menu-diving and spinning the tiny control wheel while remembering which way to push the direction arrows, and even though I’ve had it almost a year and used it almost daily, I still stumble over simple stuff like changing ISO and exposure compensation.

    This is one of the many things Fuji have got right with the X-Pro 1. By the second day, I could change pretty much everything I needed to without even lifting my eye from the viewfinder. The aperture control is on the lenses, exposure compensation gets its own dial (as does shutter speed), and the Function button falls easily under your fingers – by default it’s set to ISO, and that works for me. The Q button and little wheel combo allows easy access to pretty much everything you’d want to change. Lovely.

    That said, having to press a separate button to access the Macro mode is genuinely annoying, however quickly you can do it. Sometimes your composition puts things on the edge of being macro or not, and so suddenly losing the ability focus as you edge half a step closer to your subject is a pain.

    But overall, it feels like a camera that wants to help you, rather than one that has a bunch of options but doesn’t care whether or not you can find them easily. It’s the difference between being feature-based (‘look at all the cool stuff this camera can do’) and being user-based, where there’s an awareness that some settings are much more important than others (‘I know you want to change the aperture quickly, so I put the control right here for you ‘.).

    Viewfinder

    A bunch of the reviews I’ve read talk about the advanced viewfinder by saying something like ‘it works like the X100’, and assuming you know what that means. I’ve never even seen an X100 in the flesh, so that didn’t help me much. So here’s my brief explanation in case you’re in the same boat as me.

    There are 2 main options for using the viewfinder, accessed by flicking a small switch on the front of the camera near the top of the lens barrel (you can also use the LCD on the back of the camera for composing an shooting):

    OVF – optical viewfinder – you look through the glass viewfinder, which is augmented with frame lines, focus area indicator and a large number of other options to choose from. Think of it as a heads-up display in aircraft – you’re looking out the cockpit window, but there’s information projected into your view too. So you see the edge of the lens in the lower-right corner of the viewfinder, for example.

    As you get closer to your subject, the difference between what you see through the viewfinder and what the sensor will actually capture gets greater, but there are indicators which show your more or less where the focus point actually is (when you’re in macro mode, you can’t use the OVF as the parallax error is too great, so you’re automatically shifted over to the electronic viewfinder – EVF).

    EVF- electronic viewfinder – you put your eye to the viewfinder as before, but this time you’re looking at a screen that shows exactly what the sensor sees. As with the OVF you can choose to have a bunch of information projected along with the image (including the addictive level indicator – I had to switch mine off because I became obsessed with making sure my image was completely horizontal rather than make sure it was any good). In bright outdoor light, the EVF is darker than the OVF, but the reverse is true in darker conditions.

    One advantage of the EVF is that it shows exactly how your image will end up. So it you adjust exposure compensation, for example, it will adjust the exposure in the EVF; or if you’re shooting in monochrome, it will show you what your scene looks like in black and white. This can be brilliantly useful.

    On the other hand, the OVF shows you what’s happening just outside your frame, which also has its benefits, as you know what’s about to enter your image before it does.

    Loyal hounds. X-Pro 1, 18mm @ f/3.2, 1/350 sec, ISO 1600

    One disadvantage of the EVF is that if your subject is moving at all, the EVF has a hard time keeping up. And once you’ve acquired focus there’s a moment when the image freezes. Which means you can see you’re focussed, but you don’t know what your subject’s doing now. Not good. It seems the correct usage is to jam the shutter button all the way down (not half-way to get focus) at once to both focus and and shoot at once, but that’s not always what you want either. Often I’ll sense there’s a moment on the way, so I want to be focused for when it happens. Hopefully a firmware update will speed things up in this regard (like the recent one fixed the chattering lens problem).

    In both the OVF and EVF a replay of the image you’ve just made is shown in the viewfinder. If you’re being very deliberate about your shot-making this is a handy feature, but if you’re trying to capture a moment, it just gets in the way, so make sure you fix that feature off if you’re going to be shooting rapidly.

    Image Quality

    Pinning down what we talk about when we mean image quality is a bit like nailing jelly to a wall, but to my eyes the Fuji delivers images that are comparable to my Canon 5D Mark II. Colors are true and deep, and the auto white balance is very capable. Under most circumstances, I would have no problem shooting paid jobs with it, knowing I’d deliver images I could stand behind.

    Watching the eclipse. X-Pro 1, 18mm @ f/2.8, 1/340 sec, ISO 400.

    The lack of RAW support in Lightroom or Aperture (as yet) means I was working with JPGs, and they stood up fine to the minor adjustments I made to them. I wouldn’t want to try and work the files too hard – like upping the exposure by a full stop and trying to drag some details out of the shadows while knocking back the highlights – but it was actually refreshing to have the images slide off the card so quickly.

    ISO Performance

    Amazing. I value the Canon 5D II’s low-light performance, but with the Fuji I career into areas I’d fear to enter with the DSLR. ISO 4000 with a flat-colored wall behind the subject to reveal all the noise? Not an issue. Or 6400 (like the shot below) to give you a shutter speed fast enough to freeze movement when there’s a speedy child about the place.

    About to be hit with a large pillow. X-Pro 1 35mm @ f/2.2, 1/400 sec, ISO 6400.

    Autofocus

    A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, but here comes some more. For me the autofocus speed wasn’t really an issue. It’s not super fast, but then I sometimes still shoot with a 5D Classic, so I’m comfortable with a less than instant response. I think part of the problem is the slight pause in the EVF once focus is attained – this makes you uncertain around the whole focussing issue, and so even when the focus is nailed, you’re still a little disconcerted about it.

    I used the centre focus point (and then recomposed the image – the same way I do with all my cameras), and while I missed a few shots of subjects moving close to me, there weren’t many. And when it does get focus, it’s very accurate. In poor light it hunted some more (but then so does the 5D II), but I was normally able to find a high contrast area to get it locked in on.

    The shoot where I took the Fuji not the DLSR was part of the ‘Dogs in the Office’ project I’m working on. It was indoors, and I was documenting dogs as they hung out in the office shared by an architecture firm and a photography book publishers.

    Some of the time I needed to be quick, and grab a sudden moment quickly – like with the dogs all running towards me. The X-Pro 1 was pretty good with this. It could have been better, but I got the shot I was after.

    Dogs approaching. X-Pro 1 18mm @ f/3.2, 1/942 sec, ISO 1600.

    But most of the time I was set up and ready, waiting for a particular gesture or movement. And for this the camera was perfect.

    So it depends what you shoot. For chasing a small toddler around the place, it might not be ideal, but would still perform OK. But if I was shooting an older, more self-conscious child, whose movements are likely to be slower and who’s more likely to be affected by a stranger pointing a big camera at them, the X-Pro 1 would be preferable.

    The X-Pro 1 works very well for discrete shots like this. 18mm, f/9 @1/11 sec, ISO 800.

    Lenses

    I tested the Fuji XFR 18mm f/2 (c. 29mm equivalent) and the Fuji XFR 35mm f/1.4 (c. 52mm equivalent). Right now there’s also the 60mm (c. 90mm) macro/portrait lens, although Fuji have committed to a road map that includes more primes and zooms soon.

    The 18mm is a great focal length for me, either for documentary work (especially indoors), or events and family shoots when I want to shoot groups but not be too far from them. It seems to focus slightly faster than the 35mm, and although it didn’t grab me with its amazing sharpness (like the 35mm did), it’s certainly more than capable, and I used it more than the 35mm to be honest.

    It’s shorter and (even) lighter than the 35mm, so very easy to stash in a pocket if you’re heading out.

    The 35mm is a great lens. It’s crazy sharp, opens up to f/1.4 with good bokeh and delivers beautiful colors. I’m a big fan of it, and even though it’s not a focal length I normally shoot with that much, it would be hard to resist buying it if I got the camera.

    Evening Dodge. X-Pro 1, 35mm @ f/4, 1/400 sec, ISO 640

    What about RAW support?

    Right now (as of the end of May 2012), neither Aperture nor Lightroom supports the RAW files produced by the X-Pro 1. This is (it seems) partly because Fuji wasn’t that forthcoming before the release, and partly because the sensor uses an irregular pattern of pixels to defeat moiré without having to use an anti-alias filter – theoretically making the images sharper. This makes so getting the RAW conversion right more complex than with other cameras.

    This sounds like a deal breaker, especially for pro work where being able to make the exposure, white balance and other adjustments we’ve come to rely on can be crucial. But to be honest, the images coming out of the camera are so good – the auto white balance seems particularly impressive – that I’ve actually found it refreshing not to mess with the files too much.

    Most of the images here have received a bit of a contrast and definition boost in Aperture, and some have got some cropping and/or a light vignette added, but it’s all been very minor. There are film simulation modes built it – like the saturated Velvia option, for example – and while I tried them, I most shot in the standard Provia settings. Black and white conversions were done in Aperture, and I particularly like them, for some reason.

    Conclusion

    Driving past the eclipse.

    There’s no one best camera for everyone, nor one best lens, nor one best car or house or . . . you get the idea. DSLRs work well because they’re a platform that allows you go in many different ways from the same basic components. Sports shooters, photojournalists, landscape photographers, wedding shooters and fashion photographers can all start with the same DSLR and build out systems that work for them. The camera will do a pretty competent job at pretty much anything you throw at it.

    But there are downsides to this – they’re heavy, the lenses are heavy, they draw attention to whoever’s using them, and their design means making room for a big flappy mirror which limits what you can do with the viewfinder, and means the body has to be wider and taller.

    The size and usability of the Fuji when married to excellent images quality are the key differentiators here. Given that its price ($1699 for the body, around $600 each for the lens) puts it in 5D II area, it’s a camera that serious (if not only professional) photographers will be looking at. And if you’re giving up some of the benefits of a great DSLR like that – faster (but not super fast) autofocus, huge selection of lenses, much better video capability, great battery life – then it’s likely you’re doing it because of the size and handling of the Fuji.

    DSLRs also tend not to evoke much of an emotional response from their owners. I respect my 5D II, but I don’t love it the way I could see myself falling for the Fuji X-Pro 1. It’s kind of like the difference between German cars and Italian cars – the Germans are brilliantly engineered and will hardly ever let you down, but they seem to lack some of the soul (and frustrations) of the Italian ones.

    I wouldn’t sell all my DSLR gear for the X-Pro 1, but I’d love to add it to my arsenal. For documentary, travel, and portraits out of the studio, it excels. And it makes me want to shoot with it – it was a sad day when I boxed it up and sent in back.

    I’m looking to see what gear I can clear out to help fund the new purchase. For now, being able to choose between a DSLR and a Fuji X-Pro 1 depending on what I’m going to be shooting seems like a great combination.


     

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    3 Responses to “Fuji X-Pro 1 Review – Good goods come in small packages”

    1. T.C. Says:

      have you tried the E-M5? would be interested in
      seeing your comparison of the two…

    2. David Says:

      That’s a good question. I’ve not tried it, but it looks like a great improvement over the EPL-2 era M4/3rds cameras. The usability looks to be better (less menu-diving), and people seem to love the autofocus.

    3. X Pro 1 Research | s3a Says:

      […] Fuji X-Pro 1 Review – Good goods come in small packages | Clearing The Vision […]

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