Fujifilm has a new contender for the best mirrorless camera. On paper it looks impressive. Here's how it performed in real-world shooting.
FujiFilm seems to have managed the transition from film to digital better in the long run than their major rival, Kodak, has. Kodak was an early pioneer of digital but somewhere along the line got off on the wrong track. FujiFilm was fashionably late to the party, but in the past few years they’ve been putting out some excellent and innovative mirrorless cameras. Sure, they can be a little quirky at times. But they’re also very, very good.
The FujiFilm X-Pro1, X100S, and others in the FujiFilm X-series are damn good cameras, period. They’re rapidly closing the gap in image quality with a full-featured DSLR while being much smaller, lighter, and in some cases offering much better weather proofing. And it doesn’t hurt that that look great with their retro styling.
The latest addition to the X-series is the FujiFilm X-T1. I recently had the chance to put it through its paces by shooting with it for about a week. I tested it with the 18-55mm Fujinon kit lens. It’s also available as a camera body only and as a kit with an 18-135mm lens.
What I was most interested in was how it performed in real-world shooting. I’m much more interested in performance and handling than bells and whistles. Sure, the X-T1 has a lot of fun bells and whistles–built-in wifi with an official smartphone remote control and access app, in-camera RAW processing, multiple exposure mode, panorama mode, and dynamic range bracketing. Those are all nice, but in real-world shooting I don’t tend to use those much.
I’m much more interested in whether a camera helps me get the shot, and if it does, that the image quality is as high as I want it to be.
I was also interested to see whether it was something I could use as a backup to my main DSLR when on location. And I wanted to see whether it might even serve as a primary camera on some shoots where gear had to be kept to a bare minimum.
If poring over tone curve graphs, histograms, and technical lab tests are your thing, head over to DPReview’s exhaustive technical tests. This review doesn’t cover any of those things. But hopefully it gives you some idea of what it’s like to shoot with.
Compact size. The FujiFilm X-T1 does away with the mirror of a DSLR. That allows the engineers to keep the size and weight down. And they’re getting remarkably good at packing an awful lot of processing and imaging power into that smaller package. It’s a bit bigger than your classic rangefinder but smaller than the average DSLR. But it does have an electronic viewfinder, which makes it a little bigger than the FujiFilm X-E2 and some of the others in the range.
Rugged, weather resistant design. The body is made of magnesium, and the dials are aluminum. The LCD screen is reinforced. It feels solid in the hand, not at all flimsy. The body is also weather proofed and when used with a similarly weather proofed lens like the XF18-135mm, FujiFilm claims that it is designed to deal with the cold down to -10C/14F and is dust-resistant and water-resistant. Here FujiFilm is going head-to-head with the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I didn’t put these weather proofing specs to the test, but it makes me wish I had had it with me on a recent trip kayaking in Antarctica.
Sensor. FujiFilm is known for, well, film. Turns out their sensors are pretty good too. This one comes with an APS-C CMOS sensor. The images that produces are 16.3MP, which is more than enough for the vast majority if photographic needs. If you need more than that, you’re more likely looking at something like the Nikon D800E or something in the medium-format class of camera.
Excellent Image Quality. The image quality that the X-T1’s sensor produces is excellent. The photos are sharp, have very good color rendering, and have good dynamic range. More on this below, along with some real-world image samples.
My main issue with the X-T1 has to do with its focusing. It’s a bit slower than I like, and I found myself fighting the shutter delay to get the shots I wanted when the subject was just sitting still. There are several different options you can use to affect the focusing mode, including prefocusing, but I didn’t find any of them to be as snappy as I’d like. The X-T1 has a hybrid of phase detection in the center of the frame and contrast detection across the frame, but it still has a ways to come before it gets as snappy and accurate as traditional phase detection that uses the mirror as in DSLRs.
In putting it through the toddler test (ie. a moving toddler), the X-T1 struggled. But then most cameras struggle–it’s one of the hardest focusing tasks for a camera to do. But when the focus locked on it locked on tight. It was sharp where I wanted it to be sharp. And there’s an assisted manual focus mode for when you need finer control and have the time to do it.
The shutter itself is very responsive, as you’d hope. To the extent whatever minimal lag there is can be measured, it’s apparently 0.05 of a second.
And I was particularly impressed with some of the manual controls that are right at your fingertips on the top of the camera, so you don’t have to go fiddling with menu options just to change the shooting settings. My favorite is the Exposure Compensation dial right next to the shutter. I use exposure compensation a lot when I shoot, and I found the way it’s laid out here to be very convenient.
The 3-inch LCD screen is big and bright. LCD screens can often be unusable in bright sunlight, but the one on the X-T1 is bright and I had no problem using it even in direct sunlight. Sure, you can’t see the detail as well as you can in the shade, but it’s definitely bright enough to be useful. The menu items are laid out reasonably sensibly and aren’t as quirky as some earlier FujiFilm models.
The screen also tilts. It’s not fully-articulating–it only tilts in one direction, but I found that to be very useful when using the camera down low or up high for different perspectives.
I’m not a fan of electronic viewfinders. They’re too much like trying to use an old CRT television to compose the shot while on a slight delay. They’re still a long way from the the kind of quality you get from direct-vision optical viewfinders. But I’d much prefer a viewfinder to an LCD screen most of the time.
And as far as electronic viewfinders go, the one of X-T1 is a good one. It’s bright, contrasty, clear, and the FujiFilm engineers have found a way to reduce the annoying lag most electronic viewfinders have to essentially none. Some camera feels as though you’re watching the world as it was half a second ago, but there’s negligible lag with the X-T1.
There are also benefits to an electronic viewfinder. In terms of composition, what you see is what you get. With optical viewfinders, many of them don’t cover 100 percent of the scene. And often, even on the best cameras, the viewfinder and mirror are ever-so-slightly off-kilter, making getting perfectly aligned photos tricky.
The electronic viewfinder on the X-T1 has several useful overlays. One of the most useful I found was the horizon indicator. It shows you clearly how far off horizontal your framing is and lights up in green when you get it spot on. I wish that was an option when using the LCD screen, but it’s apparently only limited to the viewfinder.
Using the viewfinder is optional. You can set it so that it automatically detects when you put your eye up to it but otherwise uses the LCD screen.
The X-T1 uses an APS-C sensor. That’s not the largest sensor crammed into a mirrorless camera–Sony has that distinction with its Alpha A7, but it’s a big sensor by the standards of even a few years ago. APS-C is more typical in DSLRs, and it’s bigger than the one used in the MicroFourThirds system. It’s not full-frame, but it’s the next step down. If you’re used to the classic 35mm equivalent focal lengths on lenses, the APS-C sensor has a multiplier of about 1.5. So a classic 50mm lens becomes about 75mm.
The image quality that comes out of the X-T1 is excellent. I shot almost entirely RAW–as I would under normal shooting conditions–and the images had good dynamic range, were sharp, and had good color fidelity.
A bigger sensor means better low light performance and it helps with overall sharpness. Even images shot at up to ISO 6400 are impressive. They’re not as good as those that come out of something fancier and more expensive, like a Nikon D800 or Nikon D4S, but the high-ISO images from the X-T1 are very usable in most cases.
Here are some full resolution image samples from the FujiFilm X-T1. These have gone through minimal processing in Lightroom–they’re not straight out of the camera (for that, see the RAW files below).
Clicking on a thumbnail will open a full resolution JPG photo. Shooting information for each shot is on the bottom. The files are rather large, so they might take a while to load.
One of the unique features of the FujiFilm cameras are the film emulations of some of the company’s iconic film stock. As a longtime user of FujiFilm’s films back in the day, I was intrigued by this. The camera takes a digitally captured file and applies the same sort of unique exposure profiles of the films.
There are two ways to use this. The first, and most obvious, is do the emulation in camera when you shoot a photo. You can even shoot a rapid succession of photos bracketed by film exposure, which is an interesting feature.
But to do it in camera means shooting JPG. And I rarely shoot JPG–I much prefer shooting RAW. And the whole point of a RAW file is that it doesn’t have any processing applied to it so that you have maximum flexibility in adjusting that later.
But there’s a nice option for RAW shooters to use this as well. FujiFilm has created the same film emulations as post-processing camera profiles that are built in to Lightroom 5.4. So you can shoot RAW and still take advantage of this option. This isn’t the same thing as a develop preset. This is hard coded into the beginning of the process as a camera profile, and you can still have the usual control over the develop settings. These aren’t available with non-FujiFilm RAW files.
The effect can be subtle. But it can also be distinctive. You can make those rich landscape colors of Velvia or those natural tones of Provia. There are also several black+white conversion options with various filters like green and red.
With the slider here, you can see how the profiles affect the same RAW image.
The left is the Adobe Standard, while the right is the FujiFilm Provia emulation:
The left is the FujiFilm Provia emulation, while the one on the right is FujiFilm Velvia:
The one on the left is FujiFilm Provia, while the one on the right is FujiFilm Astia:
If you’d like some sample RAW files to test out, you can download some below. FujiFilm’s RAW files come with a .raf extension.
[Right click and choose Save As]
Kit lenses are rarely anything to rave about. The 18-55mm is no different. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a good lens. It’s quite versatile. It’s quite sharp. With a variable maximum aperture of f/2.8 at 18mm and f/4 at 55mm, it’s quite fast. There’s not much chromatic aberration. And there’s not much vignetting. It has image stabilization. It’s relatively compact. And it’s light. As an everyday lens designed for a wide variety of shooting scenarios, it’s quite a good lens.
But there’s nothing about it that makes it a must-have lens. It does a lot of things quite well, but unremarkably. There are more impressive Fujfilm X-Mount lenses, although nearly all of them are more expensive than the 18-55mm. Standouts includes the 56mm f/1.2 and the 23mm f/1.4.
One issue I did have with the 18-55mm was with the aperture ring. It changes too easily for my taste. I found myself bumping it when carrying the lens around, so that when I went to shoot I’d accidentally changed the aperture. There is some tactile feedback as it rotates–just not as much as I’d like. And the only place that the current aperture is displayed is at the bottom of the LCD screen (or in the viewfinder) in small blue letters. I had to remind myself to keep checking that before pressing the shutter.
I didn’t end up playing with the video features all that much because even a few attempts demonstrated that video with this camera is just okay. It’s really a stills camera will video tacked on. It does do full 1080p video up to 60fps, which is nice. But if you plan on doing a lot of video, there are much better options in the small form factor, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4.
There’s a lot to like about the FujiFilm X-T1–it’s a very good camera.
The image quality is excellent. It handles like a pro-quality, compact camera. It’s a tough little cookie that can handle some of the treatment that travel inevitably dishes out. And most importantly, it’s fun to shoot with. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that it’s in such high demand.
Here are some of the key specs. You can find the full specs with all the asterisks on FujiFilm’s website.
UPDATE: The FujiFilm X-T1 is now out of production and has been superseded by newer models, so your best bet is to pick up an affordably priced used copy.