Fuji's X-T1 – The "X" System Comes of Age
by Nick Devlin
follow me on twitter @onelittlecamera
Water Canyon, Utah
Fuji X-T1, XF 10-24mm, 3 seconds @ f22, ISO 200
The Fuji X-T1 is a great little camera. It’s the most mature and usable “X” model ever, with an increasingly impressive lens system to back it up. With the X-T1, the Fuji system has really come together more coherently and usably than ever before. This camera makes Fuji a serious system-camera player. Anyone looking for a camera – in particular for travel – should give the X-T1 a good hard look.
So what’s new?
Not that much, and yet a very great deal. The Fuji X-T1 is the latest evolutionary step in Fuji’s now well-established compact camera system. As such, there are no great surprises or quantum leaps here. The basic parts are all familiar: the excellent X-Trans sensor mated to a metal body with a high quality EVF and Fuji’s well-established imaging-engine. The big headlines are a totally new form-factor, a really big and bright EVF, improved autofocus, and greater customization options. Not earth-shattering stuff, but taken together, these key changes make for a really significantly refined user experience. The overall advancement in this camera seems very much greater than the sum of its parts.
The most superficial, and yet perhaps significant feature of the X-T1 is its form factor. Whereas the X-Pro1 was designed to channel the rangefinder gestalt, the X-T1 is unapologetically styled as a mini, retro SLR. And it works. It really works. People like the classic shape and layout of the SLR, for reasons both logical and nostalgic. The excitement (and widespread disappointment) inspired by the launch of the Nikon Df bears witness to the staying-power of this camera format, and the X-T1 will do its part to perpetuate the affection of photographers for cameras built in this idiom. Personally, I feel the X-T1 is more successful in capturing the ethos of a retro-SLR in its control functions than the Df. It also looks nicer. The proportions feel right. Strange as this may sound, it's a nice camera to look at, and sits well in the hand. These aethestics often translate into a good user-experience, and that is indeed the case with the X-T1.
The X-Pro1 was a truly bold camera. At its core, it was a rangefinder-style machine, based on an optical viewfinder with integrated autofocus. This was both cool and revolutionary. It was also a real engineering challenge and made the camera large and heavy. And truth be told, the rangefinder style only really works with fixed focal length lenses of about 28-75mm. While it is a magnificently elegant approach to photography, it is limited in its applications and appeal, limiting the market appeal of a very complex and expensive technology.
Fuji’s unique hybrid viewfinder also allowed use of zoom lenses and super-wides through the EVF. In theory, this made the X-Pro1 an almost universal camera. In practice, however, many more people preferred the cheaper, lighter and more streamlined X-E cameras, which were EVF – only.
In a way, Fuji has been thinking-out-loud with its camera designs since the X100. Starting with a brilliant rangefinder style machine, the company has gradually worked its way back to an SLR-form factored camera, which it the X-T1. At a quick glance, one could mistake the X-T1 for an Olympus OM film camera.
Controls and Design
The principal controls on the X-T1 are analog and logically laid-out. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, metering and drive mode all have dedicated, single-purpose levers or dials on the top-plate. The camera is also pleasingly small, being only fractionally larger and heavier than the tiny Olympus OM-D E-M5 (click for the comparison on Camerasize).
In the hand, the X-T1 just works. It feels good. It feels even better with the optional grip. While many might question why one would ‘ruin’ the size advantage of the camera by strapping a grip to it, the answer is that, for a lot of hand sizes the X-T1 will simply feel much better with the grip, at a nominal increase in weight and size. I would recommend trying and buying the grip for most people. Fuji is also producing a more modest grip that incorporates an ARCA-style plate and an increased palm grip. Those who plan to use the camera mostly on a tripod will favour this grip.
Year of the Horse - Bellagio, Las Vegas
Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm f4, 1/55 sec @ f5.6, ISO 3200
For Lula readers, a real eye-catching spec on the X-T1 is the fact that it is fully weather sealed. I say “fully”, but for the time being that excludes the lenses. Only the two forthcoming f2.8 zooms will themselves be weather sealed. However, for me, weather sealing has always mattered more on the camera than on the lens. I can put a bag over the vulnerable bits of a lens quite easily, and there is less damage moisture can do to a lens that to the circuit-packed innards of a digital camera body. (Yes, I know modern lenses have lots of electronics packed into them and I am not suggesting one can wantonly soak one’s lenses. I’m just saying that the camera body, with its myriad controls and densely packed electronics, is much more susceptible to damage in mildly adverse conditions). Bear in mind that "weather-sealed" does not mean "take it swimming". It's just a bit of insurance in case your camera gets damp on a soggy day.
One super-nice feature of many “X” lenses is the presence of a virtual aperture ring. I love this feature. The fingers of the left hand finally have something to do again! Personally, I prefer this to the front dials which are now de rigeur on almoat all modern cameras, and often require removing one’s finger from the shutter release (see the unfortunate front aperture dial on the Nikon Df).
Rear LCD, Battery Life and
The rear LCD is bright and ease to use. It also articulates outwards to allow low-angle compositions more easily. This has been accomplished without compromising the weather seal. Battery life in my testing was quite robust, extending to several hundred frames and easily convering a full shooting day. That said, I don't compose on the rear LCD much at all, and didn't run the wifi function for long. Both of these are likely to burn substantially more battery power. Still, extras are only a few dollars, and with two in the camera (via the grip) or an extra in one's pocket, there's probably no shooting day one can't get through.
The X-T1 is also compatible with the new, faster SD HCII memory cards, though these needn't be used. While these cards are obviously very fast, I think video shooters might feel the advantage more. Still, it's nice to see Fuji trying to future-proof the camera. Speaking of video, the camera has video, has added a dedicated video button and a mini-audio input, but I am told that the Fuji codec is not the choice of profesionals. For amatuers, though, the video angle is covered.
Locks and Feel
The dials on the X-T1 all feel good. They are solid mechanical controls. These controls are also either locked or firm enough that mistakes don’t happen often. This is one of the first cameras where I have no lost shots to accidental setting-changes. Exposure compensation dials are prime offender in this category. If locked, they are largely useless, but if too loose they often get turned inadvertently when the camera is shouldered. Fuji has gotten the tension on this dial almost perfectly right. It is stiff enough it doesn’t move on its own, but can be turned with the right thumb while the camera is at eye-level. Nicely done.
OK, time to talk about the elephant in the room: this is an EVF camera. For those of you under the age of 25, that’s no biggie. But for the rest of us, who grew up using real cameras <grin> looking at the world through a small, dim, flicker TV screen took pretty much all of the pleasure out of photography. EVFs, however, offer some compelling advantages. Losing the mirror and pentaprism dramatically reduce size and weight. An EVF also prevents focus-error occurring in the viewfinder light-path, and allows real-time histograms and image information to be displayed over the subject itself. Lastly, in low light an EVF can often be brighter than a traditional OVF. All of these can be real advantages. The problem has been the quality of the EVFs themselves.
So how’s the X-T1? Well, on the Nick Scale – the measurement metric of a confirmed EVF hater – I would rate the X-T1’s viewfinder as somewhere between “Not Awful” and “Surprisingly Good”. I know my friends at Fuji, along with many “X” devotees will cringe at that description, but it’s actually fairly high praise. But bear in mind that, as the bumper sticker says, my other camera is currently a Hasselblad H4. While I have always preferred the organic experience of a big, brighter OVF, the X-T1 has the first EVF I could live with on a regular basis.
There are two reasons for this. First and most importantly, the EVF in the X-T1 is BIG. I am told it is (or looks) bigger than a standard 35mm optical viewfinder. The view through this EVF feels bigger and brighter than most I’ve used before. Gone is the 'small, dim' part of my diabtribe against EVFs. The X-T1 gives really good eye-relief and is easy to use for someone with eyeglasses. Second, the brightness, resolution and refresh rate are all good enough that the X-T1 is responsive and pleasant to use in almost all settings. While you're still looking at the world through a miniature television, which is still not the same as an OVF, the experience is really much better than it has been before. How does it compare to the Sony A7s or the Olympus? Only side-by-side use can answer that question, but my recollection of those cameras suggests the X-T1 is, indeed, better (or at least as good).
Pine and Beehive, Zion National Park
Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm f4, 1/170 @ f13, ISO 200
The X-T1 sports an Xtrans II sensor that has phase-detection pixels built into the sensor itself. This technology is much faster than the relatively slow, but highly accurate, contrast-detection focusing systems most mirrorless cameras have limped along with. While not quite rivaling DSLR focusing yet, it is noticeably better than the first generation “X” cameras, and is usable for almost any application. In my tests, the focusing was quick and positive. The 56mm lens did hunt a bit more than the two zooms, but I suspect that that is because Fuji has built it with a sensibly long and well graduated focus throw. I would have liked it to operate more like an 85mm lens on my D800e, but the difference was much less than before, and no longer a deal-breaker in almost any context. Fuji claims ‘fastest in class’ autofocus. That’s one of those claims I’ll leave to the marketers since it’s almost impossible to compare real-world operation meaningfully.
While we’re on the subject of autofocus, I have a confession to make. I love face-detect autofocus. I may be the only serious photographer who does, but to me, this is a seminal technology for anyone who wants to take street or travel portraits. Basically, when it is enabled, face detection causes the camera to analyze the scene from the sensor and focus on the nearest thing it determines is a human face, if it finds one. Does it work? Absolutely. I shot the 56mm f1.2 lens wide open for close to a hundred frames, virtually all with face detect AF. The genius of this is that you can compose the scene as you wish, with the subject anywhere in the frame, and the camera will pull the right focus almost all of the time. This method of working bypasses the slow and error inducing process of focusing and recomposing, or the even slower process of changing focus points.
From what I have seen, face-detect works. Not only to find the face, BUT even more importantly, to focus correctly on the subject’s eyes. Given the razor-thin depth of focus on the 56mm f1.2, hitting focus on the eye, rather than the tip of the nose or the earlobe is absolutely crucial. The X-T1 got it right a high percentage of the time.
While only time and thousands of frames will tell whether this technology is reliable enough to be used in the field for serious work, my sense is that it is very promising. I would certainly not hesitate to use it.
Canyon Canvas, Utah
Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm, 3/5 sec@ f16, ISO 200
More surprisingly, the X-T1 absolutely kicked-ass in my (admittedly unscientific) focus-tracking test. With the 18-55mm kit lens mounted, I focused on oncoming cars and fired continuously at full speed while tracking the approaching car. Working at close to its rated 8fps for most of the run, the Fuji nailed almost every frame in four repetitions of this test. A very impressive performance. Compact system cameras have been synonymous with ‘meh autofocus almost since their inception, and Neither Chris Nichols (who I was shooting with) nor I expected the X-T1 to turn in this kind of result. Kudos to Fuji’s engineers, who have managed a real quantum step in on-sensor autofocus. (In fairness, the Nikon 1 has always been this good, but no one ever bought it, so the point is moot.)
Together with the improbably sharp 55-200mm, and the forthcoming 50-140mm f2.8, this level of continuous AF performance makes the X-T1 the first viable sports camera in the “X” system. For many casual users who want to be able to go out and shoot high quality photos of their kids' sporting events, this capability makes the “X” system far more appealing. While landscape and travel photographers don’t generally need 8fps or tracking AF, people who want a general-purpose camera often do. By filling this need Fuji potentially opens up much larger consumer markets for the “X” system, which is good news for all of us.
Manual focus is largely dead on mirrorless cameras. The lifeless, fly-by-wire lenses, coupled with the difficulty of focusing manually on an EVF make the whole exercise rather frustrating and unrewarding. Fuji, however, has come up with what I think is the best EVF focusing technology, bar none. In manual mode, the camera can be set to bring up a smaller, second window to the right side of the EVF showing a 100% crop of the centre of the frame. This dual-window system really works. Unlike the guesstimation of focus-peeking (a technology I confess to finding utterly unusable in all its implementations), this mode makes manual focusing truly workable. For some portrait work, and even landscapes in the infamously AF-defeating middle-distance, the X-T1’s manual focus offers a genuinely functional alternative. I look forward to trying this with some of my favourite, dormant Leica M lenses.
Jenny's Canyon, Snow Canyon, Utah
Fuji X-T1, 18-55mm, 1/4th @ f8, ISO 200
Fuji is on a real roll with lenses. The “X” system has filled out nicely, and now rivals the offerings of any other system. For most users, lens choice is now a wash between even Canon/Nikon and Fuji. The two new lenses I had during my testing are real stand-outs. The 10-24mm f4 zoom covers the super-wide range, and the 56mm f1.2 offers astounding portrait possibilities. While I am not a fan of the really wide-angle range for most landscape work, the 10-24mm was ideal for detail shots in the canyons on southern Utah. The lens is very sharp, though it does have noticeably distortion at the wider settings, which is hardly surprisingly and not that big a deal. The in-lens image stabilization also worked very well in my notoriously shaky hands.
The 56mm f1.2, however, is the real star of the show for me. This lens offers incredible bokeh and excellent sharpness wide open. Shooting good portraits with this lens was effortless. I want the camera just to be able to use this lens. I suspect Fuji will sell a lot of X-T1s to people precisely because they want the 56mm. It’s just that good. Coupled with face-detection, this lens is a real killer. A true homerun for Fuji. At around $1,000, this lens is not cheap, but it offers compelling value for what it is. My only beef is the ridiculously large plastic hood. While well built, and no doubt the theoretically correct size for the lens, it is far too big in practice. In studio, sure. But in the field, this monster crushes any size or discretion advantage accruing to the X-T1. The 56mm is already a big piece of glass. Anyone travelling with it will want to substitute something smaller, like a cheap, collapsable rubber hood.
Note to Fuji: there might be a nice aftermarket accessory opportunity in smaller lens hoods. Brand them the “travel line” and make some extra money selling one to every single owner.
Upstairs, Downstairs, Utah
Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm f4, 1/420th @ f7.1, ISO 200
A Note on Lens Size
The X-T1 is so compact that one feels its lenses should be as well. Some are, but most aren’t. The 18-55mm “kit” lens (which is much better than most kit lenses) is a nice size. But any of the other zooms are quite big. In particular, I was shown plastic prototypes of the forthcoming weather-sealed 24-70mm and 70-200mm equivalent f2.8 “XF” lenses. They are big. While these lenses will be smaller and lighter than their full-frame 35mm equivalents, they are light years from the compactness and discretion of the X100s, which has endeared that camera to so many and which established the “X” ethos.
This is not a criticism. Japan is a very law abiding culture, and Fuji shouldn’t be asked to break the laws of physics on our behalf. I also expect that these lenses will be optically superb – Fuji really knows how to make great glass. I do wonder, however, whether the size of the lenses will undermine the system’s competitiveness against the newly-affordable full-frame DSLR crowd. Only time will tell. I would be eager to test the X-T1 with the 16-55mm f2.8 equivalent versus a Nikon with a 24-70mm f2.8 during a day in the field. That’s the only way to tell whether one system carries lighter and handles more discretely to a noticeably degree.
For now, photographers should be happy to have the range of choice of lenses that Fuji has assembled, to say nothing of the fact that many other types of lenses, including Leica “M” glass can be adapted onto the “X” cameras. Indeed, at the last Photokina, Fuji offered a “lens bar” where you could try glass from virtually every other system on an “X” camera. Bravo for the open-minded thinking, and the level of choice afforded to photographers.
Duet, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Fuji X-T1, 18-55mm, 1/420th @f9, ISO 200
This is pretty much a known quantity. The X-Trans may be the best APS-C sensor out there, rivaled only by Pentax’s AA-filter free K3 and K5-DII. IQ on the X-T1 thus does not disappoint. For this test I shot mostly jpegs, because RAW support is only available through Silkypix. If there is one thing I could communicate to Fuji, it would be to stop using proprietary file formats and rely 100% on Adobe and Apple for Raw processing. Supporting one’s own software must be a material cost for camera makers, and does nothing but annoy users.
On a happier note, Fuji is half-way to getting it, as they have publicly stated that they are working with Adobe to support their much vaunted film-simulation modes in Lightroom. Hurray! This can only mean good things for end users.
While I’m on the subject of said film simulation modes, let me pause to give Fuji some well earned praise. I have said before that these are just profiles, like any other profile, and have nothing really to do with film. That’s true. But they are really good profiles, which allow the user to achieve very high quality results right out-of-camera. On this trip, I ‘shot Velvia’ exclusively, with the exception of a few B&W frames. The response of the jpegs was remarkably similar to Velvia, especially when under-exposed. I liked it a lot. In particular, I worked for almost an hour on a .3FR file from my H4D-60 to match the results out of the can on the X-T1 on a particular shot (the waterfall in Water Canyon seen at the top of this review). Indeed, I repeatedly went to a split-screen comparison with the Fuji jpeg while working on the ‘Blad file. In the final result, the MF file has a significant advantage in depth and quality, as it should. But for an effortless in-camera product, the Fuji jpeg was remarkably good. In a reasonably sized print, I think the Fuji jpeg will satisfy most users completely.
The in-camera white balance is also remarkably accurate. The shot shown above from the inside of Bellagio was done under very difficult mixed lighting conditions, and the camera nailed the colour balance. While the image looks somewhat dreamlike in its colour intensity, that is very much how it looked in person.
I can also see wedding shooters really liking the ability to shoot Astia-like jpegs, togethr with RAW files, in many situations. The speed advantages of dispensing jpegs is material to many professionals’ workflows, and the Fuji's processing of skin-tones is superb.
The B&W portrait profile also merits a mention. It is really good. The skin tones are creamy and the sharpness is excellent. Indeed, jpegs at f1.2 from the 56mm lens are shockingly sharp, without looking oversharpened. The RAW files don’t show the same level of acutance, revealing a strong sharpening in processing, but the finished prouct is just excellent. Most people’s jaws will drop when they look at 100% jpegs shot at f1.2 on this lens. Fuji clearly has spent a lot of time and effort getting the processing of their own files right.
This is why their cooperation with Adode is quite exciting. If “X” users can begin their RAW workflow in Lightroom close to the default Fuji jpeg results, that will be a real time saver and crowd pleaser.
Chris & Jordan, Calgary
Remote Handling by WIFI
Another sleeper feature on the X-T1 is its integrated wifi capability. Using Fuji’s free remote camera app, users can operate the camera completely from a hand-held device, including touch-focusing on the remote screen. File transfer and upload is also quite seamless. The initial connection process was a bit glitchy and frustrating, but once connected, the wifi link was rock-steady. Personally, I find the idea of composing on my iPad, like a ground glass, to be quite appealing. Many users will also like the ease of uploading to social media.
The one missing feature is integrated GPS. Given that this is becoming bog-standard on cell phones, I am not sure why it’s not in every serious camera. Personally, I would value this feature a great deal, as would, I think, virtually every other travel and landscape shooter. Time and further miniaturization of the GPS technology will hopefully solve this.
What I Didn't Love
While the X-T1 is really an excellent camera, and one most photographers could use happily for many years, it is not perfect. Predictably, my quibbles lie with the rear-mounted controls and the menu system. I still dislike the four-way controller. It is small, cramped, plasticky and accesses useless controls. White Balance? Really? Who on earth bothers with in-camera WB on a camera like this. Fuji has listened to a lot of feedback on this, and now allows the buttons on the four-way to be custom configured to access a number of key controls. As well, two buttons on the front and top of the camera may be assigned custom functions – a huge improvement.
User-selected AF still requires a two-button input. A second button must be pressed to activiate focus-point selection before the four-way is used to move between points. This is bad design. The user should be able to configure the camera so that the four-way controller directly operates focus-point selection. That would be a huge improvement and something that could be done via a firmware update. (Please Fuji?!) The good news, however, is that the activiation for AF point selection is now one of several custom functions which can be assigned to a variety of buttons on the front and top of the camera. I put it on the front, where the depth-of-field preview would normally be on a traditional SLR, and found that this was workable. The four-way is still small and a bit hard to reach with the camera up to one's face, but that is a product of the camera's small size and large screen, so I cannot push the complaint too far.
A Great Place to Be During A Flash Flood, Southwest Utah
Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm f4, 1.9 sec @ f20, ISO 200
The carry-over of Fuji's excellent "Q" Menu system is the best part of the X-T1's controls. Introduced as a salve for the ill-designed main menu system, the "Q" button allows quick access to most key controls not directly attached to a hardware dial. The main menu system still isn't great, but with the extent of customization now available, I think most users would be happy enough. Once I placed AF selection and self-timer on specific buttons, the camera stayed mostly out of the way.
However, I still got the 'you can't get there from here' errors more often that I should have. This occurs when some option is sought, but is greyed-out on the menu and inacessible for some reason. There's always a reason, but it's not always obvious. Instead of options being greyed-out, Fuji should have them appear in yellow, with an explanatory note popping up if the photographer attempts to select them at an inopportune moment. For instance, I was never able to access the higher dynamic range modes. No idea why. User error at some level, but still frustrating. I should not have to pound through a dense manual for basic functions.
Fuji is, however, making progress on its UI, and given the company's admirable track-record of listening to and implementing user feedback, one can expect that this positive evolution will continue.
The Fuji X-T1 can be purchased at B&H Photo
It has been fun to watch the “X” series mature into a full-fledged camera system. The X-T1 is definitely Fuji’s best “X” body yet, and their new lenses range from the superb to the truly remarkable. The package is tight, usable, and compelling. The results are excellent. Fuji has managed to grow its niche into a mainstream system that every photographer should consider, but has done so without losing too much of the magic which made the “X” special from the outset. This camera should be a real hit for Fuji, and deservedly so.
If you liked this review, you might want to watch my video review at TCS TV, linked here.
Nick Devlin – follow me on Twitter @onelittlecamera