Fuji X-Pro1 Review
– Part One –
by Nick Devlin
On March 8, 2012, Fujifilm Canada held its press-launch of the much-anticpated X-Pro1 camera system. I was invited along with a number of other industry journalists and photographers to a brief hands-on with the camera. A full production kit, with all three lenses should be in my hands early next week, and I will update this review on a rolling basis as I get to know this important and fascinating new camera.
Behold, the X-Pro1
It was also on a grey and forgettable March day that the smug lunk behind the counter at my least-favourite local camera shop condescended to inform me that there never would be, nay, could never, be a digital rangefinder, and that I might as well just get over it. On this gray March morning, almost a decade later, I would have given a dollar or two to see his face at Fuji’s launch of the X-Pro1. Rangefinder cameras might be early 20th century technology, but this is a very 21st century baby.
While Leica has been producing a viable digital RF for several years (trust me, my bank balance hadn’t missed that fact), the X-Pro1 brings interchangeable lens RF photography back to the people. And Fuji has done it in style, both literally and figuratively, with the X-Pro1 sporting at least two ground-breaking new technologies.
While comparisons involving the “L” word are inevitable, it’s only fair to note that Fuji has as much claim to a rangefinder heritage as does the venerable “L”. In the days of film, Fuji made a large line of medium format RF cameras, from compact 645 models up to the “Texas Leica” 690 series. The 690III cameras came in two flavours, wide and wider, and remain amongst my very favourite cameras. In short, Fuji knows RF, and has obvious pride in that legacy. Indeed, how else could one read the “Super EBC” labelling on the lens other than as a nod to the company’s RF past. For the uninitiated, it stands for “Super Electron Beam Coating” – a moniker devised in the days when men walked on the moon and words like “electron” and “beam” conjured up visions of a Jetson-like futurama.
If one goes back far enough, to the early 1970s, Fuji actually made an interchangeable lens 6x9 system, known as the 690BL. All things old are new again.
The X-Pro1 is a handsome camera. Finished in all black, like a serious camera should be, it looks good. That shouldn’t matter to a working photographer, but let’s be honest, it kind of does. The aesthetic experience of the tools matters in a craft.
Truthfully, my first impression of the X-Pro1 was, “Geez, that’s quite a big camera”. Followed quickly by, “it sure looks nice”. A few hours of lustful fondling later, those impressions essentially remain. Compared to a D3x, the X-Pro1 is compact. Compared to an X10, it’s huge. Compared to the Leica M9, it seems about the same size. Indeed, the formal specs of both cameras show them to be virtually identical in all three dimensions. A scaled visual comparison in fact shows the X-Pro1 to be slightly heftier. Informed speculation suggests that the complex mechanics of the hybrid EVF simply require a lot of room. This makes sense and, if true, is a worthwhile tradeoff.
Where the two cameras part company is in weight. The M9 lists at 600 grams, whereas the X-Pro1 comes in at 450 grams. While that’s only a 30% difference, it feels like a lot more in the hand. I would have guessed the Leica was almost twice as heavy - it feels like it is.
The same is true for the lenses - an 18mm f.2, 35mm f1.4 and 60mm f2.4 macro (roughly approximating 28mm - 50mm - 90mm in full-frame equivalencies). If anything, they are larger than their Leica/Voigtlander equivalents. Their size is amplified by their hoods (more on those later) to a degree that made me start to wonder right away whether the X-PRO1 offered much advantage over a comparable APS-C DLR, like the Pentax K5. That's a question I'll answer in over time as my experience with the camera unfolds.
In the Hand
The X-Pro1 feels great in the hand, at least my hand, and especially with the accessory grip. The grip attaches to the bottom with the silky half-turn of a recessed metal key, much the way the bottom comes off an M-camera. Just better. The camera would benefit from the addition of a thumb-grip, and I sincerely hope that Tim Isaac will make one of his superb Thumbs Up adapters for the X-Pro1. Since he already supports both the X100 and X10, this must-have accessory can’t be far off. That said, the X-Pro1 grips well as-is.
Build quality feels excellent. The camera is solid, the lenses mount positively and lock into place without play, and the tactile response of the control inputs range from excellent (the dials) to adequate (the buttons). A few online sources have suggested that the X-Pro1’s build was a bit flimsy. I totally disagree. Anyone who feels this way is mistaking heft for quality. Fuji is clearly proud of the X-Pro1, and I would say that, for the price point, the camera lacks nothing in fit and finish. I make the price-point qualification only because Leica products, carved as they are from the solid mass of rare-earth meteorites (and priced accordingly) set a standard that is neither easily nor realistically met. For my purposes, I expect that the X-Pro1’s build quality will prove to be at a fully professional standard. I hasten to add that the Fuji 690s were relatively light cameras, for their bulk, and have proven marvellously durable.
The lenses also feel fine, though with a necessarily less ‘metal’ feel. I say necessarily, because these are autofocus optics and, as such, cannot be built around the brass-helicals of comparable manual focus lenses. All three lenses give a physical sense of quality, thought, a feeling which is augmented considerably by their beautifully executed bayonet-mount metal lens hoods. These are some of the nicest and best fitting hoods I have seen. The only catch is that the hood on the 60mm f2.4 is inexplicably enormous, making that lens look more like the 120mm for my Pentax 645, than a discreet RF optic. Suffice to say, it would stay home most of the time. The hoods on the 18mm and 35mm are, however, entirely proportionate.
X-Pro 1 with 18mm f2 X-Pro 1 with 60mm f2.4 macro
The X-Pro1 is graced with a stepped-up version of the X100’s user interface, both physically and electronically. This is a classically influenced camera, with a blend of analog and digital inputs. The mechanical, 1/3-stop incremented apertures on each lens are lovely to use and work in smooth combination with the shutter speeds dial atop the camera, which also has the ubiquitous “A” setting to bring Progam and Aperture Priority modes into play. A new addition is the “Q” button, well situated near the nature thumb rest position, which brings up a quick-menu featuring most important settings (ISO, etc) which are then changeable with a single touch of the rocker switch situated right at the thumb-rest position. This is great, because it means you can change most of the essential functions of the camera without modal menus or having to hit “enter” or taking the camera away from your eye. The camera can be set to display menus either on the rear LCD or in the EVF viewfinder, or in both, alternatively based on whether the camera senses your eye at the viewfinder or not. This is a mature and well thought-out execution.
Speaking of the eye, that’s where the real action is on the X-Pro1. The viewfinder is a more advanced iteration of the ground breaking hybrid OVF/EVF first found on the X100. The added twist, in this case, is that optical magnifiers can be added with a touch of the viewfinder lever, making use of longer focal length lenses much easier. With this innovation, Fuji has taken dead aim at one of Leica’s greatest weaknesses – inaccurate framing and difficulty of use with longer lenses. Having selected a classic 28-50-90 lens spread for the X-Pro1, Fuji has one-upped every other earlier RF camera by allowing optical magnification of the viewfinder. Brilliantly done. I confess that this feature is the one which causes me the most worries from a durability stand point, since it involves precision movement of small optical elements, but the execution is simply excellent.
The EVF is also pretty good. I hate EVFs in general, but this one is useable and makes the experience of shooting with longer glass simpler. The EVF will become much more important later this year and in 2013 when Fuji introduces a series of promised zoom lenses. That’s right…zoom lenses for a rangefinder camera. Since one of these is said to be a 70-200mm equivalent, and another a super-wide, the EVF is the only game in town. External finders are, to my mind, utterly obsolete, and Fuji has made a truly modern RF in this regard.
The most important feature of the X-Pro1 is autofocus. This is what sets it apart from the other interchangeable RF system built to date. While I have some initial impressions (both positive and negative) from playing with the camera briefly under low, indoor light, any definitive comment on the X-Pro1’s autofocus capacity will have to wait for thorough testing. One feature which is very nice, however, is the ability to select focus points virtually anywhere in the image field, and not solely in the centre area. Critically, user-selected focus points work even with the OVF through a digital overlay (ditto for the framelines). Nice.
The second marquis new technology on the X-Pro1 is its 16MP “X-Trans” sensor. This imager puts a unique twist on the traditional bayer matrix by essentially randomizing the RGB pattern in its filter array. Fuji claims that this greatly reduces moire and other false-colour artefacts. The upside of this development is that the X-Pro1 can do without the dreaded low-pass or “Anti Aliasing” filter, which most cameras still possess. Since the explicit purpose of the OLP filter is to blur detail below a set frequency, conventional wisdom (as borne out by more than a few photographers’ experience), is that cameras without an “AA” filter produce, pound-for-pound, higher resolution and 'crisper' images than their blurred brethren. This phenomenon is significant enough that Nikon has built an entire sub-model on this premise – the eagerly anticipated D800E.
Many would also argue that the lack of an AA filter is what allows the 18MP sensor on the M9 to rival the 24MP sensors on the Sony A900 and D3x. It will be interesting indeed to see what this sensor is capable of.
Ok, having kept you in suspense this long, let me give a tease on image quality. From what I’ve seen, from a handful of jpegs I shot at the launch, and a few large prints shot by a talented local photography Roël Dixon-Mahatoo, it looks very promising. Roël had a pre-production camera for a couple of weeks in his studio, and his blog features a meaty review which you may want to check out.
For now, I offer this glimpse of the brave and lovely Celine, one of the organizers of today's launch, who kindly did double-duty as a model for a few moments. This shot was handheld, wide-open with the 60mm f2.4 at ISO 640. To my eye, this image shows both superb detail in the lips, and creamy yet real smoothness in the skin tones. The image is unaltered, straight out of the jpeg engine.
Celine - Toronto, March, 2012
Fuji X-Pro1, 60mm f2.4, ISO 640 @ f2.4
100% detail crop