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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fuji X-T1 First Impression by Mike Villa




Every so often a camera gets released that the photo community cannot seem to stop talking about. It gets bashed by critics, praised by fanboys, and floods forums faster than a Canon 1DX's single-point focus. As you, dear readers, are well aware of, Fujifilm's new X-T1 is the latest of these hype-mongers. 

Context is everything, and so before we dive into the nitty-gritty of all that is Fuji, I think it's important to establish the perspective that I'm reviewing this camera from. I've been a full-time professional photographer for a little over four years now, and have dabbled in quite a few different areas of photography. For some time my sole income was from shooting weddings and portraits, but over the past year I've moved into more commercial travel photography (shooting mostly as a travel photojournalist for Life Without Limbs), with weddings and lifestyle shoots sprinkled throughout. 

I entered photography as a Canon shooter, but quickly moved to Nikon after going full-time. As my travel increased, I added Leica and Fuji systems to my kit. My workhorse camera is my (mostly) trusty LeicaM9, with my Nikon D800 filling in the gaps left by the rangefinder system. Up until this point (spoiler alert), my Fuji kit based around the X-E1 has mostly been regulated to personal use. Needless to say, the X-T1 going up against some very strong competitors in the fight to find a place in my bag.


One final note before we get into it: I've only had the X-T1 for a week, and being on the tail end of tax season, I haven't had a chance to really put it through its paces. So this will focus more on my first impressions rather than on-location use. But fear not! I'm typing this from a plane that's Hawaii-bound, where I'll be using the Fuji extensively on this shoot over the next two and a half weeks. So come back in a few weeks for my opinion on how it performs in the field.

By this point, I'm sure you've read countless reviews, spec sheets, and forum postings, but as a quick recap: The Fujifilm X-T1 is Fuji's biggest, baddest mirrorless offering to date. It's extremely similar to the Fuji X-E2 in that it uses the same 16 megapixel X-Trans II sensor, hybrid focus system, LCD, and EVF, but everything has been tweaked to be faster, bigger, and better built. The form factor is more DSLR-like than the typical rangefinder-esque design of Fuji's past offerings, but it's not noticeably bigger than them. 


One of the biggest surprises is how deceptively small the X-T1 is. It's just about the same size as the X-E series, but with the "prism" hump sticking out of the middle. It's certainly not small by mirrorless standards, but it's a large step down in size from even an entry level DSLR. As a guy with slightly short, stubby fingers, I've found the X-E series and Leica M9 quite comfortable in my hands, with my fingers falling naturally over the controls. With the viewfinder now centered in the X-T1, everything feels slightly more cramped. There's not quite as much real estate for your hand to sprawl out across the camera. It's not uncomfortable by any means, and all of the controls fall easily at hand (except perhaps the AF-L button), but it takes a minute to adjust to it. It's a very different grip than the rangefinder-style cameras or a traditional DSLR. I have Fuji's handgrip (not to be confused with their battery grip) on preorder, and I would image that all of my handling woes will be solved by it.


With that said, once you do get a good grip on the X-T1 it feels fantastic. All of the dials spin smoothly and precisely, the grip material feels great, and the camera as a whole feels solid but not overly heavy. It's not the bulletproof feel of a pro DSLR body nor the solid brick of brass feel of the Leica, but it's immediately apparent that you're holding a modern, well-constructed camera. It feels significantly better than the X-E series, and noticeably better than even the X-Pro1. I'd have no problem subjecting this to the rigors of professional shooting. 

Button feel and actuation is very much a personal preference, but in my opinion Fuji has finally perfected the dial feel on this camera. The exposure compensation is smooth but stiff, and requires two fingers to spin accurately. I know that's not everyone's preference, but that's how I prefer to shoot. The shutter speed dial is equally smooth but can be turned with one finger if needed. I love the aperture priority lockout button. The ISO dial is something I've been wanting from Fuji since the launched their X-series cameras, and I'm happy to see the automatic mode is on there as well. I don't like that it has the lockout, and would prefer if it operated like the shutter speed dial - only requiring the lockout button to be pushed when moving away from automatic. There seem to be a lot of requests for this, and I wouldn't be surprised if the next Fuji featuring an ISO dial operated in that manner. As is, it's a bit slower to operate than I would like.

The drive mode dial, located right underneath the ISO dial spins smoothly and accurately, with just the right amount of resistance. Unfortunately the "photometry" deal (metering mode in non-Fuji speak) is not as easy to use. It seems to be similar in resistance to the drive mode dial, but because it sits flush with the shutter speed dial that sits on top of it, it's nearly impossible to adjust without inadvertently changing the shutter speed. This isn't an often used function for me, so it's not a huge deal, but every once in awhile I like to switch to spot metering for just a shot or two and then flip back to multi/matrix metering. Nikon provides an excellent way to do this in that you can assign spot metering to activate when you hold down a function button of your choice, but Fuji doesn't provide that option.


While the dials feel like well-engineered, precise control points, the buttons on the back of the camera don't fare nearly as well. The direction pad (as I'm sure you've read) is fairly mushy and difficult to press. It's not the catastrophe that some people are making it out to be, but it's definitely below average for this level of camera. I suspect that it's engineered that way partially because of weather sealing and partially to avoid inadvertent activation, as that's where your palm rests when holding the camera. As those two things are greater priorities for me than a snappy direction pad, it's a trade off that I'm fine with. The rest of the buttons on the seem needlessly small, but give a light but solid click.

So you fiddle with the dials, gain your comfortable grip, and finally lift the camera to your face to look through the viewfinder. Boom. The view is found. It's bigger than the viewfinder in the D800, and you notice it. It feels very much like seeing a movie in IMAX for the first time. You're IN the viewfinder. It's sharp, it's bright, and there is zero lag. For me, it was very much an "Oh, this technology has finally arrived" moment. If you remember the jump from clunky old smart phones to the first iPhone, then you know the feeling.


When the light goes down, the viewfinder does start to get fairly noisy. It's not unmanageable by any means, but it's not quite the magical experience that shooting in good light is. 

The LCD is clean, crisp, and bright. It holds its own fairly well in bright light, and there aren't any unpleasant surprises. But really, the superstar of the camera is the EVF. The LCD is just there to review photos and grab photos at awkward angles.  

One thing worth noting is that you can set the EVF display mode to "EVF only + eye sensor". This is brilliant. For one, the EVF will only activate when the camera is lifted to your eye, meaning that no screens are on when you're not looking through the camera. It's a terrific battery saver that doesn't affect how you use the camera. The other brilliant bit is that when in this mode, if you hit play and you're not looking through the viewfinder, the image will pop up on the rear LCD, just like a DSLR. Finally, a camera I can shoot just like my D800 and M9. There may be other mirrorless cameras on the market with this feature (I believe maybe some of the Olympus OMDseries?), but it was my first experience of an EVF operating in this manner. Fantastic.


Ok. So all is good so far. Now that we're looking through the camera, let's take some photos. Click the shutter. Wait. Did that focus? Do I have it on manual focus? The focus was instant. I couldn't believe it. 

Now, the X-T1 isn't a magical unicorn sent from the lens gods above to save us from the terror that is autofocus. But under certain conditions (center-point focus, moderate to good light, subject within 5 or so feet of where the lens is already focused), the focus is absolutely instant. Those may seem like very specific conditions, but those describe at least 60% of the scenarios I'm shooting in. For example, if you're shooting a portrait or a bride getting ready, you'll often be moving around within the same small area, with relatively little (5 or so feet) variation in focus distance. 

Now, once you throw the Fuji into different scenarios, say switching focus between subjects that are more than 10 feet apart, or using a point other than the center point, it becomes a bit more typical in performance. Under most conditions, my X-T1 + 23mm 1.4 seemed to equal my D800 + Nikon 35mm 1.4 in focus speed (using center point focus).  Granted, the Nikon 35 isn't the snappiest lens - any of their 2.8 zooms will be much quicker to focus - but it is a professional grade DSLR lens that has rarely left me wanting in focus speed. When the light starts dropping or you move to any focus point that isn't the center one, the speed advantage shifts significantly to the Nikon. 


All that to say, in good light, the X-T1 keeps up very well with DSLR paired with a slower-focusing lens. In poor light, it performs much more like a fairly speedy mirrorless camera. The biggest advantage here over a DSLR? Focusing directly on the sensor means that there are never any lens calibration issues, and it's far more accurate.

Of course, the elephant in the room is focus tracking performance, and Fuji has made a pretty big stink about it. Unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to use it much, and so that will have to wait for part two of my review.

In terms of image quality, there's nothing new here. Files look identical to those out of an X-E2, which are very, very similar to the X-E1 and X-Pro1. Fuji colors are fantastic, and the files can handle a good deal of pushing and pulling. The "foliage smearing" that's well documented on forums is indeed a real thing, but it's typically extremely minor, and for my work isn't an issue.

If you aren't familiar with Fuji's X-mount lenses, you're missing out. They leave nothing on the table when compared to my Nikon Gs. The first time I used the Fuji 35mm f1.4, I was blown away that a $600 lens could perform that well. Since then, the quality has only improved. Wide open against my Nikkors, every one of the Fuji lenses are sharper that my Nikon equivalent. It's worth noting that the newer lenses such as the 14mm and 23mm seem to focus quite a bit faster than the older ones like the 18mm and 35mm.


So is the X-T1 ready for primetime? Or more importantly, pro time? It's easily the quickest, most powerful Fuji to date, and puts any notions of slow and buggy Fujis far out of mind. No, it's not going to out-focus a D4, but you rarely will find yourself waiting on it either.

For me, it's proof that mirrorless (and particularly Fuji) is serious about gunning for a spot in a professional photographer's bag. As someone who doesn't shoot sports very often, this little camera easily fills 90% of what I ask from my D800. Obviously you're not going to see sports shooters and fine art photographers tossing their main bodies aside for the Fuji X-T1, but I gladly will. I've already sold off two of my Nikon lenses, and will be getting rid of the remainder of my kit as more Fuji lenses come my way - eventually leaving me with just a Leica/Fuji combo.

For those who appreciate Fujifilm's throwback handling and excellent range of impressive lenses, it's a no brainer.

Mike Villa 


9 comments:

Stephen Scharf said...

MIke,
Nice review. My assessment of using my X-T1 agree in large part with yours. I would like to have a bit more control over the contrast of the EVF in very bright light, but that's about it.

If you want to see some real high-speed focus tracking performance images, check out my photos taken last Saturday of go-kart racing here: http://photos.imageevent.com/puma_cat/autoracing/Cart%20Racer-1.jpg

You can click on the the top forward arrow on the page to very quickly move through all eight images. This was from a sequence of 13 consecutive images shot at 8.5 fps, all of which were in focus. I found that locking on the kart with the back focus button, holding it down and tracking the kart through the corner worked quite well.

Regards,
Stephen Scharf

Mike said...

Good read, thanks!
May I ask you what strap you've attached to the X-T1. Matches the beauty perfectly ...

Wing Yip said...

Overll, the x-t1 is a very good camera, probably the best and my favorite off all x cameras to date.

There are a number of design issues and quirks that keep it from being great, most it think I would be able to get use to or deal with. But, like with nearly all other x cameras (save exception for x100/100s) I find it very disappointing in shutter speed performance. I wish they would go up to 1/8000, but I can live and work with 1/4000 max. However, the flash sync is sad. Sure the 1/180 max flash sync isn't that far off from most other pro dslr's at 1/200-1/250 max flash sync speed. But, at least many of those other cameras at least have the option to use high speed sync (hss) or fast FP flash sync so you can still have the very real option of shooting faster and well above the 1/180 (or similarly low shutter sync speed) when needs be.

I find this very important since a lot of my work involves bright daytime outdoor portraits where matching ambient light and overcoming sunlight is critical with very fast shutter speeds and shooting wide open to get nice subject isolation and background blur.

Even if I wasn't speaking strictly of my specific work environment, I find it a pretty major oversight that Fuji didn't at the very least engineer a way to do HSS into their top high end x series cameras. Even in a non-professional example, having HSS (or similar high speed flash sync capability) would be a major tool for even casual shooters who want to be able to shoot a nice photo of a family member or friends in a bright outdoor setting where it would be impossible to get a nice well balanced photo without HSS capable camera and flash system.

Hopefully, the next X-T or X-Pro will have this essential HSS/FP capability for a "pro" camera.

Wing Yip said...

Overll, the x-t1 is a very good camera, probably the best and my favorite off all x cameras to date.

There are a number of design issues and quirks that keep it from being great, most it think I would be able to get use to or deal with. But, like with nearly all other x cameras (save exception for x100/100s) I find it very disappointing in shutter speed performance. I wish they would go up to 1/8000, but I can live and work with 1/4000 max. However, the flash sync is sad. Sure the 1/180 max flash sync isn't that far off from most other pro dslr's at 1/200-1/250 max flash sync speed. But, at least many of those other cameras at least have the option to use high speed sync (hss) or fast FP flash sync so you can still have the very real option of shooting faster and well above the 1/180 (or similarly low shutter sync speed) when needs be.

I find this very important since a lot of my work involves bright daytime outdoor portraits where matching ambient light and overcoming sunlight is critical with very fast shutter speeds and shooting wide open to get nice subject isolation and background blur.

Even if I wasn't speaking strictly of my specific work environment, I find it a pretty major oversight that Fuji didn't at the very least engineer a way to do HSS into their top high end x series cameras. Even in a non-professional example, having HSS (or similar high speed flash sync capability) would be a major tool for even casual shooters who want to be able to shoot a nice photo of a family member or friends in a bright outdoor setting where it would be impossible to get a nice well balanced photo without HSS capable camera and flash system.

Hopefully, the next X-T or X-Pro will have this essential HSS/FP capability for a "pro" camera.

Wing Yip said...

Overll, the x-t1 is a very good camera, probably the best and my favorite off all x cameras to date.

There are a number of design issues and quirks that keep it from being great, most it think I would be able to get use to or deal with. But, like with nearly all other x cameras (save exception for x100/100s) I find it very disappointing in shutter speed performance. I wish they would go up to 1/8000, but I can live and work with 1/4000 max. However, the flash sync is sad. Sure the 1/180 max flash sync isn't that far off from most other pro dslr's at 1/200-1/250 max flash sync speed. But, at least many of those other cameras at least have the option to use high speed sync (hss) or fast FP flash sync so you can still have the very real option of shooting faster and well above the 1/180 (or similarly low shutter sync speed) when needs be.

I find this very important since a lot of my work involves bright daytime outdoor portraits where matching ambient light and overcoming sunlight is critical with very fast shutter speeds and shooting wide open to get nice subject isolation and background blur.

Even if I wasn't speaking strictly of my specific work environment, I find it a pretty major oversight that Fuji didn't at the very least engineer a way to do HSS into their top high end x series cameras. Even in a non-professional example, having HSS (or similar high speed flash sync capability) would be a major tool for even casual shooters who want to be able to shoot a nice photo of a family member or friends in a bright outdoor setting where it would be impossible to get a nice well balanced photo without HSS capable camera and flash system.

Hopefully, the next X-T or X-Pro will have this essential HSS/FP capability for a "pro" camera.

Please correct me if I'm mistaken about the flash sync limitations about the X-T1 (& other X cameras, minus the X100/X100S as I know the leaf shutter has advantage to do faster shutter speeds). No high speed sync, Fast FP Sync or whatever you want to call it, right?

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks! I'm adding this kit to my large and heavy Sony/Carl Zeiss system and hoping to have the same experience as you.

On a side note...I am, too, curious about the strap??

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks! I'm adding this kit to my large and heavy Sony/Carl Zeiss system and hoping to have the same experience as you.

On a side note...I am, too, curious about the strap??

Mike Villa said...

Thanks guys! Sorry for the late response.

The strap shown here is the Artisan & Artist Shoulder Pad Strap.

Fujifilm X-T1 said...

By this point, I'm sure you've read countless reviews, spec sheets, and forum postings, but as a quick recap: The Fujifilm X-T1 is Fuji's biggest, ... fujifilmxt.blogspot.de