While thousands of photographers around the world declare their love for new small mirrorless cameras, the word on the street is that the DSLR is dead! That’s one hell of a statement, and if true, a real game changer and it’s certainly got photographers talking. But is there any truth to that bold statement made by Zack Arias in his review of the X100s? I decided to find out by putting my Fuji X-Pro1 to the test.
I’m not going to talk to you about what’s under the hood, hell I’ve never written a camera review before. I’m a working photographer concerned with how gear performs in real life. To me it’s all about the image and the user experience and that’s the premise for this review. So if you’re thinking of listing your DSLR on ebay you may want to hold on…….at least until you’ve read what I found.
For years I have struggled to find a small, lightweight camera capable of delivering high quality images similar to what I get from my heavy duty Canons. I even went so far as to buy a Leica M6 once, damn it was pretty, but beyond what can only be described as a brief flirtation we never bonded. In the end I just couldn’t justify it collecting dust any more so it had to go. I went down the G7/G9 route but the journey was unfulfilling and the results were generally disappointing. The cameras struggled beyond ISO 400 and I simply couldn’t ignore my desire to explore life in the shadows so when the G9 suffered a seizure and stopped working I was determined to find a camera that was small and lightweight but delivered the quality of a grown up DSLR.
Enter Fuji on the scene with their new range of X-series cameras. These little mutant cameras are like the X-Men of the camera world with amazing powers, like the ability to produce noise free images at ridiculously high ISOs. The only noise they did produce was the incessant chatter on the web with so many people raving about them. Sure, there was criticism especially about the focussing on the X100 but the imaging quality set a new benchmark for this size of camera. But what struck me most was the passion and enthusiasm the X100 generated. People were excited and I mean really excited. Suddenly, the photography world came alive, the excitement was palpable. Hell, some photographers even discovered love again!
I bought the X-Pro1 with a 35mm and 60mm lens in March this year, so I’ve had plenty of time to try it in different situations and really get to grips with it. The kit sits comfortably in a Lowepro Passport Sling, which I’ve customised by adding extra padding to accommodate a new Fuji 14mm XF lens. A friend described it as looking like a nappy changing bag. Awesome!
Design and features
As far as the size, weight and design of the X-Pro1 is concerned I think Fuji have got it pretty much spot on. It’s bigger than a compact camera but smaller than a serious DSLR. Some people describe it as a rangefinder, which of course it isn’t but you can’t ignore the size or design similarity.
Importantly, Fuji have got a good balance between the size and weight of the body and the lenses, unlike Sony with the RX1, which has a tiny body, and I really mean a tiny body stuck to what looks like an oversized lens, damn that can’t be good!
The X-Pro1 is lightweight but not in a cheap, flimsy or plasticky kinda way. It feels solid in the hand and inspires confidence as a serious tool for the craft of photography. Top marks to Fuji on the design and build quality including the ergonomics with buttons and dials easily falling to hand but I think some re-allocation of functions and minor tweaks would help with the handling of the camera (more on that later).
One of the most important considerations for me when choosing a camera is manual control. Yep, I like to drive the thing myself. I don’t use Program or Auto mode and rarely use Aperture or Shutter priority. I’ve spent years studying photography and I have my own creative vision, so why would I sacrifice that and let the camera drive itself?
SHOCK! Cameras are designed simply for capture, they have no concept of creativity. Yep, that’s right, it’s your role as the photographer to add the creative bit. The role of the camera is simply capture. Anyone who understands the craft of photography will know what I mean. I’m really pleased that the X-Pro1 has the main controls just where you would expect to find them. The aperture is controlled by a ring on the lens and the shutter is controlled by a dial on the top plate. This is what professionals want and has led to a lot of praise for Fuji. Perfect!
There’s no getting away from menus on modern cameras and the X-Pro1 is no different, but Fuji have done a great job in making it as logical as possible. You have 5 shooting menus and 3 set-up menus. You can go from one menu to the next by simply scrolling up or down with the selector keys located around the menu button but the best thing is the Q button which brings up the quick menu showing 16 of the most widely used settings including ISO, image quality, white balance and auto focus mode. ISO is assigned to the Fn (Function) button, which is located just next to the shutter release making it fast and easy to use, similar to where the ISO button is located on my Canon 1d Mark III and 5d MarkII.
The 14, 35 and 60mm Fujinon lenses all have a traditional aperture ring that allows you to select the f-stop in 1/3 stop increments. A little more tension between the clicks would have been welcome, as it’s easy to accidentally change the setting. Also, over a period of time, with regular use, that tension will only continue to decrease so there is also the issue of longevity, though it must be said, a lot depends on the materials used.
The main dial on the camera top plate allows you to select shutter speeds in 1 stop increments. The left and right selector keys around the menu button allow you to change the shutter setting in 1/3 stop increments. This is not great as the selector keys don’t easily fall to hand. It would have been better to allocate the command dial for this function which is situated close to where the thumb normally rests. Another problem is that having adjusted your shutter speed, the camera reverts back to the full stop setting on the shutter dial when it’s woken up from standby or when it’s switched off and on again. It would have been better if the camera remembered the last USER setting for the shutter in 1/3 stop increments.
The size and weight of the X-Pro1 makes it ideal for travel. No more hours spent shoehorning gear into a cabin friendly bag. Three lenses and a body fit quite happily in the Lowepro Passport Sling with room to spare and the total weight is easy to carry around all day. Photographers can once again stand up straight and walk tall. The feeling of liberation alone is worth the money.
For me, the X-Pro1 is ideal for street photography, documentary, photojournalism and some editorial work. Though it’s not as discreet as the other X-series cameras, it has the advantage of interchangeable lenses and is smaller and considerably lighter than a M series Leica which has traditionally been the tool of choice for many street photographers and photojournalists. Initially, there is a steep learning curve getting used to the camera and this is the critical bit, you’ll either love it or hate it.
I always shoot RAW and use Lightroom to process the files but the camera has the ability to process RAW files in-camera on request and I’m not talking about shooting RAW and jpegs simultaneously (that is also available) but selecting an individual RAW file for in-camera processing and what’s really cool is that you can choose a ‘look’ based on a selection of classic Fuji emulsions. The jpegs are good and you won’t be disappointed. This is a nice touch by Fuji, and I think it may rekindle some nostalgic connection in some photographers with Fuji films, but it’s not a feature that I use.
The camera boasts a hybrid viewfinder, which has proved to be a revelation. Initially, I was a little sceptical about this but the X-Pro1 allows the option of switching from the electronic to the optical viewfinder at the flick of a switch located on the front of the camera. The third viewfinder option is the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Surprisingly, I find myself using all three options, the flexibility is great depending on circumstances. I like using the electronic viewfinder most of all, it shows you the same view as the lens just like a DSLR. Brilliant!
I also use the LCD screen on the back of the camera, something I’ve never really done before. One night, in Venice, I stumbled across a flooded St Mark’s Square, I needed a tripod but didn’t have one so I placed the X-Pro1 on a bin and used the LCD screen to frame the scene. The camera uses an old style threaded cable release and the good news is that they are cheap to buy. I had one kicking around at home, a throwback to my FM2 days which I’d thrown into my camera bag before travelling so I used that to shoot a series of timed exposures using the bulb setting. Simplicity itself and guess what, the LCD screen also displays the duration of the exposure for you. A really useful feature by Fuji.
One quirk which took a little longer to get used to is the image preview for a burst sequence. The camera is capable of a respectable 3fps and 6fps burst rate but the preview will leave you scratching your head at first as you see the first frame of the burst sequence with a small thumbnail superimposed towards the bottom showing an animation of the whole sequence. Weird!
Initially, I got frustrated not being able to review all the images but then discovered that by pressing the selector button down and then using the left and right selector keys you can scroll through the entire sequence as normal. I’m not quite sure why Fuji decided to do things this way, it’s no big deal but it requires another step to review the entire sequence of images. It would be much easier to review them as individual frames as found on other cameras. Perhaps Fuji can fix this in a firmware update.
I think the autofocus on the X-Pro1 is pretty damn good especially with the latest version 3.01 firmware update though it can require a little care and attention to work effectively in some circumstances but that’s no different to any other camera, and it’s also down to understanding your gear. It’s not designed to compete with the likes of pro DSLRs but then you’re not paying the money that those cameras demand. My advice would be to invest some time getting to grips with understanding the AF system and testing how it works. Nobody can do this for you, it’s something you have to do yourself.
I think this camera is about a more considered approach to photography; watching, thinking and creating images as elements come together. The level of detail captured by the X-Trans sensor is nothing short of sensational. In ‘S’ (single) AF mode you can select any one of the 49 AF sensors covering most of the frame but in C (continuous) focus mode only the centre sensor is active limiting the composition but the quality of the files is so good that you can re-compose your shots afterwards by cropping (yep, that’s right I used the ‘c’ word). Take a look at the heavily cropped image below.
The X-Pro1 boasts an impressive ISO range from 200 to 6400. At low ISOs the images are exceptionally smooth and you don’t really start to see any grain until you get to around ISO1600 and even then it’s minimal. Continue all the way up to ISO 6400 and you’ll marvel at how good the images are. Fuji have done a terrific job with the new X-Trans sensor which really is capable of shooting at ISO 6400 with very little noise.
I decided to give the X-Pro1 a workout in the studio after all, if the DSLR is dead then we have a choice of medium format digital such as a Phase One or something else. I don’t own a Phase One, so the X-Pro1 had to step up to the mark.
It’s odd, but in a studio environment the camera immediately feels awkward, as if it instinctively doesn’t belong there. I had a problem part way through the shoot with the Pocket Wizard refusing to sync with the lights. I got around it by connecting the cord to the camera via a hot shoe PC adaptor. It wasn’t great but it worked. With the Canons the remote triggers work flawlessly leaving you to concentrate on the shoot. But to be fair this could have been due to any number of problems and not necessarily one associated with the camera.
So how did it perform? While it may have been awkward to use, the results are very impressive indeed. The quality of imaging is equivalent to my Canon DSLRs but given the choice I would choose my Canon 1dmkIII every time. I also found the maximum sync speed of 1/125s limiting and outside this would also be a problem especially working with flash in bright light.
So is the DSLR dead? Well, yes and no. It depends entirely on the type of photography you do. The X-Pro1 is ideal for street, documentary, photojournalism, editorial and travel photography, but in the studio it feels awkward and has operational limitations. If Fuji were to address the operational limitations and release an optional studio grip that would make the ergonomics similar to a DSLR, then the demise of the DSLR would certainly be one step closer. But to be fair to Fuji, I don’t think the camera was ever produced with the studio in mind. It’s great for certain types of photography and I would hate to see it evolve into an oversized ‘one camera fits all’ monster. It is precisely the small size and lightweight combined with the outstanding image quality that are its strength.
The reality is that most professional photographers have an armoury of lenses and cameras to use according to the type of assignment they are working on. Look at other trades, have you seen how many types of screwdrivers are available on the market! Now, if Fuji were ever to produce a medium format digital camera specifically designed for studio use, that certainly would cause shockwaves in the industry and offer a real threat to the current line-up of medium format digital cameras. Remember you read it here first.
Without doubt the X-Pro1 is a great camera. It’s not for the beginner or the faint-hearted and thankfully there are no picture styles to choose from; the film emulsions can be forgiven. It is a serious imaging tool capable of exceptional results. Fuji have demonstrated their commitment to the product by continuing to release firmware updates. The latest version 3.01 released only recently at the end of July. They also continue to expand the range of XF lenses. It is also encouraging that a camera manufacturer is prepared to listen to feedback from photographers and long may that continue.
I have no regrets buying the X-Pro1, it is the camera that I have been waiting a long time for. It’s an absolute joy to use and the imaging quality is nothing short of sublime. It positively encourages photography because it is small and light and importantly doesn’t draw attention when working in the public. It’s easy to understand why photographers around the world have fallen in love with photography once again and the excitement is real and truly justified.
Have I fallen in love with the X-Pro1? Absolutely, but I’m not getting rid of my Canons…….well, not just yet anyway!
Recommendations to Fuji
1. Change the 1/3 stop incremental adjustment of the shutter speed to the Command dial rather than the left and right Menu selectors and allow the camera to retain the user setting until adjusted by the user.
2. Change the preview for burst mode to normal without having to press the Menu down selector before scrolling through.
3. Add a lock on the exposure compensation dial. This doesn’t bother me because I shoot in manual mode but it is somethingI have heard others talk about and I can see it would be useful when shooting in Program, Aperture or Shutter priority.
4. A little more tension on the aperture ring between clicks would help prevent accidental adjustment.
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