I should start out by saying that this really isn’t a review in the sense that I’m going to go through the camera and point out all of the features and give it my thumbs up or thumbs down. Instead, my goal here is to lay out my experience in working with this camera in the real world of professional photography so you can decide if this is a system that’s worth investing in.
For those not familiar with it, the Fuji X-T1 is the newest camera in the Fuji lineup. It’s a mirrorless camera with an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) which means that you don’t look at the scene through a mirror, instead the viewfinder consists of an LCD image of what the image sensor is actually seeing. What you see is what you get. If the image is over or under exposed, you’ll see it in the viewfinder. If nothing else, the EVF helps to make for very consistent exposures.
Edited to add: In my initial testing, I failed to realize that the EVF preview in the Fuji X-T1 is not necessarily reflective of the actual image exposure. Also, the histogram in the EVF is based upon the image preview, not the actual image. For example, when shooting with the camera set to auto-exposure outside on a sunny day at 200 ISO at f1.4 with the shutter maxing out at 1/4000, the EVF shows a properly exposed scene. However, in viewing the image afterward, the scene will appear two stops over.
This can be overcome by shooting in Manual mode and setting the camera to preview actual exposure via one of the settings in the Playback menu. This is a major demerit in my book. Sony, in their mirrorless systems, shows the actual exposure regardless of the mode you’re in. I’m baffled as to why Fuji would choose to base the histogram on the EVF exposure, not the actual exposure.
My first experience working in the world of mirrorless cameras was with the Sony NEX system (first the NEX 7 and then NEX 6). I opted for the NEX instead of the Fuji mostly based upon price – Fuji lenses are at least double the cost of equivalent Sony glass. Ultimately though I decided to trade in the NEX system because the Sony lenses just aren’t sharp and fast enough for professional use. One thing I do miss about my NEX system is just how light and small it was. I hardly noticed the camera when it was slung around my neck.
The X-T1 is about one-third the size bigger and about double the weight. It’s still small and light though. When I’m out street shooting, it’s small enough that no one really takes it seriously. Little do people know…
In purchasing this camera, my main concern was image sharpness. I need images that will hold their own with my Nikon D800e. Although I’d seen DPReview the tests, I followed up with some of my own. My first results with the Fuji 18mm f2.0 lens were actually quite dismal. The image came out looking far softer than my NEX lenses. “Why did I sell my NEX?” was my immediate thought.
Then I learned that Fuji offers both firmware for their cameras and their lenses. I performed an easy upgrade to the lens firmware from 1.0 to 3.something and bada-bing, the image popped into focus. Note to Fuji users: Check your lens firmware regularly!
Crop taken from above photo. Straight out of camera, no sharpening.
The Fuji lenses definitely live up to their reputation. They’re deliciously sharp but render soft out of focus areas in the background. Most importantly, they’re sharp wide open. The Fuji X series of cameras all wield APC sized sensors – which means a 1.5 crop from full frame. In practical terms what this means is that, at the same aperture and lens size as a full frame camera, more of the image will be in focus than when shooting full frame. Where the background of my full frame camera image might be rendered in soft focus when I’m at f2.8, the same scene might have an in-focus background when working with an APC sized sensor.
Fuji gets around this by offering a lineup of fast lenses, specifically, the 18mm f2.0, 23mm f1.4, 35 f1.4 and 56mm f1.2. Shooting wide open at f1.4 creates the soft buttery backgrounds preferred by pros. Now, the 35mm f1.4 (equivalent to the 50mm on full frame) won’t match the 50mm f1.4 full frame in terms of blowing out the background since the full frame will always win in this department. However, in practice, I rarely use f1.4 with my Canon or Nikon glass because, sadly, the cameras rarely nail the focus wide open. I’m usually shooting at f2.0 or more because I don’t trust the camera.
One advantage to the mirrorless cameras, Fuji included, is that it’s possible to zoom in on the image at five times magnification to actually see if the subject is in focus. It’s a lifesaver when shooting wide open. I recently did a lifestyle shoot with product and the focus had to be tack sharp on the product. Using the focus preview, I was able to nail the focus. Score one for Fuji.
Fuji cameras are famous for their color renditioning and the X-T1 lives up to that reputation. Even in really bad awkward light, the color straight out of camera is dead-on. There were many scenes that would have required tweaking the color balance on the raw files had I been shooting with my Nikons but looked great with the X-T1. There’s different film styles in jpeg mode that bump up the contrast and add a little saturation. The jpeg images actually look really good.
If there’s any camera that can produce great straight out-of-camera images, this is it.
World’s Fasted Autofocus?
Fuji advertises their X-T1 as having the world’s fastest autofocus. That’s complete and utter nonsense. If the two were cars, the D4s would be a Lamborghini and the Fuji a Prius. The Fuji lenses take time to rack in and out. The focus is usually accurate but not always. I don’t own the 56mm f1.2 however I have played with it – it’s closer to moped than speedster as it pushes all that glass. The 18mm is pretty fast, but not as fast as I’d hoped. The reality is that fast glass takes longer to focus and the Fuji X-T1 is no race car.
It’s fast enough for most use, but I was definitely missing shots when trying to chase down my little two year old nephew. When it comes to fast moving scenes, my Nikons still have their place.
Though the focus isn’t as fast or as sure as that of my D3s and D800e, I do like that I can select focus points throughout the entire frame, not just ones clustered in the center. Overall though the focus does take some getting used to. For example, I like to use a back button for focusing instead of relying on the shutter release. You can do this with the Fuji when it’s in manual focus mode. However, the focus area is huge so when you’re doing a headshot, the camera doesn’t know whether to focus on the nose or the eye. Instead, I’ve taken to using the back button to lock and hold focus. Where I would focus and release with my Nikons, with the Fuji I focus and continue to hold the button down. Put this one down in the semi-awkward workaround department.
For this quick headshot I did with the 35mm f1.4 wide open, you can see that the camera missed the focus. Not sure what happened or why, but the focus is on the shoulder not on the eyes. Irritating. Background is rendered nicely though.
It did better here.
The Low Light Hero
Where the camera comes into its own is in low, low light. The X-T1 will focus and nail exposures in dark places that my Nikons can only dream about. While I do prefer an optical viewfinder in daylight, in the dark, it’s useless. The Fuji on the other hand comes alive in the dark. Not only will it lock focus, but it nails the color every time.
Image below taken with the 18mm at f2.0 at 6400 iso.
The lighting in this bar (image below) was dim enough that I could barely read the menu. Taken with the 35mm at f1.4, 6400 ISO. As with any camera, the X-T1 focuses best when there’s plenty of contrast with the lighting. The lower the lighting and the less directional the light, the slower the focus. The X-T1 is the best low light focusing camera I’ve worked with – but it’s not perfect and will rack back and forth as it tries to lock focus, sometimes unsuccessfully depending on the light.
Quirks and Quibbles
When it comes to the feel of the camera, it’s got its quirks. The layout of the buttons on the back is poor. I’m often groping for the focus point buttons or the focus magnifier. Usually, I press the wrong button. (The NEX by comparison was much better – and it was no marvel of ease-of-use.) It seems like every time I change the ISO, I knock the drive lever from single to high speed continuous. Fortunately though, the auto ISO feature works great – rarely do I need to set the ISO as I just let it do its thing.
The X-T1 chews through batteries and memory. The 16 megapixel raw files clock in at 33 megabytes (compared to 23 megabytes for the NEX’s 16 megapixel files). My 8 gig cards are too small for this memory pig. I’d suggest 16 or even 32 gig cards. After about five hours of tourist style shooting where I turned the camera off after every shot, the battery completely died. That means if you’re out shooting for a long day, plan on three if not four batteries. I have two but will be picking up at least another three.
There are other kinks too. For example, I pulled out my hair trying to get the flash to work until I realized that it won’t work when the camera is in “silent mode.” At a recent shoot which required a radio trigger to fire my strobe ,the camera did its silly amateur beep each time it locked focus. Only later did I realize that it’s possible to turn off silent mode but kill the beep separately. Not sure what’s the point of silent mode. The camera is very, very quiet on its own. Its shutter has the softest click of any camera that I’ve ever handled. A true joy for street photography.
As of this writing, Adobe doesn’t support the X-T1 raw files with its Lightroom or Photoshop software. To get around this, I’ve taken to changing the EXIF data of the files to show that the images come from the X-E2 which has the same sensor and is supported by Adobe. It’s an extra step but not that big a deal.
One thing that I love is the ease of use of the wireless connectivity. Using the Fuji app, I can upload jpegs within seconds to my phone for sharing. It’s easy to setup and easy to use. It’s not 100%; sometimes a camera restart is required to gain a connection, but it’s pretty darn good and far easier to work with than the Sony NEX 6 (which offers wireless connectivity but is so poorly setup that I never bothered). Nothing like snapping the photo, uploading it to the iPhone, tweaking it in Snapseed and then posting it to Facebook and Instagram all within a minute. This is the era that we live in so it helps to have a camera that can keep up.
The following image was shot at 18mm at f2.0, 1600 ISO. Great detail and color straight out of the camera.
A fair question that can be asked is what about the Sony A7 or A7r full frame mirrorless cameras? They are about the same size as the X-T1 but don’t require sacrificing sensor size and the A7r offers double the megapixels. (16 for the X-T1 verses 36 for the A7r). The problem with the Sony system as it currently stands is that it doesn’t have the lenses. They have a 35mm f2.8 and a zoom lens or two. Sorry, but I want the speed and look of faster glass. Once Sony fills out its lens lineup, then it will be a system to contend with.
Without a doubt, the X-T1 is a great walk-around general use camera. If I were traveling abroad for vacation, I’d leave the big cameras at home. But is it ready for prime time in the life of a working pro photographer? I say “Yes” but with reservations. It’s not for every shoot, the camera does take some getting used to and it won’t perform with the same ease-of-use and speed like you’d expect from a Nikon or Canon SLR. Expect some compromises and work-arounds to your normal shooting flow.
Before I’d consider using this as a primary body at a wedding, portrait or commercial shoot, I’d want to be sure that I really had every element of this camera down. Now you may wonder why anyone would want to use this at a wedding. The answer is simple: it’s small, light and the files are gorgeous. For those crippled by the weight of their gear after an 8 hour or longer wedding, mirrorless cameras such as the X-T1 are a godsend.
Though I’m definitely loving my little X-T1, it’s certainly not the nirvana that I’d expected from all the glowing reviews and first looks. My suggestion is to get your hands on one before you buy it. Just tinkering with it at the camera store is not enough. Get out and shoot with it. My friend Joseph Victor Stefanchek bought one along with several lenses and ended up selling it off after a few days because of its ergonomics. (He’s an Olympus OMD fan.)
Finally, just remember that great images are not about the camera, they’re about what’s in your head. The X-T1 is a great tool, but like all such tools, it’s only as good as you.