Camera Review: Fujifilm X-Pro1

July 17, 2012

By Bob Rose

Bob Rose, a contributor to PDN, got his hands on the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and filed the report below. To see the high-resolution test shots he took with the camera, click here.

Fujifilm’s surprise return to the pro camera market last year was perhaps even more surprising for the type of camera the company introduced: a retro-rangefinder-style model with a fixed lens design, called the X100. Now, less than a year later and fueled, in part, by the cultish success of its little brother, an interchangeable lens variation has arrived to much fanfare: the 16.3-megapixel Fujifilm X-Pro1.

Much like the X100, the Fuji X-Pro1 is a camera that provides some technological innovation and the promise to deliver high-quality images in new ways through a relatively compact, solid, well-built package.

To be fair, Fuji has released two other models with the X designation: the X10 and X-S1. But while both cameras are capable of providing good results, they are prosumer models and don’t fit the “professional digital camera” designation reserved for the X100 and X-Pro1.

Fortunately, having much experience with the X100 made it easier for me to compare the changes Fujifilm has implemented in both the design of the new X-Pro1 and its performance. Some of these performance enhancements, it should be noted, have been made after the fact to the X-Pro1, with firmware updates.

In other words, the X-Pro1 is capable of providing undeniably superb images, but operationally it has a few quirks. Is it a good option for pros or just another novelty capitalizing on the throwback design trend? I’m primarily a travel photographer, though I also shoot commercial, fine-art and panoramic images. Here’s what I thought of the X-Pro1 after testing it in the field.

The Top Down View
Although much larger than I expected, the X-Pro1 fit well in my hand and was comfortable to shoot with. Add on the X-Pro1 Assist Grip ($94.99) and it was just about ideal, helping me reposition my fingers for better access to the poorly placed AE/AF Lock and Q (Quick Menu) controls on the right side.

Here’s my other criticism: the Assist Grip must be removed in order to access the battery/SD card compartment, which is also completely blocked if you have the camera body mounted on a tripod.

Beyond that, the controls on the top plate were easy to access and adjust including the power switch; locking shutter speed dial; exposure compensation dial; Fn (Function) button (user programmable but default set to ISO); and shutter release (threaded for standard mechanical cable release).

Each of the new XF lenses for the X-Pro1—more about them later—has clearly visible aperture controls (which should be lockable at “A” but at least have a third stop increment adjustments), and a wide manual focus control ring. A hot shoe, TTL compatible with three Fujifilm flash units (most notably the $249.99 EF-X20 designed for the X-Pro1) and a left side mounted conventional PC socket round out the top deck features.

From the Back
Though the X-Pro1 is a retro-style camera, one of the nicer, not-so-retro features is its brilliant 3-inch, 1.23-million pixel LCD screen on back, which complements the hybrid viewfinder (discussed in the next section), giving you two great ways to frame and review shots.

The X-Pro1 also has a vastly improved (compared to the X100) Control Ring, which is the primary user interface to almost all things within the camera menu.

While, as mentioned earlier, I found that the AE/AF Lock and Q controls were badly positioned on the upper right rear of the camera—it’s too easy to accidently hit them with your thumb—the Quick Menu itself is a truly welcome enhancement. It’s one of the nicest features of the X-Pro1, giving you a quick view and control (with the Command Dial) of the 16 primary camera settings, thus preventing you from having to go through the tedious conventional menu navigation.

You can really customize and streamline what is shown in the display windows, and switch on grids as well as an electronic level to assist with camera positioning/composition.

Other basic focus navigation/image viewing controls and accessible features are pretty standard, although I feel compelled to point out a quirk regarding capturing bursts of action. The Drive setting is where you select “Continuous” to access either 3 frames-per-second (fps) or 6 fps operation. While in this mode, the camera can shoot up to 9 frames (at maximum resolution) before the buffer is filled and it writes the images into individual folders on the card. During playback, images in each folder are shown by default as a looped sequence or as the first image of the sequence only, which can be a bit frustrating to view. (Fortunately, they’re all individually accessible outside of the camera playback.)

Obviously everyone feels compelled to include video capabilities in still cameras these days and the X-Pro1 is no exception. So while testing the camera, I shot full 1080p HD footage, which was of good quality, however video is not something I would buy this camera for.

And while I, typically, don’t use much of the in-camera image adjustments offered these days, preferring to leave this step for post processing while editing, I have to hand it to Fujifilm that they don’t overdo these. So when I actually wanted to make a change on the X-Pro1, it was as simple as switching from Provia (standard) to Astia or Velvia or Fujicolor PRO in the menus.

Revamped Hybrid Viewfinder

The X-Pro1’s unique Hybrid Viewfinder lets you see all the important exposure information directly in the eyepiece. Similar to using a traditional optical viewfinder (OVF), with the Hybrid you can see the frame line of the lens with some extra space to tell what’s moving into or away from the field of view of the lens.

A dual magnification system and continuously variable frame lines give you a good indication of what you’ll see in the final image, which is a big plus.

If you prefer greater framing accuracy (especially for near objects and when using the 60mm Macro up close), flip a lever on the camera and the OVF switches to a 1.44-megapixel electronic display (EVF). This is similar in design to the X100 but of higher resolution and with the extra features necessary to deal with multiple focal lengths.

For my style of photography, I preferred the X-Pro1’s EVF because I’m very specific about how I frame things. In addition, even though Fujifilm has already made adjustments in one firmware release, I found the projected OVF frame lines a bit too light to work well with lighter density backgrounds.

As a side note, to keep the viewfinder’s design compact, there isn’t room for a variable diopter for the eyepiece. The camera does use a standard 19mm screw-in thread compatible with individual fixed diopters, right angle finders and accessories available from Cosina, Nikon and others.

New Sensor
Besides the camera’s unusually sturdy construction and extensive use of machined metal parts that feel hefty but comfortable, the focus of the X-Pro1 is Fujifilm’s completely new APS-C 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS sensor.

As a digital camera manufacturer with true film experience, Fujifilm says it looked deeply into the structure and mechanics of the way digital images are most often created and determined that they could introduce a more “organic” and higher quality look to image capture by changing the rules a bit.

Fujifilm’s solution is to switch from a traditional 2 x 2 Bayer color filter array on the sensor to a 6 x 6 array, incorporating more randomness into the color filters. (Fuji argues that it’s this randomness that makes film images so sharp and smooth, but also free of moiré).

In doing so, Fujifilm was able to completely remove the low-pass optical filter from the X-Pro1’s system. (Note: The low-pass filter shouldn’t be confused with the IR filter, which is still incorporated in the X-Pro1 and essentially helps image quality but suppresses any IR-exclusive imaging.)

But a new color filter array requires a new method of processing, and in the X-Pro1, that’s aptly handled by the camera’s EXR Processor Pro, which produces well balanced, 5.6-mb JPEGs in camera. RAW image files are 26.1 mb and, up until press time, could only be processed by the SILKYPIX software that Fujifilm provides in the box. (Unfortunately, this basic software is not part of anybody’s workflow that I know of.)

Thankfully, I had access to a pre-release sample of Adobe Camera Raw which, by the time you read this, will be available publically both as version 7.1 for Photoshop CS6 as well as integral with Lightroom version 4.1. Although not quite as fully supported as other cameras in the vast list that Adobe tries to maintain, at least it brings the X-Pro1’s workflow back to familiar territory.

I was truly pleased to see that the X-Trans CMOS sensor delivered on the promise of extra sharpness without aliasing effects. To prove it, I went out of my way to photograph subjects with fine lines, details and complex patterns, and couldn’t see any negative effects resulting from the elimination of the low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter.

ISO 200 is native and gave the best results but it was easy to shoot at 400 and 800 without compromising the image. While I experienced some noise at 1600 and ISOs above that (you can shoot at up to ISO 25600 in extended mode), results showed tight, sharp and pleasing “electronic grain” similar to that from X100. Also, as with the X100, the dynamic range, even at high ISOs, was impressive, making it almost impossible to unintentionally blow out highlights.

New Lens System
Of course, the best image sensor wouldn’t be worth much without some good optics in front of it. To that end, the Fujinon lens design team has created the XF Lens system and X-Mount for the X-Pro1, determining that an extremely short lens flange to sensor distance would be critical to the design.

According to Fujifilm, by reducing the space between lens and sensor, light transmission is maximized, focus travel is shortened and shutter lag time is decreased. Subsequently, Fujifilm was able to adjust lens designs for optimum coverage of the sensor.

In the new lens system, there is generous use of ED (extra-low dispersion) glass and aspheric elements. Fujifilm even went so far as to redesign the lens aperture to provide a smoother, more circular shape with minimum refraction knife-edge blades. The out-of-focus backgrounds (aka bokeh) was quite pleasing in my tests, and great for shooting portraits to help isolate the subject and make him or her pop.

What looks like a light baffle inside the X-Pro1’s body actually provides a step for each different lens to mate with and register so there is a greater physical connection than just the mount itself.

The initial launch of the Fujifilm X-Pro1 includes three fast but somewhat compact (compared to DLSR) lenses: the XF18mm f/2 R; the XF35mm f/1.4 R; and the XF60mm f/2.4 Macro (think: 28/50/90mm full-frame 35mm equivalents, give or take a millimeter or three).

Lens Quality
It appears the Fujinon team has delivered on its promises. In my testing, the overall image quality from the X-Pro1 with these lenses was extremely high and quite useable at even the widest, brightest apertures.

While I did find the 18mm lens to have slightly softer edges and just a touch of easily correctible falloff at the corners, the 35mm and 60mm showed almost no optical weakness. If you’re not photographing test targets I would say most people wouldn’t notice, and in fact would be challenged to find flaws, even on poster-size prints.

Each lens includes a matched lens hood, shaped and sized to provide maximum flare reduction. And as a result the 18mm and 35mm hoods have rectangular-shaped fronts, which are thoughtfully covered by Fujifilm in the form of a flexible rectangular lens cap (which, unfortunately, is so flexible I ended up not using for fear of losing it). They also share a common filter size of 52mm.  

The 60mm lens is a Macro, so while it only requires a somewhat less common 39mm filter, the extra lens extension does necessitate the included oversize lens hood, which is almost as large as the lens itself, but can be reversed for more compact transport.  Although not a lens that’s particularly fast focusing in Macro (down to about half-life size), it produced unusually sharp images even fully wide open at minimum focus.    

Fujifilm has promised to deliver more lenses over time and are on track to ship two more by the end of the year: a 14mm (21mm equivalent) super wide and a medium-range zoom.

In addition, due to the expected popularity of this camera (and the physical benefits of having the shortest lens flange to image sensor distance), a number of manufacturers have announced lens adapters to allow mounting a variety of the more common brands of lens systems. Not to be outdone, Fujifilm has started shipping the M-Mount Adapter ($199) to attach Leica M-series lenses to the X-Pro1. It’s Fuji’s first adapter for the X-Pro1, and it allowed me to enjoy the quality of the X-Pro1 imaging sensor with the speed/convenience of the conventional Leica focusing ring. (In some ways, this is a natural choice given the amount of interest Leica owners have apparently expressed in this camera.)

The Bottom Line
During my first day of shooting with the Fuji X-Pro1, I did a simple side-by-side comparison between it and a Canon 5D Mark II, the popular 21.1-megapixel full-frame professional DSLR. Screen images and actual prints from both cameras had very comparable image quality. That’s impressive considering the X-Pro1 is a first-effort camera from Fuji, with a lower resolution sensor and new optics. It also costs about $500 less than the Canon 5D Mark II.

The combination of Fujifilm’s new X-Trans CMOS sensor, EXR Processor and freshly designed lenses—plus, no doubt, some secret sauce—really worked. After having spent some time and a few travels with the X-Pro1, I have no doubt that the quality of the images are more than adequate for my shooting needs. The camera’s compact, portable and discreet build are also great to work with.

It’s not the right camera for all applications though. For instance, it’s certainly not a replacement for a full-frame, fast-focusing DSLR when shooting sports and fast action. In some lower light/lower contrast shooting conditions, the X-Pro1 had trouble finding focus and didn’t always lock in quickly. The camera’s manual focus is also hit-or-miss in terms of accuracy and usability, though improved from the X100.

However, when I did hit focus, my subjects were super sharp. Eyes and eyelashes on models were superbly crisp and, if you are shooting fashion, your model is going to want to make sure all skin conditions are covered up because every blemish will show with this much detail.

When its FinePix S3 Pro and S5 Pro DSLRs gained a cultish following among photographers in the mid-2000s, Fuji developed a reputation for using its experience in the film world to create professional digital cameras that produced wonderfully vivid but natural colors, particularly flesh tones. That carries over to the X-Pro1, which produced gorgeous images right out of the camera.

But the camera is not without a few glitches, including its slow focusing speed in low light and having the low end of its Aperture Priority automation bottom out at a quarter of a second. These are relatively minor issues though, which hopefully Fuji will fix in a firmware update. (Editor’s note: As we went to press, the V1.1 firmware for the X-Pro1 fixed the Aperture Priority range limitation, among other things.) Otherwise, the retro-style X-Pro1 is a rare breed in the photo industry: a camera that actually lives up to the hype.

Relatively compact and somewhat inconspicuous retro-style, interchangeable-lens-based camera system; extremely high-quality images for the price; excellent skin tones right out of the camera; additional system lenses and accessories expected soon

Slightly quirky operation including some questionable placement of buttons; inconsistent and slow focus in low-light/low-contrast conditions; optional Assist Grip must be removed in order to access the battery/SD card compartment

$1,699 (body only); $599 (XF 18mm f/2 R lens); $599 (XF 35mm f/1.4 R lens); $649 (XF 60mm f/2.4 Macro lens);

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