Two weeks have passed since the new FUJI FILM X-M1 landed on my lap. The time has gone so quickly and I think I am finally ready to put my experience onto paper. Hopefully my comments put the mini me of the X range into perspective and the sample imagery I provided taken demonstrate that size is not everything.
Let’s start of by taking a moment to quickly look at where this camera fits amongst the other interchangeable X system cameras. At the top of the range sits the XPRO1 (I own this camera and draw inspiration from my experiences while working with it as a starting point for what to expect from the X- M1), followed by the X-E1 and then the X-M1. Both the XPRO1 and the X-E1 have metal bodies targeted at the professional photographer looking for the smaller alternative in a rugged form factor, they are also larger and have view finders (XPRO1 optical + electronic, X-E1 only electronic). The X-M1 body is definitely not target towards the professional; this is reflected both in the price, the plastic build and a few missing quick access buttons. None the less the shell feels sturdy enough to take a few knocks and keep the elements at bay. The camera survived and came out on top after battling small sand, rain and sea spray storms while by my side. I do not baby my FUJI gear, I would rather have the camera try electrocute me than let the shot pass by. The light duty build and lack of either an optical or electronic view finder has allowed the product to go on a punishing anorexic diet throwing aside gram after gram while staying focused on what matters, feature and performance rich protein.
Picking up the camera for the first time I thought it felt a little on the light side. Not enough weight to give the impression of a solid construction. Personally I do not see myself using this camera as my all day portrait and or studio solution (I have the XPRO1 for that) which is a good thing since I do not think this was the design intent behind this camera. Ergonomically I found all the buttons in perfect reach for one handed operation when my thumb and index finger worked in synch. I had no problems operating the camera and I quickly became comfortable changing settings on the fly, the menu system is clean and simple (feels failure, it should considering it is a derivation of the XPRO1) with the buttons having a precise ‘clicky’ feel.
To give you an idea of how simple this camera is to use, let me use my wife as an example. The day I bought home the X-M1 I left it abandoned, sitting alone on my desk (but in plain sight). When my wife came home she was eager to see what all the fuss was about, she knew something was up since I was spamming and broadcasting my first impressions. Probably a little annoyed she picked the camera up, studied it for a minute and started making adjustments (aperture and shutter speed). To my amazement she was using the camera in complete manual mode within two minutes after having first picking it up. Just to clarify, she is not a photographer, but I have previously made an effort to explain how in camera settings effect and relate to the final produced image (probably to justify another camera upgrade or lens addition to my bag). Aside from asking how to adjust the focus points around the image frame she was creating correctly exposed portraits of myself and her sister who happened to be around for dinner that night. Later I asked her what made it so intuitive to which she replied, ‘the button layout and dials are right there controlling the settings you expect’.
The best way to describe the look of the camera body is by comparing it to a stocky bulldog, a short, panoramic and thick build. The only ergonomic annoyance I have is in the size of the grip. As a result my pinky does not have anywhere to sit securely on the body and ends up floating midair somewhere below the battery flap which makes prolonged operation a little straining.
The X-M1 currently ships in a set including a lens (camera mount allows for the use of all other X series lenses). My review camera arrived with the new XC 16-50mm optically stabilized lens. I do not expect the amateur market is looking to throw cash at extra lenses right of the bat so this was a good move by FUJI. You can rest assured the supplied ‘kit lens’ is definitely no slouch. All the real world reference images I created for the purpose of this review should highlight the quality the pair are capable of producing.
The build quality of the kit lens is very similar to the X-M1 camera body, made from a lightweight smooth plastic. Durability may not be its strong point but it definitely makes up for its few short comings in all other areas. Lens focus and stabilization is incredibly quiet, I had to put my ear right next to the lens barely before I was convinced it was even operating.
Like all zoom lenses in the current lineup the aperture is variable across the focal range (F3.5 at 16mm, F5.6 at 50mm). The respectively small apertures make it difficult to achieve dramatic subject isolation without getting really close to your subject and using the macro mode. If you study the bokeh (background blur) produced by this lens you will not find anything out of place, the blur is even and pleasingly circular.
One of my favorite features of this lens is the ease at which you can create sharp images at unbelievably slow shutter speeds. The carefully designed optical stabilization control system allowed me to hand hold at shutter speeds as low as 1/5s (also a life saver for the videographer). Handholding long exposures have previously not been possible without the aid of a tripod or fencepost (especially with the prime lenses from the XF series). This feature inspired a lot of the images I chose to include for this review. Not only does it help combat hand and camera shake when the sun goes down, but also opens up a whole new set of creative possibilities which I thoroughly enjoyed exploring. By twisting the camera mode dial to manual and purposely inputting settings to force long exposures I was able to include motion and movement in my captures while retaining sharp details in stationary objects. In nature I was inspired by wind and on the busy streets on a Friday night by the hum of civilization as cafes shut and people waddled home.
New to this camera is the tilt LCD screen (a first for the X series range). To my surprise I found this particularly useful for low angle framing, focusing, image review and live view shooting despite initially being very skeptical. But the addition of one feature meant the omission of another and sadly the view finder was taken out. I swear by the FUJI viewfinders both electronic and optical, it is highly regarded not only by myself but also by my peers (it allows me to tackle every conceivable photographic scenario).
Without the viewfinder I was solely working off the rear LCD panel and I found myself frequently plagued by sun strike when out late in the afternoon or early morning. Working with a uncovered LCD panel in direct light environments left me pulling funny faces and squinting. I have previously always turned right around and walked away the minute a tilting LCD screen was mentioned as a camera feature, I have always seen this as a weak point in the camera construction. Luckily the stiff metal bracket on the camera does inspire confidence and the tilting screen has already saved me from getting sandy and muddy on more than one occasion during my review shoots. I have to admit, I may have spoken to soon and now cannot see myself going without it (a must have, especially since there is no view finder).
All the images found in this review are posted with their camera settings natively captured as JEPGs coming straight from the camera. Very little touchups and colour corrections where performed in Photoshop during the postproduction steps to maintain image file quality (JPEG files do not allow for a lot of pixel pushing before nasty digital quantization artifacts start surfacing). I was partially forced to capture my work in JEPG because the RAW engine for both Capture One and Adobe Camera Raw have not included support for the new camera. Also the average consumer will not be interested in putting in long hours in front of their computer working on perfecting the capture, so I put a lot of emphasis on the out of camera JPEG image file quality to make sure everything is couture. Looking at the image files at 100% (pixel for pixel) on my colour calibrated computer monitor I only discovered sharp outlines, clear focus and clean tonal graduations. The files coming straight out of camera have the same reliable and beautiful colour reproduction I have come to expect and dubbed the ‘FUJI colours’. When discussing images with peers I receive a lot of complements on the colours present and point my finger and blame the FUJI X Trans sensors for its ability to capture unique tonal range.
It is a shame the factory standard firmware does not include the entire film simulation selections I fell in love with on the XPRO1. If you shoot RAW you can make the film changes using the bundled software at a later stage but the more I can get done in camera the better as far as I am concerned. I think a future firmware upgrade should include the rest.
The sensor hardware is the same across the X series interchangeable lens range but based on my own testing it looks like the X-M1 has the new and improved processor or firmware algorithm advances. This change has not gone unnoticed and the advantage becomes clearly evident when playing at the extreme ISO range. I have never been particularly concerned with high ISO artifacts and on occasion even introduce noise speckles in Photoshop to add further texture as necessary. I found my low light high ISO test images to be surgically sterile and almost did not believe the ISO settings in the metadata. For the work I do and the prints I make regularly (A3+ and up) I have yet to run into noise issues from my FUJI files.
One of my favorite pass times is meandering through the streets in no particular city and people watching, trying to take in all characters as they pass by. Street photography or more specifically the candid street portraits of complete strangers are what I am known for in the circles I operate. Having a camera, which is small, inconspicuous and quick to react, is a necessity. When isolating my subjects from the constant stream of chaos down a main city street, working with a camera which is quick to startup and reacts to the push of every button helps me get the shot and is something I keep a keen eye on when deciding which I chose to use. It is important not to waste any time because realistically you only have the attention of a stranger for half a minute at most of which ten seconds goes towards explaining what you are about and what you are trying to achieve. The reduced startup delay and LCD black out is worth its weight in gold. I am willing to take any and all speed improvements which speed up the capture process.
There are a few added features I have yet to mention, just because I do not use them in my workflow as photographic tools does not mean they are not worth commenting on. In my experience with the FUJI camera series I have always been very tough on battery life, hence I keep the Wi-Fi and GPS features safely turned off to maximize my frame count per charge. I did use both the Wi-Fi applications for the computer (mac) and my cell phone (android) and have to say the user experience is fluid. Direct social media publishing is not something I see myself using unless it is for a behind the scenes image in which case cell phone quality has had to suffice, but this might be changing as I look for higher quality video and image snippets, the X-M1 may be the solution.
With the combined FUJI X-M1 camera body and XC 16-50mm lens bundled together in the off the shelf kit you get a very capable, versatile and lightweight camera package with ample features to satisfy even the most technically experienced photographer while at the same time suited to a beginner looking to experiment with different settings. All the controls are right at your fingertips and once the raw engine from the main stream software providers Adobe and Capture One are updated the creative post production options will endless and you will be producing files on par with the rest of the FUJI film range. This camera has cemented its place in my workflow as the all-purpose family shooter and emergency fallback should the unthinkable happen and the XPRO1 goes into hospital for surgery.