The new XT1 is best described as a cobra on a rabid rampage, on paper the specs almost match the high end Canon and Nikon sport cameras! With its flamboyant look, rugged all metal construction, weather seals and ergonomic features so neatly wrapped into a tight little package with the promise sticker of killer image quality slapped on the box (synonymous with all X series cameras so far), if little boy wonder delivers on all fronts it will be a serious contender for all professionals who are already using the X system or anyone new thinking about coming on board.
Please keep in mind all my reviews are functional; I do not quote specs or draw comparisons based on these. There are several other great websites out there which can give you fantastic specification breakdowns if that is what you are after. I am more interested in sharing hands on experiences and real world implications outside of the lab away from ideal sterile environments. After all, I have never heard of anyone getting hired to shoot test charts or winning awards for their ISO comparisons!
A good review explores both sides of the fence and after one week into the XT1 experience a few quirks surfaced. Even though I consider them to be fairly minor, you have to be the judge and decide if these make or break the camera for you.
Lets start with the directional keypad on the back of the body (up, down, left, and right), these buttons are very very 'squidgy' and on occasion what was meant to be an actuation did not register by the camera. On the bright side, these four buttons are the only ones which exhibit the spongy feel (the rubber weather seals and the fact the buttons are slightly recessed into the camera body do not help). This would not be a big deal if their assigned functions were rarely used; unfortunately this is not the case, the directional keypad is the only way of moving the focus point around the frame. Hence making changes on the fly can be tedious, hopefully over time the rubber seals bed in and the actuations become tactile.
My favourite camera mode of operation is 'aperture priority', as the photographer you control ISO, aperture and the focus point while in parallel the camera calculates the appropriate shutter speed to make a balanced exposure. No matter how good you think your camera might be at metering a scene, there will always be times when you have to take over and under/over expose slightly (referred to as 'exposure compensation'). On the XT1, exposure compensation is controlled via a three stop dial, on previous X series models this function is easily accessible via the thumb while the camera is held up to you eye. However, on the XT1 the dial has been stiffened and placed centrally on the camera body top plate, hence thumb access gets tricky (maybe it is just my hand ergonomics, but the only way I can use the exposure compensation dial is via both the index finger and thumb in combination). What used to be a feature and major selling point is now more awkward than an emo's Friday night party.
Last but not least and also a personal pet peeve is the programmable function buttons. The XPRO1 has a configurable button just to the right of the shutter release, this was setup for entering the focus point selection function (perfectly located and used at least once for every image capture if you are operating manually). On the XT1 this has been replaced with the 'Movie Record' button, for a camera which we all know does not shoot cinema quality motion pictures and sporting a dedicate 'record button' which cannot be reprogrammed is tragic (a firmware fix would sort this out and would be a very welcomed addition). This is only a problem if you are coming from a previous generation X series camera which had the same configuration as me, hence when moving between cameras on the fly or trying to capture one off moments there is a chance you may hit the wrong key at a critical time and miss a shot.
NOTE. This is one of the reasons the professional Canon and Nikon camera bodies never drastically alter their button layouts between models. Hence when a consumer upgrades their camera it feels right at home straight out of the box with no muscle memory habits to break.
Now that all the doom, gloom and nit picking is out of the way let’s get right down to it, no doubt you have seen some product launch marketing images of the XT1. Throw those all out the window because the real deal looks and feels a lot more like a stag in heat, wild and untamed.
Once the camera has been setup via the typical laborious menu structure (although well laid out) the rest of the controls are right at your fingertips. ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, shooting modes (high speed, low speed, single shot, bracketing….) and metering modes are all accessible by one of the top dials (do not forget aperture control is via the lens ring directly). The rest of your favorite settings can also be assigned to anyone of the 7 programmable custom buttons. The work-flow encouraged by the external dial design of this camera is simply sublime and the days of wading through endless menus to make adjustments are a thing of the past.
The gap between optical and electronic view finders has finally been closed! The massive view finder on the XT1 even puts my old Canon 5D mrk iii to shame, bright and detailed with almost nonexistent low light flicker, it is capable of turning night into day and tackles manual focusing with ease. Electronic view finders are perfect for manual focus because you can get a 100% view at the click of a button or simply by twisting the focus ring (feature enabled in the custom screen setup menu, ‘split image’ focusing is also available if you are that way inclined). Now the element of luck and guess work previously associated with continuously nailing focus at historically impractical apertures is no longer infuriating, all thanks to this innovative feature.
Unfortunately the X series has never been known for sporting the longest battery life (300-400 shots on a single charge), but with the optional vertical grip there is room for one additional battery effectively doubling your fun and while working in the portrait orientation does not require a physio on speed dial for after your shoot. Personally I feel the vertical grip defeats the purpose of a small form factor camera hence you will not find one in my kit, another option to maximize battery life is to set the cameras operation mode to “EVF Eye Sensor only”. Hence the rear LCD screen is always blank (unless you review images via the 'play' button) and the electronic view finder only gets in gear when you hold the camera up to your eye (LCD screens waste heaps of power, a perfect example is your modern day smart phone! so having them automatically turn on and off as required is a neat trick).
Auto focus….. A sore topic for a lot of the early FUJIFILM cameras has taken a colossal leap with the XT1. Even the older FUJINON lenses (18mm, 35mm, 60mm macro) feel like a hamster on crack is driving the focus motor. Gob smack impressed does not even cover it and the potential for sports and accurate focus tracking is now anyone’s game. Even though sports are not my thing, it would be downright arrogant to bash improvements which make the camera a more capable piece of hardware. The ferocity and speed of the control system which brings a scene into focus really has to be experienced before it can be grasped, it simply cannot be explained in words. Also before I forget, when shooting in high speed mode (a whopping 8 frames per second) the data buss improvements are mind blasting and finally all those expensive SD cards we all bought hoping to clear the buffer a little quicker are paying dividends.
Mentioning image quality is just plain pointless, colour profiles and the 3 dimensional image files soaked in sugar and spice are still made from the same recipe. The name FUJIFILM have made form themselves in this department really is the icing on the cake, with the upgraded mrk II X TRANS sensor and processor; ISO settings have almost become irrelevant (beautiful results all the way up to ISO 6400). Not forgetting the 14bit raw files deliver butter smooth tonal graduations with tons of headroom for post-production before the files degrade and fall apart (grain in the shadows/highlights when trying to recover details and colour banding are common signs of pixel pushing past the limits).
Although I promised not to quote specs the weather sealing and operating temperature range of the camera is almost military spec! Quoted to fully function between -10 to 40 degC ambient, a photographer using this camera at the extremes will probably go limp before the camera gives in (I have had a DSRL’s metering chip fail on a shoot in Bangkok while exposed to the afternoon sun for three hours! I doubt the XT1 would give up so quickly).
For the cost of the body to come completely weather sealed is a big plus, the degree of sealing is of course questionable and I am not about to test one to breaking point, but it is nice to know it can take the accidental splash or two.
Every camera has a few quirks and this one is no exception, personally I feel they add to its character and make it all the more special. Just keep in mind every partnership requires work, understanding, compromise and that there is no one fit solution for every situation. I can honestly say if you are willing to put in a little work and find your way around the controls the XT1 will repay your portfolio in style.
Even if this is your first X series body (or maybe you are moving up from previous generations) there are countless improvements over both the standard DSLR in this price range and the sister mirror-less models to justify making a switch. The bar has been set way high and I doubt anything will leap frog the XT1 anytime soon.