The image above is “First Light” from the Fuji X-Pro1 that found itself in my hands a little over a month ago. It’s a circuitous story of sorts as I had not intended to get into the mirrorless game yet, but here we were and since that first image on June 9th, I’ve been totally hooked.
A little background: When you like to push the boundaries of imaging, you find yourself chasing the biggest and baddest hardware available to deal with adverse conditions or low light and this is where I was with the latest and greatest Canon gear in my camera bag. However, it was an observation that Trent Nelson made while we were talking that got me thinking when he commented that the price of a personal computer has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years while getting unfathomably more powerful and yet substantially smaller. Yet the opposite has seemed true of the digital SLR camera market where professional SLRs have gotten paradoxically *insanely* expensive and much larger in size. It’s true! I am going to start calling this the Nelson observation. The first SLR camera I used was a Canon A-1 that cost $329 new and these days is shockingly small in the hand when you go back and pick it up and compare it with modern professional SLRs. I’d say that the Canon A-1 I used in 1985 is almost pocketable (in cargo pockets). Yet, in contrast, the Canon 1DX I typically shoot with is both *uncomfortably* expensive and insanely big. Had I not been offered one of the first Canon 1DX cameras in the country and there not been two gigs already booked to pay for it, the camera likely would never have been purchased. And when it comes to size, despite being a phenomenal camera, the Canon 1DX really is *gigantic*. For instance, the 1DX is actually *bigger* than the 1D MkIV that preceded it. Carrying a couple 1D camera bodies with say, a 24-70 f/2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8 is a commitment to say the least, particularly when on a long or complex travel schedule or assignment.
I’d been pushing this conversation around in my head and thinking about size and cost for a while then experienced two defining moments that inspired the search for alternatives to hauling around my typical camera kit that had been organized around 2 1D bodies.
Defining moment #1 came after a full day of shooting in the streets of Havana, Cuba with the 1DX. I returned to my hotel room and picked up the 1D MkIV left in the hotel room, only to be shocked at how much smaller it felt in the hand than the 1DX which had been in my hand all day. I did not actually think that you could have gone up in size from the Canon 1D MkIV, but there we were. The size and weight really starts to make a difference when you are talking traveling with a complete camera kit or spending all day on your feet hauling a couple of 1D bodies (or their Nikon equivalent) around.
And then there is the issue of attracting attention. There are places and times you don’t want attention and smaller cameras are simply, less noticeable, particularly when there is not a big, white lens hanging off the front. Somewhere, my friend Duncan has a picture of me in Havana, Cuba carrying a Canon 1D in each hand with said big, white lenses on them and I look absurdly like light infantry.
As a brief aside, many pros I talk with wished that Canon had a simple, rugged still image system without the complexity and cost of video, so I am not alone, but Canon seems to have ignored the sentiment that substantial portions of the pro market that is not necessarily interested in shooting video. Honestly, I love the 1D body for its rugged nature. In some ways it’s built like a tank, kinda like the old Leica M6 which was also remarkably robust. The weather sealing is also important and much appreciated given all the inclement places I shoot. The 1DX creates spectacular images, and I had wished that Canon would have come out with a pro-level body that just shot still images, dumping the video and either keeping the same size or going down in size a little bit to save substantially on cost and some size.
Defining moment #2 was made after reviewing images made, shooting side by side in Cuba with James Duncan Davidson and David Hobby who were running a Sony RX1 and a Fuji X100s respectively. These guys were killing it with those little cameras, delivering images that absolutely popped, had phenomenal dynamic range and came from a camera package that was perhaps 1/3rd or smaller than the 1D/lens combination I was shooting with. Some of David’s images are here and Duncan’s are here. ”Nuts” I thought. When you compared that imagery, it made the thought of carrying around bigger camera hardware kind of silly. I mean, look at the picture just above, taken during breakfast in Havana. Each one of those cameras is shooting a 35mm equivalent lens/sensor combination. The Canon 1DX with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 up against the Sony RX1 with a Zeiss 35mm lens and the Fuji X100S with a 23mm lens on an APS-C sized sensor (35mm equivalent) are in that image illustrating the size differences. You can be sure that the 1DX is the biggest and heaviest combination in there.
So, the search for a more reasonable camera package, especially for travel began in earnest. I wanted something compact, but with interchangeable lenses which had me looking at solutions from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony and Fuji. There were some advantages with most of the platforms, but some pretty profound tradeoffs as well. Fundamentally, however the decision came down to imaging sensor and lenses. These two factors led me to Sony and Fuji which have the lead in both, the Sony RX1 for instance using a gorgeous Zeiss lens and an amazing sensor. I was hoping for interchangeable lenses however, and the RX1, while having a full frame sensor in a crazy small package was appealing, being limited to a 35mm lens at a $2800 price point was kinda tough, though it is solidly built. The other frustration with Sony has been their interface design which has always been irritating, like they are not really thinking about how people navigate and use cameras. This left the Fuji which had a excellent APS-C X-Trans sensor and a set of optics that really are spectacular.
The Fuji X-Pro1 had been out for about a year by that time and had some that were extolling its virtues, among them, notably Zack Arias who, despite some initial reservations, ended up saying “Hot Damn” and apparently along with David (Flixelpix) and others are creating amazing images with Fuji cameras and have not looked back. There are a number of options with the Fuji X platform now including the fixed lens X100s, the X-M1, the X-E1 and the X-Pro1. Despite being the oldest camera in the Fuji interchangeable lens lineup, I liked the hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder and was looking pretty hard at it. But what really pushed me over the top and be willing to explore the images was the tantalizing prospect of getting back to a world where I could carry a camera kit with lenses in a compact, unobtrusive package…
When you examine the differences between the packaging of the Fuji X-Pro1 and the Canon 1DX, the size advantage is stunning. This of course is what is possible by eliminating the mirror box of the SLR. As seen from these screen grabs from Camerasize.com, it’s like we are back with the old Leica rangefinders, but with spectacular digital sensors *and* autofocus. I can pack this Fuji X-Pro1 and 3-4 lenses in a compact fanny pack like the ThinkTank Hubba Hubba Hiney which is perfect for travel.
Speaking of the X-Trans sensor, it has a rather unique design to eliminate moiré. Fuji asked a rather fundamental question when designing this camera and that was how to make the most compact and high performance sensor possible. Traditional camera sensors have their pixels arranged in a red, green and blue pattern which can lead to moiré effects, particularly in high frequency space. Most camera companies get around this problem by bonding a filter in front of their imaging sensor that slightly blurs the image coming in. Fuji took another path. I imagine the thinking went something like “well… if we randomize the pixels, moiré is not an issue and we can eliminate the blur/low pass filter making our images sharper” or something like that. It was a pretty radical approach, but it has worked out for them and the images coming out of these cameras are gorgeous. Interestingly, this approach also makes the Fuji X-Trans sensor an intriguing platform for scientific imaging. Because many biological and non-biological structures have complex, high frequency patterns *and* image sharpness is critical for everything from microscopy to astronomy, I am thinking that Fuji may have a hit on their hands for scientific imaging. After all, most of the “scientific” cameras these days are small Sony sensors that have the additional benefit of being cooled to reduce noise in long exposures or low light levels. But with the rather impressive high ISO performance on the X-Trans sensor, I am wondering if the X-Trans CMOS chip may be just the ticket for scientific imaging. I have a custom T2 adapter on order that I’ll bring into the lab to test some of this out along with some other imaging experiments that I’ll return to later.
Honestly, this radical sensor design was also one of the reasons I held back from investigating these cameras a year ago, immediately after they came out. The thing that made me hesitate was the initial lack of RAW file handling by Aperture or Lightroom. Once that problem was addressed however, the cameras could function in my workflow. That said, more than one person (Zack Arias, David Hobby, etc…) were shooting jpg straight out of the camera and were loving the performance.
Also, I was hesitant because of the APS-C sized sensor… I’ve been in a full frame sensor kind of mood since picking up the 1DX which made the world newly wide to me after having shot APS-H sensors for years. I was getting back into shooting landscapes with the full frame sensor of the 1DX, but in a sense, if the image quality is good enough, and you can represent the world optically on the sensor in the same way, the sensor size does not matter as much. Where the full sensor really matters is in large imaging sites that are electrically quiet. Fuji was smart in making the X-Trans sensor only 16MP when they could have gone much more as this kept the imaging pixels relatively large making for low noise images. There are other things to consider there, but without going into gory details on how imaging sensors are made, it will suffice to say that the images coming out of this Fuji are spectacular. This image above shows that landscape photography, a place where full frame sensors are prized are totally possible with the APS-C sized sensor in the Fuji cameras.
Of course it helps that the sensor is combined with the glorious Fuji lenses of which the 14mm f/2.8 (21mm equivalent on a full frame sensor) is mind bendingly good. It’s sharp throughout the frame with the exception of the edges when the lens is wide open. But importantly, it has almost no aberrations or distortions. I’ve never seen a non-SLR or medium format lens that has this level of performance which says something about Fuji’s expertise and heritage of making camera lenses which are found in everything from cell phones to satellites like the SELENE lunar spacecraft.
Saying that the Fuji lenses are spectacular might be an understatement. In fact, I’d argue that the Fuji lenses are perhaps the best optical bargains out there with designs that have very little aberration, are crazy sharp particularly in combination with the X-trans sensor and they are small and compact. I have two lenses with the X-Pro1, the aforementioned 14mm lens and the the 35mm f/1.4 which is perhaps, the most elegant and pleasing lens I’ve shot with, ever. Ever… It is well built, is compact, has good macro performance, has pleasing bokeh, no aberration to speak of and is sharp as can be. The two images immediately above were made with the Fuji 35mm f/1.4 lens using the normal and macro focus modes and were really pleasant surprises with the level of detail, the color fidelity and sharpness, even wide open.
Also, pay attention to the images immediately above and look at the specular highlights from the sun on glass and water and looking directly into the sun. For many lenses, these kinds of images are really challenging and the Fuji lenses handle them with aplomb. Color fidelity is preserved, detail in high frequency portions of the image (like the back illuminated grass) are preserved and flare does not drown out the images. Truly impressive.
The other mighty compelling aspect of Fuji cameras is that as a camera company, they listen to the end users and have been doing a very interesting thing… After listening to their customers, they have increased the functionality of their existing cameras by *adding* features in software, something that I think might be unprecedented in the digital camera business. In the past, any of my Canon or Nikon cameras have only had features added if you purchase subsequent models. The thought of adding new features to the camera via firmware updates is pretty intriguing. Through firmware updates, Fuji has substantially sped things up with respect to responsiveness and focusing and the promise is there for much more. It is still not SLR fast, but it made the X-Pro1 usable to someone who was used to the lighting response of the Canon 1DX, a camera with perhaps the worlds best autofocus performance.
The other compelling aspect of this was that I had always expected Canon and Nikon to drive innovation in the camera market and this has not really been the case. It’s like they’ve gotten comfortable and Fuji has been hungry and innovative. I’ve been thinking about innovation in the camera market for a while and wrote up some thoughts back in December of 2012 in The iPhone As Camera, Where To Now? article. While that article was focused on the iPhone, some camera companies had started making advances by integrating more software in the process of photography and Fuji is one of the notable ones. Its been an interesting turn of events to see Fuji and Sony out innovate Canon and Nikon.
It almost hurts to say, but the Fuji X-Pro1 is everything that I had hoped Leica would have done with the M series. Amazing image quality, spectacular lenses, autofocus!!! and a company that listens to their customers by producing cameras that are affordable and lenses that are not only the best performance for the money, but are perhaps, the best lenses in the market for mirrorless cameras. The depth and clarity of the images coming out of this camera are amazing. Some of this is the lens for sure, as the images not only have the sharpness where you want it, but also gorgeous bokeh, but there is the data handling by the sensor and associated in-camera image processing. Speaking of which, the black and white images that come out of the camera are amazing. Though I love the purity of Leica’s Monochrom camera, I’d say the black and white images out of the Fuji are at least as good as what I’m seeing out of Leica’s dedicated black and white M series camera and perhaps… have even better tonal range.
So… Is the Fuji X-Pro1 the perfect camera? No, and I’ll elaborate on that below. But I will also say that it is the most interesting camera I’ve used in years and the camera that has been in my hand almost non-stop for the past month. The X-Pro 1 is also the camera that I’ll be carrying with me on upcoming trips.
What would I change with the X-Pro1? The X-Pro1 is not perfect, but it’s making all the right moves in the right direction. However, in a “pro-level” camera, there are a few features that should be in place.
Autofocus/Responsiveness: The performance of the focus and responsiveness of the camera should be improved. Some of the micro 4/3rds cameras have impressive autofocus speeds, but other shortcomings in those platforms and the spectacular lenses are keeping me on Fuji. The Fuji X-Pro cameras are not camera for sports photography… yet. The X-Pro1 is not an “action” photography type of camera, because once focus locks on, it does not change for subsequent “continuous” images in the sequence. In other words, focus does not track once shooting has been initiated. Autofocus also hunts around *alot* in moving situations like wind blowing in the grass or flowers or people in constant motion or particularly in low light. That said, focus in high frequency more static environments with lots of photons around is pretty good and responsive enough that a user coming from the Canon 1DX is satisfied. Canon’s solution was to dedicate a separate imaging chip just for autofocus and perhaps this will be an option in future Fuji X-Pro cameras.
Why autofocus on mirrorless cameras is not as fast or accurate as SLRs is rather frustrating as there is no reason why a compact mirrorless camera should not be as responsive or faster than an SLR with a mirror physically flapping around inside a mirrorbox. That strikes me as completely absurd and I expect that it will be resolved in the very near future.
Form factor/Size: Love the form factor and size. Love it. I don’t want Fuji to change much there as it is much less obtrusive than the big SLR iron and I find myself just picking up the camera to hold it. However, while I love the retro design, for holding one handed, there is a thumb rest that is needed on this camera for stability that has been rather well done by a third party, with the Match Technical EP-7S Thumbs Up. To my hand, this is an absolutely necessary piece of hardware addition, that while on the expensive side, is totally worth it if you spend considerable time with your Fuji X-Pro1. Fuji apparently makes one as well, but it’s a bit more expensive than the one from Match Technical and it can’t be better made than the one from Match Technical. Besides, Match Technical has excellent customer service and they also make the very cool red soft touch buttons for the shutter release. The only problem with this solution is that it obstructs the hot shoe, which for on/off camera flash people like David Hobby is a deal breaker. I’d love to see Fuji design something integral to the next revision like this.
Diopter adjustment: There are a number of old school, very conservative approaches to the X-Pro1 and this includes the diopter adjustment. Right now it requires you to change out reticles rather than having an adjustment. Fuji has fixed this on the X-E1 and the X100s, so it seems like a reasonable expectation for the next X-Pro revision.
Intervalometer & Electronic Shutter Release: I like the mechanical shutter on the X-Pro1, but it would be nice to have the option to trigger it via other means. I’d like to see Fuji include software intervalometer functions and an electronic shutter release. The old school manual shutter release concept on the X-Pro1 is shared with the Sony RX1 is cool, but having this as the only way to trigger the shutter makes absolutely no sense to me, particularly given the USB ports in the cameras.
Weather sealing: A camera that bills itself as a pro camera should have some degree of weather sealing. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 has weather sealing and I’d love to see the next X-Pro revision adopt that feature.
Internal GPS: The ability to write GPS metadata to your images is a feature that should be included in pro level cameras for sure. Yeah, it’s another battery drain, but modern GPS chips are super low current drain designs and other companies are including them in point and shoot cameras, so Fuji should totally do so in the X-Pro revision.
Battery: While we are talking power, the battery could be improved in two ways… 1) configure it so that there is only one way it fits into the battery compartment. As it currently is, you can insert the battery in backwards where it will not power the camera. This is an oversight. 2) Provide a larger capacity battery for longer battery life. It could be that I am used to the 1400-1500 shot capability of the Canon 1D battery, but only getting around 400 exposures is a little frustrating. That said, the batteries are relatively inexpensive, and swapping them out is not a big deal. Though I would really like to see a more accurate battery meter. Also, I’d change the charger so that there are different lights on the LED for charging and full. Orange/green for instance. And in “pro” chargers, have dual slots for charging two batteries either at once or in automatic sequence.
Custom Metadata: Am I missing something with the Fuji cameras? I can’t find out where to put in custom metadata. The ability to include additional personal data in the metadata like Canon, Nikon and others do. I should be able to automatically tag every image that comes out of the camera with ®Bryan William Jones when shot for instance.
Software for image capture and remote: I mentioned the applications for scientific imaging above where one could mount a Fuji camera on a microscope or telescope and run it remotely through tethering or perhaps via a wireless bluetooth or WiFi connection. Fuji has proven themselves to be creative in integrating new features in the software, so it would be wonderful if they could come up with remote software like what Canon or Nikon offers or you can get through third party suppliers for Canon or Nikon cameras. I’d just hope they make the software more responsive than the absurdly slow and clunky software offered by Canon and Nikon for remote capture. But think about what could be done with remote capture and automation that is commonly more difficult on camera. A whole world opens up here, particularly for those that would like to use the excellent high ISO features of the Fuji X-Trans sensor to capture other kinds of image data.
If they can improve the sensor, I am always up for that. But as it stands the sensor in the current X-Pro1 is a remarkable thing and I look forward to having a tremendous amount of fun with the camera I already have. Even more, I look forward to what Fuji may have up their sleeve for the next round of revisions. What they’ve done already is bold and impressive. These cameras have been a revolution in the camera industry and it’s exciting to see Fuji embrace software as a way to enhance the image capture process. The convergence of software and hardware in the camera industry has been long coming, but also glacial in how fast features have been implemented at the consumer or professional photography level. It’s exciting to see a camera company finally “getting” it.