Fujifilm X-T1 Review: Fuji reinvents itself, again.

by | Feb 24, 2014

The fact that this is the third mirrorless interchangeable lens camera review in a row is no coincidence. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: mirrorless is the future of photography. I love my trusty DSLR, and I still depend on it for much of my photography, but it’s not hard to see the direction the industry is trending.

The Fujifilm X-T1 is a prime example of this. It is a machine that combines everything I love about classic cameras with everything I’ve come to expect from modern digital photography. To be fair, it is not without its quirks, but in a market flooded with options, the X-T1 has what it takes to rise to the top.

One glance is all it takes to recognize this is a camera focused on professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts. It features more physical control dials and function buttons than just about any other camera—certainly more than Fuji’s own X-Pro1. It is an interesting paradigm shift from their previous X-series efforts, which revolved around rangefinder-inspired design and elegant simplicity.

The new SLR-like body and control layout is busier, but also more functional. Shutter speed, ISO, drive mode, metering mode, and exposure compensation dials cram themselves onto the top deck. It means immediate access to just about any setting on the camera, but I found it a little difficult to access some of the smaller controls that vie for space, like the Wi-Fi and video record buttons, as well as the twin command dials. These are minor complaints, as Wi-Fi is something not generally needed while shooting, video is really just a tertiary feature of this camera, and the command dials are largely redundant (although necessary if you want to adjust your shutter speed in anything less than full stops).

As for actually using the camera, it is very, very nice. It feels solid and substantial, yet not too heavy. The control dials have the appropriate amount of resistance and the shutter sound is quiet yet satisfying. The shutter button itself is no longer threaded for a standard cable release like on other X-series cameras, instead featuring a broader button that serves as built-in “soft shutter.” It’s a subtle change, but one I appreciate.

Fuji definitely put a lot of thought into the ergonomics of this camera, carefully balancing size and usability. The hand grip feels great, and the rubber covering is very, well, grippy. It’s a camera you can confidently shoot in one hand when you need to. I realize I’m drawing attention to some minor details here, but it really is the small touches that make this such a great camera to use. None of these things are of any significance to the people viewing your photos, but they are very important to the experience of taking them.

Performance is a bit of a mixed bag, with autofocus still being somewhat of a sore spot for Fuji. In well-lit situations, the AF is quick enough, but it is also quite loud and hunts back and forth briefly before locking in. Compared to the mind-bogglingly fast and silent AF performance of Olympus’ OM-D cameras, this was a little disappointing. That said, and despite the X-T1’s 8 frames-per-second burst rate, this is a camera for methodical photographers already planning on putting some time into their exposures; losing a quarter-second waiting for the AF to lock in won’t be a big deal. In my testing, which was done in a fairly low light setting, I only missed a couple of shots due to AF errors.

Manual focus, on the other hand, is absolutely amazing on this camera. It’s rare to even mention it in a modern camera review, but Fuji’s brilliant implementation of a digital split image focus assist takes the guesswork out of focusing manually. Combined with the punch-in magnification feature, manually focusing at f/1.4 is totally feasible. (There is also a peaking filter, if you prefer that.) The relatively long focus throws of most XF lenses mean that MF isn’t exactly fast, but it is accurate.

It is a pleasant surprise to use a digital camera that plays so well with everything set to manual. Again, this all comes down to Fuji’s attention to detail in crafting (or recreating) the classic photography experience. After testing three cameras in a row with articulating screens, I don’t know how I could ever go back. No more lying on the ground for low-angle shots or guessing-and-checking for high-angle ones, just tilt the screen, frame your shot, and press the shutter button. Simple.

Live view cameras have really come a long way in just a few short years. The X-T1’s viewfinder is so good that in many situations I wouldn’t miss an optical viewfinder at all. However, one situation in which that doesn’t hold true is shooting under fluorescent lights. The refresh rate of the viewfinder (and the LCD monitor, for that matter) were out of phase with the cycle rate of the lights, resulting in lines running through the display. It was a minor distraction, but in an otherwise perfect shooting experience, a minor distraction stands out like a thorn in your side. (Note that this would be a non-issue under incandescents or natural light.)

Image quality is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. It’s not just the resolution advantage of the X-Trans sensor or the dynamic range or any other metric of sensor performance, there is a simply a subtle, pleasing character to the images. Fuji has their processing dialed in. What really took me by surprise was just how good the auto white balance was. When shooting JPEGs in a mixed-lighting condition (especially when that mixed lighting includes fluorescents), auto WB usually ceases to be reliable on most cameras. Not so on the X-T1; JPEGs straight out of the camera were nearly flawless.

My only complaint is that the high ISO noise reduction, which I had set to “normal,” was way too strong, blurring away detail that made textures, especially skin tones, look muddy. In the future, I would likely turn NR all the way down, or just shoot in raw. (Although, the general consensus is that Fuji is better at processing JPEGs in-camera than any third-party raw converter, due to the complications in demosaicing the more complex color pattern of the X-Trans sensor.)

All in all, the X-T1 is nothing short of a new benchmark. It’s not that it has any one standout feature, but rather that it combines the best of so many worlds into one beautiful machine. Classic design, intelligent controls, and advanced technology have all come together to create a shooting experience that approaches perfection. Other than the somewhat noncommittal AF system, I really have to nitpick to find anything negative about this camera (unless you’re looking for a video camera, in which case, look elsewhere). The X-T1 calls for a return to a more intimate form of photography, one that keeps you actively engaged with the camera and, in so doing, keeps you engaged with your craft.

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