Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Fujinon 35mm f/1.4

Fujifilm X-Pro1
Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Wait for round 2

The Long Version: I read somewhere that in comedy, the best way to act drunk is to act sober, but fail. I thought about this a lot when I rented a Fujifilm X-Pro1, which acts like a digital rangefinder, but fails.

One of the most attractive parts of rangefinder photography – in theory, at least – is the ability to create images with a minimum of fuss. Aficionados call this “purity of photographic spirit”; others call it “lack of features”. And while the X-Pro1 clearly draws inspiration from simple, mechanical rangefinders, it’s also a look-at-me! showcase of innovative electronics, a dichotomy that is the source of not only the camera’s considerable charms, but also its numerous frustrations.

Nowhere is that more apparent than its show-stopping piece of tech, the hybrid viewfinder. On the one hand, it’s super cool. On the other, you’re forced to constantly choose between imperfect options. The optical viewfinder (OVF) is the looser, more fun side – particularly its Iron Man digital-projection-on-glass display – but suffers from imprecise frame lines. Meanwhile, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) provides accurate framing but also a small amount of lag; for timing-critical shots, you’ll be happy the OVF is around.

However, the OVF doesn’t guarantee speed in some situations. Let’s say you’re using the 35mm lens and your subject is about a meter away. At that relatively close distance, the change in framing due to parallax is pretty jarring. You frame this…

Otis the dog in window light

…only to focus and then see that you’re framing this…

Otis the dog in window light, but down and to the right

…so a compose-then-focus motion becomes compose-then-focus-then-recompose. Which sometimes becomes

  1. Compose
  2. Focus
  3. Recompose
  4. Click
  5. Review; frame lines still way off
  6. Fine! Switch to EVF
  7. Dog walks away.

Do that enough times and the simpler X-E1 starts to make more sense.

It’s all the more frustrating because there’s much to love here. For starters, I found the size and weight to be in that nebulous Goldilocks ideal range: not too small, but not too heavy. Leica size without Leica heft.

And the retro controls are great. With dedicated dials for aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation you lose some flexibility but gain simplicity and clarity: there’s no possibility for confusion, you can check your settings at a glance, and you can set the camera by feel.

At the system level, I admire that Fujifilm initially ignored the all-millimeters-covered mob to instead focus on prime lenses with reasonable focal lengths. I wonder how the accountants were convinced to try this; it must have been tough to get through the pitch with the designers’ massive swinging balls always getting in the way.

I used the 35mm f/1.4 and my only complaint is that the aperture ring is a little slushy. I can’t speak to the quality of the other lenses, but the consensus from others is that the worst XF lens is merely very good.

The excellence continues with the sensor. I’d be comfortable letting auto-ISO do whatever it wants up to ISO 6400. I’m less comfortable with Fuji’s go-it-alone stance with the unusual X-Trans design and in not working closely with the big-name RAW converters. (There are those swinging balls again.)

So the camera’s bones are solid. That said, no review of a Fuji camera can skip the laundry list of interface oddities:

  • In Macro mode (which forces the EVF), the EVF/OVF switch doesn’t switch you out of Macro mode to the OVF; you have to cancel out of Macro mode first
  • The major command dial directly under thumb has no function unless you’re using the Q menu (I think?)
  • Three of the four directions on the directional pad do nothing unless you’re in the Q menu. (Again, I think?!)
  • The sensor that detects when you have an eye to the viewfinder can be flummoxed by bright, overhead daylight, which is precisely when you most need the viewfinder
  • There’s a button dedicated to metering when I would think the AE lock and the exposure compensation dial entirely remove the need to quickly change the metering pattern. Am I missing something on that?

(I also couldn’t figure out how to shoot a video with it. I consider this a positive.)

Of course none of these ruin the camera. Also keep in mind I only rented it for a week; with more time, you adjust and compensate for the quirks and limitations of any camera.

And Fuji’s on to something: DSLRs in this price range have better-faster-stronger specs but don’t deliver the same experience as an X-Pro1. With the direct controls and the retro good looks and the big viewfinder and the excellent lens, I thought it was – most of the time – a blast to use.

Fujifilm’s designers are in a tight spot: they based their design on the best elements of simple cameras, but no digital camera is simple thanks to the demands of the typical “what-about-my-astrophotography” camera buyer. I do not envy their position.

That said, it’s to Fujifilm’s credit that critics are mostly clamoring for a slightly more polished camera instead of kvetching about image quality. I say give them another round to take advantage of better electronics and user feedback. While I may eat these words later, I’m optimistic Fujifilm will deliver.

I mean, have you seen the reviews of the X100S? David Hobby called it “damn close” to a perfect camera; Luminous Landscape left little puddles of drool all over their website.

More than some other manufacturers, I get the sense that Fujifilm is hungry to do better. Each round of cameras is exponentially better than their last. They’re getting better at high-end digital cameras faster than the competition is getting better at doing, well, anything interesting.

So while the X-Pro1 is not quite the simpler digital camera some of us are clamoring for and that will never come – hell, even Leicas do video now – they’ve definitely got my attention.


Elsewhere on the Web: Diverse and Varied Advice of Dubious Consistency

Now on Blogbeebe: my 99-point list of diverse and varied advice of dubious consistency. Naturally, it's mostly to do with cameras and photography, with just a bit of art thrown in as well. It's a slightly random summation of my observations and lessons from my first ten years as a photographer, including five as a camera salesman, as I've travelled the roads of equipment-aqusition and picture-making.

Certainly not all of the ideas are original, and many of the ones that are won't be correct, but these are the things that I wish I had known sooner.

For example:

"More Zoom" is never the correct answer to any question.

Ken Rockwell is a troll. Never associate with a photographer who doesn't realize this.

The top of the camera is a terrible place for a light or a microphone.

Using a film camera occasionally is good for you.

Focus shift is not a defect. Accept it or move on.

Birds are horrible creatures, and should never be photographed.

Photos of the important people in your life will be worth more to you in the future than any other photograph you can take.

If the first comments about a photo are on its technical merits, it's a miss.

Work in series, create projects, have themes.

Use a font that makes your name look good and stick with it.

The full list can be found here.

last updated 17 aug 2013


Canon Rebel SL1 / EOS 100D

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: 18Mpx, 9-point AF, etc.

Counter Opinion: Someone recently requested that I say something nice about Canon. The diminutive Rebel SL1 / EOS 100D might not seem like a natural choice for that brief, but the fact is that I've had a certain affection for the smallest SLR on the market ever since it came out. No, there's no chance that I'd actually buy one, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it.

I've never owned a Canon SLR, or any camera with a touch screen, but I had no trouble disabling the SL1's autofocus beep. And despite its diminutive size, the somewhat unconventional grip is surprisingly comfortable and natural for my average-sized hands. This remains an enduring fascination of mine: Canon just knows how to make camera grips, especially recognizing the importance of thumb rests, in a way that Nikon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and others just don't seem to understand. While I wouldn't endorse the SL1 for everyone, it's certainly not only for the petite among us.

While the Parisian sun certainly hasn't been shining on Canon's sensor scores lately, their lens team have been making up for it. I'd feel compelled to match the SL1 with the new 24/2.8IS and 40/2.8, which mimics my D800 with Sigma 35/1.4A and Nikon 60/2.8G.

Now, the head-to-head DxO perceptual resolution scores for the Nikon-Sigma combination are about double what the Canon kit can manage, but I score that as a win for the smaller camera. Doubling the resolution actually doesn't make as much of a difference as the numbers suggest; it doesn't make a photo twice as compelling, for example, or an artist twice as accomplished. And quite frankly, if camera-geeks are the intended audience for your photos, then you're doing something wrong.

Some might point out the size disparity between my different two-prime camera kits, but here I don't think there's actually much of a difference. Given the massive price difference between the two setups, the extra bulk and weight of carrying around $2800 in small bills should be factored in to keep the comparison fair. By my math that would make for a stack of American dollar bills more than a foot high weighing six pounds, which pales in comparison to the 17 kilograms of dollar coins that I'd have to carry around in Canada. Advantage: Nikon.

Canon is trying to shrink the kind of camera that they want to sell – EF-mount SLRs – until is appeals to people who want a different kind of camera altogether. However, the SL1 is still much bigger than the EOS-M, not to mention other mirrorless cameras, so the size distinction remains a significant differentiator between the styles. Given how much Canon clearly resents mirrorless cameras, I'd say that they haven't achieved their mirrorless-killer goal.

There are absolutely times when I would carry a camera the size of an EOS-M but leave a camera with a prism hump at home. What I can't decide is when in my life I'd be willing to carry a camera the size of an SL1 but not be willing to carry a camera the size of a T5i. The difference between the two tiers of Rebel just doesn't seem to be decisive, but others may disagree.

Moving to the SL1 from the bigger T5i means giving up the flip-out LCD screen and accepting a smaller, and less common, battery. But if those two limitations don't matter, or if its smaller size and different grip style does, then it's worth serious consideration. The SL1 is a decent little machine that deserves to be respected for its own merits, rather than being viewed as a compromised second choice between a 'full sized' Rebel or a smaller mirrorless camera.

Counter Opinions are quick "sales counter" product reviews.
As always, viewer discretion is advised.
Last updated 9 aug 2012


Victorinox Tinker

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: The knife other knives build on.

The Long Version: The Victorinox Tinker, August's SAK of the Month, barely needs an introduction. Its tool mix is pretty much the core Swiss Army set, making for a useful two-layer knife: large blade, small blade, can opener, cap lifter, awl, Philips screwdriver, toothpick, tweezers. It's the Mechanic without pliers, it's the Hiker without the saw, it's the Spartan with a Philips driver: it's the 91mm version of the smaller 84mm Tinker with the exact same tools. Pretty fundamental stuff.

The Tinker has a couple of notable omissions from the staple Swiss Army Knife tool mix: no scissors or nail file. This makes the Tinker into a task-oriented knife for people who are likely to be doing mechanical things, like fixing vacuum cleaners or trimming hoses, rather than a knife that would be carried for no particular purpose.

I was fortunate enough to be carrying my Tinker on the day when I had to frame and hang fourteen photos at work, which meant driving drywall screws into chipboard instead of hammering nails. The knife, cap lifter, awl and screwdriver all came in very handy, and there was nothing else I needed. Well, a tape measure would have been useful, but that's life.

I carry my Tinker when I'm feeling a little more industrious than my Compact, but when I'm not expecting to need the additional elaborateness of my Mechanic or Explorer. It's a solid, practical choice for a no-nonsense two-layer Swiss Army Knife. It doesn't stand out from the crowd, but that's not really what it's there for.

last updated 4 aug 2013

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