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…
…only to focus and then see that you’re framing this…
…so a compose-then-focus motion becomes compose-then-focus-then-recompose. Which sometimes becomes
- Review; frame lines still way off
- Fine! Switch to EVF
- 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.