Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fujifilm X-T1 Launch Review: First Impressions

via Fujifilm Canada

By now you will have seen the announcement of the Fujifilm X-T1. Though the X-Pro1 remains in the Fujifilm lineup, the de facto top tier camera is now the X-T1. The king is dead, all hail the king.

This has some implications if you think it through. The X-series started out life as a "Leica-lite" form factor with the X-Pro1 and X100 cameras, but has slowly evolved out of that niche with the consumer-oriented X-M1 and X-A1 cameras, and now toward a more DSLR style body in the X-T1. In a way, it makes you wonder: if DSLR's are so "old school" why do camera makers keep gravitating towards that form factor?

In fact, there isn't anything wrong with the DSLR form factor. What people are rebelling against is the size and the weight, but there's a reason why many smaller and lighter cameras still look like mini-DSLR's. It's probably the best way to arrange a camera in terms of comfort and usability. There's a reason why the original film rangefinders gave way to the classic era of film cameras like the Nikon F, and there's still a reason why cameras with a predominant grip and large viewfinder (even if its electronic) make for a comfortable shooting experience.

There's also a not-so-objective reason, and that's because Nikon and Canon have thoroughly established the conversation that a serious camera is shaped like a DSLR.

What this means is that the X-T1 is a (continued) progression of sorts for Fujifilm on two fronts. The first front is towards greater mass market presence, and the second is towards the semi-pro space. With regards to the first, Fujifilm is a successful camera company.... in the minds on camera enthusiasts. Its a tough sell to bring somebody stepping up into a bigger camera to consider Fuji... stepping out of the compact/smartphone camera comfort zone, less experienced shooters will gravitate towards the mainstream brands. For Fujifilm to grow as a company, they have to capture more shooters outside of the serious-enthusiast category where they have firm reputation. So to that end, a camera that is shaped more like the other guys' "serious" cameras, thus rounding out the line and signalling to the mass market "Hey, we're not just about niche any more!" Speaking of round, you can't help but notice that the eyecup is round like some other manufacturer's line of professional cameras...

Which leads into the second expanding front; the professional sphere. It's not that Fujifilm cameras can't be used professionally, its just that the ability to build out a professional system with Nikon or Canon is much greater and diverse.  Think of it this way: until now the X-System cameras have been rangefinder analogues in a digital age. They're the perfect form factor for shooting light and discretely: aka street photography. The problem with that is that it's hard to make a living off of street photography. Ever tried to get a model release from a complete stranger after you've snapped a picture of them without asking first? Therein lies the rub. Some people can accomplish it, but the rest of the working shooters have to rely on more mainstream activities to earn a living.

Remember, the S5 Pro was once the darling of wedding shooters, but for a Fujifilm camera to be competitive in that space, it has to have battery life, image quality, flash commanding ability and reliability to rival the tools that the professionals are relying on today... the 5DmIII and the D800. It's one thing to be pro-build, but it's equally important to have pro features that are relevant to the task at hand.  (Hint: the CIPA battery life is rated at 350 shots...)

Just think about what the X-system cameras are good at and what they aren't good at. How about shooting a track day or a hockey game? That means long lenses, and that's usually done best when you have a firm grip on the camera and lens. There's no reason why you couldn't accomplish something with the X-E2 form factor and a theoretical 300mm+ lens for the X-system, but you could accomplish the same thing and do it easier with a more defined grip and a larger view finder.

Speaking of the form factor, a lot of people are speaking of the X-T1 as a "Nikon Df done right." Until hands-on samples are available, that remains to be definitively proven, but the overall design of the camera makes more sense than the Df. Forget the idea "retro," that's not a useful operational feature.  "Retro" is a design aesthetic, not a functional feature. Fujifilm cameras are ostensibly retro-styled, but they're also functional. Buttons and dials still abound today precisely because they are useful, not just because they give us a sense of nostalgia. The Fujifilm cameras have for the most part been fairly good at this. The reason why there has been some push back on the Nikon Df is because it's interpretation of "retro" is a bit cargo-cultish...imitating but not quite demonstrating a full understanding of why the older cameras were laid out the way that they were. The X-T1 button and dial placement are for the most part well thought out and unlike the Df, none of the Fujifilm cameras have as awkward a reach to the front command dial as the Df does.

Looking at the actual camera itself, the view finder will likely be the tangible selling feature for the camera when people start playing with it. People who don't like EVF's usually have their minds changed when they try the clip-on finder for the Olympus E-P5 or the built in EVF for the EM-1. Both of those electronic viewfinders are larger than what you would find in a full frame camera, and so is the EVF for the X-T1.

The clip on flash looks like an afterthought. It's understandable that there might not have been enough room to integrate a built-in fill flash, but the angular design of the unit won't win any beauty contests. Sony and Samsung have similar detachable flashes, and judging by the way that most people use these cameras, owners of the X-T1 will likely have the flash left off of the camera for the great majority of the time.

The grip isn't ultra-deep in the way that a DSLR is, but there is a prominent hook to the back thumb rest. It's difficult to judge the comfort of holding a camera just by pictures, so this is something that will have to wait until units become available. The button placement on the back of the camera is unusually austere for a camera in this day and age, and there is the usual bit of Fuji quirkiness;  AE-L and AF-L are separate, but there is no dedicated button for AF-On. The `Q' button is within easy reach of the thumb rest, and allows for easy access to the different shooting parameters. This is the first X-series camera with a dedicated dial for ISO control, but on a camera with this type of semi-pro aspiration, the lack of a dedicated white-balance control seems like an ommission. The top dial is fairly logically laid out, and as many have pointed out, having EV comp on the right hand side of the camera (and without a locking pin) is much more functional than the way that it was done on the Nikon Df.

You'll notice that image quality is entering into this discussion at late point. All APS-C cameras are "good enough" in this day and age. The X-Trans sensor produces pleasing images, but that is only part of the equation. The X-System has gotten this far, and image quality is only a portion of the reason why that is. It couldn't have worked if the cameras weren't nice to use or if the lenses were mediocre. But to wit: The virtue of the X-Trans system is that it allows for the removal of the anti-aliasing filter at 16mp, which would be more workable for a Bayer-filter sensor at 24mp. If you match a D7100 against the X-T1, the advantage of the Fujifilm camera is that it has larger pixels and all of the goodness that comes with that, but from an outright resolving power perspective, 24mp is more than 16mp. Does it matter? Not so much; the differences in image quality are also subjective, and to that end, yes the Fuji cameras produce pleasing images.

The biggest hurdle for the X-T1 will likely be the price. For the same amount of money, you could get the X-E1 with the same kit lens, or even a Nikon D7100 with it's kit lens. Therein lies the rub; all things being equal (and they usually aren't) a mirrorless camera should have less component costs than an equivalent DSLR... there's no mirror, no separate phase detection array, no separate exposure sensor, etc. etc.  In other words, you are paying a premium for the smaller form factor of a mirrorless camera, and you are still paying for it with the X-T1.  That has always been true for all mirrorless cameras, but one wonders if the North American market penetration of Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus, et. al. would have been higher by now if they had tried to make the the theoretical cost advantage work in favour of the consumer. Instead, they went the other way, pricing their cameras as high as DSLR's in order to persuade people that they were as good as DSLR's. It's never fair to second guess history, but the the price points for cameras like the E-M1 (and previously with the NEX-7) are a bit tough to swallow for the more well-read camera shopper.

The objection to this line of thinking will likely go along the lines of "but what if it's so good that people will be willing to pay for the price?" History as shown that can only go so far. The camera industry is littered with great products that never blossomed into mainstream hits. In fact, you could almost characterize the history of Fujifilm's digital cameras this way. Many of the virtues that the X-T1 has... smaller, tougher, faster... are already present in the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and EM-1. Despite being critical successes, these cameras were not able to lead the Olympus camera division to profitability in 2012 and 2013. For Fujifilm, "like that, but only better" can't be the only strategy in play. If that were true, the DSLR should have died by now, because the E-M1 is a great camera. For that matter the X-E1 and X-E2 were and are great cameras. The Sony NEX-6 is a terrific camera for the price. Heck, the A7 and A7r are good cameras with a terrific value proposition. See the problem? If all if this is so good, why aren't we all shooting with mirrorless yet? As any good market watcher will tell you, the question is not what will, happen, but who will do it, and how. "Mirrorless will take over the world," sounds perfectly plausible, and you would be hard pressed to find anybody who will argue that won't happen in the long term. In the short term, who would be poised to do it?

Let's step back and tackle a smaller issue. Instead of unseating all DSLR's, how about knocking off the duoploy where it hurts the most? That's another case of great product is not enough; witness the Pentax K-3. Nevermind that, even the K5 II and IIs cameras were good. The K-3 is in most ways the semi-pro APS-C camera that Canon and Nikon users want, yet the tides have yet to turn.

On paper, the X-T1 is gunning for this big gaping hole that Nikon and Canon have left in their lineups at the time of this writing...namely the lack of a D400 or a 7DmII. Again, on paper that should be a winning formula, but thus far mirrorless tidal wave hasn't happened in the same way that the Sony Alpha DSLR's didn't penetrate the North American DSLR market. Hence, the challenge of seeing past a great product towards a successful execution. Though not overtly a DSLR replacement, the new body style of the X-T1 pracitcally guarantees a comparison with DSLR's, so that is a conversion that Fujifilm will have to tackle convincingly to make the "mirrorless future" a reality. The X-T1 looks like a great camera. The 18-55mm f/2.8-4 is a great kit lens. The excitement over the camera is justified, and at least product-wise, Fujifilm is on a roll. How far that success rolls will be an interesting thing to watch indeed.

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