Friday, May 9, 2014

Fujifilm X-T1 Review


The sign of a successful launch is if the pre-order season is successful. That certainly has been the case for the Fujifilm X-T1 here in Canada, though it helps that Fujifilm Canada was including free vertical grips with camera pre-orders. Even if that weren't the case, the X-T1 (from a product design standpoint) is still a success that can stand on its own two feet. With the X-T1 one, Fujifilm has simultaneously managed to step closer to the mainstream middle of serious-enthusiast photography while further cementing their unique take of doing things.

Updated May 2014: Amp glow section added to image noise discussion.

Design, Handing and Operation


The X-T1 is a departure from the previously boxy X-series cameras. Size and shape-wise, the X-T1 is similar to the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which is an accomplishment given that the Fujifilm uses a larger sensor. Whereas the E-M1 is defined by its prominent grip and large front and back control dials, the X-T1 gives the appearance of being relatively thin and blade-like. There are just enough curves in the design of the X-T1 to be a refreshing change from the boxy X-E2. The design is reminiscent of the smaller film cameras, like the original OM's or the Pentax Sportmatics. Though the X-T1 mimics the form factor of the larger DSLR cameras, in practical usage it is not significantly larger than the X-E2. The X-T1 is to the X-E2 as the Canon EOS 7D is to the 60D; pricier, but weather sealed, more rugged, and easier to shoot quickly with.


One thing that confuses new-comers to the higher-end Fujifilm cameras is the lack of a mode dial. However, the PASM functionality is still present. Set the both aperture switch on the lens and the shutter dial to "A" and the camera will function in automatic metering mode. Leaving the aperture ring on "A" and turning the shutter dial is the equivalent of shutter-priority mode; the reverse produces aperture-priority mode. Leaving both controls off of the "A" setting is the full manual exposure mode.

There's an accessory flash that slides into the hotshoe, but this is the one design element that looks the most out of place on the X-T1. Wheres as the camera body is textured and has rounded-off edges, the flash is angular and is finished in a cheaper-looking flat matte plastic. It's similar in shape to the accessory flashes used on the Samsung NX cameras, but it looks worse. When deployed, the flash does rise a considerable distance away from the camera, ostensibly reducing red-eye. In all honesty, it's as if Fujifilm chose the  design of the flash to discourage people from actually using it....

Despite similar appearances, all of the X-System cameras handle a little bit differently. The Leica-mentality comes through when you hold the X-Pro1 in your hands, whereas the X-E2 and the X100s require something of a "precision-pinch" with the right hand in order to grasp the camera. The X-M1 and the X-A1 are surprisingly chuckable due to their more simple designs and button layouts. The X-T1 is different from all of these. It's the only Fujifilm camera where you can simply grab the right hand side of the camera without giving it a second thought. In this regards, the X-T1 is the most like a DSLR; even though the front of the grip isn't deep, there's enough area on the front and back of the camera for your fingers and thumb to spread out. This makes the camera quite comfortable to hold and handle.


An unavoidable downside to the design execution of the X-T1 is that the control buttons are too small and recessed into the camera body for the serious-shooting aspirations that the camera aspires to. The four-way control pad is especially egregious in how small it is; the problem with the buttons on the X-T1 is that they are out of scale with the rest of the camera body. The ISO, shutter speed and EV compensation dials are appropriately sized, but the playback and control pad buttons would be right at home on a compact camera.

The Sony A7 and the Olympus E-M1 are the more comfortable cameras to hold, but depending on familiarity, the X-T1 is the more comfortable camera to adjust settings once it's in your hand.  The VG-XT1 vertical grip and accommodate a second battery, which can be changed on the fly with the camera turned on. With the grip, the second battery will be drawn upon first as the camera conserves charge for the on-camera battery.


The menu structure is refreshingly simple for a premium camera with advanced features:



The defining feature of this camera is ostensibly the viewfinder. One gets the sense that the EVF hump could have been made smaller, but Fujifilm left it the size that it is to convey... well... its size. The EVF is an OLED design that uses 2360k dots (1024x768 pixels) and 0.77x magnification. It's as large or larger than the viewfinders found on full frame DSLR's. The size of the display can be adjusted. If you wear glasses, the size of the EVF display can be adjusted down, which is the equivalent to moving the eye relief point backwards. At this setting, the display size is roughly the same as that found on the X-E2. At full size, the EVF is still usable for people who wear glasses, but you have to put the eyecup right up to the lenses of your eyeglasses.
The X-T1 EVF has two unique features. The first is that the display information will rotate with camera position; if you hold the camera in portrait position, the text in the display will be rotated as well. The second is that the size of the display area allows for what Fujifilm calls "Dual View", which is a secondary magnified display. This is helpful for using the manual focus aids (split-screen, focus peaking) when peering through the EVF.

Fujifilm X-T1 "Dual View" viewfinder display

Mercifully, the X-T1 has the option to change the colour and intensity of the focus-peaking outline. The original implementation of the X-E2 was in white only, making the highlighting difficult to see against light subjects or bright backgrounds. This was a source of  frustration for X-E2 users, but in conjunction with the large view finder, manual focusing will be something that more users will engage with on the X-T1.

Rear LCD Display: Focus peaking: red, high.

This is the first camera to support UHS-II cards. Strictly speaking, the faster standard isn't absolutely necessary to keep up with the camera's 8fps burst shooting mode, but this may or may not be wear SD cards are heading. (See: XQD) Operationally, the autofocus is quick, and unlike in the X-E2, the benefits of the on-chip phase-detection elements do seem to be realized. The X-T1 does well with tracking moving objects, perhaps more so than any other mirrorless camera. It's still not as fast as a DSLR, but unlike the X-E2 or Sony NEX-6, the performance of the phase detection of the X-T1 can be described as simply "fast", with no additional asterisks. If you turn the AF system off, the manual focus aids (split-image, focus peaking) will be familiar if you've used previous X-System cameras.

At the time of launch (spring 2014), the X-T1 had better smart device app support than the X-E2. The most useful is a remote shooting app that functions as a Wi-Fi shutter trigger. The app can stream live view from the camera, and usefully, you can remotely override the shutter and aperture settings.

Image Quality


As with the X-E2, the X-T1 uses Fujifilm's X-Trans sensor with phase detection elements. There is a noticeable improvement in focus acquisition speed and motion tracking compared to previous X-system cameras, and the X-T1 is capable of simultaneously tracking a moving subject and continuously metering the exposure of that subject at the camera's fastest burst rate. This is something that DSLR's do innately, but with which mirrorless cameras struggle. However, in real-world use, the X-T1 is neither as fast as an Olympus E-M1 in single-shot focusing, nor is it as clever as the Nikon D7100 in motion tracking, but the Fuji does fall into a comfortable middle ground that will satisfy most people.

With passing time, the drawing attraction with the X-system has been less about the benefits of the X-Trans sensor and more about the overall packing and experience of the camera as a whole. The X-Trans sensor trades resolving power in the red and blue channels in exchange for more luminence (green) resolution. The upshot of this is that the sensor produces very crisp edges, but loses some detail in low-contrast areas. The result is generally a very pleasing image, as the loss in colour resolution is not normally noticeable to casual users.Image quality-wise, the output is immediately recognizable as being an X-Trans sensor. The basic design of the sensor remains the same as in other X-Trans cameras, but in terms of image processing, Fujifilm is adding adaptive processing that they are calling a Lens Modulation Optimizer (LMO). This is basically electronic image sharpening to compensate for losses due to diffraction at smaller apertures and in the edges and corners of lenses. The latter function is an evolution of the correction that is commonly used in many camera JPEG engines that correct for vignetting, lateral chromatic aberration and geometric distortion. However, for LMO to work properly, the optical properties of the lens must be mapped accordingly, and as such, the function only works with Fujifilm lenses, and not non-native lenses adapted to the X-T1. Note that even though the adaptive sharpening may make the images appear crisper, there is not actual recovery of detail that is occurring. The LMO system can make output look subjectively better, but it can't increase the amount of objective detail that the lens is gathering.

Resolution aside, there is another controversy with the X-Trans sensor, and that is how Fujifilm rates the ISO sensitivity. In most situations, all things being equal, the Fuji X-Trans cameras tend to report an ISO value that is roughly 1/3 of a stop higher than for the same aperture and shutter speeds combination. The following table shows the differences in indicated metering between four different cameras using the same evenly lit grey panel as a target, shot at f/5.6 for all cameras. Bear in mind that these are indicated values, meaning that the actual brightness of the exposure will vary from cameras to camera. As with the other X-Trans cameras, the X-T1uses ISO ratings that are higher than the comparative exposures given by other camreas. Note: The table below was done with the kit lenses in all cases, and assumes that the transmission efficiency (T-Stop) of the four different lenses are roughly the same. Zooms of similar focal length and aperture ranges are roughly the same in terms of T-Stops, but primes are generally more efficient (by ~1/3EV) at the same focal length.


ISO Fujifilm X-T1 Canon EOS 70D Sony A7 Nikon D7100







100    1/2     1/5     1/5     1/6 

200    1/5     1/10    1/10    1/13

400    1/10    1/20    1/20    1/25

800    1/20    1/40    1/40    1/50

1600    1/40    1/80    1/80    1/100

3200    1/80    1/160    1/160    1/200

6400    1/160    1/320    1/320    1/400

 There isn't actually a consistent way to determine ISO equivalency for digital cameras. Instead of one method, there are actually several, and as is, the camera makers tend to pick whichever method suits them. Some detractors have accused Fujifilm of inflating their ISO numbers for marketing purposes... and there is most definitely a bit of that going on here... but the end result is the same. What matters is the actual exposure that the camera requires to produce a well exposed image; the numbers describing the mechanics are just labels.
 

Image Noise


Using the this blog's ad hoc refrigerator test, this is what the X-T1 produces at various points its ISO scale. As the ISO rises, watch for the texture in the broad patches of colour, edge retention along the straight edges of the refrigerator and bottles, fine detail on the bottle labels, and the harshness of the shadows and reflections. Click on each for a 100% crop view (out of camera JPEG):

ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600

As with all of the X-Trans cameras, the edges are crisp and there's plenty of dynamic range to be had, even up to ISO 3200 (note how the highlights and reflections off of the bottles behave). However, its the quality of the dynamic range that is notable; the tone curve in the highlight regions produces natural-looking transitions that give the impression of an extended dynamic range. The downside is that the shadow part of the tone curve is steep; detail gets lost in the shaded regions. In terms of dynamic range, this is neither better nor worse than with other cameras, but as seems to be the case with Fujifilm, the results have been tuned to produce a n immediately pleasing result.

Noise-wise, ISO 6400 is surprisingly usable, but given the way that the camera reports the ISO values, it is more comparable to ISO 4000 on another brand of camera. That said, even with that comparison, the X-T1 displays excellent edge retention, but fine detail is about as usable as any other APS-C camera turned up past ISO 3200. At all ISO levels, the tradeoff  for this global crispness is in the the tighter detail of the bottle labeling, where printing on the labels doesn't quite come through as it would on other cameras. Compared to a conventional 16mp Bayer sensor camera, the X-Trans sensor makes a strong case for itself, as it can get by without an anti-aliasing filter. However, compared to later generation 24mp Bayer sensors, the advantages aren't so clear. Starting from the cameras like the Nikon D7100, D5300 and Pentax K-3, virtually all of the 24mpp APS-C cameras have done away with the anti-aliasing filter as well. On a straight forward resolution basis, the 24mp cameras win, as they not only have more resolving power, but are better able at rendering detail in the red and blue channels. However, the X-trans sensor, because it is 16mp, has larger light wells, and produces crisper per-pixel acuity.

Amp Noise


Being the photo-centric company that Fujifilm is, video seems to be something of an afterthought on the X-T1. "It can do it" is the best way to sum up the video capabilities of the X-T1. Even though the video specifications are competitive with similar cameras (1080p, 60 fps), the actual video quality is sub-par. Many of the trade-offs that the X-Trans sensor imposes on still photography... false colour artifacts, muddy low-contrast details... become a little more apparent in the camera's video files. If videography is a priority, there are better options, notably the Sony cameras.

The lower priority for video recording shows up in the design of the sensor, as visible amp glow will develop along the bottom edge of the image over prolonged exposures. Amp glow is a a consequence of thermal noise from surrounding circuitry. Cameras that have been designed for extensive video use will have their internal components designed around this issue. For short exposures, the amp noise is buried deep in the blacks, but it's there nonetheless. Here is an ISO 12800 image taken in the dark, and a second that has been pushed 5EV in post processing; taken form the bottom 800 pixels of the image:

ISO 12800, 1/125s (Yes, the image is there!)
Pushed 5EV
The purple glow is a problem within the first 200 pixels from the edge of the image, but the overall fixed pattern noise doesn't settle down until 400 pixels in. At the top edge, the pattern noise has a fine speckled texture that is conducive to perceived image "grain" at higher ISO settings. The pattern noise is neither overly tight (as on the D7100) nor is it splotchy (Pentax K3). Compared to similar sensors, the X-T1's pattern noise profile is unusually clean. This has nothing to do with X-Trans sensor's unique colour filter array, which affects how shot noise is recorded. rather it appears that there is some hardware noise suppression going on, perhaps in the same way that the Nikon D7000 clips blacks. At ISO 12800, almost all of the current crop of APS-C sensors do not produce a true black; it's usually a case of mostly black tinged with faint amounts of purple or green, depending on the camera. This is why the X-Trans sensor gives the subjective impression of producing very clean looking images; there's a lot of fine-tuning going on underneath. Turning back to the am glow, the fortunate thing is that it is only present on one edge of the image, is present as a thin line and not large blobs, and can be cropped out without sacrificing too much of the image area. If you are taking long exposure shots, keep that in mind and frame accordingly.

Comparisons


In many ways, the X-T1 is the X-E2 done right. The camera is not significantly bigger or heavier, but it is more rugged, easier to hold and has a better feature set. The downside is that the cost is significantly higher; for the price of the X-E2 and kit lens, you would only be able to afford the X-T1 body. Even though the Fujinon XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS is not weather sealed like the X-T1, it does balance evenly on the camera.


Overall, the X-T1 is a camera that appeals to the experienced shooters looking at mid-range DSLR's like the Canon EOS 70D or the Nikon D7100, but rather than being a DSLR-killer, it's much more of a serious rival to the OM-D E-M1 and the Sony A7. Compared to the Olympus, there are advantages and disadvantages to choosing the X-T1 over the E-M1. It's a tough choice between the two; the Olympus is the better camera, the Fujifilm takes better pictures.

However, the X-T1 makes for a surprisingly compelling case against the A7. The X-T1 is much more focused at pleasing the traditional photographer and has the better lens line-up. The Sony's trump card is that it's full frame, but the extra stop of ISO power afforded by the larger sensor is made up for by the bright "kit" lens of the Fujifilm 18-55 f/2.8-4. Despite what Fujifilm would have you believe, X-Trans technology will not make an APS-C sensor as good as a full frame sensor, but for the majority of people, the sensor output of the X-T1 will be tuned to their liking.

Concluding Thoughts


The DSLR mimicry of the X-T1 styling is hard to ignore. In one sense, it has taken Fujifilm this long to claw back into the serious-working camera space ever since the heyday of the S5 Pro. The two (as of April 2014) unreleased lenses that will further the X-T1's goals into this area will be the XF 16-55mm f/2.8R OIS WR and the XF 50-140mm f/2.8R OIS WR "pro" zooms. It should be noted that the mock-ups of these lenses that Fujifilm has demonstrated to the public are not light; both of these are hefty lenses. As lenses for a mirrorless system, the mock-ups are just as big and heavy as any pro-quality APS-C lens in this category, such as the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 or the Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8.

In other words, the X-T1 marks the beginning of a transition point for Fujifilm. They have built a well-regarded mirrorless system built around small(er) cameras utilizing appropriately sized primes, but as much as the category has grown, it remains stubbornly in the shadow of DSLR's in North America. There is a practical reason for that; just as the smaller forma factor of "traditional" mirrorless has its advantages, so does that of the DSLR. The serious enthusiast North American market has always been about "go big or go home," thoguh tastes are changing. In terms of its mission, the X-T1 has taken quite a few steps to address DSLR users objections to mirrorless cameras. The camera is small, but it's not difficult to grip. The EVF is large and comfortable to use. The tracking autofocus is a lot more usable than ever before on a mirrorless. There's still the issue of battery life to contend with, but until that hurdle is conquered, the X-T1 fairly close to the top of the serious mirrorless camera brigade.



With thanks to Broadway Camera

2 comments:

  1. The better explanation of the x-trans sensor i had read ! Thank you for all your grzt work and reviews here !

    ReplyDelete