Onions. Straight out of camera JPEG.
Update: If you're only arriving here now, please note that I've got two other posts up about this camera already, including some semi-controlled lens test shots.
Time for a break from the heavy Buddhisty type stuff I've been posting about lately, 'cuz I just bought a camera.
I've been without a "big" camera since I sold my Canon EOS system a few years back. I loved everything about the 5D except the bulk—it's a heavy and very visible piece of kit, and as compact cameras improved I eventually reached a tipping point where the 5D just stayed at home. It was too nice a system to keep gathering dust, so I sold it.
In the interim, I've been using a Canon S90 compact and a Panasonic GF1 with the 20/1.7 pancake. These get the job done well enough, but nevertheless have some limitations that I kept bumping into. The Canon is fantastic for a pocket camera, but neither the optics nor the electronic image quality are as good as on a larger camera; the Panny was capable of superb results in the right conditions, but I was missing the viewfinder, and I was pretty often bumping against its imaging limits too—specifically, in bright light I would tend to blow out the highlights, and in poor light I would struggle with noise.
Somebody finally built the camera I've been waiting for since the digital revolution—a thoroughly modernized re-invention of the Leica CL. This would be the Fuji X-Pro 1. I finally got mine, and since this is a new model that has evoked a quite a lot of interest, I'll be blogging about getting to know it. I've only had it for a day, so this post represents very preliminary first impressions, which are usually all about being tremendously excited. So be warned.
So, what's so special about the X-Pro 1 that I was ready to shell out a good deal more for it than, say, the excellent Panasonic G3 or the upcoming Olympus OM-D EM-5, jumping into a new and untried system to boot? Or, put another way, what's so special about the Leica CL that I've been waiting for a digital re-invention of the concept for so long?
That Rangefinder ThingI won't go into a long dissertation about the pros and cons of rangefinder cameras here. If you like to shoot street or situational photography and have never shot with a film rangefinder, I would strongly recommend that you try one out. An SLR insulates you from the scene; you're hiding your face behind the camera and looking at the picture painted on a matte screen framed in black space. A camera with a big, clear viewfinder in the corner puts you in the scene. You're more present to your subjects because your face isn't hidden, and you can anticipate better because you can see outside the frame. You're looking at the scene, not at a picture. It encourages a different way of photographing; you anticipate what's going to happen, stay a step ahead of it, and then shoot when the time is right.
This makes a rangefinder—or rangefinder-style camera—something of a special-purpose instrument. An SLR is much more versatile; it's equally at home with super-telephotos as with fisheyes; shooting architecture with tilt-shift lenses or fast-moving sports; portraits or wildlife. Rangefinder-style cameras are at their best in situational shooting of human-scale, human-range subjects in the field. The X-Pro 1 can, obviously, do a lot more; the electronic viewfinder even makes it totally feasible to shoot it with lenses that are wider or longer than can be used with the optical viewfinder. I'm pretty sure that it would be fairly frustrating to try to shoot, say, sports with one, though, compared to an SLR. So if what you're looking for is a great all-rounder, then this ain't it. It'll do other jobs than its main mission in a pinch, but it really is intended primarily for street/situational/event shooting—but I'm expecting that it will do that better than just about anything else out there.
PedigreeTechnically, the X-Pro 1 isn't a rangefinder camera, because it doesn't have a rangefinder. It has contrast-detection auto-focus, like most of 'em out there. It is, however, designed to recreate the way of shooting with a rangefinder camera, in a completely modern package. Fuji has an impeccable pedigree designing and building rangefinder cameras, from the Hasselblad X-Pan to the 645 and 6 x 9 "Texas Leicas," so this type of camera is very much in their corporate DNA.
When Fujifilm came up with the X100 last year, it was already clear which way they wanted to go. I almost bought it then, but canceled my order after the first reviews were in. I felt that it still had too much of the engineering prototype to it. There were the slow startup times, the clunky menu system, the control lock-up while writing, the cranky AF, and the other numerous little issues excellently covered in reviews that all seem to conclude with "Great camera, but..." Even the design looked a bit unfinished, with some unsightly bulges and the flash sitting uncomfortably where you'd expect the bright-line illuminator window. I felt I didn't want to put up with that kind of stuff in this day and age, and decided to wait a bit.
The X-Pro 1 smooths out the wrinkles in the X100 design and takes the concept a notch further. True to my handle, I was delighted to see a camera system being launched with not one, nor two, but three normal-range prime lenses, and no zooms!
The other half of the attraction of the rangefinder is the lens system. Fuji started its X-system with three primes: an 18/2.0, a 35/1.4, and a 60/2.4 Macro. On the Fuji's APS-C sized sensor, these lenses have imaging characteristics that are as good as identical to 28/2.8, 50/2.0, and 90/4.0 lenses on full-frame, which just happen to be the three lenses you'd be most likely to find in a PJ's bag in the glory days of rangefinders, in the 1950's or thereabouts. Only the 35/2.0 equivalent is missing from this starter set, and I hear there's a 23 mm lens on its way next year. Even the physical lengths of the lenses are within a few millimeters of their Leica counterparts.
It's also clear what Fuji had in mind when tweaking the lenses' rendering characteristics—in particular, the bokeh (quality of the out-of-focus areas) on the 35/1.4 is simply lovely: it would be interesting to see the results of a blind test between it and the Summicron 50/2.0, or even the fantastic but insanely expensive Summilux 50/1.4. I love the way this lens renders scenes, above and beyond measurable characteristics like resolution and contrast, which are excellent too.
So why the X-Pro 1? Because I feel very strongly that it's trying to do something that's worth doing, and I believe that it does it well. While they market it as a "pro" camera—and I'm sure many pros will find uses for it—I still think that I'm a more likely customer: an amateur who likes rangefinders and has enough disposable income for something pricier than the mass-market CSC's, but doesn't want or can't justify the cost of a Leica.
I do catch occasional bouts of serious Leica lust, but hanging out on Leica owner forums for a while usually cures that. I have a mild phobia of dentists.
The ViewfinderThe viewfinder is the main reason this camera holds such an attraction for me. And now that I see it, I like it. A lot. It's slightly smaller than the one on my Leica CL, but optically a good deal better. It's sharper and contrastier and there's virtually no visible chromatic aberration. With the higher magnification (the 35 mm lens) there's almost no barrel distortion either; at the lower magnification there is a bit, about the same as on the CL. The electronic overlay is clear and crisp, and I can customize it to my heart's content. What's more, the clever automatic magnifier Fuji engineered in does a good deal to offset the smallish size of the viewfinder—the real estate is more efficiently used than on a finder with a fixed magnification when using it with anything other than with the widest framelines.
I'm especially impressed by the way they addressed the parallax problem with AF—there are two boxes showing the position of the AF box at infinity and at minimum focus distance, and when I focus, the green box settles somewhere between them. This means I can compensate for focus distance already when placing the AF spot on my subject by eyeballing it, and I get confirmation that the AF snagged on what I intended, rather than, say, the background. It's a very elegant solution to a complex usability problem. So bravo. Beats me why they don't have it set up this way by default, though.
The electronic viewfinder is better than I expected too. Resolution is high enough that I can get acceptable focus on it in manual-focus mode, at least at relatively close focus distances. It's also less laggy than most other EVF's I've used. It freezes for a split-second when auto-focusing. The EVF is totally usable in a pinch; I suspect that when I get the 60/2.4, I will be using the EVF with it more than the optical viewfinder; its framelines in the optical viewfinder will be pretty small.
The LCD is also excellent—sharp, great contrast and color. The antiglare coating is a bit of a fingerprint magnet though, as is the antireflective coating on the front of the optical viewfinder.
Build, Fit and FinishThe camera and lenses are very nicely put together. Much better than the Panasonic GF1 or the Leica CL, for that matter, and at least on par with the EOS-5D I used to have; the fit and finish of the buttons and dials on the back are perhaps even a hair better, other than the jog dial which does have a bit of play to it. There's been a bunch of griping around the Net that the camera feels "light." Well, it does, but only in the way a nice bicycle feels light. It's made of aluminum and magnesium rather than brass like Leica M's, but it is in no shape or form "cheap" or "flimsy." I think you'll only be disappointed if you expect the weight and massively overengineered feel of a Leica. Compared to anything else, it feels great.
As far as I'm concerned, light is good. A kilo of camera—like the 5D with the 50/1.8 Mk 1—gets heavy during a day. This is half that. More so because the camera is just a hair bigger than I would've built it, had I been able to commission one to my personal requirements—it's about a centimeter wider and a half-centimeter taller than the CL, which feels just about perfect to me as dimensions go. So not a pocket camera by any stretch of the imagination, but a good deal lighter and more compact than a dSLR, even a small one like a Pentax K-5.
The lenses don't have the beautiful buttery feel of perfectly-engineered micromechanics you get in really nice manual-focus lenses, but then AF lenses never do. In terms of tactile feel, these Fujinons feel better than the Ugly Ducklings I used to like so much in the Canon system.
Oh, and the hoods are among the nicest I've come across. And they were included. Châpeau! Both project slightly into the viewfinder, but not so much that it's a bother. The rubber caps supplied for the hoods are a bit weird, though; I'm not convinced they'll stay put very well. The normal lens caps—pinch-style—are very nice.
PerformanceThe X-Pro 1 feels pleasantly snappy in action. It starts up and wakes up quickly enough that by the time it's up to my eye, it's ready to shoot. The menus are responsive enough to be as good as instantaneous. Shot to shot times are quite fast, say a half-ish second between shots in single-shot mode.
Auto-focus is fast enough that I don't really notice it anymore; I have always used the focus-recompose-anticipate technique, though, which means I'm not as demanding of AF speed as some. Subjectively it feels about as fast as the GF1, or the EOS-5D with those old lenses of mine. It does slow down noticeably in low light, but remains perfectly manageable. I just tried a Panasonic G3 at the store, though, and that was noticeably faster. As far as I'm concerned, the AF performance seems entirely sufficient for this type of camera. If you're the type who rams through to shoot, though, you might find it less satisfactory. Or maybe not; this is subjective.
I think the best way to shoot this—for my type of shooting anyway—is to set the AE-L/AF-L button to AF-L, and make it toggle. I'll see how this will feel once I get used to it; I had the EOS-5D set to focus with the AE-L button, like the X-Pro 1 does in MF mode. This way might be better, or not. I don't think I'll leave it in MF mode because it doesn't have that nice little dance with the white and green boxes.
My first impressions of manual-focus are a bit mixed. While the haptic feel of the manual-focus ring is pretty good for an AF lens, the throw on it is way too long; you have to twist a lot to get from close to infinity. Perhaps they figured that MF would be primarily used for macro, where precision is paramount. It's odd.
So no major complaints on the performance front, at this point anyway. A few niggles, but that's it.
FeaturesDespite the fundamental simplicity of the design, there are gobs of features packed into the camera. I'm pretty confused about them at the moment, and have figured out so far mostly how to switch things off. Like image review. It's distracting when it pops up in the optical viewfinder after shooting a frame. There's stuff like, oh, a histogram, a level, a composition grid, lots and lots of film simulation modes (unlike with my previous cameras, I think I may actually be using these—what I've seen of it, this guy seems to be capable of producing remarkably nice color out of the box, so the raw format might end up as more of a fallback than before), and so on and so forth. Oh, and it even does video. Don't know how well, and don't care.
The Q button seems nifty as it gives fast access to the most important ones. I haven't yet figured out what all those little icons mean, but that oughtn't take too long.
SoundsThe shutter sounds nice. Quiet but crisp. I bet they put some effort into engineering that sound. This would certainly work as an event camera at least as well as a Leica. It's not as whisper-silent as a leaf-shutter camera like the X100, but certainly not noisy. The AF motors on the lenses are audible—noisier than the Panny 20/1.7, say—but a good deal quieter than the Canon 35/2.0 or 50/1.8 Mk 1. One surprising sound is the relatively frequent whispering that comes from the iris adjusting as I pan around brighter and darker areas. That's a bit odd, since it does it even when I'm using the OVF and it presumably doesn't need to stop down to get a picture on the screen.
If It Ain't Broke, Why Fix It?I dislike modal controls, and have long been wondering why everybody was so eager to ditch the simple, elegant, and obvious aperture and shutter speed controls on classic rangefinders: turn a dial to set the shutter speed, with A for auto, and turn the aperture ring to set the aperture, again A for auto. Instead we get all this PASM and scene mode nonsense with the control dials switching function depending on which mode you're in. This two-dial method of setting the exposure value works as well as it always did, and you get aperture- or shutter-priority or full-auto too if you want it. The third main control dial is for AE compensation between -2 and +2 stops, at 1/3 stop intervals. Nice and clicky. I concur with the folks who pointed out that it would've been nice to add some tactile feedback on the zero point; you can see what the AEC is set to in the viewfinder and of course by looking at the position of the dial, but it wouldn't hurt to be able to feel it too. It'd be quite easy to file a little notch into the dial at the zero line but... no. Just... no.
I'm not sure if I'd also want a dedicated dial for ISO; I used to think that was rather necessary, but since this sensor appears to give pretty much uniform results between ISO200 and ISO1600, there's less need to fiddle with it. We will see in due course if this starts to feel like something that ought to be changed; there is something to be said for simplicity, too.
I gotta rhapsodize a bit about how this looks. As a hipster colleague of mine who shoots film only commented, "Hey, that looks like an actual camera." Well, it does. Retro, yes, but good retro.
There are three types of retro design: there's good retro, there's bad retro, and then there's indifferent retro. Good retro is a re-invention of an old design concept, true to its original purpose and not for simple nostalgia value. Bad retro means imposing an old design on something that's functionally different, resulting in something that usually neither looks very good nor functions very well. Indifferent retro just means taking a perfectly functional design and adding some visual design cues to make it look like something else, without materially affecting the usability. There are examples of all three types of retro among cameras. I won't say which is which, as I would only earn more enemies, but I do have a certain famous mantra cycling through my head. Ommm...
Anyway, the X-Pro 1 is a handsome, purposeful-looking camera, with a design language that isn't obviously aping any particular other model on the market. It most reminds me of the Konica Hexar RF, a lovely Leica clone with built-in motor drive and aperture-priority AE. It's clearly not a copy of or homage to anything, though—the design seems purely functional, and similarities with old rangefinders arise naturally where the same solutions to the same problems are used. The overtly retro touches, like the faux leather wrapped around the body, or the engraved FUJINON LENS SYSTEM logo on the top plate just accentuate it.
There's no reason they couldn't have gone the silly-money Leica M9 Titanium way, and prettied up the same camera with a carbon-fiber-and-metal futuristic sports-car look, but the retro look is probably safer and certainly more discreet.
Niggles and weirdnessesThe X-Pro 1 is a niche camera. That means that Fuji wouldn't have the kind of resources Nikon, Canon, Sony, or even Olympus or Panasonic brings to bear on one of their mainstream camera models. This inevitably leaves some niggling weirdnesses in—from what I've heard, royalty like the Leica M9 isn't quite free of them either.
So far—which isn't very far—I haven't encountered anything really serious, but there are definitely a few odd decisions and rough edges left in there. For example:
- The mysterious whispering aperture. Even when I'm in OVF mode and my eye isn't on the viewfinder. Why?
- Why isn't the 35/1.4 an internally-focusing design? An extending front element is so... 1980's.
- Those rectangular rubber caps that fit the front of the hoods seem like an afterthought. I'm pretty sure they'll fall off and get lost sooner rather than later.
- The EVF freezes momentarily when focusing.
- The manual-focus throw is really long. There has to be a reason they made it this way, because it would've been just as easy to gear it up, or even make it logarithmic (fast movement, short throw, slow movement, long throw).
- Why is the tripod mount next to the battery door? I understand if there's an engineering reason not to center it on the lens mount, but if it was on the other side, it'd be possible to swap batteries with a tripod plate screwed on.
As niggles go, these are pretty minor. Another niche camera I used—the Sigma DP1—had them up the wazoo, to the point that they made using the camera a bit of a chore. AF was really slow, the LCD was really low resolution making it not so much fun to compose on it, and the whole thing locked up while writing, which took ages. Compared to that, the X-Pro 1 is slick as a greased weasel.