Fuji X-T1 Review -- Field Test Part I

Bright lights, big city

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 03/31/2014

When it was time for an overseas trip, the Fuji X-T1's trim body seemed like the ideal companion.

As a fan of retro ergonomics, I've been interested in the Fuji X-T1 ever since it was announced at the start of the year. It wasn't until a two-week vacation in my one-time home of Hong Kong came near, though, that I had the perfect excuse to get my hands on what's proven to be a pretty popular camera ever since it arrived at Imaging Resource headquarters. When the trip loomed large and I inquired as to which cameras might be available to take with me, the X-T1 seemed to be the obvious choice. Not only was it a nice match for my shooting style, but it was also pretty compact, and for this trip I would be packing light.

To accompany the X-T1 body, I selected three lenses: the Fujinon XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS and Fujinon XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS zooms, as well as the Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R prime. The two zooms touched the bases for a broad coverage from wide-angle to telephoto, while the prime seemed ideal as a walkaround, street shooter lens. (Truth be told, I wasn't expecting to need the longer focal lengths of the 55-200mm lens too much. Hong Kong being a densely-populated city, getting far enough from your subject is usually harder than framing up close. Still, it seemed worth taking nonetheless, if only for shooting around the harbor.) I also brought the VG-XT1 vertical battery grip with a spare battery, which never left the camera, as well as the tiny, bundled EF-X8 flash strobe which it turned out I never needed to use.

The savings in weight over a similarly-specified enthusiast DSLR kit -- a Pentax K-3, battery grip, and similar lenses -- is actually only very slight. The Fujifilm gear comes to about 3.9 pounds all-in, where the equivalent Pentax kit would be just a touch under 4.1 pounds. However, Fuji's lenses are all somewhat brighter than their nearest Pentax equivalents, despite a very noticeable savings in size. And honestly, it's size more than weight that matters when I'm packing for overseas travel. I'm not letting my camera gear be put in the hold -- my family worked in the airline industry, and I know what happens to checked bags (!!) -- but space is at a premium in a carry-on bag. Especially one that can fit in the little regional jets that frequent my local airport.

With Hong Kong being densely packed and somewhat hazy at this time of year, I expected to get more use out of my 18-55 zoom and 35mm prime than out of the 55-200mm zoom -- and I was right. Still, I got some very nice shots out of the latter, such as this Hugo Boss-wrapped Star Ferry.

I had a few days to familiarize myself with the X-T1 before leaving for Hong Kong, but it wasn't until I arrived that I had time to really shoot in earnest. Thankfully, I found the little Fuji to be very approachable and quick to come to terms with. Having all those clearly-marked external controls makes for an intuitive experience. And since each control also has an Auto position, there's no need for a Mode dial. The result is much more coherent than another retro shooter I'd recently taken for a spin, the Nikon Df. (And despite being a much smaller camera, the X-T1 somehow feels less cramped than the Df did, as well.) It took me a little while to remember that, with no Mode dial, features like panorama shooting and multiple exposure belonged on the Drive mode dial, but once I got used to that I really fell in love with the X-T1's layout.

The 55-200mm lens also did a nice job with these sea urchin fishermen. You can easily make out the individual, razor-sharp spines of their freshly-gathered catch, emptied from traps just moments before.

There is a slight dichotomy in the lenses, though. The two zooms have fly-by-wire aperture rings and a separate auto / manual aperture switch, where the 35mm prime has a proper, manual aperture ring complete with an "A" position for automatic aperture control. I much prefer the manual ring, which gels better with the overall experience of the X-T1, but honestly I could live with either approach by itself. I find it a bit confusing switching back and forth between the two depending on which lens is in use, however. Were I to buy the X-T1, I'd probably factor the aperture control method into my decision when choosing which lenses to buy, for a more cohesive experience.

By default, the Fuji X-T1's colors are quite realistic, but a bit muted. This temple roof in the fishing town of Sai Kung is a bit richer in real life. Adding about +10 vibrance and +10 saturation in Photoshop yields a result closer to my memory.

Despite a shallower grip than I typically prefer, I find the Fuji X-T1 very comfortable in-hand, and nicely balanced as well. Especially so with the portrait grip attached -- I left this on all the time, and not just for its extra battery, but also for its duplicate portrait-orientation controls. It took quite a while before I could remember to use them, though. Perhaps because the combination of body and grip is still so (relatively) compact, I kept forgetting there was another shutter button, and reaching across the top of the camera to the main button even for portraits. And even now I've gotten used to it, I still sometimes stick to the main shutter button simply because I find its locking switch to be a little bit fiddly.

There's also a slight quirk with the grip's operation with respect to the second battery. The camera will power-cycle itself after you first switch it on if the battery in the grip is flat, and continues to randomly do so every now and then before or after a shot, if you leave the drained cell in the grip. I did, just one time, miss a shot due to this quirk, but it's easy enough to remove the drained battery and slip it in a pocket. I'm hopeful this is something that can be addressed with a firmware update, too.

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I also found occasional issues with the camera not waking back up after it had gone to sleep, even if I fully depressed the shutter button. I've yet to figure out a pattern to this -- perhaps there's a certain time duration that has to elapse to trigger the problem -- but power-cycling the camera always brought it straight back to life. And battery life seems reasonable. Only twice during my fortnight in Hong Kong did I shoot enough to drain the entire battery in a single day, and I never came close to draining both batteries in a day's shooting. (But then, I did religiously charge both cells each night.)

Although I've yet to shoot any particularly active subjects, autofocus performance so far seems pretty good, with one exception. Beyond about 135mm, the 55-200mm is a bit on the slow side, autofocus-wise. Even when presented with a high-contrast subject that's already in focus, it will rack all the way from the nearest focus distance to the actual focus distance, taking as much as a second to do so. (Other lenses, and the 55-200mm at nearer focal lengths, show the same focus-racking behavior, but they arrive at the point of focus quickly enough that it doesn't feel like an issue.) I was initially frustrated by the need to dive into the menu to change between multi-point and single-point AF modes, but as soon as I found that I could assign this to the front function button, I was happy once more.

Plenty of detail in this old sampan, shot with DR400 (400% Dynamic Range) to open up the shadows without blowing the bright but slightly hazy, overcast sky. The default exposure would've been perfect, but unfortunately the exposure compensation dial got bumped, leaving me with a choice of slightly underexposed or overexposed shots from my +/-2/3EV bracketed triplet.

There are a couple of controls on the X-T1's body that I'm not entirely happy with. The rear four-way controller's buttons are very small and don't have a great button-feel when pressed, so they're not the best to operate solely by touch. And after spending a little while shooting with exposure compensation dialed in by accident, I realized that you really have to pay attention to this control. It's simply too easily turned, and needs either a locking button or a stronger click detent. After that first problem, I checked almost every time I went to take a shot, and noticed just in time that the dial had changed on several other occasions. (Typically, when the camera had been in a bag, but I also noticed it changing a couple of times after I'd been wearing it around my neck on bumpy minibus rides.)

I'm a big fan of optical viewfinders, and have yet to find an electronic viewfinder that has persuaded me to convert. The Fuji X-T1's viewfinder is the closest yet, though. There are a couple of things I very much like about it. For one thing, it's very roomy. I'm also starting to realize that one of my key complaints with electronic viewfinders is the lag between the real world, and what my eye sees. It might be barely perceptible on most cameras, but it's still a disconnect from my subject. The X-T1's viewfinder is much faster than most -- and for that reason it feels more natural to me.

It could stand to be a bit brighter, but I only really had difficulty with it under harsh sunlight, and even then mostly because of its viewfinder eyepiece, which has a very shallow cup. Shielding the top or side of the camera with my free hand does the trick, but if I were to buy this camera, I'd probably take a trip to my local camera store to see if I could find a more generous viewfinder eyecup that fit. (Fuji doesn't make one, and although I tried eyecups from Canon, Pentax and Sony, none of them fit either.) I also noticed its eye sensor has a range of several inches, which is enough that when holding the camera in my right hand with a heavier lens attached and using my left hand to fiddle around in menus, causes the screen to randomly turn off and on. The solution's pretty simple -- don't use my left hand to reach across the camera.

The menu system is pretty straightforward, if a bit plain. (But then I must admit I tend to prefer plain over showy when it comes to menus.) There are a few places it could use better organization -- I'm not entirely sure why there are two separate sections on far-distant tabs of the menu related to Wi-Fi connectivity, for example -- but it's probably as good as (or better than) most in this respect.

The only way to isolate this old motorcycle from a rather distracting background was to shoot from ankle-height. The Fuji X-T1's handy, tilting LCD monitor helped me get really, really low.

Speaking of Wi-Fi, I found myself using this a lot more than I do with most cameras. That's perhaps in part because I was on a trip home, and many of my Facebook friends wanted to see the pictures too. Still, it's also because once set up, it's a pretty painless process: just press the top-deck Wi-Fi button, open the Photo Receiver app on my phone, and wait ten or fifteen seconds before choosing a few photos to transfer. The only real annoyance is that I tend to leave Wi-Fi disabled on my phone to save on battery life, but Fuji's app (for Android, at least) leaves the Wi-Fi connection active when it's finished with it, rather than returning it to its original state. That caused a flat phone battery once, when I wasn't aware of the behavior -- but I quickly learned to disable Wi-Fi manually whenever I was done. I've not used the more complex Camera Remote app (which allows remote control and geotagging) very much yet, so expect more on that in a later Field Test.

The Fuji X-T1 occasionally struggled with the complex mixture of light sources on offer in Hong Kong. It's easily fixed, though -- Photoshop's Auto Color tool corrects the excessive warmth nicely. Add a touch of saturation/vibrance, and this shot in Choi Hung's wet market matches my memory nicely.

While I was in Hong Kong, I didn't have much opportunity to assess image quality, as my laptop screen -- while bright -- is not the best in terms of color rendition. Now that I'm back in the office, I've taken a look on my calibrated Dell UltraSharp U2410 monitor, though, and I like what I see from out-of-camera JPEGs. (I've not yet had a chance to try fiddling with raw files from the X-T1.) Colors are accurate and very much as I remember them, if perhaps just a little muted. White balance can tend to struggle a bit with Hong Kong's wildly-varying light sources, though, occasionally rendering night scenes either warm, or with a somewhat sickly green cast. Exposures were likewise pretty accurate. Sharpness seems fairly good as well, considering that the sensor resolution does lag what's available from APS-C rivals these days.

Now, this shot the X-T1 really nailed. The colors and detail in these colossal lobsters in a Sai Kung fish market are exactly as I remember them.

Another feature of the X-T1 that I found myself playing with quite a bit is it's panorama feature, Hong Kong being a place which lends itself to a good pano. It's pretty straightforward to use, and interesting in that it provides a choice not just of how wide the pano should be, but also of which direction it should run in. It doesn't handle moving subjects very gracefully, though, and when presented with Hong Kong's twinkling lights at night, had a tendency to produce some fairly heavy banding in the sky as lights pulsed on and off between frames. Still, presented with a more static subject it yielded some pretty nice results, and after a dozen or so tries, I got one handheld panorama of the Hong Kong harbor at dusk that I'll likely put on my wall, after a little tweaking.

One last feature that's an absolute delight is the Fuji X-T1's playback mode, which allows you to review images while they're still being written to the Secure Digital card. Initially, we'd understood that feature to be reliant on using the swifter UHS-II Secure Digital cards, which feature a second row of contacts for increased bandwidth. Although I've not done a lot of burst-shooting yet, I've tried a few lengthy bursts of images both on UHS-II and UHS-I cards, and the speed with which you can start reviewing images on either is seriously impressive. After a burst of a couple of dozen images in raw+JPEG format, there's a delay of just a few seconds until you can start reviewing those images, unlike most cameras which make you wait until the entire burst has finished writing to storage. That one change makes the camera feel much more responsive -- and you don't even have to shell out for a UHS-II card to get it! Very cool indeed.

This lion dancer's mask, believe it or not, is even richer and more colorful in person. A little boost in saturation from the default easily fixes that, though, and the default colors do seem quite accurate.

 



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