Monday, January 27, 2014

NEW! Fujifilm X-T1 Body Preview...

Well finally, the mythical Fujifilm X-T1 has been announced! After many leaks, even an official teaser from Fujifilm, the X-T1 ($1,299 body) was finally revealed in all its glory. As much as I like the sleek, rangefinder-esque styling of the X-E2 and other previous X-series bodies from a practicality standpoint, I can't deny that the new X-T1 looks great, especially in person. Yes indeed, thanks to our local Fujifilm rep, I managed a reasonably extensive hands-on for an hour or so with a production-level X-T1 body, although the firmware was still pre-production. Below, you can see the X-T1 between an X-Pro1 and X-E1…

The new X-T1 is basically the same width as the X-E2, a little thicker, due to the tilting rear LCD and more substantial grip, and just a little taller, due to the EVF hump. Now, if the larger EVF hump was merely for show, trying for a retro SLR style look, then I would be against the increase in bulk. However all it takes is one look into the new EVF to appreciate that Fujifilm has achieved a massively improved EVF experience. "Wow!", "Whoa!" and an unpublishable phrase were the reactions I witnessed when Beau Photo staff members had a look. Not only is the magnification ratio huge, giving a large, expansive view that is just as big as pro-grade full-frame DSLRs like the Canon 1Dx, but the optics are superb as well, allowing for sharp viewing right into the corners of the frame. The high-resolution OLED is an absolute pleasure to view with excellent contrast, vibrance and a very fast 54 fps stutter-free refresh rate, even when used in very low light levels. Unlike Fujifilm's other X-series EVFs, the one in the X-T1 will not slow down to 20 fps when the light levels drop to low levels.

Looking at the above image, you might be thinking that the X-T1 is looking a little chunky… well how about this for comparison: X-T1 vs Nikon D800 (screenshot from…

Whew, okay, but the D800 is fairly large you might be thinking. Well then, how about the most compact full-frame digital SLR, so X-T1 vs Nikon Df, Nikon's take on a retro-themed body (screenshot from…

The above shots should prove that despite the EVF hump and larger grip, the X-T1 is still a really small camera especially considering that it should perform as well as many digital SLRs. Couple this with Fujifilm's plethora of superb and compact prime lenses, and you can truly have a high performance kit that is compact and lightweight! Here is a top view, compared to the other Fuji bodies…

So, enough size comparisons, now back to the X-T1. On top of the excellent visual characteristics of the new EVF, Fujifilm has also tweaked the display modes in some unique and excellent ways. When you rotate the camera to take a vertical (portrait) shot, the info displays and exposure data in the EVF will rotate to show in a natural way, so in other words, the f-stop, shutter speed etc. will be displayed the right way up, easier to read at a glance. You can choose to maximize the image area and have the exposure data overlay on top of the image, near the edges, or you can choose to slightly shrink down the image and then have all the exposure data appear in the black frame surrounding the image. Since the EVF magnification is so high, that would be my preferred way since even shrunk down, the actual image is much larger than what I can see in my X-E2's EVF for example. The only slight hiccup, is that if you also have the camera set to show the distance/depth-of-field scale, when rotated vertically, it will appear overlaid on the bottom of the image. Fujifilm should have kept the scale off the image, as it is in horizontal (landscape) view, and simply rotated the numbers on the scale to be the right way around.

The other unique feature, which worked far better in practice than I thought it would, is the side-by-side display, where on the left, you have a full, unobstructed view of the entire frame and on the right, there is a cropped and magnified view of your focus area that allows you to easily manually focus while framing your shot, without the distracting zoom in and zoom out needed with other EVFs. Again, due to the huge apparent visual size of the X-T1's EVF, the left side full image view is very nearly as large seeming as the full viewfinder view of other X-series EVFs!

The new X-T1 also sports a tilting, high resolution rear LCD covered in tough, protective tempered glass, rather than the scratch-prone plastic that's usually used, so it should be far more durable than other cameras. Speaking of tough and protective, holding the X-T1 definitely gives one a feeling that it is a solid and well-made camera. It is also fully weather sealed, so when coupled with one of the upcoming weather-sealed lenses due later this year (an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS, a 16-55mm f/2.8 OIS and a 50-140mm f/2.8 OIS), the X-T1 should supply one with worry-free shooting in the worst weather conditions.

As you can see in the photos, the X-T1 features a new mechanical ISO control dial on the top left, and harder to see, is that concentric and below the ISO dial is a mechanical drive mode switch, for quick access to settings for single shot, continuous, auto-bracketing, sweep panoramas and more. Also hard to see, is that concentric and below the shutter speed dial is a metering mode selector switch, for choosing spot, matrix and center-weighted average metering.

The X-T1 has two dedicated and user definable function buttons, one on top and one on the front, between the grip and the lens mount, easily activated when needed. In addition, all four of the "direction buttons" on the back can be redefined. A useful consequence of that feature is that all four buttons can be set to activate the focus point selector mode, so let's say you want to move the focus point up one; on the X-E2 for example, you have to first push the down arrow to activate the focus point selection mode, then the up arrow to move the point up. With all four buttons redefined, a quick double-tap on any button will first activate focus selector mode, then move the focus point in that direction... far more convenient! What I would love to see though, is that if the user has redefined all four buttons to activate focus selector mode, then the camera should turn them into "direct access" buttons, not requiring two taps.

There are some other ergonomic changes too. Some people will like the fact that the exposure compensation dial is now much stiffer and less likely to turn by accident, although its newfound stiffness means it is very hard to turn with just thumb friction. You now have to grasp it with a thumb and finger to easily turn it, but since the front part of the button is not flush like on the X-E2 for example, this is quite easily accomplished.

One welcome fix is that now the exposure-lock and focus-lock button toggles work exactly how you would expect. Focus-lock has zero affect on any metering functions (as it should!) and exposure lock now simply locks in the metered EV (exposure value) and will still allow you to make f-stop or shutter speed changes after locking, maintaining the identical locked exposure. This is far better behaviour than in previous bodies!

One slight annoyance though, is that Fujifilm still has not made the half-press shutter focus-lock behave like other cameras. On most cameras, once you half press and lock focus, you can squeeze off multiple frames and as long as you maintain the half-press between shots, the camera will not try to refocus. On all of the X-series bodies though, while a half-press will lock the focus, it only does so on the first shot. For all subsequent shots, even if you maintain the half-press, the camera will insist on refocusing. Very non-standard and annoying behaviour if that happens to be something you are used to from other cameras! I am really hoping a firmware update will eventually fix this behaviour on all X-series bodies!

To make matters worse, on the X-T1, when you press the focus-lock button, the camera will insist on first autofocusing before locking, even when in regular AF mode. On other X-bodies, pressing the focus-lock will lock the lens in its currently focused position (without refocusing) and only initiate AF when in manual focus mode. I won't dwell on this any further since this might have been a preproduction firmware glitch or there might have been a menu selection to toggle this behaviour that I didn't have time to dig up, although I did try.

Other enhancements include a faster 8fps continuous shooting speed, and apparently the camera will reliably perform predictive AF tracking at that rate too! I did not have a chance to test that yet, but other online reviews have shown the X-T1 to be very capable in that department, hugely improved over the previous bodies. As far as static AF, it seemed decisive and swift, but then with all the firmware updates over the last year, all the other X-series bodies feel very competent and fast with static AF as well. In addition, there is in-camera multiple exposure capability, built-in time-lapse shooting (intervalometer) functions, a flash-sync port for studio strobes, and a much improved raw buffer. On my X-E2, I can manage about 8 raw+fine-JPEG shots before the camera slows down to write to the card, but with the X-T1, I managed 21 raw+fine-JPEG shots. That is a substantial improvement!

The sensor is essentially the same as that of the X-E2, a 16 MP X-Trans II CMOS sensor with on-chip phase-detect pixels. It should offer the same outstanding dynamic range and excellent high-ISO image quality that you can get from the X-E2. I don't anticipate any real surprises there. The X-T1 also has built-in WiFi and Fujifilm's app now allows for full camera control apparently, although I didn't really test that.

Lastly, a battery grip with a vertical shutter release, control wheels and buttons is available and for pre-orders happening before March 31st, you will get one for FREE when you buy the X-T1! The grip is fairly tall, and will most definitely increase the camera's bulk though, see below…

Overall, I think the new X-T1 is a superb and well designed camera with exceptional performance and a truly outstanding new EVF, the best I have ever seen. However it is not perfect of course (what camera is), so here are a few minor points to note, apart from the above mentioned AF-lock and shutter release quirks and the slightly stiff exposure compensation dial…

• Many of the back-panel buttons are nearly flush-mounted, making them hard to locate by feel. I believe that once you get used to their location, it won't be an issue, but when I first started using the camera, I kept pulling it away from my face to confirm where the buttons were. I really think using those buttons with gloves on would be difficult.

• Personally, I found the front Fn button a bit too easy to press by accident and the top Fn button awkward to press with eye to the viewfinder, it being rather close to the edge of the exposure compensation dial.

• The ISO dial lock button needs to be pressed firmly, almost feeling like it needs to be depressed below the top level of the dial, in order for it to unlock. It is not particularly stiff, but again I found it a bit difficult to do with eye to viewfinder. With practice, this will no doubt become easier too.

• While I didn't mind the feel of the SD card door (yes, the SD card no longer resides in the battery compartment, yay!), the flap that covers the HDMI, USB and remote ports is quite thin and flimsy feeling.

• There is no more threaded shutter release socket, meaning old-style mechanical cable releases cannot be used. Apparently this is due to the needs of its weather-sealing.

• The tripod socket is still too close to the battery door, so with a quick-release plate attached, you won't be able to get at the battery, although no problem at least for the the new SD slot's location. However both the vertical grip as well as the smaller enhanced hand-grip, the simple one that offers access to the battery door and also has an Arca-Swiss compatible beveled mount on the bottom plate, will give you a perfectly centered tripod socket at least.

• The rear thumb-operated control wheel is slightly too stiff in my view, although the front control wheel is perfect.

Anyway, there are certainly more positive aspects and maybe a few more minor annoyances (and if I think of any more that are really important, I might update this article), but I think that about covers it. I certainly think that all the positives would far outweigh the few minor negative points for most people and I expect that some of those quirks, if not fixed in the shipping firmware, will likely be addressed at some point down the road. Fujifilm does have a truly superb track-record in that regard!

Once I have had a chance to actually go out in the field and shoot with the X-T1, I may update this report or write a new one. The big question is… will I buy one? Hmm… maybe too early to tell. The EVF is very nearly to-die-for and I love the new ISO dial, the intervalometer and other features… but I also really love my X-E2 and appreciate its slightly more compact size! I also generally have very little need for competent focus tracking for the types of photos I normally take. But, but… that EVF might just be too darn nice to resist...

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