My dream camera is something in-between an iPhone and a DSLR – a camera compact enough to carry in a bag for day-to-day use, but with a quality sensor and glass rivaling that of Nikon or Canon’s best.
The Fuji X-Pro 1 is perhaps the closest camera to this ideal I’ve yet to encounter. It turned heads at CES back in January, the technology industry’s yearly trade show of new and innovative things to come. It hits that warm-and-fuzzy sweet spot of capable yet compact, and it’s Fuji’s first X-series camera with interchangeable lenses too.
But it doesn’t come cheap. The base unit starts at $1,700, and that's before you add lenses (it does not come with any). For that price you could easily buy a used DSLR like the Canon EOS 5D MkII – the sort of camera that professionals buy new for over $2,000 – on Craigslist.
But if you’re looking for a competent, compact camera, there’s lots to like about the Fuji X-Pro1.
One of the X100’s great promises was the presence of physical controls on an otherwise standard point-and-shoot camera – with dials and rings that were intended to replicate the look and functionality of a real DSLR’s controls in a smaller, compact package.
These features are back on the X-Pro1, and are even more useful than before. While the X100 was hampered by a terrible menu interface that often usurped the functionality of the camera’s physical controls, the X-Pro1 operates much more closely to that of a DSLR. You can control aperture from the lens, and shutterspeed on the top of the device using a dial. There’s also a dedicated button dial for exposure bracketing, and a programmable Q-button can be used for quick access to, say, ISO.
Now you can customize more of the camera’s manual functionality without ever touching an on-screen menu, which makes it easier to keep your eye on a scene and focus on getting the shot. Anyone who’s used an old Canon or Pentax 35mm SLR will feel right at home.
As of this writing, Fuji offers three different lenses for the X-Pro1: a wide-angle 18mm f/2.0 for $600, a 35mm f/1.4 for $600 – that, when the sensor’s crop-factor is taken into account, is about equivalent to a 50mm lens – and a 60mm f/2.4 for $650. Adding just one of these lenses drives the total starting price to an eye-popping $2,300.
The good news is that these lenses are nothing short of fantastic. A wide aperture – especially on the 35mm lens – means that each performs brilliantly in low light conditions, and provide impressive sharpness and depth. This is one of the benefits of opting for a line of prime-only glass (in other words, non-zoom lenses with fixed focal lengths). And there’s more to come, too; late last month, Fuji revealed a trio of zooms and an ultra-wide 14mm lens.
Fuji also claims to have tailored the X-Pro1’s software to compensate for any glass-specific quirks – a technique first employed with its fixed-lens predecessor, the X100. Whether this has any appreciable effect on image quality is hard to say, but such common lens issues as barrel distortion or vignetting are seemingly absent.
In keeping with the X-Pro1’s retro styling, each lens boasts a physical ring for manual aperture control, which is extremely useful for on-the-fly tweaks. However, the same can’t be said for the manual focus ring. Again, as with the X100, Fuji fails to make the X-Pro 1’s focus ring perform anything like an actual DSLR. This is a problem, because it takes a good four or five turns of the focus ring to go from infinity to the opposite end of the focal plane, which translates to seconds of wasted time in trying to compose a shot. Auto-focus is practically a must.
One of the standout features of Fuji’s previous X100 was its hybrid-optical viewfinder (HOV) – a combination optical viewfinder with useful digital information projected onto the display. Think of it as a heads-up display for your eye. Helpful data – such as current aperture, ISO, battery life, horizontal level and a composition grid – is projected on top of the scene. The downside is that, unlike when shooting with a DSLR, what you see isn’t quite what you get.
Rather, the X-Pro1’s hybrid-optical viewfinder has to compensate for something called parallax – essentially, the disconnect between what you see through the viewfinder, and what is ultimately captured by the camera. That’s because, unlike a DSLR, the viewfinder and the lens aren’t connected, so what you see isn’t the same as what’s seen by the lens. Understandably, this effect varies depending on the type of lens used, which is why the camera’s heads-up display can also be set to project a corrected autofocus frame. It’s not always perfect, but this corrected frame gives you a better idea of what is actually being shot. A camera for casual shooting this is not.
An alternative is to use the X-Pro1’s electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead, a tiny LCD for your eye that displays “Live Mode” information as seen through the lens. You can switch between the camera’s HOV and EVF modes at will, depending on your preference and shooting style.
One area where my seven-year-old DSLR shows its age is when shooting low-light scenarios. It doesn’t take much for noise to appear. Fuji’s new, larger image sensor – similar in size to what you’d find in a fully-fledged DSLR – does a fantastic job at keeping digital noise to a minimum, even at some of the camera’s higher ISO levels. Combined with the company’s line of fast, wide-aperture lenses, this is one of the most capable indoor and nighttime shooters I’ve seen in some time.
Because of the way manual focus works, you’ll spend most of your time with the X-Pro1 shooting in auto – which highlights one maddening weakness in the design. The camera’s focusing mechanism has a tendency to zero in on a subject, focus somewhere in the distance past the subject, and only then snap back to the desired focusing distance, as if to make very sure the camera has settled on the right place.
What’s worse, however, is how this affects shooting video. To be clear, the X-Pro1 can capture gorgeous, high-definition 1080p at 24 frames-per-second. Footage looks about as clear and colourful as stills. However, the problem is that the autofocus mechanism goes into overdrive; every few seconds, the lens will focus out, then in, as if to make sure the subject is still perfectly in frame. Videos yo-yo between sharp to blurry – unless you can deal with focusing manually instead.
Lastly, one big caveat: battery life is not good – at least, not based on my totally unscientific tests. I used the camera to cover an event called Maker Faire in San Francisco, and shot a combination of video and stills throughout the day. It died after six hours. Casual photographers may be less demanding, but without a spare battery on hand, don’t expect marathon shooting sessions on par with a DSLR.
The Fuji X-Pro1 isn’t a bad camera – far from it. A fully-featured compact camera with interchangeable lenses and image quality rivalling that of a DSLR is nothing to scoff at. But if you’re expecting it to function like a DSLR too, what with its myriad physical controls, there are compromises you'll have to live with.
Bottom line: $1,700 (before lenses) is a lot of money, and while it’s okay to pay a premium for the sake of form (just look at the MacBook Air), it’s hard to recommend when you can get better function from cameras that are almost half the price.
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