The fine folks at Fujifilm Canada were nice enough to send me their brand new Fujifilm XT-1 mirrorless camera recently. I’ve been excited about the possibilities of these cameras for some time now, and with the introduction of the XT-1 it sounded from the specifications that Fujifilm had a winner on its hands. The evaluation camera I received came with a 55-200 (84-305mm, 35mm camera equivalent) zoom lens, a 60mm (91mm, 35mm camera equivalent) and a 35mm (53mm, 35mm camera equivalent) lens. Read on to find out if the camera met my expectations for a legitimate outdoor photography camera.
When I removed the camera from the box I was immediately struck by its high-quality feel. With the exception of the door that protects the memory card, nothing felt cheap or flimsy. Something else that was immediately apparent was the light weight of the camera body at just 440 g (15.4 ounces) including a battery and memory card. Even with the bigger zoom lens, the entire package weighs in at just 1020 g (36 ounces); considerably less than what I’m used to lugging around.
The fact that the camera is sans mirror has a couple of significant impacts. Since there’s no mirror to bounce the light coming from the lens up into the viewfinder, the viewfinder is digital instead of optical. With a regular DSLR camera, you see an analog representation (what we see with our eyes) of what the lens sees; with a mirrorless camera you’re looking at a small OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen, which is essentially a mini computer monitor screen. It also means that when you take a picture, the camera doesn’t have to slap the mirror up and then down, resulting in a much quieter picture taking experience. Mirrorless cameras aren’t new. In fact, the camera in your cell phone is mirrorless. What’s new is mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses, fast focusing, high-quality sensors and professional controls.
In the past, the main problem with using a mirrorless camera for outdoor photography (and especially wildlife photography) was that the focusing systems were sub-par. Most cameras relied entirely on a focus technology called contrast detection instead of the phase detection systems used by modern DSLR cameras. With the XT-1, there are nine phase detection auto focus points (in the central part of the viewfinder) and 40 contrast detection points. Unlike my DSLR cameras, I could configure the size of these points, allowing me to fine-tune the focus for the specific situation I was working on.
The controls on the camera for shutter speed, aperture and ISO are a bit of a throwback to years gone by. For the XT-1, the aperture is set via an aperture ring around the base of the lens, while the shutter speed and ISO are chosen via dials on the top of the camera. A third dial on the top of the camera lets you set an exposure compensation value when you are working in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Automatic Exposure modes.
The camera features Fujifilm’s 16 megapixel X-Trans CMOS II sensor. Fujifilm arranges the coloured filters over the pixels differently than other manufacturers, allowing them to bypass the need for a low-pass filter to eliminate moiré (interference patterns), thereby creating sharper images with higher resolution than regularly implied by a sensor with 16 megapixels. I was pleasantly surprised with the results while comparing images from the XT-1 and my high-end Canon DSLR cameras. Another pleasant surprise is that the XT-1 has a total of six different multi-function buttons that can be reconfigured to provide access to features of the user’s choice.
Fujifilm is working on a series of weather-sealed lenses that were, unfortunately, not available in time for this review. However, the body itself is weather sealed, and once these new lenses are available one could put together quite a robust outdoor photography camera system.
Was there anything that I didn’t like about the camera? I strongly disliked the four-way controller on the back of the camera. My thumb always had trouble finding this control while looking through the viewfinder, and because the buttons offer little in tactile feedback, you can’t always be certain of pressing it without taking the camera away from your eye.
Another disappointment is that the live histogram normally available in the viewfinder goes away when you half-press the shutter button. For a still subject, this isn’t a big deal, but for moving subjects I really would like to continue seeing the histogram while I’m tracking my subject through the viewfinder and make exposure adjustments as necessary.
The largest currently available focal length is 200mm (equivalent to 305mm on a 35mm SLR camera). That’s not too bad, but wildlife photographers love lenses in the 500mm, 600mm or even 800mm range, and even then we’ll often add teleconverters to increase the magnification that much more. I understand that Fujifilm has some larger lenses on the way, and if they can deliver those with a focusing system that continues to improve and evolve, they’ll have a camera that I’ll want to take a lot of places.
What about for the average photographer who’s looking for a high-quality camera system to shoot landscapes, macros, vacations, portraits and the occasional wildlife? I’d recommend the XT-1 without hesitation. I teach over 500 students a year the basics of operating a camera, and I think that the Fujifilm XT-1 would make a tremendous system to learn with and practise the art of photography. The quality of the camera, lenses and sensor make it a system that’s likely to thrive.
So, is the DSLR dead? Not by a long shot. But, I can see a day in the not-too-distant future when having a mechanical mirror flopping around inside your camera every time you make an image coming to end. Some form of mirrorless cameras are likely to be the future as they provide smaller, lighter packages while giving you instant feedback prior to making your image, instead of afterwards.
To read more of Paul Burwell’s column and other great how-to articles please pick up the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of OPC today, or subscribe!