An Early Look at the Fuji XF1
A few days ago, I got a Fuji XF1. Turns out I got one very early - earlier than most people, because of a snafu in some pre-order situations with Amazon.ca and some very helpful people at Amazon (in the States) and Fuji Canada. This camera won’t really start shipping until November. So if you’ve been thinking about this camera, here’s a bit of an early review on it, from a fairly unbiased position - I’m not a professional camera reviewer, I don’t blog or journal specifically about cameras, don’t sign NDAs about cameras, and otherwise, am not part of the PR machine in the digital photography world.
So what is this camera? It’s the latest in Fuji’s X lineup of retro styling - the Fuji XF1 point and shoot EXR camera! Let’s have a look.
Camera with lens in full closed position.
Back controls and command dials.
Camera with lens barrel at “standby” position.
Camera with fully extended lens barrel.
The camera is very lightweight and very small - not the smallest point and shoot I’ve handled, but the smallest camera I currently own, except for my cell phone. The faux leather is quite nice and almost the entire camera build is solid. One thing that I worry, probably needlessly about: the lens wobbles if you gently shake the camera. In closed positon and open. You can hear it. I guess this is normal for these zoom P&S cameras.
I won’t get super technical in this review; I’m not much of a pixel-peeper either. If you want that stuff, DP Review has their preview up online. I appreciate great UI (user interface), great usability, and of course, fantastic IQ (image quality). I like magic too, but only when it is real magic (the iPad, for example, is not real magic lol). I’ll focus on these things more. I’ve broken this review down into two major sections - the Good Stuff, and the Not So Good Stuff.
The Good Stuff! ————————————
There’s a lot to like about the Fuji XF1. It looks fantastic. It is rather solidly built. It has a nice 4x zoom ability. It has an EXR CMOS sensor (way more on that below). It is quick once you twist the barrel open. It can shoot 10fps in some modes. It can shoot 200fps video (!!!) albeit it at a tiny 240x116 pixel size. It can shoot full 1080p HD as well, and looks okay doing it (though I didn’t test that much). It has optical stability for shaky hands, but also has other tricks up its sleeve to deal with motion blur in your photos in low light conditions. It has Fuji’s fantastic JPEG software redering engine inside its EXR processor, which in my experience is one of the best renderers in a camera (more on this later - I refer to this as the jpg engine). Did I mention it looks stunning?
But let’s cover some major things. Serious geeknerds on DP Review forums already know most of this stuff, but I’m not really writing this review for them - I’m writing it for you - someone who’s into good photography but maybe doesn’t want to leap to a SLR. Or you do shoot with SLRs and want something pocketable.
There’s not much bad things I can write about EXR on this Fuji camera. Well, except for the 6 megapixel image sizes - I do wish they were larger. But based on all the goodness that EXR does, I cannot complain about that. What is EXR? Well, it was new to me before getting this camera so I’ll be on a journey of discovery just like you if you don’t know what EXR is.
See, I have learned to not trust digital cameras’ “genius modes” that much on my pro Canon cameras or even on the X100 and other prosumer cameras. I may have to change my mind on this somewhat now that I’ve had a chance to see what a next generation genius mode that is both hard wired into the physical sensor, and soft-wired into the processor chip and software, is capable of. Apple likes to call their iPad “magical”, but to me, something like EXR is truly magical in technology because it makes images that were previously impossible to take… possible.
So what is EXR? Well I could go into detail myself, but why don’t I just point you to the source I used: DP Review, who detailed EXR technology on the Fujifilm X10 camera, which is almost identical to this XF1. It is well worth the read to see how Fuji is using hardware (the sensor, the processor) and software to do a lot of truly magical things with your photographs.
What does EXR deliver? A lot.:
It can go way beyond “anti-shake” optical stabilization in a camera to the point where it can even help reduce or prevent motion blur (something anti shake doesn’t do, if your subject is moving faster than your shutter speed can freeze). This is an option you can turn on automatically in the XF1, and the camera will automatically detect movement on whatever you’re framing, and rapidly shoot about 10 photos, combining bits and parts of the blurry backgrounds into a more solid image. I’ve tried this mode a few times (moving fast dog lol), and it works surprisingly well.
Signal/Noise Ratio Mode (SN Mode) is a specific mode that uses the sensor’s ability to more accurately track colours and changes in textures in low light situations. The camera effectively halves its’ megapixel count (going from 12mp to 6mp) to do this, but the result is really low noise images in formerly impossible-to-shoot conditions. This is stuff way beyond the usual noise reduction systems in JPG rendering engines inside digital camera processors.
Dynamic Range mode is interesting in EXR cameras like the XF1. See, Fuji Cameras, along with many other brands, have the ability to push both your low and high ends of their light-gathering ability by playing a bit of tricks with the sensor’s boost and gain. It’s called dynamic range on Nikons and Canons and even on Fuji Cameras. Fujis for a while now could have DR200 and DR400 modes, but you had to shoot at ISO 400 or above to get these modes, as the camera would push gain but also retain highlight data in the final combined image. But in an EXR camera, it goes more than a few steps further. The sensor has the ability to actually set different gain boosts (ie ISO) for each individual photostile (each pixel captured) which in itself is fucking amazing. So some pixels could capture the image at ISO200, and the ones right next to it as ISO800, giving you a near HDR like image with impressive dynamic range, and closer to what your eye processes when viewing a scene. But Fuji goes even further, juggling photostiles and using more EXR tricks to offer you DR800 and DR1600 modes, which are probably even better than the eye’s ability to process light and shadow detail in the same scene. The downside is, your mpixel size for your captured images drop as you boost up the DR mode.
The camera also has a HR mode, or high resolution EXR mode. It is mostly software-based tricks inside the EXR processor to get the most out of the 12mp sensor, which is actually a bit weaker at resolving detail than a traditional CMOS / Bayer filter array (read the DP Review link above for more on this).
On top of all this hardware / software magic, Fuji has their latest state of the art scene detector built into this camera to automatically detect what kind of photo you want to take and apply the specific EXR modes described above, automatically. Now, I’ve only been fooling around with this camera for a few days, but every scene I composed a photograph towards was more or less correctly guessed by the XF1’s auto EXR mode.
I may have to start trusting these genius modes a bit more.
This camera kicks the ass off my Fuji X100 when it comes to focusing. It focuses faster. It focuses more accurately. It can focus better in lower light. It isn’t as good or accurate as my Canon dSLRs, but it is damned close. I never trusted the auto focus on my X100, still don’t. But I have come very quickly to trust it in the XF1
Manual focus too is somehow easier. Especially in low light. Manual focus on the X100 in low light is insanely bad. It can take a full minute to go from infinity focus to 4” focus on the X100 by constantly turning the dial. It takes a few seconds on the XF1, using the back sub command dial while in manual focus mode which automatically maxes out the zoom so you can focus on tight things.
But Fuji still doesn’t support focus peaking which is also a fantastic tool for manually focusing on objects. I wish they did. Also, even though sites like DP Review claimed the XF1 had a particular function I liked in the X100 - a blue focusing scale across the screen that showed how far away in meters (or feet) your focus was, plus approximately how much was in focus via your f-stop (that part of the blue bar would be white), I cannot find this feature in the XF1.
Mode Selection Dial Options
Anytime I see PSAM (or PTvAvM on a Canon) on a camera, I am happy. That means you can set the camera to Program mode so the camera picks the best aperture, shutter, and (if selected) auto ISO. In S or Shutter mode, you set the shutter for freeze frame (or slow frame) effects and the camera decides aperture and (auto)ISO to properly expose the photo. In A mode, its reversed - you set Aperture, the camera sets shutter speed and ISO to properly expose the shot. And in Manual mode, you set both aperture and shutter for creative effects.
The XF1 has PSAM, Two other dial choices I like (and use quite a bit on my Canons): C1 and C2 - custom shooting modes where you can preset a wide range of settings and the camera just goes to those settings when you select either C mode. I have C1 set up as my black and white mode - hard shadows and light detail (more contrast), low ISO noise cleanup (more grain) and AutoISO 3200 meaning it will automatically set the ISO from 100 up to 3200 depending on lighting conditions. I have C2 set up as my punchy colour setting - vivid Velvia for the film saturation and other assorted boosts, including full DR400 mode for even more dynamic range.
The modes I ignore on the dial are Full Auto, Adv (HA!) and SP (Scene) modes. Well, I almost totally ignore Adv., aka the Toy Mode dial, except for one thing…
Found something actually worthwhile in the Toy Mode (Adv. HA!) Dial Selection!
Is it clear yet that I have little to no respect for “toy” modes on cameras? I don’t like Instagram filters much either, so go figure. But when you set the XF1’s toy mode (ie, “Adv” on the dial), there are two reasonably nifty options available amongst the 10 or 12 toy choices: Pro Focus mode, and Pro Low Light mode.
Pro Low Light Mode has been on a few Fuji cameras by this time, but it is the first time I’ve tried it out. What it does is straightforward - it shoots 4 images rapidly (about about 10-20fps) and combines them to really beat the shit out of noise artifacts in low light, high ISO shots, and also make the image much more sharp and crisper. It only works with stationary (or reasonably stationary) subjects - if you take photos of rapid moving things at night in Pro Low Light Mode, you’ll get ghosting artifacts. But it works. And it works slightly better than the EXR SN mode mentioned above in some circumstances. Definitely worth trying and using if you’re out walking around in the evening and want a great low light shot (though you should probably use EXR SN mode if you’re doing night street photography).
Pro Focus mode is a newer technology by Fuji but has been on a few EXR cameras now. What it does is snap two or three (or four) photographs of the same scene and won’t go past ISO800 to do so. It then applies a blur effect to one or more of the images and comps those onto the sharpest focus image, with the “in focus” area of the image not affected by the blur. What the camera is trying to do is basically trying to fake having a larger sensor for better depth of field bokeh out of focus backgrounds. It does work somewhat. You can also set the level of blur in three steps.
I have to give some credit to Fuji here - it does work, spoofing the camera into pretending it has a larger sensor (larger sensors = better depth of field control and more blurry backgrounds at low aperture settings). But I only give a bit of credit to Fuji - it basically replicates in camera what an amateur with 5 minutes in Photoshop, using broad-brush “blur’ effects can do. It’s not terribly accurate and often softens and blurs the edges of your primary subject. Here’s an example.
There is one other minor downside to Pro Low Light and Pro Focus modes - both shoot at 6mp (kind of EXRish) and not 12mp. But the results are pretty decent. Both benefit from tripod / stable camera use and stationary subjects, including humans standing as still as they can.
Speaking of Noise
For Fuji, the X100 sets a crazy high bar on how an absence of noise can really make an image stand out. The X100’s ability, in jpeg, to smooth out and render noisy artifacts into a more uniform grain is even better than my Canon T2i SLR (by a long stretch) and if not for the huge resolution difference, would also beat my Canon 5D Mk II camera. The X100 is a grain champion.
The XF1’s sensor is much smaller than the X100’s sensor. Smaller than a Micro 4/3rds sensor. Smaller than the Sony RX100 sensor. It is small. And smaller means more noise, more chroma junk, more stitchy artifacts at higher ISOs. Now, as mentioned above, the XF1 does a lot of different tricks to beat down the noise and chroma issues. They work well. But what about just shooting normal, without relying on EXR or Pro Low Light modes?
At ISO1600, this is a noisy camera. About as noisy as my X100 is at 6400. At ISO3200, you can’t even make out details any longer: text in a magazine that is legible at ISO800 is just a blur of grey at ISO3200. So if you have to shoot at ISO1600 or above, rely on either EXR SN mode for moving subjects, or Pro Low Light for static objects.
At ISO1250 and below, things get better. The ISO800 on this camera is at least at par with the much-larger sensor in an Olympus EPL-1 at the same ISO setting. I’d even argue that below ISO800, the XF1 beats the Oly micro four thirds cameras. That is pretty impressive for a 12mp camera with a 2/3” sensor. I feel comfortable shooting below ISO800 with this camera, and happy with the relatively noise free experience at 540, 400 and below. Compared to our previous point and shoot (a Canon IS850), it is a night and day difference.
One boon for the XF1 - in JPG shooting, with noise tuned up to medium high, it creates a lot of monotone colours (a good thing) in shadow areas. This makes the noise from the sensor look more like grain instead of a lot of colours trying to compete. Fuji has a fantastic jpg engine inside its cameras and it shows on this unit.
I posted a series of Black and White noise images over at DP Review’s Forums - check it out.
The Not So Good Stuff! —————————
I don’t get why Fuji handles burst shooting the way it does. I hate they way they do it on the X100, and I hate the way they do it on this camera too.
When you shoot normal single-shot photographs, the camera records them with a DSCF file name with four numbers, as in DSCF3012.jpg. But when you shoot in continuous shot mode, it changes the naming structure to S00 and five numbers, as in S0010023.jpg. Why is this an issue? Because if you sort your photographs based on filenames, the file naming structure breaks this up - you could shoot off DSCF3012.jpg, then switch to mutliple shots, and shoot 20 photos in this mode, which would be named S0012345.jpg to S0012365.jpg, but once you go back to shooting single images, it picks up the DSCF where it left off. A nightmare if you sort images by file name in Lightroom.
Why, I do not know why. Only Fuji seems to know why.
While I’m at this, the XF1 has a mode that I don’t remember being on the Fuji X100: a “Best Frame Capture Mode”. I thought it would work like Nikon’s “Best Shot Selector” mode, where the Nikon will fire off 6, 8, 10 12 or more photographs of something you’re shooting, use its processor to pick the least blurry, most sharp image, and delete the rest. The Fuji doesn’t work this way. Instead, the moment you half press the shutter, it starts rapidly taking photos… once you fully press the shutter, it will automatically keep a number of photos before the shutter full press, keep the actual photo during the shutter press, and a number of photos after the shutter press. You can set where in this sequence of 8 (or 16) shots your “key” photo is. But it saves them all to the camera. You, later on have to go through and decide which image to keep and which 7 (or 15) to delete. One by one.
And the way Fuji cameras display any burst mode or best frame capture mode images when you’re reviewing said images on the camera is stupid too. With all other cameras I’ve owned, no matter how you took a photo - be it single shot mode or multiple frames per shutter press mode - other cameras just display image after image after image the same way. Not Fuji. When you come to a burst shot series of photos, it displays the first photo in the particular shutter-press series, and shows all the other shots frame by frame (quickly changing) in a picture-in-picture window to the lower right.
Why. I do not know why. Only Fuji seems to know why they choose to do this. It is not conventional image playback.
I am not a fan of toy modes on cameras. At all. So I couldn’t possibly care less about toy camera mode on this. Or Miniature mode. Or Selective Colour. Or Pop Image. Toy modes are even worse than Scene modes. That said, two things on the Toy Mode (aka Advanced - HA!) dial selector did pique my interest: Pro Focus, and Pro Low Light, which I cover above in the Good Stuff section.
Fuji’s UI Decisions
Fuji needs to hire better UI experts when designing their cameras. They have fantastic style experts helping design how the camera looks, but somehow, whoever makes decisions on their camera’s UI really drops the ball.
When I got my Fuji X100 I realised that Fuji was really weak on designing an intuitive user interface (UI) in their camera’s physical controls and in how the software in the camera worked. I’m not the only one - many people complained about how things that were common sense were the opposite in the X100’s menu system and method of using the camera.
Well, this extends to the XF1. I could go into a stack of poor UI design choices with this camera, but I’ll focus on just a few:
Top Fn Button: I have a firm belief that whoever is testing the physical UI of Fuji Cameras has tiny little lady-finger hands, perhaps after a life of playing piano. That’s because some buttons on Fuji Cameras are extremely difficult to press with normal hands, and even more so with big fat meathooks, like my hands. On the X100 it was the OK button, a crucial button that Fuji really dropped the design ball big time on. On the XF1 it is the top Fn button. It is tiny, very firm, and flush with the camera body. If you just point your indext finger at it, you can usually press it. Ditto if you use the edge of your nail. But try using it the natural way - your index finger hovers sideways on the shutter button; you want to change whatever you programmed the Fn button to do, so you slide your index finger over to it. It lands sideways, or big round meaty part of your index finger where your fingerprint is. Then you try to press and… nothing. You can’t press it down enough because its a) too small, b) too firm a button press, and c) flush with the rest of the camera body. Bad design.
Dumb (non) Use of the Command and Sub Command Dials: If you have the camera in EXR mode, Adv Mode, or SP (Scene) mode, you’d naturally expect one or both of the camera’s command dials to quickly change between the modes available from those dial selections. SP mode has a dozen or more scenes to choose from, as an example. Yet when you are in SP mode, the command dial and sub command dial do… nothing. Nada. You have to first press the menu button, get to a menu page (Shooting Menu), then press right on the command dial to get into the Scene Position sub menu. Then you rotate the dial up or down to select the scene you want. Then press okay to select it. That’s 4 interactions for something that could easily be done by one interaction - rotating either the command or sub command dial.
The same holds true for EXR and Adv. modes. At least in Adv Mode, you can pick the level of blur you get in Pro Focus mode by rotating the sub command dial, but thats it. If you are in the various toy effects of Adv. Mode, the camera’s command dials do… nothing. Bad design by Fuji.
Be Wary of “Intelligent Digital Zoom”
When I first heard about, and used the Intelligent Digital Zoom, I thought it was potentially a great thing: unlike traditional digital zooms that just grab the middle of the frame and digitally size it larger, Fuji uses the individual photostiles on its CMOS sensor to do a better zoom, producing 6mp images.
The potential benefits are here to alleviate the camera’s rather poor aperture settings at longer zoom lengths. For instance, this camera is a f1.8 lens at 25mm (equiv), but around F4 at 50mm, and f4.9 at 75mm on up. By using IDZ, theoretically you’d get f1.8 at 50mm (equiv+ IDZ), and f4 at 150mm.
The initial shots I did with IDZ looked promising. I had the camera set to L (largest) and would switch back and forth with IDZ off or on. I compared the shots, and the IDZ images looked okay.
But today, I was shooting with the XF1 in M size mode (6mp images), and used IDZ. The results were like this:
and here’s the 100% crop:
Not a pleasing photo at all. Obvious up-sampling of the image, halo effect (like over-using the “Clarity” feature in Lightroom) around all hard edges, just ugly.
I would have to put IDZ in the negative catagory at this point.
Be Careful What You Ask For ——————-
One thing I noticed while using this camera over 3 days: it’s bloody complicated. Or better put, it is bloody complicated if you let it get complicated. This is actually a good thing. The camera gives an amazing amount of control over how you take the image and how it will process the image. Besides having PSAM, This camera throws EXR abilities into the mix, a range of film simulations that many think are the best in the business (as far as a camera being able to mimic various films’ characteristics) the Pro modes and more.
That said, I felt quite overwhelmed trying to remember all that this camera could do and was capable of. This was to the point where I thought I was taking 12mp images (I always had image size set to L) but I was getting a lot of 6mp images in Lightroom for various reasons. I’ll probably need to re-read the manual a few times, as well are research sites like DP Review and their eventual full review of this camera to really get to understand it. But I know this - teaching Beata (my partner) or anyone else not technical-photo inclined how to use the more intricate functions of this camera is a lost cause.
The good news is, the camera works very well out of the box just shooting on P mode with the stock features as set at the factory. Switching to EXR mode goes into auto-exr by default which is pretty intelligent. Even the Adv. modes are generally easy to figure out, however for the life of me I can’t figure out why Fuji didn’t let the command dial or sub command dial automatically shift between Adv. modes. You have to dive into menus to change your Adv. modes, which is a multiple-step process.
This camera is complex. Even though I have about 13 years’ experience now shooting digital, and over 20 years as a photographer, I found myself getting frequently confused by what I could actually do with this camera. In some ways, that is a good thing, but in other ways it is not.
Despite all my negatives above, I’m quite happy with this camera. I have barely begun to understand it or fully how it works; coming from a SLR world, it’s tough for me to wrap my head around P&S cameras, even those with advanced ‘enthusiast’ features. I do know enough about sensor sizes and such to know how to get the most out of this camera at the most basic level, and I expect to learn more.
To conclude, here’s the things I really like most about this camera
- Image quality in many modes is fantastic considering the sensor size
- Colour reproduction is quite good; I’d put it on par with the best shots my X100 does, perhaps even better
- Noise is nicely managed at ISO800 and below; If shooting B&W, I’d push it to ISO1600 at full resolution and be happy with the results.
- Focus is much, much quicker than my X100, and as quick as the focus on Panasonic and Olympus Micro 4/3rds cameras I’ve used.
- Focus is much more accurate than my X100 is.
- JPG Engine does a fantastic job
- Though I haven’t played with it much, I like having 70FPS 640x480 video, and 100 and 200FPS stop motion video - I just wish we could get all those speeds at 480p sizes or bigger.
- It is a beautiful looking camera and solidly built.
- Again, though I haven’t played with it much, the built in flash seems to have good range and work great as a fill flash for distances up to 3-4 meters during the day, and longer in lower light situations
- Surprised at how good EXR modes can be for “let the camera guess things for me” photography
- Ditto on Pro Low Light mode; but Pro Focus mode is more of a toy mode and shows.
- $500 for what this camera does and offers is a good price I think. I almost paid more than that a couple of years ago for a Panasonic LX5, and I’m glad I didn’t, instead waiting for this Fuji to come along
I’ve been posting about this camera over at DP Review a bit, including a lot of sample photographs which you can see in full native resolution. Here’s the threads: