Fujifilm X-M1 review

The X-M1 is something of a departure for Fujifilm. Despite bearing the "X" name this compact system camera (CSC) seems to have abandoned the retro style and dial-laden designs of its bigger X-E1 and X-Pro1 models. It may sound more B-movie than blockbuster, but we gave it the Hollywood-style treatment anyway: jetting off to Iceland to visit shooting locations used in the Joseph Kosinski-directed Tom Cruise movie Oblivion with the X-M1 in tow.

Despite a lesser build quality and the lack of a built-in viewfinder compared to its X-series peers, the X-M1 doesn't hold back when it comes to image quality. The 16.3-megapixel APS-C sized sensor under the hood comes with a Fujifilm-only design that means no low-pass filter is needed and that ought to produce optimum sharpness; that next-level crispness reminiscent of the big screen - Ultra-high Definition eat your heart out.

We certainly put the X-M1 through its paces. Shooting inside a dormant volcano 120 metres underground, an ash-laden "black sand" desert, in rain-soaked lava fields and beyond. Did the X-M1 deliver a star performance?

Casting call

Whereas the retro-styled Fujifilm X-E1 brings Marilyn Monroe levels of classy to its design, the X-M1 has done away with most of the retro cool and pared things down to a simpler design. Perhaps that's a bit more Tom Cruise - it is smaller, after all - but where are the chiselled abs and smooth contours? Compared to its pedigree the X-M1's faux (plastic) leather - which isn't miles away from some sort of snakeskin pattern - isn't as enticing as we'd like.

READ: Fujifilm X-E1 review

The camera's design feels sandwiched somewhere between the consumer-friendly functional and more complex camera operator style. We're big fans of the 3-inch, 920k-dot, tilt-angle LCD screen on the rear - which we used a lot - and the inclusion of a main mode dial simplifies jumping between those manual and auto shooting modes. On the rear there's a "Q" button to deliver an on-screen quick menu, but this doesn't always feel like the most engaging way of making adjustments, and the lack of a touch-sensitive screen panel feels like an omission.

When it comes to some functionality we're surprised there were no retakes too: the inclusion of dual thumbwheels is welcome for manual control, but with the top-set one it's all too easy to knock it by accident and inadvertently adjust the exposure compensation. If this were the days of film there would be stacks of under or overexposed frames and reshoots aplenty.

Perhaps the X-M1 is at a slight disadvantage as we've just wrapped up a week with the Panasonic Lumix GX7 which rather stunned us. But at £899, the Lumix is a full £220 more than X-M1's £679 asking price. Swings and roundabouts.

READ: Panasonic Lumix GX7 review

When it comes to lenses, Fujifilm's XF-mount optics have so far been aimed at a pro audience. Prime lenses with wide apertures and premier sharpness might not sound out of place on a movie set, and while the X-M1 can make use of these optics, the kit comes complete with the new, yet more basic, 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. It's a bit more DVD than Blu-ray, but does the job and keeps the price fair - a key sell for this camera.

But despite the price being lower than other X-series cameras there's still plenty of pro to be found here. That APS-C sized sensor is the very same as found in its pricier X-series peers - and as large as you'd find in many DSLR cameras - and includes the Fujifilm-only "X-Trans CMOS" (yes, that rather silly sounding name again) which means no low-pass filter is needed for optimum image sharpness. True movie cameras function in a different way altogether, but the Fujifilm is as close to an in-between to that and the way most normal cameras operate.

Super-ultra-HD

We liked to be stunned with beautiful visuals. When you visit those special places - Iceland is one such place, so it's no surprise that many movies are shot there for its unique settings - and want to record those magic moments, having a camera that can do it justice is a great thing. And the X-M1 is one such camera.

Fujifilm X-M1 review sample image - ISO 400 - click for 100 per cent JPEG crop

We've thrown a lot of conditions at the camera and, ultimately, it's taken our direction and bossed them all. As we've said, the sensor is the very same as found in the X-E1 and even the X-Pro1 and there's nothing between them in the output department either. No scrimping, this is pro stuff all the way, with the exception of the lens being somewhat more limited than those pricier primes.

READ: Fujifilm X-Pro1 review

There's no ISO 100 setting, however, which is a bit of a disappointment - just a "L 100" setting available outside of the Auto ISO range. Instead standard sensitivity runs from ISO 200 through to ISO 6400, with the option of Auto ISO that often auto-selects ISO 400 as its go-to sensitivity. But we have no qualms about shooting at such sensitivities, simply because the resulting quality is up there among the very best that any compact system camera can deliver.

Fujifilm X-M1 review sample image - ISO 400 - click for 100 per cent raw crop

The camera's full range is just about usable throughout and particularly impressive at its low-mid settings. It's not often that a camera can produce shots that look similar from ISO 100-800, but that's the case here. There's little interfering grain or image noise to speak of, and while it does begin to crawl into images from ISO 1600 and more aggressively thereafter, there's still a relatively decent level of sharpness all things considered.

And so to the behind-the-scenes featurette: what is it that makes the quality so standout? There are a number of things: first the sensor is physically large; second there's the X-Trans technology that uses a unique a wider colour array compared to usual cameras to decode colour at each pixel site; and, third, which goes hand-in-hand with the last point, there's no low-pass filter - traditionally used to anti-aliase incoming light to avoid those jagged edges - as the wider-base colour array is clever enough to process without it. Big sensor, big "pixels" with direct light for optimum sharpness - it's got all the ingredients for great things, and that shows in the results.

Fujifilm X-M1 review sample image - ISO 6400 hand-held - click for 100 per cent JPEG crop

Shoot raw, shoot JPEG, shoot both together. We did find exposure to be a little unreliable in the varied conditions, but with the RAF raw files (nothing to do with the Air Force) available there's plenty of scope to adjust images in post-production. It's also easy - a little too easy - to make EV adjustments using the camera's top dial. Some shots in the gallery below are exposure-adjusted, but we've not made any raw file adjustment - despite the temptation to pull back some of the highlights - to give a true representation of like-for-like quality.

Of the two formats the raw files do look far flatter than the more-contrasty JPEG files and with no lens correction they may also look slightly more distorted. But their addition of some grain and that extra lick of detail will make more sense for serious shooters who want to grade-up their shots with some post-production precision.

On location

Image quality may be one thing - and the X-M1 has that box ticked - but out on location is the ultimate test. After all there are stacks of interchangeable lens cameras out there all biding for your cash. Is the X-M1 worth the price of admission?

It's a mixed bag, really. The X-series isn't renowned for having the very fastest autofocus, something that firmware v2.0 has part rectified in both X-E1 and X-Pro1 models. In the case of the X-M1 it feels as though someone missed that memo. It's no curtain call by any means, but it doesn't stack up well considering the A-list competition out there.

For example low-light was rarely an issue to shoot in. We descended 120-metres into the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland where it's obviously none too bright. Some additional lighting and ISO 6400 set us up for hand-held shooting - just about, anyway, as the f/3.5 maximum aperture at the wide-angle setting of the kit lens was a push with the given the available shutter speeds - with autofocus achieving focus the majority of the time. Even in other dim conditions, such as at dusk, we were able to latch onto fairly elusive subjects, so long as they remained stationary.

The problems arise in unexpected circumstances half of the time. Indeed it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the X-M1 doesn't like. Shooting in the black sand desert had around a 50 per cent autofocus fail rate. We get that black on black isn't the most contrasting by its very nature, but even when focusing on specific, light-laden close-ups there were problems despite, to our eyes, clearly identifiable contrast. Such a hit and miss ratio isn't great.

Fujifilm X-M1 review sample image - ISO 200 long exposure - click for 100 per cent JPEG crop

As we've already alluded to, moving subjects, too, aren't favoured by the camera's lack of speed. This isn't just a Fujifilm thing, it's something we hark on about all the time when it comes to compact system cameras - the continuous autofocus just isn't up to scratch compared to a decent DSLR camera. Not necessarily a problem if landscapes are your thing, but worth noting nonetheless. That might sound at odds with the X-M1's 5.6 frames per second (5.6fps) burst shooting mode which can snap an apparent 10 consecutive raw and JPEG files. We managed to fire off 11 before there was any sign of slowdown - selling itself short, we feel (a bit like the way Oblivion put itself out there as an action flick when it was so much more than that).

Stunts and falls

When it comes to a full day's shooting it's power that's all too easy to overlook. Especially when you're right out in the sticks of the northern hemisphere with nothing but moss-covered lava fields and sideways-rain to keep you company. But the X-M1 persevered: its battery kept on going like a true star throughout a couple of days. Not constantly in use by any means, but it got a thorough workout.

Other small yet useful features help elevate the camera's star status too. Things like being able to set a minimum (though no maximum) shutter speed proved of considerable help throughout our days of shooting.

Add in classic Fujifilm film types - in their digitised stock forms - and shots can take on an amplified, or more subtle finish straight from camera. There are more extreme filters available too but, unfortunately, it's not possible to keep the original raw file alongside the adjusted JPEG - so if you don't like the outcome then you'll need to change tack and reshoot. Now there's a feature that needs to be fixed up.

Fujifilm X-M1 review sample image - ISO 200 long exposure - click for 100 per cent JPEG crop

But other features are more an elaborate stunt thana  necessity. Take the wireless image transfer feature, for example. The concept of sharing images direct from camera using a smart device is welcome, but there are a few hoops to jump through in order for it to happen. You'll need to download an app and pair devices before it's possible to attempt to ping files over.

We say attempt as this is where the hoops get inhumanly small: we weren't able to pair with the HTC One no matter how many times we tried, including after restarts and resets on both sides. If it was a movie stunt there would be a few broken limbs. But Wi-Fi isn't a necessity for a camera like this, not until it's implemented better anyway. So we can cut this particular unwarranted scene out of our minds. Those seeking Wi-Fi as a must-have are best to look in Samsung's direction.

READ: Samsung Galaxy NX: Real-world camera test

Verdict

When it comes to the visuals the Fujifilm X-M1 is a winner. The images this camera can produce mean serious business - they're among the best from any compact system camera that we've yet seen. That's big-screen star points scored there.

But the process of getting to those shots is littered with quirks: the exposure compensation dial is knocked out of place all too easily, while autofocus feels limited in light of the other A-listers out there. It costs the camera all too dear as it's less enjoyable than the higher-spec kit in that range that tantalises us that much more.

The X-M1 is new ground for Fujifilm: it's a camera targeted towards the masses, yet it maintains a decent level of its all-important pro-spec look and feel. Imperfections there may be, and it can feel a little more B-movie than Hollywood at times, but the X-M1 will score a cult-movie-like following for all its positives. A compact system camera that really shouldn't be overlooked, there's more to it than meets the eye.