Fujifilm X-T1 review

5 out of 5
£1049 (body only)

For

Giant viewfinder is ace, excellent image quality just like X-E2, retro mode dials are great in use, solid build with weather-sealing, tilt-angle LCD screen

Against

Autofocus not fastest in class, no weather-sealed lenses (yet), single SD, so-so battery life, viewfinder ghosting in dim light, some tight button placement

There’s a certain sense of "full circle" about the Fujifilm X-T1. A number of years ago the Japanese company was in the throes of releasing its excellent S-series DSLR cameras. But nobody really bought into them and, therefore, they were ultimately a flop - and one that was abandoned despite being decent bits of kit.

Times are changing, though, and Fujifilm has found an established place in the camera world. It’s the company that has brought the retro aesthetic back and, along with the mirrorless camera category uprising, now has a solid line of X-series cameras. They look great, they take great pictures, and they have a point of difference from the competition.

The X-T1 sits at the helm of this line - ignoring the X-Pro1 for a moment - and brings with it that classic style, all full of knobs and dials, that is reminiscent of models from earlier within the company’s 80-year-long history. It’s also the first model with a giant, central-aligned viewfinder that, in some respects, is like a nod to the S-series line; a homage if you will.

When it comes to retro with a modern twist has Fujifilm landed its biggest X-series success yet with the X-T1?

Giant viewfinder

The most significant thing about the X-T1 is something that sounds relatively small: the viewfinder is to the middle of the design. This isn’t at all unusual for a camera, but it’s not been commonplace in earlier X-series models. It’s as though Fujifilm has been repositioning its cross-hair in the design process and has settled on what’s not only traditional but, in this case, for the best.

As the camera is a metal build it feels reassuringly weighty, and so the viewfinder position feels naturally balanced when the camera is in the hand. Lift it to the eye and there’s a considerable eyecup that’s comfortable to press up against the face.

But then it hits you: the viewfinder is huge. The 0.77x equivalent magnification means its physical size is bigger than anything else out there. It’s the tiniest bit larger than you would find in pro cameras such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

READ: Canon EOS 5D Mk III review

The X-T1’s viewfinder is an OLED panel with 2.36m-dot resolution, so its not only big to the eye but it looks crisp too. We’ve used it in a variety of conditions and have to say it’s one of the best that we’ve yet come to use.

However, when the light dips there’s certainly some ghosting that’s visible, like a "stutter" of the image because the framerate adjusts to compensate. The claim of 0.005-second lag relates to how quickly what you see is relayed in the viewfinder - which is great - but this can’t counter for some ghosting.

That issue is entirely redundant in good-medium lighting conditions though. Pop the viewfinder into its "full" mode and it fills the whole view of the panel, not owing any space to the side to display the settings. This is awesome - it's kind of like going to the movies for the first time and realising how bigger is oh so much better.

Fuijfilm X-T1 review - sample image at ISO 1250 - click for full size JPEG crop

But the goodies don’t end there. For manual focus there is a "split image" focus mode option available. Switch this on from the menus and it shows a black and white section of image where strips of the image are out of alignment but will come into alignment - and therefore focus - as the manual focus ring is adjusted. It's almost like a digital rangefinder in some regards.

We like the concept, but with the mode selected it won't fill the viewfinder - instead a magnified version of the autofocus area sits to the side of the main image, meaning a lot of space is wasted. We’d have liked an additional option for it to dominate the whole viewfinder view for fine-tuning that manual focus and making the most out of the giant viewfinder.

Retro design

But before we get ahead of ourselves with the camera’s abilities, behold the X-T1’s design. It’s one stunning looking camera that stands out because of how it looks. People will ask you about it, some will wonder how you kept an apparently vintage number looking so pristine.

A textured, rubberised finish dominates much of the design, which feels quality in the hand. That can’t be said about all of Fujifilm’s models lower down the range, but the X-T1 has the quality feeling just right. Add in that all-metal body and it feels sturdy - if anything this feels better built than a DSLR of an equivalent price.

The main attraction to the X-T1 for many will be those traditional mode dials. Independent exposure compensation, shutter and ISO sensitivity dials are arranged across the top of the camera, while aperture control is handled by the lens. The wonderment of flicking between aperture options on a lens, now that’s something few manufacturers offer these days but is standard on all Fuji XF lenses.

The main settings can be set to auto (A) where the dial will lock into position. A quick press and hold of the centre button on each dial will free it in order to place it to any given manual position and from here it’s free to tweak - say, from 1/4000th sec to 1/2000th sec in a quick motion - between other non-auto options.

An issue we have had with older X-series models is the placement of the exposure compensation dial means it can be easily knocked out of position. The pre-production X-T1 we saw ahead of launch had a dial so stiff that it felt wrong, which worried us a bit. It’s an entirely different feeling in the final model, however, with just enough resistance to avoid most accidental knocks, and it's positioned as to not protrude from the camera’s edge.

It does still lack a lock, though, even an off/on push-button style one which might have been useful. There’s also no light to indicate when the dial falls outside of its default position, so if it does get knocked out of place then you’ll need to spot this via on-screen displays or notice it on top of the camera. Sometimes that's something that'll slip the mind.

Either way, we love the hands-on approach to the X-T1's layout. It looks standout and the scale of the body helps make it eminently more usable than the larger-scale Nikon Df, for example. The only qualms we have about the Fujifilm dial placements are with the collar-style drive mode and focus metering options and the function button (Fn) that’s squeezed in between two dials - there’s barely enough room for a spare finger.

READ: Nikon Df review

Spinning the metering selection over to, say, Spot rather than Evaluative sees the collar's cufflink-esque handle nestle rather close towards the inside edge between the side of the viewfinder. It’s not like you’ll need shovels and spades to dig it out of anything, but we found it a touch fiddly. Small moans due to the X-T1 trying to deliver lots of features without surrendering to buttons for the sake of control - it's got the concept right, as we wouldn't want to surrender these controls, but that comes at the cost of being occasionally fiddly.

Not everything is handled by physical dials, of course, as within the camera there are stacks of settings that can be quickly accessed via a "Q" button on the rear. A single press brings up a four-by-four grid of options, which is useful, but no touchscreen control means you’ll be using the rear d-pad in combination with front and rear thumbwheels to select through options.

Is it a bother that there’s no touchscreen? No, not really - we prefer it to stay clean for a better preview. And given the fantastic 1.04m-dot resolution and tilt-angle bracket mount it’s best just as it is in our view.

Pro performance

On the performance front the figures read much the same as the X-E2. Fujifilm has blown a rather large trumpet about having the "world’s fastest" autofocus system in the X-T1, but it’s a tune we’ve heard many times from many different manufacturers and there’s always a caveat. Specific lens, certain focus length and lighting conditions, and so forth. We’re not saying the X-T1’s Hybrid AF autofocus system is slow, because it’s not, but we would still put the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic and Olympus systems a step ahead throughout the variety of conditions and lens’ focal ranges available.

READ: Fujifilm X-E2 review

If you’ve used one of the earlier X-series models and thought they were too slow then we’ve got some very good news: the X-T1 is a lot faster. If you’ve not used them then, well, that comparison obviously isn’t much use to you. But it’s the sort of difference between driving a 1-litre and a 4-litre V8 engine in terms of speed jump.

In the X-T1 this is achieved by a hybrid system that, like many other manufacturers of late, opts for both a contrast-detect and phase-detect system on the sensor itself. There are 49 available focus areas to select from, or go with auto and the camera will find the most likely subject based on position and contrast. We found it works really well in single autofocus and particularly like the ability to adjust the size of the focus area.

Just like with the X-E2, we did think that the X-T1 was sometimes guilty of trying to be too fast for its own good and occasionally faltering on the autofocus front. Sometimes focus was confirmed when clearly way out of focus - such as with a subject too close to the lens - while other times focus was hard to repeat achieve in quick succession. This was us trying to push the camera to breaking point, though, as in general use we've been otherwise impressed with both low-light and well-lit scenes, as shown in our image gallery.

Fujifilm X-T1 review - sample image at ISO 1600 - click for full size JPEG crop

When it comes to continuous autofocus, and despite improvements compared to earlier models, the constant "pulsing" in and out of focus and drifting sees the X-T1 lack the consistency or speed of a decent-spec DSLR. For us it's still a step behind, despite work from the manufacturer to push it a step forward. It's not behind the compact system camera competition though, as all seem to need a kick up the behind to truly catch up in this department. If it's fast-moving subjects you want to capture then you'll definitely want to mull over whether this is truly the right system for you.

READ: Best compact system cameras 2014

But super-speed is evident elsewhere: the X-T1 is compatible with UHS-II SD cards for a great burst mode performance. All those numbers and numerals in the card designation may sound geeky and boring - because they kind of are - but this is the fastest current standard. The cards are expensive, and look like any other SD card until they’re flipped over to reveal new contact points, but if burst speed shooting and quick write times are a must then so is one of these cards. We snapped at the 8fps top speed to capture 22 raw & JPEG files and the whole lot wrote to card in about nine seconds flat. Bueno.

Battery life is probably the camera’s main performance shortcoming. Electronics products need the juice to keep them flowing, and the decision to opt for the same NP-W126 Li-ion battery as found in the X-E2 - despite the X-T1’s larger viewfinder demands - seems a decision that was never going to see the camera fly under heavy use for a long period of time. We were snapping around 300 shots per charge, give or take, but would like to see more battery capacity next time to keep it on pace with the Canon EOS 70D models of this world.

READ: Canon EOS 70D review

X-cellent image quality

The X-T1 doesn’t deliver any new surprises when it comes to image quality, as it’s built around the same X-Trans CMOS II sensor as found in the Fujifilm X-E2 model. But that does means 16 glorious megapixels of quality. The sensor’s name might sound somewhat absurd, but the results are equally absurd in a different way: because they’re so darn good.

There’s a lot of geekery squeezed into the Fujifilm sensor, which works in a different way to its competitors. The company has its own unique colour array over the sensor that’s cleverly arranged to avoid the need for a low-pass filter that would otherwise soften the light entering the camera. Without this in place the results are sharp, like really sharp, even with the standard 18-55mm kit lens.

Fujifilm X-T1 review - sample image at ISO 400 - click for full size JPEG crop

Shots from the X-T1 mirror their X-E2 cousin throughout in terms of detail. Now, it may not be the best of the best at the highest ISO settings - where the camera has to compensate for poor lighting conditions by processing - but the results are still usable right through to ISO 6400.

Slide down the ISO sensitivity range - what you’ll most likely to be shooting in good light - and the ISO 200-800 sensitivities are exceptional. Not just because of low amounts of image noise either, but, as we’d touched upon before, the level of sharpness.

It's a shame there's no true ISO 100 option - it's only a "low" setting available without the same degree of dynamic range - but otherwise the X-T1 puts DSLR quality shots in your hands. There's something really special about the shots we've been capturing, and the more we've looked back on them over the last week of use the more we've come to like them.

One oddity we did find was auto white balance being inconsistent. Various colour casts seemed to leak into shots taken one after the other under the same lighting, while the auto exposure often needed to be notched down on the compensation dial to avoid skies blowing out or blacks losing their true shadow. When everything is set up right there's a rich colour palette to draw from and blacks that are like deep ink wells - there's a stack of imaging potential.

Fujifilm X-T1 review - sample image at ISO 800 - click for full size JPEG crop

We like to spend our time making adjustments in post to raw files and found the X-T1’s files offered plenty of room for manoeuvre. Just like the S-series had stacks of dynamic range, we’re also impressed with how the X-T1 holds up in this department. Without JPEG processing to "smooth" out those shots, however, the raw files show up a fair amount of image noise at the higher settings - but nothing too problematic and we like the clarity available.

The X-T1 has plenty of competition in its category. There’s the excellent Sony Alpha A7 which offers a larger, full-frame sensor size for not a huge amount more cash, while the Nikon Df DSLR also offers a full-frame sensor wrapped up in a retro style body. The X-T1 takes the biscuit when it comes to price, but just because it’s a touch cheaper doesn’t mean it holds back on image quality - and that stands despite its slightly smaller sensor size. Indeed, when it comes to APS-C sensor sizes, we think the X-T1 is up there with the very best on the market.

Verdict

Let’s get the slight downsides out of the way first: the X-T1 could do with a better battery, autofocus needs to be refined for precision, and continuous autofocus won’t keep a similar price DSLR at bay in our opinion. Oh and there are no weather-sealed lenses to pair with the body - but that will be resolved later this year as some options arrive to market.

Otherwise the X-T1 is a shining example of how a retro style camera should be done. Just take a second to look at it and it’s hard not to fall in love. Those physical mode dials are well made, as is the all-metal and weather-sealed body; it’s a melting pot of design that gives the Fujifilm a distinct edge that other manufacturers have since started to try and cash in on.

Then use that giant electronic viewfinder in its "full" mode and it blows other electronic viewfinders out of the water. It’s not going to compete with the brilliance that is the X-Pro1’s hybrid viewfinder, but the X-T1 has a wider application and target audience, plus as those bigger and longer XF-mount lenses arrive the viewfinder’s central placement will make all the difference in use.

Add to those positives super-sharp image quality that’s hard to beat and we think that of all the Fujifilm options available this is the one to go for. It’s not without some serious competition - the Sony Alpha A7 drags a full-frame sensor into the equation for not much more cash but lacks the lens support for now, or the Nikon Df goes for large-scale retro - but Fujifilm’s tough enough to stand its own ground. We love the images we've been getting straight from camera.

The Fujifilm X-T1 is the accumulation of 80 years craft and it shows. It's one of those forward-thinking cameras that resonates with both head and heart and will succeed where the S-series didn't because it's a genuinely desirable product. Just make sure you buy into the optional battery grip and spares otherwise you'll be weeping that you can't shoot - and this camera will make you want to.