Fujifilm X-S1 review

The Fujifilm X-S1 is no ordinary superzoom. It has a 12-megapixel, 2/3in sensor that’s far larger than what you’d normally find in a compact camera for starters.

As much as the X-S1 is considered a "compact" – often described as a "bridge" or "superzoom" camera – it’s far from small scale. Indeed it looks a lot like a DSLR in terms of its overall size and layout, yet it manages to squeeze a 24-624mm (equiv.) 26x optical zoom lens that, while large in size, is smaller and more bag-friendly than a full DSLR setup. 

Awesome EVF

There’s plenty more that the X-S1 puts into play to make it an attractive purchase. The 0.47in, 100-per-cent field-of-view, 1.44million-dot electronic viewfinder (or EVF for short) walks all over other superzooms’ EVF offerings. And then some. The viewfinder itself is far larger than you’d usually find in a compact-type camera, which makes using it a lot more comfortable. It goes a long way to raising the X-S1’s profile as the EVF is akin to that found in the Samsung NX11 or Nikon V1. The X-S1’s EVF also includes a dioptre adjustment should you have eyes not up to scratch, or wear glasses.

If you’d rather use the camera’s rear LCD then the 3-inch screen is mounted on a bracket that’s great for below eye-level work. The screen can tilt backwards to some degree for overhead shooting, but only by 35degrees or so.

Sizable zoom lens

Then, of course, there’s that big lens. A superzoom wouldn’t carry such a name if it didn’t have a significant zoom as part of its features list.

The X-S1 doesn’t disappoint: its 24-624mm f/2.8-5.6 (equiv.) 26x zoom lens is sturdy, thanks to a metal barrel, and feels good in the hand. It’s coated with a rubber-like finish with raised flanges for a comfortable grip.

The lens is controlled by manually rotating the zoom barrel – an experience much like using a DSLR. Towards the body side of the camera, to the back of the lens barrel, there’s also a manual focus ring that’s far larger than previous Fujifilm superzoom models.

Add lens-based image stabilisation and there’s not much this lens can’t do. Optically each element has been treated with multi-layer Super EBC, the same high-standard coating found in broadcast-quality Fujinon lenses. Fujifilm says this will reduce ghosting and flare for better image quality overall.

Autofocus

Put the X-S1 to work and it’s superior to any other superzoom out there. But we’d expect no less for the hefty £700 price tag. It’s not, however, a DSLR-beater for many tasks. Its contrast-detection autofocus puts DSLR systems to shame for live-preview (often called "live view") work on the rear screen, but its viewfinder use is a mirror of this and not a more capable phase-detection system (as per a DSLR).

The X-S1’s single autofocus is, without a doubt, swift off the mark to find a subject. The 49 focus points are used to full effect or can be manually selected for pinpoint accuracy and to cater for more intricate focus and composition. Even the focus point’s size can be adjusted from small to medium.

As great as all that is, the telephoto end of the zoom can’t quite keep up in all scenarios. A number of occasions saw the camera "freeze up" and cease to deliver full-time live preview, making tracking subjects somewhat tricky.

Continuous autofocus, too, may be a good feature, yet it depends on a single cross-form focus point that’s slap bang in the centre of the frame. The camera will work continuously, yet this is rather slow to drift between focal planes and isn’t anything like the hyper-speed of something such as the Sony A65, for example.

And so the X-S1 feels much like a souped-up compact. It’s good, it works a treat for many situations, but if it’s high-grade DSLR speed that you’re after then the X-S1 can’t be deemed as a replacement.

If manual focus is more your bag then a switch on the front of the camera jumps between the three focus types (single, continuous and manual). A digital magnifier zooms the screen in to a 100-per-cent level for fine-tuning focus, made all the easier by the silky-smooth focus ring. Sometimes the on-screen results "jumped" between focal planes a little too swiftly, but otherwise manual focus is perfect for close-up work, still life scenarios, night shots and other scenes.

Image Quality – the highs and lows

When we reviewed the X10 (which shares the same sensor as the X-S1) towards the end of 2011 we were, in general, very impressed with what the 2/3in sensor could produce.

Shallow depth of field is easily achievable, not least thanks to that sizeable zoom. At the widest angles and longest-reaches of the zoom range the overall clarity is high and distortion is never to excess.

The X-S1’s standard ISO sensitivity runs from ISO 100-3200, whereafter image dimensions shrink and files get smaller in a bid to counteract more challenging processing. ISO 4000-6400 is only available at 6-megapixels in size, while ISO 12,800 can only be captured at 4-megapixels.

Our advice? Stick to the standard settings. As the lens dips down to an f/5.6 brightness at its fullest 624mm (equiv.) it’s likely that the higher ISO settings will get plenty of use in order to benefit from a faster shutter speed. No other superzoom has been able to produce ISO 3200 shots to quite such a successful degree before, though it’s not going to beat either a compact system nor DSLR with equivalent (and, we must admit, far, far more expensive) lens.

Which is the very point: although the X-S1 is an eye-watering £700 it sits in the market rather well. Yes it’s more than a Nikon D5100, yet it’s far cheaper than a D5100 plus Sigma 70-300mm or similar lens combo. It’s even more cost-effective than a group of compact system camera, and for that the X-S1 deserves praise.

However, (there’s always a but, isn’t there) there’s an ongoing issue as experienced by the X10: Specular highlights, ie, the white points from light sources or glinted reflections in sunlight, can "blow out" into circular forms that are far larger than they ought to be and, in some circumstances, become a huge distraction.

In the grey, flat light of the UK’s winter this wasn’t an issue for almost all of our test shots, but exposed bulbs, flecks of sunlight on water and so on can reveal oversized, orb-like highlights. Fuji says there is a fix coming via firmware, though we suspect it will improve rather than eradicate the issue.

For a lesser compact this might not be such a bother, but for a high-spec £700 model it’s not one of the X-S1’s, er, "highlights" (okay, a poor show to use the same joke twice, but it’s hard to resist).

Verdict

The X-S1 is king of the superzooms and will see off any of the competition. Though, at £700, it’s a costly investment. But an investment is just what it feels like – this is a quality bit of engineering.

But it’s not without fault. The autofocus system is good, but can leave a feeling of longing for something yet more capable – in particular at the telephoto end of the zoom range and when in continuous autofocus mode. Image quality, too, is an echo of the X10: there’s that ongoing processing issue that can cause specular highlights to morph into white orbs (whether shooting Raw or JPEG, it doesn’t matter).

Otherwise we’re full of praise: image quality is impressive and beyond its competitors, though next time we’d like a full-resolution ISO 6400 setting. A decent electronic viewfinder is also something superzooms have been crying out for – and the X-S1 hits the nail on the head with its 1.44m-dot EVF.

The £700 price tag will be a big ask for many, yet the sensor, viewfinder, metal parts in the build and the high-standard of optics won’t be cheap to produce. And what alternative is there? A Nikon J1 with 30-110mm or a Panasonic Lumix GF3 with 100-300mm will both cost considerably more and neither offer a viewfinder. Think of it in that perspective and the X-S1 is worth every penny for the right user.