The 16.3 effective megapixel Fuji X-Pro1 camera has barely left our side for the past two weeks. And it’s not purely because, with its sturdy high-end enthusiast metal build, plus Leica M8/M9-alike rangefinder styling, it is the sort of camera once bought you certainly want to show off.
This Fuji, the fourth retro-cool X-series model, and the first on which the lens can be swapped, arrives in a market where its closest digital competitors, aside from Leica’s own fixed lens X1, are the new Olympus OM-D and Sony NEX-7. Both those strong rivals likewise feature a built-in viewfinder. Slightly cheaper still, and also with a viewfinder is Nikon’s V1 compact. The Fuji is arguably in a different class though.
Set against the Fuji at a wallet-busting £1399 body only, such competitors also have price on their side, despite the Sony and Olympus being a not inconsiderable £999 without a lens.
There are three Fuji lenses available on launch, offering compatibility with the X-Pro1’s new X-mount, and all are fixed focal length or "prime" lenses rather than zoom - prime lenses traditionally offer the better picture quality. Covering various applications the "Fujinon" branded optics are a jack-of-all-trades f/1.4 35mm lens, a wide-angle f/2.0 18mm and a f/2.4 60mm macro/close up lens.
Gorgeous as the X-Pro1 may outwardly be, the question is, of course, do enthusiast photographers really want to have to invest in yet another whole new system of camera body and lenses?
A rival for the DSLR
Apart from Olympus and Panasonic cameras sharing Micro Four Thirds sensors and lens mounts, every other manufacturer has offered its own spin on the interchangeable lens compact, or, if you prefer, Compact System Camera (CSC).
Fuji’s secret weapon, and point of difference, in this regard is its sensor. It features an APS-C-sized 23.6x15.6mm chip, so physically larger than the most others in its compact system class – save for the Sony NEX-7 and Samsung NX200 - and a match for most consumer-level digital SLRs in that respect. But while this would be enough in itself to whet the appetite of most well-heeled photo enthusiasts, Fuji has gone further with its claims. It is suggesting that its unique "X-Trans" CMOS sensor - when working in tandem with its new EXR Pro processor - provides image quality that is a match for pro-level full-frame sensor DSLRs. While this is a lofty claim, it does go some way to lessening the blow of that price tag, providing pros with an opportunity to leave that bulkier DSLR at home.
It has to be said that, in terms of improved portability over a DSLR, while more compact the Fuji X-Pro1 is no "pocket rocket". It’s a sizeable, reassuring chunk of metal, to be transported around the neck or slung over a shoulder. You could place the die-cast aluminium alloy body in a jacket pocket without the lens, but the weight feels uncomfortable. With dimensions of 139.5 x 81.8 x 42.5mm, it weighs in at 450g including battery and memory card. As with a Leica camera, the build quality and attention to detail feels very high indeed.
Controls and features
Pictures and Full HD video – the latter selected via the drive mode button rather than a dedicated record button – are composed via the standard 3-inch back screen LCD, which here offers an incredibly high and clear 1,230,000-dots resolution. The alternative is the built-in 0.47-inch viewfinder, which offers a high 1,440,000-dots resolution and is dual use. This hybrid offering gives users the option of a regular optical viewfinder or an electronic version within the same window, an adjacent "view mode" button allowing the user to swap between the differing views. Furthermore, Fuji has very helpfully provided an eye sensor, so the main LCD neatly deactivates, and the EVF activates, as the user brings an eyeball level with it. The advantage of the EVF option is of course that you can not only compose, but also review captured images without taking your eye away to glance at the LCD below. As with a DSLR or advanced bridge camera, still captures are JPEG, raw or a combination of both.
Also DSLR-like, the available light sensitivity range stretches from ISO100 to ISO25600, while continuous capture speed is set at 6fps. It might have been nice for Fuji to have provided an angle adjustable LCD screen here to better facilitate otherwise awkward low or high angle shots, but with a viewfinder as well as back screen, it feels churlish to complain.
Coming after the X10, X100 and X-S1 premium-end Fuji cameras, the X-Pro1 shares their chunky dials and stiff action, with plenty of manual control offered. Like a DSLR, and unlike some of the cheaper CSCs, this is a camera that feels made to be gripped and operated in both hands, whereby the thumb of the left hand hovers over the "drive" mode button and the right forefinger is poised over the shutter release button, itself ergonomically encircled by the on/off switch.
The most prominent top plate dials govern exposure compensation (+/- 2EV) and shutter speed, here ranging from a manually selectable 1/4 sec to 1/4000 sec. A flickable switch just below the lens mount at the front allows the user to swap between single and continuous auto focus and manual focusing.
With no internal memory offered, images are committed to all varieties of SD card. Removable media share a compartment at the base, next to the provided lithium ion rechargeable battery, here good for 300 shots. While that’s adequate, it’s hardly class leading, and falls below the 330 shots of the cheaper Olympus OM-D and 335 shot battery duration offered by the Sony NEX-7. The result was that we found ourselves recharging the camera after two or three days of casual shooting.
Image quality and performance
In terms of image quality we were shooting in the main with the bright 35mm lens and achieving bags of detail across the frame, in daylight at least, plus some lovely subtle colour tones that are biased towards the naturalistic. For interiors and despite the camera’s steadying bulk, we did get some image-softening instances of hand wobble, while busier scenes do tend to confuse the auto focus, which is a tad tardy in locking on to target. It’s not a deal breaker though, as this is a camera for those who enjoy a spot of consideration and reflection before firing the shutter.
Here, of course, we get video too, though it doesn’t appear to be outwardly a prominent feature of the camera. There’s no dedicated record button and instead filming commences and ends with a press and subsequent press of the shutter release button.
Nevertheless the ubiquitous 1920 x 1080 pixels clips are offered with a cinema-style frame rate of 24fps rather than 25 or 30fps, and has the benefit of built-in stereo microphones. When filming, while auto focusing is offered, it is a bit slow to catch up and find your subject if you alter framing mid-recording, so the image will blur for a few seconds before snapping back into focus.
Once again experimentation is encouraged and, even after handling plenty of DSLRs and compact system cameras, we feel the Fuji will require an extended spot of practice and familiarisation to get the best out of it.
For charm alone the luxurious, premium-feel Fuji X-Pro1 is the most exciting and interesting release in the Compact System Camera world since Olympus’ original E-P1 digital Pen of 2012.
Like that camera, the Fuji is not a mass-market product. The period of familiarisation required, the attention to detail that has been put into the build and the serious price tag all see to that.
What the Fuji X-Pro1 does offer, as well as an enticing alternative to anyone who has ever lusted after a Leica camera before. It's an opportunity to leave that bulky enthusiast digital SLR at home and still be able to achieve impressive image quality.
We found that, because of the X-Pro1’s size and features set, it worked well as a shoot-from-the-hip camera for street photography and reportage.