When Fujifilm announced its X-Pro 1 last year, I was almost sold immediately. Like a lot of wannabe photographers, I love the retro look of its mirrorless rangefinder-cum-DSLR. With its rangefinder-like optical viewfinder set off to one side, the style evokes images of open shirted Time magazine photojournalists in Vietnam, besuited and bespectacled Frenchmen on a serious mission or the Bang Bang Club chasing the head of a violent demonstration through Soweto.
It’s a serious camera for serious times, and fully kitted out for them. It’s all dials and manual control wheels, with automatic controls kept to a zeitgeist-shunning minimum. Yet at the same time it’s cleverest touch is that the optical viewfinder has a hybrid mode, in which you can see a live digital image taken directly through the lens. So for wide angle shots you can go all old school, but if you’re working with a longer lens you can actually see what will be in frame.
Physically, it’s superb: small enough to be unobtrusively sneaked past security, yet hardy enough to survive being dropped off of a cliff (maybe).
It’s a camera which shamelessly lifts from the greatest of the past and updates it for the new in ways which Leica, OIympus and Panasonic have tried but never quite managed to do, because not only is the X-Pro 1 a thing of industrial strength beauty to look at, it also takes astonishing pictures. Fuji’s X-Trans sensor blew reviewers away when it launched, delivering picture quality close to a professional full-frame SLR in a camera a third of the size and half the cost.
In low light, the X-Pro 1 is astonishing. It can shoot well in to four digits of ISO sensitivity with barely a trace of noise, allowing you to finally live up to Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of “never, ever use a flash” with a digital camera for just about the first time.
Yes, I want(ed) one
As a journalist who works primarily with words but a) needs to take photographs to illustrate stories and b) really likes taking photographs anyway, I’ve long been intrigued by mirrorless SLRs – the cameras which can use interchangeable lenses but shun the internal mirror that lets you look ‘through the lens’ while setting up a shot. Not having to balance my big Nikon D7000 on my knee as well as a laptop, notebook, sound recorder and all the other paraphenalia that I keep in my bag would be a dream come true for both my sanity and my back. I really wanted the X-Pro 1 when it came out.
There were just a few problems.
- It’s expensive. The body is about the same price as my Nikon at around R15 000, but to buy more than one lens will more than double the price. And if you’re only going to use one lens, why not get the compact X100s, which is almost identical, instead?
- There aren’t many lenses available for it. Especially if you want a telephoto. Sure, that’s not what it’s designed for primarily, but sometimes I need a shot of the stage from 30 rows back.
- The autofocus is slow and hunts in low light. This has been the thing that put me off most. After all, getting a blurry shot of someone who has just done something at a lectern isn’t quite ‘the defining moment’, is it. That also goes for pictures of kids running, cars racing and so on.
The first two of those problems aren’t going away (although there is now a 70-200mm lens that sort of addresses the second issue). The third point, however, has been tackled head-on with the latest 3.01 firmware for the X-Pro 1 body and lenses, which is available from Fujifilm’s official site. This firmware promises “Improvement of AF speed on most existing XF lenses,” so I had to try it out.
Fun with firmware
To do so, I borrowed an X-Pro 1 and three prime lenses (an 18mm, a 35mm and a 60mm) from Fujifilm, which I’ve been using for the last two weeks. I’ve used the camera on a three day trip to IFA in Berlin, and to shoot internet legends Vint Cerf and Richard Stallman. I’ve also taken photos of my cats. Needless to say, I’m as impressed with the photo quality more than ever – except possibly the ‘Velvia’ colour settings which were way too saturated for my tastes. But what about the handling. Has Fujifilm fixed that annoying focus lag.
In a word, yes. There were still a few occasions, when fixing on a distant object/person in the dark, that the X-Pro 1 struggled, but for the most part I’d struggle to tell the difference between this and my SLR when it comes to grabbing most pics. Except that this is a lot lighter and easier to handle. It fires up and is ready to shoot as quickly as my D7000, and locks onto a target just as quickly.
While it doesn’t have the ability to track a subject and adjust the focus once locked on, I found I quickly adapted to a more traditional way of taking pictures. And if you want to go fully manual, the Focus Peak function exaggerates edges so that you can see what’s in focus with ease – even a bespectacled blindster like me.
Which means that the biggest problem with the X-Pro 1 is now fixed. That doesn’t mean it’s quite perfect though – and I’m still in two minds about investing in one.
For starters, I found I used the eyepiece in electronic viewfinder (EVF) mode a lot more than I was hoping to or did with the X100s – mainly because the parallaxing effect is more pronounced with longer lenses, so it’s that bit harder to tell which part of the scene you’re actually shooting in optical mode. While it’s a very good EVF, the problem is that it makes the whole argument for the X-Pro 1 dubious: why not go for an Olympus O-MD and save yourself some cash?
There’s a few physical characteristics I struggled with too. The aperture ring on the 35mm lens I tried out is quite loose, which means notching it out of ‘Auto’ (I tend to lock down the shutter speed to something that will offset camera shake and let the aperture set itself) is a little bit too easy. Conversely, moving the focus point to a different part of the sensor isn’t as easy as it should be either, as you can’t set the cursors to move it without hitting a shift button first.
Perhaps I’m just trying to make the X-Pro 1 into something it’s not, though.
For many people, particularly street photographers, the latest update will make the X-Pro 1 perfect at last. For me, I may just wait until the X-Pro 2. Then again…
Gallery of test shots below: