What happens when you take a top-end camera range that’s consistently wowed critics and photo-fanatics since its inception and strip out everything that makes it special? The results might be a disaster – but has Fujifilm’s latest mirrorless SLR camera, the X-A1, managed to do just that but retain the, um, X-factor?
Since the introduction of the X-100 compact a couple of years ago, Fujifilm’s flagship camera fleet has been cruising steady at an altitude of desirableness that was previously reserved for the likes of Leica. With their retro looks, cutting edge sensor tech and innovative features like the hybrid digital/optical viewfinder, the X-Pro 1 or X-100s have become the cameras to get if you feel like spoiling yourself.
While a lot cheaper than a Leica, however, the X-Pro 1 and X-100s are problematically pricey. Enter the recent X-M1 – essentially an X-100s with interchangeable lenses. Plastic bodied and smaller than the X-Pro 1, it has essentially the same innards and image quality, but in a cheaper camera that doesn’t have the excellent optical viewfinder that makes the X100s and X-Pro 1 stand out.
But the X-M1 is still the best part of R10 000, and up against serious competition from Samsung’s NX300 or the Sony Alpha NEX-5T.
The only way from here, of course, is down. Enter the R6 999 Fujifilm X-A1. It shares all the same 1960s design cues as the rest of the X-series, but its contoured body is 100% genuine plastic rather than the ruggedised alloys of its stablemates. The lens mount is still as solid metal ring, but the textured wrap-around grip makes no pretence as to its petroleum-based origins either.
That plastic body is not as bad as it sounds, though. Like the iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5, if you place the X-A1 next to the more rugged X-E1, it’s the lack of difference that’s striking, not the fact there are dissimilarities between the two. While you wouldn’t want to drop it from too great a height, handling is almost identical. The control system is laid out in exactly the same way too. You get the same pro-feeling dials and knobs to twiddle with, and everything is in just the right place – with the possible exception of the thumb rest around the back, which doesn’t offer quite enough support to make it worthwhile.
With the kit 16-50mm lens attached it’s well balanced too – I didn’t get chance to try it with any of the other lenses in the X-range.
Like most of the X-cameras, there’s no optical viewfinder, which is a shame, but bearable when compared to its fiscal peers.
Mirrorless compacts like the X-A1 have come a long way in terms of operational speed in the last 12 months, and this camera is the direct beneficiary of all the work Fuji has put into refining the focus systems on its X100 and X-Pro cameras. Subjectively, it’s as fast to power up and focus as my Nikon D7000. Burst speeds, at 5.6fps, are just as good too.
The Fuji menu takes a little getting used to, but with a bit of practice even that won’t slow you down. Getting shots off of the camera is straightforward too, thanks to the built-in WiFi transceiver that allows you to even eschew cables if you wish.
Discovering that the X-A1 is one of the only electronic devices to have been built in 2013 without a touchscreen is a bit disappointing, especially as such tactile displays make picking focus spots a cinch on cameras with limited room for controls round the back. That said, the 3inch LCD is generously proportioned and – what’s more – it’s very high resolution, better even than the X-M1’s, believe it or not. The screen is also hinged, for overhead or waistline shooting. Which almost makes up for the lack of a real viewfinder.
So here’s the bizarre thing. One of the selling points of other X-series cameras – and indeed the point from which they take their name – is Fujifilm’s X-Trans processor. This uniquely designed sensor does away with the traditional low-pass filter positioned above the sensor and rearranges the colours captured by each pixel into a more random pattern. The result is less moire and more sharpness – and a sensor with awesome low-light capabilities.
All this is moot, however, since the X-A1 is unique in the Fuji range in having a third party image sensor with all the non-Fuji trappings that brings.
Which should be a disaster. And yet…
If you’re shooting straight to JPG – and Fuji’s JPG engine is so good there’s no real reason to use RAW with these cameras – picture quality is almost identical to the higher specced X-M1. Both these cameras come with the same kit lens – which may be the limiting factor, I didn’t get chance to try the X-A1 with a prime – and they perform almost identically in every single way. The only real difference is that noise starts to creep into shots from the X-A1 slightly earlier than it does on the X-M1 – but by slightly earlier we’re still talking photos at ISO 1600 that are good enough to print.
If you want an X-system camera but can’t afford the X-Pro 1, or have an X-Pro 1 and want a second camera that uses the same lens mount, then the X-A1 is an astonishingly good snapper.
It’s light weight, handles well and takes excellent pictures. The kit lens is a lot better than you might think too, with optical image stabilisation which, when used with the high possible ISO settings of the camera, means you never need to reach for the flash button again.
What’s more likely, however, is that you don’t already own a camera with X-lenses – and then the choice is much more complicated. Fuji’s lenses are awesome, but they’re also expensive. If we can assume that you’re not planning to stick with the kit lens (otherwise you’d just have bought a compact, yes?) then you’ve got to think about the rest of the system. And almost every other mirrorless set-up – whether its from Olympus, Sony, Samsung or Panasonic – can compete close enough on quality and absolutely on lens availability and price. The X-A1 is just a little bit too expensive to compete with the Samsung NX1100, for example, which is R2 000 less for a similar kit.
Then there’s the whole debate about if you’re spending this much on a camera, wouldn’t you be more tempted by a ‘proper’ SLR with through the lens composition and an optical viewfinder?
So long as you bear all of that in mind, however, the X-A1 a strong addition to the Fuji range and a good place to start if you’re looking at a long-term buy-in to the X-system.
Battery life: 8
Value for money: 7
- Pixels: 16.3million
- Sensor: APS-C CMOS
- Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC
- Burst: 5.6fps
- AF: 49 area
- Video: 1080p, MOV, 30fps
- Lens: Fujifilm X-mount
- ISO: 200-6 400 (boost to 25 600)
- Shutter: 60mins (bulb) – 1/4000 sec
- Wiresless: 802.11n
- Dimensions: 16.9mm (W) x 66.5mm (H) x 39.0mm, 330g