Shooting with the Fujifilm X-T1
By Andy Westlake
There's no doubt that the X-T1 is a camera that will make many photographers drool. With dials and switches to operate almost every conceivable setting, it's almost the antithesis of the typical modern press-button-spin-dial interface (which arguably finds its apogee in the X-T1's most direct competitor - the Olympus OM-D E-M1). Match it up with one of Fujifilm's truly excellent primes like the XF 23mm F1.4R and you get an exceptional image making tool.
We didn't expect any surprises from the X-T1 in terms of image quality - essentially it's the same as the X100S and X-E2 - and we didn't really see any. This is a good thing, as it means you get extremely well-judged exposure and white balance, and Fujifilm's lovely colour rendition (personally I particularly like the 'Astia' colour mode). High ISO noise is well-suppressed too.
When you actually come to shoot with the X-T1, for the most part it's every bit as engaging as it looks. It's a camera that you can pick up for the first time and think 'I know how this works'; it's also one where you can check most of your settings at a glance even when it's turned off. All those dials beg you to interact with the camera and experiment, encouraging creativity. They also let you adapt to new photo opportunities fast; few cameras let you change your setup so quickly.
The X-T1's EVF is lovely - huge, sharp and bright - and gives a truly immersive shooting experience. The focus aids offered by the X-T1 are second to none, and Fujifilm's unique Digital Split Image display in particular really comes into its own in that large viewfinder, making precise manual focus a breeze. It's nicely complemented by the tilting rear screen, which allows discreet waist-level shooting (although it's not touch sensitive for focus point selection).
The X-T1 is also a very responsive camera, especially when used with one of the latest SDXC UHS-II cards. Autofocus is vastly improved compared to where Fujifilm was a few years ago, particularly with the more-recent internal focus lenses (including the XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS kit zoom). However the X-T1 still isn't super-fast when used with the first generation of primes. Indeed with the XF 35mm F1.4 R and XF 60mm F2.4 R Macro, it's not obviously faster than older models like the X-Pro1 when they've been updated to the latest firmware.
|I shot this close-up with an old OM-mount Olympus 50mm F3.5 Macro. The X-T1's array of focusing aids makes it particularly good for working with old manual focus lenses.|
The X-T1's biggest improvement lies with continuous focusing. It can now take a phase detection focus reading simultaneously with making an exposure, which means it's capable of autofocus at its fastest shooting speed of 8fps. In our experience, this genuinely seems to work very well, although the frame rate can drop substantially if the camera has to make large focus adjustments between frames. The main catch is that you have to keep the subject covered by the relatively small PDAF area in the centre of the frame for it to work.
One point that could be easily overlooked is that the X-T1 is very quiet in operation. The newer lenses focus essentially silently, and the shutter sound is very 'soft', which makes the camera distinctly unobtrusive. It can't match Panasonic's completely silent electronic shutter, of course, but it's a very welcome change compared to the loud 'clack' of the Sony Alpha 7 and 7R, and similar to the Olympus OM-D E-M1.
In a first for Fujifilm, the X-T1 allows remote shooting from a smartphone over Wi-Fi, alongside the image transfer functions offered by previous models. This is pretty simple to set up; connections are all controlled from the camera, so there's no need to enter a password into your phone. Fujifilm's app is easy to use too, and offers a decent degree of control over the camera while shooting. Transferring images selected on the camera to a smartphone is straightforward, although browsing the contents of the camera's memory card is awkward (the image thumbnails are very small).
Nothing is perfect, though, and when you come to shoot with the X-T1 in anger, it turns out to be not quite as slick in operation as it could be. Most of its flaws count as relatively minor annoyances (and all cameras have some off these, without exception). But we think some could be genuinely problematic for certain types of shooting, particularly when you want to change settings fast with the camera to your eye.
That ISO dial, and Auto ISO
The X-T1's ISO dial certainly looks great, but after shooting with the camera for a couple of months I'm still not convinced it's actually a good idea. It has much the same problems as the one on the Nikon Df - it's on the left side of the camera, so to change it you have to move your left hand from supporting the lens. The central locking button also has to be depressed every time, which prevents accidental changes but makes intentional ones more awkward. To me this makes changing ISO less fluid than the Fn-button approach on previous models. This is especially noticeable when shooting with longer, heavier lenses like the XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS, where you have to temporarily transfer the entire weight of the camera and lens to the camera's handgrip while changing the ISO.
The X-T1's Auto ISO isn't brilliant either. You have to set a specific minimum shutter speed that the camera will use before it starts to raise the ISO setting, but this can't be tied to the current focal length, which isn't ideal when shooting with a zoom lens, or when swapping between primes. The fastest minimum shutter speed available is just 1/500sec, which is often too slow to freeze action when shooting with a telezoom. It's also worth noting that (unlike the X-E2) the X-T1 doesn't offer quick access to the setting menu when you select Auto ISO, so changing the minimum shutter speed requires a trip into the main menus. You can also assign 'Auto ISO setting' to a function button if you need to access it frequently.
One way round this is to use Auto ISO in manual mode, so you can specify the shutter speed and aperture you need, and let the camera set the ISO to match. But then the X-T1 ignores the exposure compensation dial, so there's no way of adjusting the image brightness away from the metered value. A lot of cameras behave like this, to be fair, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.
Overall, this means that the X-T1 has neither a 'set-and-forget' implementation of Auto ISO, nor a quick means of changing ISO with the camera to your eye without having to change your grip. For some users this won't matter at all, but others could well find it irksome. One further quirk is that the camera disables Raw recording when you set the ISO dial to one of the 'extended' positions (L, H1 or H2). The changed setting is highlighted in yellow on-screen, but is easily missed if you're not careful.
AF point selection, and the four-way controller
Like the other buttons on the back of the X-T1, the four-way controller is somewhat small, almost flush with the back-plate, and has very shallow travel. But whereas the other buttons at least have a pretty positive click, the directional keys are a little 'spongey'. This makes such things as AF area selection and navigating the Q menu slower than either Fujifilm's other models, or close competitors like the OM-D E-M1.
In our initial impressions of the X-T1 we were concerned that you have to press a Focus Area selection button before being able to reposition the AF point, which is an extra step compared to similar cameras. But I've found that this can be mitigated by assigning the 'Focus Area' option to all four keys of the controller. You still have to press an extra button to enter AF area selection mode, but at least it can always be the one that you're subsequently going to use to move the focus point.
In effect you lose three custom buttons doing this, but two of their default settings (Film Simulation and White Balance) are easily accessible from the Q Menu anyway. The third, Macro mode (which limits the minimum focus distance in a lens-specific fashion), is more problematic, but I assigned it to Fn1 instead. By default this button offers a shortcut to quickly change bracketing settings or select 'Advanced Filters' if you use them, but personally I can live without that. (There's a deeper philosophical question about whether the X-T1 really needs a Macro mode, but that's a different discussion.)
Exposure compensation dial
The X-T1's exposure compensation dial is distinctly stiff, which again is designed to prevent accidental changes. But this means that unlike the X-Pro1 and X-E2, you can no longer operate it using your thumb alone with the camera to your eye - instead it requires forefinger and thumb. It's not a big deal, but again, it makes the X-T1 just that little bit less fluid to shoot with than its siblings. Personally I found this more awkward when shooting in portrait format.
Shooting with gloves on
The X-T1 is weatherproof and freezeproof, so it seems reasonable to assume it's designed to be shot in the great outdoors. The weathersealing seems effective, even without a WR lens; we've had the camera soaked by a heavy dose of wet snow and survive just fine. But when you try to use the X-T1 with gloves on, you'll find that it's no longer quite such a pleasure.
The problems come from the smaller controls, in particular the four-way controller and the drive- and metering-mode switches. I find these quite difficult to operate, even with thin gloves. It's also impossible to see the markings on the ISO dial when you press down its lock button with a gloved finger. Overall if you're looking for a small camera for shooting in cold or wet conditions, I think that there are better options available in terms of operability, such as the Pentax K-3 or (again) the Olympus OM-D E-M1.
As always, it might be tempting to look at this list of criticisms and conclude that the X-T1 isn't such a great camera after all. But this would be a mistake: all cameras have their flaws, and the real question is how significant they are for any individual user. And the fact is that the X-T1 is a lovely machine that begs to be picked up and used, and one which is capable of delivering really excellent results.
Personally I'd say the X-T1's ergonomic quirks make it a camera that you should try before you buy. However there's no arguing with its speed and responsiveness, and its image quality is excellent under a wide range of conditions. Most importantly it gives you access to the XF Fujinon lens range, which includes both uncommonly-good small zooms like the 18-55mm F2.8-4, and a well-judged set of primes. It may not be quite as good as we hoped it would be, but it's still a very engaging photographic tool.