Monday, January 6, 2014

Fujifilm X-Pro 1 Review: A film fanatic's perspective

I started in film long before digital was even plausible for consumers. I prefer film and, to be honest, doubted I'd ever find a digital camera that didn't have soft images. Fujifilm has changed the game forever with the X-Pro 1.

Let me give a little background. I became a more serious about photography over 20 years ago (when I was 17) and got my first 35mm SLR for a photography class offered at school. It was a Minolta X-370 with a 50mm f/1.7 lens. It wasn't fancy yet it was able to spark a passion I wouldn't want to shake even if I could. But, like most entry-level anything I eventually outgrew (or at least felt I'd outgrown) the limits of that camera.

I moved from Minolta's X-series to their Maxxum series (8000i and then a 7) and from a hodgepodge of aftermarket manual focus lenses to mostly Minolta AF lenses in search of higher quality images. As I became more experienced it seemed that fine detail in enlargements (11x or larger) was just not to my liking and I moved on to medium and large format.

My use of large format is limited to a pressview 4x5 that yields insanely detailed negatives. Anyone who has shot large format knows its challenges and also the rewards. Over the years I've found that for my own style and way of shooting 6x7 medium format really provided me that fine detail in enlargements and handling I was looking for. A full-blown 4x5 camera with all its swings, tilts and shifts doesn't work for the way I like to shoot. Though the argument surely can be made that image quality for enlargements can be subjective. And, that 4x5 inch negatives will offer more of that fine detail than 6x7 centimeter (2-1/4x2-3/4 inch) negatives I think few would argue that 35mm film could ever compete with medium or large formats for large prints. And, as I've already said, up to this point digital did not really impress me as the images were always soft. So, how does this relate to the Fujifilm X-Pro 1? It's about the fine detail in the images. Fujifilm figured it out.

As a long-time Minolta shooter I naturally went to the Maxxum 7D when Minolta thought that it was time they got back in the digital SLR game. It had a 6.1MP sensor when Canon and Nikon were releasing 8MP sensors. And though, as time has gone on, I've played with both Nikon and Canon DSLRs and have seen some very nice images from those cameras they, along with my Maxxum 7D, always seemed to fall short in that area that had me leave 35mm so long ago ... lack of fine detail in 11x and bigger enlargements. For a long time I couldn't put my finger on why.

Was it that the lenses just didn't work as well with digital? That turned out to be partially the case with all manufacturers as there has been extensive design changes in not only the optical corrections but the coatings as well in recent years. All changes necessary to get the most out of digital sensors. The real problem was the anti-aliasing filter. It didn't matter how high the resolution of the sensor was or the resolving capabilities of the lens because a stupid filter on the sensor always softened the image to prevent moire. I hate the damn anti-aliasing filter!!

Along comes the Fujifilm X-Pro 1

When I read about the X-Trans sensor and how Fuji got rid of the anti-aliasing filter and their sensor experienced little to no moire I was intrigued. Had someone finally figured out what really needed to be done to make a digital camera that wouldn't lose the finest details? It didn't take too many shots to figure out that Fuji was on to something.

The beauty of film:
Kodak 400UC scanned on Epson V750-M
©2004 P.T. Dante Ciullo
In medium format I shoot only film and I shoot Mamiya and Fuji. In Mamiya I have both an RZ67 Pro IIkit and a 7IIkit. My Fuji is a GF670. All three are fantastic. The lenses, when coupled with fine-grained slow ISO films produce stunningly detailed images that can easily do 30 inches and have detail to spare. Hell, not even just slow ISO films. I have some Portra 400UC negatives (left) from Rome in 2004 that printed at 24x30 have detail to spare.

I admit that my standards for comparing small-format digital are skewed unfairly against digital. That said I will say that I don't care if they're skewed against digital. I moved on from 35mm film because it just wasn't giving me what I was looking for so I'm certainly not going to settle for less because 20 years ago someone believed the anti-aliasing filter was "good enough." For me, it isn't. Thank you Fuji for no longer sitting there and accepting decades of status quo.

Having spent a fair amount of time shooting the Fujifilm X-Pro 1using the 14mm,35mmand 60mmI will say that, for the first time in my life ... I'm impressed with digital. Very impressed. My Mamiya lenses are some of the best lenses on the planet. The GF670's lens is superb. They are the standard I hold the lenses in other formats to. Unfair? I don't care. Taking everything into account regarding size of the imaging sensor vs. the size of a 6x7 neg I will say that these Fujifilm lenses are some of the finest optics I've used ... ever. They blow away anything I've used from Minolta/Sony, Canon or Nikon. But the lenses are only part of the equation.

One of the first portraits taken with the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and 60mm Macro lens
First Portraits:
Fujifilm X-Pro 1 w/ 60mm XF Macro lens
There are many reviews about the pros and cons of the X-Pro 1. I borrowed a kit to test it out because of those reviews. Unless you're going to hold one in your hand and get familiar with it you'll never know the joy the X-Pro 1 System brings to photography. Yes, it has bells and whistles that the purist might be turned off by and yes its autofocus system doesn't do moving subjects well. I do portraits and travel photography mostly. And, for the first time ever someone has produced a digital camera and lens kit that stands up to my demands for fine detailed enlargements. The first serious portrait images I shot (right) through the X-Pro 1 with 60mm macro lens excited me when I saw them on the screen. I've never been too excited about the images I'd gotten from other digital cameras. And some cameras, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1K with its Leica lens, were huge disappointments. So, outside of the image quality, what do I like or dislike about the X-Pro 1?

The optical viewfinder was one of the features that appealed to me. The way it switches between optical and digital is really well thought out. I do have to say that precisely focusing on someone's eye with the 60mm using the optical finder and autofocus was more miss than hit. Switching to the digital finder and manually focusing produced consistent, highly detailed images. When using the optical finder with the 14mm or 35mm for most photos I was able to get images focused where I intended as long as I didn't try to focus on something like a person's eye. It seems to me that with the optical finder that the focus zone size cannot be made smaller (like when using the digital finder/screen) and that may have an influence on the finite focusing on something like an eye.

I like the retro-ish rangefinder style. The camera is small and quite functional. With analog dials, and especially a real aperture ring, this camera is quickly set up even in full manual. The metering is very accurate and the film emulations are fairly good. The "Q" menu is truly handy. The B&W emulation for green doesn't work as I'd expect it to when compared to having used green filters on real B&W film. The emphasis of reds seems off ... that is minor though. The exposure compensation dial gets bumped easily so you have to pay attention to that.

Since I seem to have to use the digital finder when taking portraits the battery life is less than impressive yet livable. Luckily the one I borrowed had two batteries. So, if you get a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 be sure to pick up a second battery... You won't regret it!

In small format digital (APS-C and FX) sensors I was hard pressed to like the results of the many digital cameras on the market. None ever impressed me as all their images seemed just a little softer than I'd like them. And, when enlarged 11x or greater, the images from those sensors just didn't hold up to critical viewing as defined in Way Beyond Monochrome 2e: Advanced Techniques for Traditional Black & White Photography including digital negatives and hybrid printing(fig.11, page 138). I believe the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 is the first camera that comes close to hitting the mark, despite the physics that would say otherwise, because of the X-Trans sensor. When budget permits I will be picking up my own X-Pro 1 with 14mm, 35mm and 60mm lenses. I also look forward to trying out the 58mm f/1.2 that should be released soon. Until then I have use of the one I borrowed for a little longer so I'm going to enjoy it while I've got it.