“The mechanism: stamped black tin, leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood, a lens. The shutter falls. Forever dividing that from this.”
- William Gibson
As you know if you listen to On Taking Pictures (and if you don’t, now is a perfect time to start), I had been looking for a new camera since I sold my Nikon D300 several months ago. What I’ve realized, is that it wasn’t just a new camera that I was looking for, but rather a renewed connection to and excitement for making pictures. I started with photography in high school at a time when the only way to learn photography was with film. Actually, we had to work up to film, starting instead with photograms, which, looking back, were a wonderful introduction to the medium. A blank sheet of paper, a few leaves or twigs and light; then it was into the darkroom to see the magic. Bathed in the amber glow of the safelights that would become my second home for years to come, I will never forget seeing the image appear before me in the tray of developer. Alchemy. For me, beginning in the darkroom bound me to photography as a process, rather than merely an outcome, something that I think has been lost to a large degree with the advent of digital.
Going back to move forward.
I had looked at all of the DSLR offerings in my price range, but nothing really impressed me. Originally, I had sold my D300 in anticipation of getting the D600. Unfortunately, once I actually got a chance to play with one, it just felt like a full-frame D7000, not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact Nikki does gorgeous work with hers, it just didn’t feel like what I was after. A friend suggested the Fuji X-E1, which, on paper, looked very interesting. The Fuji X-series cameras have fantastic sensors, tack sharp lenses and vintage-inspired styling that really appealed to me. After reading far too many reviews and pixel-peeping far too many photographs (not to mention multiple “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” conversations with Bill and Nikki), I ordered an X-E1 with the 35mm f/1.4 and the 18-55mm f/2.8 from B+H. A few days later, I opened the package like a four-year-old on Christmas. Thankfully, there was a little charge on the battery, so I popped on the 18-55mm and started snapping away around my apartment. I liked the styling of the camera straight away, though, if I’m being honest, it did feel a little plasticky; not flimsy, but just not as solid as I was expecting, based on the look of it. The body also felt a little small to me; small enough that my pinky dragged across the baseplate, which I didn’t like. Weight and ergonomics aside, the image quality is gorgeous. The JPGs straight out of camera are clean, sharp and, depending on what Film Simulation mode you use, vibrant, smooth, punchy or dramatic. Unfortunately, the unit that I received was defective, only locking focus about 30-40% of the time. At first I thought it was just me or one of the focusing quirks that I had read about that affected both the X-E1 and it’s big brother, the Fuji X-Pro1 (XP1). But, apparently, this was not the case. Repeated tests on a tripod under constant light with stationary subjects yielded wildly inconsistent results, both in focus and in metering. So, back it went. I was hesitant to simply get another X-E1 for several reasons, so I decided to have a look at the XP1. I think I knew the moment I looked through the viewfinder (and heard the shutter sound) that it would be my next camera.
The mechanism itself.
Picking up the XP1 was like slipping into an old pair of jeans, or my favorite pair of Converse sneakers. The cold metal against my fingers and the subtle click, click, click of the aperture ring made it feel like an object that was to be taken seriously. The vintage design of the camera is an homage to rangefinders past and present, though it is definitely not a rangefinder. The minimal top-panel controls consist of a single programmable function button and simple analog dials for shutter speed and EV compensation. The threaded shutter release button will even accept an old-school cable release, though mine has been fitted with a lovely Satin Red Beep from Match Technical.
Beyond the brilliant design, one of the main features that sold me on the XP1 over the X-E1 is what Fuji calls their Hybrid Multi Viewfinder. First seen in the X100, the Hybrid Viewfinder allows you to toggle between an optical (OVF) and an electronic (EVF) viewfinder on the fly. The OVF displays relevant exposure information, including bright lines to approximate the current FOV, as a HUD style overlay. The EVF is nice (though not as nice as the one on the X-E1), but I find that I’ve been using the OVF about 90% of the time. I shoot with my left eye to the viewfinder, which, on a DSLR, isn’t a problem since the prism sits above the body, leaving my right eye free to help gauge my surroundings. On the XP1 (or any similar type of camera), my right eye is up against the back of the body, so using the OVF allows me to see what’s entering and exiting the frame, which is a very valuable feature when shooting something like street photography, where both photographer and subject are often in motion. The only potential downside to the OVF, which I’ve read a number people complain about, is that the OVF exhibits parallax errors and isn’t 100% accurate to the FOV, particularly when your subject is less than 1m away. While that’s true, enabling ‘Corrected AF Frame’ and updating to the latest firmware gets you pretty close. Personally, this has yet to be a problem for me, since, in those instances, you can easily toggle to the EVF, which is 100% accurate. I have to say, if OVF parallax (which, by the way, occurs on virtually all cameras where the viewing window is separate from the main lens) is that much of a problem, the XP1 may not be the camera for you.
Shooting with the XP1 over the past couple of weeks has been an absolute joy, which is a little surprising, considering the vintage (read:boxy) form factor of the body, compared to the curvy, grippy goodness of modern DSLRs. In fact, one of the only issues I encountered while shooting was that my thumb kept hitting either the AFL/AEL or the Q button. While researching the camera in the many XP1 forums, I noticed that several people had experienced the same thing and suggested the Thumbs Up EP-7S from Match Technical. Basically, it’s a machined brass thumb rest (the model for the XP1 also features silicone bumpers to protect the body) that slides into the hotshoe. According to Match Technical, the thumb rest “incorporates the well proven 22 degree beveled EP grip” which, frankly, sounded like a lot of marketing speak to me, until I actually used it. Night and day. Not only does the EP-7S prevent my thumb from hitting the AFL/AEL buttons, the slight change in the position of my hand allows the camera to rest against my palm between my thumb and index finger, making the camera feel not only more comfortable, but also more stable. Plus, it looks really cool.
It does take pictures, right?
So, by now some of you are thinking, “Yeah, yeah, enough about viewfinders and thumb rests, what do the photographs look like?” Well, in a word, they are superb. I’m just going to say it. The XP1, coupled with the 35mm f/1.4 lens, produces the best looking SOOC JPGs I’ve ever seen from a digital camera. Period. Noise is virtually non-existent up to about 2500 ISO and even then looks more like film grain than what we’ve come to expect from digital noise, which makes perfect sense, given the nature of Fuji’s X-Trans CMOS sensor. The X-Trans ditches the traditional Bayer sensor model of a repeating 2X2 pixel array in favor of a 6×6 array that offers a higher degree of randomness. Fuji also eliminated the low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter, which dramatically increases apparent sharpness.
The entire X-series line features what Fuji calls Film Simulation modes (don’t call them presets) which, according to Fuji, can “simulate the color and tonal qualities of acclaimed film brands.” I have very limited experience with films like Velvia, Provia or Astia, but the XP1 versions of them look absolutely fantastic. The Velvia has a dramatic, punchy feel, while the Astia and ProNegH are much more subtle and render beautiful skin tones. The black & white modes are also great and even allow you to simulate the inclusion of yellow, red or green filters to achieve different tonal effects. Beyond the gorgeous color reproduction, the files produced by the XP1 are extraordinarily clean. Dynamic range is wide, with highlights that roll off naturally and shadows that retain details as they smoothly drop to black.
Let’s wrap this up.
Look, I could go on and on about how incredible this camera is on paper, and while things like pixel density, dynamic range and the ISO vs noise graph are important to digital photography, they aren’t very important to photography, which is what this was all about for me in the first place; to find a tool that would help me to reconnect to the process of seeing and making pictures. The X-Pro1 is definitely not the camera for everyone. It doesn’t look, feel or behave like the DSLR you are probably used to, but, for me, that’s exactly what I was looking for. I applaud those photographers who need (and can actually use) a camera that shoots 12fps at 36MP, that’s just not me. I wanted a camera that feels somehow more deliberate to shoot with, a camera that rewards intent and purpose. I’m only a couple weeks into this experiment, but, so far, that’s exactly what I’ve got.