Product review: Fuji X-M1

If there is one lineup of cameras that makes heads turn, it is the Fuji X series. It started with the X100, which I for long considered to be The compact camera to get for the photographers who wants a more portable alternative to SLRs. 
Then came smaller sensor & more affordable Fuji X10 and X20, followed by a new X100S , and finally an interchangeable lens version of the X100S : the X-Pro 1. The lineup seemed complete, but Fuji listens carefully to its user base, and it appeared that the later want  top of the range lenses and sensor as on the X Pro 1, but in a more portable format. They made it and it is called X-M1 .

How to review such a camera ? 

First of all, it is necessary to establish what it is for. The X-M1 is a compact body with an APS-C sensor, and pricey good quality lenses. I reckon it shall be used by two profiles of customers:
  1. The pro / well equipped amateur who want a portable alternative to heavier systems (SLRs, Medium Formats) when traveling, street shooting, trekking etc. 
  2. The mass market user with a significant budget (1200$ at least with accessories) who's willing to go a little bigger than a supper compact, in order to get a versatile premium product. 
In other words, the expected key strength for the X-M1 will be its usability in a spontaneous shooting context, while retaining SLR level results. It means good ergonomics, easy set up, and performant full auto / preset modes. 
I reviewed this camera during a business trip to NYC and a week end in the streets of Paris. Doing my things, and shooting as the opportunities unveil. I believe this is how this camera will be used most of the time. This time I have to be honest I wasn't that inspired...

For super premium image quality, you will still have to look at film medium format systems (cheaper than an X-M1 with a prime lens if used) or some full frame SLRs, in particular the Nikon D610 and D800, with very high level lenses.
For ultimate all purpose performance (still, action, video), you'll have to look at SLRs the likes of the D4 or D610. Those come with a very, very different price tag (x3-6). Image quality won't be that much better, but you'll be able to shoot a bird 100 meters away by night.

Long story short

  • It does delivers image quality that is equivalent to a SLR, even some full frame SLR. It comes from a excellent sensor, and a range of good prime lens.
  • You need from 1200$ to 1800$ to get a good system with one or two lenses. 
  • The X-M1 is a much smaller X-Pro 1 without a view finder. Given that what makes a camera is the sensor and the lens, it is in terms of image quality the same machine. Key differences come from usability and we'll discuss them below.
  • Its main weakness is AF speed, which won't allow you to shoot fast action. For the average user however, you won't even notice. I have caught moderately fast action with it and got a perfectly focused image. It's people proof, maybe not cat proof.
Same image quality, but smaller and cheaper? It might just be the one compact camera a highly demanding enthusiast should get in 2014. Let's figure out if that's the case.

Image quality

The two components of image quality are the sensor and the lens. This section needs no more writing than what already exists all over the web. The Fuji sensor is a APS-C size sensor, similar to non full frame SLRs. It is the second best on the market after the Nikon full frame sensor, and the system produces RAW files superior to the output of a Canon 5D. Dynamic range and noise are excellent, there is no match to this sensor in the compact world

On the lens side, similar story, Fuji XF lenses are excellent, the ones priced 599$ do a good job, the ones priced 899$ are as good as any premium Nikon or Zeiss. You can easily Google all of this if you're into charts and stuff like that. I'll later recommend lenses for this system once I try them all. The main issue is that they are too expensive compared to what you get with Nikon for the same price on an SLR.

ISO performance is very good, with perfectly exploitable results at ISO 3200 and above, providing that you use RAW files and good software to de-noise (Nik suite with Lightroom 5 is what I use). With more normal ISO value (200-1600), dynamic range is excellent, and light rendering overall is very, very good. See examples below.

Sharpness and all those things are lens related. Fuji lenses are great, no issue there. I used the 18mm F2.0 , it's alright but won't blow your mind.

Camera ergonomics & hardware

Fuji X cameras are well built and solid. Do I need to mention they are sexy as hell? People do stare at them, the brown leather X-M1 was quite a hit. But it being very desirable can be also a drawback... you like it or not. Regarding handling, well it can only be as good as handling a rectangular shaped small object. A big SLR with a grip will offer better handling of course, at the cost of being huge. Here the handling is average especially for large hands like mine,  and most of the grip actually comes from the lens.

Size wise, it is much smaller than an SLR system... yet it is not that small. Compared to a Canon S100 for example, it remains big. On the other hand, images are incomparable to the ones from a S100. Once lensed up, it doesn't fit in a standard pocket. I'm using it with a BlackRapid Sport Slim strap, making it really convenient for travel shooting. In the street, it remains more discret than an SLR, but where I value the size gain the most is when trekking: the D600 I own is too big for climbing and Bear Grylls like situations. The X-M1 is exactly the size of the (excellent) Olympus OM-D without the view finder.

Oh and also, the screen moves. I'd nice to shoot discretely sometimes :)

Button layout makes sense, the camera doesn't necessary require a manual if you know your way around a camera. I'd have liked the wheel that's at the back to be on the front top right corner, to be used with the right index, but I'm being picky. A second shortcut for EV compensation would have been nice, but then again, small means compromises.

Software and shooting modes

Many pros and a few cons, let's start with the pros:
  • The Auto SR mode that figures out what's best according to the scene: it works brilliant. It really renders on screen just like what you see with your own eyes. Some smart programing behind that: it figures out if it's a portrait, a action shot, a landscape, and picks what's best in order to render as close to reality as possible. Ideal if you lend the camera to your partner who doesn't necessarily knows how to use it. That answers one of the question above mentioned: yes it is a brilliant full auto camera.
  • Menus are well done, logically organized, and the on screen explanation prevent you from needing the manual. The shortcut button is quite convenient, it leads to a quite complete menu, with simplified browsing. It sound like duplicate at first, but in comes in very handy.
On the darker side however:
  • Some features become unavailable depending on the mode you shoot in. If they are on auto, you logically loose hand on some of them. Which is normal, you are on auto. But it's hard to understand why some features become on or off depending on the shooting mode? For example, dynamic range enhancement can go be on Auto, 100%, 200% 400%. Well in some mode you get zero, one or 2 choices, and I don't quite get why.
  • I found little difference between matrix and spot metering, on a back lit subject. That bothers me as exposure effects are crucial to me. Yet, I can probably blame it on the focal length, requiring me to get quite close to my subject to get proper spot metering with back light. My D600 performs much better at this, and can really give you that high key touch on aperture priority mode with spot metering. This being said, automatic metering on the camera is fantastic, but getting a back lit portrait to come out as desired is harder than on a SLR. 
  • Manual focus is a bit of a joke: you need full ring spins to move the focus distance a few meters. Good luck filming on MF mode with that.
The RAW conversion software from Fuji is "meh". Don't even go there, use something else. The RAW files however are very good.

Sample shots

All are with the 18mm F2.0 , probably the poorest lens in the prime focal length lineup, it's actually a good lens, it's just the least good of all. As I said above, no inspiration at all lately so this is just for the samples.

Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200
Shot as jpeg, ISO 3200 F2.
Shot as RAW, ISO 200 F8. 
Shot as RAW, ISO 400 F8, cropped left and right.
Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200 and tripod
Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200
Shot as JPEG, ISO 3200 F2, cropped 35% off.
Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200
Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200
Shot as JPEG, ISO 200 F6.4 cropped about 20%

Shot as RAW, ISO 3200, F4

Same 100% crop,  no noise removal at all.

Shot as RAW, ISO 400 F2
It appears clearly that there is not a single difference in image quality between this and any DSLR.

This one is for the pixel peepers, @5.6 and ISO 6400. Before and after light noise removal (auto in NIK Software), 100% Crop of top left image corner with the 18mm F2.0 . In other words, the worse it's ever going to get. This is of course totally irrelevant to photography, but it show how good of a sensor it is.

Raw converted in lightroom, shadows lightened and +10 clarity. ISO 200

What alternative ?

X100S : the same but cheaper and with an optical viewfinder. Why not getting that then? Because it's also bigger and comes with its built in lens (35mm equivalent) only. Look at what your need is. If you shoot only documentary style and can't deal with screen framing, you might as well get that.

Olympus OM-D : same size (a tiny bump with the electronic viewfinder), similar price, but significant differences. First of all, it's a smaller 4:3 sensor. It is very good, but a bit under the Fuji X-trans sensor performance. On the other hand, it is weather-sealed (which is awesome for trekking) and has a viewfinder. It is an electronic one (you still look at a screen) but it does add something to the shooting experience. Finally, the AF is faster, so if you know action and bad weather is part of your plans, you might want to go for this instead.

1 comment:

  1. 56mm f1.2 coming tomorrow. Very excited.