Fujifilm X-Pro 1 - I Want to Believe

I have enjoyed using my Fujifilm X100 for some time now.  Ever since I purchased it last year, I have been resistant to take my Canon 5D out any more.  I have to REALLY need a focal length other than the X100's 35mm equivalent.  Even when a shorter or longer focal length might be better, I choose to make the X100 work. There is just something about it.  It's a wonderful camera with an image quality that rivals and even surpasses my 5D in some scenarios.  It hasn't been all roses though.  It's not an easy camera to master and its shortcomings can sometimes be quite maddening.  I love the X100 in spite of its flaws, tolerating its quirks because of the images it gives me.

Any artist or craftsman should feel some sort of connection with the tools of his or her trade.  I feel it with my X100.  It's hard to describe.  I like the aesthetics of it, although  I haven't been a photographer for enough years to claim an attraction due to a sentimental connection with the retro style of cameras past.  It has an appealing look to me regardless.  However, in some cases I think form was chosen over function.  It's not a quick or easy camera to work with.  You have to take the time to learn how to operate it.  It can feel like a battle during the initial learning curve.  Sometimes the damned thing still flat out pisses me off.  But with perseverance, I feel like I've mastered it and the reward is stunning images.  It slows me down in a good way, making me think about what I'm capturing.  There is some sort of connection between man and machine, something that I've never really felt with my 5D.

My 5D feels like carrying a cinder block around after growing accustomed to shooting with my X100.  I'd love to ditch the big DSLR. Since its release early this year, the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 has had my attention and I'm seriously considering jumping ship.  An X100-like camera with interchangeable lenses?  Hell yeah, I'm interested!  But can the X-Pro 1 replace a DSLR?  I don't think so, at least not entirely.  Well, maybe.  It depends.

The chaos that is the camera store on a Saturday.  

The X-Pro 1's AF system isn't blazing fast in low light but I managed to catch this bored kid making eye contact.  35mm lens, f/3.2, 1/125, ISO 1600.  JPG straight out of camera.

My journey in photography is still in what I would consider an infancy.  Around 2 years?  A baby step.  Still, it's enough time to have experienced enough to have a much better idea of what I like.  I like prime lenses.  I like shooting stuff around town - urban landscapes I guess you'd call it.  While my introverted self prefers working with things over people, I'm growing to like shooting portraits, especially environmental portraits.  I'm not into landscapes or wildlife.  I don't do action stuff.  Don't ask me to shoot a wedding.  I have also learned what I'm willing to carry around.  After spending no small amount on various shoulder bags and backpacks, as well as different types of camera straps, I know one thing.  Carrying a DSLR rig sucks.  Moreover, I don't really "need" one - at least not for the way I've been shooting.

The problem is that until recently I felt like there was no feasible alternative to a DSLR for me.  I tried a compact camera with a small sensor (Canon S90, to be exact).  Convenient, but just not there on image quality - at least no where near DSLR quality.  I've tried a couple of different micro 4/3 cameras.  In spite of some wonderful options in lenses these days, the cameras just leave me wanting for more.  They are not bad, mind you.  In fact they are darn good.  I've had one of my images taken with an Olympus E-PL1 enlarged and hung in a gallery.  Still, there is just something about the image quality that isn't quite there for me.  I've taken some good pictures with them, but few that I truly fell in love with.  Had I never seen what my X100 can do, I might not have felt this way.  The images from the X100 have a certain silkiness to them.  The noise is like a fine film grain.  The difference really shows through at higher ISOs.  The images from the m4/3 cameras I've tried just looked less refined.  What can I say, I just dig what comes out of my X100.  From what I've seen in sample photos, including some I've taken myself at the local camera store, the Fujifilm X-Pro 1, the latest from the company and big brother to the X100, seems to have some of that magical quality as well.

Like the X100, the X-Pro 1 feels good in my hands.  It just fits.  It actually fits better than the X100.  It's a more comfortable larger size without being cumbersome.  It's light weight - lighter than it looks like it should be.  I tried other camera of similar abilities and form factor but there just wasn't a connection.  I tried to like the Olympus OM-D E-M5.  I like the look, sort of.  The retro SLR look is neat but it's too small for my hands.  It felt too toy like.  I grabbed some image samples.  They are were good images but...yeah, something about the look just doesn't grab me.  Meh.  I also looked at the Sony NEX-7.  I put it right back down.  It looks and feels like a prop stolen from the set of a Star Trek movie.  I've seen some great images from this camera but it's not for me.  I'm just not into Sony's styling.

The sales guy wouldn't let me take his picture.  He offered to take mine.  Clearly, I belong on the other side of the lens. 35mm, f/1.4, 1/30, ISO 200.  JPG straight out of camera.

So, the X-Pro 1 is a clear choice, right?  Sell off the DSLR stuff and live happily ever after.  I wish it were that simple.  I put up with a lot with my X100 because if worse comes to worse, I've got my reliable DSLR.  I've already had to send my X100 off for repair once for the dreaded sticking aperture blade problem.  Apart from that issue, the occurrence of which probably should have necessitated a recall IMO, there have been the software issues.  I don't know if Fuji even has a product test team.  If they do, they should all be fired.  As someone who has worked for over 15 years in hardware and software testing, the bugs that Fuji ships in the firmware of their cameras is appalling.  Disgraceful.  Their customers are their beta testers and that is total bullshit.  None of the X series have been what I would consider polished products out of the gate.  I waited months for the X100 code to be patched to the point of stability and usability before I bought mine.  Even then, it was another patch or three before I felt like it had finally reached a state that it should have been when it shipped.  We're talking damned near a year after shipping.  Still, I love that little camera!

To Fuji's credit, they seem to listen to their customers and things get fixed over time.  The question becomes why they didn't learn from the X100 experience when they shipped the X-Pro 1?   Damned if the X-Pro 1 doesn't exhibit similar glitches and annoyances as its predecessor.  WTF?  Auto-focus (AF) isn't Fuji's strongest area.  It sucked with the initial release of the X100 but after a number of firmware updates it's at a point now where I'd argue that it outperforms my 5D in most conditions that I work in. Maybe that's not saying much since the 5D's AF system is nothing to write home about itself, but I digress.  There are a lot of complaints about the X-Pro 1 AF system out there.  From my brief handling, I'd say it needs improvement.  It's probably not as bad as people make it out to be.  If they're going to call it a "Pro" I think they need some work.  I have no doubt it will get there.  I think I can live with it as it stands now, based on my limited in-store handling.  Fuji is asking $1700 for the body though.  Yeah, I expected the AF system to be better than mediocre.

The biggest problem I have with Fuji's release of the X-Pro 1 is the new RAW file format and the processing thereof.  Kudos to Fuji for thinking outside the box and producing an innovative new sensor.  Whether or not the new technology is of any significant benefit in the big picture (no pun intended) is another topic.  I like the idea because I believe Fuji's emphasis was truly on image quality over other silly pursuits like squeezing more pixels onto already crowded sensors.  Unfortunately, the implementation and lack of forethought as to how we're supposed to process the sensor's RAW output is disturbing.  I would like to think that a camera that they dare to call "Pro" with a brand new sensor format would have been developed with the involvement of Adobe at the very least.  Pros, at the least the ones I know, use Adobe products.  Some use Apple Aperture.  Whatever the case, Pros have an established workflow.  They are not going to take kindly to having to use software bundled with the camera to process RAW files.  For the first months of the X-Pro 1's time on the market, that's what you had to do. Adobe quickly stepped up to the plate and whipped out a version of Camera RAW that demosaics the files.  Great, except that there are issues such as color bleeding and poor detail rendering.  To be fair, unless you're pixel peeping like I tend to do, you may not even notice these things.  What irks me is that these things that could have been avoided or minimized had Fuji worked with Adobe to make this right from the start.  It's a brand new sensor array; a little planning and cooperation with the big players in the pro software segment was in order!

60mm, default conversion from RAW with Lightroom 4.1

100% crop from above RAW image (click to enlarge).  Small details like foliage and the SUV grill get smudged.

100% crop from camera JPG (click to enlarge).

There is no such thing as a perfect product.  Everything has its issues and choosing a camera involves deciding which compromises you can live with.  I get that.  Time to market is important in business.  Getting a product in front of customers before your competitors gives you a huge edge.  Tough decisions have to be made to make that happen.  I know, I work in the test industry.  A company's suits have to decide how bad the bugs are and what the fallout will be.  Today's technology products ship with bugs.  Sometimes hundreds of them.  It's a calculated risk - getting the product out there as best as you can before your competitors, knowing there will be some flaws, and hoping that you don't piss off your customers too badly.  You have to take things you read on the internet with a grain of salt but it does seem that Fuji has taken some serious black eyes over their initial offerings in the X camera series.  It's a shame because they are a wonderful concept and overall great tools.  Fuji is fixing things as they come up.  They should have fixed more before the cameras hit the market.  IMHO.

I'm not trying to rip on Fuji.  I like what they are doing.  They are innovating.  In a time when some companies still push for same old, same old like squeezing more pixels onto their sensors, Fuji has been working on getting the best image quality they can out of reasonably sized sensors in a body that lacks the heft and cost of a pro quality DSLR.  Things are changing rapidly in this industry and Fuji has a good chance of jumping out to the head of the pack if they can improve on the design and make the product more solid.  They are off to a pretty good start.  The X-Pro 1 image quality improves on the already fantastic X100, although the RAW processing issues need to be ironed out.  The lenses are looking great so far with a roadmap for even better choices over the next year.  I like where it's going and I want to be along for the ride.  For the time being though, I'm staying with my X100 and the ol' 5D.  I hope I don't have to wait too long.

Before I commit to jumping in with both feet on the X-Pro platform, I want to see the camera's software cleaned up some more.  Like the X100 before it, I think (hope) the X-Pro's AF system will become snappier with some firmware tweaks.  As I said previously, I waited a good while for the X100.  It's a shame that I feel like I have to but dammit, I find bugs in products for a living all day.  I don't want to do it with my camera at night.  RAW files...I don't want to use the bundled SilkyPix.  Fuji, please work with Adobe on better RAW conversion!  Seriously!  Oh, and hire some more people to test your cameras before you ship.  A few of your current testers might be better suited to another career.  Whatever the case, please put a bit more polish on your cameras before releasing them to the world, OK?

I'm also waiting for another lens or two.  If I'm going to replace my DSLR, I need more selection than the 3 X lenses Fuji has on the market so far.  The only one I'm really wanting at the moment is the 35mm.  I await the 14mm and the 55mm later this year and early next.  Those focal lengths on the X-Pro 1's crop body should be able to handle the type of stuff I shoot quite well.

Things may change before year end.  If the internet rumors can be believed, Canon may announce their own mirror-less camera (finally!) before the end of this month.  That could prove quite interesting.  Photokina, coming up in September may bring news of other competing products.  While I'm currently rooting for Fuji, perhaps their innovation is goading their competitors to follow suit.   That can only be a good thing for photographers.  The direction Fuji is headed is a breath of fresh air.  I hope they keep running with it.  I want to believe!