For the past two years I’ve been trying to find an alternative to heavy DSLR gear without sacrificing quality or handleability. I travel a lot and even a medium-weight DSLR such as my Nikon D7000 and a couple of lenses can be very bulky and heavy.
The increasingly popular mirrorless cameras offer through-the-lens composition without the bulk of the mirror and prism. And, since the lens sits nearer to the sensor, the interchangeable lenses can also be made smaller.
This new breed of camera has been fascinating me over the past couple of years. I’ve been fortunate enough to try out several models from Panasonic, Olympus and Nikon. But, until recently, nothing satisfied me as a potential DSLR replacement. All were excellent cameras, but I regarded them as an addition to my stable rather than a replacement.
One important factor is sensor size and resulting image quality. The smaller the sensor, the more difficult is it to capture the level of detail possible with full-frame 35mm cameras such as Nikon’s and Canon’s pro ranges. Even lower-end consumer DSLRs have much larger sensors than most of the mirrorless cameras on the market.
Sony’s well-received NEX-7 mirrorless does have a full APS-C sensor, in common with entry-level SLRs, and it is a worthy contender. However, it is limited to an electronic viewfinder. Although it’s a superb example of the genre, it is not as instant or bright as, say, a viewfinder on a DSLR. I would certainly consider the Sony if you are looking for a small, high-performance mirrorless camera. For my part, I have an irrational antipathy to Sony products, probably because I was abused by a Betamax video recorder at a tender age.
Fuji X-Pro 1
I have now found a camera that does stand a chance of supplanting my Nikon D7000. The new Fuji X-Pro 1 is a great looking retro camera styled on rangefinder rather than SLR lines. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Leica’s M9. The Fuji has a 16Mp APS-C sensor, similar in size to those in consumer DSLRs, but is of a new Fuji design which the company claims can equal the results achievable with professional full-frame DSLRs.
Unlike most mirrorless cameras, which are aimed at consumers wishing to upgrade from a simple point-and-shoot, the X-Pro 1 is targeted squarely at the enthusiast who knows his way around a camera (or, at least, thinks he does). And just to set the record straight, I regard myself as an enthusiastic amateur, over-equipped and under-talented.
The controls offer all the main adjustments without having to rummage through menus; and the unique hybrid viewfinder (first seen on last year’s successful X100), provides the option of either a through-the-lens electronic image or a live and very bright optical view similar to that found in high-end rangefinders such as the Leica.
All three lenses have an aperture control ring which is used in conjunction with the shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. Both lens and speed dial have an A for automatic setting. Moving away from A on the lens achieves aperture priority, while leaving the lens on A and moving the speed dial to a specific setting achieves shutter speed priority.
It’s very simple and preferable to the PASM control now found on most cameras. If you leave both lens and shutter control on A you have a fully automatic camera, equivalent to the auto or program mode on DSLRs
Incidentally, there are no fancy scene controls so you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of the effects of aperture and speed settings if you wish to stray from full auto. I’ve had a number of cameras with scene controls and have to say I have never used the shortcuts.
New way to view
The ergonomics of the X-Pro 1 are superb and the optical viewfinder is outstanding, particularly when used in autofocus mode. Manual focus is less rewarding because fine adjustment necessitates a quick flip to a zoomed electronic image.
However, the optical viewfinder does not have the easy and accurate manual focus you’ll find in a Leica (where two images are synchronised to achieve perfect focus). I have discovered already that if I want to use manual focus it is preferable to select the electronic viewfinder.
That said, the hybrid optical viewfinder on this camera is a masterpiece. Up to 11 information parameters, including an accurate horizon level, can be specified. They appear in an electronic overlay without affecting the brightness of the view. You can, if you wish, dispense with all this information and return to a simple optical view.
As with all rangefinder optical viewfinders, there is some parallax error, particularly with close subjects, but it is easy to switch to the EVF for an accurate view. The EVF is almost essential for macro shots.
I particularly appreciate the way the OVF provides a quick automatic switch to the electronic view of the last picture taken. There is little need to use the rear screen on this camera. And, unlike with a Leica M9, you can see what you are getting without having to go to the rear screen.
The electronic viewfinder, selected by a lever on the front of the camera, next to the index finger, is as good as I’ve seen on, say, Nikon’s V1. Again, you can select as many or as few bits of information you wish to display. The EVF is by no means as bright as the optical viewfinder, but it does show an accurate through-the-lens view. As such it is very useful for macro mode and for checking focus and depth of field when in manual focus mode. Like me, though, you will probably spend most of your time with the OVF because it is so big and bright. It’s also ever ready with none of that irritating delay that you expect with an electronic viewfinder. After using an SLR viewfinder the split-second startup delay of an electronic finder drives me crazy.
A word of warning if you want to collect your camera from the store and get clicking immediately. The viewfinder has no optical adjustment for eyesight and it is necessary to buy an additional screw-in lens. I had difficulty finding one; it seemed everywhere was out of stock. As a result, the camera was unusable for a couple of days except by using the rear screen. Everything through the viewfinder looked out of focus. Eventually I tracked down a lens at a specialist Nikon store, Grays of Westminster, and left £25 the lighter. Now I can see to focus.
Superb normal lens
In keeping with its professional pretensions, the X-Pro system at launch includes three very bright prime (non-zoom) lenses. Most of the mirrorless opposition has opted for slow zooms to attract the upgraders: Must have a zoom to zoom in and out like crazy and look like a pro. I am led to believe that experienced photographers tend to prefer the optical quality and low-light performance of prime lenses. Instead of zooming they get off their backsides and move the camera in the required direction.
In this respect, a small prime lens looks far less obtrusive than a big zoom; and, in most cases, it is capable of producing better results. It’s best not to be obsessed by size.
The new Fujinon FX system lens lineup consists of an 18mm f/2, a 35mm ASPH f/1.4 and a 60mm f/2.4 medium tele macro. Since the XF system with its APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.52 (similar to most consumer DSLRs), these three lenses have equivalent angles of view of ~28mm, ~50mm and ~90mm on a 35mm camera. If you want to be pernickety, the 35mm equates actually to 53.2, but forget that. Think of it as 50mm.
So far I have been greatly impressed with the results, particular from the 35mm f/1.4. The effective 50mm focal length is the ideal “normal” for everyday photography. Time was when a 50mm lens was all most people had, and some of the best classic photography of the past fifty years, particularly using the Leica M system, has been done at 50mm. This Fujinon is an absolute gem of a 50mm-equivalent lens.
Photo guru and blogger, Ken Rockwell, appears to be stunned by the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 and even allows the L word into his initial impressions: “This Fuji normal lens is as good or better than LEICA’s best: ultrasharp even at f/1.4 right out to the edges, and devoid of distortion.” Who am I to disagree? All I know is that this is a fantastic lens and turns the X-Pro 1 into a surefire candidate to replace heavy and cumbersome DSLR equipment.
For my kind of photography, which is largely street work, portraiture and landscape, with a smidgeon of product snapping, the Fuji is proving unbeatable. Only if I wanted to capture sports or other fast-moving subjects, or major on video, (which I seldom do) would a DSLR prove better. The Fuji’s autofocus system is relatively slow, it has to be said, but I have not experienced any problems so far. Autofocus accuracy is good.
It is early days and I have the whole summer to test the Fuji. So far, I am extremely enthusiastic. I love this camera. I have already sold my Nikon D7000, because the D7100 must be just around the corner. So at the moment I have a stack of lenses and no camera body.
If I still have a hankering to own a heavy DSLR (but not for travelling), I will consider Nikon’s new D800 full-frame body to go with my existing lenses. By that time the price should have come down a little. I could even decide on a D7100 but will wait to see the release. At the moment, I am not sure if I do want another DSLR. The ability to save on weight and size with the Fuji, while producing similar results, is important to me. In the meantime check out Ken Rockwell’s under-construction review of the Fuji X-Pro 1: Better than Leica. This is sure to be seen as sacrilege by Leica fangramps and we can stand by for imminent blasting.
Finally, if you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Wacky Wong, Kai Wong of DigitalRev TV, have a gander at this: