We explore Fujifilm's new X-Pro1 mirror-less system camera and its many technical innovations
For photography fans at CES this week, the launch of Fujifilm's new X-Pro1 system camera has probably been the show highlight. The X-Pro1 is not just a new camera, it's a new system with three lenses to start off with and as you would expect from Fujifilm the X-Pro1 has a sensor that is a bit different from everyone else's. And this is no compact system camera for DSLR-shy photographers. The X-Pro1 is a comprehensively equipped 16 megapixel APS-C sensor pro-standard camera that is DSLR-sized for optimum handling. It also has a version of the novel switchable optical bright line and digital viewfinder first seen in the Fujifilm X-100. There is really nothing else quite like the X-Pro1.
Fujifilm has had an up and down history with system cameras. The company was formed in 1934 and was an established camera manufacturer by the 1950s. Its first system cameras were medium format roll film cameras with interchangeable lenses. Later the company introduced single lens reflex (SLR) cameras that used the universal M42 screw thread lens mount. The company used the Fujica camera brand and by the 1970s it produced SLR cameras with its own X-mount bayonet system for interchangeable Fujinon-branded lenses. But this was before the autofocus revolution and Fujifilm abandoned the Fujica SLR system in the mid-1980s. It wasn't until 15 years later that Fujifilm returned to system cameras using its digital FinePix brand with the Nikon-based S1 Pro digital SLR. Thus used Fujifilm's own unusual SuperCCD sensor technology, but Nikon's F60 film SLR camera body, with Nikon F-mount and Nikon exposure and focus system. Three more Nikon-based FinePix S-series models, which were popular among wedding photographers, were introduced by Fujifilm, the last being the S5 Pro in 2006.
It's fair to say that Fujifilm's absence from the system camera world since the S5 Pro eventually sparked a lot of speculation. Fujifilm was a member of the Four Thirds consortium that also included Olympus, Panasonic Lumix, Leica, and Sigma, but if Fujifilm did make a contribution to Four Thirds it was certainly a subtle one. There was hope that Fujifilm's SuperCCD technology might be used in Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras but that hope remains unfulfilled. When hints emerged that Fujifilm might enter the compact system camera category some wondered if the link to Four Thirds might spawn a Micro Four Thirds camera. With the arrival of the Nikon 1 compact system camera platform late last year, some speculated that we would see a Fujifilm-branded CSC compatible with the Nikon 1 system. However, the guesswork was left behind when we witnessed the launch of Fujifilm's new X-Pro1 system camera. It's a) not Micro Four Thirds or Nikon 1 compatible and b) it isn't even a compact system camera. FinePix branding is also absent.
The Fujifilm X-Pro1 is a full-sized camera with no pretensions of being particularly small or light. If you like the size and weight of a typical DSLR, the X-Pro1 will feel normal for you. Being a mirror-less design and Fujifilm not being tempted to to go full frame, X-mount lenses can be smaller than equivalent lenses for DSLRs, although it doesn't look like Fujifilm has made lens size a priority. Below is a roughly scaled size comparison with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR (top) and an Olympus Pen E-P1 compact system camera (below).:
Fujifilm X-Pro1 (left), Canon EOS 5D Mark II (right)
Fujifilm X-Pro1 (left), Olympus Pen E-P2 (right)
So, if you wanted Fujifilm to produce a compact system camera you might be disappointed. Nevertheless, CSCs do frustrate some photographers for being too small and fiddly. There should be no such complaints about the X-Pro1. The camera is designed to be gripped and operated securely and you can even opt for a larger hand grip if the standard one is too low-profile.
The X-Pro1 employs a new bayonet lens mount, also referred to as an 'X-mount' but is not compatible with Fujica-era X-mount lenses because the throat depth or flange-back distance is less than half that of the Fujica SLR X-mount. No doubt someone will produce a spacer adapter to enable old X-mount lenses to fit and I can confidently predict adapters for all sorts of other lenses too. Note the lever above and to one side of the the lens mount. It looks like an old-fashioned self-timer, but it actually switches the viewfinder between optical view and digital view.
Viewing the top plate there is a large retro-style shutter speed and exposure mode dial. This is complemented by a large exposure compensation dial. Incidentally, manual aperture selection is via an aperture ring on X-mount XF lenses, another appealing retro feature.
Once again, the buttons are large and generously spaced. The dials and adjustment wheel are subtly angled for comfortable operation. Fujifilm has emphasised the 'Made in Japan' status of the X-Pro1 and made this a prominent message on the back of the camera. SLR users will need to adapt to the off-set viewfinder eyepiece, but at least if you are right-eyed the back of the camera will be spared pressure from the end of your nose!
The X-Trans CMOS sensor
Conventionally, digital cameras use a sensor that employs an RGB (actually RGGB) bayer filter array to record colour and low pass or anti-aliasing filters in front of the sensor and behind the rear of the lens. A low pass filter is designed to deliberately blur the image in a controlled way in order to minimise moiré effects. This is where the array of pixels in the image produces an interference pattern when repeating image detail approaches the same frequency as the sensor's pixel array. Interference patterns like these can introduce nasty false colour artefacts and ruin significant areas of a picture. A strong low pass filter is very effective at preventing moiré but the cost is reduced resolution. In recent years there has been a tendency to reduce the strength of low pass filters and place more emphasis on moiré suppression elsewhere. Techniques include adaptations of the bayer filter array and low level image processing. Fujifilm's X-Trans sensor does away with a low pass filter altogether and the regular 2x2 RG+GB block of colours in the conventional bayer filter array has been replaced by a set of 6x6 colour blocks.
Conventional RGGB sensor bayer colour filter array of 2x2 pixels repeating
X-Trans RGGB sensor colour filter array using a less regular 6x6 array of coloured pixels
Fujifilm says that the modified colour filter arrangement was inspired by the randomness of silver halide grains in a film emulsion and is very effective at controlling moiré without sacrificing resolution. In the past Fujifilm claimed that their SuperCCD sensors delivered a higher resolution than other conventional sensors with the same pixel count. Sometimes the marketing message exaggerated the benefit, but most testers gave the claims for added SuperCCD resolution some credence. I can see that Fujifilm will be trying to sell us the same message and certainly on paper it seems that they may have a strong point. Benchtests will soon settle this question of course.
By extracting as much resolution as it can out of the lens, Fujifilm's engineers will claim that there is less need to use an extremely high pixel density. Sony, for example, crams 50% more pixels into its latest 24 megapixel APS-C sensors. Cramming pixels on the sensor can mean more noise and lower dynamic range, a problem that was not associated with Fujifilm's S-series DSLRs. Clearly, Fujifilm aims to continue that positive reputation. The maximum ISO setting for the X-Pro1 is 25600. Continuous high speed shooting is selectable between 3 and 6 frames per second.
X-mount XF lenses
For a sensor like the X-Trans to really fly, you need exceptionally good lenses. The signs are that a lot of care has gone into the design of the first three X-mount or 'XF' lenses for the X-Pro1. For example, the rear element of the XF 18mm (27mm equivalent) wide angle lens gets as close to the sensor surface as 11mm thanks to the elimination of the low pass filter. For some lens designs this small flange-back distance can reap dividends in optical performance.
All the lenses are of metal barrel construction and feature a dedicated manual aperture control ring. This complements the manual shutter speed dial on the camera body. All the lenses incorporate aspherical lens elements and the 60mm macro also uses ED glass. Noticeable by its absence at the start is a zoom lens. This signals a no-compromise attitude to image quality.
(Above) the XF 18mm f/2 R (27mm 135 format equivalent) wide angle lens.
(Above) the XF 35mm f/1.4 R (53mm 135 format equivalent) standard lens.
(Above) the XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro (91mm 135 format equivalent) macro and short telephoto/portrait lens.
One innovation introduced in the FinePix X100, sensor-based TTL phase detect autofocus, is absent from the X-Pro1. Only conventional contrast detect focus detection via the main sensor is used. The X-Pro1 is not aimed at action photography applications and contrast detect focusing now works very effectively in other cameras so there shouldn't be much to be concerned about there.
Hybrid optical/digital viewfinder
Finally, we come to the X-Pro1's trick viewfinder. Like the Fujifilm FinePix X100, you have the switchable choice of a parallax bright line optical view or a TTL 1.44 million dot digital mode. Sony has set the standard with the introduction of its excellent OLED XGA (1024x768 pixel) electronic viewfinder, so it's a little disappointing that the X-Pro1 makes do with less a exotic SVGA (800x600 pixel) LCD electronic viewfinder, of which similar examples have been around for over three years now.
The X100's optical viewfinder only has to cope with a fixed single focal length lens, but the X-Pro1 needs to work with lenses of different focal lengths. There are two modes; Wide and Standard, automatically selected according to the lens fitted. The XF 18mm lens works in Wide mode. The bright line frame claims most of the field of view as you would expect, although there is still a generous border. Fit the XF 35mm lens and the framed area, this time in Standard mode, is much the same as the 18mm in Wide mode. Of course the view is magnified compared to Wide mode. However, if you then fit the XF 60mm lens, the view remains at Standard mode magnification and the bright line frame simply shrinks to match the area covered by the lens. Most of the status information, like exposure bias, image capacity remaining, shutter speed and aperture set, battery status and image size/compression mode, is visible in optical mode. You will only see a live histogram in digital mode.
This article is not a review so we can't say for sure how good the X-Pro1 is. But looking at what we do know about the camera and the reception it has already earned from journalists and photographers alike, the X-Pro1 looks mighty appealing. Fujifilm has masterfully taken state of the art technologies and built them into a high-tech package that also benefits seriously from functional retro design cues. The X-Pro1 is different and not just for the sake of being so. I can't wait to put the X-Pro1 through its paces!
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Fujifilm's new X-Pro1 mirror-less system camera previewed
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