Friday, October 2, 2015

The Fuji X-Pro1. Third Time's a Charm?

When the Fuji X-Pro1 came out, like many others I thought, "this is it, the poor man's Leica!" How wrong we were. This is the third time I've bought a Fuji X-Pro1! First one I had was running v.1 firmware with the 18-55mm kit lens and it was as unresponsive as the worst point and shoot I ever owned. I always felt like I was launching a missile attack using an old Commodore 64 and losing the war. I also didn't like using my Leica glass with an EVF. So, I sold it. Later firmware v.3 came out and was supposed to speed up the AF to "near DSLR" speed. I bought another with the kit. The Fuji camp really over estimated the AF speed on that one. Sold that one too. I was basically over the Fuji X craze. My Leica M9-P was the perfect shooting machine. A camera that got the hell out of the way and let me do what I do best, make photographs. I amassed a good collection of Leica and other various M-mount lenses and I went happily along shooting my M9-P for both work and pleasure.

No matter what anyone thinks, all Leica shooters are not doctors, lawyers, sheiks, famous people, and rich collectors. Some photographers, like me, saved up by working our asses off to buy these cameras. Some photographers, like me, use their Leicas to make money. Some, like me, even use them hard. 

When my M9-P took a severe hit, the vertical alignment of the rangefinder mechanism was knocked way out. I had to send it in to get repaired so I figured I'd get the sensor upgrade while I was at it because I was getting some pretty bad artifacts shooting stopped down and with lenses 28mm or wider. I had a backup M8 at one time, but I sold it to fund a lens, and me not being rich couldn't afford to buy another M9-P or even to do the discounted upgrade to the M-P (240). The repair wait time is pretty long so I decided I needed a stop-gap camera to get me by. I didn't want to spend more than $400 because this was a temporary camera just to use my M-lenses with. The first camera on my radar was the X-E1. No OVF, but I didn't need that because M-lenses don't use OVF. The XE-1 was also going for about $300. Sounded right. I did some research and found that the X-E1 had a better EVF, but slower refresh rate, and the LCD was smaller with less resolution than the X-Pro1. The Pro was more expensive, but I found one for $336 and decided to jump on it (of course since it had an OVF I also bought a Fuji 18mm f/2 for $300 getting me in over what I wanted to spend, but that's another story). I was determined to make this camera work for me this time.

I decided to do this write-up because I know there are people out there looking to get into the Fuji X-System at a good price. These cameras are still relevant, but the reviews are mostly outdated. I did a lot of research and found nothing but old news, lots of praise for a camera that was groundbreaking in 2012, but not really applicable to the camera near the end of 2015. In many ways this write-up will apply to the X-E1 as well with the omission of the OVF. And I hope that it can help some people looking to get into the system on a budget.

Today I took to the streets with the Fuji X-Pro1 and a 1935 Leitz 50mm Summar f/2 collapsible and the Fuji XF-18mm f/2 R to give it a good test run on some serious street shooting. I'd been shooting it around the house, but wanted to run it through the paces. Keep in mind I use my Leica to shoot concerts, sports, street, and portraiture. I'm pretty adept at manual focusing quickly.

Given adequate time to focus and compose (without the subject noticing you) you can capture a nice candid image

Here are my thoughts on my experience on really getting down to some street shooting. I hit downtown Austin because I knew it would be packed with tourists in for the ACL Music Festival.

The learning curve of shooting street with a real vintage Leica lens and a Fuji X-Pro1 is steep. The focus peaking is almost nonexistent without using the zoom feature, but the zoom amplifies camera shake and makes it difficult compose on the fly because you lose the composition, plus you have to move the AF point to where you want to zoom in on the focus. It's hard to be quick to shoot and catch the moment especially shooting wide open because of the length of time it takes to get focus and composition perfect. The other problem is the display. I found myself constantly trying to remember which button to push to do what. I want to conserve battery power so I turn eye-sensor off, but I want to review the image on the LCD so I have to press a button again, look at the image, then remember to press it again to get back to my preferred setting.

My assessment so far is that it's a terrible street camera. I missed more shots than I got. Basically nailing a sharp image wide open is more luck than skill. I know some people will completely disagree with me, but this is just my own observation and as I said, I'm very adept with manual focus lenses.

I was lucky to nail two in focus images of this delivery man moving towards me at a fast pace. The contrast was so high the focus peaking was useless and I was shooting at f/2. You can also see the distinct lack of contrast from the older glass. 
The other thing about using vintage Leica lenses in the Fuji is that some of the character of the glass comes through, but it doesn't translate well with the X-Trans sensor, especially in black and white. This '35 Summar just shines on my M9-P, but the X-Pro1 makes everything flat and dull. The lens loses it's Leica "glow" and really takes on the look of veiling flare. With a bit of post-production the images can be made to pop, but it never gets that "Leica look". With color images you can get a nice "VSCO film" feel to it, but it doesn't have the organic feel that a digital Leica (especially a CCD sensor) does. Yes, this is a really old lens (80 years old!), but it was sent back to the factory in the 50's for coating and the glass is immaculate. This is just my assessment on this particular lens. I'll check back in when I test out some newer glass. My Voigtländer 35mm f/1.2 ASPH v.2 is in the shop, and I feel that it may work a little better with it. Meanwhile I'll check my '73 50mm Lux and a CV 28mm Ultron. I have a feeling my '39 90mm Elmar and my '67 50mm Jupiter-8 are going to act similar to the Summar.

Shooting the X-Pro1 using the standard Provia setting with the old Summar gives a nice subdued color to some photos not unlike a film simulation plug-in like VSCO. 
I will admit that stopping the lens down sharpens up the image a lot and increases the contrast, but you lose the vintage Leica look which is why you adapt the lenses in the first place, right? Left at f/2. Right at about f/12.5

Moving on, I brought out the Fuji XF-18mm f/2 as well. This lens, while not the best, really shows what the X-trans sensor can do (even though the lens is quite chattery). The colors pop and the images are pretty sharp. The problem that comes up is not really the slow focus, but the fact you have to press a button to to move the focus point and when you half-press you have to press the button again to access the focus points. That slows me down more than the CDAF. If there were some way to bring the focus point selection screen back up after releasing a half-press that would speed AF up immensely by letting me move the AF point more fluidly (like a DSLR). It's not just about CDAF and PDAF it's about implementation as well. Focus/Recompose really doesn't work well with the 18mm f/2 because of the immense field curvature and if the subject is moving they're out of your focus range before the shutter clicks. This leaves you with two options. Guess where the subject is going to be, lock focus, and shoot when they step in or close down the aperture and hope there's enough DoF to cover any errors (basically zone focus without the aid of a real DoF scale on the lens). I like to shoot wide open so neither of these works well for me.

You can see the marked improvement in color and contrast when switching over to the XF-18mm f/2. The only downside is that I caught no photos of the fireman at work because I couldn't get the focus point where I needed it fast enough and the lens just couldn't keep up with the movement. 

There are a few things I DO like about the X-Pro1. The OVF/EVF hybrid. Using the EVF in bright sun is almost impossible. The OVF makes it super easy to see what's happening once you clear all of the extraneous info junk off the screen. I like the histogram, but the rest of it can go. The camera is light. Much lighter than my Leica. It doesn't feel as solid as my Leica, but it doesn't feel cheap. The shutter is almost silent, not like the ka-thunk from the M9-P. Similar to the Leica it attracts some attention from camera fans and I don't mind chatting about cameras so that's fun. The image quality is pretty good. It definitely bests the Leica M9-P in high ISO, but the way the sensor renders feels a bit sterile to me. I was hoping the vintage glass would help knock the edge off, but it really didn't complement the vintage lens at all.

The black and white mode is great if you tweak the settings a little to add contrast. I found it to be a little flat out of the box. I also had to remove quite a bit a barrel distortion from the 18mm f/2 in post. 

Yes, I am aware that this camera is well over 3 years old and that's ancient in camera years, but I don't think many of the real issues will be fixed with an X-Pro2.

As I mentioned, the focus speed is less of a problem than getting the focus point where you need it to be quickly whether you're focusing manually or using AF. I doubt they will change that. I think the sensor is just fine if a little to "digital" looking for my taste. The EVF is OK, even if it were better like the XT-1 it wouldn't really change things all that much for practical shooting. There are too many buttons and they're in places that are easy to accidentally press, and I doubt they'll take away buttons on a newer model. If anything they'll probably add more.

Sharp, detailed, with great color. You will get that with Fuji lenses. Unfortunately, I wasn't able so successfully capture a moving subject using AF. 

The Fuji X-Pro1 is not a poor man's Leica. It's an entirely different experience. It's like flying a fighter jet compared to a single engine prop plane. As I mentioned the learning curve on these cameras is steep. You're talking to someone who has written dozens of books on many different cameras. Give me a DSLR and I can have it shooting the way I want to in 5 minutes. I'm pretty much able to master all the settings on any Nikon or Canon camera in about 30 minutes. The Fuji menus are so goofy and the user interface is so complicated I feel frustrated using it. And to clarify I've also used the X-E1, X-E2, X100s/t, X-T1 and X-T10. No matter how fast the AF gets on the new cameras the user interface is not intuitive to me and that slows me down. And not in a good way. In a frustrating way. My Leica M9-P isn't due back for at least a couple of months so that will give me a lot more time to get to know this Fuji better. I'll give an update in a few more weeks to see if things have changed (if I haven't given up and gone back to my Df).

*disclaimer: This isn't an anti-Fuji rant. These are the musings of an experienced Nikon and Leica photographer. I chose the X-Pro1 because of the low price and the ability to used my Leica lenses with a "rangefinder styled" camera. 

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