24 Aug 2014

Hands on with the Fujifilm XF1

I’ve been a Nikon camera user for nearly two decades—for the past eight years I’ve exclusively used their excellent DSLRs starting with their entry level D40 and adding their semi-professional D7000 a few years later.

Part of my day job is photographing people, events and medical procedures in a healthcare setting, and I take a great interest in photography in general. I love the full control DSLRs offer, the instant response of the controls, and the ability to optically view the scene through the lens to see exactly what the camera’s sensor will ‘see’.

The problem with DSLRs is the size (and weight) which limits their day-to-day usage in the real world. Even the ‘tiny’ D40 is nearly 1kg with the lens and there’s no way that’s going in anyone’s pocket (if you could squeeze it in, you’d be really happy to see everyone). The D7000 is heading towards 2kg with the lens and speedlight (flash)—nearly enough mass to have its own gravitational field.

There’s a cliché in photography circles—the best camera is the one in your pocket. Sadly that excludes DSLRs when you’re out and about doing the day-to-day. For me, if I can’t fit it in my pockets, it’s not coming along—I’ve never warmed to the ‘man bag’ thing.

That leaves my iPhone for everyday snaps, and it does quite all right... actually better than all right compared to many smartphone cameras, and indeed many cheap compact cameras.

The thing that puts me off compact cameras is the quality. I find most of them turn foliage into a smeary mess along the lines of a watercolour painting produced by a first year art student. Many also create halos of blue/purple (chromatic aberration) around high contrast areas, such as where the edge of a building meets the sky—even the iPhone camera exhibits this phenomenon due to its tiny lens and imaging sensor.

I did a bit of reading up on premium compact cameras as I wanted a camera superior to my iPhone but not much bigger in size. I also wanted something with quality approaching a DSLR, and a sufficient number of buttons and dials to easily adjust the settings without faffing about in the menu system. Something small enough to pocket on trips when I want to pack light and don’t want to worry about being responsible for £2,000 of kit.

When I was in a camera shop recently, I had a play with the various models on display. I found Nikon’s offerings in this category rather uninspiring, with the exception of the staggeringly expensive but gorgeous Coolpix A—out of my price range at £1,000. Yup, £1,000 or nearly double the cost of their entry level DSLR with a kit lens (to be fair it uses the same sensor as some of their professional cameras).

Canon, Samsung and Panasonic had cameras which were no more inspring. All perfectly capable, well built cameras, but none of them ‘spoke’ to me. The Sony RX series was a notably beautiful piece of kit, but with a starting price of £650 they were far more than I wanted to spend.

I fell in love with the highly rated Fujifilm XF1 which normally retails for £399 but was on offer at an amazing £129. A price cut like this is usually a sign that a successor is imminent, but this doesn’t negate the fact that I could get a premium camera at an entry level price. The XF1 comes wrapped in a red, tan or black leather-like material which doubles as the grip. The camera is capped top and bottom with aluminium and has a slightly retro, modern-classic feel to it. My mind said black, but my heart said tan—so I put in an order for the latter.

After only a couple days’ experience with the XF1—I’m still getting acquainted with its features and quirks—this is an unedited example of what I’ve been able to make it do:

Focal length 9.4mm, ƒ10, 1/16 sec, with flash

Considering the challenging shot (dark woodland contrasting with the bright lights on the bike and strong sunlight coming through the trees) the XF1 coped remarkably well and I was able to capture the slightly surrealistic scene accurately. So the XF1 hits the mark then—my iPhone could not have been coaxed to take a photo like this, but my D7000 would have been able to pull more detail out of the shaded trees.

The XF1 is about the size of an iPhone 4 in length and width, and 3x the thickness (or slightly more than an inch)—it feels as sturdy and as beautifully put together as you would expect from a Japanese camera maker. Many reviews complain about the power-on procedure but I don’t find this an issue—you turn the lens ring and pull out the lens. After doing it twice, it becomes second nature. To zoom, you manually turn the zoom ring on the lens. Easy.

Fujifilm XF1 (off position)
Fujifilm XF1 (on position)
Fujifilm XF1 screen and controls
Nikon D7000 with speedlight and Fujifilm XF1—two XF1s could fit inside the D7000 lens!
I won’t go into technical detail about the functionality of the XF1 as I am not a professional camera reviewer but will say there are enough buttons and dials to change settings such as exposure (and exposure compensation), aperture, ISO, flash compensation etc without having to dig through menus. As someone who always seems to tilt to the right when I take photos, I like the grid and horizon overlay features which I’ve not seen in a compact camera previously. Moving between Nikon and Fujifilm interfaces was painless as the menu system and options are similar.

The controls on the XF1 are responsive and there is no perceptible shutter lag—the camera snaps the photo precisely when the shutter button is pressed. The autofocus is very quick (as fast as my D7000) and accurate on the first try about 95% of the time. The camera has lens-based image stabilisation which works well for my somewhat shaky hands—plus, as the zoom is manual, the camera invites you to hold it with two hands like a DSLR, helping further to reduce shake.

I find that the XF1 (as with the D7000) tends to overexpose slightly in general, but this is easily remedied by bringing the exposure compensation down -1/3 or -2/3.

The XF1 has Fujifilm’s EXR engine which extends the dynamic range of the camera by bringing up shadows and reducing highlights, although I find it isn’t quite as effective as Nikon’s similar D-Lighting functionality. Then again, the camera cost 1/10 of the D7000.

In the dark woodland shot above, I capped the camera at ISO 800 and there was little noise in this, or in any of the other photographs. The combination of a fast lens (ƒ1.8) and large image sensor (2/3” compared to the class average of less than 1/2”) helps, but also the camera uses Fujifilm’s technique of doubling up the pixels on the sensor at high ISO settings to pick up more light—but this reduces the image size from 12mp to 6mp at ISO 1,600.

As with most cameras, the XF1 can record video. However, this isn’t a feature I use often and I’ve not tried yet with the camera. For video I usually use my GoPro attached to my helmet.

The XF1 has a good selection of scene modes and effects. For example, you can select black and white photos with a spot colour (red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple). I find it works well with pure colours (such as the red paintwork on my R1200GS), but not so well with a range of colours (green leaves). I’ve never really used camera effects as they aren’t appropriate when photographing surgical procedures or healthcare staff, but I can see the appeal when playing around.

Partial colour effect—red
Partial colour effect—green
Dynamic tone effect
Toy camera effect 
Tilt-shift (miniature) effect
I’m more than pleased with what the XF1 offers and it sits perfectly between my iPhone and my Nikon DSLRs. Considering the sale price of 1/3 the original, bringing it line with most bottom-of-the-range compact cameras, this camera was a steal. I can pocket it when I go on trips, with or without a bike, and without filling half of my small weekender suitcase with camera gear. The classic design fits perfectly in my hands and doesn’t try to be a fashion accessory—it is what it is, a minimalist camera with a surprisingly flexible set of features and capabilities.

I’ll leave you with a few more shots taken around Berkshire and Surrey over the past couple days. As always, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

R1200GS at old-school petrol station in Berkshire
R1200GS at old-school petrol station in Berkshire
F800GS at Old Simms Copse, Surrey
F800GS at Old Simms Copse, Surrey
F800GS at Sheepwalk Lane, Surrey
F800GS at Sheepwalk Lane, Surrey