At the moment, neither the Meg nor the Nathan are hitting the trails as much as they would like. Still, when they get the chance, they strap on their cleats, or their boots, and take the picnic to the squirrels. Naturally, in celebration of Japan’s Golden Week, they hit up Disneyland—
—I mean, we conquered the bush in the mountainous region of Myuokou Kougen... where the flowers were pretty, the air was refreshing, and, mercifully, the beer wasn't Asahi. My wife carried my favourite non-Leica mirrorless camera, the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. Her fatty was the Fujifilm XF 35/1,4 R lens; I hauled a gaggle of my favourite Nikkors, a Speedbooster, and my newly-acquired Fujifilm X-T1.
I have this to say of my new camera: it is far more responsive than the X-Pro 1, and for the most part, more robust. But it is plagued by a few very hairy boners.
- the self-opening SD card door
- the self-opening interface port door
- the self-switching metering/drive command dials
- the impossible-to-press rear control pad
On paper, the X-T1's cascading drive/meter dials look great. In use, they are a disaster. Why? The ISO dial locks at ever step, meaning that to adjust it, you have to depress its nipple and crank the dial. Most of the pressure necessary is exerted downward, onto the drive mode dial. The good news is that you never will inadvertently change form ISO 200 to ISO 6400. You will, however, turn the drive mode below. Many times. Last week's hike saw it happen at least a dozen times. At an in-use earphone shoot today, it happened at least five times. The more you use the ISO dial, the more you will inadvertently turn the drive mode dial underneath.
Why not lock the mode dial underneath? Drive modes are handled less often than ISO. Why not lock it with a twist-and-pull dial like on the Nikon FE's exposure comp dial? That would ensure that it never is accidentally bumped, that you never accidentally switch into the JPEG modes of Panorama, Double Exposure, and ADV. While my fingers may be clumsy, the failure in design is far more egregious.
The flappy interface doors are less bothersome, but are a glaring miss for a camera that costs as much as the X-T1 does. Most mirrorless cameras get the flaps wrong. The Sony A7r’s interface doors are made of brittle plastic. It’s no secret that I dislike the that camera. The X-Pro 1’s doors are little better. The X-T1 at least puts a flexible door over its interface port. Unfortunately, its design, too, is poor. Its hinges are too small and its insertion flange too shallow to ensure a good seal. The thing pops open at the slightest of rubs. The workmanship of both is poor. Gaps form in the centre of both the interface door and the SD card. The latter lacks a proper friction catch and slides open at the barest of tugs. Tape, it seems, is the only way to fix this boner.
Frequent users of either the USB or the 2,5mm port will find that the interface flap will wear out and no longer stick to the X-T1. Likewise, the SD card flap will lose what little friction it has.
The good news is that, for hiking, the X-T1 is a far better camera than the X-Pro 1. It’s bottom plate is robust. Like the A7r, the X-Pro 1 plate is prone to crack. The biggest improvement, however is its EVF, which both refreshes faster, and which is larger, brighter, and easier to frame with. The only gotcha is that because it is larger, the benefits of its higher resolution are mostly obviated by merely okay pixel-per-square-mm density. In fact, without using focusing aids, I find the X-Pro 1’s low resolution screen to show better edge contrast when focusing non-XF lenses. Of course, the X-Pro 1 lacks the X-T1’s incredible split screen magnifier. (That thing is an incredible time saver.) I am almost embarrassed to say it, but it’s true: I find the tilting LCD great for low down and high up shooting.
Also, when using legacy lenses, battery life is better. The X-Pro 1 writes to card at a crawl. The same 30mb/s card (fast by no measure today) handles a burst of 8 RAW frames from the X-T1 without hump. The X-Pro 1, on the other hand, takes seconds to write even two or three RAW frames on today's fastest SD cards. Even engaging the X-Pro 1's magnifier to ensure sharp focus is hit and miss. Its slow reaction time, slow writing time, and general sluggishness affect battery life, especially when constantly engaging the focusing aids necessary when using non XF lenses.
I have used a Hawk's Factory helicoid adapter and Leica M and LTM M39 lenses from the day I picked up my X-Pro 1. Visually, they complete the look Fujifilm were aiming for better than do native XF lenses, which, generally, mimic the ergonomics and styling of SLR lenses. They are light. But apart from the 18mm and the 27mm, I find their design clunky. And aside from the two lenses mentioned above, they are much larger than equivalent lenses in Leica LTM or M mounts. In fact, when multiplying based on equivalent DOF and field of view, XF lenses generally are larger than their full frame Ai/S Nikkor forebears.
Of course, by putting M and LTM lenses on a glassless helicoid adapter, my wide angle Elmarit 28 shoots similarly to a 42mm lens. I'm not about to purchase an 18mm Leica lens just to have an equivalent 28mm wide angle for my helicoid adapter.
And similarly to my dismissal of the XF lens styling, putting SLR lenses on the X-Pro 1 really ruins the careful lines the X-Pro 1 boasts. The corollary is I that besides not having a wide angle for my X-T1, I find that LTM and M lenses match the camera's lines less well than do fluted SLR lenses. Thus, the expensive Speedbooster.
I plug the X-T1 with Nikon Ai/S and pre-Ai lenses. They do pretty much everything I need. And even the oldest of them (the 85mm pre-Ai Nikkor) is sharp and contrasty enough for every one of my uses. I won't buy into the XF mount until it has proved itself reliable for a decade or so, and/or can do things like trap focus. I would love to, but the current state of Fuji XF lenses is a fastly spiralling price trend. The same goes for the bodies. When Fujifilm can bolster its line with firm prices and sustain an excited market, XF lenses may join my stable.
My X-Pro 1 was purchased for 850$ or so a mere year after debuting at Leica T prices. Such wholesaling of the system freaks me out.
Last year, I hiked British Columbia’s beautiful Yoho National Park with a 12/5,6 Voightlander VM, a 35/2,8 Zeiss ZM, and a 105/2,6 LTM Nikkor for my X-Pro 1. Except for the Nikkor, the lenses were compact and light. But the 12mm was too wide for me and the 105 suffered too much from internal reflections.
The biggest downside to using a Speedbooster is its weight. Much of the weight and volume savings one gains from using an X-T1 instead of a D800 is obviated by the Speedbooster. That, and the X-T1 sucks down batteries. The D800 lasts two full days of careful RAW shooting on a single battery. Carefully shooting RAW, the X-T1 can suck down three batteries in a day. X-T1 plus charger and three or four batteries plus a Speedbooster still is lighter than the D800 by a hundred grams or so, but is far more fiddly.
Thanks to the excellent focus aids in the X-T1, focusing wide-open adapted lenses is breeze. In fact, as long as the action isn't too intense, it is faster and more accurate to use the X-T1 than it is to use the D800 and magnifying eyepiece. And because you are looking through an EVF rather than a reflective optical tunnel, you can shoot straight into the sun without hurting your eyes. I now shoot more sun-in-frame photographs than ever.
The first area where the X-T1 slows operations is when shooting a stopped-down lens. On its native mount, an SLR lens focuses wide open, allowing you to pinpoint a focus point and isolate the highest contrast. Prior to taking the exposure, the camera closes the lens down. Brilliant. When used on an adapter, there is no such luxury. Focusing a stopped-down lens is less accurate because everything appears to be in focus. That, and the EVF's gain rises for each stop. In dark situations, even the X-T1's EVF stutters when shooting wide-open lenses. When focusing stopped down lenses, it becomes choppy.
Fortunately, a hobby landscaper like me has a lot of time. Stopped down focusing isn't a problem. Neither is stutter. I always bring a proper tripod and I always use it.
The best news is that the X-T1 feels right at home in the hand. It is very like handling a grip-modded Nikon FE. Small hands will love the feel of the grip. My wife vastly prefers the X-T1 to the X-Pro 1, which she says hurts her fingers. For the long-fingered, slim-handed organic setup I was born with, the X-T1’s grip forces me to hold the camera in a single, prescribed manner. Grip-less cameras like the FE and to a lesser extent, the X-Pro 1, allow me to wrap my hands around the camera in a variety of ways, all of which I find wonderfully comfortable. At the eye and ready for exposure, the X-Pro 1 is more secure in my hands; the X-T1, by contrast, is more secure when dangling from the hand. Choose your poison.
Lugging it all
I’m a simple man, opting for a single canvas strap rather than a complex holster. I shove all my gear into a Deuter Guide 35+ rock-climbing backpack. My Gitzo 3-series carbon fibre tripod goes where the skis should, snug against my body. The tripod head I use is the Sunwayfoto FB-44. Why? Because it is fairly light, accurate, and robust. It has its own set of niggles, but none that put me out when shooting a mirrorless system. But no matter how heavy my setup gets, this backpack never pitches aft or fore. Backpacks designed to tote cameras do. The rest of the heavy stuff affixes to my upper back on top of our lunch, rain gear, extra warm clothes, safety gear, gloves, etc. I have used this setup for hiking in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Korea, and Japan since 2011. I would never, ever, trade it for a camera bag.
I do not expect to take the camera out at the blink of an eye. I expect to haul a fairly heavy load for long distances up several thousand metres of elevation and back down the same. I expect to hit rocky, slippery, ankle-bending terrain. I expect to be sweating and tired. And at the end of the day, I expect my back to be perfectly free of kinks and the weight to rest pretty much on my hips and as close to my body as possible. No camera bag out there is good for the body. And I care about the body far more than I care about whipping my camera out in a second to shoot a deer’s ass.
The best part of using the X system, even with adapted lenses, is that it still takes up less space in the pack.
Above, I noted that the split-screen magnifier is great for achieving accurate, fast, wide-open focus. I’ve used it to shoot events at the British Embassy in Tokyo, headphone shows, geeky valve-audio gatherings, and the like, where sharp enough and a sense of movement are part of the signature. For my hobby landscape photography, I find the system just fine.
For still life, neither the X-Pro 1 nor the X-T1 are much good at all. The main reason is that ad hoc focus magnification is impossible. I have changed the four main navigation buttons to adjust focus, which saves several seconds and a lot of fumbling. But once zoomed in, I cannot slide the focus around to check nearby areas without first zooming out, changing the focus area, and then zooming in again. Even the D800, whose poor live view I deem poor for still life photography, is far better at checking focus, especially when on rote magazine shoots.
Since picking up the X-Pro 1, I found that I tend to shoot wide open far more often than I do on my D800, FE, or Canon P. Again, it is because stopped-down focusing both slows the EVF and labours the precision of my focus. My wife seems to prefer my new, wide-open shooting. I'm not convinced.
Some day, I hope a clever manufacturer can incorporate the proper contacts to allow chipped SLR lenses to respond to a mirrorless camera’s input. I rather think I’m dreaming.
For hobby hiking photography with manual lenses, my experience with the X-T1 has been a dream. It is easy to use, compact, and fast on its feet. It is more robust than the X-Pro 1. It takes a fraction of a second to wake and less time to snap and record an image. Its underlying technology mostly disappears. But its numerous — and hairy — hardware boners get in the way of a truly stable hiking experience. Each one proves that as good as mirrorless cameras have become, they have yet to achieve the stability, reliability, and construction quality of a good dSLRs.
The X-T1 is sexy to look at, and, for the most part, it is sexy to shoot. The complaints I have regarding EVF lag in low light may disappear as technology progresses. The flappy doors, and the slippy, sloppy, drive mode and metering dials should never have surfaced. My hope is that the next X-T camera will right all the hardware wrongs of the XT-1 while keeping the size, feel, and basic handling elements that make it an simple camera to operate.
NOTE: Just to be clear, I am an advertising photographer specialising in audiophile stuff. Landscapes are just a hobby for me, and one for which I lack the grace and eye of a true landscape photographer. Also note that I do not use XF lenses and cannot comment on auto focus. This article isn't about fashion photographer or wedding photography. It isn't an article meant to prove anything from a fan's perspective. It is an article detailing some of the hits and misses of the X-T1's design when used with non-XF SLR lenses when out in nature.
Unfortunately, the weather (and an officious ranger) kept my wife and I off the best trails around Myoukou Kougen. The photographs in this article illustrate everything from nature to the cafe we passed on the way back to our train. Though we had fun, I can't say we laboured too much along the 15 kilometres of dirt and tarmac.