Fujifilm FinePix XF1 Digital Camera Review
Fuji makes a few missteps in bringing the prestigious X series to the masses.
For most of the early digital age, Fujifilm was at best a bit player in the camera industry. Sure, it wasn’t as much of a disaster as Kodak, but circa 2009 most consumers knew the company for pumping out staggering numbers of cheap, forgettable point-and-shoots. But in 2010, this situation changed virtually overnight with the introduction of the decidedly memorable X100. This large-sensor, fixed-lens model was soon followed by the X-Pro1 system camera and small-sensor X10, cementing the X-series as a major force in the enthusiast market.
Now it's 2013 and larger manufacturers are falling all over themselves trying to carve out a piece of Fuji’s pie. Sony has fired a big, expensive shot with its full-frame RX1, while Nikon's recently announced Coolpix A is taking dead aim at the updated Fuji X100S. Fuji, meanwhile, is looking in the other direction, hoping to steal some market share from cameras like the Canon S110 and Panasonic LX7.
Enter the Fujifilm FinePix XF1 (MSRP $499.95), which inherits the X10’s larger-than-average 2/3-inch sensor and eye-catching retro styling, but slims down its chunky proportions to a pocketable profile and simplifies its interface. An unusual collapsible mechanical zoom lens and innovative E-Fn control system are intriguing features, but the question remains: Can the XF1 bring Fuji's rehabilitated brand to the masses?
The XF1's admirable design goals produce mixed operational results.
With the XF1, Fujifilm's designers have followed the same path that brought them such success with the X100 and X-Pro1. The metal and (synthetic) leather design immediately recalls film cameras of the 60s and 70s. Adding to the effect is the presence of a physical zoom lens. It's a great addition in that it makes zooming far simpler and more precise, but at the same time it feels cheaply made—not nearly as smooth as the similar mechanism on the X10. (More on that later.)
The XF1 also lacks the kind of heft you'd expect from a metal and leather camera. The first time we picked it up, at least, we were surprised by its lightweight, insubstantial feel. Of course, you get accustomed to this quirk after using the camera for a while, but it's just another sign of the less-than-stellar attention to detail that went into the XF1's design and construction. (See also: misaligned body panel seams.)
On the plus side, buttons and dials are pleasantly tactile. Our only complaint in this arena is that the rear command dial—actually a nice addition on such a small camera—sometimes responds poorly to aggressive use, jumping back in the opposite direction from what you intend. We did like the fact that you can press in on this dial to zoom to 100% magnification in playback, though.
How much do you value thinness in a compact camera?
Think about that question carefully: Your answer will likely determine whether you're willing to accept the sacrifices the Fujifilm XF1 makes in order to fit in your pocket.
And pocketable it is: Even the skinny jeans–wearing hipsters in our office could comfortably holster the thing. As far as thickness goes, it's right in line with a camera like the Canon S110 or the Sony RX100. But if, on the other hand, you place more value a comfortable grip—well, keep looking. The XF1 doesn't have any grip to speak of, aside from a dinky hard plastic strip at the edge of the rear thumb rest. The faux-leather that's wrapped around the body doesn't offer much tack, either, though it might gain some adhesion with age.
Even those who are happy to sacrifice grip for pocketability might cringe at the XF1's awkward lens design—supposedly one of the camera's headline features. Get this: The lens is the power button. To power the XF1 up, you twist the lens slightly, pull it out, and then twist again. Fuji has even gone to the trouble of including a helpful insert in the box to educate new users in how to turn the darn thing on. Maybe it's just us, but if you have to print a special manual to tell your users how to turn your camera on, you're doing something wrong.
It's not that the process is particularly hard to figure out—once you've used the lens-as-power-button arrangement a few times, it becomes second nature. The real problem is that the mechanism itself doesn't feel very good. A few DCI staffers who handled the camera went so far as to say it felt broken. The mechanical zoom grinds through its focal range, and there's a certain flex and looseness to the collapsing lens mechanism that makes it feel like it might snap at any time.
We appreciate the ideas behind what Fuji's attempted here. A mechanical zoom is unquestionably superior to the traditional zoom-by-wire systems found in most compact cameras, and collapsible lenses are way cool. Having a lens that can collapse all the way for storage or extend into a standby mode to be ready for shooting is also a very attractive idea on paper.
But somehow, these two certified cool ideas just don't work together in the real world. The lens-based power switch is much clumsier than a traditional power button, takes longer to activate, and feels more prone to breakage. We also rarely found ourselves using the standby mode. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our XF1's lens was either fully stowed or fully active; we can't really think of a scenario where it would spend much time in between.
Before you buy the Fujifilm XF1, take a look at these other point & shoot cameras.
The XF1 is every bit the equal of the upmarket X10.
Stills shooters should be happy to hear that image quality from the Fujifilm XF1 is generally in line with what we saw from the X10. That means above-average sharpness, well-controlled noise levels, and very good dynamic range—though those last two come with the caveat of aggressive (if effective) noise reduction when shooting JPEGs. The similarity isn't too surprising, since the two cameras share key components, including the 12-megapixel 2/3-inch EXR CMOS sensor.
Color reproduction was adequate, though we feel like perfect color accuracy isn't one of Fuji's goals. Like all of the X-series cameras, the XF1 is equipped with "film simulation" modes that mimic the company's legacy film stock, producing distinct looks in each color mode. Maybe it's a placebo effect, but some of the Vivid or Portrait color modes on the XF1's competitors come off feeling sterile compared to Fuji's film homages like Velvia and Astia. Anyway, we've never felt as compelled to play with the competition's modes as we are with these film simulations.
White balance is very good when you set it yourself, and automatic white balance is quite accurate when shooting outdoors, but be careful shooting on automatic under artificial light. Incandescent and compact white fluorescent results were pretty terrible when shooting with AWB, so keep that white card handy if you're doing color-critical work. Alternatively, you can shoot RAW and fix it later.
We get the feeling the XF1's video could have been a lot better with a little more attention, but it got short shrift at Fuji's labs. Horizontal sharpness and fluidity were both very good in our tests, but vertical sharpness suffered from moiré, and there's visible aliasing on the edges of any curved object. The lack of any kind of manual control doesn't help things, especially given the poor automatic white balance situation.
Fuji's EXR modes are well-worth a look, so long as you don't mind 6-megapixel images.
The Fujifilm XF1's feature set isn't exactly robust, but it does do some interesting things—particularly in the software realm. Typical of recent Fuji cameras in general, it includes several interesting EXR modes that take advantage of the Fujifilm EXR CMOS sensor's unique pixel layout.
The best of these modes downsample from the raw 12-megapixel sensor output to produce 6-megapixel shots that boost dynamic range or reduce image noise. There's also an EXR setting that supposedly enhances resolution, but we found no evidence that it did anything that the XF1 couldn't do in any other shooting mode.
Beyond its EXR modes, the XF1 is stuffed with 16 scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night, etc.) and a number of Advanced Filters (Toy Camera, Miniature, Panorama, and so on). Each of these categories gets its own spot on the physical mode dial, but you have to dive into the main menu to actually choose a scene mode or filter, which is a little annoying.
It'll never be mistaken for a sports camera, but the XF1 does have decent continuous shooting chops. At its highest resolution, Fuji says the camera should be capable of 7 frames per second; in our labs we managed 6.6 fps, which is pretty close. If you don't mind stepping down to the 6-megapixel medium resolution, you can bump that frame rate to 10 fps.
Video clearly isn't a priority for Fuji, but like any other compact camera worth its salt these days, the XF1 can shoot 1080/30p full-HD movies. Everything is automatic, meaning you can't select your own shutter speed, aperture, or ISO setting, and you can't use any filters or effects during video recording, either. There's no control of sound and no option to record from an external mic. However, there are a couple high-speed recording modes (120 and 200 fps), albeit at very low resolutions (320 x 240 and 320 x 112px, respectively).
We started this review by asking the question: Can the XF1 bring Fujifilm's rehabilitated brand to the masses? Really, what we were asking was: Can the XF1 compete on even footing in the marketplace with Canon's S110 and Panasonic's LX7, or even Sony's higher-priced RX100? The answer is that it doesn't have a chance. It simply doesn't do enough to overcome the huge brand-recognition advantage those companies have, and it possesses some unfortunate (if well-intentioned) design missteps.
That doesn't mean it's a bad camera—in fact, it's quite good from an image quality standpoint. Stills from the XF1 are just as good as those from the X10, which is to say they're among the best results you can get from a compact that isn't the RX100. (You just can't beat that 1-inch sensor). If you can get over the camera's operational quirks, it's a solid shooter at a very attractive price—just $389 from reputable sellers at press time. But those operational quirks are troubling. With the XF1's unusual three-step collapsible zoom, Fuji has addressed a problem that doesn't really exist and ended up making things worse.
On the plus side, the XF1 gives you plenty of physical controls, considering its ultra-compact design. You have a total of seven customizable buttons, plus four buttons already dedicated to specific shooting parameters. The new E-Fn (extended function) menu is a great idea that makes the XF1 far easier to use and mostly keeps you out of the main menu. Two custom settings on the mode dial will be a real boon to advanced users, and a mechanical zoom is always welcome, even if its construction isn't great.
Fuji is also banking heavily on the XF1's distinctive retro styling. We have to admit it's quite the looker, but the problem is that its build quality doesn't match up to its visual qualities. The construction feels cheap and surprisingly lightweight, there's too much play in the zoom mechanism, and the faux-leather covering is slippery rather than grippy. Sure, you can get it in red faux-snakeskin, but who cares if it's not comfortable to use?
As always, potential XF1 buyers should first determine what matters most to them in a new camera. The XF1's closest competitors produce shots that are comparable in clarity and color, but fall short in terms of manual controls. The RX100 is the pocket camera to beat when it comes to sheer image quality, but its high price puts it on a different plane entirely. Other cameras like the the Canon G15, Nikon P7700, and Olympus XZ-2 provide similar image quality but can't claim true pocketability. Ultimately, if you're looking to spend around $400 on a point-and-shoot and want the best image quality you can get for your money, the XF1 could be a good bet.
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