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|Fuji X-Pro 1: Leicapocalypse?|
April 20, 2012 (updated on May 1 for version 1.01 firmware). There can be no question that the X-Pro1 is an uppercut to Leica's chin. It takes the Leica form factor, adds a sensor comparable to the one in the Nikon D700 (albeit smaller), added autofocus, added a hybrid finder, added live view, upped the frame rate, and killed the antialiasing filter. And to add insult to injury, Fuji announced an M lens adapter from the outset.
This, predictably, will provoke two reactions from Leica's user base. One will be "holy crap, that's what I wanted the M system to become." The other will be to grouse about the "crop" sensor, the "whiz-bang" features, and the loss of photography as a discipline.
But whatever the inclination, on looking at the pictures, one is forced to accept that Fuji eliminated two key optical problems inherent in the Leica system: covering a 24x36mm frame (thereby eliminating color shifts and vignetting) and blind focusing that cannot account for aperture-related focus shift (the X-Pro1 uses closed-loop focusing that can confirm focus at the shooting aperture). And grousing about "extra" features aside, Fuji has clobbered Leica on the two basic technologies: sensor quality and DSP speed.
What is it?
The X-Pro1 is not a "rangefinder," not by any definition. The fastidious definition of the term, usually applied by Leica people, is a camera using prism rangefinding (by the way, Leica did not invent rangefinding using prisms, nor was it the first camera manufacturer to offer a combined view/rangefinder). The broader definition includes things that find the range by using active infrared autofocus. The X-Pro1 uses passive contrast-detect AF, which simply focuses by trial and error until it reaches the target (note: the trial-and-error interval is a small fraction of a second).
In function, though, the X-Pro1 is closer to a Leica rangefinder than True Believers would want to admit. Fundamentally, there is no difference between using any central focusing reticle to achieve distance and then shifting the focus point. The huge difference on the X-Pro1 is that the reticle can move around to any point within about 75% of the frame.
In the grander taxonomy of cameras, the X-Pro1 fits into what we should probably call a "reportage" category. This is a class of cameras of a size and operational mode that are unobtrusive. The category includes Contax rangefinders from the 1930s to 1950s, Leica M rangfinders (and other M-mount cameras), the Hexar AF and the Contax G/G2 series. The physiology of these cameras is very uniform and actually dates back to the Zeiss Contax II and Zeiss Tenax II, two prewar camera that beat Leica to the combined view/rangefinder punch by 15 years. There are some smaller cameras in this category, like the X100 and the Contax T, but most members of the group are substantially, but not obnoxiously, sized.
The hybrid finder
The big departure of the X100 and X-Pro1 from the mainstream lies in a hybrid viewfinder. This is an optical viewfinder that substitutes a full-screen display for a conventional rangefinder prism spot and mechanical framelines. The display projects onto the same semi-silvered surface that would be used to display the latter. In addition, this type of viewfinder has a blind that can block light coming into the galilean portion so that it displays only an electronic image. This can be used in two ways: (1) seeing framelines and other viewfinder information suspended over the aerial image and (2) presenting a live view of what the sensor is seeing.
Hybrid finders have their plusses and minuses. In optical (OVF) mode, they can display a massive amount of information that would otherwise occupy the margins of a conventional viewfinder (if at all). In addition, they can display framelines in infinitely variable ways (as opposed to the three pairs of fixed-size framelines in the Leica M). And when necessary, they can be used in electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is the only way to use non-Fuji lenses. The particular viewfinder in the X-Pro1 also has the ability to switch magnifications to 0.3x, which would allow the use of a 20mm-equivalent lens without an external viewfinder. The down side is that they draw a bit of power and have difficulties displaying an accurate focusing reticle (due to parallax).
One part of the hybrid viewfinder is difficult in practice, though. On all rangefinders, your eye focuses through a Galilean finder at the subject. The rangefinder spot is also a Galilean system looking at objects that are the same distance. The framelines, however, are inside the camera at a distance of about two inches from your eye (taking into account the beamsplitter). Other than on the M3, the viewfinder picture and the framelines do not appear in the same plane on any camera. It is difficult to tell that this is the case because you almost never focus your eyes hard at framelines (in normal use). The accretion of LED displays such as the shutter speed array in a Leica M7 or Hexar RF has the same difficulty.
Hybrid finders are no different, except that you suddenly find projected elements in the center of your field of vision, competing with the subject for your eye's focus. A hybrid finder's framelines are much brighter than a Leica's framelines, and pixelated elements (composition grid, digital level) draw your vision. The difficulty of seeing this might sometimes make you think you need a dioptric corrector, but that changes both the subject view and the information view. In essence, the hybrid finder creates some challenges for people whose eyes have difficulty with focusing quickly. This is mitigated to some extent by the X series' ability to shut off almost all data except the framelines and focusing reticle by pressing the "view mode" button.
In sum, it is tempting to wonder why the hybrid finder was never attempted. It may well be that Fuji held the patent. If you examine the GA645zi viewfinder, you'll see an LCD frameline array that adjusts in size with the focused distance. This is the nearest antecedent to what Fuji put into its X-series cameras.
Discussion in terms of the X100
Because a lot of people have reviewed this camera without any understanding of what preceded it, this article will concentrate on the key differences from the X100.
X-Trans sensor. The 16Mp sensor has a randomized RGB pattern that (allegedly) obviates the need for an antialiasing filter. It appears to work very well, picking up about a stop of speed over the X100 (and, obviously, more pixels). That said, the effect of removing the AA filter does not seem that great compared to the base case of the X100 (the latter probably has a very weak filter) - but it does show a huge difference against cameras that do have conventional filters. Pixel-for-pixel viewing shows the sensor to be reasonably comparable in sharpness to a Leica sensor.
Lightroom as the sine qua non. As to image quality, it will be possible to say more comparatively when (and more critically, if) Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom support the X-Pro1. There has been no good explanation from Fuji for why it did not release the SDK for this camera to Adobe in a more timely fashion - and in today's environment, Lightroom RAW conversion is the norm (as is the cataloguing functionality of that program). Silkypix might be popular in Japan, but Hasselhoff is popular in Germany... As it stands now, if you plug an X-Pro1 card into a normal SD reader, Lightroom 3.x will see the RAF image files but will not import anything, not even the JPGs. Regardless of Fuji's failure to provide information on how to decode RAF files, this inability to at least move an (identified) image file to the right place is an Adobe tantrum. If, alternatively, you plug the camera into your computer, it will show up as a "device" on Lightroom and simply ignore the RAF files. But Lightroom appears to want to quit importing files after the first 35 of them, no matter how many times you restart Lightroom or the camera (Mac OS). This will not be fun with a 32Gb card with 1,200 files on it.
As a workaround to get some functionality, you can use a standard card reader and decant the JPGs into one folder and set aside the RAF files in another. Then you can import the JPGs into Lightroom. But then at some point in the future, you will need to re-import everything. And it is not entirely clear what Lightroom 4.x will do when the JPG is already in there and you are trying to layer on RAW files (using the current version, this sporadically results in duplicates in the catalog). To put it mildly, file handling is miserable if you have a longstanding workflow that involves importing and organizing in Lightroom.
Although people can learn to walk with a limp, dental pain is a form of discomfort to which there is no acclimatization. On a camera like the X-Pro1, the JPG facility is good but not good enough to replace RAW functionality (particularly in difficult lighting). With a dismal software situation, one thing that actually seems workable is simply using the camera to convert and reconvert files until the JPGs come out just right. The camera can regenerate JPGs from RAF after the fact (and is very quick at doing so). But without being able to look at the results immediately on a computer, it's like shooting in the dark. And because the X-Pro1 changes the "date shot" on JPGs to the date of conversion, doing this will wreak havoc on Lightroom imports where the program sorts incoming pictures into folders by date.
Finish. The X-Pro1 is done in a black lacquer, including the flash shoe. This is not a finish that resembles nostalgic Leica paint so much as it is a dead ringer for the paint on the G690 series cameras (let's hope it wears better). The camera housing is metal, and oddly, it does not have a one-piece bottom plate (meaning that if you scrape it up, you'd basically have to replace the entire outer housing). Lenses seem to be finished the same way (Fuji apparently has a magic for making metal lens focus rings look like they are made of plastic). One thing that was not well thought out was putting the tripod socket directly adjacent to the battery/card door. This effectively prevents you from using a BlackRapid strap or from mounting an Arca quick release plate unless you are willing to remove those accessories to change batteries and cards.
Size/Weight. The sensor and memory cards are the same size (the latter does not seem to be a great idea). The batteries are bigger. The camera itself is much larger and heavier than the X100. That said, the camera is the same size as a Leica M and significantly lighter. In practical use, consider that an X100 can fit into the pocket of a pair of cargo pants; the X-Pro1 with its 35mm lens is not going to fit in any normal-sized pocket.
Controls. Most of the controls are instantly recognizable to X100 users, but they are much better arranged. First, the shutter speed dial has a lock, and the EV compensation dial is harder to displace. Drive and delete are no longer the same button. The play button has been moved to above the directional pad. The thumb wheel has been eliminated. The foregoing make it much less likely that you will accidentally change drive modes or delete images by accident. Frankly, the X100 controls were awkward.
The rocker switch on the top right back has become a small wheel with a "press in" functionality. The usual use of the wheel is to change ISOs (in conjunction with the Fn button). It can also be used to scroll through images while keeping the same magnification (another improvement over the X100).
A Q button ("Quick Menu") appears at the upper right (and replaces the RAW button). This fits into a "cylinder" of controls that is topped by the EV comp wheel and continues down the back of the camera. Aside from Q, the other component is AE/AF lock. Be aware that it is easy to hit the Q button by mistake - which will pull up the EVF mode and the Q menu. All told, though, it is now much harder to shift the EV comp by accident.
The card-write status light has been moved to where a left-eyed user would see it in peripheral vision. It now flashes red when a memory card is full.
Viewfinder. There is very little practical difference in content, though the X-Pro1 finder seems larger. The viewfinder now has two magnifications in optical mode (0.3x and 0.6x). The color and contrast are much better controlled for playback (the incidence of apparent over- and under-exposures is less. Framelines change color to contrast with the scene (which is seen in toto by the sensor, even when the user is in OVF mode). The variable-diopter correction has been eliminated (in favor of a fixed -2 diopter view), but the camera now takes Nikon FM3a-style eyepiece diopters (and other accessories).
Flash operation. The X-Pro1 uses the same TTL flashes as the X100. It has a focal plane shutter, though, so outdoor synch may prove to be less fun. Flash bias is set to about -2/3, so daylight fill looks very, very good.
Buffer! The X-Pro can shoot 12-14 files at 6fps before it pauses for a second and starts writing all of them. You should plan to buy Class 10 cards or better (note that the original Sandisk Ultra II SD cards are roughly Class 10). Auto-bracket sequences render much faster than on the X100. Note that while the buffer is emptying, you cannot play back images (although as clears a bit, you can start taking more images again).
"Tough love" Auto-ISO mode. On the X100 (like on many cameras), Auto-ISO is invoked from a menu in which the user can select a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO. From the camera's normal ISO facility (Fn + the rocker switch), the user can select the starting point.
The X-Pro1 dispenses with the separate menu and simply has the settings Auto ISO 400, 800, 1600 and 3200, all directly inline with the "normal" ISO settings. This makes it easier to get in and out of Auto ISO mode and to select a maximum ISO - but eliminates your ability to set a minimum shutter speed. The minimum shutter speed is set at 1/lens focal length (in 35mm equivalent). So the minimum speed triggered by the 35mm lens is 1/52 sec. This suffices for many circumstances, but if you are very attached to a certain high shutter speed, shoot in manual or shutter-priority mode instead of aperture-priority.
The Fuji implementation of Auto ISO also has highly variable behavior. If DR is in Auto (the setting that gives you the best JPGs), the ISO will stay as high as it can and so will the shutter speed. This all seems great in theory until you get one of the raw files in Lightroom (if this ever happens) and discover that not only is the gain through the roof, the RAW file is also underexposed as it comes out of the box (Lightroom is unable to cope with embedded settings RAF files). X100 users know all about this. If you opt for DR100, the pictures shoot at the lowest practicable ISO - what you would expect. All of this underscores the Fuji way of thinking - you get a mode for great JPGs or great RAW files, but you can't have both at the same time.
Battery life. On normal mode, you get about 200-250 pictures per charge (assuming you use the viewfinder auto-review). The Power Save mode increases that by about another 100 at the cost of response time and focusing speed. The NP-W126 batteries are larger than the NP-95 in the X100 and have a similar but larger wall charger. At least the new charger does not have the annoying plastic piece that keeps getting lost.
Focusing speed. Focusing, driven by ultrasonic motors in the lenses, can be variable in speed. The 35mm Fujinon is not internal-focus, and it moves a lot of glass. It also has considerably less depth of field than the 23mm lens on the X100. Despite this, it focuses quickly most of the time. Sometimes it trips and does a broader refocus. Focusing will probably be fixed in firmware, as it was on the X100. The camera could use a focus limiter to help prevent this (we don't need to go to infinity, for example, if we are indoors). The 18mm lens will likely be faster on its feet. The 60mm, should it ever actually become available, will be slower and more difficult to focus due to parallax.
Focusing (OVF). Due to parallax, it is highly advisable to turn on the corrected focus point. You will see one box dead center in the frame and one lower and to the right. The second box (dotted) shows the focusing position at the closest distance (if you select off-center focus points, it works the same way - just in a different neighborhood of the viewfinder. When you focus, a green box appears somewhere between these two to show the actual focused point relative to the viewfinder (at the same time, the framelines shift and shrink). With the 50mm lens, the midway point is 1.5m, or about five feet. There are two ways to learn this system. One is to practice and get an intuitive feel for how the square moves. The other is to focus on a flat surface that includes both.
Focusing (EVF). There is no parallax here. The focusing reticle appears larger, the grid appears in black, and the same data is available (there is a "bonus" low shutter speed indicator). Frame refresh rate is directly dependent on the amount of light available (the initial focusing sometimes locks up the display). This is your world if you use the camera to mount "other" lenses, shoot video, or shoot motion panoramas. The focus check function can give you a 10x magnification of the focused part of the picture.
Image quality. The X-Trans sensor, with its random RGB pattern and lack of antialiasing filter, puts some very serious hurt on Leica digital Ms that use 7-year-old CCD technology. It has been pretty much impossible to find a moire-prone pattern that fools it. The basic idea of the X-Trans is to simulate the random arrangement of silver crystals in film (which then become random arrangements of cyan, magenta and yellow dye after processing).
Like the X100, the sensor puts out grain free images up to about ISO 1600; beyond that, there is the foreseeable loss of image detail. It really depends on the scene; the camera tails things like D700 by a little but, but it is packing many more pixels into a fraction of the sensor real estate.
The 35mm Fujinon - which is easy to initially dismiss as a kit lens or skip because you "don't need a 50mm-style lens" - actually has stunning performance. Part of this, no doubt, is the camera's ability to focus in a closed-loop system. So when an aperture change makes the focus point shift, the camera can compensate. Many traditional rangefinder lenses simply can't do this.
The depth of field with a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera is greater than the 50mm that has the same angle of view on an FX camera. This makes for less of the Noctilux aesthetic. Out-of-focus areas render smoothly and pleasantly (big surprise there given the Japanese fetish regarding bokeh).
Overall. The picture at the top (35mm Fujinon, ISO 800, 1/125 sec, f/2.8, boy's face is the focus point), might tell you everything you need to know about why you might want to start putting your Leica equipment on eBay. No grain, no vignetting, no distortion, no color shifts, and great apparent depth of field (note that sunlight coming into the right side of the frame makes the black wall look strange; the left side is lit by incandescent light). The Milan Politecnico and the shade of Mies van der Rohe might not like it, but blown up to 100%, you can read all the text and see all the diagrams. This is a $600 lens on a $1,700 body. Here are the 100% views. Note that the text is in the extreme corners and is barely within the expected depth of field. It is also much higher contrast than the boy, which makes it look sharper.
Initial firmware bug/suggestion list (including firmware 1.01).
1. Composition grid lines do not diminish in size (i.e., increase in frequency) when you drop the VF mag to 0.3x. This is going to be a problem when/if the really wide lenses come out, since there is no electronic level on the pitch axis.
2. The finder needs a persistent, third dotted-line focusing bracket in OVF mode - with a denoted distance (just as you see one for the closest focusing distance, this one would between it and the "infinity" bracket) .
3. If you use the AE/AF lock to focus in M mode, the framelines don't adjust for the distance (with firmware 1.01, they do, but only when you press the shutter halfway).
4. A percentage battery indicator would be nice.
5. And the same way a "correct AF" bracket is always visible, it would not be a bad idea to add a dotted box that shows the size of the field at 1m.
6. In consecutive shots at the same distance (usually around 2m), the camera sometimes does a complete refocus on one of the shots. The workaround is to shoot in MF and to use the AE/AF lock button to focus - but it is not a great solution.
7. Manual focus mode needs a corrected focusing reticle for focusing using the AE/AF lock button.
8. The camera should decide faster whether AF is going to fail. The X100 seems to know almost instantly (version 1.01 improved focusing speed a little bit).
9. There should be a "focus near, focus far" focus limiting function. At a minimum, the camera should stop at a near limit of 0.7m unless macro mode is engaged.
10. Auto WB cannot handle sodium light and some fluorescent lights.
11. Continuous mode does not always buffer well with Sandisk Ultra II (9mb/sec) cards. Still much better than the X100. Class 10 is pretty much the minimum.
12. Flash EV comp zero point is about 2/3 of a stop low.
13. Auto ISO precludes use of flash EV comp, just like on the X100.
14. There is no arbitrary slowest shutter speed for auto ISO (the X100 has such a setting).
15. With the EF-42, if the flash is charging up, the camera won't let you take a picture at all. Tip: if you are using the camera intermittently, do not switch the camera off.
16. If you read a memory card in a Macintosh and put it back in the camera, you need to reformat the card with the camera to prevent startup delays. This appears to be due to the camera's inability to handle HFS+ file system data that the computer writes to devices and cards attached to it.
17. Manual focus mode needs a corrected focusing reticle for focusing using the AE/AF lock button.
18. Lens chattering. If you didn't notice it before version 1.01, it's not a problem.
What of adapted lenses?
Fire without lens. At some point in Japan, after the conclusion of an arms race that involved at least nine different proprietary SLR lens mounts over a fifty-year period (to say nothing of transplanted German mounts like Leica M and Contax S), all surviving mirrorless camera manufacturers essentially to an armistice. The peace was apparently brokered by older Japanese consumers who were nostalgic about their older lenses from the 1950s (forsan olim et haec meminisse iuvabit?). The (fictitious) Treaty of Tokyo resulted a camera body setting called "fire without lens." That's codespeak for "release the shutter without one of our lenses on this body." As this pax japonica dawned, Chinese and Japanese third-party fabricators went crazy pairing every conceivable permutation of lens mount and body mount that could be conjoined by a simple metal tube. Even OEMs got into the act; Panasonic and Fuji have both released (or announced) their own such adapters for Leica M. Ricoh actually built an entire GX-R module around the M mount.
Focusing challenges. The first issue is whether - given the current firmware - you are ready to focus older lenses via the EVF. Where the focusing aid is a spot whose magnification is excessive for some lenses and where slower lenses (or smaller apertures) slow down the display, you might find it too annoying to pursue. The alternative is zone focusing - but this is difficult if an adapter is intentionally made too thin to assure infinity focus (the distance scale then does not work with wideangles). And zone focusing rarely maximizes lens performance - because small apertures can threaten diffraction.
A fatter package. If you get past the focusing, there is the issue of field of view and the package you're actually getting. Consider that the Leica M8/M9 is thicker than an M6 because the rear screen has to fit. The mount to imaging plane relationship is the same, but the back got "fatter." The X-Pro1's sensor sits in a more forward position (which is why Fuji puts such a marketing emphasis on the short registration distance of its lenses - and why the platform is so adaptable). Fuji's lens designs will almost always result in a more compact package for a given focal length. Just get on Ebay and look at the depth of the Leica M adapter. Or how big the Nikon F adapter is. An adapted lens on the X-Pro1, in many cases, will be larger than that lens on its original body (particularly if that body was a small SLR or a rangefinder camera).
The cost/benefit. Forget about optical performance for a second (we can discuss relative performance a little bit). When you consider the size, resulting angle of view and resale value of many legacy lenses, you may not conclude that adaptation is even worth pursuing. Let's break the situation down by focal length:
Image quality. The ultimate question is whether you are going to get good pictures out of it. Answer: possibly, possibly not, based on the various published tests of the X-Pro1, Nex-7 and other mirrorless cameras. Legacy lenses were not designed for digital life. They also lack the coding that lets a mirrorless camera make automatic vignetting and color shift adjustments. If the lenses you have are expensive, the better analysis is whether their characteristics justify the cost (and quirks) of a Leica body. If they don't, then the exercise of putting those lenses on a small-sensor camera may be a gross waste of money and capacity (you're paying for edge-to-edge sharpness on a big frame - what actually makes the lens expensive - but not using it). And if your lenses are inexpensive and their capabilities can be duplicated by lenses available for the mirrorless body you want, you should ask them "to stay" in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sense.
For legacy glass, get a NEX instead. In the end, if you want to do legacy lenses on a mirrorless, a Nex-3, 5 or 5N is going to be your best bet. They have articulated screens for better bracing and more flexible angles (they can be shot in TLR mode), fast viewfinder refreshes, a reasonable pixel density that does not make adapted lenses look too bad, and the ability to take killer video through your old lenses. And with a $15 JJC accessory shoe adapter, you can even mount a conventional optical viewfinder or a Seculine Action Level Cross.
La fin du monde?
The possible fates of Leica are a different story. The reaction to the X-Pro1 from the Leica camp (those who don't buy this camera at the beginning) will center around "crop factor," the need for manual focus, the need for simplified controls, or even possibly a belief in the invincibility of specific Leica lenses purchased for a large amount of money.
The best way to approach a possible change to systems lies in what takes the pictures you want to take with the least amount of interference. For a good number of people, given some time to learn to deal with parallax error in X-Pro1 focusing using the optical finer, the Fuji will be better than a Leica. Plus factors include high-ISO operation, panorama capability, sophisticated flash operation, and rudimentary video capability. These people will not be put off by the limitation to the magic Japanese 28mm-50mm-90mm lens selection. After all, the people least invested in rangefinders are the ones who have one or two basic lenses.
Ultimately, though, a digital camera is a device for making a digital file. A clean file that has the desired overall pixel size, aesthetic characteristics and noise levels could come from anything, and viewers have no automatic understanding of how images originated. For this reason, the concept of "crop" is meaningless so long as a system has a range of focal lengths suitable for anticipated occasions. Manual versus automatic focus and controls are something of a personal preference. And it is well documented that lenses must be designed differently for digital -meaning that great lenses can become less great over time. Leica has done well by finding ways to appeal to subjective wishes about how cameras should work and adapt its legacy lenses to a digital platform. But to people not fixated on rangefinder focusing or entirely willing to accept poor high ISO performance, the real battle is optical quality - and going to a closed-loop AF platform makes $600 Fujinons look a lot more like $4,000 Summiluxes in the final image.
It is not easy to say what direction the X-Pro line will go. If Fuji tames some of the more irritating (and random) autofocus behavior and supports it with a good selection of lenses, it will probably prosper. But if Fuji goes the way Sony went with the NEX (i.e., dragging on a full selection of lenses), the appeal of the X-Pro will fade. The performance is definitely there; the missing element right now is a full line of optics. This, of course, assumes that Fuji will get its act together with RAF processing via Lightroom. Unless and until that occurs, this camera may be a non-starter for many people. The camera has now been on the market for two months, and the more time passes, the more such support becomes a question.