A Loss of Control | the Fuji X-M1

xm1.jpg

UPDATE: I'm reading a lot of weirdly aggressive reactions to this review so just to again be very clear: I'm not against the X-M1 nor do I mind that it exists. I don't feel threatened by it and I don't consider my opinion to be anything but an opinion. I thought this point was clear enough in the post. I'm not a gear reviewer and I don't pretend to be one either. I got a chance to use this camera, I didn't really enjoy it and I'm telling you why. Nothing else. If you have any questions just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to clarify anything that needs it. Thanks. Now breathe....(!)

I never write objective reviews. The reason is quite simple: I never talk about things I don’t actually use or plan on using. So everything I say is absolutely skewed, totally subjective and unequivocally personal.

When I was told about the X-M1 camera Fuji asked if I would ever consider using it. My answer was immediate: no. The lack of a viewfinder was a deal breaker, period. But when they generously offered to lend me one of their newly arrived units (along with the continuously amazing X100s) for my Cuba trip, I obviously couldn’t refuse. So in the bag it went along with both the new XC16–50mmF3.5–5.6 OIS kit zoom and XF27mmF2.8 pancake.

I’ve gone back and forth on this review, trying to find the right tone. I wrote a large amount of it while in Cuba, wanting to stay true to my initial impressions. But I want to make something very clear before going any further: this isn’t a bad camera. The image quality on its own is amazing, the X-Trans sensor delivering all the richness and clarity its older siblings are known for. But for me — as a photographer who has chosen to work with Fuji cameras — IQ is one part of the equation. In my opinion, for my use, this camera isn’t what the X series is all about. With that in mind, here goes.

history

When Fuji introduced the X100 a few years ago they threw down the gauntlet. They essentially said: wait a minute, let’s get back to basics shall we? Apart from Leica, who never really strayed far from the genesis of their cameras, every company out there was intent on adding features no one needed, menus on top of menus, forgetting what a lot of photographers actually wanted: traditional control with a new digital heart. They had also forgotten that innovation was still a possibility beyond megapixels and HD video. Fuji’s introduction of their hybrid viewfinder showed it was possible to think outside this tiny little box.

The notion of retro-styling attributed to the X cameras has always rubbed me the wrong way, mostly because it sounds so skin deep, so diminutive; it makes the direction Fuji have taken seem like little more than window dressing. The X series line, at least at the top end, has always been about a return to essentials: aperture ring, shutter speed dial, viewfinder. The holy triad, the tried and true image making machine that becomes a part of you while making itself all but invisible to others. Nothing to do with silver paint or hipster creds, everything to do with being a photographer.

The line has since been blurred with the introduction of other more consumer oriented models - something I’ve always found confusing to be honest - but there had always been a clear differentiating factor: sensor size. The X-M1 erases this distinction by using the same stunning X-Trans sensor used in the X100S, X-Pro1 and X-E1… Unfortunately, it doesn’t go much beyond retro-styled.

personal handicap

I need reading glasses. So the lack of a viewfinder isn’t just an annoyance, it’s a nightmare of epic proportions. It may not be for you and obviously Fuji are banking on the legions of casual shooters who have probably never even used a viewfinder and who will be perfectly comfortable shooting at arms length in full sun, with nothing but a faint hint at what’s actually going on inside the frame. The $100,000 question is: are these folks really itching for the quality this sensor can provide or content with recording memories any way they can?

The good

Let me start with the good news: as I mentioned earlier, quality is totally on par with the other X-Trans bodies. Mount your favorite XF lens and don’t worry about the results; you can expect the same richness of colour, the same sharpness. On visual properties alone, this is an X camera through and through. It will allow you to make stunning images. A few shots taken with the zoom below.

 

The other positive feature is the built-in flash which claims to one up even the recent X100S in “intelligence” in order to provide a better balanced flash-lit image. This isn’t a new claim for a camera maker, but in my limited tests it does seem to be valid. Furthermore, flash compensation on this camera can be set + or –2 stops (compared to the X100S 2/3) allowing for much more subtle fill. And if this wasn’t enough, it’s been physically redesigned: it stands much taller and can be swung progressively backwards with a finger, sending its light slightly overhead or straight up at the ceiling. Pretty ingenious if you ask me. Of course it’s still a really small light source but it certainly beats straight on, top of the camera flash and it quickly becomes second nature to use — in fact I found myself almost expecting it to rotate as well! Silly me.

X-perience?

Then comes the shooting experience. There is no dedicated shutter speed selection, this has been replaced by a conventional mode dial, the same one you’ll find on Fuji point and shoots or amateur DSLRs. This leaves what we know as the exposure comp dial, which is now blank because its function varies with the selected shooting mode:
 - Manual: shutter speed dial.
 - Shutter, Aperture priority and all modes except Auto: exposure compensation.

If you usually shoot aperture priority and mount a lens with an aperture ring there’s actually no disruption; everything’s laid out as before. All other modes will require a certain amount of adaptation, the worst offenders being lenses without aperture rings forcing the use of the thumb dial to open up or stop down.

Let me say this: I really, really tried shooting with this camera as seriously as I could. I carried my glasses and had them dangling at the tip of my nose trying to find some redeeming method that would somehow make this worthwhile… I couldn’t. Although the screen has a special setting that increases brightness in sunshine, it was never nearly enough to compensate (I WAS in Cuba) and I found myself shooting completely blind, unable to tell what my settings were half the time. Changing aperture with the thumb dial was slow and painful, a far cry from its mechanical counterpart.

In my opinion — and I know full well this opinion is tainted by requirements that don’t necessarily apply to a general audience —this camera goes against what I consider the X series experience. As I said earlier, I consider control and workflow an essential part of this, something that cannot — and to my mind shouldn’t — be disassociated from the brand. Leaving out the viewfinder, building lenses without aperture rings… When you strip away the physicality of that experience what are you left with? A Canon or a Nikon. The camera’s image quality is fabulous but in the end, it’s a robot. It’s a digital camera that flaunts its digital nature at every turn and takes all the immediacy, stealth, thoughtfullness and pleasure out of the equation. It completely disconnects you from the scene. I know I’m being harsh but there’s a reason I’m so enthusiastic about the X series; this ain’t it.

It also screams consumer camera at every turn, from the descriptive panel that appears on screen every time you switch modes, to the lack of custom settings and the need to access the main menus in order to change metering modes (you can assign this to FN but it should be in the Q menu). There are also very odd and seemingly random omissions: no Pro Neg simulations or BW filter modes — we’re back to the 5 original X100 choices. No panorama mode, although I’m told this could be added through firmware; and no horizon line. This one seems like it should’ve been a given for this type of camera, with its tilting screen… But don’t dream about an eventual update add-on: the required hardware isn’t present.

Conclusion

I’m quite aware some of you are probably a little disappointed by now. But I also know most of you reading this blog are either pros or very serious enthusiasts who tend to value my opinion to some extent. This is a responsibility I take very seriously and I’d never dream of breaking that trust by selling something I don't believe in. So as much as it pains me to say so, here it is: I wouldn't buy this camera. You may of course feel differently. But if you hail from the rangefinder side of the family, put the money on another stunning XF lens, or a flash or anything that will expand your creative horizons. If you were on the fence about the X series I'd suggest any of the other X-Trans models; if you’re short on cash get the X20, it won’t be an APS-C sensor but you’ll get a viewfinder and a taste of what I feel is the true philosophy behind this line.

In my mind the X-M1 is from a parallel universe where the X100 never happened; and over there I’m feeling strangely empty… And shooting a D800.
Just being honest — More zoom images below. 

P.S A word on the new lenses: the new zoom has — expectedly — a much cheaper build quality (and price point) but performs very well optically; Fuji know how to get the most out of their glass. The 27mm pancake is an XF lens without an aperture ring… I didn’t use it enough to forge an opinion beyond this: I want an aperture ring on my X lenses. Boy am I grumpy.