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ONE SIZE FITS ALL?

The least well known of Fujifilm’s X-series cameras is possibly also the most remarkable model in the family. Leave behind all your preconceptions about superzoom

Confession time. I’ve never really liked the superzoom or ultrazoom type cameras. The so-called ‘bridge cameras’ from the late 1980s were all pretty awful in the end – which is why the whole concept was short-lived back then – and today’s digital models really aren’t a whole lot better (although they are a definite improvement). Being neither one thing nor the other, they’re just that… neither D-SLR nor compact (or CSC) which simply spells compromise whichever way you look at it.

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the X-Pro1 and the on-going popularity of the X100, the Fujifilm X-S1 has essentially snuck unheralded onto the market. I first saw it at the CP+ 2012 show in Yokohama mainly because the queue of people waiting to handle the X-Pro1 was way too long and there was nobody waiting in line to have a play with the X-S1. Technically, the X-S1 is a superzoom camera but, to quote the Star Trek cliché, it’s like no other superzoom camera we’ve seen before.

For starters, it looks like a D-SLR because it’s pretty well the same dimensions as a mid-sized model and has a pentaprism-type ‘hump’ (which houses an electronic eyelevel viewfinder and a built-in flash). The control layout looks the same as that of many a D-SLR – complete with dials – and it even has a tilt-adjustable, 7.62 cm LCD monitor screen. The bodyshell is actually entirely coated in a textured covering which looks a bit unusual at first, but means scuffs and scratches aren’t going to be a concern. There’s a proper sized handgrip as well.

The lens has the same sort of proportions as a zoom in the 28-200mm class – the more compact variety, actually – except it has an effective focal range of 24-624mm! So here’s where the potential for the X-S1 fairytale to have an unhappy ending becomes a distinct possibility because you don’t get a focal range like that for free. It’s made possible because of the size of the sensor which is a 2/3-inch device, the same size as that used in the X10. This is still quite a lot larger than the devices used in other superzoom models, but it’s small by either CSC or D-SLR standards. With a magnification factor of 3.94x, it’s bigger than the imager in the Pentax Q, but smaller than the one used in Nikon’s J1 and V1.

HAPPY MARRIAGE

Importantly, though, as with both the X10 and X100, sensor and lens are precisely matched. Importantly, too, the sensor is one of Fujifilm’s own creations – called an ‘EXR CMOS’ – with a different RGB filter array to the standard Bayer-type pattern (and different again to the design of the X-Pro1’s imager).

Instead of the 2x2 RGBG square filter arrangement of a conventional sensor, the EXR CMOS has its filters in a diagonal configuration so each RGBG set is now in a diamond shape. This is designed to optimise the resolution, increase sensitivity and improve the dynamic range. A complementary EXR Processor – which employs dual CPUs – will actually switch the sensor to the most appropriate capture configuration (i.e. high resolution, wide dynamic range or high sensitivity/low noise) depending on the lighting and subject conditions. This happens when the X-S1 is switched to the ‘EXR Priority’ mode which, incidentally, is done via a nicely-sized milled metal dial. And there’s another one alongside which serves as a command dial for setting manual shutter speeds or apertures, applying program shift and various other input duties. The standard set of ‘PASM’ exposure modes is supplemented by a large choice of 17 subject/scene modes and the choice of full auto and advanced auto modes as is now common on many entry-level D-SLRs. The advanced auto mode maintains point-and-shoot operation, but combined with more advanced techniques which Fujifilm calls ‘Motion Panorama 360’, ‘Pro Focus’ and ‘Pro Low Light’. All these are multi-shot captures in one way or another and, obviously, the first is self-explanatory while ‘Pro Focus’ varies the depth-of-field over three shots and ‘Pro Low Light’ combines four exposures to minimise noise. It should be noted that, being a panning-type panorama mode, the files aren’t cropped and the biggest is a substantial 11,520x1624 pixels.

Overall, though, the X-S1 does a lot less ‘hand-holding’ than any other superzoom camera and the feature set is much more D-SLR orientated than anything else. So, for example, there’s the option of RAW capture (and RAW+JPEG settings), Adobe RGB and sRGB colour space switching, a hotshoe, a stereo microphone input (although it has built-in stereo mics too), an electronic level display, continuous shooting at up to 7.0 fps, dynamic range expansion processing and a choice of ‘Film Simulation’ presets. The latter isn’t quite as extensive as on the X-Pro1, but still includes the Provia, Velvia and Astia colour settings – based on the popular Fujichrome transparency films and equivalent to Standard, Vivid and Soft respectively – plus four for B&W capture, namely neutral or with yellow, red or green contrast filters (each as separate presets) and, finally, a sepia mode. Image parameters for colour saturation, sharpness, highlight tone and shadow tone are individually adjustable independent of the ‘Film Simulation’ presets, as is noise reduction. Each has five settings – high, medium high, standard, medium low and low. Bracketing is available for the three colour presets (but curiously not the B&W settings) and also for exposure, sensitivity and dynamic range, each capturing three frames.

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A SUPER ZOOM

If you’re starting to think that the X-S1 is shaping up as a serious alternative to an entry-level – or possibly even a mid-level – D-SLR, read on.

Firstly, let’s go back to the lens which is where so many superzoom cameras come unstuck. The X-S1 uses Super EBC Fujinon optics and the 17 element construction includes aspherical, high refractive index and extra-low dispersion (ED) types to counter distortion and chromatic aberrations. The EBC – Electronic Beam Coating – multi-coating is designed to reduce ghosting and flare and is applied to all the non-bonded element surfaces. There are four aspherical elements created via glass moulding and two ED elements.

The sensor size allows for a maximum aperture range of f2.8-5.6 and it’s clear Fujifilm has been very carefully juggling all the elements at play here to come up with a balance of speed, image quality and focal range. Do you really need a 26x zooming range with a maximum focal length of 624 mm? Optical image stabilisation makes these longer focal lengths a more practical proposition and, as you’ll see, it’s this range that makes the X-S1 just a little bit special. There’s a nine-bladed diaphragm for smoother out-of-focus effects, but the one drawback – as with all superzoom cameras – is that the smallest available aperture is f11 so a couple of ND filters are going to be an essential extra purchase. The filter fitting, by the way, is 62 mm and the camera is supplied with a bayonet-fit metal lens hood.

Autofocusing is, of course, via the sensor-based contrast detection method which is slower than any D-SLR’s phase-difference detection system, but Fujifilm has worked hard to make up the difference via the EXR sensor’s faster read-out and the processing speed of the sensor. The AF employs 49 measuring points which cover a large part of the frame and are individually selectable in the camera’s ‘Area AF’ mode. Additionally, the focus frame can be adjusted to three sizes from 50 percent to 150 percent. Macro focusing down to just one centimetre is available at the touch of a button.

Switching between the single-shot and continuous AF modes is done by a selector switch on the front panel – as on many D-SLRs – and this control also sets manual focusing. The lens has a proper control ring – albeit fly-by-wire rather than mechanical – and zooming with scrolling is available to more precisely check sharpness. Handily, this can be assigned to one of the camera’s two multi-function keys which is useful if you’re regularly using manual focus. Even better, this – and everything else – can be done via the eyelevel viewfinder which, although not in the same league as Sony’s OLED types, isn’t too bad. Being an LCD panel (with a resolution of 1.44 million pixels) it doesn’t have a spectacular dynamic range and it’s still a bit ‘laggy’ if you move the camera quickly, but it is workable. Obviously, it’s particularly helpful when it comes to previewing anything that affects the look of an image such as the ‘Film Simulation’ modes and white balance settings.

UP TO SPEED

The X-S1’s auto white balance control is linked to scene detection an analysis, but there is also a choice of six presets (three for fluorescent lighting types), provisions for making a custom measurement and manual colour temperature setting over a range of 2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin (which is where the preview facility is particularly useful). Fine-tuning is available in the red-to-cyan and blue-to-yellow colour ranges (plus/minus nine steps), but only via the main menu and not the white balance control’s short-cut key. There is no auto bracketing function for white balance.

The exposure control modes mentioned earlier are driven by one of three metering methods – 256-segment multi-zone, average or spot measurements. The compensation range is +/-2.0 EV and there’s an AF/AE lock button which can be configured to operate continuously when pressed or as an on/off switch.

The X-S1’s shutter is located at the focal plane and employs an electronic first curtain arrangement to minimise lag. As we’ve explained before the electronic first curtain isn’t a physical curtain or a set of blades at all, but commences the exposure by switching on the sensor’s photosites line-by-line. However, the exposure is stopped by a physical shutter passing in front of the sensor… which is also confusingly referred to as being mechanical although it’s actually electronically controlled. The speed range is 30-1/4000 second. The sensor’s standard sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 3200 and, while you can continue up to ISO 6400 and 12,800, the resolution is progressively lowered. This is also done to achieve a super-fast shooting speed of 10 fps, but even at the full resolution of 12 megapixels, the X-S1 still motors along at a respectable rate of 7.0 fps. Two slower speeds of 5.0 fps and 3.0 fps are available if longer burst lengths are wanted. There’s also a ‘Best Frame Capture’ mode which does the little trick of commencing capture immediately the shutter button is depressed and continuing it briefly after pressure is released. These images are also captured at 10 fps and six megapixels and the camera then saves the 16 frames it considers to be the best. It’s probably not a feature that the more serious shooter will use much, but thankfully the X-S1’s feature set is much more orientated towards the higher-end than entry-level.

Video footage can be recorded in either the Full HD or HD resolutions with stereo sound and the availability of full autofocusing selected image settings such as the ‘Film Simulation’ presets. That the X-S1 has built-in stereo microphones puts it ahead of many D-SLRs, but Fujifilm also provides a stereo input for connected an external pick-up. There’s also a dedicated video start/stop button on the adjacent to the viewfinder eyepiece so it’s easy to operate using your right thumb.

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IN THE HAND

As noted earlier, the X-S1’s control layout is very similar to that of a D-SLR, both the top plate and the back panel. The latter has a four-way cluster for navigation and these controls also double as hard keys for functions such as the flash modes, macro focusing and self-timer.

The top key in the cluster serves as the second of the assignable multi-function buttons while the first is on the top panel. These can be set to access the image size and quality settings, dynamic range expansion, the ‘Film Simulation’ modes, the AF area modes, face detection and recognition, the digital zoom and, as noted earlier, the image magnification for checking manual focus. A set of buttons arrayed down the left hand side of the monitor screen provide direct access to the metering modes, the AF zones, the ISO settings and the white balance settings. It all looks and feels very familiar if you’re a D-SLR user. The menu system also works like that of a typical D-SLR with a simple sequence of right-clicks taking you into the sub-menus and settings. Continuous scrolling makes for quick and easy navigation through the pages of each section – Shooting Mode, Playback Mode and Set-Up. The colour scheme can be changed.

The EVF and the monitor screen can be configured via a ‘DISP’ button with the option of adding a real-time histogram, a choice of function icons, a grid display (either 3x3 or 6x4) and an electronic level. The replay options include a host of multi-frame displays, zooming, a slide show with fade-in/out and something called, rather grandly, ‘PhotoBook Assist’ which essentially just allows images – up to 300 – to be selected and collected into a folder for viewing as a ‘book’. There aren’t any design elements involved here, but you can import the folder to your computer – in order to create a real photo book – via the supplied MyFinePix Studio software. This also includes a RAW file converter, but RAW files can be processed in-camera to create a JPEG copy. A total of 11 parameters are adjustable, including the ‘Film Simulation’ presets, or you can simply select ‘Reflect Shooting Conditions’ which maintains the capture settings.

IN THE BUSH

On paper then, the X-S1 looks like the answer to many prayers; it’s a well-featured camera capable of being a lot of things to a lot of people. The brochure is lavishly illustrated with images of African wildlife, designed to show off what can be achieved with 24mm to 624mm in the holster.

This particularly attracted my attention because I was about to head off to South Africa for the 2012 TIPA general assembly and awards judging followed by four days at a safari park. I was envisaging being weighed down with a high-end D-SLR body and at least one supertelephoto lens, but could I really put all my faith in the X-S1 instead? The more I looked at the brochure and the specs, the more I started to be convinced that the X-S1 really might be up to the job, but I was going to have little time to test it before heading off. Could I really get away with one camera – weighing in at just a fraction
under one kilogram – when I’d normally have to carry at least ten times more weight to do the same job? My concerns concentrated on the sensor’s size – or, more specifically, its performance at the higher ISOs – the speed of the autofocusing and the optical quality of the lens. Key considerations which would make the difference between success and failure.

Conversely, I knew that I wasn’t going on a safari where photography was the priority and provisions would have been made for shooting with big lenses and their necessary supports. I’d have to take pot-luck like everybody else so a more compact and manoeuvrable camera was desirable. Wrestling with the pros and cons, I decided to take the gamble and found out if the X-S1 really could deliver the quality and variety of images shown in the brochure. I put my money where my mouth was, and my X-S1 arrived just two days before I left for Cape Town. It had impressed me after only a brief handling at CP+ 2012 and, as I now looked more closely at everything, I began to feel more confident that I’d made the right decision. It had a solid ‘Made In Japan’ feel, the control layout was intuitive and the lens looked like it was actually a reasonable performer across all of that 26x zooming range. Consequently, for the first time in a long time I travelled light with just the X-S1, my beloved Hasselblad XPan, a Zoom H2n sound recorder and a compact Sirui carbon-fibre tripod in the bag. Bliss! But I was still worrying that I was probably under-equipped right up until the first drive into the South African bushveld. It quickly became evident that using a big lens in the 4WD would have been a challenge – for obvious reasons you’re confined to the vehicle – and shooting hand-held was pretty much the only option. A late afternoon storm had significantly reduced the light levels so almost straightaway I was exploring the X-S1’s high ISO capabilities and the optical image stabiliser was immediately proving its worth. It also didn’t take very long to appreciate the value of being able to switch from landscape wide-angles to long telephoto animal portraits with the quick twist of the wrist. The zooming action is quite smooth too, courtesy of what Fujifilm calls “a metal cam-driven zoom mechanism” which is designed to even out the torque required.

Over the next couple of days the shooting situations seriously tested the X-S1’s capabilities and it mostly delivered the goods. The autofocusing proved much faster and more reliable than I’d ever imagined – even in pretty low light situations – and, once I’d switched off the LCD monitor’s ‘Sunlight Mode’ which was giving me false impressions of the exposures, the metering was pretty accurate too, although I found the best dynamic range was achieved with +0.7 EV of compensation applied. Shutter lag wasn’t an issue and, even with RAW+JPEG capture – which represented around 25 MB of data a pop – the files were processed very rapidly indeed.

The handling and operational gripes are few and mostly related to the EVF’s eyepiece which, unless it was right up to your eye so the proximity sensors were totally blocked, tended to switch back to the LCD monitor rather too easily. Of course, this can be overridden, but it was more convenient to have the auto-switching so images could be immediately checked in the LCD monitor. The EVF itself works well enough and having both the grid and the level display is a godsend when you’re having to frame in a hurry. Indeed, the ability to reset the X-S1 very quickly to adapt to rapidly changing conditions was one of the camera’s greatest assets… wild animals aren’t the most co-operative of subjects.

So to the all-important question of image quality and, here again, the X-S1 exceeded expectations. I’m not going to suggest that, for example, a Nikon D4 fitted with the latest 600mm f4.0 supertele wouldn’t have delivered better results due to the bigger sensor and the faster glass, but under the circumstances the X-S1 did an exceptional job. I shot RAW+JPEG to cover all bases, but as it happens the JPEGs were pretty good straight out of the camera. Noise levels are negligible up to ISO 800 and still acceptable at ISO 1000 and 1600, although there is a noticeable softening which will limit the degree of enlargement that’s possible. On a couple of occasions there was no option but to use ISO 3200 and these images are grainy but still useable. Overall, the JPEGs were a shade on the soft side, but are easily sharpened post-camera. With the benefit of hindsight, I would set the camera’s sharpness to Medium Hard rather than leaving it at the Standard default. The Velvia ‘Film Simulation’ preset gives a very pleasing colour rendition – with good greens being the speciality just as it is with the
film – and the B&W+Y and +G presets also delivered nicely contrasty images with good neutrality (the prime reason for doing this in-camera rather than converting a colour image later). The zoom is exceptionally well corrected across its full focal range and, beyond some slight vignetting at 24mm, optical aberrations just aren’t an issue.

The real ‘proof of the pudding’ is that I did indeed manage to get images that were actually very close to those in the X-S1 brochure. This isn’t to suggest these illustrations aren’t representative of what a camera can do, but the X-S1’s publication made some pretty extravagant claims. I, for one, am very pleased – not to mention pretty relieved – to find that Fujifilm isn’t gilding the lily at all.

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THE VERDICT

The Fujifilm X-S1 is a truly remarkable camera. It’s not quite perfect, but it is a hugely competent piece of equipment which can realistically work as an alternative to a comparable D-SLR kit when you really do have to travel light. The irony is that it’s better at this than many CSCs!

There’s been some suggestion in other reviews that the X-S1 is expensive for a superzoom camera, but this really is missing the point. The X-S1 is like no other superzoom camera we’ve seen before and it’s much, much better featured – including, just for starters, key components such as the sensor and the lens– so, consequently, it’s in a whole different league in terms of its capabilities and performance. I’ve also read elsewhere that including such a long focal range is a waste of time and Fujifilm should have opted for something shorter and faster, but again this is missing the point. Having a workable 600mm-equivalent lens in such a compact package is a major part of this camera’s appeal... and without sacrificing a proper wide-angle too.

As far as the Australian market is concerned, the X-S1 appears to be pretty competitively priced compared to the entry-level D-SLRs and comparable CSCs such as Panasonic’s Lumix G3... however, this doesn’t take into account the extra spending needed to equip any of its interchangeable lens rivals with a 600mm telephoto. The ‘all-in-one’ fixed-lens design not only makes for compactness, but eliminates dust problems.

The smaller sensor could actually have been a big issue, but Fujifilm’s EXR architecture effectively counters the traditional performance drawbacks. Not only is the X-S1 unique in the superzoom camera category, it’s a unique configuration full stop. Never before has so much capability in such a compact package been delivered with so
few compromises.

Type: Fixed lens digital camera with electronic viewfinder.
Lens: Fujinon Super EBC 6.1-158.6mm f2.8-5.6 (equivalent to 24-624mm).
Focusing Type & Range: TTL via contrast detection system, 49 points wide-area with auto/manual point selection and centre-point mode. Focus frame adjustable for size. 30 cm to infinity, macro focusing down to 1.0 cm. Face detection mode. Manual switching between single-shot and continuous modes. Low light/contrast assist provided by built-in lamp. Fully manual control available with zoom assistance.
Shutter Type: Combined electronic and mechanical, leaf type.
Shutter Speeds: 30-1/4000 second plus ‘B’.
Metering: Multi-zone (256 segments), centre-weighted average and spot.
Exposure System: Program (with shift), aperture/shutter-priority auto and manual. 17 subject/scene modes with auto scene selection in ‘EXR Auto’ mode. Up to +/-2.0 EV exposure compensation, an AE lock and auto exposure bracketing.
Sensitivity: ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. Extendable to ISO 12,800, but at smaller image sizes.
White Balance: Auto mode with six presets, one custom measurement and manual colour temperature settings (2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin). Fine-tuning in the red-to-cyan and blue-to-yellow colour ranges (plus/minus
nine steps)
Sensor: 11 mm Fujifilm EXR CMOS with a 6.6x8.8 mm imaging area, 12.3 million pixels (12.0 MP effective).
Image Size: 4:3 aspect ratio = 4000x3000, 2816x2112 and 2048x1536 pixels. 3:2 – 4000x2664, 2816x1864 and 2048x1360 pixels. 16:9 aspect ratio = 4000x2248, 2816x1584 and 1920x1080 pixels. 1:1 aspect ratio = 2992x2992, 2112x2112 and 1536x1536 pixels. JPEG, RAW (.RAF files) and JPEG+RAW capture modes.
Video Recording: H.264 MOV format at 1920x1080 pixels, 25 fps and 16:9 aspect ratio and 1280x720 pixels, 25 fps and 16:9 aspect ratio. Stereo sound recording via built-in microphones. Stereo audio input provided.
Continuous Shooting: Up to
7.0 fps for a burst of up to 10 images with JPEG/large/fine capture and eight images with RAW capture. Mid and low speed shooting at 5.0 fps and 3.0 fps respectively. High speed shooting at 10 fps with a 6.0 MP image size.
Formats: JPEG and MOV. DPOF and PictBridge compatible.
Flash: Built-in with auto, red-eye removal, fill-in and slow sync modes. External flash units sync via ISO standard hotshoe.
Viewfinder: Electronic LCD eyelevel viewfinder plus 7.2 cm LCD monitor (460,000 pixels), adjustable for tilt. EVF = 1.44 megapixels resolution and 100 percent frame coverage. Eyepiece strength adjustment built-in.
Storage: SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-I) memory cards plus 26 MB of internal memory.
Interface: USB 2.0, mini HDMI, A/V output, 3.5 mm stereo
audio input.
Additional Features: Bodyshell sealed against dust and moisture, image stabilisation via sensor shift, magnesium alloy bodyshell, electronic level display, real-time histogram, superimposed grids (3x3, 6x4), two custom camera set-ups, ‘Advanced Anti Blur’ mode, ‘EXR’ modes (Auto, Resolution Priority, High ISO & Low Noise, Dynamic Range Priority), ‘Advanced Shooting’ modes (Motion Panorama 360, Pro Focus, Pro Low Light), ‘Film Simulation’ modes (Provia/Standard, Velvia/Vivid, Astia/Soft, B&W, B&W+Yellow, B&W+Red, B&W+Green, Sepia), picture parameter adjustments (colour, sharpness, highlight tone, shadow tone, noise reduction), dynamic range expansion (Auto, 100%, 200%, 400%, 800%, 1600%), sRGB and Adobe RGB colour space settings, AF/AE lock, dual-delay self-timer (two or ten seconds), auto bracketing modes (AE, ISO, Film Simulation, Dynamic Range), ‘Best Frame Capture’, two customisable function buttons, three custom camera set-ups, in-camera RAW file conversion, ‘Guidance’ displays, playback zoom, 9/100 thumbnail displays, image search modes (Date, Face, Favourites, Scene, Type of Data, Upload Mark), slide show (with fade-in/out), ‘PhotoBook Assist’ function. PictBridge and DPOF compliant.
Power: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery (NP-95 type).
Dimensions (WxHxD): 135.0x107.0x149.0 mm.
Weight: 905 grams (without
battery or memory card).