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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.