Forbes: Terroir And The Art Of The Camera: The Fujifilm X-M1

Forbes: Terroir And The Art Of The Camera: The Fujifilm X-M1

Forbes have published an excellent write-up by Jack Forster on the Fuji X-M1, and Fuji in general:


Fujifilm has been, for the last couple of years, one of the most interesting and risk-taking camera makers in the world to follow.  In the last few years, they’ve introduced a groundbreaking new sensor (one of the very few to break away from the tried-and-true Bayer array sensors, used in varying formats by virtually every other camera maker) a new lens mount (the X-mount) a slew of matching new lenses (11 as of last December) and some of the most widely respected and loved new cameras by any manufacturer at any price, including the revered X-100/S 35mm equivalent, fixed-lens APSC cameras.

The challenge for Fujifilm now is rather like that faced by Apple starting a few years ago: having won the hearts and minds of so many new fans, how do you keep people excited?  Paradigm shifting technologies don’t come along very often, and the problem with making a reputation for breaking new ground is that modern consumers have rather short attention spans, and you’re only as good as your last trick.  In the real world this means that even if you come up with something new, if it’s not perceived as an in-character move –something really different; transgressive, in a word –then you risk losing momentum and a perceived leadership position.

Beyond a certain point though, it’s better all around if we don’t expect revolutions every five minutes –obviously it’s better for designers but it’s better for consumers as well, for whom too-rapid product development cycles can be worse than disorienting; they can produce a sense of betrayal.  Having created a strong base of new technology, which continues to develop and improve (both on the hardware and software sides; one of the nice things about Fujifilm is that they’ve got a pretty good track record of supporting their products –even over a fairly long term –with software updates, as X-100 owners can attest) Fujifilm is now broadening the range of both interchangeable and fixed lens cameras they produce, as well as the range of X-mount lenses.

The X-M1 was announced by Fujifilm last June and last fall, I had a chance to shoot with one for several weeks –an interesting experience after having reviewed the X-E1 and X-100S, both which I found very impressive cameras.  The X-M1 continues the strategy of offering wider variety in X-Trans sensor and X-mount lens-capable cameras.  It uses the same APS-C, CMOS, 16MP Trans-X sensor Fujifilm is using in the X-Pro1 and X-E1 cameras –which, if you liked those X-mount cameras, is a very good thing.


In fact, it’s pretty hard to tell the X-M1 apart from the X-E1 at first glance.  It’s a bit smaller in both height and width than the X-E1 although the overall thickness is the same, and it shares the same rangefinder-style, vintage design cues; fortunately Fujifilm’s continuing its practice of integrating retro-styling that’s both attractive and enhances functionality and handling, but doesn’t become obtrusive.  The other major difference between the X-E1/2 and the X-M1 is the top deck –where the X-E1/2 use a dedicated shutter speed dial and exposure compensation dial, the X-M1 uses a more familiar mode dial with access to the usual PSAM settings, as well as a slew of dedicated filters, scene modes, and film simulation modes –keeping the “film” in Fujifilm; present and correct are simulated film modes for Velvia, Astia, and Provia color films.

This is a bit more ironic than usual, as the target audience for the X-M1 will very likely have not only no experience with those films, they very likely won’t have heard of them at all.  This is a camera designed with a more casual group of photographers in mind: those ready to upgrade from compacts or smartphones, who are willing to have something of a conversation about what will give them better performance and picture quality, but who won’t –for whatever reason –want to upgrade to a DSLR.  This is not, however, to say it’s not got (considerable) merits for enthusiasts, as we’ll see.

The situation nowadays, of course, is not what it was when it comes to interchangeable lens cameras even a few years ago.  APSC DSLRs have been getting smaller, to the point where they’re becoming competitive size-wise with larger compacts, and there are limits to how small you can make a camera before you run into unbreakable limits imposed by optics and sensor size –to say nothing of handling issues.  That said, this is a very small APSC ILC, but despite that, it still hit the sweet spot for me in terms of handling.  Not just in size, either –though noticeably lighter than the X-E 1/2, it’s still got enough weight, and size, to provide good neuromuscular feedback.  One thing I’ve been noticing a lot, thanks to the opportunity I’ve had to shoot with a variety of compacts over the last year, is that there really is a point below which accuracy in handling –and therefore, framing and stability –begins to suffer; while the search for the perfect take-anywhere camera is never-ending, I’m beginning to think realistic appraisal of the limits of human physical precision have as much to do with it as the camera.


I shot with the Fujifilm X-M1 using two lenses: the 18-55 kit zoom lens, and the f2.8, 27mm prime.  The 27mm lens gives the approximate field of view of a 40mm lens on a full frame sensor.  It’s also a very compact lens; on the X-E1, it yields a package that’s actually slightly smaller than the X-100s, with a price that is, if you buy the X-E1 with the 18-55 kit zoom and the f2.8/27mm, exactly the same as the X-100S.  For that matter, you can also buy, for the same money as an X-100S,  the X-M1 with Fujifilm’s X-mount f1.4/35mm lens –about a 50mm full-frame equivalent, with not much of an increase in back-to-front distance,  (and what little there is is mostly the X-M1′s lens.)  Both the kit zoom and 27mm prime were excellent lenses; I’d recommend that enthusiast shooters considering this as a backup camera or as a first foray into X-mount, X-Trans sensor Fujifillm cameras should look at the X-mount primes, though, which are optically better and more compact, as well as offering more situational versatility (read: better low light performance) as well as more DOF control.

The conundrum here for an enthusiast buyer is considerable.  The X-M1 might at first glance be seen as an X-E1/2 or even X-Pro1 lite –access to the same optics and sensor, but without the added bulk and expense of an electronic, or hybrid-electronic, viewfinder; a smaller body at a lower price but with essentially the same performance.  But at the price asked, it’s also pretty strong competition for the X-100S –again, same sensor, no hybrid EVF, but (and this is a big plus) access to the full range of well-supported X-mount lenses.

The X-M1 also has on its side a tilting LCD, which, eye-level finder purists aside, is a pretty handy thing to have, and if you’re really fussed about using an eye-level finder you can always put a dedicated optical finder in the standard hot shoe (I did –a 40mm Voigtlander finder I had lying around –but I took it off fairly soon as it just didn’t seem all that necessary, but this is one of those things about which many people feel passionately; you know who you are.)  On top of everything else you get wifi support, another plus over the X-100S.  So the purists’s choice between the two cameras isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as it might seem at first –sure, at first blush the X-100S seems the obvious enthusiast’s choice but giving up access to other focal lengths is not something everyone’s going to want to do, and the X-M1 brings an awful lot else to the table, not the least of which is very attractive pricing and –that PASM mode dial notwithstanding –considerable ease of use.  As well as, of course, the distinctive color rendering of the X-Trans sensor, which is a major selling point (if you like it; some people do not and will never be convinced although increasingly, Fujifilm seems to be winning skeptics over.)  However, work-arounds like a third-party optical finder aside there is no eye-level finder option for the X-M1; it does not support an external EVF through the hotshoe.

In the end, it’s going to be, for enthusiasts, a matter of priorities.  Are you already heavily invested in another lens system, and/or do you want to, or expect to, get into an additional lens ecosystem?  How important is it to you to be able to compose at eye level?  Are you exacting enough to need or prefer the dedicated shutter speed and compensation dials of the X-100S?  Are you willing to accept an increase in size (slight) and price, to get the eye-level electronic finder (oh, and other features, like split-image and focus peaking assist for manual focusing, as well as faster hybrid autofocus) of the X-E2?  Can you live with a PASM mode dial or do you fear you won’t be able to face yourself in the morning if you don’t have the dedicated shutter speed and exposure comp dials of the X-100s/Pro1/X-E2?

What I can say is that regardless of what else you have in your bag (or might have in the future) this is an excellent camera; a hell of a lot of image-making power in a pleasingly small package –again, with a zoom lens you lose a bit of the size advantage but then this was never going to be a pocketable camera no matter what, and the sensor still easily outclasses anything you can find in a compact (at least, without making significant trade-offs in dynamic range and sensitivity to slow shutter speed and hand shake.)  The most serious competition for the X-M1 doesn’t come so much from other Fujifilm cameras as it does from Micro Four Thirds cameras, which in this generation show even less disadvantage than ever to APSC, and which offer far greater resolution and much better dynamic range than most users will ever need –it’s pros and serious enthusiasts who are still going to notice the greater depth of field and DR offered by a bigger sensor, and who will care enough for it to be a deciding factor, and even for them it’s far from cut-and-dried as such advantages have to be weighed agains a huge choice of very attractive, regularly refreshed cameras, and the very evolved and in many cases, optically excellent Micro Four Thirds lens ecosystem.  The jump in quality from compact to mirrorless ILC cameras in Micro Four Thirds or APSC is dramatic and immediately noticeable; that between Micro Four Thirds and APSC, much less so.

But ultimately, I think what makes this camera attractive is not so much how it stacks up against the competition, but how enjoyable and versatile it is to use in its own right, and here, it’s a winner.  It’s true that it was designed for shooters looking to upgrade from a point-and-shoot, and to offer those folks a path to upgrade the sophistication of their approach to photography via interchangeable lenses –since the term “bridge camera” is taken, we can call it a gateway camera, if you like.  It raises, really, a question that all stake-holders in camera technology will have to consider with increasing care over the next few years –how good is “good enough?”  There are two phenomena at play here –convergence in quality is one; the difference in quality between different sensors and optics packages is continuing to shrink (though, especially for serious amateurs and pros, it’s still there; and, of course, there are the limitations of the laws of physics, like depth of field.)  The other is what constitutes acceptable quality; for most people, it’s a cell phone camera, which does (very roughly, and leaving out the social media side of the equation, et cetera and so forth.)  For people who want to make great photos, and not just take pictures or share on social media, I think we’ve gotten to a point where it’s less and less necessary to trade off other considerations, like handling, cost, and size –as well as aesthetic appeal –to get the largest possible sensor camera; this is certainly true even for most serious enthusiasts.  The question, more now than ever, is not “is this the best camera” or “is this the best in its class” but rather “is this the right camera for me.

It reminds me of what’s happened to winemaking –the level of technology and general knowledge amongst makers is immense; it’s gotten easier than ever to get decent wine –which is more than good enough for most drinkers –but it’s perhaps harder than ever to get really interesting wine, and this is the reason I think Fujifilm is a company worth watching –it’s a company that, in a world where increasing homogeneity is the rule, really does think different (sorry, Apple.)  The world is full of competent cameras right now; Fujifilm offers that, but it also offers a terroir all its own.

Jack Forster Forbes