So whats so special about Fuji X-Trans sensor cameras?

Fuji X-E1 Voigtlander 90mm f/3.5 m-mount



If you'd asked me the question at the top of the post at various times in the past 16 months or so I might have answered 'Absolutely nothing!!' I have had my frustrations with the X-Pro 1 and X-E1 certainly, but despite everything I keep coming back to them and using them regularly. I'm even trying to base a whole system around them. They probably also get more column inches on the photographic internet and cause more heated debate than any other camera, particularly proportionate to their sales, which in terms of everything else thats available aren't really that big. So whats going on here? What makes them so desirable? and makes their owners jump to their defence so 'robustly?' Posts about them usually send the hyperbole meter into the red so what indeed makes them so special?

The first and most obvious reason is that they are different to virtually everything else out there. While others use old camera and particularly rangefinder design to give their cameras that currently popular retro feel, Fuji have gone the whole way. Their X series cameras look just like old rangefinder cameras. They aren't rangefinders of course, but a 1950's photographer in a time warp would imagine thats just what they are. Fuji have obviously spotted a market here. There are many photographers who are somewhat underwhelmed by gadgetry, apps and polycarbonate modernity. They like the old-school look and feel of the Fuji's. And yes they have copied Leica and Contax etc. but there's nothing wrong in trying to make a camera look like a classic. They do decent sized knobs and dials, they make leather cases for their cameras and they aren't engaged in some kind of miniturisation war for the hide your camera in your pocket people and for those who have developed 'hampster finger' and 'smartphone thumb' in order to work their devices. They are cameras for photographers who aren't ashamed of what they shoot with and are serious enough about their photography that they don't want to hide their camera away. They are indeed photographers and not snapshooters, they make photographs, they don't take them and they are pleased to carry their camera with pride.

The second reason is the X-Trans sensor itself. It is quite remarkable. It allows photographers to shoot in low light with excellent high ISO performance and when processed with the right software the files show a quality that exceeds expectation from a 16MP sensor. However its no secret that this sensor has caused me many frustrations and I'm certainly not alone in that. It is still difficult to realise the full potential of what the sensor can offer in both Fuji's own software and the most popular converters such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Difficult but possible. Quirky small-scale software such as Raw Photo Processor and Iridient Developer yield the best results but unfortunately they are Mac only. Its certainly a sensor that does require a bit of work to get the best out of it. The cameras produce excellent jpgs. but they are only the beginning. With some time and experimentation it is possible to produce some extraordinary images from the raw files in terms of colour depth, sharpness and low noise at high ISO's. I've just had one of my X-Pro 1 files accepted by a very picky picture library taken at ISO 6400. Something I never believed was ever going to happen. So the sensor is pretty special and it can be argued that Fuji released it without the means to get the best out of it, but fortunately there are now ways to achieve that, particularly if you own an Apple-Mac.

The third reason is the lens range. It is admittedly a slow roll-out and Fuji started out unusually with three primes. All of them were good lenses, not necessarily the best out there, but certainly a good deal better than your average kit lens. They also look good and feel good and are very well made. I'm still not convinced by the faux aperture ring on the primes but then it seems to work fine, so I'm nit-picking really. They have since brought out two zooms, neither particularly small and light, but again decent quality and pleasingly with reasonably fast apertures. They have also got Zeiss making lenses for them, which do seem to offer little in terms of a quality gap over the native lenses, but its an encouraging sign none the less. There is also the ability, as with all mirrorless systems to use third party lenses. Canons, Nikons and M-Mount all work with them and hopefully tomorrows firmware update with Focus Peaking will make this an easier and less fiddly procedure. 

Fourthly Fuji, with the exception of the X100s which is too expensive, seem to have a realistic attitude to pricing. Despite being the most 'authentic' of the lookaleicas they don't have Sony's ridiculous pretensions with a camera like the RX1, which is ludicrously overpriced. The X-E1 with the 18-55mm zoom is around £800-900 here in the UK, which compares favourably with the £1700 or so you would currently have to shell out for a GH3 + 12-35mm zoom. There are things the GH3 can do which the X-E1 can't, particularly with regard to video, but double the price? The lenses are also reasonably and realistically priced. They aren't cheap certainly, But again compared to the alternatives I think they are reasonable. The Zeiss badged Sony 24mm f/1.8 is still around £800 for a lens that my tests inicated wasn't as sharp as the 18-55mm kit zoom at certain apertures, so the 18mm and 35mm Fuji primes can almost be seen as bargains. 

While these are advantages there are certainly still improvements that need to be made. The appalling battery life is No.1 on my list of priorities and the AF speed still needs improving. Hopefully tomorrows firmware update can improve that. Again from my perspective I would love them to do something with the shutter. It reminds me of m4/3 shutter buttons, which is no compliment. If anyone from Fuji is reading this, can we please have an electronic shutter or if not that one which actually feels like something is happening when you press it? I would mention that Leica have electronic shutters on their X cameras. Also the lens range still needs extending. The 55-200mm zoom is currently the only serious telephoto option and that is big and heavy. A fast 90mm prime would be ideal. And do we really need a pancake? For gods sake everybodys got one of those, I thought Fuji was supposed to be different? And while we are on the subject, why the delay on the wide-angle zoom?

So thats my take on the Fuji cameras. An attempt to explain why I've been able to put up with their 'quirks' and problems. This is why I like using them and despite using unspeakable language when sometimes processing raw files (now thankfully much less with the Iridient software) have persevered.

Oh and I almost forgot. There is something else that makes them special. They are just so damn sexy!!