In with the Old
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Mediterranean adventures with the Fujifilm X-Pro1
With the newly-released X-Pro3 hitting the shelves, now seems an odd time to roll back seven years of painstaking technological development, and to take to the streets with the original X-Pro1. Neither is this a trip down memory lane. I never owned a camera with first-generation X-Trans I sensor, nor any of the X-Pro models. Instead, seduced by promises of a special kind of image quality, I sought out an inexpensive used X-Pro1 on ebay in the hope of answering these questions:
Firstly, is the image output significantly different in comparison with the newer sensors? Secondly, to what extent is the experience of using the camera marred by its technological limitations? And thirdly, will this camera make me want to buy one of its successors? Will I even want to keep it? I'll try to answer these, with some images from two brief trips included to break up the text.
To get the most accurate idea of how the camera handles colour, I shot in jpeg and with the standard Provia film simulation, both on the X-Pro1 and X100T. I have done some gentle editing of these images, mainly for aesthetic purposes but also to get a feel for the flexibility of the files.
A quick disclaimer - the comments below should be taken as a personal set of first impressions from the perspective of a street photographer. I'm not attempting to provide anything exhaustive or definitive here, and appreciate that the beauty of a particular sensor's output is very much in the eye of the beholder. This post is just to give anyone considering an X-Trans I camera a sense of the rewards and compromises involved.
My experience is with the X-Trans II (my X100T is still going strong) and X-Trans III (X-T2, X-E3) sensors. I've seen many online sources praise the original X-Trans I sensor as having a certain 'magic' or 'film-like' feel. This, along with the appeal of the X-Pro form factor, was my main motivation for acquiring the X-Pro1.
In Malta, the X-Pro1 was my only camera, but a trip to Venice enabled me to compare the output with that of my X100T. The differences were subtle, but noticeable. Clearly, the X-Pro1 doesn't add any kind of magic fairy dust to a dull image. However, the X-Trans I sensor does handle colour and contrast in a markedly different way, especially in comparison to its successor.
Firstly, the shadows are noticeably less harsh than those from the X100T, and probably the X-Trans III sensor cameras too. There just seems to be more shadow detail present by default. I can imagine this being welcome to JPEG shooters, though of course the intensity of the shadows can be controlled in-camera to achieve a similar effect in later models.
I'd read somewhere that blown highlights are hard to recover in the X-Pro1 files, so I metered conservatively, especially in high-contrast situations like the one above. I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to produce the above edit from the camera's JPEG, recovering plenty of shadow detail.
Secondly, the colour temperature skews cool, with more of a green than magenta tint. The emphasis on blues and greens, when combined with understated warmer colours, do perhaps lend a less clinical, more film-like quality to certain images, though I often found the effect too pronounced and in need of correction in post.
In the images below, I've left the colour temperature and tint as shot, to give an idea of the kind of palette you can expect.
The first is a good example of an image in which I think this works well. The second, for my taste, needs a push towards the magenta.
On the Rialto bridge I took almost identical images with both cameras, revealing striking differences in colour temperature decision-making. These are straight-out-of-camera JPEGs:
Left: X-Pro1, 18mm f2 (Kelvin: 4830, Tint -1.1); Right: X100T (Kelvin 5347, Tint +0.9)
The difference of over 500 degrees is surprising and very noticeable, though consistent with my experience of the X-Pro1 during both trips. I'd be curious to hear from other X-Trans I camera users to confirm whether they've encountered this too. Note also the harsher shadows present in the X100T file.
Finally, I was particularly delighted with the camera's output under indoor lighting conditions. I can't quite put my finger on it, but they just seem to have a very natural and organic feel. Shame about the autofocus, but more on that in a moment!
Despite extensive firmware updates to solve initial quirks, there are inevitably some downsides to using an older digital camera, especially for someone used to newer models.
Let's get the obvious ones out of the way. The EVF is terrible. Poor resolution and refresh rate I can live with, but the implication of blown highlights that didn't exist was a bit nerve-shredding when I first started. (It's worth noting that it was quickly upgraded for the introduction of the X-E1.) The X-Pro1 also lacks any kind of phase-detect autofocus, so really struggles in low-light. In good light, I didn't find the slow autofocus prohibitively difficult, though clearly things have improved significantly in the intervening years.
I'm not an OVF user, but was impressed by the two magnification settings, making the experience arguably better for my trusty 18mm f2 prime than that of the X-Pro3.
Everything else is a minor irritation, but there are quite a few. The buffer is extremely small. Quickly taking two or three photos in RAW+JPEG will set you back a couple of seconds. Obviously, no-one's going to invest in an X-Pro1 for sports photography, but this is something to bear in mind.
I'm used to using the D-pad on my X100T, but not being able to assign the directional keys to move the focus point by default on the X-Pro1 is faintly maddening - you have to hit the down key first before you can use the others. It's something you can get used to if this is your only camera, but it's tricky if using alongside an X100T (or X-E2/X-T1) as I was.
There are other quirks, but from a street photography perspective, these are the ones you're likely to come up against. It's also worth remembering that despite its extremely solid build quality, the X-Pro1 is not weather resistant like its successors.
THE X-PRO LINE
The rangefinder-style body has always appealed to me. I'm right eye dominant, and prefer not hiding my face behind my camera. I love my X-E3, and it gets plenty of use both as a second body, both professionally and on the street. My main camera is an X-T2, though, as the flip screen and large viewfinder makes it the most versatile option for all kinds of shooting.
Early rumours suggested the X-Pro3 would feature a flippy screen (partially true) and in-body image stabilisation (sadly not) so I've been thinking for some time about getting hold of one as my main body, replacing both my X-T2 and X100T. Despite the disappointments (if only the screen tilted sideways too!) I think it still has a lot to offer, and I thought the X-Pro1 would provide an opportunity to dip my toe into the X-Pro waters.
Despite the quirks mentioned above, it's a lovely camera to use. Incredibly solid, but light and discreet, with image quality that belies its age. It's easy to see how it won so many converts on its release.
I wanted to shoot and edit jpegs for this post, and the process was quite revelatory. I've always shot RAW, but the jpegs are so good (and even on the X-Pro1, surprisingly flexible) that there really isn't the need, 95% of the time. This is going to encourage me to explore the custom jpeg settings a bit more, and to cut down on editing time.
I did find myself preferring the output of the X-Pro1 over the X100T. I've never been a huge fan of the X-Trans II sensor: the way it seems to favour the yellows in the image, and the 'waxy' output at high ISO. I really like the X-Trans III though. To my eyes it's probably the most versatile and accurate of the bunch, if somewhat lacking the film-like qualities and cool colours inherent in the original sensor.
Ultimately, though, for someone like me who spends a fair bit of time in Capture One or Lightroom, the qualities of the X-Trans I sensor are easily replicated in the editing process. If however, I was planning just to use the out-of-camera jpegs, I'd reach for the X-Pro1 more often than not. I do, in fact, see what all the fuss is about!