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Fujifilm X-S1

March 25th, 2012
Fujifilm hopes to marry image quality and a long lens in one camera.

Fujifilm's expansion of its X series cameras has turned almost into a tuning project: it's taking virtually every class of camera the company makes and giving it a better sensor, premium optics, and advanced control. The X-S1 applies that formula to superzoom cameras, bringing new glass and an EXR sensor to a very long 26X lens. In our review of the Fujifilm X-S1, we'll see if it's an ideal match or if it's reaching too far into DSLR territory. Fujifilm's expansion of its X series cameras has turned almost into a tuning project: it's taking virtually every class of camera the company makes and giving it a better sensor, premium optics, and advanced control. The X-S1 applies that formula to superzoom cameras, bringing new glass and an EXR sensor to a very long 26X lens. In our review of the Fujifilm X-S1, we'll see if it's an ideal match or if it's reaching too far into DSLR territory.

Design and the display

Most superzoom cameras are often exactly straddling the line between point-and-shoots and DSLRs in design: while they're introducing more controls and some higher build quality elements, they're often still dominated by thin plastic and control elements that clearly show the cameras were built to a price.

Thankfully, the X-S1 mostly floats above these problems, as you'd expect for the $800 asking price. The main body isn't true metal -- that's often limited to either smaller, similarly-priced cameras or to $1,000-plus DSLRs -- but it's a much higher-quality, rubberized surface that both feels better and, more importantly, offers a stable grip. There is some metal: the lens barrel and dials are all metal, so they're not going to crack or snap loose with heavy use. The barrel has a smooth twisting motion (including the dedicated focus ring), and dials can be flicked quickly without the feeling you'll set them by accident. The body is partly weather-resistant, as well, which we appreciated when an unexpected, intermittent drizzle played a small amount of havoc with our photo testing.

The one disappointment from the build, other than that it's not completely metal or waterproof, is the quality of the port side doors. Both of them are somewhat fragile-feeling and, while better than what's used on Fujifilm's regular superzoom cameras like the HS10 we tried last year, feel like a small piece of cost-cutting on what's otherwise a high-end design. We'd hope for something that feels as reassuring as the rest of the body.

In mid-shoot, what you notice is that the camera is considerably bigger and heavier than other long-zoom cameras; it really is more like a DSLR with a non-removable lens. We enjoyed that for shooting, although not as much for portability. You'll have to factor in the price of a camera pouch or bag if you at all intend to travel with it. Contrast this with mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras like Sony's NEX-C3, which might shed some control but can actually slip into a pocket with the right lens, sometimes even if you're using a zoom lens. And watch out while shooting at far zoom: the barrel juts out a huge distance when extended, so you can't be too enthusiastic about zooming into an already close-up subject.

The upside is a very comfortable control layout, especially compared to the Fujfilm X10 we looked at just weeks ago. Although we had no major issues with the X10, the X-S1 gives controls more room to breathe. There are fewer dual-role buttons; there's now a full dial for scrolling instead of a thin wheel. Buttons like the drive mode have their own dedicated but easy to reach controls, and there's now two dedicated programmable function buttons as well as three customizable dial presets if you want fast access to settings beyond ISO and white balance (which both have dedicated controls). The front switch for autofocus modes remains handy like it was on the X10.

By far our favorite addition is the dedicated movie recording button. Many cameras have these, but the X-S1 is the first Fujifilm X-series camera to get one, and it benefits greatly in the process. There's no odd mode dial tricks or menus to root through, and the X-S1 lets you record from any still image mode you're comfortable with shooting in, whether it's aperture priority or EXR.

Going bigger gives the X-S1 some advantages in expansion. Along with a much larger pop-up flash, there's a jack for an external microphone input if you take video recording especially seriously. Mini HDMI persists from the X10. And answering one of the most longstanding complaints about virtually every Fujifilm camera ever made, the computer connection is now just an industry standard mini USB connector instead of Fujifilm's proprietary USB and video combo port; you're not stranded if you lose the official cable on a vacation. A standard single RCA plug provides video out if you don't have an HD destination.

There's some slight touches to mention beyond this: having the SDXC card slot on the side is more convenient than its usual place on the bottom for these sorts of cameras. The battery charger is noteworthy too in having a cord to plug into the wall rather than plugging in directly, which we found very helpful on a crowded power strip or wall outlet.

Interface and displays

If you've used any X-series Fujifilm camera, you'll know what to expect for the software menus. They're easy to understand and adjust based on the mode. Choosing Scene Preset (SP) on the dial gives a simple scene selector, while a more complicated mode like aperture priority or full manual understandably has much more detail. We continue to like options to fine-tune color tones and the strength of a given effect, such as the dynamic range boost.

Speed isn't the strong point if you're in software, though. Whenever you're not accessing a very common setting, you end up spending some time rooting through the menu to get to just what you want. Where a company like Sony breaks up its settings into multiple fairly understandable top-level categories, there's just two sections, image and general system settings, resulting in some lengthy scrolling. The X-S1's relative abundance of dedicated and customizable buttons proves a bit of a relief here, although we still wish it had the quick menus of the X-Pro1.

A fair amount of customization exists. Beyond the three dial presets, the display can be as simple or as complex as you like, adding parts like a histogram or, our favorite, the gyroscopic level. You can relegate the display to being an information-only display as well. The existence of a true electronic viewfinder provides an option to shut the main, three-inch LCD off entirely and use the viewfinder alone, a real boon if you're shooting for a long day and want to conserve battery power. Fujifilm allows automatic, proximity-based switching between the LCD and the viewfinder, although we found that it was over-aggressive and would occasionally switch off the LCD when we were still several inches away from the eyepiece.

The main LCD is generally good, tending to produce fairly accurate colors and usually readable outdoors. It's only moderate in resolution, however, at 460,000 pixels instead of the 920,000 we've seen on even some lower-cost cameras; that can have a significant impact on your ability to lock in a manual focus. It is a tilting display, a significant edge if you're trying to compose a shot in a crowd or a deliberately low angle.

Our experience of the electronic viewfinder is very mixed. It's showing a real, through-the-lens representation of what will be in the frame, which itself is a help over the offset viewfinders of the X10 and X100. The entire interface can be represented on the 1.44-megapixel mini screen, and we found ourselves instinctively going to the eyepiece even when we didn't have to. With that said, the display isn't something we'd want to use on a constant basis. The inset position of the viewfinder's LCD can be mildly headache-inducing if your vision isn't exceptional.

Image quality: regular shooting and the 26X lens

The 12-megapixel, 2/3-inch CMOS sensor on the X-S1 is the same as it is on the X10. Accordingly, what we said about image quality will usually apply here. At this in-between sensor size, it isn't quite as sharp as on a DSLR or other cameras with truly large sensors, but it's a visible step up from the usual compact-class imagery. Color accuracy is good and often vibrant at default settings without appearing exaggerated. Softened backgrounds in shallow depth of field shots aren't as creamy as they are on the X10, although we'd attribute that more to the narrower minimum lens aperture (f2.8 versus f2.0) than the sensor.

One step back for the X-S1 comes through its performance in low light. Neither of the two more recent X-series cameras is as good as a DSLR (or a DSLR-sized sensor like in the NEX line), but we found that the X-S1 just didn't like particularly dark environments, even if there was a brightly lit subject at one end. Some of that can again be chalked up to the aperture, but it does reduce the ability to carry the camera around for concerts or film noire-style nighttime shots. We found that the camera shoots most comfortably up to ISO 800 or ISO 1,600, depending on how dark the overall scene is and thus how likely it will emphasize noise. ISO 3,200 is usable in a pinch, but we'd forego anything above, even though it's using the EXR mode to try and clean up the shot.

As you'd expect on a superzoom camera, the lens is intended as the highlight, and in some ways it certainly is. Versatility is what stands out here. Despite having a 24-624mm equivalent (26X) range, it's useful for both closeups and some particularly distant shooting. Ironically, we most liked the performance of the camera at very near distances: macro shots tend to stay very sharp and with a minimum of distortion from the comparatively wide angle. There are two macro settings, and the "super macro" setting lets it get as close as 0.4 inches while maintaining focus.

Longer distances are certainly feasible, but the X-S1 was slightly puzzling in how performance changed towards the far end of the lens. Most zoom distances still have reasonably quick autofocusing time. As we got towards the maximum distance, however, we found that it had a lot of problems maintaining an autofocus lock during handheld shooting if there was anything less than a brightly lit subject at the other end. Even an overcast day was enough to throw it off, and we often found ourselves having to switch to manual focus to regain sharpness. The focus ring made this quick; it's not surprising that the reduced light in a long zoom would hurt performance, but we've had cameras with lesser sensors that performed better at similar distances. We were glad that we could get a sharp image at that extreme distance, even if the lower-resolution LCD made that harder to accomplish.

A slightly added challenge comes from the camera's own attempts to help the shot. At longer distances, the lens is very aggressively trying to stabilize the image. As much as the effort helps, it's active enough that you notice the conspicuous up, down, left, and right movements. You can still compose a shot without too much trouble; it's just jarring.

Zoom at minimum 24mm equivalent distance, at 300mm, and at 624mm

Having put that disclaimer out front, when the zoom works, it really works. You can stand at the foot of a large building and capture intricate details of the clock at the very top. On the street, you can easily zoom the equivalent of a block or two, capturing people and animals that don't even realize you're there. At moderate distances, it can also provide close-up portraits of subjects that would normally be a small part of a larger scene, although that performance at maximum zoom can be an issue. If you're aware of the camera's limitations or have a tripod to work from, you may get some truly good results. We didn't notice significant chromatic aberration (the purple fringing in high-contrast edges) or vignetting at far ends

24mm, 300mm, softness at 624mm

We mentioned the pop-up flash before, and it's one of the better examples of how to do a large but built-in flash sensor. It can properly illuminate subjects at 0.9 feet away, and we were able to photograph a friend with a minimum of highlights or other ill effects, although the head-on nature of the flash meant that shadows were inevitable with a close background.

EXR, high-speed shooting, panorama, and videos

EXR is Fujifilm's terminology for pixel binning, or combining multiple pixels on the sensor together to produce a higher quality image at the expense of sheer resolution. What it amounts to is extra shooting options depending on how much you're willing to sacrifice.

The X-S1, like its peers, has two options beyond full resolution: a low-noise mode to clean up shots in darker environments and a dynamic range mode for situations with significant highlights (a bright sky, for example) or shadows. As before, most of the benefit comes from the dynamic range mode, since it tends to flesh out the detail and get closer to the real shot. Our experimenting did occasionally show moments where noise reduction would help, and in some cases provided a more accurate image that you'd have expected would need the dynamic range mode. They're worth trying in those situations where you know your shot might lose quality no matter what your skill.

Normal at top, EXR low noise at bottom: the bench gets added detail, and color is overall more accurate

Fujifilm has lately made it a point to emphasize continuous shooting on its higher-end cameras, and that comes into play partly through the sheer number of bracketing options. Three-shot bracketing modes exist for dynamic range, exposure, ISO, and even simulated film effects. While the delay between each shot is a bit much for action scenes, the modes can help if you know you might misjudge the exposure or want to experiment with color. In all the non-color modes, you can choose just how wide the gap is between the reference middle shot and the high or low values.

High-speed shooting performance is roughly as good as the X10. Its peak speed is a very fast 10 frames per second using autofocus, albeit at medium resolution, with seven frames per second at full resolution. The X-S1 is capable of keeping focus if you're at reasonable zoom levels, although it has the same short recording span as the X10. No matter how fast the SD card or the resolution, you only get the peak speed for about 16 frames, which equates to 1.6 seconds at the full 10FPS rate. Speed drops fast, closer to two frames per second, after the buffer fills up. If you're at a sporting event and are worried you'll miss the 'golden' moment, you'll need to drop to five or seven frames per second to maximize your chances.

Burst shooting at 10 frames per second

Fujifilm continues to have one of the better panorama shooting modes. Using a familiar sweeping motion, you have the option of anything from a 120-degree range to a full 360 degrees in either horizontal or vertical. Stitching works well, although like any panorama mode, you'll want to steer clear of scenes with many people or moving objects to avoid obvious stitching artifacts.

Click for a full-size version

Movie-making on the X-S1 is mixed. It's still officially 1080p, but as we noticed on the X10, there's enough pixelation that we suspect Fujfilm is either using a low bitrate or upscaling a lower resolution. The camera can cope with fast motion and changes well enough. Audio quality is mostly a positive: there's stereo microphones that can catch fairly subtle details, although the array might need to move to cut back on wind noise. We encountered a significant amount of wind noise in one video session despite another being completely unaffected.

Slow-motion video shooting is again similar to how it is with the X10. The sweet spot is a 640x480, 70 frames per second mode that can keep some detail. Both the 120FPS and 200FPS modes shoot at around quarter VGA resolutions and aren't normally useful for something you'd want to post to YouTube.

Battery life, RAW files, and firmware issues

If you're not particularly attached to the specific design advantages of the X10 or the X-S1, the battery life might be a tipping point for the X-S1. After about four hours of fairly frequent shooting using mostly the main LCD, including short videos and bursts, the camera hadn't dipped below the two-thirds mark needed to visibly shrink the battery meter. We had to work at lowering the battery afterwards. It would be better if Fujifilm had a percentage for measurement. Even so, the combination of a bigger battery and the more efficient viewfinder clearly had an impact.

RAW support is less of an issue than it was just weeks ago. Since the X10 review was posted, Fujifilm has put out firmware updates for both the X10 and the X-S1 that should enable RAW compatibility with Macs and is particularly tailored to OS X Lion users. That said, you'll still need apps that themselves can deal with the newer imports.

The firmware's main goal is worth noting. Officially, it's primarily meant to address a glitch that produces "white orb" effects some photographers have noticed during EXR shooting. We hadn't noticed it on either the X10 or X-S1 either before or after the firmware update, but we'd definitely recommend checking what firmware is preloaded on your camera and patching up to avoid losing any shots.

Wrapping up

Superzooms are sometimes derided in the camera community as tourist cameras: devices for casual photographers that don't know much about the basics of photography, but are lured in by the idea of a close shot of the Eiffel Tower. To some extent, that's true of much of the category: we've seen cameras with 20X or larger zoom factors that sound good on paper, but often aren't really usable at all at those ranges. They sometimes suffer up close, too, with optics that aren't as good as they could be if the lens design had been more modest.

You can take the X-S1 much more seriously. At a minimum, it's a much better camera for typical distances, whether it's a flower macro, a portrait, or any area where an average amount of zoom is necessary. Likewise, this isn't a point-and-shoot with a lens as far as control. If you're genuinely experienced, the X-S1 rewards that with better results.

The autofocusing performance at or near maximum zoom is a possible reason to hold off. Again, troubles with performance at long range aren't unheard of, but they're a bit dismaying for a camera with a price premium that's attached directly to the hardware's glass and sensor quality. And if you're a fan of shooting in dim conditions, you'll face a bit of a letdown, although it must be said that Fujifilm isn't expressly aiming at that audience.

Our real concern is that $800 price tag. If you're one of the experienced photographers we've mentioned, that $800 is within the territory of entry DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Most cameras in that range don't include lenses the range of the X-S1, but if you're just looking for a high-grade camera with reasonable telephoto distances, it doesn't cost much more to get a DSLR or mirrorless camera with an appropriate lens. Many of those who can afford the $800 for a long-zoom camera would also be willing to pay significantly more to get the exact camera they want. Shop well and these alternatives will have better low-light quality, not to mention flexibility if your lens needs fall outside of what Fujifilm expected.

The X-S1 is a likeable camera, then, but it's a niche camera that's not quite as appealing as the X10. Where it fits very well is for those that want a long-zoom camera they can grow into, but who don't think they'll test the limits of that camera for years. Likewise, it's good for those of us who would much rather save the few hundred dollars needed for a telephoto lens, even as they refuse to give up control. Should you fit into those categories, the X-S1 is a solid choice.

- Very good color and macro image quality.

- Solid long-distance shooting at most ranges or far with manual focus.

- High relative build quality.

- Substantial control for veterans.

- Fast burst shooting.

- Capable built-in flash plus hot shoe.

- Tilting LCD.

- Standard USB and external mic input.

- Good battery life.

- Poor autofocus performance at longest zooms.

- Less than ideal low-light performance.

- Price puts it in an uncomfortable middle ground.

- Fujifilm menu system still somewhat dense.

- Video quality is low for 1080p.

- Short continuous shooting buffer.

- Viewfinder can cause some strain.