Fujifilm X-A1 Review – The Fujifilm X-A1 is the manufacturer's latest entry-level CSC, continuing the retro-theme for which the X series is famed. Find out how it shapes up in the What Digital Camera Fujifilm X-A1 review...
When Fujifilm announced the first of its X-series cameras in 2010 it caused a sensation. The fixed-lens X100 combined cutting-edge digital technology with retro rangefinder style, and speculation quickly mounted that it would soon be followed by an interchangeable-lens model. In fact it was nearly two years before Fujifilm announced its first compact system camera, but the X-Pro1 was worth the wait.
It had the same classic style and innovative hybrid viewfinder as the X100, but featured a brand new sensor and a new lens mount system. More importantly it offered a way for enthusiast photographers to enjoy digital rangefinder photography for less than a quarter of the price of a Leica M9.
The X-Pro1 has been a big hit for Fuji, but at around £950 body-only it’s still an expensive camera, so what the X-series clearly needs is an entry-level model.
Step forward the new X-A1, which offers a way in to the X-series for £499 including a lens.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Features
The Fujifilm X-A1 shares a strong family resemblance to the X-Pro1, with retro styling that matches the classic rangefinder look, but unlike its big brother it isn’t actually a rangefinder camera, since it has no viewfinder, instead relying on a tilting monitor screen.
However while the X-A1 is priced as an entry-level model for the X-series, this is by no means a camera for beginners. It is packed with advanced features aimed at expert photographers, and has more customisation available than some high-end DSLRs.
Like the other models in the X-series CSC range the X-A1 has a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, but unlike the X-Pro1 and the other recent launch the X-M1, which feature Fuji’s advanced X-Trans CMOS sensor, this one is a conventional Bayer-filter CMOS chip, presumably saving a bit of money without sacrificing too much image quality.
The Fujifilm X-A1’s monitor is good but also fairly conventional, with a 3in screen and a resolution of 920k dots. It tilts up to 90 degrees up or down, so it can work for waist-level and overhead shots. It’s nice and sharp, and has an angle of view approaching 180 degrees, but it is very reflective making it hard to use in bright daylight, and the frame rate could be a bit faster; it has a distinct lag as you pan the camera.
The monitor information overlay is fully customisable, with a comprehensive array of data available, including a histogram, composition grid, focus range (auto and manual), exposure settings, EV compensation and more. However one useful feature notable by its absence is a tilt level indicator.
Main exposure mode selection is via a well-populated dial on the top plate. It has the usual PASM exposure modes of course; shutter speeds of 30 seconds to 1/4000th of a second are available in all modes, and both shutter and aperture values are adjusted in 1/3EV increments. As well as this the X-A1 also features a wide and varied selection of custom modes.
On the top plate dial there is the usual selection of portrait, landscape and sports modes, a skin-smoothing special portrait mode as well as the SP+ automatic scene selection mode. More interesting is the Advanced mode, which adds the option for multiple exposure or a number of digital filters, including the inevitable “toy camera” and miniature effects, plus some more original ones such as “pop colour”.
Of more interest to serious photographers are the options available in the main menu, particularly Fuji’s unique Film Simulation settings, which accurately mimic the classic tones of Fuji’s Provia, Velvia and Astia colour films, as well as black and white film. The camera also offers a much-prized feature; in-camera raw conversion, allowing post-shot exposure adjustment without losing the benefit of the camera’s noise reduction. Dynamic range compensation is also available.
Like most of the smaller CSCs the X-A1 has no internal image stabilisation, however all five currently available or recently announced X-mount zoom lenses have built-in optical stabilisation. There are also five high-quality prime lenses plus a recently-announced 56mm short telephoto, which may also feature OIS.
In common with an increasing number of modern cameras the X-A1 features Wi-Fi connectivity, with a free smartphone app available for Android and iOS. Unlike some of its rivals the app doesn’t let you control the camera remotely, but it does let you copy and share pictures online or add geotagging data.
The X-A1 has a video recording mode, but compared to the extensive list of photographic options it feels like it was tossed in as an afterthought. It can shoot in 1920×1080 full HD at 30fps, recording in .MOV with H.264 compression and linear PCM stereo audio, although like a lot of smaller cameras wind noise is a major problem when shooting outdoors.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Design
As mentioned earlier, the X-A1 is designed to resemble a classic rangefinder camera – much like the X-Pro1 – with a stepped top plate and plenty of chunky control dials, but that style is largely superficial. The body is made entirely of plastic, and what would be leather texture on a Leica is modern grip-patterned vinyl here. None of that should put you off though.
The Fujifilm X-A1 is a handsome and well-made camera, and feels light but sturdy in the hand. The small but functional front hand grip and rear thumb rest provide comfortable and secure handling, and the controls are solidly mounted and clearly labelled.
Most of the controls are positioned for easy one-handed operation, and for the most part operate with a nice positive feel.
There is one minor handling issue though. Manual exposure control is via two input dials; a large round dial mounted on the top plate and a smaller recessed wheel mounted just above the thumb rest. In shutter and aperture priority modes the exposure settings are adjusted by the thumb wheel, while the top plate dial adjusts exposure compensation.
Due to its position and slightly loose feel this dial is quite easy to jog accidentally, resulting in a few over or under-exposed shots, which can be annoying until you learn to avoid it.
Fortunately the other controls found around the X-A1 are better thought-out. There’s a customisable function button toward the front of the top plate (press and hold to change its function), as well as a button labelled “Q” on the back, which activates a handy graphical menu for making quick adjustments to often-used settings.
Other design touches include a pop-up flash which is mounted on a flexible linkage, so you can manually tilt it back for bounce-flash effects, as well as a hot-shoe to mount an external flash.
The tripod bush is metal as one might expect, but it is mounted off-centre, which will annoy some macro photographers. The hatch covering the USB and HDMI sockets is a slightly flimsy plastic flap, but at least the battery and card hatch has a strong metal hinge and a reliable latch.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Performance
The Fujifilm X-A1 is a brisk performer that never keeps you waiting to take a shot. It can start up and take a picture in a little over two seconds, and shuts down again even quicker despite running a sensor-cleaning routine as it powered down.
The X-A1’s shot-to-shot time in single-shot mode was consistent at every zoom setting and in every shooting mode, from normal JPEG to fine JPEG plus Raw, at 1.1 seconds per shot, and it appears to be able to keep that pace indefinitely, or at least until your memory card is full.
There are cameras that can shoot faster, but given that the sensor generates raw files that average 24.5MB and fine JPEGs averaging around 4.5MB, that’s some pretty slick data handling.
The X-A1 has two continuous shooting modes, at 3fps and 5.6fps, and in JPEG mode it can shoot in either one until the card is full. In Raw + JPEG mode it can manage ten shots at either speed before it has to stop to empty the buffer, which is again very impressive.
Battery and Wi-fi
The X-A1’s pop-up flash is pretty quick too; it can recycle from a full-power shot in approximately five seconds.
As for battery duration, Fujifilm claims just 350 shots on a full charge from the big 1260mAh li-ion rechargeable, but this seems to be a very conservative estimate.
I shot about 400 test pictures, including a lot with the flash, tried out the Wi-Fi feature and spent a lot of time mucking about with the menus, and the battery level indicator didn’t budge from three bars. I’d be surprised if it ran out before 600 shots.
If the X-A1 has a weak-spot it would be low-light focusing, but it’s only a weakness by comparison to the rest of its exemplary performance. Shooting in near darkness it did sometimes fail to focus on some targets, but at least it lets you know quickly rather than hunting around, and it nearly always worked on a second try. It does have a focus-assist lamp, but it’s positioned very close to the hand grip, so you’ll have to be careful not to block it with your finger.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Image Quality
Colour and White Balance
As the world’s biggest film manufacturers Fuji knows a thing or two about colour. Fuji’s professional films were – and indeed still are – the choice of discerning professionals, and this expertise is carried over into Fuji’s high-end digital cameras. In standard Provia film simulation mode the X-A1 produces a very pleasant colour balance even in the dark overcast weather in which I was forced to take most of my test shots.
Greens are particularly vivid, which will please landscape photographers. The other simulations also appear to be very good, although without comparison shots on hand it’s hard to be exact. Velvia produces vibrant colours, ideal for bright summer landscapes and fashion photography, while Astia is a little softer and less saturated, making it ideal for portraits.
Auto white balance is also very good, as one might expect, coping well with both cloudy outdoor light and compact-fluorescent lit indoor scenes. Oddly for a camera with enthusiast aspirations the X-A1 doesn’t offer colour temperature settings for white balance, but it does have a handy graphical chart allowing incremental adjustment of colour cast between red and cyan or blue and yellow, for those situations where the auto setting just can’t hack it.
Exposure and Dynamic Range
Exposure metering is very reliable, and apart from the previously mentioned annoyance with the exposure compensation dial the camera produced nothing but well-exposed shots in a wide variety of situations. As for dynamic range, in JPEG mode this did appear to be rather restricted, with very murky shadows, however shooting in raw mode provided more than two stops of exposure latitude either way, allowing easy adjustment to bring out that shadow detail.
With a 16.3-megapixel sensor the X-A1 isn’t the highest resolution camera on the market; in fact by recent standards it seems rather tame, but with the superb sharpness of the lens and the excellent image processing the actual detail resolution appear much higher. The X-A1 is capable of capturing an incredible amount of detail, producing sharp high-contrast pictures.
A quick look at the sample shots will tell you everything you need to know here, but I’ll tell you anyway. The X-A1 has among the best high-ISO image quality I’ve ever seen. At up to 3200 ISO images are effectively noise-free, noise is just barely visible at 6400 ISO, and even at the extended settings of 12,800 and 25,600 ISO what noise there is looks exactly like film grain, with virtually no colour distortion. It’s a truly impressive performance, and one of the X-A1’s main selling points.
Kit Lens Performance
As noted earlier, Fujifilm lenses tend to be expensive. If purchased separately the kit lens bundled with a Panasonic GF6 would normally cost about £160. By comparison the newly-launched 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 XC OIS lens supplied with the X-A1 would cost £359, which should give you some idea of its quality. It is pin-sharp from corner to corner even at maximum aperture, with excellent contrast and detail, focuses quickly and silently, and despite its plastic barrel it feels solid and well made. The same lens is bundled with the more expensive X-M1, and wouldn’t feel out of place on the X-Pro1.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Verdict
While the Fujifilm X-A1 is intended to be an entry-level model for Fujifilm’s X-series cameras, it is an outstanding camera in its own right. If you can live without a viewfinder you’ll discover what is arguably the best CSC in its price bracket.
While it’s a bit on the complicated side for beginners, it has the style, performance and handling to appeal to the more ambitious casual photographers, while its photographic versatility, superb image quality and Fuji’s growing line of top-quality lenses (plus that M-mount adapter) will sell it to enthusiasts on a budget. It has unquestionably the best high-ISO noise control of any current CSC under £900.
Fujifilm X-A1 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of sample images taken with the Fujifilm X-A1. For more images, as well as a full range of ISO shots, visit the Fujifilm X-A1 review sample image gallery.