Fujifilm always struck me as being something of an outsider in the photographic world. During Kodak's reign they struggled as a "me-to" proposition, selling film types offering something different than the norm (i.e. Kodak). Same goes for their cameras, and it looks like a company philosophy even today; they still have new medium format and even instant film cameras for sale.
The X-Trans sensor, introduced about 3 years ago, is another "we do it our own way" endeavor. And let's be clear from the start: it works.
Continuing the use and evaluation of the X-M1, there are some things that stand out from the first moment. Let's start with what matters most: the files produced by the camera, are gorgeous.
What makes an impression is that the X-Trans sensor in the X-M1 (virtually unchanged in all their cameras, from the X-Pro1 onwards), renders images in a very pleasing -dare I repeat the cliché- "filmic" way. Photos seem to display more resolution than they actually have and, in most cases, retain a dimensionality that goes against what's customary with most digital sensors.
Colors are splendid, not only in out of camera JPEGs but in RAWs also, which means the color profile is to credit. I'd say Fuji had the absolute best colors of any camera maker today; with only Olympus a bit behind. White balance is, most of the time, spot on. I noticed some cases where it could be fooled (notably different sources of artificial light), but auto-WB works very good most of the time.
X-Trans' ISO performance is a matter of debate in photographic circles, because Fujis tend to slightly underexpose, thus looking like "stealing" in "standard" ISO values. For one thing, there is no such thing as "standard ISO". The word ISO is not an acronym for "international-standard-something"; please google it. I would also suggest this excellent article about what ISO is (and isn't) and would finally propose that ISO/ASA was never a set-in-stone photographic measure, even on film days; different manufacturers would randomly deviate from "stated" film ASA values.
What I can say from experience is that, Fuji has the best overall ISO performance of any APS-C sensor I've seen; whether it's close to 35mm full frame sensors is a debate without interest to me. By "best" I mean that, when in need of high ISO settings, the same frame would look better with Fuji, concerning dynamic range, color and "quality" of noise (or should I say, grain).
Another comment made about the X-Trans sensor is that dynamic range suffers, compared to other conventional designs, mainly in the shadow component of the image. I beg to differ. I find that dynamic range overall is excellent; but there is a caveat.
Different raw converters have shown different results with .RAF files. For example, until recently, ACR/LR were not the best in demosaicing X-Trans files. I have tested files with several programs, including Lightroom (latest version, which does a much better job), RawTherappe, PhotoNinja and Helicon Filter. They all seem to produce slightly dissimilar results. PhotoNinja seems to have the best sharpening (.RAF files are quite soft out of the camera), while Lightroom seems to hold shadow detail better.
For 99% of the cases, especially for online viewing, any converter, or even the in-camera RAW conversion, would work just fine. You just have to take care of the special characteristics of the X-Trans. As an example, .RAF files can take a lot of sharpening, without introducing digital artifacts. One just needs to experiment with the best values and templates for editing.
Getting back to dynamic range, here is an example which shows a little of what can be done.
As for the camera itself, the X-M1 is a very likable little photographic machine. It is exactly the right size, at least for me, to be considered very portable but also substantial. It has simple and unobtrusive operation, can be setup easily, and even firmware updates are a breeze. Of course there is a number of objections which I'll address in a future post, complete with what I'd personally like to see in its successor, which is rumored to hit the stores next January.
(all photos in this post made with the X-M1 and either 27mm f/2.8 or 16-50 kit zoom lens).