"H" is for "Hybrid" - A review of the Fujifilm X-H1

"H" is for "Hybrid" - A review of the Fujifilm X-H1

The X-H1 represents a bold, novel move for Fujifilm. I recently had the opportunity, courtesy of Fujifilm Hellas, to test the camera for an extended period, and here you can read my final opinion on it, as well as some thoughts on the future of Fujifilm X-cameras. 

Let me repeat this: this will be an opinion article, which I know will piss off a lot of people. But since those people will probably be pathetic fanboys anyway, I will not bother to give a damn. To the rest, reasonable and rationally thinking people reading my blog, I hope this will be received as it is: an honest and careful evaluation. And, as always, this is only my opinion; I’d be more than happy to listen to counter-arguments in the comments section.

As it happens, I find myself going more into filmmaking during the last year or so. Doing video in addition to photography, with a small camera (what we used to call “DSLR video” in the recent past) is something I see more and more photographers do. In that sense, this piece is written for and from the scope of photographers going into videography in a more serious and involved manner. All that while continuing to produce work and pursue professional goals with their photography.

On that note, there is no argument against it: Fuji has improved tremendously in the video department in a very short period of time. You might remember that “Fuji” and “video” was something of a morbid joke just about 3 years ago. We have to admit that Fuji has invested in an extraordinary way in video with their latest cameras, sometimes despite fierce opposition from their “loyal customer base”; hold that thought.

We have to clear something right from the start: the whole discussion is about –so called- hybrid cameras. If you think you need a “real” cinema camera, then you probably do and your budget for body-only just climbed to 5-10K.  Plus about that much again for additional storage, batteries and such. But the point is, from the moment video-capable DSLRs have been used to shoot TV blockbusters, not to mention thousands of indie films, the hybrid camera has been the weapon of choice for a huge variety of filmmakers.

Today, to be absolutely honest, cameras from several brands are able to produce beautiful footage and Fuji is no exception; on the contrary, current cameras (the X-H1 notwithstanding) are already very efficient machines in terms of image quality. What differentiates hybrid cameras today is their performance in the usability department, as well as proper video features that don’t get in the way.

Let me backtrack for a moment. The X-T2 was never touted as a video-camera by Fuji, but rather as a great all around machine capable of covering a huge range of needs (which it definitely is and does). It was only after several video-oriented shooters discovered that it could give the competition –Sony cameras in particular- a run for their money that it seems Fujifilm decided it was time to think even more seriously about video. 

Now with the X-H1, I get the definite impression that video features and the “hybrid” paradigm in general, are used as the main promotional argument for the camera. I’m not so sure this is a clever idea, for a variety of reasons. And it definitely doesn’t succeed, in a number of ways we’ll discuss.

First of all, the good and already known facts: the camera looks and feels absolutely gorgeous. The weight, grip and handling are second to none in my opinion. In effect, it looks like a somewhat smaller version of the GFX; indeed, barring the GFX “heat sink” protrusion on the back, one could mistake one for the other from afar, from some angles.  And this is a good thing especially for people coming from DSLRs. It seems it’s not that good for die-hard Fuji users, many of them finding that the company “moved away” from the “trademark design”. These “I-actually-want-a-Leica” Luddites are the reason the X-Pro line didn’t get decent video until very recently and they are certainly advised against buying this camera; they will never understand what it represents.  

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In fact, that’s exactly what many Fuji users did. They didn’t buy the camera. I’ll exaggerate in saying that, probably, more people from outside the Fuji family found this camera interesting. But, unfortunately, market reception was not as great as with several other Fuji cameras. Sony releasing the a7iii at about the same time didn’t help either, but there are other reasons for the lack of enthusiasm.

For one thing, on the photography side, the X-H1 improved in almost all sectors over the X-T2. Not by much, but the improvements are there. Image quality remains practically the same (all Xtrans-3 cameras have the same IQ anyway). That is, by the way, the reason I don’t have any photo samples in this review, although I used the camera extensively as a photo tool.

But the user experience is very much improved, especially for owners of bigger Fuji lenses. And the major breakthrough for Fuji is the IBIS. This is a gamechanger for a variety of photographic uses and a lot of photographers finally got what they were asking Fuji for, during the last few years.

In a nutshell, for sports and wildlife users, as well as photo-journalistic affairs, the X-H1 is the camera to get, since the AF is also (modestly) improved as well. You won’t get better IQ but everything else is a little bit to considerably better than with the X-T2. Once you get pass some idiosyncrasies, like the over-sensitive shutter button (which is superb once you get the hang of it), you’ll find you have a great photographic tool at your disposal.  The cherry on top (literally!) is this beautiful top info screen which puts the Casio-looking displays on DSLRs to absolute shame.   

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 Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for video. I admit I was holding up on publishing this review waiting for more info on the forthcoming X-T3. Specs for the latter, simply confirmed my initial assertion:

The X-H1 is a camera Fujifilm should never have released.

And here is my honest evaluation as to why:

First of all, the video features. Truth be told, there are improvements over the X-T2, such as a new, more robust codec, C4K and even the ability to precisely set the shutter speed at “180 degrees” (that is, twice the frame rate). Internal F-log was also implemented as well as the new Eterna film-simulation. But the former was also given to the X-T2 via firmware update.

IBIS was also, on paper, a huge advantage for video. In use, things are not that rosy. I shot a lot of video with the camera, and you can find two examples at the end of this article. In body stabilization doesn’t work very smoothly for video. It is more like the one in Olympus of Panasonic cameras a couple of generations back. Jitters appear when you’re trying to do any kind of “walking type” shooting and also for some panning motions. Although these jitters are pretty common in many cameras during panning (and even on film cinema cameras) here the behavior doesn’t inspire confidence. This was true with any (non-stabilized) lens that I used. I should point out that I upgraded the camera with the latest firmware, which, reportedly improved AF. Nevertheless, AF was inconsistent in many cases, which resulted in ruined footage. This was even after fine-tuning through the very well designed relevant menu option.

I should also make it clear that I opted to use the camera completely handheld. Yes, I know a lot of people are getting great results with the camera rigged on a gimbal, with an external monitor/recorder, external power and a couple of assistants running along. But that defeats the purpose of a true hybrid camera, which should be perfectly suited for run and gun operation. In ideal situations, you can get great results from virtually everything from the last few years.

It’s a real shame because the footage from the X-H1, especially with the Eterna simulation I used is absolutely beautiful. Great DR, very good ISO performance and a robust codec contribute to great results. But using technology that Fujifilm had at their disposal a few months ago, is not complimenting what this camera could really do, if it was released today.

Speaking of video, there are other practical shortcomings, such as the FAT file-system limit, which leaves you with several small video files at the end of each session. I’m not even speaking of the video time-limit because almost all cameras have this.

And then there’s the battery…

Seriously, Fujifilm, what exactly are you thinking??

Again, let me emphasize that I have never had a problem with short battery life in any of the several Fujis I’ve used during the last few years. That is because on a photo assignment you can always take a breath and make sure you have adequate power for the rest of the job. As mirrorless users, we have become accustomed to lesser battery performance than a DSLR, but we have found ways around it.

Video is another matter. It’s absolutely ridiculous to have a battery last for 40-45 minutes at the most, when you have an event to cover. Even with the battery grip, the X-H1 has just enough battery juice to compete with that the Sony a7iii and the Panasonic GH5 can do with just one. You may argue it’s OK and you can live with it. I can’t. You may also consider that all mirrorless companies, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, have gone to a larger, more competent battery in their high-end cameras, some of them for some years now. And also assume that they know better than you.  

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People complained that the X-H1 is “large for a Fuji”. Cool. Don’t buy it. “Large” is better in many cases, and certainly for the purpose of this camera. But Fuji managed to blow away their chance of, finally, fitting a huge-ass battery into this new line of cameras, and silencing any critics. The sad part is that they are not doing it with the X-T3 either. It will, reportedly, have “better battery life” due to better power management, but better than previous Fuji cameras is not a lot.

Putting battery aside, the X-T3 is going to be a killer of a camera. Everything has been improved: new, better sensor; sensational video features that threaten and even surpass the current features-king (the GH5) and make every other current camera look almost outdated; much improved AF (in video, if I’m right, it could easily play in the same field as Canon and Sony); even novel manual focusing aids and upgraded ergonomics, such as proper size mode switches and even a pull-up diopter control. In every single spec the X-T3 improves immensely on the X-T2 and it will also cost less than the latter, upon release!

This is today’s tech; the X-H1 was, unfortunately, the culmination of a technological race that begun almost 3 years ago. I’m looking forward in testing the X-T3 in depth during the following weeks and I’m sure my excitement will only grow by actually using it on real projects.

The X-T3 lacks IBIS, most probably because of the smaller body, and it also retains some of the issues with the previous models, the battery being the most serious. But apart from this, pending confirmation, it will be an absolute blast and will sell like crazy.

Alas, what about the X-H line? Nobody in their right mind is going to buy the X-H1 now that the X-T3 is around. With the exception of IBIS the X-T3 is better in every conceivable way. So what gives?

Let me tell you what I think:

Fuji should simply cut their losses and silently retire the X-H1. Instead, they should build an X-H2, with all the X-T3 internals (and perhaps more, since they are magicians in upgrading their basic cameras). They should improve the IBIS for video, which may only be a matter of fine-tuning (probably just firmware). They should, at last, implement a flippy screen: this is not for vloggers only, guys, a flippy screen hugely improves production workflow and also protects the LCD when not in use. Definitely fit a beast of a battery. Redesign the grip if need be, even making the camera a little big bigger. No potential users of such a camera will ever going to give a rat’s ass about a few millimeters bigger body or a few grams of added weight. Fix annoying details such as the video file-system.

Do all this, Fuji, and then laugh your heart out all the way to the bank. Seriously. With the new video specs, exemplary color science and the tremendous advantage of the best value/performance lens lineup in the mirrorless industry, this will not be just a winner; it will be Godzilla.

And hoping my wish comes true soon, I’m concluding this report. I’m terribly sad that this was the first Fuji camera I’ve tested though the years that I can’t really recommend and be alright with my conscience. My belief is that, my function as an X-Photographer is also having the obligation for fruitful and truthful criticism, because this always helps evolving the breed. And I’m happy that Fujifilm never tried to enforce any limits to my will to express my honest opinion.

I will be very happy to read your comments in the section below.

Fujifilm X-H1 video test. Just a simple travel video reel, during a trip to the beautiful town of Chalkida, in Euboea Island, Greece. Shot entirely handheld at C4K 24p, in Eterna film simulation, with very minor post processing done in Premiere Pro.

Fujifilm X-H1 video test. Another quick and dirty video, during a walk downtown Athens, Greece, during August, when the city is mainly occupied by tourists! Again like the previous video (see below for link), shot entirely handheld at C4K 24p, Eterna film simulation, very minor post processing in Premiere Pro.

 


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"Unrestrained" - an aerial acrobatics short film

"Unrestrained" - an aerial acrobatics short film

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