Fujifilm X-A1 Digital Camera Review
Fuji's new entry-level looks lavish and feels flimsy.
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Starting with the X100 in 2010, Fujifilm has hooked shooters with its unparalleled attention to detail, great images, and excellent build quality. Expanding into the burgeoning compact system market, Fuji's X-Pro1 and X-E1 simply felt like the real deal. Finely knurled knobs, metal plates, and sturdy composites brought users back to the bygone era when you might have shot with real Fujifilm… film. Furthermore, the X-mount lens standard has built itself on a stable of excellent prime lenses, cementing the system's reputation.
Alas, Fujifilm is tempting fate with its latest low-end interchangeable entry. Even though the X-A1 (MSRP $599.99) is the most affordable X-mount camera on offer, its dime store build quality leaves a crucial ingredient to Fujifilm's success on the shelf. Image quality is still high, but, the X-A1 isn't the kind of well-made camera we've come to expect from Fujifilm. Reaching downmarket makes a certain amount of sense, but Fujifilm has built its newfound mojo on premium photographic equipment—a standard the X-A1 doesn't live up to.
By the Numbers
In the last three years Fujifilm has carved itself a very successful niche in the camera market with well-built, retro-inspired camera bodies and a host of excellent fast prime lenses. While the lenses are reasonably priced compared to the competition, the quality design of the bodies has often come with a premium price tag. While Fuji made inroads towards the entry-level part of the market with the $799.99 X-M1 earlier this year, the $599.99 X-A1 is the company’s first true crack at an entry-level mirrorless camera.
The X-A1 loses the X-Trans II sensor of its more expensive stablemates, but it is still capable of capturing some gorgeous images. While the build quality may leave quite a bit to be desired, the X-A1 is a potential bargain for anyone who wants to get into Fuji’s XF system while keeping costs down.
Exact color accuracy has never been a major selling point of Fuji’s X-mount cameras, with the company instead opting for punchy, attractive film simulation modes instead. That said, the X-A1 is capable of fairly accurate color reproduction when using the standard film simulation mode.
In that mode we found a ∆C00 (saturation corrected) of 2.94, which is acceptable, but a far cry from the most accurate cameras on the market. In that mode saturation was pumped up slightly to 108% of the ideal, mostly due to blues and magentas being oversaturated.
Design & Handling
Cheap, cheap, cheap
While well-heeled camera enthusiasts can spring for lustworthy Leica gear, not everyone is a gazillionaire. That's where Fujifilm's X-Mount system enters into the equation. The X-Pro1 earned Fuji a reputation as the poor man's Leica—quality, hand-finished cameras with high-grade lenses to match.
Even though the X-A1 looks like a premium camera on the shelf, the illusion is shattered as soon as you pick it up. If you have certain expectations from sexy product shots on the internet, the cheap, mediocre build will leave you deflated. It feels like someone's trying to pull one over on you.
The X-A1's materials are pretty middle-of-the-road, but the control layout is simple and makes sense. There's enough control on the X-A1 to please most users, with only a few niggling issues. We found fault with the cheap-feeling power switch surrounding the shutter button–it's small, needs too much force to move, and feels surprisingly fragile. There's the awkwardly placed vertical control wheel on the back, which is imprecise and difficult to use with either your thumb or forefinger.
Around back, you'll find a non-touch, 920K-dot LCD. Mounted on a sturdy tilting mechanism, the 3-inch panel is bright and handy when shooting at off angles. You won't find a built-in EVF, much less the nifty hybrid EVF/OVF found on the X-Pro1 and X100s. Since Fujifilm has become known for its viewfinders, it would have been nice to see at least the option to add an accessory EVF to the X-A1. This lack of expandability is something we also saw with Sony's entry-level NEX-3N, and it's likely due to cost-cutting. If you need the ability to add an external EVF, the Olympus E-PM2 is a fine alternative that's compatible with two accessory EVFs.
One feature stands between the X-M1 and X-A1
There's a strong case to be made for the existence of a low-end X-Mount camera like the X-A1. And, this isn't the first attempt Fujifilm has made to push the price down. Just a few months ago, we checked out the X-M1, a camera that is basically identical to the X-A1 but features Fuji's high-end image sensor. By stripping out the pricier X-Trans sensor technology from the X-M1, Fujifilm was able to push the price down another $200—no small difference.
X-Trans is a new variety of color filter for CMOS sensors. Instead of a uniform color filter pattern like the bog-standard Bayer technique, the X-Trans array and its less repetitive layout of colors can result in more natural images. The unique layout of the X-Trans sensor is also supposed to prevent false colors and moiré. This does have the side-effect of complicating post-processing; since the technology is exclusive to Fujifilm, third-party software makers often don't support it out of the box and you can end up with mixed results. For this reason, the more conventional Bayer filter APS-C sensor in the X-A1 might be a slight advantage for RAW shooters.
So, you don't get an X-Trans sensor. But you do get everything else the X-M1 offered. Burst shooting, film simulation modes, art filters, automatic scene selection, WiFi…it's all there. Considering its feature set, the X-A1 is well-equipped. You even get advanced features like film simulation bracketing, focus peaking, and adjustments for highlights, shadows, and sharpness.
Of course, this being an X-mount camera, you get access to a catalog of excellent prime lenses. Fujifilm has a sweet lineup of primes, including a range of six focal lengths to suit just about every style: 14mm, 17mm, 18mm, 23mm, 35mm, and 60mm are all already available with a fast 56mm f/1.2 coming early next year. There are a growing number of great zooms, too. The system isn't as large as Micro Four Thirds or even Sony's E-Mount, but there are lenses from a growing number of third party manufacturers, including Zeiss and Samyang.
Noise & Noise Reduction
Perhaps the biggest difference between the X-A1 and the rest of Fuji’s X-mount lineup is the use of a traditional Bayer APS-C sensor, rather than Fuji’s X-Trans sensors. This doesn’t have many major implications, though RAW functionality is still oddly hampered compared to most other cameras. Most notably, with JPEG you can shoot from ISO 100-25600, while RAW limits you to just ISO 200-6400.
In our lab tests we found that the X-A1’s sensor performed well, though the JPEGs from the camera are subject to heavily levels of noise reduction, even with NR turned to the minimum (-2 on a ±2 stop scale). At that setting the X-A1 returned just 0.32% noise at ISO 100, with noise staying beneath 2% right up to ISO 6400.
With noise reduction set to the default of zero, noise doesn’t hit the 2% threshold, even at the maximum (JPEG-only) ISO of 25600. If you ramp up NR to +2, noise barely crosses 1% at the max ISO. These are pretty extreme, and looking at the images at full resolution it’s easy to see why this is a problem.
While these numbers sound fantastic on paper, they’re purchased at the expense of fine detail. This isn’t a huge deal if you’re planning on just uploading images at web sizes, but if you want to make large prints or crop your shots, you may be left with a very splotchy-looking image.
Once again, Fujifilm isn't shy about applying software-based enhancements to try and make the images from the X-A1 look better than they are. In our sharpness test we see numbers frequently in excess of 2000 line widths per picture height across the frame, but it's largely bunk; the X-A1 dramatically increases the contrast around edges to make them appear sharper.
While just about every camera does this when processing JPEG images from the original RAW shots, the X-A1 applies around 20-30% oversharpening, which begins to actually degrade image quality. You won't notice the issue if you only see the image at web sizes or in small prints, but when blown up there's a telltale halo around contrasting details that is hard to ignore.
As you can see in the above 100% crops, the X-A1 shots look nice and crisp, but it's mostly an illusion; the white border around the squares isn't present on the actual chart, it's added by the camera to make the edge look finer than what the camera produces on its own. This isn't a huge deal for most cameras–you can usually just shoot in RAW and process it yourself later—but the restricted nature of RAW shooting with the X-A1 will limit your options there as well, especially if you want to use the extended ISO settings.
This close to the X-M1
Given that the only notable difference between the X-A1 and X-M1 is a different, more conventional sensor, it's no surprise that we found the two cameras performed similarly in lab tests.
The kit option for the X-A1 includes the same 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 we scoped out with the X-M1. It's a fine lens, albeit with a typically conservative aperture range. It's part of Fujifilm's XC family (that means a plasticky build and no aperture ring), and it's a cheaper alternative to the XF 18-55mm that came with the X-E1, more in line with competing kit lenses.
If you set a custom white balance, you'll find that the X-A1 has spot-on accuracy. We noticed very little deviation between the ideal and what the X-A1 manages on its own—only a few kelvins on average. Auto white balance was a different story, showing average performance under incandescent and florescent lights.
The X-A1's noise reduction software is very aggressive. By default, noise was kept under 2% throughout the entire sensitivity range, obliterating detail in images shot at higher ISOs. However, if you're set on letting the camera control the sensor's sensitivity, you can manually limit the ISO ceiling. To preserve as much detail as possible under normal conditions, plan on shooting at 3200 and below.
Fujifilm continues to fall flat on its face when it comes to video. There's only one Full HD option available to users and it cranks out ugly, moiré-filled video. Sharpness was decent enough in both low- and bright- light video testing, but the camera required 18 lux to reach 50 IRE in our minimum illumination test—a disappointing result since competing mirrorless cameras managed to at least score under 15 lux in our test. To make things worse, the X-A1 had great difficulty focusing in dimmer conditions, racking in and out as we recorded footage.
In our dynamic range testing, we found the X-A1’s APS-C sensor to be more than adequate, with solid performance at the base ISO of 200. (ISO 100-25600 is available, but only when shooting JPEGs, which have so much noise reduction it’s difficult to get a true idea of DR performance)
At that base of 200 we found the X-A1 was capable of recording around 8.23 stops of “high” dynamic range, in which the signal to noise ratio is above 10:1. That falls off rather quickly to 6.39 stops at ISO 400, 5.43 stops at ISO 800, and 4.84 stops at ISO 1600. Things stabilize slightly there, with 3.5 stops at ISO 3200 and 2.62 stops at the max (RAW) ISO speed of 6400.
Compared to other APS-C cameras, this performance is fairly typical, and at base ISO the X-A1 easily outpoints smaller sensor cameras like the Olympus E-PM2 or point-and-shoots like the Sony RX100. Our one cause for concern here is the restricted RAW ISO range, which seems unnecessary.
The true entry-level X-mount
When we reviewed the X-M1, we concluded that it was a camera with an excellent sensor in a chintzy body. The X-A1 keeps the same cheap suit, drops in a marginally inferior sensor, and charges you $200 less. Is that a good thing? It depends on what you're shopping for.
Right off the bat, we have to say that there are better mirrorless options out there for less money. If you want an APS-C sensor in a compact body, check out Sony's $450 NEX-3N. If you want a compact system camera with a bunch of different lenses and more expandability, an Olympus E-PM2 will get you into Micro Four Thirds for less than $500.
But there's no cheaper way into the X-mount system. If you like prime lenses with premium build quality and sharp optics, few can rival what Fujifilm has done with its portfolio. With the X-A1, you finally have a true entry-level way of getting these gems into your arsenal. Lenses like the XF 35mm f/1.4 and new XF 23mm f/1.4 really show off how special the Fujinon lens system is. Curious owners of other systems who wish to dabble in X-mount glass can rest assured—the X-A1's imaging quality is good enough to properly express the greatness of Fujifilm's lens lineup.
That said, we just can't help but feel that Fujifilm has compromised a camera system that was founded on uncompromising quality. The X-A1 feels like it's disposable. X-mount lenses are a bargain compared to similar glass from Canon and Nikon, but you're still looking at spending upwards of a grand to getting the X-A1 plus the prime of your choice. We'd strongly recommend saving up the extra cash and buying into the system properly with the X-E1 or X-Pro1—even if you have to get one second-hand.
Combining the aperture ring on many XF lenses with the shutter speed dial of both top-end X cameras make the classic manual-yet-modern idea come to life in a way that the X-A1 simply can't. This cheapest X consequently feels less soulful and unique, even if the lack of Fujifilm's exclusive X-Trans technology hasn't hurt image quality too badly.
The Fujifilm X-A1 gave us a little bit of trouble in our automatic white balance testing, but it came through our custom white balance test with flying colors, with one of the better performances we’ve see this year.
In auto white balance testing, we subjected the X-A1 to three typical lighting situations—daylight conditions, compact white fluorescent, and incandescent lighting. The X-A1 did well in daylight, with an average temperature error of just over 50 kelvins. In fluorescent and incandescent lighting the camera was off by 400 kelvins and 1850 kelvins, respectively. While the fluorescent and incandescent numbers may seem poor, they’re quite typical for entry-level cameras, which often struggle with lighting conditions that aren’t bright daylight.
The X-A1 excelled in our custom white balance test, however. Under the same three lighting conditions the X-A1 was only off by around 15 kelvins on average, which is practically perfect. It takes a little time to capture a custom white balance reading, but if you’re dealing with particularly troublesome lighting situations, the X-A1 can handle it.
Look elsewhere if you're looking for a camera that takes quality still and video. The X-A1 continues what seems like a tradition for Fujifilm—downright unsatisfactory HD video quality. Although the scores in low light and bright light sharpness look decent enough (In LPPH: 700 horizontal, 680 vertical when under bright light; 675 horizontal and 615 vertical under low light), in practice, the video we saw from the X-A1 looked less-than-stellar. On top of that finding, we noticed that the X-A1's autofocus kept racking in and out when on a tripod in dimly lit scenes. Low light sensitivity was a slight improvement over the X-M1, requiring 18 lux to reach 50 IRE.