Cameras

Fujifilm X-S1 Review

The Fujifilm X-S1 is a high-end bridge camera aimed at the gap between superzooms and DSLRs.

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Introduction

The Fujifilm X-S1 is a high-end bridge camera aimed at the gap between superzooms and DSLRs. The idea here is to combine reach and all-in-one convenience with natural handling and superior image quality. Fujifilm seems to be marketing the camera toward enthusiast nature photographers, but like with any superzoom, there's broad appeal to be found if the design is executed well.

Basically, the X-S1 is a mash up of the HS20EXR superzoom and last year's X10 premium compact. It's built around the same over-sized, 12-megapixel, 2/3-inch EXR CMOS sensor as the X10, but housed in a full-sized body with a huge 26x zoom lens strapped to the front. We'd already put together a hands-on preview of the X-S1 from CES 2012, but we've just finished up a few weeks of proper testing. The design and user experience are plainly awesome, but we'll need test results to say whether image quality is where it should be for an $800 device.

Design & Usability

Unicorns and superzooms

Everyone would love to see a long-zoomer with a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor, just like everyone wishes they could live in a mansion with a pink pet unicorn, but a camera like that would be monstrously large, and it would cost thousands of dollars, and unicorn horns are as hazardous as they are magical. No no, we must settle for superzooms that work like souped-up pocket cameras. The Fuji X-S1 has pretty serious hardware by bridge-camera standards. Its 2/3-inch sensor is about 50 percent larger than what most superzooms use, yet it still shoots through a 26x lens.

Just about all of the most commonly adjusted shooting options have dedicated keys.

The X-S1 is the size and weight of a mid-range DSLR, like the Nikon D5100 or the Canon T3i. It's notably bigger than any other superzoom, so portability takes a hit, but the extra size comes with cozy contours and well-laced buttons, so it's much more comfortable than a typical superzoom. A manual twist-barrel zoom mechanism is exceptionally smooth and nicely weighted, with consistent resistance throughout the focal range. The mode dial and command dial are both metal, with a nice weight and resistance and as per usual, the menu system is tiered by category (shooting, playback, and setup), with multiple pages in each. There are no "quick" or "function" menus, but that's fine by us, because just about all of the most commonly adjusted shooting options have dedicated keys: ISO, white balance, metering, autofocus, EV compensation, burst mode, self-time, flash, movie mode, RAW, EVF/LCD toggle, AF/AE lock, playback, and macro mode.

Features

The X-S1 packs nothing out of the ordinary, but it does sport some heavy-lifting hardware.

The X-S1 doesn't offer anything revolutionary in the way of creative modes, but it does sport some dashing hardware. This model has manual (PASM), automatic, and preset scene modes, as well as specialty modes like customizable settings and 360-degree sweep panorama. Beginners will enjoy standard auto modes, and enthusiasts will appreciate the comprehensive array of assigned buttons that so enhance the manual experience.

The admirable 1.44 million-pixel eye-level viewfinder far exceeds EVFs on most superzooms.

The X-S1 is a no-fun, all business camera. Just kidding—but seriously, it has no picture effects or digital filters, which is uncommon these days. It does offer a healthy selection of scene modes, such as Portrait and Natural Light, and there's a modest in-camera editing suite too. A surprisingly adept in-camera RAW-processing mode is on hand too. The X-S1 shoots in four aspect ratios and maxes out at 12 megapixels of resolution. It captures JPEG, RAW, and RAW+JPEG formats. The most notable features are hardware components though, like the 12-megapixel EXR CMOS sensor, roughly 50 percent bigger than those in most superzooms. As a CMOS sensor (as most sensors are these days), it's a speedy operator with quick bursts and 1080p HD video capability. There is also a manual 26x zoom with a twist barrel, an admirable 1.44 million-pixel eye-level viewfinder (this far exceeds EVFs on most superzooms), and a 3-inch, 460k-pixel, LCD that tilts. For a camera under $1000, this is what you want to see.

Performance

Something short of 800 dollar performance

Image quality is generally satisfying, aside from some mediocre sharpness, but for $800, it needs to be the best in the superzoom class—and it just isn't. Noise begins to visually interfere at ISO 400 sharpness isn't exactly a strong suit either.

In super macro mode, the X-S1 can focus from as close as 1 cm.

The X-S1 can take some great photos though, even if they aren't exactly the best your money can buy. Shots are clean and pretty clear in most situations, even in low-light, where middle-upper ISO settings kick in. It handles wide dynamic ranges better than any superzoom we've tested which, in real world terms, basically means that it won't totally wash out the sky if you're shooting a shady area on a sunny day. Colors are generally lifelike, with a pleasant coolness, but the lens doesn't live up to the sensor's potential, softening details throughout the focal range and dragging down the overall image quality. In super macro mode, the X-S1 can focus from as close as 1 cm—which is phenomenal— and even with macro mode turned off, it focuses reliably from about six inches. Burst modes aren't as impressive. Fuji advertises a full-res top speed of 7 frames per second for the X-S1, but in testing it maxed out at 6.3 frames per second over 5 shots—close, but not quite there.

Conclusion

If the X-S1 is a bridge between pocket shooters and DSLRs, it's not a very sturdy one (nor is it the only way across).

Once upon a time, superzooms were built to bridge the gap between pocket shooters and DSLRs, as a happy medium in terms of price, performance, and target audience. That's still the point to a certain degree, but changes in the industry have blurred that gap considerably. Entry-level DSLRs are as cheap as some premium superzooms. The advent of mirrorless compact system cameras altered notions about size, price, and image quality. Smartphones have begun to replace low-zoom pocket cameras. The industry's old, rigid design conventions don't apply anymore.

Fujifilm's X-S1 is trying to break away from the old, stale formulas. It's the same size and price as a mid-level DSLR, but it packs a massive 26x optical zoom lens. The 2/3-inch sensor is much smaller than a DSLR's, but still about 50% larger than the chips found in most point-and-shoots and superzooms. This camera's build quality, handling, and user experience are the best that we've seen in a superzoom—period. It's bigger than most in its class, but the extra real estate makes the X-S1 more comfortable too. The twist-barrel zoom mechanism is a thing of beauty, and the electronic viewfinder is one of the best we've seen. It's too bad that the X-S1's image quality just isn't as strong as it should be for $800. The lens is the root of the problem; it's just not sharp enough for this sensor, particularly at the telephoto end. Sure, none of its results are downright bad, but for this money, it should take better photos than any other bridge model, and it doesn't.

Most of our beefs with the image quality will only show up at bigger viewing sizes; if you're not a pixel peeper, you might not care. So who should buy the X-S1? Well, it certainly isn't the first superzoom that we recommend. The Panasonic FZ150 and the Canon SX40 HS deliver finer image quality. If you're stepping up to a serious camera and feel tempted by the X-S1's DSLR-esque features, we'd steer you toward an actual DSLR, like the Nikon D5100. The X-S1 is really best-suited for Fujifilm enthusiasts (you guys will love it) and early adopters who want a superzoom with a DSLR feel. It's a very nice camera, not a great one, but we definitely see value in Fujifilm trying to create a more serious bridge model than anyone else has over the past few years.

Science Introduction

The X-S1 fared well in testing, but we've definitely seen stronger scores—especially for devices in this price range. Nevertheless, color accuracy was pretty precise, noise performance was respectable, and low light performance was strong too. The lens couldn't quite keep up with the sensor, rendering soft images at times, and most especially at telephoto lengths, and notable chromatic aberration plagued photographs as well.

Color & Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration pollutes images throughout the X-S1's focal range.

Color performance in the X-S1 is pretty accurate, though there's a definite coolness to the profile. The most true-to-life color mode is the Standard/Provia setting. We measured a minimum color error of 3.36 (under 3 is considered great, under 3.5 is still quite good) and 105% saturation, which falls within an acceptable range. Most shades are close to the ideal hues, but blues are exaggerated (particularly light blue) and yellows are subdued. Color is a very subjective thing, so some users might really like these tones compared to the super-vibrant colors that cameras from major manufacturers produce.

We measured notable chromatic aberration throughout the X-S1's focal range. Most of the the time, it's visible only in areas of very high contrast, like the edges of buildings against a gray sky. For such a versatile lens, that's okay.

At the telephoto setting, chromatic aberrations skyrocket—up to five times the camera's average. It's plainly visible in our resolution crops—fringing is obvious and ugly in every case, and really drags down the full-zoom image quality to the point where we'd consider avoiding the maximum focal length at all. Backing off a bit helps, though. Basically, the X-S1 suffers from more chromatic aberration than the typical camera even without the poor telephoto performance, probably due to its ambitious lens. In most cases, it shouldn't be enough to bother most photographers with reasonable expectations for a camera like this, but everyone will notice that it's problematic at the longest focal length.

Noise Performance

The X-S1 has respectable noise performance for a small-sensor camera.

We ran our noise tests at each noise reduction setting, like we do with DSLRs and system cameras (which often cost less than the X-S1). But since we're ranking it as a point-and-shoot, we're counting results from just one NR level, in this case the Standard setting. Numbers-wise, the results are decent. Noise starts at 0.65% at base ISO and rises consistently through the range, tipping the scales beyond 1% at ISO 800 and finishing at 1.5% at ISO 3200. Chroma noise is consistent across all channels, and less present than luma noise. In real-world terms, shots are a little bit messy starting even at ISO 400, though there isn't a tremendous falloff in detail and clarity until the top setting (ISO 3200). ISO 1600 is still usable.

Just for the heck of it, we also ran a noise test on shots taken in the High ISO & Low Noise EXR mode (EXR SN). This mode chops resolution in half and uses some clever processing techniques to cut down on visible noise. This mode offers visibly cleaner shots at ISO 800 and 1600; there's not much of a difference up to ISO 400, and ISO 3200 is still a mess. But the benefits at those mid-high settings were obvious enough that we preferred to shoot in EXR SN mode at night and indoors.

Since there are five noise reduction settings (Standard is the middle option), there's plenty of room to mess around and find what suits your personal taste. We think that Standard maintains a nice balance of smoothness and detail, though we like the extra bit of crispness in Medium Low. Low is too grainy for our tastes, and High is too soft.

Sharpness

Image sharpness is a weak point on the X-S1.

The sharpness results aren't poor, they're just mediocre. The overall average is a middling 1120 MTF50s across all focal lengths, apertures, and areas of the photo frame. At the widest aperture at the wide-angle setting at the center of the frame, images are nice and crisp—we measured about 1800 horizontal and 1900 vertical MTF50s, which are very good results. But then the aperture shrinks or the focal range increases (particularly near the telephoto setting), sharpness falls off quickly. Performance is universally muddy midway between the edge and the center of the frame, too.

In its defense, the X-S1 doesn't apply quite as heavy a dose of border enhancement as most superzooms tend to do. The Canon SX40 HS, for example, earned an outstanding sharpness score thanks to artificial pixel sharpening, but whether the SX40's shots really look much sharper is debatable. We tested the X-S1 with pixel sharpening set to standard; had we bumped it up to a higher level, it probably would've earned a better score. The point to take away here is that the X-S1 offers plain ol' superzoom sharpness, but for nearly twice the cost of its nearest competitors. The lens just doesn't live up to the sensor's potential.

Other Tests

Performance is fine for personal clips, but serious videographers will need to keep shopping.

As with most Fujifilm cameras over the past few years, the X-S1 struggles with moving objects in video mode. Motion is fairly smooth—not much stuttering—but most objects leave a visible trail for a few seconds. Artifacts pop up all over the frame, particularly in high-contrast areas (two solid colors meeting each other, for example). The results are fine, but lack a certain refinement that better cameras offer. When the camera itself pans with any action, it loses focus very easily, then spends a few seconds hunting to find it again—the resulting footage is completely worthless.

With the X-S1 fixed in position, it can resolve over 500 vertical and 600 horizontal LW/PH. But as soon as it starts panning, the sharpness drops off fast. We measured just 300 vertical and 200 horizontal LW/PH—and that's when it actually maintained focus.

Dropping the lights down, the results are even worse, with just 175 horizontal and vertical LW/PH, and it had an even harder time holding focus than in good lighting. It's safe to say that the X-S1 is not a good low-light performer. It's basically blind below 42 lux, so nighttime shooting will be incredibly hit or miss.

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