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Fujifilm X-Trans Camera (X-M1) Astro-Photography Review

Fuji X-M1 is tiny compared to an EOS 6D.

Note: I wrote this brief review a few years back, but itís still relevant because Fuji just donít make a cheap X-Trans body like the X-M1 anymore. All their smaller cheaper models are conventional APS-C, up to and including the X-T100. So if you want to try X-Trans in a cheap lightweight body, the X-M1 still makes a good choice.

The digital takeover happened quickly.I recall seeing my first digital camera, owned by a guy from Hong Kong and only capable of storing about twenty single-megapixel shots, on a business trip to Malaysia in 1997. Five years later digital was mainstream and Fujiís film business must have been in deep trouble.

Around then Kodak went bust. I suspect few would have bet on Fuji surviving, but they did, by concentrating on the bit of the camera they had always specialised in, the bit that detects the light. Only now that wasnít a film anymore, but a sensor.

So when Fuji announced their new X range of compact cameras a few of years ago, they fitted a revolutionary sensor aimed at the best possible low-light performance, image quality and colour rendition Ė the very same things that Fuji had always done with its emulsions like Provia and Velvia. The new cameras even had dedicated modes for simulating those famous Fuji films.

So partly I wanted an X camera because it simulated the Velvia film I loved for landscapes. But even more I wanted one for astrophotography, because the sensor in an X camera has another trick up its sleeve: some of the best low-light, low-noise performance around.

Problem was, X-series cameras were expensive, aimed at proís and enthusiasts. Then last year, Fuji brought out the X-M1, a relatively cheap compact-system camera that looks conventional enough; except that inside is the same, quite revolutionary sensor that made the other X-series so special.

I can tell you now that the humble-looking X-M1 takes excellent daytime photos, living up to its reputation. But how does it fare for landscape astrophotography or plugged into a telescope?

Extensive reviews of the X-M1 for daytime use are everywhere, so here Iíll concentrate on using it for astrophotography and gloss over stuff like AF functionality, special effects and so on.

Design and Build

Body

The X-M1 looks a lot like the other X-series models, the X-T1, X-Pro1, the X-E2 and the X100, but smaller. Fuji have kept it small (and the price low) by doing away with the viewfinder completely, but installing a high-resí screen that (crucially for me) tilts like the one on the range-topping X-T1.

The lens mount is the same proprietary one used by the rest of the range. A good selection of lenses (some of class-topping optical performance) is available, at least two of which make excellent landscape astrophotography lenses (more on that in a later review). And a T2 adapter for the X-series mount is widely available for tracked astro-imaging.

The other reason the X-M1 is light and cheap is that itís partially made of plastic, but build quality appears identical to all but the highest models (the XT-1, XT-2 and XT-3). It certainly seems identical to a recent X-T30 I tried.

No, the X-M1 isnít made in Japan either (Thailand for my example), but build quality is excellent and the control knobs at least are metal to give classy feel in use. Itís lasted very well too.

Crucially, inside the X-M1 is the crucial 90% of an X-T1 for a real world cost of perhaps a quarter.

Another killer feature of the XM-1 for owners of small scopes is its small size and low weight compared to a DSLR (even an EOS 100).

Sensor

The thing that is really special about any X-series camera is the sensor. In order to create a niche in the market around their traditional values, Fuji have come up with a genuinely radical design, so radical in fact that the software used by industry-standard sensor rating website, DxOMark, allegedly canít cope with it!

The Fuji X-trans sensor is an APS-C format CMOS sensor like so many others, but it does colour rather differently. You can read about the detailed technical ins and outs elsewhere. Here Iíll just say that it does away with regular spacing for the RGB pixels, natively avoiding moirť and so getting around the need for the usual softening Bayer filter in front of the chip. The result, according to pretty much every reviewer, is unrivalled resolution and sensitivity.

Note: Be aware that the identical looking X-A1, X-A5 etc have a conventional Bayer sensor!

Controls

Even though the X-M1 lacks the dedicated thumb wheels for shutter speed and ISO that the higher models have, it is still has good provision for manual use, especially for what is essentially a compact camera. In manual mode, the top thumbwheel is dedicated to shutter speed, the one on the back to aperture, whilst the function button on top defaults to ISO. So you have separate dedicated controls for all the main things you need for astrophotography Ė good news in the dark!

The Fuji also has a ĎQí button that allows quick access to all the major settings.

Another vital requirement for astrophotographers is magnified live view focusing. The good news is that the X-M1 does have live view (though itís not called that). Unlike my last Nikon, where the live view has staged magnification and a dedicated lever to enable it, on the mirror-less X-M1 you just push down on the rear thumbwheel to get an instantly magnified view for critical focusing.

Fujiís version of live-view works well for focusing with a telescope and makes critical focusing n bright stars easy.

Overall, the XM-1 may look like a compact point-and-shoot camera, but it has all the controls you need for easy use in manual mode.

ISO

The X-M1 has a conventional range of ISOs available from 100 to 6400 with a couple of high settings (12800 and 25600) that we wonít be using because as with virtually all cameras they are noisy.

ISO 6400 doesnít sound that special, but unlike many DSLRs noise remains low at 6400, whilst at ISO 3200 noise is really low Ė good for low light terrestrial, better for landscape and tracked astrophotography.

In fact, for astro-imaging of all types, ISO 3200 is the setting I use most.

Itís worth noting that in the years since the X-M1 came out, Fuji have increased the megapixel count on its X-Trans cameras from the X-M1ís 16.3 to 24 to 27, but retained the same maximum native ISO support Ė smaller pixels mean more noise all things being equal.

Shutter Speeds

Again, shutter speeds are a conventional DSLR set: 30s to 1/4000s plus the vital Bulb for astrophotography. The higher-end models have much higher maximum speeds, but not the X-M1. If youíre using one of Fujiís super-fast lenses, like the 23mm F1.4, this matters because you canít use full aperture in bright daylight, but for astrophotography itís irrelevant.

Some of the higher-end X-series models have a thread in the shutter release button for an old-fashioned cable release; the X-M1 doesnít, so youíll need to buy an electronic one. Fujiís own RR-90 USB remote is expensive, but you can get copies for a tenner on Ebay that work fine.

The XM-1 doesnít have a built-in intervalometer, but Ö

In bulb mode, the XM-1 has a great feature: it reads out the elapsed exposure time on the screen in big numbers, so you donít need a separate timer. One quirk though is that the recorded exposure time is often a bit different, I have no idea why.

Stacking

If the story has been good so far, it starts to come a bit unravelled when it comes to post-processing and the same applies to any X-Trans camera.

Photoshop and PixInsight do support Fuji raw files, but other software (including Maxim DL and Deep Sky Stacker last time I tried) do not. This is precisely because of that non-bayer sensor and the fact that colour is encoded differently.

For packages that donít support Fuji raw, you will need to use Fujiís own software to convert into a universal format like TIFF first. Even then you may still find problems. I have written a separate article about this.

One positive thing to note is that Iíve seen no evidence of the noise reduction Ďstar-eatingí that Sony A7 variants suffer when used for astro-imaging. Noise reduction is off by default on the X-M1.

If you can get around the stacking issues, a Fuji X-Trans takes excellent tracked subs. Below is an example of M42 straight from the camera with no cropping or processing of any kind.

M42: Fuji X-M1, 1400mm F8 75s ISO 3200. Slight tracking error.

Landscape Astrophotography

Stacking issues have meant Iíve mainly used the X-M1 for landscape astrophotography with Fujiís own 16mm and 23mm F1.4 lenses and Samyangís (Rokinon) 12mm F2 manual prime.

Higher-end X-Trans cameras supposedly correct for lens aberrations on Fujiís own primes automatically, but the X-M1 doesnít seem to. Consequently, the 23mm and 16mm have too much astigmatism and coma fully open to be ideal for astrophotography Ė stars are very distorted towards the edge.

The Samyang 12mm F2 is by contrast excellent in this respect (famously so Ė numerous reviewers have noted it).

Iíve reviewed these lenses separately, but a selection of images follow.

Milky Way from the Grand Canyon Ė Fuji X-M1 + XF 23mm, 10s F1.4 ISO3200.

Cape Canaveral lighting storm - Fuji X-M1 + Samyang 12mm F2, 30s F2 ISO 800.

Lick Observatory in California - Fuji X-M1 + Samyang 12mm F2, 20s F2 ISO 1600.

Area 51 sky glow from the ET Highway, Fuji X-M1 + XF 23mm, 10s F1.4 ISO 2500.

Mauna Kea sunset Ė Fuji X-M1 + Samyang 12mm F2, 1/60th F2 ISO 800.

VLBA dish on Mauna Kea Ė Fuji X-M1 + Samyang 12mm F2, 20s F2 ISO 3200.