I’ve spent the last couple of years thinking about getting a new mirrorless camera, but I’ve never been able to go ahead and pull the trigger. There are a few different reasons for that – I already have several different types of cameras sitting around the house, and cell-phone cameras have come so far, so fast that I’ve tended to rely on them more and more (‘the best camera is the one you have with you…etc etc’). The Samsung S9 or the Pixel 3 produce such amazing images that it rarely feels like I need to carry anything else.
So I was convinced that if I was going to invest in one for myself, it would need to be one that provided outstanding, meaningfully better quality than any other camera I own, and a system that I could stick with for years (because once you get locked into a lens eco-system, it’s hard to get out).
In my mind, that also limited me to full-frame options, since all other things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality you can get out of it, right? A few weeks of shooting with Fujifilm’s brilliant X-T3 have made me question that limitation, because despite its smaller APS-C sensor, it’s one of the best mirrorless cameras on the market right now.
Most of my time with the X-T3 was spent on a two week road trip across New Zealand’s North and South islands, so this review won’t be a very detailed technical breakdown, but more of an in-depth impression of what it’s like to live with this camera on holiday, visiting some of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth (arguably a more important test).
One look at the X-T3 immediately makes it stand out from many competitors, with a much more squared-off, retro aesthetic. The controls look a little old-fashioned and intimidating at first glance too – instead of the nearly ubiquitous mode dial paired with other buttons or on-screen settings, you get a much more comprehensive set of dedicated mechanical dials on the body. The stacked dials are space efficient while still providing a very granular level of control, which means you can see all the key settings without having to even turn on the camera. The little locking mechanisms on the ISO and shutter speed dials are a particularly thoughtful detail that ensure the settings don’t get changed by accident. It would have been nice for those to have been included on the exposure dial as well, but to be fair, I never had it accidentally shift on me, so it’s not a glaring omission.
All the analogue controls take some getting used to if you’re moving from a Sony or Nikon, but they felt really intuitive and sensible, so not much of a learning curve. To be honest, the controls were one of my favourite parts of the X-T3, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to any other system.
The end result is a camera that looks retro-chic (particularly if you choose the silver and black colour scheme rather than the all-black version), and feels like an old-school DSLR to use.
The ease of use translates into other parts of the camera as well, like the size of the body, and grip – the X-T3 is smaller than most DSLRs, but not so small that it becomes hard to grip, or feels ungainly or awkward with a longer zoom. That balance is also due to the weight of the body – while it isn’t heavy by any stretch, it feels extremely well-built and rugged. The body is also weather sealed, so we didn’t have to worry about getting caught in the South Island’s notoriously unpredictable showers.
The build and handling are complemented well by the great auto-focus, which is incredibly fast and accurate (it helped a lot when we were shooting moving targets, whether it was vistas out of a tour bus window, or some of the native wildlife).
One omission of the X-T3 is that it doesn’t have optical stabilisation built into the body, but fortunately many of the lenses do have it, including the 18-55mm F2.8-4 kit lens. There are sharper, faster lenses in Fujifilm’s range, but this lens shouldn’t be overlooked just because it can be bundled along with the body. The weight and balance of the body and lens together felt great, and it quickly became the default lens for this trip, starting from a reasonably wide angle, and providing just enough zoom range to help compose shots of NZ’s stunning landscapes.
We also carried a longer zoom (55-200mm F3.5-4.8) as well as a shorter prime lens (35mmF2), and though they weren’t called into action as often, they produced results that were just as impressive.
The build-quality of the lenses was just as solid as the camera body with a nice rugged heft to them that gave me a lot more confidence carrying them around and switching between them on the fly – which after all is the whole point…why bother with the hassle of travelling with an interchangeable lens camera if you can’t change whenever you need to.
The viewfinder and screen are both impressive in detail, colour and clarity, and offer a lot of customisation options. The maximum brightness was fine for shooting in bright sunny conditions, while the night mode on the display and viewfinder (which dims the output and changes all the screen readouts from white to red) was especially handy, both for shooting the glowworm caves at Waitomo and the night skies at Lake Tekapo.
The one downside with the screen is that it doesn’t have a fully articulated mount, but instead relies on a complex combination of separate horizontal and vertical hinges that give it a reasonable amount of flexibility. It doesn’t come close to facing forwards though, so you’re definitely not shooting selfies with it.
All the style, build quality and granular control that the X-T3 offers wouldn’t amount to much if the image quality didn’t live up to the same bar. Fortunately, there are no letdowns, as the new 26.1 Megapixel back-illuminated sensor is absolutely fantastic. While the total resolution may not be a headline (especially compared to the 40 and 50MP counts on some of the full-frame competition) it produces very impressive shots, with solid dynamic range and negligible noise. It also shoots 4K video at up to 60p – a pretty rare feature in this class of camera – and another reason that the X-T3 often feels like it’s punching well above its weight.
Conclusion: Altogether, the X-T3 is a bit of a giant killer, providing image quality and advanced features that match up quite well against cameras that cost 2 or 3 times more. The design and build quality are as good or better than anything else on the market. And just those factors alone would be enough to make it worthy of consideration for any photography enthusiast (along with complicating my own choice of full-frame vs APS-C far more than I expected!).
It’s the little details though, like the thoughtful display interface and the superb manual controls that put it over the top, and make it a clear winner in my book. Now to go convince my partner that we NEED to get one of our own before our next vacation.