Fujifilm X-H1 Camera Review

bythom fujifilm x-h1

What is It?

The X-H1 was an unexpected camera. Fujifilm had already seemed to build and increment T#, T##, E#, and Pro# lines in their mirrorless lineup, so getting a new "1" level camera was not at all expected. That this new model appeared just prior to the X-T3 (by seven months) also was a bit of a head scratcher. 

Curiously, the X-H1 appears to be the best specified of the 24mp Fujifilm cameras, and at the time of its launch could be said to be clearly the top of the lineup. The appearance of 26mp cameras with the X-T3 introduced a few months later seems to confuse the issue, though.

Things that made the X-H1 seem top-of-the-line were first and foremost the price ;~). At the original US$1900 list price, it was the highest priced of Fujifilm's bodies at the time of introduction. As I write this, the going price for an X-H1 is only US$1300, though, and typically that includes the extended vertical grip.

A wealth of new features (at the time) also added to the impression of "top of the line": 5-axis sensor based image stabilization; a 3.7m dot OLED EVF with highly reduced blackout during continuous shooting, Fujifilm's (at the time) best video capabilities; a new Eterna film simulation; twin UHS-II slots; a top LCD display; a full DSLR-like hand grip; and more.

Add in firmware updates that eventually made it into other models, and the X-H1 did indeed look like a chart-topper at introduction. 

Before we get to specifics, we have to address the elephant in the room, though. The X-H1 didn't sell well. I outline some of the reasons why in my Fujifilm summary article, but there were others. One is that all this enhancement beefed up the camera to the point where it is not only DSLR-like in features and performance, but it also DSLR-like in size and weight. At 23.7 ounces (673g), the X-H1 is getting up into DSLR territory (it slots between a Nikon D7500 and D500, for example).

Even compared to Fujifilm's own lineup, the X-H1 is a little bulky. It's about 5% wider and higher than the X-T3, and the extended hand grip makes it 30% deeper, so the X-H1 takes up more bag space. The X-T3 weighs 20% less, too. Fujifilm claims that the magnesium body design of the X-H1 uses thicker and tougher surfacing, which is one of the reasons for the growth in size/weight. Still, you'll want to be getting "more" from other aspects of the camera in order to make up for that.

You do and you don't is the X-H1's basic problem. 

The 24mp sensor is essentially the X-T2 generation sensor, though perhaps with some tweaking that allowed some additional video capability. That sensor produces 6000x4000 pixel images at ISO values from 200-12800 (can be extended to 100-51200). 

In terms of video, we get 4K in both DCI at 30, 25, and 24 fps, and UHD at 24 fps, and recorded at 200Mbps internally (H.264 in .MOV package). The 4K frame uses a 1.17x crop, but is oversampled, so produces excellent 4K detail. 1080P can be captured at up to 120 fps. Both formats support 24-bit audio, F-Log capture, and timecode. 

Fujifilm tends to talk about its two cinema lenses in conjunction with the X-H1 (18-55mm t/2.9 MK, and 50-135mm t/2.9 MK). These lenses have little focus or focal length breathing during zoom, and have gears on all the rings as well as low-light readable markings. The X-H1 was really the first camera I remember Fujifilm clearly promoting for high-end video; it shows in all their marketing literature and brochures.

The autofocus system uses 325 areas with phase detection. This is basically the same system as used in the X-T2, though with some definite performance tweaks that make it a bit more useful and reliable (and are now in the X-T3/X-T30 models). Note that phase detect is not done over the entire frame, but only in a reasonably large central portion of the frame (50% horizontal, 75% vertical). To foreshadow: focus performance is best, and quite good within that phase detect area, but with moving subjects that get outside that area, tracking performance tends to suffer, and the system can jump to the background.

In terms of shutter, we get Fujifilm's highest grade here, with 1/8000 top mechanical speed and 1/250 flash sync speed. The camera can shoot continuously at 14 fps.

While the rear LCD is the same 3.2" 1.04m dot TFT one that Fujifilm has been using across the line, the EVF in the X-H1 is 3.69m dot OLED, with 0.75x magnification and capable of 120Hz refresh. I'm not sure what the lower level difference is between it and the X-T3's EVF, but I prefer the X-H1's. Clearly so. The eye also sits further from the back of the camera with the X-H1, something that many appreciate, and makes the use of the touchpad for AF positioning much more easily done. Note that the rear LCD can fold in two axes, which is useful, though the tilt is a bit restrictive in amount overall (only 45° downwards, and 60° on the second axis).

You get a -4 to +2 diopter adjustment on the EVF, which is a nice full range that should accommodate most folk. The eye point is listed at 23mm, but the rubber eyecup will keep eyeglass wearers from getting to that. I find I can just see the extreme corners with my glasses, but I also have a low level of correction and thus thin glass.

The EVF can also be adjusted to display the camera settings in place, or a more natural live view. I suspect some of things I respond to with the X-H1 viewfinder is that is more subtle and adjustable than the more common just-show-them-the-pixels approach on many less expensive cameras.

Connectivity comes in the form of a USB 3.0 (5Gbps) connector and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi coupled with Bluetooth 4.0. Not quite current state-of-the-art, but respectable.

The X-H1 is powered by the NP-W126S battery pack ubiquitous across the Fujifilm lineup, and is rated at 310 shots CIPA. The camera can be charged via the USB socket, but not powered that way.

Curiously, the X-H1 loses the cable-release-friendly shutter release of the lower models and substitutes a release with a very different feel. I'm not sure what the motivation for that was, but I find getting to the "half press" a little more touchy than on the other Fujifilm bodies, where it takes substantial movement to get to half press.

If you really want "more camera," you can get the VPB-XH1 vertical grip, which adds vertical grip and controls as well as the ability to power the camera from an adapter (these days, it often comes with the camera). There's also a headphone connection and the ability to use two NP-W126S batteries in that grip. Curiously, the features of the grip make it more useful for video shooters than still.

Note that between the time the camera was announced and I got around to reviewing it, Fujifilm introduced a 2.0 firmware change. This and earlier firmware changes added focus bracketing, several autofocus enhancements, allows you to assign IS to a button, dual IS support (sensor and lens, if it has OIS), better IS during panning performance, plus creation of single file movies instead of breaking them into 4GB segments.

The X-H1 costs US$1300 (current price) and is made in Japan.

Source of the review unit: long-term loaner from B&H

Fujifilm's Web page for the camera

How's it Handle?

You can't escape the hand grip. This is the only one of the DSLR-like Fujifilm's to have a full, deep, and comfortable hand grip, and that alone goes a long way to make this the best handling of the Fujifilm bodies. 

Other details abound. While the Exposure Compensation dial is gone, it is replaced with a Nikon-style button next to the shutter release to make room for a nice top display. Personally, I like top displays, as they allow me to see the basic state of key settings in one glance. Moreover, I can see battery status without having to turn the camera on. Fujifilm allows you to do some configuration of this display, which is also a nice touch. If you're a serious shooter, you come to appreciate little touches like that. Indeed, that's often the type of detail that attracts you to a higher-specified model in the first place.

One small aspect I did object to is that the AE-L button is the raised and easier-to-find button than the AF-On one. This is backwards from the way serious and pro shooters would want it: we all tend to use back-button focus, so we want to find the AF-On button naturally with our thumbs. If we really want to lock exposure, we'd tend to just put the aperture and shutter speed rings where we want them and be done having to think about that.

The Q (quick menu) button is also oddly located (it ends up under the base of your thumb) and too easy to trigger accidentally. That's probably the one handling aspect that really sticks out on an otherwise well-considered body design (okay, the raised AE-L button, too).

While the front and rear command dials are once again perpendicular to the back, this feels a little less awkward on the X-H1 than the other Fujifilm bodies due to where your hand position ends up with the hand grip. Nikon shooters who value keeping the index finger on the shutter release while making adjustments using the dials can do so more readily on the X-H1 than the other bodies, in my opinion.

One feature that's buried in the menus that I discovered by accident is the ability to change how the fly-by-wire focus ring works. You can configure a linear response, which means that a fixed turn results in a repeatable change of focus, or speed-sensitive response, which means that faster turns of the ring make for longer leaps while slower turns result in shorter changes of focus. Linear works much better with the macro lens I was testing at the time. Moreover, you can change the direction of the focus ring, too. Nice touches.

Indeed, focusing gets a lot of subtle and interacting handling points. I found that I had to spend some time getting the X-H1 tuned to the way I wanted it work, but that was really the way I wanted it to work, not a couple of presets that the camera manufacturer thought were useful. Fujifilm really needs to make a solid tutorial highlighting just how much tweaking there is here, and how to best optimize it for what you're doing. Because discovering it on your own is a bit like falling down a mine shaft and then finding a whole bunch of buttons that can control you get back to the surface.

I'm less sure about Fujifilm's one change for video shooters: Movie Silent Control. This disables the physical controls for adjustment and puts the control all into the rear LCD. On the one hand, this seems like something I might use sometimes, but I haven't found a circumstance where I want to use it yet ;~). 

How's it Perform?

Battery: I tend not to pay a lot of attention to the CIPA numbers these days, but found that I was getting more CIPA-like numbers from the Fujifilm cameras than I was say, from the Nikon or Sony mirrorless cameras. Because of the way the CIPA test works, it tends to pull down the numbers for cameras with voltage heavy EVFs, but in actual use, I often find I get far different (and better) results. 

Not quite with the X-H1. While I was getting 400-500 shots/charge, that really made me need to carry an extra battery all the time. I suspect the IBIS system is pulling my results down from where I might have expected them.

Focus: For most uses, I have no real issues here. In well lit and contrasty situations with non-moving or slow-moving subjects, the system is fast and precise. AF-S (single servo focus) users should have virtually no issue with the camera, particularly if they stick to the central section covered by phase detect sensors.

Tracking focus is a bit different. 

We have the usual Face Detection ability in the more automatic focus modes, and it works very well. As I noted with the X-T3/X-T30, though, when the camera or subject is moving fast, there can be a slight moment where the face is lost and the camera drops back to object detection while it re-looks for the eye. But the X-H1 also doesn't look as far from the center of the frame for focus as do the X-T3/X-T30, so this also limits the ability to see well off-center faces.

Where I'm not sure Fujifilm has caught state-of-the-art with autofocus is in tracking erratic, fast motion using AF-C (continuous servo focus). Because most of my sports coverage is shut down in the summer months as I was testing these cameras, I wasn't able to do all the testing I would have liked, but in some mountain biker testing I could see the system struggle to keep the subject in tight focus. 

Let me try to describe that more carefully. On my D5, a sequence that achieves focus pretty much stays locked on the thing that was originally focused. If you look at the eyes of a soccer player, for instance, every frame has the same focus plane (and if I used the AF system right, that's the player's eyes). On the Sony systems, one of the things I don't like is that there is some "drift" of the focus plane, even on the A9, which is the best of the bunch. The focus plane doesn't move much, but in that same soccer player scenario it'll drift forward and back of the actual eye by a millimeter or two from frame to frame.

The X-H1 (and X-T3/X-T30) sort of match the Sony performance if the subject is well centered and coming directly at you at a constant speed: a bit of fore/aft drift, but very acceptable focus. But if the subject is moving more erratically (across the frame), and particularly if it gets out of the central area, I see clear focus "misses." Not by a lot. But focus in front of the face or on the ears is often enough to just give me unusable results, particularly with the faster lenses used wide open. Note again that the X-H1's more restrictive area looked at by the phase detect sensors, it does worse than the X-T3 and X-T30 when subjects wander in and out of the central area.

The X-H1 (and X-T3/X-T30) do get frames in focus in erratic sequences, but it's the front/aft focus drift during a burst sequence that I find to be the issue: it's just a bit too much drift for me to have long, usable sequences. Tinkering with the AF-C Custom Settings helps, and I'm not sure I've mastered those yet. But take that to be a warning that you'll need to spend some time with the AF-C system learning how it responds and tuning it in order to get the best possible results out of this camera. And again, remember that the phase detect coverage on the X-H1 is a little behind the times: it doesn't cover most of the sensor, only the central area.

To put things in perspective, ten years ago we would have been 100% happy with the Fujifilm's AF-C performance in bursts. Today? Not so much. I'd judge Fujifilm to be a generation or two behind where the best mirrorless cameras are today. Thing is, that's for an extreme use of the camera (e.g. action sports). Not a lot of people are buying these cameras for that type of work, so the extreme AF-C testing might not be relevant to you. The AF-S and AF-C for event-type shooting works fine. It's only when I press the system to the toughest subjects that I start to find issues.

Image Stabilization: Yes, it works. It actually works better with the primes (and 16-55mm f/2.8) than it does with the lenses that have OIS, as far as I can tell (it's tough to determine small differences in performance in IS, but it seems clear that most of the OIS zooms don't get the same level of stabilization on the X-T1 as the primes without it. 

Having sensor-based stabilization is definitely a plus for all the Fujifilm prime users. But I suspect it's the reason why I was getting lower-than-expected battery performance. You can turn the IBIS to "Shooting" instead of "Continuous", but not only do you lose the EVF stabilization when you do, I found that that mode was somewhat less effective. Thus, I bit the bullet and stayed in Continuous and recommend you do, too.

Image Quality: The 24mp sensor in the X-H1 is regarded as X-Trans III, or the third iteration of Fujifilm's unique APS-C configuration. At the base, however, is a copper-clad Sony Exmor technology, which has proven to be excellent. 

I really can't find any arguable differences in the X-H1 sensor performance from the X-T2, so I refer you to my X-T2 review for an examination of image quality. I'd say that any differences I might have seen fall well within sampling differences they were so low level. Overall, while I was tough on some low-level artifacts and issues, I liked the X-T2, and I like the X-H1 pretty much the same. Most people are going to be quite happy with the images from it.

Final Words

I really like the X-H1. It's a strong performer with a deep and broad feature set. My only real problem with it is that I have to consider it against something like the Nikon D500. 

While the X-H1 isn't quite as big and heavy as the D500, it's close enough that size/weight probably isn't going to be the thing that makes you choose one over the other. It really boils down to two things: autofocus and lenses. 

In autofocus, the D500 still wins. Clearly, and fairly easily if you know the Nikon system well and are shooting moving subjects. The D500's phase detect autofocus system covers more of the frame than the X-H1, and that plays a role in tracking moving objects well, too, but it's really the underlying algorithms that are different. The X-H1 would lose a subject or drift fore/aft when the D500 didn't, simple as that. 

Moreover, for moving subjects, we're probably talking about animals, birds, racing cars, or sports. Fujifilm's lens lineup above 100mm is a bit sparse when compared to all the great lenses you can put on a D500, so that's a second strike against the X-H1 when used for most action purposes.

On the flip side, Fujifilm simply stomps Nikon with wide angle to moderate telephoto prime lens choices. If you're shooting the 20-105mm (full frame equivalent) focal range and like primes, the X-H1 has a wide and varied set of excellent lenses to put out front, while the Nikon DX DSLR range has...shame...two. Moreover, the IBIS means all those lenses get some stabilization, too, something that Nikon also can't claim other than on a few mostly consumer zooms in the 20-105mm (full frame equivalent) focal range.

So just how much you'll enjoy the X-H1 is a little bit lens/subject dependent. It's not a sports camera, it's not a birder's camera. As an event, travel, landscape camera things turn well around in its favor, but...

...Fujifilm has other choices here. The X-T3 is the usual one people turn to, and the X-T30 is really the one you probably want if you're trying to stay light and compact.

Which brings us to the X-H1's fundamental problem: who's it really for? And why would you buy it over the X-T3? Unfortunately, I've never heard a good answer from Fujifilm about that. When I asked that question of a Fujifilm exec at NAB, he at first stuttered, then attempted to sell it as a video camera (but the X-T3 does 4K 60P ;~). The price reduction on the X-H1 so that it now sits below the X-T3 I think shows that Fujifilm just didn't dial in the product marketing details right.

All the emphasis Fujifilm put on video starting with the X-H1 introduction is also, I think, an indication that they knew they hadn't quite fully distinguished the X-H1 from the other cameras in their line in terms of still photography abilities. Trying to position products solely by marketing statements—as opposed to features and performance—generally is seen through by consumers, particularly at the price levels we're talking about here.

So I'm going to make a pretty weird statement here: if you want a top Fujifilm mirrorless camera, buy the X-H1, not the X-T3. Say what? Why? Because it's cheaper and has a real hand grip. Ouch. That's a pretty thin way to sell something.

Yes, the X-H1 has some small touches that go beyond the X-T3, though some of them are contentious. The top LCD and button instead of the Exposure Compensation dial, for instance. But none of those small things rise to the level of the two things I mentioned above. You can't beat saving money for something's that's basically equal for most purposes you'd use it for (plus has IBIS). Moreover, the X-H1 just feels more secure in the hand during serious shooting due to the far better grip, and it can stabilize those prime lenses.

The X-H1 is a camera that needed "more." That would almost have to come with deeper feature set. That, too, can turn into a contentious thing. What if the X-T3 didn't have features such as focus bracketing and the X-H1 did? ;~) That's the level of thing we're talking about here in terms of differentiating models.

Likewise, the X-H1 doesn't expose new and extensive video capabilities that aren't found elsewhere in the Fujifilm lineup now. So even though there was some emphasis on video during the initial marketing, I can think of things that weren't included on the video side that would make the X-H1 stand out (e.g. raw DNG support, higher bitrates, etc.). 

Bottom line is that the X-T3 and X-H1 are very, very similar cameras in so many aspects that you can almost consider them identical. Until you have to shoot continuously with one for a couple hours or more, at which point you want the X-H1 because of the grip. Or perhaps you've maxed out your credit card and need to save a few dollars, so the X-H1 looks better that way, too. 

So, if there's to be an X-H2, Fujifilm has its work cut out for themselves. An X-H2 has to be better differentiated from the eventual X-T4. Otherwise they'll end up right where they are today: not able to charge more for it.

Recommended (2019) (at lower than list pricing)

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