I wasn’t expecting much when I bought a friend’s old and worn Fujifilm X-T1. I only needed a stand-in digital camera to replace my recently stolen Sony A7, and wanted to see how well one of Fuji’s first tries at the faux-film camera digital camera design had turned out. I was skeptical, considering my lingering distrust of the practice (see: the Nikon Df) and general dissatisfaction and disillusion with digital imitations of film.
Circumstances, however, made pulling the trigger on this relatively old digital camera a little more interesting. I recently acquired a small system of half-frame lenses for my Olympus Pen FT which, in theory, could adapt well to the similarly-sized APS-C sensor size of the Fuji X-T1. And seeing as the X-T1’s price dropped considerably since its release in 2014, I thought that it could (in theory) combine with the already economical half-frame Pen FT to provide a perfect solution for the constantly rising cost of shooting film, without sacrificing anything of the analog-based processes that I love.
Before long the humble, workmanlike Fuji X-T1 quickly became the centerpiece of my photographic world. It accomplished something very rare among digital cameras – it provided a real analogue (no pun intended) to the process and workflow of shooting film, and even provided a meaningful lineage and continuation from the classic camera designs I love.
And perhaps most important to film shooters in our inflation-riddled, price-gouged future of 2023, I’ve discovered that the combination of Fujifilm X-T1 and Olympus Pen FT is perhaps the most economical film/digital setup out there.
Why the Fuji X-T1?
For devoted film shooters like myself, the arrival of the Fuji X-T series (as well as Fuji’s entire line of digital cameras) was a godsend. Finally, there was a practical alternative to the cynical devotion to the same old function-over-form black blob DSLR/Mirrorless design of the Nikon D-series, Canon EOS series, and Sony A-series cameras of the day, laden with multi-purpose sponge buttons and bottomless menus. Here was something that felt like it had a lineage to the manual focus cameras we loved, without it feeling like it was pandering to the people who loved them. The Fuji X-T series was (and still is) the answer we’d been seeking.
From the jump, Fuji X-T1’s design reminded me of (and bore an uncanny resemblance to) two of my very favorite SLRs; the Nikon F3 and Nikon EM. The camera fit in the hand as easily as the compact EM and shares much the same dimensions, and the control layout almost nearly mimics that of the F3. The angular design punctuated by small ergonomic finger rests is straight out of the F3’s playbook as well, and also recalls cameras like the Pentax LX, Olympus OM-4, Canon A-1 and F-1, Minolta XD and Leica R4. As somebody who has an affinity for this specific era of SLR design, the X-T1 feels like a true spiritual successor.
Where the X-T1 starts to separate itself from other retro-chic cameras is in the purpose of its execution. It doesn’t overdo or rely on its reference points, nor does it make the reference The Point. Yes, the control layout features a big ol’ shutter speed dial, an ISO dial, switches on the front, and an on/off switch integrated into the shutter button surround, just like the F3, but it doesn’t present itself as a hodgepodge pastiche marketing exercise. The presence of these tactile dials, levers, and buttons do recall a simpler time and have some retro-chic appeal, but they primarily streamline and make simple the myriad options and controls available for digital cameras.
The design and layout of these macro-controls is so effective that there’s almost no need to menu dive; all angles of the exposure triangle are available in a simple physical form. Its analog-inspired aesthetic doesn’t just simply act as a dog whistle for the film geeks among us (remember when Leica made a digital M with a fake film advance lever?); it actually forms the bedrock of its utility, which may be Fujifilm’s greatest design achievement to date.
The camera’s user interface also happens to recreate the manual film camera experience so well that it feels tailor-made for the use of legacy lenses. Though the X-T1 was praised early on for the quality and speed of its auto-focus, its user interface seems meant for an old manual focus lens. Adjusting aperture and shutter speed feels exactly as it does on manual focus cameras, and even the focusing aids feature a fun black and white digital rangefinder which mimics the split-image rangefinders of yore. The resemblance is a little uncanny, but oddly comforting, and I actually prefer it to the focus-peaking mode, and massively prefer it to the dinky glass viewfinder with no focusing aids found on most DSLRs.
My experience with the X-T1 and Legacy Lenses
Despite some initial hesitation, the X-T1 proved itself a real digital alternative to my favorite-ever cameras, and a platonic digital ideal for the film and manual-focus obsessed. With the X-T1, Fuji successfully recreated the very process of shooting my favorite cameras without ever resorting to cheap nostalgia, something I previously thought was impossible.
Revelatory though the X-T1 has been for me, there was one huge caveat that came with it and nearly all of Fuji’s cameras that initially prevented me from using them in the first place – the APS-C crop sensor. Debates about sensor size and image quality versus full-frame sensors aside, APS-C sensors still crop the crap out of the 35mm legacy lenses I love. Speedboosters purport to solve this problem (and they do, to some extent), but I don’t love the idea of throwing more glass elements at the cropping problem, nor do I love the idea of spending $700 USD for the privilege. No matter how good, the crop sensor of the Fuji X-T series really holds back raw, native adaptability between it and the full frame legacy lens systems many film shooters build their photographic lives around.
It’s this very issue which makes the Olympus half-frame lenses such a simple solution on the APS-C sized Fuji X-T1. While the Olympus half frame is still very slightly bigger than APS-C, it is the closest one can get to a native vintage legacy lens specification for the Fuji X-T series.
When used in tandem, the Fuji X-T1 and Olympus Pen FT lens system operate as one of the most elegant film/digital systems in photography, and the ideal combination for those unwilling to compromise on the film shooter’s workflow. The entire system (both bodies plus three lenses) is small and portable enough to fit in just a small bag, and one can switch from the Fuji X-T1 to the Pen FT in a couple of seconds. If it’s the real film experience one wants, the Olympus Pen FT offers one of the genre’s finest shooting experiences, and if it’s flexibility and versatility one wants, the Fuji X-T1 is there to grab everything else.
But aside from lens compatibility, there’s one thing which puts this entire system above the others – the Fuji X-T1’s film emulation. Despite being from the olden days of 2014, these film emulations still do a stellar job of approximating some of Fuji’s classic films. Fuji Pro 400H, Provia, Velvia, Acros, and even freakin’ Fuji Astia are represented in these film profiles, which can be applied both in-camera through JPEG processing, and in post-processing image editing software like Lightroom and Darktable. As somebody who doesn’t like the endless post-processing required to get RAW digital photos to look less flat, both the instant in-camera processing and the simplicity of applying a tailor-made film profile in post is extremely appealing, and even closer to the set-it-and-forget-it analog workflow.
It should also be noted that the age of these emulations has also given rise to third party improvements upon them, namely the so-called “film recipes” for different Fuji sensors. These recipes provide different in-camera JPEG processing settings for emulations of specific films, ranging from the now-extinct Kodachrome to the hyped and consistently sold-out Cinestill 800T. Whatever lingering qualms one might have about the age and quality of the built-in film profiles and sensor can be soothed by these new user-made film recipes. If it isn’t ever enough, a real film camera is only a lens swap away, and the RAW files will still be there anyway for your editing pleasure.
This brings me to my final, and perhaps most timely, point – the system could very well be one of the best solutions to the problem of rising film costs. The older Fuji X-T1 can still be had for less than $500 USD new and less than $400 on the used market, and provides quite literally an unlimited number of exposures in every different variety, while the half-frame Pen FT automatically doubles the amount of exposures possible on a single roll of 35mm film, thereby halving processing costs. Shooting without financial pressure or worry is valuable for any and every shooter, and helps us enjoy and explore the art form we love more freely.
But what’s truly special about this Fuji X-T1-based system is that it accomplishes everything in a way that’s familiar to film shooters. The Fujifilm X-T1 itself is a wonderful and actually functional tribute to every classic film SLR I love, while the Olympus Pen FT provides me one of the best real film shooting experiences out there without blasting a hole in my wallet every time I finish a roll of film. And after years and years of shooting film nearly exclusively, being disappointed with the design philosophies of the digital world, and being priced out of consistently shooting film year after year, I couldn’t ask for a simpler, more elegant solution.
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