The X-A1 offers a fold-out LCD sporting a high resolution of 921,000 dots. Like the rugged body, its hinge is built not to bruise easily - it's made of metal and much more than a simple hinge. It should stand up to a little abuse. The screen can fold both upward and downward 90 degrees, though it does not swivel outward. The upward angle is great for getting low to the ground for macro shots, and the downward angle is critical for overhead shooting.
The X-A1 offers a fair number of physical controls - and a whole lot of manual settings you can tweak to fine-tune the look of your shots. You get a quick menu button, a dedicated movie button, a 12-position mode dial with a custom user-selectable position, plus two dials and a programmable function button. The company calls the dial atop the camera the command dial; the second dial sits at the top of the back panel also functions as a button, and is called the sub-command dial. At first glance, this seems like a very generous offering, and the names of the dials certainly sound like they're powerful, though at the end of day some menu functions were a little frustrating.
On the whole, the camera delivered very high image quality. Exposures tended to be accurate, with natural-looking colors. The 16mm-50mm kit lens is quite versatile, offering a wider angle than many zoom lenses in this range. Being made primarily of plastic, it is lightweight. In images shot at wide angle, some minor distortion could be found near the edges in images blown up to 100 percent, but this was minimal. Chromatic aberrations were negligible. The lens has a focus ring, but no aperture ring.
Low light performance was outstanding. As you will see on our Samples page, noise is not much of a concern with the X-A1. The camera offers a very impressive ability to shoot in dimly lit situations without introducing a distracting amount of digital noise. For those of us who prefer to shoot without flash, this is definitely this camera's most attractive attribute.
Where I ran into trouble in my testing was with the auto focus and burst modes (often in combination). For example, when shooting a burst in Auto mode I ended up with a batch of shots that were underexposed because I had zoomed in on my subject. That's because although the camera offers both continuous and tracking auto focus, these are not active during burst mode. The focus and exposure are fixed at the first frame (which is mentioned in the manual), though I did notice some minor changes to the shutter speed and aperture during the course of a burst. If you aren't shooting sporting events (or, in my case, an overly active four-year-old), most of the time this won't be a problem. But if lighting conditions change in the course of a burst, you could end up with improperly exposed shots - and, of course, a lot of blurry shots due to changed focus length.
Unfortunately, what I thought would be a reasonable workaround failed. Switching to manual focus, I intended to turn the focus ring as I shot in burst mode - but found out that the focus ring is not active once you depress the shutter release button halfway, much less while shooting. Not that I could have focused sharply while previews flitted past on the screen anyway - there's just no good alternative to having an optical viewfinder. Though the high-resolution LCD is great for most shooting situations with static subjects, it's difficult to focus manually on it in bright sunlight.
The X-A1 is reasonably fast to startup, but not lightning-fast. I couldn't get a shot off in the specified time of 0.5 second. The camera has a setting called quick start, which is supposed help in this regard. It's turned off by default, and you change it under the power management section of the setup menu. The main culprit in my results was the contrast-detection auto focus. My first attempts were taken indoors with an on-screen timer. But taking the camera outside and shooting a timer in afternoon shade did not improve the power-up-to-first-image performance. In many instances, my first image was not captured for several seconds because when I pressed the shutter button before auto focus was ready, I was left holding down the shutter button with nothing happening; I had to release it and press it again. Achieving the best-case scenario hinged on my exact timing in pressing the shutter button at just the right time after the camera had powered up.
The biggest disappointment with the auto focus is that it does not operate in burst mode. Though the camera has tracking and continuous auto focus, they only work while you're waiting to shoot. When I tried to capture a running subject in late afternoon light, I ended up with a lot of out-of-focus shots - it made no difference that I kept him in the middle of the frame with the AF box. Not that you see the AF box when in burst mode - the previews flit by without any indication of focus. When not operating the camera, you can hear the focus motor adjusting as you point the camera at different potential subjects, but once you dive into a burst of shots, the auto focus locks for good.
Another disappointment with the auto focus was with macro shooting. I got a lot of attractive macro shots, though in late afternoon the camera was often unable to pick out my foreground subject of a pair of dandelions. In fact, the camera regularly indicated with its AF box turning green that it had locked focus, when it was obvious to the naked eye that it had grabbed onto something in the background. With the puffy tops of dandelions being white, and the grass in background sometimes in shadow, the camera's auto focus was looking through the dandelion, unable to pick up the flower's fine fibers, even though they were in a dense cluster. The same thing happened when shooting an on-screen timer to gauge the camera's shutter lag - one of my shots was way out of focus. In these tests the camera took about 0.5 second to lock on to the timer screen (during which you can hear the focus motor purring).
The camera offers continuous auto focus in move mode, and in bright daylight it performed quite well. In some cases it was slow to respond to changes in focus distance, whether due to moving subjects or zooming in or out. This was more pronounced when recording indoors under tungsten lighting, where the focus took longer to adjust, and the swimming auto focus resulted in blurry video, with the focus swimming in and out.
One convenience the camera offers is a moveable focus box. Pressing upward on the four-way control (delete/AF) turns the focus box green, and then you can reposition it using the four-way control. You press OK when finished. Then you can press the sub-command dial to magnify the area inside the box. In this magnified view the command dial remains the exposure adjustment dial and the sub-command dial makes no settings change.
The X-A1 has a dedicated movie button, and records full 1080p HD video. In bright sunlight, the AF works pretty well while zooming during video recording. The sample movie on the Samples Page illustrates this - the camera does not track my erratic zooming perfectly, though it does a pretty good job of getting my subject in focus after a short delay, in most cases. The results are even better when you keep the zooming to a slower, more relaxing pace. As with shooting still images, dimmer lighting slows down the response of the auto focus.
There are 13 digital filters offered via the advanced filter position on the mode dial, and most of them produce attractive results, but they really aren't this camera's strong suit. The real attraction here is deep, fine-tuning. For example, each of the eight white balance presets can be tweaked using an on-screen grid. Adjustments can be made in the shooting menu to a wide range of settings, such as: dynamic range, color saturation, sharpness, highlight and shadow tone.
More run of the mill, the mode dial has dedicated positions for sport, landscape, and portrait modes. In addition, there is a scene position (SP) selection that can be assigned one of 10 other scene modes (though I'm unclear how this menu's choice of portrait enhancer differs from the portrait scene mode available on the mode dial).
Keeping true to the company's roots in film photography, three of the camera's five color effects are simulations of its film products, Provia, Velvia, and Astia (the other two being black-and-white and sepia). You change this treatment in the menus.
Making selections via the menus is not always intuitive or seamless, and tends to be hampered by excessive button pressing. For example, you have two thumb dials at the ready - but they do the same thing. They both scroll vertically through the menu page choices. It would be much more convenient if one of them whizzed you through the selections for the highlighted setting - but to do that you have to press the OK button. And even when scrolling through the selections with the lower rear thumb dial - pressing inward does not finalize the selection. You have to go back to the OK button on the four-way control to finalize your choice.
Easier navigation is found by using the quick menu button (labeled "Q"), which launches a screen with 16 icons. In this menu, you change the setting of the highlighted icon by turning one of the thumb dials, which is convenient. However, the two dials do the same thing - you have to use the four-way buttons to navigate to the setting you want to change. Also, the icon at top left only indicates the shooting mode - you can't change it. This doesn't matter if you're shooting in, say, Program mode, because it's a position on the mode dial. But if you're using a scene mode from the SP menu or one of the 13 advanced filters, it's frustrating that you can't change the setting with a quick flip of the command dial in the Q menu - you have to dive into the full-blown shooting menu with the four-way control. In the Q menu, you must use the up/down buttons to get to the next or previous row because pressing the left/right buttons keeps you on the same row of icons. Both the sub-command dial and main command dial adjust the options for the highlighted setting.
In the standard shooting menu, playback menu and setup menu, the two dials also do the same thing. They whiz you through the selections, but you have to jump down to the OK button to make a selection (you can't use the sub-command dial's button feature for this). Operation in playback mode can also be a little odd. For one, the Q button does nothing. Secondly, though upward on the four-way control is the trash button, pressing menu/OK takes you to the playback menu, where the first highlighted choice is delete - I found myself repeatedly having to tell the camera I did not want to delete my shot.
Lastly, the folders in a vertical column on the left side of the LCD are brightly lit. But the selections within them are in a dim gray - and they can be difficult to see in bright light, especially if you're wearing sunglasses, much less polarized ones. They turn from gray to white once you jump into the menu, however.
In playback mode, however, if you have magnified an image using the sub-command dial, the command dial atop the camera will scroll you through the images in magnified view. That is, until you get to a group of shots that are grouped because they were taken in burst mode - these then display at full frame, though you can still magnify them. To closely inspect focus, the easiest way to do so is to press downward on the four-way control. This jumps you to the highest magnification without having to turn the sub-command dial. Whizzing through these bursts of images is fun - spinning the dial gives the impression of a zoetrope, especially if you shot the images in high-speed burst, which I clocked at 5fps.
The camera is not a candidate for anyone wanting to perform a lot of in-camera edits to JPEG files. In this regard, the X-A1 is bare-bones basic. Beyond crop and rotate, the only true edit is red-eye reduction. Where the focus lies is in the RAW conversion options. Here, you get a healthy assortment of tweaks you can perform in-camera without having to edit and perform a JPEG conversion on a computer. There are 11 parameters, from push/pull processing and dynamic range to color saturation and highlight tone.
Like the LCD's ample hinge, the flash pop-up mechanism is rugged. The hinge mechanism springs upward and forward, better positioning the flash to avoid a shadow from a protruding zoom lens. However, this compensation is not enough for all potential lenses, the manual warns, and some zoom lenses may still cast a shadow. There is the external flash hot shoe, for mounting a more powerful flash.
The built-in flash is modest in size and range. At wide angle with the 16mm-50mm kit lens, the flash dropped off dramatically at just 10 feet or so. At full zoom, it could light a subject at 15 to 20 feet, but the illumination was moderate, not spectacular. The best feature of the flash is that you can set it to always fire (forced flash) when raised. Then, you simply fold it down when you don't want it. On the down side, you can not use the flash in either low- or high-speed burst mode. If you aren't aware of this, when first using the camera this can be frustrating - going to the flash mode menu, you will find it grayed out and unchangeable, just as it is in the Q menu when the flash is retracted. If you are in burst mode, the camera offers no message to remind you that you need to switch to single image shooting mode. Similarly, if the flash is down, you can not change the flash mode for when you want it. You must pop up the flash for the menu to allow you to change the mode.
The X-A1's continuous shooting is fast. When shooting JPEGs, I clocked the camera at 5fps for first 18 shots or so. Then the camera slows to an average of 2.3fps and can continue for some time (I stopped after an additional 25 or so shots in my testing). The X-A1 can keep up at this speed when shooting RAW files as well, though not for as long. In my testing it shot at 5fps in RAW mode for the first 12 or so images, then slowed significantly to an average of 1.4fps. The manual estimates the maximum number of images that can be captured in high-speed burst mode at 30, and in low-speed burst mode at 50.
Battery life is typical for this class of camera. The CIPA rating of 350 shots is neither a disappointment nor a candidate for bragging rights. However, this rating is performed with 50% flash use. In my first batch of shots, I did a lot better. Rarely using flash, and shooting a lot in burst mode, I recorded more than 1,430 still images and five short videos before depleting the battery. Your mileage may vary. The Li-ion battery is charged in the included external charger.
Bottom line - The mirrorless camera market has a serious contender in the X-A1. Its APS-C sensor, high image quality, and stellar low-light performance make it a very attractive option. Fast burst shooting in both JPEG and RAW formats sweetens the deal. Limited lens selection may put off some, and slow auto focus (especially the fact that it isn't operational in burst mode) will turn off action photographers. If fast AF isn't a must-have, the X-A1 has a lot to offer.
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