The Fuji X-E1 – Some thoughts and impressions
Last year, not long after it came out, I bought a Fuji X100 because I was intrigued by the promise of a small, rangefinder-like camera with a fixed 35mm lens. I liked the idea of being forced to shoot with a specific field of view; I loved the look and feel of the camera; and it’s hard to beat Fuji’s lens and image quality. What was easy to beat, at the time, was the X100′s autofocus and clumsy menu system. These issues were so frustrating that I sold the camera not long after I bought it. I came to mildly regret this decision as Fuji released firmware updates that addressed many of the issues that had bothered me, but didn’t think seriously about returning to the camera. But with the release of the Fuji X-E1, I couldn’t resist giving Fuji another chance. Here are some of my impressions and thoughts about Fuji’s latest mirrorless camera.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Fuji X-E1 is a mirrorless camera – meaning it’s not an SLR – with interchangeable lenses, and an electronic viewfinder (in addition to its LCD screen). It has a 16-megapixel, APS-sized sensor with a crop factor of 1.5x. The camera is compatible with all Fuji X-series lenses (I’ll have more to say about that later) and can be easily adapted to work with lenses from other camera systems.
Like other mirrorless cameras, including Micro Four-Thirds cameras, or the Nikon 1 system, the Fuji X-E1 offers a smaller alternative to an SLR, while still providing removable lenses, and excellent image quality. DPReview has some very nice size comparisons in their review of the camera.
Without a mirror, the lens mount is much closer to the sensor than a lens is on an SLR. This means that lenses can be made smaller, and this provides for even more size and weight savings.
I’m going to kick off this section by simply stating outright: the X-E1 is a very fun camera to shoot with.
It’s compact, but still feels very sturdy, and has a nice heft without being heavy. Though it lacks the full, molded hand grip of an SLR, it still provides a small molding on the front that you can hook your ring finger onto. I find it gives me all the stability and security I need when shooting and handling the camera. The camera doesn’t weigh much, so I don’t feel the need for a beefy grip. If you do prefer something more substantial, there are several third-party offerings.
I do not like using an LCD screen as a viewfinder, so I mostly shoot with the camera’s electronic viewfinder (EVF). Fuji has opted for a rangefinder-style for its viewfinder, and so has placed it on the far left side of the camera. Because it’s an electronic viewfinder, Fuji could choose to put it anywhere. The left edge positioning gives the camera a very strong sense of Leica-like style, but there’s also a practical reason for the viewfinder’s location: with it on the edge of the camera, you don’t have to mash your nose into the back of the camera.
Now, perhaps it says more about my nose than about typical camera design, but it turns out that I really like not having to mash the front of my face against the back of the camera. As longtime rangefinder shooters know, this position also makes it much easier to keep my off-eye open while looking through the viewfinder. This allows you to better track a developing situation as it unfolds.
Similar to the power switches found on most Nikon SLRs, the X-E1 power switch swivels around the shutter release, making it extremely easy to find and use with a single finger. Wake up time is seemingly instantaneous, so I usually keep the camera turned off. I find that as I raise it to my face, it’s no problem to flip the power switch, and have my finger on the shutter button by the time the camera has reached my eye.
Fuji has provided the X-E1 with a pop-up flash that is perfectly adequate for short-range fill light, but won’t illuminate a large space. Fortunately, Fuji also saw fit to include a hot shoe, and the company makes an excellent, small flash, that provides more flash power, and the ability to tilt, without adding much weight to your camera bag.
“Look ma, no modes!”
Pretty much every SLR in the world today, and most high-end point-and-shoots, have a mode dial. Choosing a specific mode determines what decisions will be made by the camera.
As with all the other cameras in the X-series, the X-E1 has no mode dial. Instead, they’ve chosen to go old-school: you get a shutter speed dial on top of the camera, and an aperture ring on your lens. That doesn’t mean, however, that this is an all-manual camera. On the shutter speed dial, you will find an automatic setting. Select this, and you’ve got aperture priority shooting. Conversely, if you set your aperture ring to automatic, you can have a shutter priority shooting experience. Set both shutter speed and aperture to automatic, and you have full auto calculation of shutter speed and aperture.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with old school cameras, or maybe I’m just weird, but I really like this arrangement. I’m perfectly comfortable with the modes on my Canon 5D Mark III, and can move quite comfortably between them. But when I use the X-E1, I feel like there’s one less layer between me and the camera’s controls. Modes are an abstraction layer. With the Fuji, I feel like I have more direct control over shutter speed and aperture.
In reality, of course, there’s really no difference, either in functionality or in the ability to quickly change parameters. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but having an aperture ring on the lens makes me feel like I’m more engaged with the process of operating the camera, even though I’m not. This makes for a very fun shooting experience, but I don’t really think this extra “engagement” has any bearing on my final images, or ability to see.
Because the shutter speed dial is on top of the camera, it’s a little tricky to make frequent shutter speed changes. Of course, if you’re shooting in a shutter priority mindset, you’re probably choosing a single shutter speed and sticking with it for a while. For most of my shooting – on any type of camera – I work in aperture priority mode, which the X-E1′s design is ideal for.
Features and Interface
The X-E1 is packed with a comprehensive feature set, and you can find lots of reviews that provide detailed coverage of the camera’s offerings. Personally, I don’t use a wide swath of the camera’s feature set. I hardly ever change metering or focus modes. I don’t use ISO or Dynamic Range bracketing, and I’m not a JPEG shooter, so I’m only going to comment on the features that I do commonly use.
While the camera looks like a rangefinder it does, in fact, have autofocus. Megabytes of web pages and forum postings have been written about the X-E1′s autofocus. Many people have devoted lots of time in testing the camera to show conclusively that it isn’t as fast as the autofocus that Olympus provides, or as capable in low light as the phase-detection autofocus system on a modern SLR. All of that is exactly true, and in my experience shooting with the camera, none of it matters.
Obviously, if you’re shooting landscapes or still lifes, autofocus speed doesn’t matter. But even when street shooting, if I’m missing a shot it’s almost always because I’m too late getting the shot framed. As for low-light, I’ve shot with the camera in extremely dark rooms and feel that it’s every bit as capable as my SLR, when it comes to focusing in low-contrast situations. That said, if you’re a sports, nature, or event shooter, then the X-E1 might not be a good choice for you, depending on the nature of what you’re shooting.
Would it be nice to have faster, more accurate autofocus? Of course. Do I feel like the X-E1′s autofocus is keeping me from getting the shots that I want? No.
For manual focus, you can switch to two magnified views, as well as consult an optional distance meter in the viewfinder. Even with these features, manual focus with an LCD screen is difficult and, as many have pointed out, the camera would greatly benefit from a focus peaking feature. Focus peaking would highlight areas of the image that are in focus, but it’s unclear whether this can be implemented in a firmware update. It may be that the camera doesn’t have enough processing power to pull off such an addition.
A continuous autofocus feature is offered, but honestly I never use it. Perhaps it’s that I got burned by continuous AF features on cameras from the late-90s – for some reason, I just never trust these systems.
Exposure Compensation is accessed from a dial on top of the camera, and it’s easy enough to turn this dial with your thumb while looking through the viewfinder. However, it’s also possible to accidentally turn the dial while pulling the camera out of a bag, so it’s important to keep an eye on the setting, and make certain that you’re not accidentally over- or under-exposing.
Because the camera is always effectively a “live view” camera, you can change the focus spot to sit on just about any part of the image that you want. Some users have complained that you have to press the AF button on the lower-left of the camera back before you can change focus points, but this doesn’t actually bother me. I find I only change points when working on a tripod, so having to press another button first doesn’t bother. When framing with the camera up to my eye, I stick with center-point autofocus and simply focus and re-frame.
The camera can burst at three or six frames-per-second, and also offers an auto-bracketing mode, which automatically activates burst as well as bracketing. However, after shooting a bracketed set, you must wait for the camera to completely write the entire set to the card before you can shoot again. This makes no sense, since normal burst mode doesn’t require this. It seems like the camera’s buffer should be the limiting factor in whether it needs to write to the card, and in burst mode you can easily fit more than three images into the buffer. This simply feels like a bug, and is incredibly annoying.
The X-E1 offers an ISO range from 200 to 25,600 in 1/3rd-stop intervals. There’s no way to change the ISO interval, if you prefer to have it step in whole stops. Auto ISO is provided, but there’s no way to specify a minimum shutter speed. I thought at first that this would bother me, but in practice I find that I rarely use auto ISO, so I haven’t missed this feature.
The menu system is quick and easy to navigate, though I’d like the option to create a custom menu featuring the items that I use the most. Where I feel the camera’s interface can use improvement, is on its external controls.
For example, there is a customizable Fn button next to the shutter release, and by default, it’s set to control ISO. Press it, and the ISO menu appears. However, despite the presence of a very handy thumbwheel on the back of the camera, the only way to navigate the ISO menu is with the buttons on the camera back. This is cumbersome when using the electronic viewfinder.
There is also a Q button, which brings up a menu of features, including ISO. From this menu, ISO can be altered using the thumbwheel. Fortunately, the menu is “sticky” so when you pop it open, it always goes back to the last item that you used. This is now how I change ISO, but I’d much prefer to use the Fn button, because it’s positioning is what I’m used to on my 5D Mark III.
Most of the features on the Q menu are only relevant to JPEG shooters, so the majority of this simple interface feature is wasted. I’d like to see this menu customizable. In general, it feels like Fuji is not taking advantage of the controls and interfaces that they already have. The thumbwheel isn’t used enough, nor are the four directional buttons on the back of the camera. These should be customizable, along with the thumbwheel and Q button.
The camera’s shutter release is threaded to accept an old-fashioned, screw-in cable release. At first, I was pleased with the idea that I wouldn’t have to invest in an expensive electronic remote control. But then it occurred to me that I’d have to clean out my closet to find a cable release. When I finally did, I realized that electronic cable releases have a big advantage over manual cable releases. If camera stability is of great concern, then a cable release may not be a great option, because it’s still a physical manipulation of the camera, and that can introduce shake. Macro shooters will want to use the self-timer.
As I mentioned, there are many features on the camera which I never use – film emulation, film emulation bracketing, multiple exposure mode, and others. While I may quibble with some interface features, I don’t feel like the camera has any missing features for the type of shooting that I do.
Of course, when you buy a camera with removable lenses, you’re buying into a system. One of your primary concerns should be: does that system provide the types of lenses you want, at the quality you need. The Fuji X-system is a young system, but it already has a nice assortment of high-quality lenses.
I bought the X-E1 with the 18-55 2.8-4 zoom lens (27 to 82mm equiv) and have been very impressed with the quality. If you’re like me, when you hear “kit lens” you probably think of the mediocre offerings bundled with most Canon and Nikon SLRs. That’s not what this lens is. Instead, think Canon 24-105L – the “kit lens” that’s bundled with Canon’s high-end SLRs.
The lens is a tiny bit longer than I’d like, but still very small. It’s aperture ring lacks markings because it’s a “fly-by-wire” control. When you turn it, the camera electronically adjusts the aperture setting. However, it is notched, so it feels like a real aperture ring.
This is currently Fuji’s only zoom lens, but their lens roadmap shows two offerings this year that will round out the zoom range.
A range of prime lenses are available. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have shown there’s little image quality difference between 18mm on the 18-55 and Fuji’s 18mm prime. Yes, it’s a little faster, but for the time being, I’ve decided to skip that lens. I also don’t like shooting with a 50mm equivalent, so I’ve skipped Fuji’s 35mm, in spite of its excellent reviews.
I did pick up the 60mm f2.4 macro, and while it’s a very nice lens, if you’re serious about macro shooting, you should know that it does not allow you to get close enough for a true 1:1 macro shot. Think of it more as a nice close-up lens, or an excellent portrait lens.
Because I like wide angles, I bought the 14mm 2.8. I haven’t had a lot of time to shoot with it, but what I’ve seen has been very impressive. The lens is sharp, and and gives a nice, luminous contrast. It also offers a feature the other Fuji lenses don’t have: if you pull back on the focus ring, the lens immediately goes into manual focus mode. This is a nice interface feature that I hope they’ll move to their other lenses.
I also picked up a Bower 8mm f/2.8 fisheye. This lens is also sold under the Rokinon brand, and is a fun lens. However, it’s manual focus only, and because details in a fisheye image are typically very small, manual focus is tricky with this lens. However, because details are very small, the lens is also forgiving of mis-focus.
I’ve been very impressed with the build quality of all of these lenses – they feel as sturdy and old-school as they look. What’s more, when I stuff the camera and four lenses in a bag, it still weighs less than my 5D Mark III with two lenses.
And now the bad news. Well, maybe not outright bad…
I’m used to shooting using a large, clear optical viewfinder on a full-frame SLR. Moving from that to an electronic viewfinder is not easy. As I’ve said, I don’t like using LCD screens as a viewfinder – I don’t like the posture, I don’t like not being able to block out the rest of the world and focus on my shot, and I don’t like the conspicuousness of the shooting style. So I’m very glad the X-E1 has an eyepiece electronic viewfinder.
Some people have complained about the slow refresh rate on the X-E1 viewfinder, but I haven’t found it to be a problem. In general, I find it bright and clear. My problem is not with this specific viewfinder, (it’s certainly better than the clip-on viewfinder on my last mirrorless camera, the otherwise very good Panasonic GF-1) my problem is simply that I don’t like electronic viewfinders of any kind.
I find that they’re very difficult to see in bright light, even if you turn the brightness up all the way. But mostly, what bothers me is that they can hide things. The image in the electronic viewfinder is, of course, generated by the camera’s image sensor, which has less dynamic range than your eye. So, it may not be able to show you details in shadows that exist in your scene. This means that, when looking through the viewfinder, you may not think “I’ll overexpose to bring out those details” because you won’t know that those details are there.
In bright, glaring light, it can be difficult to see fine details in the viewfinder. With my SLR, I find that I usually have an initial impulse about a shot, but then when I look through the viewfinder, and see my composition framed, I often start recognizing compositional relationships that I didn’t see when simply looking at the scene. I worry that, when I can’t see as well through the viewfinder, there might be compositional relationships and ideas that I’m not seeing. Unfortunately, there’s no real way for me to test this.
Who knows, ultimately it might make me a better photographer, because I’m going to need to do a better job of seeing when the camera is away from my eye. While shooting, I find that I spend more time looking away from the camera, and using my off-eye to keep track of what might actually be in there scene. This is certainly doable, but I find it to be a distraction from my normal shooting process, which is to really disappear into the viewfinder, and explore what’s in the frame.
In a bright, visually noisy scene, I’ll often find myself thinking “I had an impulse that this was a good shot, I can’t really see it in the viewfinder, so I’ll just shoot and hope my impulse was right.” It feels like a bit of a crapshoot, which can be disconcerting.
None of this is a flaw in the X-E1, it is simply the nature of electronic viewfinders. The Olympus OM-D, Panasonic GH-3 and other X-E1 competitors suffer from the same weakness. Fuji also offers the X1-Pro which sports a hybrid viewfinder like the one on the X100. This allows you to switch to a truly optical view. My goal with this camera was to have something small and light, and the X1-Pro is weightier. I’m hoping that I will develop new habits and learn to work around these viewfinder deficiencies.
I’ve been shooting with the 5D series for so long, using very good glass, that I’m used to extremely high-quality results. At this point, when I pick up a camera to go shooting – rather than grabbing snapshots with my phone – I’m used to a certain level of quality.
With the X-E1, I knew that I was going to a camera with a smaller sensor, and fewer pixels, so I tried to manage my expectations when I first started shooting. Much to my surprise, there’s no need to lower my expectations with the X-E1. It is simply not an image quality compromise.
Sixteen megapixels is lower than the 23 that I’m used to with the Mark III, so there is a little bit of detail loss over what I’m used to. For most print sizes, though, this difference really doesn’t matter – I still have more pixels than I need.
And while there might be a detail loss when I zoom in to 1:1 on a Fuji image, the actual images that come out of the camera are much sharper than what comes out of my SLR. This is partly because Fuji makes such nice lenses, but mostly it’s because the camera does not have any kind of filter in front of the lens.
On a digital image sensor, every pixel on the camera has a colored filter over it, usually red, green, or blue. Typically, these filters are organized so that one row is alternating pixels of red and green, and the next row is alternating pixels of blue and green. With this arrangement, all color can be interpolated. (Needless to say, how this happens is a very complicated topic.) For color interpolation to work with this system, the image needs to be blurred slightly. On the X-E1′s X-Trans sensor, the filters are not arranged in such a regular pattern. Instead, the three colors are arranged more randomly, and because of this, Fuji does not need to blur the image at all to perform their color interpolation.
The upshot is raw files that are noticeably sharper than raw files from my 5D Mark III. What’s more, color rendition is very pretty, and the camera’s low-light/high-ISO performance is fantastic. Offering extremely low noise at ISO 6400, the camera is very usable for another two stops of ISO, as long as you’re no hoping to enlarge the images too much.
Technically, I lose some shallow depth-of-field capability because of the cropped sensor size, but aside from that, I don’t feel like I’m suffering any kind of image quality penalty by leaving my 5D at home, and taking the X-E1. Fuji has simply done a remarkable job with the image quality on this camera.
Photoshop and Lightroom users should note, however, that the current release of Camera Raw can be a little weak when converting X-E1 images. Fortunately, you can now download public betas of newer versions of both programs, and these do a much better job of producing clean results from Fuji X-Trans raw files.
Little compromise, less weight
Ideally, the X-E1 would have the same viewfinder as my 5D Mark III, but of course, without a mirror, that’s not possible. Other than that, I find there’s little compromise with carrying this smaller, lighter camera. Sure, it’s a little slower to focus, and the interface is not set up for extremely rapid changes of a lot of parameters and functions. I can work more quickly, in many ways, with my 5D.
But, as the cliché says: the best camera is the one you have with you, and I’m much more prone to carrying the X-E1 than I am to carry my SLR. In fact, I’m much more prone to carry the X-E1 and a lens or two, than I am to carry the SLR with a single walk-around lens. What’s more, it’s just a fun camera to shoot with. It feels good in the hand, has a great shutter sound, a satisfyingly manual shooting approach, and yields a card full of great-looking images.
I highly recommend it.