Thoughts and Ramblings: An Informal Review of the Fuji X-E1
Fuji X-E1: The Middle Child
The Fuji X-E1 is the camera that started it all, and ended it all for me. When the Fuji X100 was announced two years ago, I immediately thought that it was the camera that I’d been longing for. It was small and light, housed an ample APS-C image sensor and offered a built-in, fixed 35mm (equivalent) f/2 lens (my favorite focal length). I thought it was perfect, and I was keen to the fact that it was made with metal parts as well as physical dials and levers like cameras of old. At the time though, I had wished that it came in black. Ultimately, I did not buy the Fuji X100 because of all the jumbled reviews, and I began to look elsewhere.
Olympus, Sony, Pentax, Nikon. I won’t mention names or model numbers, but I bought and sold them all except for the Nikon 1 V1, which I still have and love dearly, but the sensor is too small for magazine covers and gallery work; it rocks for street photography though. To read my review of the Nikon 1 V1 Click Here. I was very excited when Fuji announced the X-Pro 1, and followed it closely. But once again, reviews were a mixed bag, and the camera seemed to be plagued with problems. I again waited and researched, and researched, and researched. Stardate: late 2012.7, Fuji was ready to strike again to complete their large-image-sensor X-trifecta: the Fuji X-E1. This time, the reviews seemed to be very positive. Mike Kobal raved about the X-E1 (and is still raving about it), Ken Rockwell raved about the X-E1, and so did just about everyone else. I bought one.
At the heart of the Fuji X-E 1 is the X-Trans sensor–believe the hype, it’s real! I was fortunate that by the time I finally got around to buying my Fuji X camera, in this case a black X-E 1 with the XF 18-55 f/2.8-4 zoom lens, Adobe and other software developers including Aperture, were finally supporting the X-Trans sensor. My feeling though, is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I use Lightroom 4, but I’m still learning how to get the best out of the Fuji RAW files. So far, it’s hard to beat the OOC (out of camera) jpegs, for color anyway. The color jpegs, as opposed to monochrome or B&W jpegs, are absolutely stunning, and unless I have deep black shadows without detail, or blown-out highlights, I almost prefer the jpeg files to the RAW. The Velvia film simulation mode (that’s a film simulation mode named after one of Fujifilm’s best slide films ever) is jaw dropping. While working at my first newspaper, back in the early 1990s, I shot Fuji RDP 100 (slide film) exclusively. I shot so many rolls of that film, that when I started to visualize a photo, I saw it in Fujichrome. Plus, I could almost guess an outdoor exposure by just looking at a scene. It was simply stunning, but like all slide films, had very little latitude in exposure variation, so you had to expose it correctly to get optimum results. By the way, the standard color mode, called STD, on the X-E 1 (X-Pro 1, X100s), is based on Fujifilm Provia (AKA: Fujichrome RDP), the film I shot so much of in the early 90s.
ISO 200 – Click photo to view at 100% (above)
I live in Florida where the sun is extremely bright, and mid-day sunlight is incredibly contrasty. I also live and shoot near bright white sandy beaches and shell-covered lots quite often, which tend to blow out the highlights on the Fuji jpegs sometimes. I’m very used to shooting in these conditions, so I don’t think it’s user error, but possibly a learning curve that I need to get past by making adjustments and tweaks in the camera. It’s not a big problem, but something that I have noticed. It’s not a problem with the RAW files though; they seem to be very robust and extremely workable in Lightroom 4. The sample below is from a OOC jpeg file, and you can easily see the slightly blown-out highlights on the triangular shaped tent tops in the bottom right corner.
Fujicolor: BAM! POW!!
The color from the Fuji X-E1, and all the Fuji cameras housing the X-Trans image sensor make me want to stop shooting in B&W, even in flat, ugly mid-day sun as in the image below with the wind toys. The sensor not only handles bright, bold colors incredibly, but also handles whites and subtle, pastels equally well as you can see from the other samples below. I love to shoot in the Velvia film simulation mode, as mentioned above under most lighting conditions, but you have to experiment with it. It seems to do best with natural, outdoor light rather than artificial light. But I could be proven wrong since I’m still experimenting with the camera. Having all of the Fujifilm film simulation modes is like eating at your favorite restaurant, you try one thing on the menu and like it so much, that you keep ordering it. But eventually, you’ll get around to trying other things.
We all know the benefits of shooting RAW, and they are many, but as you’ve probably read before, the jpegs coming out of the X100s (Cindy), X-E1 (Jan) and X-Pro 1 (Marcia) are exquisite! I hate post-processing, and all the extra time sitting behind a computer screen. I remember the good old days of photography when you’d shoot a roll of slide film, have it processed, and be done with it. Who said we have to sit at the computer and use Lightroom all day? What a chore. My wrist, arm and shoulder hurt just thinking about it. Well, if you own a Canon you do have to sit at the computer all day (believe me, I know because I shot Canon digital for nearly 11 years), but not with Fuji, not if you don’t want to. I challenge anyone but a pixel-peeping scientific engineer with a degree in photonics and a 60″ monitor, as well as access to all of your metadata to determine the difference between a jpeg and a RAW file coming out of the Fuji X-E1. If you can, you could probably pick Coke in a taste test against Pepsi, or Jif peanut butter over Peter Pan. I can tell you the secret on how to choose which one is the RAW file, and which one is the jpeg file, the jpeg is the better one. All joking aside, and all that was a joke by the way save the comment about the Canon files, if you can, who cares? Photography is about the beauty of the image and what emotions it awakens within you, not the science behind it. But if you do want to sit at a computer all day until you have permanently bad posture, have at it. I don’t.
Like a Glove (almost)
Here’s where it gets a bit “delicate” shall we say. Do you remember the old Brady Bunch episode where Jan, the “middle child” is jealous and tired of Marcia, the most mature child, because of all here abilities and her popularity? Well, Marcia (Fuji X-Pro 1) does everything right and with ease, but Jan (Fuji X-E1) is not quite as diverse as Marcia, but she has some talents of her own; namely, a built-in flash and a higher resolution EVF (electronic viewfinder). The X-Pro fits in a normal sized hand like a glove. The design is perfect and I would say nearly flawless. But the X-E1 is smaller, and to me it feels a bit “fiddly.” Because of this, I would continually, but inadvertently, bump and press various buttons. It’s not a huge deal, because the X-E1′s smaller size makes it even better for travel, but the deal-breaker and the X-E1′s fatal flaw, is the placement of the PLAY button. When you view the back of both cameras, they are nearly identical, but Fuji, for whatever unwise reason, decided to place the play button on the top left of the back of the X-E1. It makes all the difference in the world as a working pro. If you use the camera casually and occasionally, you may never notice this, but when you shoot with it all day, every day, it’s a huge difference. Plus having only three buttons, like the X-Pro 1, down the left side of the back of the camera, makes it more simplistic and less cluttered.
One of the other differences that nobody has mentioned in any review I’ve ever read, is that the rear Command Dial is made differently on all three Fuji X cameras (the X100s, X-E1 and X-Pro 1). To me, this is weird, but not a deal breaker if you are shooting different bodies simultaneously. They are all made with different textures and different feels.
Finally, I prefer the EVF in the X-Pro 1 to that of the X-E1, even though the latter has higher resolution. The EVF in the X-E1 suffers from the pretty noticeable lag. Lag happens when you move the camera, especially in low light, when you are viewing though the EVF. Although the resolution seems to be pretty good, I don’t think the X-E1′s processors are up to the task.
Zoom Zooom Zooooooooom
Busted! I confess that the real reason I bought the Fuji X-E1 (Jan Brady) over it’s older, more mature sibling (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia), the Fuji X-Pro1, was so that I could get the Mini Cooper of zoom lenses, the fantastic, Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS zoom lens. By the way, did you know that Fujinon makes satellite optic lenses as well as broadcast lenses? Fuji knows optics, and it shows in their XF lens lineup. Normally, I only buy zoom lenses with a constant aperture, and usually always f/2.8 constant aperture lenses. Because f/2.8 lenses are the best lenses made to professional standards. I’m not comparing the Fuji XF 18-55 zoom to a pro, constant aperture, f/2.8 Nikon, Canon or Olympus Zuiko (f/2) zoom, but I will say that this is one nice piece of glass. First off, it’s tiny, and for a small mirrorless camera system, that’s very important. Secondly, it’s lightweight and made of high-quality materials–mostly metal (wow, why can’t Nikon and Canon make metal lenses–I HATE plastic lenses personally). It feels great in your hands and the zoom action is super smooth. And finally, it focuses absolutely silently and super fast. Yep, I said, “super fast.” This being my first lens in the Fuji XF lineup, I was wondering what all of the talk of slow focusing was about. The first week I got the X-E1 and 18-55 zoom, I took it out and shot two different paid assignments with it, and it performed flawlessly! Did I mention that the assignments were paid, professional and published? This is a testament to this little camera system. Normally, I would have shot the same assignments with two big, heavy DSLRs at my sides. Afterward, my back and knees would have suffered. Plus, as an added bonus, shooting with the X-E1 was FUN!
Below is a sample shot in late afternoon sun of a child on a tire swing who was moving quickly and erratically towards and away from the camera. I decided to test the continuous auto focus mode on the X-E1, and it did its job. Was it blazingly fast? No. And I did have several missed-focus shots, but I know well enough how to shoot until I get the shot, and even with the X-E1, I got it. My old Canons and Nikons would have left me with several out-of-focus shots too. Of course, there is no comparing the X-E1 or X-Pro 1 with a DSLR in terms of continuous auto focus speed, but the point is, that the X-E1 (Jan) and the X-Pro 1 (Marcia), affixed with the XF 18-55 zoom, can do it in a pinch with a little patients and persistence.
I don’t shoot charts or brick walls, but I do shoot in the real world, and have more than 10,000 published photos to my credit. I have used just about every pro lens from Canon, Nikon and Olympus, so I know what good glass is. Really though, I don’t pay much attention to silly comparisons on the Internet. They’re all based on opinion anyway, and those tests done in the lab don’t represent the real world. I am willing to bet that I’ve spent as much time behind a camera (30 plus years) than just about anybody out there reviewing lenses and cameras today, and I make my full-time living with photography. So, that being said, I would say that this lens is sharp, renders beautifully, is built exceptionally well, focuses fast and accurately, zooms smoothly and has very competent image stabilization. Besides all of that, it’s Made in Japan, which is a big plus to me. I recommend it without hesitation whether you’re a working professional, or someone who just wants a great, do-everything lens for his/her family, travel, portrait, landscape or just about any other type of photography. If you buy it with the X-E 1 as a kit, you can save several hundred dollars too. What’s not to like?
Organic, film-like, beautiful! As you can see from the three full-sized samples below, the files have a beautiful grain-like structure to them. The ISO 800 shot (bottom) looks smooth and nearly grainless normal viewing size, but at 100 percent you will see very light grain. The same thing goes for the second photo at ISO 1600. It looks far better than any ISO 400 slide film ever did, and every bit as good as any ISO 400 print film—probably better. The top photo, seen at 100 percent, has a lot of grain but it’s very organic and film-like. If exposed properly, the grain would have been less pronounced, but I underexposed the photo because it was shot on a very, very dark fishing pier late at night. The photo looks far better than what I could actually see with my naked eye, and the auto focus locked on easily.
ISO 3200 – Click photo to view at 100% (above)
ISO 1600 – Click photo to view at 100% (above)
ISO 800 – Click photo to view at 100% (above)
Flash in the Pan
The built-in flash is a nice feature to have on the X-E1, but I found it almost useless for fill-flash in bright sunlight. The photo below was shot with the lens zoomed out to its widest setting, and very close to the subject. On the other hand, it’s very useful for indoor bounce flash. The tiny strobe tilts up (if you grab it with your free hand) so that you can bounce it off of the ceiling for a really nice kicker to an indoor photo. It’s also very practical if you want to use it indoors as a master flash to fire off-camera strobes, like in the photo below of the teddy bear. In this shot, I used the X-E1′s built-in flash (set to its lowest setting) to fire two off-camera Olympus FL-50R strobes, and it worked like a charm. I doubt the tiny on-camera flash would perform very well attempting to fire slave flashes outside in bright sunlight though.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
I started this informal review with the statement: “The Fuji X-E1 is the camera that started it all, and ended it all for me.” The X-E1 (Jan) is the camera that got me into the Fuji X system. I bought it first along with the 18-55 zoom. I’m not really a zoom guy except by necessity, and the flexible 18-55 will be an excellent stand-by lens for me for various assignments. I also bought the XF 18mm f/2 lens along with the XF 35mm f/1.4 lens (a 28mm and a 50mm for all intents and purposes) to carry most of the burden. In other words, the two prime lenses will be the lenses I turn to the most. I have decided that the X-Pro 1 is more suitable for me though, so I bought two X-Pro 1 bodies and sold my X-E1. The deciding factors include the amazing hybrid viewfinder, the larger, more substantial build, the missing flash (I don’t really like flash anyway, and it’s just one more thing to break), the superior rear LCD, the preferable rear command dial, the locking shutter speed dial, and finally, and most importantly, a play button that is in the CORRECT place. The X-E1 is a fine camera with some talents of it’s own, but at the end of the day, for professional work, I much prefer the bigger sister, the Fuji X-Pro 1 (Marcia).
Up next: Street Photography with the Fuji X100s