Taking Stock of the Fujifilm X-E1, X-E2, X-T1 Mirrorless Cameras
Posted on 24 August 2013
NOTE: Since I first wrote this article, Fujifilm has released additional X-trans sensor camera bodies. Fujifilm has been very aggressive about continuously improving the line as reflected in the release schedule and their frequent firmware updates to add and improve camera functions. From time to time I will add updates to the beginning of this article to incorporate information about the newer equipment. The main original article continues below the “updates.”
If this article helps you make a purchase decision, I would be grateful if you would use the links found here to make your purchase. Doing so help support this website and it does not increase your costs at all. Thanks!
During the time that I’ve used a Fujifilm X-trans sensor camera, I’ve wondered about what level of print quality I might get – in particular, I’ve wondered how large I could print and still obtain excellent results. I have made some prints at 12″ x 18″ size, which is my usual size for proof prints, and they look great. A while ago I printed the “Spring Trees, Waterfall Mist” photograph (seen below in this article) at 15″ x 20″ with very good results. This past week I made an 18″ x 24″ print of a busy Manhattan “urban landscape” – and it really looks great! Detail is excellent, tonal quality is beautiful, noise is a non-existent issue, and the 16MP files, carefully post-processed, produce wonderful quality.
While there is no question in my mind that prints from full frame cameras can, all else being equal, be successful at larger sizes than those made from cropped sensor originals, there is also no question in my mind that the Fujifilm system can produce prints that are as good or better than those from any other cropped sensor system. (Unfortunately, there is no way to show you an actual print in an article on the web… ;-)
Fujifilm has announced their new X-T1 Mirrorless Camera. The rumors regarding this new camera have been rampant for the past few weeks, and here is what we now know:
- 16.3 MP X-trans 1.5X cropped sensor
- ISO 100-51200
- 8fps continuous shooting
- Improved hybrid AF system incorporating contrast- and phase detection methods
- Improved manual focus with digital split image and focus peaking
- Faster, higher density, and larger electronic viewfinder
- 1080p HD Video
- Expanded manual control dials for shutter speed, +/- 3 EV exposure compensation, ISO, aperture (on many lenses), and more.
A number of features get my attention. My Fujifilm X-E1 works well at high ISO values, but this camera appears to take the much farther extending the lowest ISO from 200 to 100 and the highest all the way to 51600. The specifications and early reports on the web suggest that the AF system has been significantly improved, even beyond those improvements on the X-E2. The added manual controls are going to help a lot for the sorts of photography that many of us do with this sort of camera, where we need to change settings quickly and without going through menus. There are lots of other improvements, large and small, too numerous to mention here.
I’m very interested in this camera. My X-E1 is a wonderful little picture-making tool that complements my larger DSLR system – and the X-T1 sounds like it has been designed to significantly improve on this effective concept. (There is a very good chance that I’m going to get one.)
The camera is available for pre-order now at site sponsor B&H:
- Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Digital Camera Body – $1299
- Fujifilm X-T1 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 18-55mm lens – $1699
In October 2013 Fujifilm announced an updated version of the X-E1, the X-E2, with availability scheduled for sometime in the second half of November 2013. (You may pre-order the new camera using links near the end of this page. Update on 11/21/13: Some versions of the camera are now shipping. Check the links for more details.) I have not had a chance to use the new body as of this writing, but here is some information about the new x-E2, along with some thoughts about it relative to the prior X-E1.
There is a perception that some camera manufacturers are slow to incorporate new technologies into their cameras or to make updates to improve the functionality of existing models. Fujifilm, on the other hand, seems to take a very different approach. They have frequently improved and updated the earlier X-series bodies by way of firmware updates that have offered significant improvements and added new features. This seems to carry over into the introduction of new models as well, and the X-E2 appears to incorporate a number of useful and important updates. Much of what follows is, as alluded to above, based on specification sheets and other writing about the camera since I have not used it as of this date.
- The camera’s physical design appears to be very similar to that of the X-E1 – a casual observer might not notice the differences. A few control buttons have been moved, and there are now separate AF and AE buttons. The display is a bit wider.
- The camera continues to use a 16MP 1.5x cropped format X-trans sensor, which I find to be a fine performer – the marketing material now refers to the “16.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor,” but time will tell whether the fundamental image quality is significantly different. Fujifilm says that image processing has been improved to include a Lens Modulation Optimizer function that compensates for image issues such as diffraction blur at smaller apertures along with other sorts of image aberrations. It will be interesting to see how the diffraction blur reduction software performs, as this becomes more of an issue with cameras with small sensors.
- An improved (e.g. faster) “EXR Processor II” is said to improve camera performance in many ways – quicker startup, shorter shutter lag, burst mode shooting, and more.
- The video performance has been improved. Video was not a strong point of the X-E1, but the X-E2 supports higher frame rates and more formats including 1080p video.
- Fujifilm reports that the AF system has been significantly updated. It is said to use both contrast-detection and phase-detection systems (each of which has advantages in various situations) to improve AF performance – this is said to help with both low light conditions and moving subjects. This is an important area since mirrorless camera AF systems generally do not perform as well with moving subjects.
- The camera incorporates a “digital split image” system for manual focus, which seems to recall the old split-image systems of film cameras, along with a focus peaking – both of which can assist with accurate manual focus.
- The camera has built-in wifi connectivity. Fujifilm says this will allow connectivity to “Android or iOS mobile device[s]” to browse images remotely and to transfer images. It is unclear whether this works with other devices such as laptops.
- The X-E2 uses the same battery as the X-E1, which might be an important issue for anyone considering an upgrade or using the X-E2 along with other X-series cameras.
What does this all mean? Should you sell your X-E1 and get an X-E2? Should you pre-order an X-E2 or wait and see? What else might Fujifilm have up their collective sleeves? The answers are not all clear, but some initial conclusions might be drawn.
- The X-E2 appears to be a solid update to the X-E1, addressing a list of specific areas for improvement identified by users of the X-E1: improvements to both automatic and manual focusing, updating the video performance, upgrading the processor, tweaking the physical interface.
- For many users, the introduction of the X-E2 provides an excellent window of opportunity to save money on the X-E1. Currently the X-E1 body is available for $799 (the X-E2 is $200 more and not available yet) and the X-E1/18-55mm lens bundle is only $999 ($400 less than the same bundle with the X-E2).
- If you are considering your first camera of this type and cost isn’t a constraint, the X-E2 seems well worth it. If you want to make sure you get one soon, I recommend pre-ordering now, since the initial deliveries are likely to sell quickly.
- If you already have a X-E1, the answer to the question of whether you should update to the X-E1 is probably, “It depends.” If video is important to you or if you need improved focus performance performance, upgrading from the X-E1 to the X-E2 may be worthwhile. On the other hand, if you mostly do still photography and you are happy with the X-E1, it probably makes sense to continue to use it for now.
- (If you are considering a new camera or an upgrade, please see the links near the end of this page.)
What am I going to do? My situation is perhaps unique. I’m quite happy with the X-E1, which I use in conjunction with a Canon DSLR system. Given the way I use it, I would probably not update for the improvements in still-photogaphy. However… I am also working on a project right now that involves video, and it may end up making more sense for me to move to a X-E2 as a way to get better video performance with the Fujifilm lenses that I already own. The improved AF performance – and early reports indicate the improvement is real and significant – also encourages me to consider the upgrade.
And now, back to the original article about the X-E1, much of which is still very relevant whether you are looking at the X-E1 or the X-E2… especially the extensive discussions of lenses for the X-series system, functional aspects of the smaller camera as a general concept, and more. Enjoy!
Taking Stock of the Fujifilm X-E1 Mirrorless Camera
Until recently I have photographed almost exclusively with DSLR gear – full frame for perhaps eight years, cropped sensor before that, and 35mm film back in the prehistoric era – with a varying set of lenses, a large tripod, and others bits and pieces of support gear. This gear works very well for me, but it is not small or light. With the prospect of a three-week overseas trip ahead of me, earlier this year I decided to look at smaller and lighter options that might work for the specific purposes I had in mind. My basic criteria included:
- Excellent image quality. While I was willing to consider some of the excellent four thirds systems, I was more inclined to get an APS-C cropped sensor format body. In addition, I needed a system that would provide excellent lens quality across a range of focal lengths.
- Small size and light weight. Because our intention was to limit ourselves to carry-on luggage, weight and size of body, lenses, and associated gear were an issue. My goal was to be able to carry my entire kit in a small messenger bag with room left over for other equipment such as a small laptop, a small hard drive, chargers and adapters, and other gear.
- Good functionality and reliability. The camera and lenses needed to be of high quality and to cover the range of needs that I might have in terms of focal lengths and apertures. Interchangeable lenses would be necessary. The gear needed to be reliable and relatively quick and easy to use. Since I would be shooting almost exclusively handheld, something with the responsiveness and simplicity of a street photography camera would make sense.
Fortunately, we seem to be at a point in the development of digital photography equipment where the manufacturers are starting to move beyond the two primary choices of either DSLR or point and shoot (albeit “glorified” point and shoot in some cases). Recently quite a number of small and high quality digital cameras have become available from a variety of manufacturers. They range from so-called mirror-less systems with electronic viewfinders (EVF) to small DSLR-style cameras, with a bunch of interesting variations in between. Some use the smaller four thirds sensors, some use the APS-C “cropped sensor” system, and we are starting to see some (very expensive!) with full frame sensors.
(Some might wonder why I didn’t just look at the smallest Canon – since that’s the DSLR brand I use – APS-C DSLR cameras such as the t-series bodies or the newer Canon EOS Rebel SL1. These could be fine options, but they are still larger than the mirrorless options, and they would require me to use my rather large DSLR lenses. Even the smaller DSLRs plus their larger lenses are heavier and bulkier than the alternatives.)
In the end, I probably looked most seriously at systems from Olympus, Sony, and Fujifilm. To make a set of broad generalizations – the Olympus system may have initially been the best designed (I held an OMD and was very impressed with the feel of the thing), Sony may the most innovative, and Fujifilm seems to take a sort of “retro” approach that ties more closely to the old-school film rangefinder cameras. Any of the three could have been fine options, I think. In the end, I decided against the Olympus because I prefer the larger APS-C sensor, and against the Sony because I wasn’t as comfortable with the quality of the then-available lenses, and for the Fujifilm system on account of the larger sensor, the high quality lenses, and the comfortable old-school design.
This meant that my remaining choice was between the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the X-E1. (There is also a fixed-focal-lenght X100s, but that wasn’t on my list since I want to use interchangeable lenses. Fujifilm has now also released the smaller X-M1, a camera targeting the “consumer” market and selling at a lower price.) The “X” in the names of these cameras refers to the so-called “X-trans” sensor design. While most sensors on current digital cameras use a repeating matrix of four photo sites (in groups containing one blue, one red, and two green sensors), the X-trans sensors use a different layout that covers a large area before repeating. Although it is been erroneously said to be “random” and more like “film grain,” this isn’t really the case, though it is true that the inevitable repeating photo site pattern has a more complex pattern.
In addition, the X-series sensors do not have an anti-aliasing (AA) filter. An anti-aliasing filter is typically mounted over the sensor in almost all digital cameras (the Nikon D800E is one other notable exception) to slightly diffuse the light before it hits the sensor with the goal of minimizing the aliasing effects that can sometimes occur when photographing subjects with very small regular patterns, such as fabric, screens, and so forth. The theory is that the elimination of the AA filter will create a sharper image, possibly at the cost of sometimes having to deal with some aliasing in post. In my view, the concern over the blurring from an AA filter may be a bit over-done, though the images I get from the X-E1 16MP sensor are certainly sharp. So far, I haven’t encountered any issues with aliasing in the images either.
All of these cameras provide more manual controls of the sort that you might be familiar with if you ever used the older film cameras. There is an actual shutter speed dial atop the camera body, there are aperture rings on some of the lenses, and so forth. This, along with the general design aesthetic of these cameras, seems to connect them visually and, to an extent, functionally to the wonderful vintage rangefinder film cameras in the lineage of Leica or Canon and so forth. They are not really “rangefinder” cameras in the traditional sense, but they certainly are rangefinder style cameras. Despite the nod to the retro aesthetic, these are digital cameras and the display can include a lot of useful information that would not have been found on the traditional rangefinder cameras – electronic leveling lines, histograms displays, and more.
The X-Pro1 has an interesting hybrid design that provides an optical viewfinder much like the old rangefinder cameras along with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) system. The optical viewfinder is very quick and potentially gives you a better view of your subject, while the electronic viewfinder can be smaller and can overlay a lot of useful information in the display. I was initially attracted to the X-Pro1, but the more I thought about how I would likely use this camera the more I began to lean toward the EVF-equipped X-E1. I was also influenced by reports from a number of X-Pro1 users who found themselves using its EVF option quite a bit, and by the realization that the X-Pro1 optical viewfinder does not work terribly well with zooms – and I felt that I would want at least some zoom lenses.
The system for selecting among fully automatic, aperture priority, shutter speed priority, and fully automatic exposure is a bit different from what some may have used on DSLRs, but I find it simple and intuitive. Both aperture and shutter speed controls (the lens barrel in the former case and the camera-top dial in the latter) have “A” settings. If both are set to “A,” the exposure is fully automatic. If the aperture setting is set to “A” and you select the shutter speed manually, the camera is effectively in shutter priority mode. If the shutter dial is set to “A” and you choose the aperture, it is in aperture priority. If both controls are set to specific shutter speeds and apertures, the camera ends up using manual control. This explanation of this system may sound a bit complex but in actual practice it is effective, straightforward, and intuitive.
So, the X-E1 it would be! We actually ordered two – a set of “his and hers” bodies, Patty’s with the silver upper section and mine with black so that we could tell them apart. We timed the purchases to take advantage of some lens-and-body deals, and acquired a diverse but complementary set of Fujinon lenses including the 14mm f/2.8, the 35mm f/1.4, the 60mm f/2.4 macro, and the 18-55mm f/2.8-f/4 image stabilized zoom. I’m comfortable with primes in many situations, so my basic lenses would be the 14mm and 35mm lenses. Patty likes the zoom and does a lot of macro photography, so her basic lenses would be the 18-55 and the 60mm macro. Since I’m a big fan of longer focal lengths for certain kinds of shooting, I was a bit uneasy about having nothing longer than 35mm, so I was pleased when the 55-200mm f/3.5-f/4.8 image stabilized lens was released just in time for me to acquire one before our travels were to begin.
A Note About Camera Reviews
As I describe the features of this camera and various lenses and how they work in actual use, I will offer both “positive and negative criticism.” Please be careful about how you interpret this. I have yet to meet the perfect camera or lens, even though I have used and currently use some quite good equipment. I tend to think that even good gear could be better, and that some design choices might make a particular piece of great equipment more suited for some purposes and less suited to others. If you are used to or are looking for a one-liner review – “world’s greatest camera!” or ” piece of junk!” – you are not going to find such a thing here. However, if you stick with me I think you’ll get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of this particular camera and how those might play out in terms of your particular approaches to photography.
I also acknowledge that this article is not based on “testing” or objective comparisons. Those have their value – though they also have their risks! – but I am neither equipped to provide that sort of testing nor particularly interested in doing it. What I can share here is a set of impressions, responses, comparisons, and evaluations based on my experience using the gear fairly intensively and then taking some of the images all the way to large prints. (If you want to look up “specs,” they are available on the web.)
I had heard that the Fujinon lenses were pretty good, but I have to say that they exceeded my expectations. Let me give a quick run-down on each of them – keeping in mind that I’m not equally familiar with all of them.
(Note: Fujifilm continues to introduce new lenses on a fairly aggressive schedule. Their lens roadmap can fill you in on some options that I do not include here.)
35mm f/1.4 – This is a truly excellent little lens. I have several excellent Canon L primes and this lens gives up nothing to them in terms of optical quality, and is in the same league for build quality and functionality. On the APS-C camera it provides an angle-of-view equivalent* to using a 52.5mm focal length of full frame or 35mm cameras. This is slightly longer than some who are familiar with 50mm lenses may be used to, but the difference is not significant. The lens produces excellent resolution even at large apertures, and vignetting and barrel distortion are well controlled. When manually focusing the lens, DSLR users may be a bit surprised by how far you must turn the barrel – you might regard this as a disadvantage if you want to focus quickly, but on the other hand it allows more precise focus. The aperture ring detents (“click stops”) seem a bit “soft” to me, and I think it is perhaps just a bit too easy to move to a different aperture accidentally. In the “picking nits” department, there is good news and bad news about the lens hood and lens cap situation. The lens hood, which diminishes to a rectangular shape, is extremely effective. However, this creates some complexities with lens caps. Fujifilm supplies a center-pinch lens cap that attaches to the filter threads in the usual way, along with a large rubber cover that fits over the end of the hood. I’m not a fan of the rubber cap – it is awkward and does not attach to the lens very positively, and it tends to come off in my bag – and I no longer use it. Perhaps Fujifilm supplied this option because it seems that it might not be possible to attach and remove the center-pinch cap with the hood attached. In fact, I thought that was the case at first. However, I eventually figured out that if you angle things just right, you can use the regular cap with the hood attached, and that is now my preferred approach. Bottom line: This is an excellent lens that makes no image quality compromises at all. You’ll adapt to the odd lens hood/cap situation.
14mm f/2.8 – Believe it or not, this is currently the most expensive of the Fujinon lenses for the X-series bodies. (And, darn, it was also one of the two that I was unable to obtain at sale pricing!) The 14mm focal length gives an angle-of-view equivalent* to a 21mm focal length on full frame – basically I think of it as being roughly like shooting with the familiar 24mm prime lenses on full frame. This lens is in many ways quite similar to the fine 35mm f/1.4 prime – excellent build quality and fine optics. One addition is a unique method of shifting between manual and automatic focus by sliding the lens barrel in and out. For the most part, this is a good thing – but on a few occasions I managed to accidentally shift it to the manual focus position when I wanted to use AF. While I would almost always use AF with the other lenses, there are some situations in which it makes more sense to shoot the 14mm with manual focus. Turning AF off speeds up the operation of the camera a bit, and with this wide angle lens the depth of field is large enough that you can do a sort of manual zone focus – set it to your probable hyperfocal distance and use a reasonably small aperture and you are in business. This is also a very sharp lens in optical terms. There can be a bit of corner softness when you shoot wide open, but it is minimal and not a surprise for this focal length. The lens uses a petal-style hood and an easily accessible center-pinch lens cap. I find myself using this lens quite a bit for interior photography and for shooting street-style in close quarters. Bottom line: This is a fine lens that provides near-ultrawide coverage.
60mm f/2.4 - My wife, Patty, is the primary user of this lens, so my experience with it is a bit more limited than with the two lenses described above – though I did use it as my long lens before acquiring the the 55-200mm zoom that I’ll describe a bit later. For providing the equivalent* functionality of a 90mm macro on full frame, this is a surprisingly small lens. The outer element is also surprisingly small, and it uses a rather small lens cap. The lens is, like the others, a fine optical performer. Although I have not used it seriously for macro work, Patty tells me that she likes it a lot for this – but that she also misses the image-stabilization and somewhat closer minimum focus that she gets from her 100mm f/2.8 L IS Canon macro lens. (That is, of course, a much larger and more expensive lens.) The lens does double-duty in a way. It is, of course, a close-focusing macro lens. But for a prime-only shooter it also is a very small telephoto. Both of us agree that the Fujifilm’s choice of hood for this lens is an odd one. The hood is huge – essentially as large as the lens itself – and attaching it makes the package unnecessarily large. The hood is also made from rather heavy metal. Overall, it seems like it was designed by someone who wasn’t thinking about the small and light concept of the X-series bodies and lenses. (Patty eventually found a very small third-party hood that works very well, and she prefers this to the hood that came with the camera.) Bottom line: A fine lens as a (near) macro and also a good telephoto prime – but you might want a smaller hood.
(See the photograph, “Spring Trees, Waterfall Mist (Yosemite National Park)” earlier on this page for an example from the 60mm lens.)
18-55mm f/2.8-f/4 OIS – This is the lens that most users will likely choose for their standard lens, as it covers a focal length range from decently wide to somewhat long in a single image-stabilized zoom – angle-of-view equivalent* range of 27-82.5mm. While inexpensive 18-55mm lenses are often provided as entry-level lenses on cropped sensor DSLRs, don’t bring that lower expectation to this lens. This is not an inexpensive compromise lens, but instead a very fine zoom that works well across its focal length range – plus it gives you f/2.8 at the wide angle end. Unlike the fixed focal length lenses, the aperture ring is not marked with f-stops, and you must instead view them as a readout in the viewfinder or on the rear display – but that is because of the variable focal length of the zoom lens. Bottom line: While this is a familiar entry-level focal length range, this lens is a lot better than the typical entry level lens in terms of optical performance and build quality.
55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 OIS – This previously announced lens was released perhaps a month or so before our trip. I’m very fond of shooting with moderate to long focal lengths, so I jumped at the chance to get this lens when it was announced and managed to get a copy just a few weeks before our departure. It is a variable aperture image-stabilized zoom, a design that is fairly common today. If you are, as I am, familiar with the 70-200mm zooms from manufactures like Canon, you will find this lens to be surprisingly small. It is certainly larger than the other lenses I have described, but it is small and light for the focal length coverage it provides. (At the long end, it provides the angle-of-view equivalent to a 300mm lens on a full frame camera.) The OIS image stabilization is welcome on a lens of this length, and it reportedly can provide more than four stops equivalent of stabilization. I used this lens quite a bit on our trip, and it provides first rate image quality. Like the 18-55, it does not have a manual aperture ring, though it can be manually focused. Note that while this focal length might be appropriate for subjects like wildlife and sports, other aspects of this camera’s operation might make those subjects challenging – more on that elsewhere in this report. Hint: AF can “hunt” a bit at 200mm at times with low contrast subjects and low light. Bottom line: This is a fine lens that provides a relatively small and light way to significantly extend your “reach.”
Fujifilm now also supplies several other lenses that I do not own, so I list them here without extensively evaluating them.
- 18mm f/2.0 XF – This focal length provide the angle-of-view equivalent* of a 27mm lens on full frame or 35mm, making it function much like the tradition 35mm-film camera 28mm lenses.
- Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R Lens – Reports suggest that this is a very high quality lens along the lines of the 35mm f/1.4 and the 14mm f/2.8, but it is not cheap at $849. This is a lens that many looking for a modern alternative to old-school street photography cameras have desired, with its angle-of-view equivalent being about 34.5mm, very close to that of a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera.
- 27mm f/2.8 XF – With an angle-of-view equivalent* to that of a 40.5mm lens on a 35mm camera, this lens functions much like the 40-45mm focal length range that was common on a number of fixed-lens rangefinder film cameras.
- 56mm f/1.2 XF – This is lens has gotten almost universal praise. Its f/1.2 maximum aperture and a focal length make it very useful for portrait photography – its 82.5mm angle-of-view equivalent* provides functionality similar to 85mm lenses on 35mm film and full frame cameras.
- 16-50mm f/3.5-f/5.6 XC – This focal length range extends from moderately wide to “portrait” length telephoto, so it might be an alternative to the 18-55mm lens for some. Given the smaller maximum apertures, I tend to view this as a lens targeted at a slightly lower level of performance and intended for use with some of the less expensive Fujifilm cameras like the X-M1.
- 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 OIS XC – This lens complements the 16-50mm XC lens listed above – and may also be geared to those using the less expensive Fujifilm bodies. The long end has an angle-of-view equivalent* of 345mm. (For some serious photographers, the rather small maximum apertures at longer focal lengths may be a concern, as they provide few options before diffraction blur starts to be a concern as one stops down.)
- 10-24mm f/4 R OIS XF – This lens is also getting a lot of acclaim, and is said to produce excellent image quality. Photographers intending to use the Fujifilm camera system for landscape photography will likely want this lens that provides an angle-of-view range similar to that of ultra wide zooms on full frame systems. Note the desirable fixed f/4 maximum aperture.
There are other options as well. Zeiss is producing a small number of lenses designed to work on the X cameras. Old-school lenses designed for a variety of other cameras can work with a Fujifilm adapter that is available as an option.
A few things are clear from this list of current and future lenses. Fujifilm has built and is continuing to expand a system around the format, and it includes a wide range of zooms and primes, focal length ranges, and quality levels.
- I have used the term “angle-of-view” equivalent to deal with the question of how the focal lengths of these lenses compare to familiar – to some, anyway – lenses on 35mm or full frame digital cameras. The “crop factor” of the Fujifilm X-trans sensor is 1.5. I know that some readers will not approve, but I encourage them to just accept this, perhaps shaking their heads a bit, and move on… ;-)
Camera ergonomics and controls
If you are used to shooting with DSLRs, even the smaller consumer models, the X-E1 seems quite small and light – though the feeling is that of a solid and well designed and constructed tool. Folks moving up from a point and shoot will notice the larger size and more solid feeling of the camera. As a person who shot with old Minolta and Pentax 35mm cameras “back in the day,” the sensation is pleasantly evocative of these wonderful older cameras. Manual controls, such as the shutter speed dial, are easily accessible and found in places that generally make sense to those of us who used the older cameras – for example, a +/- 2-stop exposure compensation knob is located on the top surface near the shutter release the shutter speed dial. Because the camera is small, controls are necessarily closer together than some might be used to, but the controls themselves are large and positive enough to operate effectively.
Even though the cameras adapts a design philosophy based on older mechanical rangefinder cameras, some things still must or may be done via control buttons and knobs that change menu readouts on the rear display. A “Q” (for quick) button on the back, not far from the shutter release, brings up a display of many settings that you might want to access quickly: ISO, flash control, AF point, self-timer, and some others. A “view mode” button determines whether the camera displays on the rear screen, in the electronic viewfinder, or switches automatically between the two depending upon whether or not your eye is at the viewfinder – the so-called “eye sensor” mode. Several versions of the display are accessible via the “DISP BACK” button – an uncluttered version that simply shows the image with minimal extra info alongside, a custom display, and an information-rich alternative that shows so much stuff that it almost is hard to see the image!
Other buttons are provided for exposure and focus lock, drive and so forth. A small switch on the front of the camera switches among one-shot AF, continuous AF, and manual focusing modes. There is a “menu” button for – surprise! – accessing camera menus, and it is surrounded by the expected four “scroll button” style control buttons. The “up” button does double-duty, switching the camera’s “macro” mode on and off. (With macro mode off, the camera constrains it focusing system so that it doesn’t attempt to focus on very close objects, generally speeding up the auto focus operation. With macro mode on, the lens may rack back and forth over a wider range that includes very close focusing distances. More on this feature a bit later in the review.) A rear control dial is used to change values such as ISO, in for some purposes it also functions as a clickable button. There is a very basic pop-up flash and a hot shoe that can accommodate Fujifilm electronic flash units. (The flash is not very powerful or sophisticated and external flash options for these cameras are currently very limited. I regard the built-in flash as a sort of emergency flash only – available for a situation where that is the only way to get a close-in shot, but otherwise a feature that I almost never use.)
The design of the menu system is very similar to that found on most contemporary digital cameras. A push of the “menu” button brings it up on the selected display. A hierarchic menu structure groups various options together in sub groups, and you navigate among them using the “scroll” buttons on the back panel. I’m not one to spend too much time critiquing the layout of camera menus – for the most part, they are what they are, and you learn to use the system that your camera provides. In general, the menu and button interface makes sense once you get to know it, with a few exceptions. For example, when using the Q button to control ISO you use the control dial on the back of the camera to set the ISO. To me, the operation of this dial seems counterintuitive – you turn it to the right to lower the ISO… unless you spin it far enough to the right, in which case it now sets the auto ISO and spinning the control wheel to the right now raises the ISO! It doesn’t make sense to me, but I have adapted.
For the most part, I have adapted successfully to the physical control interface of this camera, despite its small size and occasional odd choices. Those of us used to larger cameras who have developed instincts for how to handle them have to adapt a bit. For example, it took me a period of some time to evolve a way to hold the camera that works well for me. Since I almost always shoot this camera handheld rather than from the tripod (which is my norm with the larger cameras), I want to have it immediately available to shoot but also secure from dropping. At first I thought I might forego the included lightweight neck strap, but I soon realized that handholding the camera for active shooting without a strap would create too great of a risk that I might drop it. After weeks of shooting with the camera I eventually worked out an odd and idiosyncratic method of double-wrapping the strap around my right wrist and looping a bit of the strap around my right thumb – too complex to explain here, but simple and effective now that I’ve gotten used to it – that lets me securely hold and operate the camera in almost any situation.
Another initial difficulty for me was that while holding the camera I kept accidentally hitting various buttons and inadvertently changing settings – in fact, I still accidentally move the exposure compensation knob occasionally if I’m not careful. I had a similar problem with the macro button and on a few occasions I have accidentally moved the focus mode switch on the front of the camera to the manual position without realizing it. Is this an unavoidable result of trying to build so much functionality and control into a very small camera body, a case of less than ideal design, or a matter of me being clumsy? The answer is likely “yes” – to all of the above. In fact, there are a lot of closely spaced controls on this camera, given its diminutive size, and there is not a lot of surface area on the body that isn’t devoted to controlling something. In addition, in my opinion, some of the controls are just a bit too easily moved and don’t provide as much tactile feedback as they might. I would put the exposure compensation knob in this category – if I were designing the camera I would either use more positive “click stops” on the knob or else I might add an old-school button or tab to press in order to unlock it. The position of the macro switch is not ideal, in my view. It is in a prime and central location right above the “menu” button, which seems odd for a setting that is not likely to be changed all that often. (Eventually I discovered that it is possible to set a software lock on the button, and I no longer accidentally switch into macro mode.) And, yes, I had to retrain myself to hold the camera in such a way that I wasn’t quite so often clumsily and accidentally pressing buttons on the thing. In retrospect, it makes sense that I would have to develop some new operating instincts for such a different sort of camera. The bottom line is that the functional interface isn’t perfect but is overall very good, that Fujifilm could improve it in successive models, and that it is useful and effective to spend some time learning the camera before blaming it! (The latter point is true of any camera.)
Lens ergonomics and controls
The lenses exhibit the same old-school feel as the camera. They are less bulky than the usual DSLR lenses and remind me of the smaller lenses of that older era before cameras were highly electrified and motorized. This is especially the case with the Fujinon prime lenses, but even the zooms seem compact. The prime lenses even have the familiar aperture ring marked with the available apertures. The 14mm lens goes all in with the old school approach – when switching it to full manual mode by moving a sleeve on the lens, a distance scale with marks to indicate depth of field is revealed. The controls on the zooms are a bit different. They provide a switch to select between the automatic mode (in which the camera selects aperture) and the manual mode. There is an unmarked aperture ring, and you need to look at the viewfinder or rear display to see and select the aperture setting as you turn the ring. The zooms also have Fujifilm’s “OIS” image stabilization system, and a switch is provided to turn it on and off. The image stabilization reportedly gives perhaps four-stops of camera shake reduction in low light situations and is a useful feature.
As with the bodies, there is some room for small improvements in the functional characteristics of the lenses. To me, the “click stops” on the manual aperture rings are not as “deep” as I would like – I would like to get a bit more tactile feedback as I click from one aperture to another, and I would like to have to exert just a bit more force to move the ring. It doesn’t happen often, but on several occasions I found that by simply handling the camera I had move the ring to a different aperture than the one I wanted. Here, as with the issues I mentioned above concerning camera body controls, this may also be at least partially a matter of the camera operator learning to adapt to this specific lens system. In addition, I feel that the zoom rings on the 18-55 and the 550-200mm lenses – especially the latter – have a bit too much resistance. Perhaps this will lessen as the lenses “age,” but it seems harder than necessary to zoom – and in the case of the 55-200 I can actually hear the lens move in the mount as I zoom. Overall, I’m willing to forgive these small issues, especially given the excellent optical performance from these lenses.
In the end, many want to know whether a camera system is great or not. I don’t feel that the answer is quite that simple. When it comes to evaluating camera equipment, there are some things about which we can be fairly objective – the lp/mm resolution measurements of lenses, how long a battery lasts, the list of features, and so forth. These things are certainly not unimportant, but when it comes to deciding whether a camera is right for your purposes there is much more to the decision that objectively analyzing test measurements and lists of specifications.
In the end, the real question is how will this gear perform for you given your expected type of usage. There is no question, for example, and a high-end medium format digital system can produce exemplary image quality that will exceed that of any camera with a smaller sensor – but perhaps a full frame DSLR’s excellent image quality is more than enough for your purposes and its flexibility and versatility – not to mention lower cost! – make it a better choice for you. With the X-E1, while we can say some things about objective quality, the real questions have to do with how well it fits your needs.
That said, let me offer a brief summary/overview of what I have observed about some of the technical stuff:
- Image quality from the sensor is excellent. The camera is capable of producing image quality that at least equals that of any other cropped sensor camera with a roughly similar photo site density – e.g. in the general neighborhood of 16 megapixels. The omission of the anti-alias filter may make for slightly sharper images in many cases, though there could be a downside with some subjects that are prone to aliasing – though I have yet to encounter a problem with this. A “smearing” issue has been reported in some tests where colors can sometimes “bleed” into adjacent areas. I have looked carefully for this in my own images as I inspect them at 100% magnification and on very rare occasions I have been able to find this, though only at 100% and not in actual photographs at normal sizes.
- The lenses are top notch in build quality and image quality terms and some are essentially as good as it gets with lenses for small cameras. As I wrote earlier, I had relatively high expectations for the performance of the lenses when I got the camera, but my expectations were exceeded when I first viewed images from the 35mm f/1.4 and the 14mm f/2.8.
- Functionality is generally excellent, especially for such a small camera. There are few things that it cannot do, and it features virtually all of the options that we expect from serious cameras – raw and jpg images, many manual and automated exposure options, a good range of high quality lenses, image stabilization in some of the lenses, displays that provide a range of useful types of information and feedback, a lot of manual control, decent AF and AE. While the AF system is generally effective and accurate and works well even in low light, it can be challenged by very low contrast scenes and it is not as fast as the systems found on DSLRs. The built-in electronic flash provides only minimal functionality, though it is useful if you simply need to get that shot of a close subject in very low light.
- The ergonomics of the camera and lenses are generally quite good. The feeling of both is that of tightly built and high quality gear – not that of typical point and shoot cameras. As I mentioned earlier, it is evocative of classic rangefinder and similar cameras. Controls are generally well-positioned and operable by photographers with good-sized hands. There is room for improvement in a few areas including the positioning of the macro button and the fact that some controls (aperture rings, exposure compensation dial, possibly the AF/Cont/MF switch) seem to move a bit too easily.
A camera like the X-E1 seems to me to be perfectly suited to certain kinds of photography, and ill-suited to other types.
Street photography – In many ways this is where this camera can shine. With its very small form factor and small, high quality lenses with focal lengths suitable for this sort of work, it appeals to many who shoot street. In fact, my primary use of the camera might be characterized as somewhere in the “street/travel photography” nexus. Compared to carrying my large Canon 5D2 and its large lenses, it is a joy to use this smaller camera for these subjects. An added benefit is that subjects are much less aware of you when shooting with the smaller gear – fewer people looking at your gear and fewer asking you questions about it. (Though, perhaps not surprisingly, some who are familiar with old Leica and similar gear will stop you and ask about this camera.) You can go out and shoot this camera with a single prime (in which case you might be a candidate for Fujifilm’s X100s, too), but you can also easily carry along an additional lens or two since they are so small. For those of us who have made a full transition from film to digital, it is very appealing to have the advantages of digital in a small rangefinder-style camera. Having said all of this positive stuff, it is important to acknowledge a few issues. (Remember, all photo equipment involves compromises, and this camera is no exception.) With a film rangefinder camera you can quickly raise the camera and instantly shoot. The X-E1 is a bit slower – more like raise the camera, pause for a fraction of a second, and then shoot. The actual delay is objectively quite short, but sometimes that is enough to miss a shot. Related to this, unlike film cameras the X-E1 “goes to sleep” after some seconds. If the camera has gone to sleep and an instantaneous opportunity arises, you will likely miss it during the time it takes for the camera to come back to life. I have developed an nearly-unconscious habit of periodically half-pressing the shutter button to keep the camera awake when I think interesting things may happen.
Travel photography – This was my original reason for getting this camera. As I mentioned earlier, I decided to get it prior to a three-week overseas trip on which I planned to travel very light – a backpack for my personal stuff and a small messenger bag for camera, lenses, laptop, phone, and a few other items. If you are traveling and you can forego the larger full-frame sensor and the particular features of a DSLR, this camera really shines for this use. With a package (camera and lenses) size and weight that is probably half that of even a small DSLR system, there is a sense of freedom in using the X-E1 system. After using it this way for three weeks, I would definitely do the same thing again in almost all cases. For many people the X-E1 and the 18-55mm lens might be enough. Others might want to add the 55-200mm zoom or perhaps a large aperture prime or two.
Landscape photography – For me, the X-E1 is not going to replace my full frame DSLR system for serious landscape photography. However, my needs here are likely quite different from those of most photographers considering this camera – let me explain. Landscape photography is the core of my serious photographic work. I virtually always shoot from the tripod and take steps to maximize image quality so that I can license images and produce fine art prints on a print with 24″ wide paper… and possibly larger. If that is what you are doing in your landscape work, the X-E1 is going to be a lesser camera. (That said, I have a lovely 15″ x 20″ print of some trees in Yosemite sitting next to me as I write this – and it was shot with this camera and the 60mm macro.) But is this what you do? If you shoot handheld, rarely if ever produce very large fine art prints, perhaps value small size and weight when you are in the outdoors, and find the quality of the APS-C sensor good enough or more than good enough for your shooting, the X-E1 might be excellent for you. It has occurred to me, for example, that many backpackers have lusted after smaller, high quality cameras along the lines of the old film rangefinders for some time now. This camera can produce image quality that is at least the equal of those cameras. (Do consider battery life though if you plan to be on the trail for a very long time.)
Night photography – The X-E1 performs surprisingly well in low light. Contrary to my expectations, the AF system is effective in low light as long as the scene includes enough contrast. The camera can shoot at higher ISO levels with little noise. The electronic viewfinder system – the camera is essentially always in live view mode – with its ability to work in low light and magnify the subject makes manual focus a viable option in very low light. The combination of the low noise performance at higher ISO and the image stabilization of the zoom lenses makes it possible to shoot handheld in much lower light than you might expect.
Always-with-me camera – Many of us who shoot larger camera systems frequently find ourselves without this gear when unexpected photographic opportunities arise. But when we are generally out and about on non-photographic days, we are not about to cart around a large DSLR system “just in case.” However, one certainly can carry the X-E1 and a lens on a regular basis. I’ve been doing that since I got mine, and I’ve ended up making photographs in places where I would likely not have had a camera in the past. Or, if I had only had one of the very small sensor point and shoot bodies, the results would not have been what I wanted. As an example, we were recently in Seattle where we attended the Seattle Opera performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I would not have tried to drag a DSLR system to the opera, and if I had there would have been a very good chance that someone would have stopped me. But the X-E1 with the 35mm prime fit – with room to spare – into a very small and unobtrusive shoulder bag.
General personal photography – Lots of folks are interested in a camera that they can use for photographing family events, vacations, the little league or soccer game, and lot of other day-to-day stuff. Many of them also want a “good camera,” and they often end up with one of the entry-level (or better) DSLRs. Frankly, the DSLR is often not the idea camera for such folks. Many of them don’t really use the interchangeable lens capability of these cameras, nor do they take advantage of the potentially higher image quality since they are almost exclusively sharing jpg image online, and these cameras and their lenses are perhaps unnecessarily bulky and heavy for their use. What is the right camera for such users? This can be a difficult and very subjective question. Frankly, for many of them the cell phone camera will work quite well. For others a better choice can be a small point and shoot camera. However, for those who need or believe they need higher quality lenses and sensors, the mirrorless systems like the X-E1 can provide virtually all of the functionality and image quality of a cropped sensor DSLR in a much smaller and lighter package. However, the cost the X-E1 with the 18-55mm lens is higher than that of the entry-leel DSLRs with equivalent lenses from the major manufacturers. So the question might be one of the value of the smaller size and weight versus the added cost. (Fujifilm is clearly aware of this and they have introduced some smaller and less expensive mirrorless bodies that are also viable options.) A bottom line is that I think we are going to see more and more “consumer” photographer choosing to use a camera like the X-E1 rather than the entry-level DSLR when they see the quality of the smaller camera’s images and the value of the smaller size and weight.
Sports and wildlife photography – These may seem like rather different types of photography, but there is a lot of overlap in terms of the demands on equipment. Typically both require longer lenses and both can take advantage of cameras and lenses that operate quickly and accurately. If these are your main interests, the X-E1 is unlikely to be right for you, even with the 320mm-equivalent reach of the 55-200mm zoom. While the camera’s AF system is fast and accurate enough for most photography, it simply cannot compete with better DSLR systems for this sort of photography. This is not to say that one cannot photograph such subjects with the X-E1 system – people have photographed these subjects with old film cameras that were entirely without AF for example – but this camera is far from ideal for this sort of shooting.
Portrait and fashion and event photography – These are not particularly “my thing,” so I’m less equipped to provide any sort of authoritative evaluation here. I can think of both advantages and disadvantages. One potential advantage comes from shooting with small, unobtrusive gear – especially for things like environmental portraiture or other sorts of informal work. Some photographers report that their subjects are more at ease when faced with a small X-E1 than when the photographer uses a bigger system. I can also envision using the X-E1 as a second camera, perhaps with a large aperture prime, to augment the larger system that might be equipped with a very long or very wide lens. For certain types of event photography where fast and light might be the key the camera could also be used effectively.
Does the X-E1 replace or augment?
I have followed a lot of the online discussion of this Fujifilm system, both prior to and after my purchase. As is often the case with online photography discussions, there is a range of opinions and responses which vary between dismissive and breathless wonder! One of the memes that seems to have arisen is reviews that report that “this camera completely changed photography for me” and/or “I have gotten rid of my DSLR” and so forth. In my view, if the photographer actually needs what the full frame DSLR provides (potentially higher quality image, tremendous lens choices, faster operation, etc.) it is very unlikely that the X-E1 system will replace that functionality. It certainly has not for me. In my case, the X-E1 is a very worthy addition that provides important and very useful alternative value to me in situations where small, light, unobtrusive, and good image quality are very important. In other words, for me it augments my DSLR system. On the other hand, for some who found DSLRs to be a poor compromise (too big and heavy, more image quality and speed than necessary for their work, etc.) one of these mirrorless systems could replace the DSLR.
I know that some people who are patient enough to read to the end of a long post like this one are hoping to find The Answer here: “Should I buy this camera?” I probably cannot answer that question for you - though perhaps you’ll have a better idea of how the strengths and weaknesses of this camera line up with your photographic needs. I can say that I remain very impressed with my X-E1, that I’m very glad I got it, that I continue to use it, and that it has produced some excellent photographs for me that I might not have gotten without it.
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- Also see these previous posts:
- In the original posting of this article I incorrectly calculated angle-of-view equivalents using a 1.6x crop factor. I have now corrected the article to use the correct 1.5x crop factor for angle-of-view equivalencies.
- Updated on September 5, 2013 to add the availability of the Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R Lens for pre-order. (A general note: I make minor unannounced updates to articles on this blog from time to time.)
- NEW Fujifilm X-T1 – Announced January 2014 and available for preorder
- NEW Fujifilm X-E2
- Fujifilm X-E1 – replaced by the X-E2, but may still be available – a good value at reduced price
- Additional Fujifilm X-series bodies
- Fujifilm XF 14mm f/2.8 R Ultra Wide-Angle Lens
- Fujifilm 18mm f/2.0 XF R Lens
- Fujifilm XF 23mm f/1.4 R Lens
- Fujifilm XF 27mm f/2.8 Lens (Black)
- Fujifilm XF 27mm f/2.8 Lens (Silver)
- Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 XF R Lens
- Fujifilm 56mm f/1.2 XF Lens
- Fujifilm 60mm f/2.4 XF Macro Lens
- Fujifilm XF 10-24mm f/4 R OIS Lens
- Fujifilm XC 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS Lens (Black)
- Fujifilm XC 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS Lens (Silver)
- Fujifilm XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS Zoom Lens
- Fujifilm XC 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 OIS Lens (Black)
- Fujifilm XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS Lens
© Copyright 2013 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.