Although I have had a variety of cameras over the last 30 years, the SLR, then DSLR had become my mainstay. A long time Canon SLR user, I moved to their digital line, acquired a few decent lenses, and expected to continue along that path. However, about a year ago, I started re-thinking my photography for a variety of reasons.
As a young man, I had lots of time and no aches and pains, so hiking across the North Yorkshire Moors with a rucksack full of camera gear was an enjoyable weekend. As I got older I got busier (children grow up so fast) and managed to throw my back out several times, photographic opportunities became rarer, and the thought of lugging my gear any distance was enough to have me reaching for the pain killers. I realised something else – something I had once loved had become close to a chore.
Enter Fujifilm’s fantastic X100. A knockout little camera with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens, great image quality and a retro feel (in handling, as well as looks) that brought back a real joy to making photos. It had a few quirks, but Fujifilm released a number of firmware upgrades that improved things even further. They won over my heart and my head.
It certainly got me thinking – what if someone could make an interchangeable lens camera with great image quality to rival a DSLR, but all the attributes I loved about the X100? Clearly thinking along the same lines, Fujifilm went on to make the X-Pro1. The only problem was that it was pretty expensive, and although I had loved the hybrid OVF (Optical View Finder)/EVF (Electronic View Finder) of the X100, I wasn’t sure it made as much sense on a camera with interchangeable lenses. I continued to enjoy the X100, and my DSLR fell into disuse, but I couldn’t sell it – the X100 wasn’t really right for several things I still wanted to do, from fast autofocus for photos of my son growing up, to higher resolution and wide-angle lenses for landscapes.
Then, clearly reading my thoughts yet again, along came the X-E1. The same image quality as the X-Pro1, but without the OVF, in a smaller body and for a lower price – I had to get one!
All my Canon gear went on ebay, and I ordered a black X-E1 with the 35mm f1.4 (53mm equivalent) and 60mm f2.4 macro (90mm equivalent). While an 18mm (27mm equivalent) lens was also available, there is a 14mm (21mm equivalent) lens due out soon, along with a promise by Zeiss to make several lenses, including a 12mm (18mm equivalent), so I decided to wait a while to make a decision on these.
So what is it like? The build quality is fantastic – it feels even nicer than my X100 – and the dials have a more positive feel i.e. I don’t expect to be able to knock the exposure compensation dial by accident. It certainly feels much nicer in the hand than my Canon 40D. The weight and size are ‘just right’ – much less than my DSLR and lens.
The lenses come with metal hoods! This adds to the feel-good factor, as I found it annoying when paying even more for a Canon lenses, that I was then expected to pay out a crazy amount of money for a plastic hood. However, the design of the lens cap on the 35mm hood is poor – it will fall off with the slightest knock. Because of the shape of the end of the hood, I can’t conveniently use the push on inner lens cap with it. The 60mm, however, has a hood design that allows the cap to be pushed on and off while the hood is on.
The EVF is superb, and my worries over no OVF are unnecessary. There is no pixelation, and it is bright and contrasty with natural colours. The only criticism I would make is that the refresh rate lags very slightly when panning fast. However, this is not a sports camera, so that isn’t really an issue for me. Even in bright Australian sunshine at midday, the EVF is very usable, although not as bright as an OVF. One of the nice things is that in dark conditions, you can see much better than an OVF, as the EVF has automatic gain control. Couple this with fantastic high ISO performance, and this is a great street shooter (see my earlier post – Available Light with the FujiFilm X-E1). ISO goes up to 25,600, with 6,400 available in auto-ISO. The photos are very good, even at 6,400 ISO, with little noise.
Autofocus is absolutely fine for me, but I don’t shoot sports. It is quick enough in decent light, but can hunt a little in poor light. It isn’t as fast as my Canon L lenses, but it is highly accurate. I have an energetic 4-year-old, and I would struggle to keep up with his antics, so I will get the 18-55 zoom for those situations, as the autofocus is supposed to be a lot faster, as well as having OIS (image stabilisation).
Anyone who moans about APS-C sensors not being able to achieve shallow DOF needs to look at the X-E1 + 35/1.4. Not only does it have shallow DOF, but nicely rendered out of focus areas. I need to get more experience with it, but so far I am really, really impressed with what can be achieved.
The X-E1 has a pop-up flash that is great for fill on a bright day, and is of a design that lets you tilt it with your finger to bounce it off a ceiling. Unfortunately, the the flash is deployed by pressing a button on the rear of the camera, and I wonder if this will get released while in a camera bag if pressed up against something. It might have been better as a slide switch. There is a hot shoe which can take more powerful flash units.
I love the look that the whole combination of the lens, sensor and film emulations gives. I just want to go out and shoot with this thing all day.
The X-E1 does have a few niggles, though. The first (which I would hope is easily fixed with a firmware update), is that when using auto ISO, it’s impossible to set a minimum shutter speed. Fujifilm seem to have programmed in a fixed 1.5 * focal length, which is not fast enough for me.
The main issue though, is RAW conversion. The X-E1 uses an image sensor that is radically different than in most cameras, and the algorithms to produce photos from it are hugely complex – Fujifilm have said they have been working on the technology for years. This means that you really need to use the supplied SilkyPix software, or produce JPEGs in the camera to get the best results. Adobe Camera Raw does a so-so conversion, and my favourite, Apple’s Aperture, can’t interpret the RAW files at all. One alternative would be to produce TIFFs in SilkyPix, then import into your normal software, but you do lose some of the flexibility of RAW processing, and it is a pain to re-work your workflow. Fujifilm have said that they are working closely with Adobe, Apple and Phase One to fix this, but things seem to be a long time coming.
This is, to some extent, countered by the camera-produced JPEGs. They are, without a doubt, the best I have seen out of any camera. Coupled with some beautiful emulations of classic Fuji films, this will probably be enough for many photographers. You can even re-process images on the camera with different emulations and settings after you have taken them.
More to come later…