This is my first attempt at something like a review and it will probably be my last 😉 It is not a technical review but it was prompted by a well known review of the X-E1 that compared it favourably with the Canon 5D mkIII. As I use both it seemed fitting that I should record my findings.
The Camera arrives in a stylish black box which is well packed to prevent damage. It’s called a kit – lens and body together – but it’s more of a kit than the accepted norm because you are expected to put some real effort into fitting the camera strap and, believe me, it does require some thought and care. They even supply a special tool to help you attach the triangular swivel-links to the lugs on the body! Apart from that it’s pretty straightforward.
The Camera’s main controls are well laid out with the shutter speed dial next to the shutter release and a very handy exposure compensation wheel. The aperture is controlled by a ring on the lens which is unmarked. The chosen aperture is displayed on the screen and in the viewfinder – so you need to keep an eye on this if working on aperture priority. Both the shutter speed dial and the lens can be switched to auto which then makes the camera operate in something resembling program mode. If both are switched to non-auto, the camera becomes fully manual.
If I was coming to this camera from a compact or cellphone camera with only point and shoot knowledge I’d have quite a bit to learn about how to use the camera because the controls are very traditional and require a good basic understanding of photography to get the best out of it – running on full auto works ok but there is so much more on offer and also some pitfalls.
If you were using a compact camera before moving to the Fuji X-E1 the controls would probably fall comfortably to hand. For me they feel a little too close together at present because I’m moving from a full frame DSLR and this camera is around half the size. That is not a criticism of the camera just a note for others like me that might choose this route in future. I don’t doubt that the offerings from Olympus and others that have aimed at small size cameras over the years have had the same issues in the past.
Before you start using the camera you will need to fully charge the battery and fit an SD card. I would recommend that you immediately check the current installed firmware – mine was version 1.03 for the camera and 1.04 for the lens. Both camera and lens firmwares needed updating to the current 2.20 for the camera and 3.10 for the lens. The process is simple and is well documented on the FujiFilm support section of their website. I did find it a novelty upgrading firmware on a lens – not something I’ve had to do on my Canons.
It became apparent quite early on that the kit lens on this camera is exceptional. Kit lenses have had a poor reputation for years. I can remember the 17-85mm supplied with the Canon EOS40D – in normal light it was ok as long as you didn’t go fully wide angle. But in any strong lighting you’d get a spectacular neon glow along the edges of buildings, etc as chromatic aberrations really kicked in. I understand that the standard Nikon kit lens was just as bad. The kit lenses were always built out of poly-carbonates as well which meant that they didn’t feel particularly robust and after extended use the zooming could become loose with the lens self-zooming under gravity if held at a downwards angle. The Fuji 18-55mm supplied is constructed of metal and feels very solid. I’ve had the opportunity to trial it in some very harsh lighting over the six weeks that I’ve had the camera and I am mightily impressed by the control of chromatic aberrations – they are almost non-existent; just a faint colouring on edges that you really have to look for. Barrel distortion is also well controlled but there is a mild pin-cushion effect at the widest angle.
Auto focussing – this is a weakness that has been widely discussed and has resulted in a number of firmware upgrades. My experience has been a mixed one. Sometimes it gets things spot on and sometimes you wonder just where it chose to focus despite the preferred point being in the rectangle at the centre of the frame. Coupled with a very rapid drop off of depth of field at the 55mm length, this can be a problem. I also wondered if the image stabilisation was resulting in some weird out of focus effects 😦 On top of this the auto focus is slow! To Illustrate the point – If I am photographing a train moving at 100mph I have a shutter firing point set in my mind. On the Canon DSLR’s that I have owned, as the front of the train reaches that point I press the shutter button all the way home and the image is taken. Doing the same with the X-E1 resulted in the front of the locomotive being past the edge of the frame! So it would seem that claims that these mirror-less compacts focus faster than the DSLR equivalents is hype! I have had to adopt a different approach – a mix of half depressing the shutter and then waiting until the train has almost reached the point where I would normally hit the button before pressing the release all the way home. Interestingly – as part of their spring offer Fuji were giving away their XC 50-230mm zoom lens on receipt of proof of purchase. I have tried this lens with the autofocus and did not experience the above issue of slow autofocus so perhaps some more work on the 18-55mm firmware is required?
Now, there is a remedy for all these ills – the camera looks like a range finder and you can treat it as one 🙂 Turn the auto-focus off! I hadn’t realised until I got this camera that I had stopped using one of my learned photographic skills – that of choosing my focussing point. The Canons have almost always got the focussing spot on when in auto mode to the point where it seemed that they intuitively knew what my main subject was! When you’ve had such luxury you forget all about turning that focussing ring except in specialised circumstances (macro for instance). Turning off the autofocus transforms the camera – now all it has to do is to concentrate on getting the exposure right and it does that very well. Suddenly catching 100mph trains is no longer a problem 🙂 Fuji have thought out the range finder workings well – there is no distance on the focussing ring. Instead, it is displayed on the screen or in the viewfinder. Just don’t half depress the shutter button while attempting to adjust the focus because nothing will happen! Remember me having to update the lens firmware? – Everything including the focal length display is electronically controlled!
The viewfinder is an electronic one and has issues with into sun or at rightangles to the sun. You will find it easier to use the screen on the back in these circumstances – or guess (which is what I normally do anyway 😉 Batteries – get a spare because the claimed life of a fully-charged battery is somewhat exaggerated and the camera doesn’t give you much warning before it decides that enough is enough and shuts down just as you are preparing to take that unrepeatable shot.
Coming back to the controls for a couple of minor gripes – it’s very easy to accidentally press the Q button on the back as you handle the camera which results in it going to the quick menu mode – a bit of an issue if your subject is moving at speed but that again is getting used to the size of the camera rather than a general design flaw – though prehaps requiring the button to be held in for a second or so would alleviate the issue? Then, remember that exposure compensation dial? It is all too easily moved as you pull the camera out of a camera bag.
The Q button – apart from the issue noted in the previous paragraph, it is a gem of a facility. All the common things you might wish to change on the camera are displayed immediately on the screen and they can easily be selected using the arrow buttons and changed by the settings wheel. The ISO settings are most likely to be accessed by this method and here Fuji have come up with a particularly handy idea – you can select a specific ISO or you can select a maximum ISO and let the camera decide on an optimum ISO at or below that value for the available light. Very clever.
And that’s about it – apart from the auto-focus issue the camera usually turns in very good results. The handling of sensor noise is in the same class as the Canon EOS7D and the colour rendition is very good. Fuji include a couple of ‘film’ modes that emulate popular stocks such as Velvia which is loved by landscape photographers – I haven’t tested those yet, preferring to stay with the standard version.
So is this camera an EOS5D killer – nope. It’s good but not that good – when you’ve seen what that full frame beast has on board you’ll understand why. It more closely resembles the 7D and for normal photography would be a very good choice as an equivalent. But I don’t think it would ever replace the 7D for sports photography which is where that camera excels. However, for general work it’s a very good option. For those of you with back issues (and mine has been bad for the past 6 months) – the lightness of this camera and it’s almost 7D performance could be a godsend. Today I specifically chose to take the X-E1 because I was going to use it where the bulk of the 5D and 24-70 lens couldn’t go – the bridge at Parliament Hill Fields… more on that in another post 😉 Would I buy it again – yes. For all its quirks this is a camera that takes you back to your roots and one that you will quickly fall in love with 🙂
An extreme example of autofocus v manual focus. My initial theory that I accidentally moved the focussing ring no longer fits so in reality I have no idea why this happened…
X-E1 Review quoted above – http://www.martin-doppelbauer.de/foto/fujixe1/index.html