Wednesday, March 20, 2013

REVIEW: Fujifilm X-E1–A Step in the Right Direction (Part 1 of 2)

Fujifilm X-E1 Digital Camera Kit with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens (Black)
Fujifilm X-E1 Digital Camera Kit with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens (Black)

Despite what some people might think, I love Fujifilm cameras. In fact, I find them a joy to use and addicting as hell. There is something magical about them that makes photography fun and a lot of the built-in features create in-camera images that just have that great film quality with all the benefits of the digital age (i.e., no grain, better color, raw, etc…). With that said, I pissed off A LOT of people by not declaring the X100 and XPro-1 the great things since sliced bread.

You see, I guess I missed the fact that I’m supposed to think they are perfect cameras and not say anything bad about them. Apparently they have no flaws, and to say otherwise makes me a <expletive> idiot according to a very vocal Fujifilm fan base. I guess these readers don’t look at reviews to hear the truth about a product, but rather to get validation for their brilliance for buying a Fujifilm camera. They are a proud bunch, and obviously there’s no room for improvement so to say otherwise means I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.

If you are in this camp then I’d suggest you stop reading this blog because I’ve tried to differentiate myself from publications who only look at their business model and write glowing reviews about everything that comes across their desk. You see, I think I owe it to my readers to tell you what I like and more importantly tell you what I don’t like. In fact, I think I even owe it to the manufacturers because if they really made the perfect camera they’d probably go out of business because they’d never be able to generate more income by releasing new products that improve upon their predecessors. In the end, I think I help my readers make an informed decision and hopefully provide feedback that helps Fujifilm make better products in the future.

With that said, while I loved the image quality of the X100 and XPro-1, and I absolutely enjoyed using them. Personally, I felt they were very flawed products. I wanted to love them, and I wanted to tell you to go out and buy one because they are so fun, but I couldn’t do it. I had to tell you the truth, and so it was with mixed emotions that I took on the task of reviewing the Fujifilm X-E1. It’s effectively a cheaper XPro-1, so I wasn’t expecting anything different. I was expecting to love the images and absolutely love shooting with it, but I was also expecting to be very disappointed in the auto focus system indoors.

At first, I found what I was expecting. However, I was having a lot of fun with the camera as I had with previous versions, so I wanted this to be “the one”. I want to love this camera and scream from the rooftops – YES, THIS IS THE COMPACT interchangeable lens camera you must get – but I couldn’t. Out of desperation, I did something I rarely do – I went to friends for help because I wanted to find a way to make this crappy AF system work so I could love this camera! In the end I did find workarounds, and I’m very happy. It’s not perfect, and I’m still eagerly awaiting the dream X series camera with interchangeable lenses that is a must have camera. However, this is a great step in the right direction.

Cool Overview Video

Fujifilm does a brilliant job with its web and video marketing of their cameras. It reminds of Mercedes Benz or Porsche where after watching the video or reading the stuff on the web - you want one! As a result, I thought I’d share this video to get you excited about a product that I’m excited about!

They have some great info on their web site as well as the mini-product site at http://fujifilm-x.com/x-e1/en/. I encourage you to check out both, but please come back here to finish reading my review!

Camera Body Features (Part 1 of 2)

Fujifilm X-E1 Digital Camera Kit with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens (Silver) - Rear
Fujifilm X-E1 Digital Camera Kit with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens (Silver) - Rear

XPro-1 users/shoppers will be very familiar and satisfied with the XE-1. While it does lack the optical viewfinder found the XPro-1’s awesome Hybrid Multi View finder, the OLED digital viewfinder is excellent. I was very satisfied with the live view feature both on the rear screen and view finder when pressing in the command dial (and rotate to the right for even greater zoom). It was very precise and made manual focusing quite enjoyable.

The X-E1 is smaller and lighter than the XPro-1 which is a good thing. Part of the weight (and cost) savings comes from the lack of the Hybrid Multi View finder and a smaller LCD. Personally I found these to be great compromises as optical viewfinders on this style of body sucks (you get a nice view of your lens) and I felt the LCD was plenty big for my needs.

The X-E1 adds an on-camera flash that is near useless if you use the kit lens. You’ll get lots of shots with the lens barrel (which are amplified if you use the hood, but still appear without the hood):

On-Camera Flash with Kit Lens - Near Useless
On-Camera Flash with Kit Lens - Near Useless

Compared to the XPro-1, the AF illuminator has moved closer to the handgrip which sucks because it’s going to be easy for some users to block it. It’s pretty obvious when the AF illuminator is on, so usually you’ll see when you are partially obstructing it.

The Q menu is outstanding and really helps for quick operation of the camera. It lacks quick access to flash exposure compensation which sucks, but otherwise it has everything you’d want and more (in fact, some might even say – too much).

The thing I really love about this and other Fujifilm cameras is the ability to quickly change the aperture and shutter speed with physical dials, as well as all of the hard buttons for AF drive & mode, metering, exposure lock, focus, and more. This is a photographers camera all the way and it’s part of what makes it such an absolute joy to use! Physically all the X series cameras are art and have that luxury feel that make you want to hold it. It reminds me of classic Mercedes where the philosophy (back then) was nothing but the best. You get that feeling with these cameras, so you treasure the body – but it’s tough as hell so you don’t need to baby it either.

My big grip about the X100 and XPro-1 has been their pitiful AF performance indoors. I’m happy to report great progress has been made to the point where I’d declare this system to be “usable” – not great, but definitely usable. I found that if I always pick my AF point when in S(ingle shot) AF mode that I get much better results than the useless Multi-Point mode (don’t even try it). With the help of existing users and the latest firmware I found choosing the medium or large AF point indoors is the way to go. The small AF point works fine in great light, but in low light (like anything indoors) it is near useless. Continuous focus works very well both in single shot and burst mode as well as low light. Manual is also usable with the great live view zoom magnification support by pressing the command dial as previously mentioned. While not perfect, I do found myself much less frustrated than any other version. If you have an existing X series camera, definitely get the latest firmware as hopefully you’ll see improvements too.

Another huge complaint I’ve had of this cameras predecessors was the painful performance writing to the SD card and time between shots. This camera felt pretty snappy by comparison, but if you go into burst mode expect a SUPER long wait before you can even review your images. This is unacceptable and something I seriously hope will be addressed in the firmware or a future model. Now, this isn’t really a burst mode camera so for many this won’t be an issue – especially since performance feels vastly improved over the other models I’ve tested.

Speaking of burst, you can go here to see a series of 12 shots (RAW+JPEG Fine) that I took using burst mode under very low tungsten light. While not perfect, it’s pretty good and definitely better than ANYTHING I’ve ever got from its predecessors.

Real World Sample Images

Like all my reviews, I like to provide in-camera JPEG original images as samples. You can find a complete gallery at http://www.ronmartinsen.com/fujifilm/x-e1. This annoys people who want to see the raws, but I don’t do that for three reasons:

  1. I don’t have a sever where I can store the RAW images. If you have an image where you really want to see a raw, then contact me and I’ll do what I can to try to get you the RAF file.
  2. What you see on your camera LCD, and what you make decisions based on the histogram is the in-camera JPEG – even if you shoot RAW. As a result, a lot of opinions are formed based on that JPEG (which is even embedded into your RAW file). To compare apples with apples and what the camera can do I think it makes sense to compare the RAW as you can always get better results that meet your needs with a RAW file, so it effectively only gets better from here!
  3. While I always shoot RAW, I also prefer to shoot RAW+JPEG and use the JPEG when it’s not a commercial shot. This camera creates gorgeous JPEG’s, and not everything I take with it is intended for my portfolio nor will every image get hours of Photoshop love. As a result, if I can get an image I love out of camera, isn’t that a good thing? I think it is and I think many cameras today do that, so why not place a value on a feature of the camera? If you want to pixel peep raws, go to DPReview – they have more people and can do a better job for pixel peepers than I have the bandwidth to do.

My shooting style with this camera is mostly aperture priority (which on this camera means I pick a fixed aperture and set the dial to auto shutter speed). I also use Auto (6400) for my ISO. I shoot in RAW+F(ine) with DRAuto or DR400 and WB Auto. I’m also very fond of the Velvia (Vivid) film simulation as I enjoyed Velvia film, so if you think the image is a bit too punchy and black then blame my film simulation selection. I like Astia (Soft) quite a bit too so if you see some images that are less punchy then that’s what I’ve chosen and if they are pretty neutral then I’ve chosen Provia (Standard).

I always pick my AF point when in S(ingle shot) AF mode, and I choose the medium or large AF point indoors as the small AF point is near useless in anything but great light. Continuous focus works well both in single shot and burst mode.

All images copyright Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. You may view, but you may not edit print, or publish any of these photos in any way without a signed contract.

All images are exactly as they came out of the camera – zero post-processing, cropping, or anything. All in-camera processing was via camera settings and not in-camera editing.

With that said, here’s a few images from my sample gallery worth calling out (click to view the original in-camera JPEG):


Even with DR-100, the dynamic range is typical Fujifilm – excellent!


f/7.1 @ 24.3 mm, 1/30, ISO 800, No Flash (under nasty light)
Like its predecessors, the images from this great sensor are delicious!


f/4 @ 18 mm, 1/500, ISO 6400, No Flash
This is the first Fujifilm camera that I’ve used that did an okay job with my active toddler

Mouse over to see auto white balance, mouse out to see tungsten white balance
Mouse over to see auto white balance, mouse out to see tungsten white balance
Velvia (Vivid) Film Simulation used hence the deep darks and amplified colors


The monochrome film simulation has decent blacks and it’s not totally boring,
but I’d still use a third party product for best results (see
my black & white comparison)


f/7.1 @ 44.4 mm, 1/750, ISO 800
Unlike the X100, you no longer need the Luck of the Irish to get a shot outdoors!


Bokeh even at f/3.2 on a APS-C sensor with a “kit” lens is quite good
f/3.2 @ 22.3 mm, 1/125, ISO 6400, No Flash


f/3.6 @ 31.5 mm, 1/125, ISO 800, No Flash
Image detail is just excellent
(seeing the food in my son’s mouth, not so excellent – ha, ha)


f/5 @ 28.9 mm, 1/105, ISO 800, No Flash
Food photographers will love the compact size and killer image quality when dining


f/4 @ 55 mm, 1/28, ISO 6400, No Flash
Only in-camera post-processing (and my wife is wearing powder)
for ISO 6400, I was pleased!


f/4 @ 42.5 mm, 1/85, ISO 800, No Flash


f/4 @ 18.8 mm, 1/30, ISO 800, No Flash
This camera has a love affair with ISO 800 and 1/30 sec,
so active toddlers mean you have to manually choose your shutter speed


f/4 @ 55 mm, 1/110, ISO 800, No Flash
I’m really wishing the Easter bunny will give me one of these cameras,
and that Fujifilm will issue an update that doesn’t keep this camera locked
to ISO 800 when using ISO Auto (6400)


f/3.6 @ 19.6 mm, 1/30, ISO 5000, No Flash, Velvia, DR 100, AF-S (Large Point)
Lots of things suck about this shot, but the fact that this camera even took a shot
is a HUGE improvement over its predecessors. The X100 and XE-1 I tested
would never fire under this condition. All things consider, the focus is pretty okay too!


I was extremely pleased at how the camera would keep the focus even when momentary
distractions would enter the scene – even when using the large AF point

There’s a 101 and counting images in the gallery that represent what I call “real world” shots. These are not art shots – they are what normal people take when around the house or with the family. If you like what you see, then you’ll like the images you get from this camera.

Conclusion

Learn more in Part II: Fujifilm X-E1–Compared to X-Pro1, Sony RX100, & More (Part 2 of 2)!

Where to order (SALE – SAVE $913.85!!!!)

Click here to see the full selection of X-E1’s at B&H web site. My friends at Adorama have it available here, and you can find it here at Amazon.

If you think you might buy this camera, NOW is the time. B&H has this screaming deal that literally had me load my cart and almost pull the trigger:

Fujifilm X-E1 Bundle Special - Save 913.85!!!

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