An "X" For All
The Latest Addition to the Family
Fuji has been on fire with its mirrorless cameras. Starting with the ground-breaking X100, and carrying through to the unique X-Pro1, Fuji has been pushing the bar in compact, rangefinder-style devices. Now, with the release of the X-E1, the company is aiming to bring their line to a broader, more main-stream audience. I recently had a chance to spend a couple of days with a production-level sample.
Much The Same But So Very Different
On its face, the X-E1 is the X-Pro1 without the hybrid viewfinder. But the reality is more complicated than that. The X-Pro1 is the recent pinnacle of ‘look ma – no hands!’ technological achievement. In it, Fuji managed to integrate multi-point autofocus and a variable magnification optical viewfinder into a rangefinder-style camera with interchangeable lenses. To cap it off, they slipped in the best APS-C sensor in the business. All was goodness and light, right? Well, mostly. As I noted in my comprehensive review here in March, the X-Pro1 is an amazing camera, but at a not-insubstantial price and at a size pushing the limits of “rangefinder style”. For some users it is the ultimate solution. But for the masses interested in a more economical solution, with more flexibility of use, the X-Pro1 might have been more camera than they needed or wanted.
So enter the X-E1. The X-E1 is basically the same camera as the X-Pro1, but with only an EVF. The optical window is gone. With it too is gone a surprisingly amount of bulk. The X-E1 is much closer in size and girth to the X100. While on paper, and even to the eye, the differences are not that large, the effect in the hand is noticeable. To me, the X-E1 is just the right size. Anyone who tried the X-Pro1 and found it a bit too big will be very happy now.
So that’s it, right? Same functions, same controls, same sensor, just smaller and cheaper. Yes…but….. While that might capture the physical differences, conceptually, the X-E1 seems like something much different than its close relatives. Despite its undeniably range-finder style form-factor, this is in truth a mirrorless system camera. And that’s not a bad thing. But it is a seminal difference.
Fuji X-E1, 35mm f1.4, 1/1000th @f5.6, ISO 200
A Rose By Any Other Name?
There are three basic ‘styles’ or types of cameras: SLRs, rangefinder-style and mirrorless. The first two are old analog forms, now variously adapted to the digital age. The latter is fully a child of the digital era: a lens, hooked to a sensor, leading to a miniature television placed wherever you want it (two miniature televisions actually – the LCD and the EVF).
The X100 and X-Pro1 were both rangefinder-style cameras, designed to capture the goodness of the rangefinder ethos and way of seeing while delivering state-of-the-art digital image quality and autofocus. To varying degrees, both succeeded. As an add on, both offered an EVF, presumably to be used in situations where the imperatives of accurate framing and visibility in low light made this a better solution than the OVF. Sure, some people like the EVF better most of the time, but that was not the design-brief on those cameras.
Now along comes the X-E1, and the EVF is the only game in town. Love or leave it. That’s what’s different. This camera no longer tries to be ‘rangefinder-style’ in anything but its body shaping. This is, in its DNA, a mirrloress system camera.
There are some undeniable pluses to this. Not the least of which is the imminent introduction of a brace of zoom lenses, which comprise the “system” part of the picture. As nice a camera as it may be for street shooting, an X100 will never be the only camera you own. The X-E1 easily could be. (The X-Pro1 could be as well, if you value the OVF, but if you will work mostly with the zooms, then why bother with the weight and cost of it?). Suddenly, a Fuji-only system become possible, and even makes sense unless you need to shoot sports.
The Whole OVF/EVF Thing
Regular readers will know that I ruffled a few feathers with my unflattering description of the experience of using the Sony A99’s EVF. I stand by that. I don’t prefer to use EVFs. However, as I said there, EVFs have their place when they bring advantages to the table. Such is very much the case with the X-E1. This is a small, light, discrete camera that, once the lens-line is filled-out as planned, will be able to do just about anything, with much less bulk than a DSLR but with competitive IQ.
While someone who is just in it for a light-and-easy mirrorless system, with limited enlargement demands, say up to 8x10 max, might be happier with the Nikon 1 cameras (which are a whole lot lighter and smaller than any of their competition and have smokin’fast autofocus), the image quality the X-E1 produces makes this a camera that many serious photographers could be quite happy with as the centre of their system.
Fuji X-E1, 35mm f1.4, 1/400th @ f4.5, ISO 200
Let’s get right to the point: the Fuji X-Trans sensor is superb. I sang its praises thoroughly here in the X-Pro1 review, as have many other serious photographers and reviewers. In my first round of testing, I found that, with the 35mm f1.4, the X-Pro1’s image quality was competitive to what came out of my Leica M9, save-for colour depth, on which the Leica trumps all other 35mm systems in my experience. We’re talking some pretty seriously high resolution. Most shooters simply won’t need more. If you doubt the X-system image quality is up to pro-standards, check out Zack Arias’ work, and that of my friend Roel. Both are serious guys who make their living with their cameras, love the X-Pro1, and use it for a variety of professional assignments.
The goodness of the Fuji’s IQ is thanks largely to the loss of the AA filter, coupled with well-designed lenses. While I expect IQ to diminish somewhat with the zoom lenses, that’s true for every system. The results should still be very, very good.
The high ISO performance is also still exceptional, really expanding the usability of the camera to virtually any light. Not much more to say on that front.
Ok, you heard it here first: the Fuji’s jpegs are really excellent. Seriously. I shoot nothing but RAW for anything other than family snapshots, but having seen some promising results with my longer test of the X-Pro1, and emboldedned by a number of friends who raved about the quality of jpegs, I decided give them a try on the X-E1. Since web-pegs are mostly a useless medium of comparison, you will have to take my word for this: the X-E1 (along with the X-Pro1) produces professional-grade jpegs.
The detail is nicely preserved, sharpening can be made spot-on, and, above all, the colours and white balance are almost always right. And it’s not just me. A good number of wedding professionals are using these cameras on jpeg mode, usually set to the Astia simulation for the most neutral skin tones, to shoot large numbers of photos which would otherwise be too time consuming to post-process.
I have also seen some terrific results from the X-Trans in black and white modes.
While jpegs are anathema to the landscape world, anyone who buys an X-E1 will undoubtedly end up using it for more casual uses where this proficiency will be highly valued.On the afternoon I spent wandering through autumn leafscapes with the X-E1, I experimented with the various film-simulation modes and rather enjoyed the jazzed-up Velvia experience. Fuji just gets colour.
Fuji X-E1. 35mm f1.4, 1/320th @f5, ISO 200
Fuji has been hard at work to address the handling issues raised by early adopters of the X-Pro1. Indeed, they are one of the more responsive camera companies around presently.
As an aside, I had a chance to meet a lot of the X-series development team at Fuji’s Photokina Press conference. They struck me as a young, keen, group of fun, photograph-lovers. Just my kind of people! The fun-factor of the cameras they make are a reflection of the human, rather than corporate, genesis of their products.
A series of firmware upgrades to both the X100 and X-Pro1 has significantly improved the AF and done away with aperture chattering. The already good Q menu system has also been tweeked. More firmware upgrades can be expected, as these guys are committed to making these cameras better. AF speed remains ‘ok’. The Nikon V1 and Olympus OM-D are faster, plain and simple. But does it really matter much? I’m not sure. When the Fuji locks-on, its dead-accurate. This is not a sports camera and never will be, but amongst mirrorless system cameras, only the Nikon can play in that sandlot. Will anyone really be annoyed or limited by the AF on teh X-E1? I doubt it.
As it is, the X-E1is proficient in the hand and anyone who likes this genre of camera will like the Fuji.
Two things remain about the X-E1 that irritate me. The first is huge but curable. Specifically, I speak of the absence of user-controllable minimum ISO settings in the auto-ISO mode. This renders auto-ISO mostly useless, because the minimum shutter speed is too slow (especially for a non-IS camera) and one generally doesn’t want the lens to go to wide-open before hiking the ISO, especially when higher ISO results are so good.
Fuji: FIX THIS NOW, PLEASE. These cameras are too good to have this silly flaw.
The other design shortcoming is a harder fix and relates to the placement of the AF button, at the back bottom left of the camera. One of the pleasures of working with an EVF is the ability to focus pretty much anywhere in the field of view. The catch is that to change the focus-point, one has to press the AF button. With the camera to one’s face, this is hard to do. I kept shoving my left thumb up my nose. In a perfect world, the ‘move the focus point’ function could be activated by pressing a button somewhere on the front of the camera with the left hand, while scrolling the focus-point with the four-way controller with the right. All while the camera remains at eye level.
I don’t have a ready fix for this, but it is the one design deficiency that really bothered me with the X-Pro1, and again with the X-E1. In truth, this is a case of one of the camera’s best features being less-than-ideally accessed rather than a ‘problem’ with the camera. But it’s worth mentioning since Fuji definitely tracks user feedback in its development.
A Growing Family of Glass
The Lens Lineup
Fuji will soon release a 14mm f2.8, which will provide a serious wide-angle option, along with the kit 18-55mm. After that, three more primes will follow: the long awaiting 23mm f1.4 (the 35mm equivalent which Fuji is probably worried will kill the X100, but won’t), a 56mm f1.4 portrait lens (which will be the lens of choice for wedding and portrait shooters if it as good as the 35mm) and a 27mm pancake.
The 23 /35 /56mm lenses would make a killer kit for an ex-Leica shooter, or those who just can’t afford Red Dot.
On the zoom side, the standard 18-55mm (27−84mm equivalent) will be joined by a 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 (83-300mm equivalent) and a 10-24mm f4 (15−36mm equivalent). Between them, these lenses will create a pretty complete system.
Notably, the three zooms will all have built-in image stabilization. This will cure the one major feature-deficit on the “X” series and really level the playing field with its competitors. This will be Fuji’s first foray into lens-based IS, as far as I know, so it will be interesting to see how they implement it. I’ve seen a prototype only for the 18-55mm, but the addition of OIS has not increased the size of the lens that much at all.
I will be keen to see whether these zooms perform up to the potential of the sensor. While it is unrealistic to expect that they will match the primes, which presently range from the very good to the superb, Fuji knows how to make glass. Stay tuned.
Of equal interest is the forthoming release of "X" series autofocus lenses from Zeiss, including a 12mm super-wide (18mm equivalent), 32mm f/1.8 (= 50mm) and 50mm f/2.8 macro (=75mm). Clearly, Fuji isn't the only company banking on the "X" series' success. With a sensor this good, it's not surprising that Zeiss decided to get in on the action, and availability of Zeiss leneses for the Fuji system only incresaes its appeal.
I like the Fuji X-series and, now that its entry point has come down to the approximately $1000 threshold, so will many more. Anyone in the market for a serious mirrorless system owes it to themselves to give the Fujis a good hard look.
The competition for this camera is the Olympus OM-D and the Panasonic GH-3. These are both also very well put together machines.Their lenses are also a step smaller. That is, however, a product of the smaller micro 4/3rds sensor. While the 3rd generation Pany/Olympus sensor is really good, it isn’t the equal of the Fuji.
[Note: I originally said that the Oly and Pany EVF was "superior". I still think the OM-D one is, but having played with the GH-3 yesterday, it appears they are not the same finder. In particular, I found the GH-3's EVF very directional. Unless my glasses and eyeball were dead-centre to the eye-piece, one side of the image looked curved and blurred. I've not experienced that with an EVF before. Since I just had a few minutes with a pre-production model, I would not draw any firm conclusions about this other than to say that potentil users simply have to try EVF cameras for themselves to know if they like the look and feel of any given model, irrespective of their specs on paper.]
So there you have it. A really serious mirrorless system camera from Fuji. While many will paint it as an ‘X-Pro1-lite’, it’s actually its whole own creature. Rather than being a step-down second camera for X-Pro1 owners, I think far more people will find their way into the Fuji system with the X-E1 as their primary tool. They will then perhaps add an X-Pro1 if they find they want to start move out of the mirrorless ethos and experiment with truly rangefinder-style work.
It’s very nice to see choices and diversity of equipment grow in the still-photography market, rather than just contract. Fuji is, undoubtedly, one of the most creative players in this field, and their offerings are getting ever richer. Good times.
Toronto, October 2012
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