My New Toy, The Fuji X-E1 – First Impressions

Posted by: In: Camera Equipment, Hardware 23 Apr 2013 Comments: 1 Tags: , ,
See the Fuji X-E1 on Amazon

Fuji X-E1 in black with the kit zoom

So as you may have guessed from my buying second hand gear post, I’ve sold off all my DSLR Equipment and bought into the Fuji X System. It was a tough decision, but I’m not getting any younger and the weight of a magnesium alloy body and either the 24-105 or the 70-200L were just too much. I’d done a lot of reading here, here and here and read the reviews here and here (link overload!!) as well as many others and the glowing review of the X Trans sensor and the new lenses really sold me on the Fuji system. Oh – and the cameras look gorgeous!!

X-E1 vs X-Pro 1

This is a tough decision. The X-Pro 1 is a bigger and heavier camera (all-metal). It feels more substantial in your hands. It has the (hybrid) optical viewfinder (OVF) as well as an (EVF) electronic (the X-E1 is purely electronic but reviews state it’s “better” than the X-Pro 1). It has a slightly larger LCD than the X-E1 and it has a PC Sync port as well as a locking shutter speed dial. Downside – it costs 67% more than the X-E1. I tried both in the shop and really couldn’t justify the price difference. If you’re in the same dilemma, and used to OVF with a DSLR for example, I strongly suggest you try both before committing. The X-E1+18-55 kit deal makes this price difference even wider. I went the “try-before-you-buy” route, preferring to pay a bit more for the customer service and physical handling of the camera rather than going the internet route. God help me – I’m English and it would just be plain rude to try the camera, leave the shop, then buy from someone cheaper. As it happens, Chester Camera Solutions price-matched the 35mm against Amazon and WEX prices. Their X-E1 kit was only £50 more than the cheapest online option, so I didn’t end up paying that much extra in the end. For me, I preferred the physical customer service and the guys in Chester are wonderfully helpful!

Hardware

So I walked away with the X-E1 body and the kit 18-55 lens as well as the 35mm f1.4 and the 14mm f2.8. If I hadn’t promised to shoot my daughters prom in May, I may well have taken the X-Pro 1, the 35mm f1.4 and the 14mm f2.8 and plumped for the cashback deal but the versatility of the kit zoom tipped me over the edge.

The Camera

The look of the X-E1 is simply gorgeous. It’s truly a beautiful camera and I actually care about it, unlike my feelings for my bulky plain 50D. It’s got proper nobs for Aperture and Shutter Speed (though the lack of Aperture markings on the kit zoom is a bit of a let-down). The instruction book is..well.. an instruction book. It helps when you’re looking for stuff in the menu, but to be perfectly honest, the menu structure is far more user friendly than my 50D was.

The camera feels solid in my hands, if a little small. But downsizing was one of the reasons I switched to this, so complaining about the size seems ridiculous. Having used the camera for a while, I have got used to it, although I think I’ll benefit from a grip just for a bit more stability. Button access is great, but I’ve noticed one problem straight away. I was very used to having aperture and shutter speed at my thumb-tip on the 50D, and if you’re in full manual mode on the X-E1, you need to look at the camera top down to change the settings. This changes my shooting style and slows me right down – which is a good thing. I have found a few ways around this to speed things up though and I’ll discuss those in “thoughts from a manual user” below.

The X-E1 Lenses

35mm f1.4

Link to Amazon for the 35mm

Fuji 35mm f1.4 lens with hood

The lenses are beautifully crafted as you’d expect and the 35mm f1.4 is perfectly sized for the camera but I miss the focus distance scale. However, if you’re not a zone shooter, I doubt this will bother you. The added benefit of an on-screen distance meter is handy to replace that though. The lens hood is good quality and looks quite spiffy. Looks aren’t everything though, as the hood won’t reverse and slip onto the lens for storage. It’s a bit annoying because the lens cap is difficult to add/remove with the hood on, so you’ll find yourself removing and adding the hood quite a bit. Quality wise the lens is amazing. I rarely shot wide open on my Canon 50mm f1.4 mainly because focus was so hard to hit, but the AF on this camera with this lens seems lovely. It doesn’t matter to me, because I love hearing the shutter “snick” without the mirror slap so I take a few in case I missed my focus. I’m shooting far more at f1.4 than I thought I would because the images produced are so beautiful. Some people have stated that the AF on the 35 is slow. As an amateur user, I haven’t noticed this to be honest, but if this is a potential issue for you – I’d suggest further reading.

18-55mm f2.8-4

The kit zoom has a few issues and really the only thing going for it (hardware wise) is the versatility of the zoom. I much prefer the 35mm for standard work and am happy to use my feet. Here’s why. First, as mentioned above, the aperture ring has no markings. You have to use the screen to determine what your aperture is. Also, it’s dead easy to knock while you’re turning the zoom ring which is yet another pain. It’s a diminutive lens, and if you’ve got a reversed lens hood on there, you need nimble fingers to operate the zoom without operating the aperture by accident. I’m sure I’ll get used to it with time, but the lack of markings on the barrel is not fun. Maybe it is designed for people who don’t care about apertures and just want to point and shoot, in which case it’s a decent lens because you can turn everything to auto and let the camera decide.

14mm f2.8

Yum yum. This is my landscape lens and like the other lenses in the range, it looks lovely. One minor user issue was not realising that the focussing ring locks (and ships in the locked position!) so if you’re not used to it (like me) you may find yourself thinking you have a broken lens. Slide the focusing ring back towards the camera body and you’re rewarded with a physical focussing scale. This is a wide angle lens (21mm equivalent) with a relatively small filter diameter of 58mm. It’s quite bulky compared to the 18mm lens in the same range, but that manual focus scale, and manual focus lock are well worth the extra pennies (as well as the extra 4mm). As a landscape photographer, I can set my focus distance to 6 feet, and lock the lens. At f8, I know that everything I point the lens at will be sharp from about 3.5 feet to infinity. Job done.

Image Quality

I came from a 50D which, to be brutally honest, wasn’t that great in low light. I can say that now because the X-E1 is astounding compared to the SLR. Shooting at ISOs over 1000 is “normal” and with the 35mm f1.4 lens, you can shoot in near pitch black with amazing quality. The bokeh on the 1.4 is also beautiful. Lovely soft out of focus areas and pin sharp quality on the resulting images really makes me smile. And that’s good enough for me. I’m not a pixel peeper and am not going to sit and compare RAW images side by side to the 50D.

JPEG vs RAW

I’d read that in-camera jpegs were pretty decent so I broke the habit of a lifetime and started shooting jpegs rather than RAW. It’a  good job really, because at the time of writing, non Fuji treatment of RAW files was getting some pretty awful reviews. Also, I have Lightroom 3.6 at the time of writing, and there is no support (I can find) for the X-E1 RAW files. Shooting in RAW has been my one photographic rule since I started with digital photography, and changing this attitude has once again proved to be a freeing experience. It’s much more like my film experience. Shoot and live with the results. This is all down to personal preference though and so I won’t blather on about this further.

Starting Settings

xe1 shootingmenuxe1 playbackOut of the box and charged up, there were a few changes to make initially. There are two main menu structures in the X-E1. The first is when you’re in “shooting” mode, and the second is when you’re reviewing your images (Playback mode). Both allow access to three “generic” settings menus (the blue ones with the spanner icon). You can pretty much easily get to any setting on the camera very quickly. Some settings are greyed out when they’re not applicable. Image stabilisation for example can’t be controlled without an IS lens on the camera.

  1. I started by disabling the sound (Spanner-1, Silent Mode “on”) but that made it so the flash stopped working. Instead, I went to Operation Volume (spanner-2) and turned the volume down to zero. It had the same effect but my flash now works.
  2. Then I updated the firmware! Fuji firmware applies to both lenses and bodies, so I had three updates to do. One for the body and one each for the lenses. (Link to the Fuji firmware update site)

Third, I went to Camera-3 and went into the Disp. Custom Setting menu. This allowed me to turn off a lot of distracting information in the display. In the interest of removing more distractions, I went into camera-2 and turned Image Disp. off which removed the image preview after each shot.

The rest of my settings were specific to shooting in semi-manual mode.

Thoughts from a Manual User

I shot in Manual on my 50D with shutter speed on the top wheel and aperture on the back wheel. ISO was set (often) prior to shooting. Total control without an eye leaving the viewfinder. I also shot back-button focussing.

Moving to the X-E1 was a real change! However after a lot of internet reading and playing about, I think I’ve found my ideal setup. Sharing here really to help others in a similar situation, but beware that this is not a “standard settings” instructional post – this is what works best for me (so far!)

Aperture is set via the focus ring on the lens (manual). I like to have total control over depth of field.

Shutter speed set to “A”. I was concerned about this because it meant losing control, however, setting the shutter speed manually meant losing the Exposure Compensation wheel (it does nothing in full manual mode). Turning the shutter speed wheel with your eye in the viewfinder is also very clumsy. There is minor control on the back of the camera (3×1/3 stop’s worth of shutter speed in either direction) but if you’re moving from high to low lit scenes (bright sun to shade) quickly, or if you’re just lazy, it can be a pain to change settings.

Setting the shutter speed to “A” may sound less purist, but it does allow use of the exposure compensation wheel with your thumb (+/- 2 stops) for better fine control.

ISO set to AUTO6400. Not having this feature on my DSLR, (or I never found it!) I didn’t know what this did. Apparently, the AUTO bit means that the ISO auto adjusts to expose for your scene. If you imagine the “correctly exposed scene” as a set of scales with three weights. ISO, Aperture & Shutter speed. The camera sets Aperture according to what you’ve got on the barrel. It sets the shutter speed to at least the value you’ve got on the shutter speed dial, and the ISO is then set to “balance” the exposure. As an example: I have Aperture f11, Shutter speed 1/125 and AUTO6400 ISO. Point at a sunny scene and the ISO auto sets to 200. Point at a very dark scene and it leaps to ISO 4000. If the shutter speed is set to “A”, then the camera seems to shoot at the lowest shutter speed it thinks is ok in order to keep the ISO down and seems to roughly correspond to the reciprocal of the 35mm equivalent focal distance (so the 35mm lens seems to allow a minimum shutter speed of 1/52sec before raising the ISO)

The problem with this very nifty feature is that the AUTO ISO is set when you half press the shutter (for focus). So if you focus on something dark, your exposure is locked to that too. The only way around this is to set the AE-L/AE-F button to “AE-L” only and make it an on/off switch (AE Lock mode to “S”). So now you can point at your metering point, press the AE-L/AF-L button to lock exposure, recompose, half press the shutter to focus on your subject, then recompose again (if necessary) and shoot. It sounds like a pain but I’ve got used to it quite quickly.

The last thing that’s mystifying me at the moment, is how (and why!) when I set the lens to Manual focus (the 35 1.4) I can use the AE-L/AF-L button to auto-focus! This is back button focus effectively, but my metering method is now broken. Something I clearly need to play with a bit more as I can’t find a way to have AE lock in Manual focus mode.

X-E1 Summary

Shooting with the X-E1 has actually slowed me down with my landscape shooting. With my 50D it was very easy to meter for the grass, focus at 2-3m, recompose then shoot. Not having this as easy on the X-E1 slows me right down and makes me think about my composition. This is really helpful and more often than not, I end up at home with 1 or 2 shots of a scene rather than 10. And those 1 or 2 are far superior. General shooting (portraits etc) is obviously vastly quicker as I can lock exposure, choose the aperture I want and let the camera take care of the shutter speed. It does have a tendancy on AUTO ISO to try and keep the ISO down resulting in lower shutter speeds, but setting the shutter speed on the camera (for example) to 1/125 prevents the shutter speed from falling below that. You do lose AE-Lock though and therefore need to meter for your shutter speed.

It is wonderful having a portable camera again. And I love the design. I’m very much looking forward to the pancake 27mm for ultimate portability and the 23mm f1.4 for that true 35mm feel. I do miss my 24mm prime for my Canon.

Moving down from several kg of kit to less weight than a mug of coffee, I’ve truly noticed the difference. There has also been an upward movement in quality of images, although I have to say – I’m still the same photographer as I always was. The X-E1 won’t make you a better photographer, but it will make you feel like one 🙂

Update (September 2013) : I’ve recently written a new post about my thoughts after six months. You can read it here.

Further Reading

If you want to read more about the Fuji X system and/or find out more specifically about this camera and its foibles as well as keep up on recent firmware upgrades, you could try…

Fuji X Series forums

Fuji X Forum

Free Fuji X-E1 Photographers Guidebook 

Fuji X-E1 Flickr Group

 

My 1st Fuji-X Gallery

Ian.

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