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X-E1 Review: Canon and Nikon Should Be Scared

As many of you may know (and for those of you that don't), I recently was in the market for a smaller camera to carry around with me everywhere. Don't get me wrong, my 6D was a phenomenal camera to have with me 24/7, but why bring a rocket launcher into a paintball fight? Yeah, I could get the shot, but it really wasn't worth carrying around that much weight (and value) all the time.

Originally, I was looking at an advanced compact camera, preferably with a prime lens and shutter speed and aperture dials. Unfortunately, the only cameras I kept coming back to were the Sigma DPx Merrill's, the Sony RX100, the Fuji X100, and the Fuji X20. The DPx's were out of my price range, as was the X100 (even used; they hold their value pretty well). So between the RX100 and the Fuji X20, I was looking at too small of a sensor for my liking. I've never shot anything seriously with anything smaller than an APS-C, and I didn't intend on joining the ranks of people who had lenses on their cameras in the range of 10-35mm because of how small the sensor was.

I'd have loved to have gotten a Sony RX1(R), but for that kind of money, I would have been swaying towards the "just save some more and get the Leica you've always wanted". This is when I figured out that for around the price range I was looking at, I could probably get a nice mirrorless camera and a small prime, then call it a day.


Enter the camera I really wanted. Scratch that. Enter the camera I REALLY WANT. Epson made a digital rangefinder in limited production called the R-D1. Mid-production, they did a firmware update, and the remaining cameras in that run were branded as R-D1s's. After the run was over, they took a few years and did a second run, the R-D1x and R-D1G, which simply increased the size of the LCD. 6MP, fully manual. When I say fully, I mean, it literally still has a film advance lever that you must use to cock the shutter after an exposure. Finally! My dream camera (a digital version of a film camera) was in my sights. It's still an option in the future, but the R-D1 is running about $900-$1,200 used, and they're becoming harder to find. Not to mention, I'd have to have gotten a couple Leica lenses to fit the 39mm screw-mount.

After much searching and researching, enter the Fujifilm X-E1:

I found a deal on Craigslist, from a guy who was selling an X-E1 with extra battery, original packaging, and 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R OIS LM kit lens for $600. I talked him down to $550, then took the long drive North, past Chicago, at 8:00PM on a Sunday night. Since it was already so late, I didn't get to play with it much, but it was in awesome condition, and I got a deal on it, so it was definitely worth it. The next day (or the day after, I can't remember), I found somebody else on Craigslist who was willing to trade an XF 35mm f/1.4 R, XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro, and Samyang 16mm f/2 + cash for my old 1D Mark II N and 80-200mm f/2.8L. That's when I started to fall in love with the Fuji. Not to knock the kit lens, the picture below is with it, no editing, straight out of camera, but the Fuji primes blow it away.


So, since this is a review, I should probably get into the whole "reviewing" thing and stop babbling about how I came to be in possession of this beautiful piece of photographic machinery.

Before shooting with the Fuji, I've had a long line of Canon DSLRs and SLRs. Starting with a T2i (550D), I got a 6D, and a 1D Mark II N, as well as my dad's old EOS 650 (Canon's first EF mount SLR) and AE-1. I love shooting with the AE-1. It's a joy. The simple, tactile response from tweaking a setting, or hitting the shutter is completely overshadowed by the feeling I get when I know I got the shot while advancing to the next frame with the film advance lever. It's a very satisfying experience, and it makes me THINK about what I'm going to shoot instead of finding something, getting the composition "good enough", then firing away. I don't get as much satisfaction from the much more electronic EOS 650, or any of my DSLRs, for that matter.


The reason I bring this up is because the X-E1 is much like that old AE-1. Compared to the AE-1, the X-E1 is slimmer, shorter, and thinner (less wide) than the AE-1, but only by a bit. It gives the camera a nice, small form factor that isn't so small that I need to be careful of handling it with my larger hands. Without the viewfinder prism, the X-E1 also takes on a more rangefinder look, though it lacks the fancy hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder of the X100/X100S/X-Pro1. I don't mind the electronic viewfinder, though. Even though I've been trained on optical viewfinders, I find the EVF on the X-E1 to be quite adequate. Yes, it lags a tiny bit, especially in the dark, but it's rather responsive, bright, and easy to use after getting over the first couple bouts of EVF-induced dizziness.

I quickly bought a cheap thumb grip, which slides into the hotshoe, and soft shutter release button, which screws into the shutter button. The thumb grip is nice, and definitely helps with holding the camera, but the soft shutter button is a must for anyone who gets this camera. Before the soft shutter, I would find it difficult to differentiate between a half-press and full press of the shutter, and now it's as easy as... I can't think of any metaphors that don't involve adult themes, so just take my word that it's awesome.


As far as controls, there's a shutter speed dial, along with an exposure compensation dial, sharing the space of the shutter button up top. On the lens, there's an aperture ring (which is awesome, by the way). Shutter speed can be selected in full stops, then tweaked 2/3 of a stop in either direction, in 1/3 stop intervals, using the left and right buttons on the directional pad. I don't usually change shutter speed off of full-stops with this camera. I typically just set a shutter speed that is a stop slower than what I need for the lighting, then adjust exposure using the aperture ring.

The buttons that adorn the X-E1's body are fairly customizable. For example, I set up the down directional pad button to bring up the ISO menu, and the function button, next to the shutter button, to select film-simulation style. You can even change the direction of the manual focus ring in the menus, since the Fuji lenses (at least the ones I have) focus by wire.


Speaking of manual focus, the focusing mode is selected by a rotary style switch on the front of the camera, making it easy to adjust on the fly.

Finally, there's a "command dial", which is a horizontally placed electronic dial, that also pushed inward, which doesn't command much attention, especially when you consider its title. Only thing I've used it for is adjusting settings when in the "Q" menu and zooming in for focus peaking with manual focus lenses. Other than that, it's not very important to me.


All in all, the dials give that tactile feel of using an old film camera, all in a package that begs people to ask if you're using a film camera.


Now that I've gone over the controls, it's time for the meat and potatoes: Image quality.

The picture of the AE-1, above, was taken with the XF 35mm f/1.4 R, mated to the X-E1, at f/2.8. It was taken in JPEG, ISO 800, at 1/500 of a second. I haven't edited it at all; it's straight out of the camera.


The X-E1 offers amazing JPEGs. I only shoot raw on my 6D and T2i (and on my 1DIIN, when I had it), but I feel no inclination to use raw on the Fuji. The X-E1 offers me more flexibility with JPEGs than I've seen from any other camera. For instance, I can not only select the film simulation style, from Provia, Astia, the overly saturated at times Velvia, and more, but I can also tweak the highlights and shadows. For my pictures, I found that setting the shadows to -2 (the lowest possible, which actually lightens the shadows), and placing the highlights on -1, I get a lot more *perceived* dynamic range. Note that this isn't actual dynamic range, but it allows me to lower the amount of contrast between the highs and lows of a scene so that I don't have to do it in post processing.

Speaking of dynamic range... The Fuji offers a dynamic range setting, which allows the selection of 100%, 200%, or 400%. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the technicalities of how it works, but it's actually quite cool. If you've got an ISO of 400 or more, you can use DR 200%. At ISO 800 or more, you can use DR 400%. If you use DR 100%, the picture is taken at the base ISO that is specified. That is, with ISO 800, DR 100%, the picture is taken at ISO 800. With ISO 800, DR 400%, though, the camera seems to use the higher ISO of 800 on the shadows, but a lower ISO of 400 or 200 on the midtones and highlights. All of this is quite confusing, and it gets even more confusing if you start looking into "ISOless" sensors. The X-E1 apparently has one, as do many cameras.


Don't dig too deep into learning about ISOless sensors, or you might run into the mind-exploding fact that ISO values indicated by manufacturers are completely arbitrary, unless talking about lossless, sRGB color space files. This means ISO in RAW is a completely made up number that doesn't mean jack diddly when comparing cameras. Actually, that lends to discredit some of DxOMark's sensor ratings, which include indicated vs. actual ISO, since they also state they only look at the RAW sensor's performance. OFF THE TANGENT AND BACK ON TRACK!

The X-Trans sensor in the Fuji X-E1 is in reference to the color filter array that is placed over the individual pixels. Most CMOS sensors in modern cameras utilize a Bayer array. Fuji uses a different array pattern, moving the respective red, green, and blue filters around. Whether this is better or worse is beyond my analytical skills, but I can say that it makes the sensor a pain in the ass of any RAW converter programmer, since they can't use the same algorithms that they've used for years on Bayer array-adorned sensors. Fuji also neglected to place an anti-aliasing filter over the sensor, which we've seen other brands playing around with in recent years, which lends to the camera's detail resolution ability.


Since I've sort of hit you all with a wall of text and not very many pictures (since I'm lazy when it comes to actually posting up the pictures I take), I'll go ahead and wrap this up.

Canon, Nikon, Sony, whatever brand you shoot, they should be scared of what Fuji is doing. They're hitting the market with stylish, small, usable cameras that pack a mighty punch. I groan at the thought of carrying around my 6D, and I don't care how creamy the bokeh of the 85/1.2L is, the whole package is HEAVY. My X-E1 makes me feel like I could walk around all day with it, even if I have to carry a couple extra batteries because of the 300ish shot rated battery life.


The pictures the tiny Fuji produces are on par with my DSLRs. The optics that Fuji is offering, even in their "kit" lens, are great. There's no doubt in my mind that Fuji might actually take over my gear list. Disregarding size, if I wanted to get the kind of photos that I get from the Fuji from one of my Canons, I'd have to shoot in raw and spend time in post-processing, which isn't fun at all.

All of these reasons combined make it so that the Fuji makes me want to actually go out and shoot. It's not about the size. It's not about the prestige of the lenses that you use. The Fuji is about getting out there and shooting. It's about the feeling of setting up a shot, being able to move real dials to tweak your settings, and mostly, it's about the feeling when taking the fantastic photos you take. What Fuji is doing is listening to their customers. They're producing products that appeal to the masses as well as the enthusiasts. Most of all, they're doing it right.


I'm actually excited to see what comes out of Fuji's camp next, whereas with most other companies, you can almost bet that they're going to keep on doing what they're doing. Fuji isn't just putting out iteration after iteration of the same camera. The closest they've come to doing that is between the X100/X-E1 and the X100s/X-E2, which, even between those two, they changed from contrast detection auto focus to contrast/on-sensor phase detection hybrid auto focus. They don't leave their customers in the dark after they've released a product. For example, they've added features to cameras through firmware updates, such as with the X-E1 and focus peaking. Fuji is a great breath of fresh air in the world of digital cameras.

When Nikon came out with the Df, they marketed it as "Pure Photography". The Df ended up becoming a pure marketing success with a pure failure in terms of ergonomics. Instead of just slapping a sensor in a new body, marketing the crap out of it, and hoping it sticks, it feels like Fuji is actually putting effort into their cameras. This doesn't just slight Nikon, who simply slapped a D4 sensor in the Df and thought it'd be enough to sway the masses, but also to Canon, who recently had a meeting that I'm 99% sure went something like this:

"Ok, guys, we need to think about what we should do for the 5D Mark III"

"Oh, I've got an idea! Let's just throw the 1DX's AF system in it!"

"That's a great idea, Johnny. People do complain about the 5D Mark II's AF system"

"Oh! Let's bump up the resolution, while we're at it!"

"Yeah, that's a genius idea. Bitches love megapixels!"

Wow, I talk about talking too much, then talk some more. I guess if you only read one part from this entire review/rant, read this:

If you haven't tried one of Fuji's mirrorless X-Trans cameras yet, do it. Try it for a little bit and see if you like it. I for one, love the style of shooting that has been defined by the previous generations of 35mm film cameras, and the Fuji X Series cameras do that well. I'm really excited to get my hands on an X-T1 to see if their upgraded sensors and processors have really made a significant difference, but even if they haven't, it doesn't mean that Fuji doesn't produce great cameras that take great photos (given the right person behind the camera), it just makes me a hypocrite for last couple paragraphs that I wrote above.


Oh, for the record (I forgot to add this part in at the top), I tried out the Sony NEX line of MILCs, and I absolutely can't get around their menus or form factors. That's all.

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