Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55 Lens

Full Review: Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55 F2.8-4 O.I.S Zoom

Thank you for waiting patiently for my full review of the Fujifilm X-E1 with the 18-55 F2.8-4 zoom lens. I apologize for the long delay. I had a stack of notes and a (virtual) stack of pictures to go through and analyze, so it’s taken a bit of time to come up with this review. Instead of making you wait to the end to read my conclusion, let's start with my final thoughts...


1. solid build quality and well rounded system camera with great lenses and accessories.
2. a great design philosophy:  a ‘photographer’s camera’ much like a Leica M (but with autofocus!)
3. the best looking jpegs I’ve ever seen, and in-camera RAW conversion for control over jpeg output.
4. focus distance and depth of field scale on screen for real photographers!!
5. useful ‘film mode’ feature that gives subtle ‘feel’ to the jpegs...very film-like. Includes b&w film with colour filters!! How cool is that?
6. Best in class high iso performance. There’s no need to go below iso 1600, seriously!
7. different types of bracketing, other than the usual exposure type (white balance, film type, dynamic range)

Cons (aka ‘Wishlist’)

1. a dedicated white balance button please!!
2. a higher resolution and bigger rear screen (2.8” and 460,000 pixel is a bit too small to check for sharpness) with larger playback zoom to check for image sharpness.
3. confusing silent mode that turns off flash (I actually had to read the manual to figure this out!)
4. tends to over expose in daylight.
5. a wider kit lens please. 18-55 (or 27-84 equivalent) is ok, but 24 wide is the new 28. Look at Sony and Olympus. (F2.8 at the wide is nice though. Good job.)
6. EVF is sharp (2.36 million pixels) but lags with moving subjects, and gets worse as it gets dark.
7. focus is a bit slow, but it’s adequate in this style of camera. Still, a bit faster please!!

Continue with the rest of the review below...

Would I buy this camera?

First and foremost the question to ask is would I personally buy this camera? the answer is a most definite yes. Maybe not the lens (I'm not a fan of variable aperture zooms) but definitely the body and the beautiful line-up of prime lenses (4 of them now, and 3 more coming this year). Is this camera for everyone? A definite no. If you want a point and shoot camera and have it do everything for you, this isn't for you. How about for sports or any fast moving object, like kids or pets? Nope.

This camera feels like you’re shooting an old film camera. You have to think before you shoot. Chris Nicols from The Camera Store in Calgary calls it a ‘purist-feeling’ camera. There isn’t a mode dial with PSAM and different sports or portrait modes. It does have PSAM modes, but it’s via a combination of the shutter speed dial on the top, and an aperture ring on the lens, and that’s it. The “A” on either dial puts you in auto mode (P,A or S); but turn that shutter dial or aperture ring, and now you’re in either priority mode (A or S), or move both and you’re in full manual (M). It took me a while to get use to shooting in this old school style again (Leica M series cameras all work like this) but once you get use to it, it’s most rewarding.  There is one cheating dial, the exposure compensation, which is perfectly placed by your right thumb. It’s nice for making quick adjustments to the exposure, but allows you to quickly go back to the original setting once you're done.

So yes it take a bit of getting use to, but once you do get it, it’s faster and arguably more enjoyable than turning a mode dial, as you feel more in control of the process. Overall, a great handling camera via traditional control features. It makes you think before shooting, but rewards you with more control, a better understanding of what makes for a better exposed image, and more engaging while getting the shot.

 Accessing Key Features

Other than these 3 ways to control the exposure, most of the other features are all under the hood of the X-E1. I wish they had two dedicated buttons though: iso and white balance. There is a well placed function button on the top, and you can assign it a multitude of features, but only one at a time. I would recommend using it as your iso control. But what about white balance? It’s also a very common feature to access, and to find it you have to find it buried in the menu list. You can change it via the Q or quick access button, but it’s still a two step process. Also, via the Q menu, you can’t see how the white balance changes effect the image via the screen, which is important when you’re dealing with mixed or tricky lighting. To see live white balance changes, you have to go into it via the menu button and scroll through. A bit of a hassle...if the X-E1 can use a similar feature in the new X-F1, where the user can have a custom secondary setting of the main menu dial with on-screen overlay of the secondary function, I think this would really help in quicker access to key features. Also, since the buttons on the left side of the screen is so spaced out, there is room for a dedicated WB button. The Q button is a good start though, but needs a bit more refinement...nothing that a firmware update can’t fix right?

Amazing ISO Performance. Jpegs. RAW.

As for iso performance, I have not seen another camera make jpegs so clean, not even on a full frame camera.  So good in fact, I would recommend iso 1600 as your base iso, even on a bright sunny day. There’s no point going any lower. Plus in dynamic range 400% mode, you have to be iso 800 and above anyway, so I prefer gaining the extra dynamic range versus slower iso and slightly less grain. At night, iso 3200 is very nice still. It looks like my Sony DSLR shooting at iso 400!! The jpegs are a little soft out of camera, but you can increase the sharpness in camera if you wish.  I prefer it a bit soft so I can sharpen it later in CS5.

A very unique feature of the Fuji X series cameras is their in-house RAW conversion to jpegs. Why? You hate dealing with RAW files on your computer? Me too! But with in-camera RAW conversion, you get to decide the sharpness, the contrast, white balance, dynamic range, etc., instead of the camera doing it for you. Basically Fuji is allowing you to output your own custom jpegs to your own taste!! How cool is that?

There is a good reason why you should convert your own RAW files in-camera on the X-E1: Fuji’s unique  X-Trans sensor uses a non-standard demosaicing algorithm. What does this mean? Most RAW converter software, including Photoshop, can’t convert RAW files made with the Fuji X-Trans sensor (yet). Why would Fuji use such an unusual algorithm? It has to do with how the image is captured at the pixel level. Most sensors use the standardBayer color filter array pattern for capturing RGB light patterns. The problem with this standard pattern is that it needs an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor to avoid moirĂ©, but it also lowers the resolution as it blurs details. With the Fuji X-trans filter, it uses a random pattern for RGB, avoiding moirĂ© without using an anti-aliasing filter, making for a higher resolution image. Does it work? Clearly it does!! In fact, the only other main stream manufacturer that uses a non-Bayer color filter array is Leica, and they too have amazingly sharp and high resolution images. Leica has the same problem with RAW conversion support, but they’ve supplied each camera with their own custom built RAW conversion software. Good for Leica. Too bad for Fuji X-trans sensor shooters who love to play with RAW files on their computers...for now.

So if you’re a RAW shooter, be warned. You can shoot RAW and convert in-camera and still save the RAW file for later use. I’m sure that the major image software companies will eventually jump on board, and you can go back to your RAW files and convert it some time in the future. However, if you shoot mostly jpegs, then you’re in for a treat. The jpegs are so good, some websites are reporting almost no difference between Fuji’s jpegs and converted RAW files. That’s saying a lot.
However, as mentioned, there is an advantage to shooting RAW and then converting in-camera versus shooting straight jpegs. At the time of taking the image, you don’t have to decide on white balance, sharpness, contrast, dynamic range, etc. as you can choose later what you want to do, or create multiple images with different settings from the same RAW file, and all of this in-camera. Pretty cool.

Fujifilm has ‘Film’ in the name for a reason!

Another cool feature of the X-E1 and other X series cameras is the different film modes that you can use to give it a slight “look” or “feel” of classic Fuji films. Names like Provia, Astia, Velvia are household names for those of us who shoot or use to shoot film, and we get 7 other film modes to choose from. If you’re a black and white shooter, you’re in for a real treat with 5 different films, including 3 colour filter modes (green, yellow, red). An extra cool feature in the DRIVE mode is film bracketing, so you can choose 3 films and decide later which ‘film’ captured the image best, or bracket all 3 colour filters in black and white mode. I found this bracketing feature very useful and flexible, especially for those who like to shoot in black and white but don’t want to fiddle with screw-on colour filters. Also, unlike real film that must be shot at a specific iso (we all love Velvia, but iso 50 is a bit limiting) and a specific white balance (usually daylight balanced); in the digital realm we can shoot at a wide variety of iso’s and lighting situation (Velvia at iso 3200 under tungsten lighting!! Imagine that?!?!)

DOF and Distance Scale

I love real lenses with a distance and depth of field scale on the lens. If you don’t know how it works, you are definitely missing out, and it’s a shame that more and more lenses don’t have the built in distance scale and corresponding DOF scale (that’s because most zooms are varifocal and not parfocal lenses, so the focus changes when you zoom, thus you can’t have a scale showing distance because focus shifts when you zoom!!). That’s why Fuji’s on screen distance and DOF scale is the greatest invention I’ve seen on a digital camera in recent history!! I can’t imagine shooting without it now. As soon as you focus, especially in wide angle mode, the onscreen scale confirms the actual distance of the object in focus (you can change between metric or imperial), as well as the corresponding depth of field (what’s in focus in front and behind the focus point). As you change your aperture, you can see the bar scale increase or decrease, depending on the f-stop you choose, letting you know what is going to be in focus. This on screen scale is available for both the back LCD screen and inside the EVF. This is great for landscape photographers, portrait photographers (including figuring out your flash output) or manual focus street photographers who need to know their DOF accurately. In fact, I think it’s a great feature for any photographer, understanding the relationship between DOF and focal length of the lens and the distance of focus, and watching it change as you zoom in and out, and change focus distance and aperture. In fact, with this scale, who needs a DOF preview button?

Panorama Sweep Mode

I have to admit that I’m pretty late on the panorama sweep feature that’s built into more and more cameras. I thought it was a gimmick not worth playing with, but I thought I’d test it so I could report on it. Once I got the concept, I couldn’t stop using it!  Fuji gives two widths to work with (I prefer the medium sweep) and 4 different directions to sweep from. The vertical mode is the most interesting because with the 18-55 lens, I get 28mm wide on the vertical, and when I sweep, I get beyond fisheye horizontal. If you stand stationary in a tight space, as you sweep, you get the fisheye effect, since the sensor plane is stationary. However, if you sweep by physically moving, you get an entirely different looking image. I found this feature most interesting when I was shooting graffiti that was extremely wide.  I use to shoot wide and at odd angles, but never get the true feel of the entire 20-30 foot long piece of street art.  However, with the panorama sweep feature, I could finally capture what I could see. The more I played with this feature, the more addicted I got. It opened me up to an entirely different way of capturing images!! Thank you Fuji!! 

Click the image below and see what I mean...

Ergonomics and Feel

Does the X-E1 feel good in the hand? It depends. I think with the 18-55 zoom lens, the balance is a bit awkward. The camera-lens combo feels a bit front-heavy, even though the body is slightly heavier than the lens. When I went to my local camera shop and put on the 18mm and 35mm lens, I felt the camera-lens combo was more balanced. Walking around street shooting, I don’t like having a strap on the camera. But since the body lacks a grip, I found myself holding the camera by the lens and not the body. I think getting the optional hand grip from Fuji is a good idea for street shooters who don’t like using a strap.

The feel of the camera body itself is great though. The dials and buttons feel solid and responsive. Although the 2.8” 460K pixel rear LCD screen is adequate, I wish it was at least 3” and have more resolution. I found it difficult at times to check for sharpness of a detailed image, although perhaps that has more to do with the zoom ratio in playback mode than the size of the screen.  Also, the EVF is a cool feature, especially shooting in a bright or dark setting, but the lag was a bit distracting. If you’re shooting primarily static objects, then no problem. But if you’re shooting people or cars, and you’re using the EVF, it actually made me a bit dizzy using it due to the lag. This is where the cool hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder in the X-100 and the X-Pro 1 would really come in handy.

The best part of the body is the top. Everything is placed logically and ergonomically...it looks sexy (almost Leica-like) and I really enjoyed turning the camera on and off via the dial that surrounds the shutter button. The pop-up flash is just good enough for fill, and you can tilt up for bounce flash indoors, but that’s about it.  One weird feature is ‘Silent Mode’. It turns off all sounds, turns off the focus assist light, but it also turns off all flash control, either built in or attached to the hotshoe. At first, I thought the camera was broken, but after reading it in the manual (which I rarely do) I realized it was a feature of the camera. If you want flash on, but sounds and focus light turned off, you have to manually shut off in the menu while keeping silent mode off. That is a bit of an odd feature...

18-55mm F2.8-4 Zoom Lens

For a kit lens, the build quality was really nice...nice enough to sell even as a non-kit lens (most kit lenses are throw aways, often showing up on Craigslist BNIB). There was a bit of lens creep when you walked with the lens facing down, but the zoom action and focus ring was smooth and the aperture ring was nice and clicky.  Manual focusing was pretty good, but use the zoom feature when doing it, or you’re just guessing (unless you scale focusing).  The lens hood is reversible which is nice, but it covers over the manual focus ring. Perhaps a shorter metal type, like the one for the X-100 would be better, more for protecting the lens. The lens cap is the center pinch style and a bit hard to remove, especially with gloves on.  Maybe get an aftermarket one, for quicker and firmer removal.  Focusing on the lens itself, starting at F2.8 at wide angle, this is one of the fastest kit lenses out there, and probably adds to the weight of the all metal body. Overall, a solid, optically image-stabilized (up to 4 stops), well built zoom lens.

One thing I didn’t like on the zoom lens is the non-marked aperture ring. I understand that due to the variable aperture as you zoom, they didn’t want any markings on the ring; but for those of us who shot with older cameras, or those who shoot Pentax or Nikon zoom lenses with variable aperture, we understand how it works. When you’re at the widest aperture and then zoom out, we know it’s not at that specific aperture anymore. The screen and viewfinder confirms that for us. However, because there was no marking on the lens, I found myself always spinning the ring, making sure I was at the maximum aperture. If there was a clear marking for F2.8, I would leave it there, and no matter where I was in the zoom range, I would know I’m at maximum aperture. This is just my preference. I’m sure others prefer a non-marked ring...

Final Conclusion

I wrote this review with the conclusion at the beginning, so there really isn’t much to say now except that I really enjoyed shooting with the Fujifilm X-E1 and the 18-55mm zoom lens.  I would love to try it out in the field with the new 14mm f2.8 (21mm equiv) and especially want to try the panorama sweep feature again down graffiti alley.  I also look forward to the upcoming 23mm F1.4 (35mm), and the 10-24 F4 (15-36mm) OIS lenses in 2013.  I wish they had a prime equivalent 24mm lens, but I guess the 18mm (27mm) is just too close in focal length for Fuji to make it.

I had the camera for almost a month, and I noticed after, my shooting style changed. It was like learning how to drive a standard transmission car again. You have to think a bit more before shooting, instead of allowing the camera to do most of the work. It was easy to mess up the shot if you weren’t focused on shooting, so my mind was always on. Yes, there are things I wish this camera had and quirks I wish it didn’t have, but every camera and camera system has it’s pros and cons. I couldn’t get use to the EVF and the unmarked aperture ring, and the autofocus was just slightly too slow for my taste (although there's a recent firmware update that's suppose to make things a lot faster). 

However, I love the sensor, I love the high resolution jpegs and in-camera RAW converter, and I am completely sold on the on-screen distance and DOF scale. I don’t shoot nature very often, so I didn’t care so much about the electronic level, except for when I did the sweep panorama. In general, buildings and structures are rarely exactly level, and shooting at odd angles, it doesn’t matter what true level is.

One problem I did find with the camera's exposure is that it tended to overexpose about 1.5 stops in daylight. At first I thought it was inaccurate LCD brightness, which I increased 2 stops, which helped a bit. But in very simple lighting situations in aperture priority mode, it was consistently over exposing. It's not the end of the world, and something easily fixed in a firmware update, but something to be mindful of when shooting. I prefer to shoot 1/2 stop under as a general rule, so over exposing 1.5 on average was a bit irritating.

If you noticed, no video review. I don’t shoot video. The specs are good: 1080, lens with manual zoom and built in image stabilization, external mic input. However, there’s no manual exposure control. What’s the point then? Anyway, I’m sure most people looking at this camera aren’t interested in video. It’s not really a video type camera anyway...it appears to be a thrown in feature, although manual control could always be updated via firmware, so who knows...

I can’t compare the XE-1 with the X-Pro 1, the Sony NEX 6 or 7, or the super popular Olympus OMD, because I haven’t fully tested any of these other cameras. I will test them in upcoming reviews, but for now I can say that I highly recommend the X-E1 to anyone who enjoys (or enjoyed) shooting film, and who enjoy shooting slow and deliberate photography. I wouldn’t recommend this to those who want to get great shots of children or anything fast moving, as the autofocus is not up to speed, and there’s too much lag in the EVF. But for walking around town and shooting non-fast-moving or static people and buildings and alleys, I had great fun with this camera. It’s compact and light (compared to my Sony A700 and my 35mm F1.4 lens) and I felt comfortable shooting all afternoon with it.

Thank you Fujifilm Canada for letting me test this wonderful camera, and I look forward to testing more of your X-series line-up of cameras, specifically the new X-F1, X-20, X-100s and the X-Pro 1 in the near future...

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