Fuji X-E1 Review

I have been using the Fuji X-E1 since the official release date of the camera on the 17th of November. Rather than showing you performance charts or trying to convince you that this camera is the best in the world just because I love it, I will first give you the context in which I decided to buy an X-E1: what other cameras I am/have been using, what i was looking for exactly in a new camera, what other brands/models I did consider, and why I ended up choosing the Fuji in the end. In my opinion, these are an important part of any review, because what matters for me might not be what matters for YOU. All cameras come with pros and cons, so you need to be aware of the trade-offs that come with each model, in order to make the best investment decision for YOU.

For the past few years now, I have mainly been shooting with Nikon DSLRs:
– a full-frame as my main body (currently a D800 and previously a D700), either with the 16-35 f4 and the 70-200 f2.8, or sometimes with a 50 f1.4 for low light shooting
– a smaller body (D90) easier to carry around, for example for lazy holidays (as opposed to holidays that you take only because you want to take a specific shot and you plan everything for that sole purpose), usually with the 18-200 DX, lightweight general purpose lens perfect to take with you on a trip.

I mainly take pictures during 1-2 week travels or week-end trips. I tend to take a little bit of everything, landscapes, cityscapes, portraits or even sport photographies. I usually travel via public transportations and cover a lot of distance by feet on a daily basis (I don’t own a car, and as a not-so-experienced driver I rarely adventure myself to rent a car – it’s safer for everyone). This obviously means carrying around a bag full of gear, with typically the D800 with the 16-35 and 70-200 zooms, a fast prime for low light situations, plus a tripod and a bunch of accessories (spare battery, filters, etc…). If you are the same as me, you know that at some point your back says STOP. You can’t go on carrying that much weigh on your back, and finding the lightest system becomes your priority. Obviously we care about our images, and we don’t want to sacrifice on the image quality just for the size factor. With that in mind, I had been watching carefully the mirrorless cameras getting better every year, and decided that it was finally time to get a replacement for my trustworthy D90.

I ended up considering 3 different cameras in a similar price range: the Sony NEX7, the Olympus OMD E-M5 and finally the Fuji X-E1 after it was announced this year. I never owned the first 2 and never will, so please understand that my thoughts on those 2 cameras come from personal documentation from all possible sources (magazines, blogs, Youtube video reviews and so on…) but also from literally dozens of hands-on experiences in several camera stores in Tokyo (the good thing in Japan with camera stores is that all the cameras are available for you to touch and test without even having to ask for permission – you can even bring your own memory card if you want to go back home and compare files…). Even though I was already holding a lot of Nikon gear, I never considered the Nikon 1 system as an option despite of its outstanding focus performances, as I got disappointed by the point-and-shoot orientation with shooting modes buried deep down a clumsy menu

Sony NEX7: this was the first mirrorless camera I considered buying, as for a first time it looked like a manufacturer had decided to deliver a product oriented for more advanced user, with a promising “Tri-Navi” interface and a top-notch electronic viewfinder (EVF). Needless to say, my painful back and I were highly excited when that camera was announced, despite of what I would call a pragmatic look rather than an inspiring design. Sadly, once I could finally grab a test model in my hands, it was far from love at first sight. My first and immediate complaint was about the 2 dial-commands on the top of the camera that feel too loose (no nice click) to really know what you are doing without looking at the rear-screen, on which you can notice a slight lag between your action on the wheel and the change in the settings. For me (again, just personal taste, don’t get offended if you own a NEX7 and love it), it just did not feel right. The other thing that I did not enjoy was that, because of some complicated menus and sub-menus (though I understand all the buttons are customizable to reduce the time you have to spend in the menus), the menus are actually taking a decent amount of space on the rear-screen, de facto limiting the usable space of what is otherwise a large and nice-looking screen. Finally, high ISO performances lower than my expectations (as I said, I was really excited by this camera when it was announced, so my expectations were high) finished to convince me to hold on and wait for other camera releases.

Olympus OMD E-M5: the NEX7 and X-E1 both use an APS-C size sensor, while the E-M5 is a micro 4/3 camera. As with everything, this comes with pros and cons. In my opinion, Olympus and Panasonic have tremendously improved the micro 4/3 technology, to the point that their image quality is on par with many camera with APS-C sensors. Meanwhile, the choice of lenses dedicated to this format kept growing over the past years, while manufacturers such as Sony, Fuji, Nikon or Canon still need to develop much further their offer in lenses for their respective mirrorless mounts. However, image quality for high ISOs was somewhat of an issue, though the E-M5 is a clear improvement in the area compared to older models (I never owned any micro 4/3 before, this is simply my belief forged after documenting myself and taking test shots in stores… if you have more insight on this, feel free to add it in the comments section of the post!). The E-M5 has some very nice features that the X-E1 does not have, and it was not easy to decide on which one to go for:
– Crazy fast autofocus: very impressive, much faster than the X-E1!
Built-in Image Stabilisation “5-axis”: will enable you to use lower ISO to shoot handheld with any lens, also helps a lot to make videos that don’t make viewers sea-sick (by the way, if the video side of things is important for you, the X-E1 is not aimed at you)
Weather sealing: not something you often find on this form factor, kudos Olympus

So why the Fuji X-E1 then?
– This might sound crazy to a lot of people, but one of the first reasons why I ended up choosing the X-E1 is because that camera just looks beautiful. It smells like photography, It’s like it’s calling you to take it with you and go shoot something! Whether ugly tools are as good as nice looking ones to craft beautiful art is a tough question, I’ll leave it up to you 😉 All I know is that the form of this camera is almost inspiring.
– I love the dedicated dials to set the shutter speed and exposure compensation, and the aperture settings directly on the lenses. From the moment you take the camera in your hand, you know exactly what to expect. Instead of thinking of the settings you used for your last shot and how to amend them for the next one, the commands are already right there at the tip of your fingers. Free your mind of the unnecessary and enjoy having all your mind focused on the picture you are creating!
– The image quality at high ISO is just stunning, well ahead of all its competitors in this form factor (check out this video)
– The “Q menu” is an interface that enables you to quickly change key settings (white balance, RAW or JPEG, strength of the colors and sharpening for JPEG output, etc…), much more intuitive and easy to access than a clumsy menu
– The so-called “film simulations” produce JPEGs with great colors and details. Velvia for landscapes and Astia are my 2 favorites
– The X-E1 has a pop-up flash for when you need some fill light. You can also use it as a commander to trigger a remote flash

What are the weakness of this camera?
– The most obvious glitch is the autofocus. Obviously in broad daylight there isn’t any problem, but in low light the camera will struggle quite a lot. This is not such an issue with the new 18-55 kit lens, that seems to have normal performances in this area (as opposed to the outstanding autofocus of the E-M5), but the 35mm f1.4 prime hunts a lot without necessary being successful. This is with the latest version of the lens firmware, and Fuji definitely needs to work on this if it does not want to scare a broad number of enthusiasts away from its products
– The post-processing of RAW files in Lightroom feels like somehow it i not delivering the full power from the RAW files of the X-E1… According to the rumour mill, Adobe and Lightroom are working on some improvements, I really hope it’s true. Fortunately the JPEGs created in-camera are excellent, thanks to the “film simulations” mode. The camera does come with an additional software that is presumably good at processing the files produced by the Fuji X-Trans sensor, but I have not even installed it yet. This camera seems to have been created by people who love photography, I am sure these people understand that nobody wants to learn a new software and a new workflow every time there is a new camera… This camera is all about freeing the mind of the photographer from the useless, so why burden the user with a new processing software to master just for this camera?
– The EVF is outstanding for still subjects, with crisp details and great colors, but if your subject is moving or if you are moving your framing yourself, the display is lagging. That being said, the X-E1’s EVF is one of the best I have tried, and I am now well used to it while I was previously worried about giving up on an optical viewfinder, though you need to be aware of the limitations
– The rear screen has a resolution on the low-end of the range for that price tag, and the size is kinda small as well (but at least you don’t get big menus on a big part of it like with the NEX7). This is most likely a purely marketing decision to mark a difference with more expensive X-PRO1, and it’s a little bit disappointing as such a nice camera deserved better
– I don’t know what Fuji has tried to pull up with its continuous autofocus mode, it seems completely useless to me! The center of the frame keeps chasing for focus, even before you half-press the shutter, does not make any sense to me… If you figured out how to use this, please let me know!
– The video features are limited: the X-E1 is a camera for photographers!
– Swively-and-tilty(ish) screens are not important for me, but, if it is for you, you need to be aware that the NEX7 and OMD-EM5 both have this feature, while the X-E1 doesn’t.

Conclusion: The Fuji X-E1is a beautifully designed camera, aiming first at the photographer rather than the geek inside us. Its command dials and intuitive Q menu invite us to free our mind from the unnecessary and take more time to think of our pictures instead of the technical details. It produces outstanding images even at high ISO, and the in-camera JPEG engine renders files with sharp details and vivid colors, depending on the “film simulation” mode that you choose. However, no camera is perfect, and the X-E1 is to be avoided if you are allergic to manual focusing, as the autofocus may struggle in low light. Also, as a camera designed primarily for photographers, the X-E1 is light on video modes… In the end, it all comes down to what is important for you, and if you are looking for a lightweight camera with outstanding image quality in all light conditions for still subjects, the Fuji X-E1 is exactly what you need.

As I continue to use the camera further, I will post more thoughts along the road… Meanwhile, here are some sample images taken in the Showa Kinen Koen, a famous Koyo (autumn) spot not far from Tokyo:

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Edogawa Hanabi Taikai

Edogawa Hanabi

Summer is the traditional hanabi (the japanese word for fireworks) season in Japan. Fireworks became a summer entertainment ritual in Japan since the 18th century, when the Shogun Yoshimune decided to organize the first Sumida River Fireworks festival in 1733, in order to repel the evil spirits that brought famine and epidemics the year before.

Edogawa Hanabi

Hanabi festivals are still an inalienable element of the summer in Japan nowadays, with around 7,000 fireworks across the country! The Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai (Sumida River fireworks festival, last Saturday of July every year) is still one of the biggest, with 1 million people gathering on the banks of the Sumida river every year. Needless to say, everybody is squeezed grains of rice in a sushi and best viewing spots are invaded well in advance… Way too crowded for my personal taste! I personally prefer by far the Edogawa Hanabi. Still one of the biggest Hanabi in the Tokyo area, but outside of the city, in a much more open space, so even though it also attracts thousands of viewers it does not feel as over-crowded.

Edogawa Hanabi

Don’t get me wrong, best spots are also hard to get, and, if you don’t come early enough, you are at risk of being squeezed in the crowd of people still trying to get out of the subway station while the fireworks have already started. To avoid such an inconvenience, and secure enough space for you and your friends to enjoy comfortably the event, you need to play by the Japanese rules: you book your spot by nailing to the ground a plastic blanket on the ground, and attaching your name upon it. It’s that simple, that place is yours! No need to let someone there during the night
to guard your territory, you can just walk away and come back on the following day, your spot will still be there waiting for you.

Edogawa Hanabi

On the day itself, you still need to come in advance, even though your place is already booked, the reason being that there will be a huge crowd processing to the viewing points, and if you arrive too late it’s just a nightmare to get to your destination. Once there, kill the time until the start of the fireworks by sipping a few beers with your friends, and engage the discussion with your neighbors if they don’t seem too much under the influence themselves! Be very careful with the sun and heat during the Summer Hanabi period… Truth be told, you combine them with alcohol and every time you get a few people who pass out before the sunset…

Behind the scene - Personal Tent: Protect yourself from the sunNow just relax, sit back, and enjoy the show!