Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: Fujifilm X-E1 - Is It A Relevant Camera In 2016?

Fujifilm X-E1
This might be one of the most unconventional reviews that you'll find of the Fujifilm X-E1. I'm writing this several years after the camera was replaced by the nearly identical X-E2. The X-E2 has now been replaced by the nearly identical X-E2s. In an age of quickly advancing digital technology, and when photographers often only use a camera for one or two years before purchasing something new, is the four-year-old X-E1 a relevant camera?

To recap, the X-E1 (sometimes called "Sexy One") is a 16-megapixel APS-C X-Trans mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera that looks like a classic film rangefinder. It was introduced in 2012 and was initially a hot item--camera stores had trouble keeping it in stock--but the camera had a number of issues that soon gave it a (somewhat) bad rap. Fuji replaced it with the next model after just one year of production. However, Fuji is good about fixing camera issues with firmware updates, and they fixed the problems that the X-E1 became known for (in fact, the most recent firmware update for this camera was earlier this year, which is a testament to how dedicated Fuji is at fixing issues with their products). So the X-E1 of today is better than the X-E1 of 2012.

The differences between the X-E1 and the X-E2 and X-E2s are small and have nothing to do with image quality (which is identical between the three cameras). The newer cameras have improved autofocus and higher resolution viewfinders and stuff like that. The X-E1 is 97% the same camera as the X-E2 and 95% the same camera as the X-E2s.
Yashica Minister-D & Fujifilm X-E1 With Industar Lens
The biggest difference between the three cameras is how much it will cost you to get your hands on one. The X-E2s will run you (with the 18-55mm lens) $1,000 brand new. The X-E2 will run you (with the lens) $800-$900 brand new. The X-E1 will run you (with the lens) $700-$800 brand new (if you can find one).

When the X-E1 was first released it had an MSRP of $1,400, and when it was hard to stock some retailers were charging even more for it. Now four years later it can be found for a fraction of that. I paid $575 for a used X-E1 that was as close to new as you can possibly get without actually being new. Like many, I'm on a tight budget and I couldn't justify spending more than I did.

When Fujifilm introduced the world to the 16-megapixel APS-C X-Trans sensor, cameras didn't have the mega-resolution that you see today. Is 16-megapixels still enough? Or should one buy a higher-resolution camera? After all, a lot of APS-C cameras have 24-megapixels now, including Fuji's most recent X-Trans cameras.
Fuji Film - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f/4, 1/140, ISO 400, Velvia Simulation, O.O.C. JPEG.
Because X-Trans sensors don't need (and don't have) an anti-aliasing filter (also called optical low-pass filter), which robs the camera of sharpness in order to prevent moire pattern distortion (which traditional Bayer sensors are subject to), 16-megapixels on an X-Trans camera has an equivalent resolution of about 20-megapixels on a Bayer camera that has an anti-aliasing filter. There's a little more resolution than what the megapixel count would make it seem.

Even so, cameras with traditional Bayer sensors don't need (and often don't have) an anti-aliasing filter once they're higher in resolution (such as 24-megapixels on an APS-C sensor). These cameras would appear to have a 30%-ish resolution advantage over the X-E1. However, a limiting factor for those cameras is the resolving power of the lens. Many lenses aren't sharp enough for a 24-megapixel APS-C camera to reach it's full resolution potential. In fact, some have theorized that this is why higher-resolution Bayer sensors don't need an anti-aliasing filter--the limited resolving power of the lens acts as an anti-aliasing filter. So the actual resolution difference between a 16-megapixel X-Trans sensor and a 24-megapixel sensor isn't quite as large as what one might initially think.

But none of this really matters, because very few people really need 16-megapixels of resolution, anyway. Resolution only makes a difference when viewing files or prints up close. Pixel-peepers study 100% crops, but nobody else does that--viewers don't look at files anywhere near that closely. Prints are only looked at up close if they're small or if the viewer is forced to closely view them--otherwise they naturally will move further away as the print gets larger. The larger you print, the further away people will stand from the photograph to view it, and they won't notice that the fine details are a bit fuzzy.
Early Autumn - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f/8, 1/1200, ISO 400, Velvia Simulation, O.O.C. JPEG.
Megapixel count is a marketing ploy to get pixel-peeping photographers to part with their hard-earned cash. You don't need 100-megapixels, 50-megapixels, 36-megapixels or even 24-megapixels unless you are printing large and are forcing the viewers to see the print up close. Otherwise 16-megapixels are more than enough.

The X-Trans sensor is a bit different than other sensors. A traditional Bayer sensor has 50% green light-sensitive sensor elements (or "pixels"), and 25% of both red and blue light-sensitive sensor elements, which are laid out in a specific pattern. An X-Trans sensor has 55% green light-sensitive sensor elements, and 22.5% of both red and blue light-sensitive sensor elements, which are laid out in a semi-random pattern.

The most publicized advantage of the X-Trans sensor is that it doesn't require an anti-aliasing filter, but that's not the only benefit. Because there are more green light-sensitive sensor elements (55% vs. 50%), and green is where the majority of luminance information comes from, X-Trans sensors have a one-stop high-ISO advantage over equivalent Bayer sensors (plus more shadow information). The semi-randomness of the sensor pattern seems to give the digital noise a more random (film-grain-like) pattern--and, like film grain, the digital noise is desaturated (although I'm not quite sure if this is clever programming or a byproduct of the sensor itself).
Village Inn At Dusk - South Ogden, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 46mm, f/4.5, 1/1400, ISO 400, Velvia Simulation, O.O.C. JPEG.
Using the X-E1 is a great experience--I can honestly say that this is the camera I've been waiting for! It's designed how digital cameras should have been from the beginning. There's no PASM dial. Coming from a film background, the dials are set up logically (and simply) for fully-manual or semi-manual operation, similar to classic SLRs and rangefinders. Fujifilm might be the only company that gets this right.

The camera can fit into a large pocket (such as a jacket), but just barely. It's pretty small and lightweight for an APS-C camera, but not what I'd call compact. I wouldn't want it to be any larger as I like my gear to be as small as practical. The X-E1 is a little too large for what I prefer, but not by much. It feels well built.

Autofocus is just a hair slow, but that's not unusual for a mirrorless camera (or any camera that uses contrast detection). On a positive note, manual focus is a more pleasant experience compared with most other digital cameras.
Jars of Colors - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f/4, 1/125, ISO 2500, Astia Simulation, O.O.C. JPEG.
RAW files can be manipulated any which way you want. Fujifilm's included RAW editor Silkypix is pretty good albeit clumsy. There are a half-dozen or so RAW developers that can edit RAW files from the X-E1. You can even edit the RAW files in-camera (which is a more useful feature than I would have thought).

One thing I will say about the RAW files is that there's a surprisingly large amount of details that can be extrapolated from the shadows (thanks to those extra green "pixels"). If you plan to shoot RAW, I would consider purposefully underexposing by 2/3 or even one stop to ensure that the highlights aren't clipped. The dynamic range on this camera is large (especially for an APS-C sensor), but highlights clip rather sharply.

Something that Fuji does better than anyone is in-camera JPEG processing. If you take care to ensure the settings are as you want them (customized to your tastes), the out-of-camera JPEGs look excellent, and probably pretty darn close to what your edited RAW images look like. I've included a bunch of out-of-camera JPEGs in this review so that you can see for yourself just how good they are. This camera makes a strong case for shooting JPEGs (or RAW+JPEG). There are a few different things that the X-E1 does that make the excellent out-of-camera JPEGs possible.
Golden Light On The Mountside - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, f/5, 1/640, ISO 400, Velvia Simulation, O.O.C. JPEG.
First is auto-white-balance, which is almost always spot-on. It took some crazy mixed artificial light situations to throw it off. In real life use the camera has been right every time.

Next is Fuji's film simulation. These are named after actual film (such as Velvia and Provia) but they aren't necessarily accurate replications of the respective films. However, they look very good and produce pleasing results when used in the appropriate situations. You just have to figure out which ones to use when, and that comes with practice. They can be customized to fit your tastes.

Then there are the dynamic range settings. The way this works is the camera will underexpose the image to prevent clipped highlights, then increase the shadows and mid-tones to the correct level. This is always on, and this is the reason why base ISO is 200. The camera isn't actually at ISO 200 (I believe it is actually ISO 140-ish), but once the data is pushed it is equivalent to using ISO 200. This is why some people have said Fuji cheats at ISO, but really it's just clever programming. There are three different dynamic range levels, and, when used smartly, you can achieve the right balance of contrast and highlight/shadow details in almost any situation.
Basketball - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 46mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO 400, Monochrome+Red, O.O.C. JPEG.
Speaking of ISO, the X-E1 has better high-ISO capabilities than I have ever seen on an APS-C camera. ISO 200 through ISO 800 look very good (and nearly identical), even when closely studying 100% crops. There are increases in digital noise at ISO 1600, ISO 3200 and ISO 6400, but all of these are perfectly usable ISOs, even for out-of-camera JPEGs. ISO 12800, only available when shooting JPEGs, is usable for very grainy-looking black-and-white photographs, but is best avoided otherwise.

Battery life on the X-E1 is pretty mediocre, although there are a few things you can change in the settings to help with this. If you think you will be making 300 or more exposures between charges, you will want to pick up a spare battery. Thankfully, spare batteries for this camera are really cheap.

The 18mm-55mm (28mm-85mm full-frame equivalent) f/2.8-4 zoom lens sold with this camera is nothing short of fantastic. It's as sharp as a prime lens! It has very little distortion. The built-in optical image stabilization works very well. You'll want to use it regularly--it's not a typical kit lens whatsoever. Fuji's lens lineup is well known to be excellent.
Outdoor Chair - South Weber, Utah
Fuji X-E1, Industar 55mm lens, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO 400, Monochrome+Red, O.O.C. JPEG.
The Fujifilm X-E1 is a fantastic camera that's smartly designed inside and out. There is very little negative to say about it, even four years after its release. If you can find it (with the kit lens) for under $700 then it's an exceptional value.

If the price tag is still too steep for you, consider the Nikon D3300 (or even the D3200) instead of the X-E1. It's not nearly as well designed and is a bit larger (and won't turn any heads), but image quality isn't all that much different (especially the RAW files) and you can find it for significantly less money. The overall experience won't be as good, but nobody will be able to tell that the photographs were captured with an entry-level DSLR and not something more expensive.

But if your budget allows for it, the Fujifilm X-E1 is a great camera. The experience of using it is something special, reminiscent of the days of film. Even in 2016, the X-E1 is a relevant camera.

See also:
Putting The X-Trans JPEG To The Test - A Midday Hike With The X-E1
Astrophotography With The Fuji X-E1 - Part 1
How To Free Up Time: Use A Fuji X-Trans Camera - Or, Fuji X-E1's JPEGs Rock!
Fujifilm X-E1 & High ISO
A "Better" Classic Chrome Film Simulation - Fujifilm X-E1
Astrophotography With The Fuji X-E1 - Part 2
My Fuji X-E1 JPEG Settings
Taking The Fuji X-E1 To The Streets ...At Night
Street Photography With The Fujifilm X-E1, Part 1: Black & White
Street Photography With The Fujifilm X-E1, Part 2: Color
Fuji X-E1 & Dynamic Range

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