Capturing Passion and Magic

September 08, 2014

Fuji X-E1, The Right and the Wrong

Why review a camera that's been replaced in Fuji's lineup? After all, the X-E2 has been out for months now.

Well, the X-E1 is still available new, and at significantly discounted prices, making it a relatively inexpensive entry point for the Fuji X system. And while some of its shortcomings have been addressed in the X-E2 and X-T1, some of them inexplicably still remain.

This review is based on renting a used X-E1 (firmware v. 2.2) and Fuji 23mm (34.5mm full frame equivalent) f/1.4 lens for the weekend. I shot the camera alongside my Canon 5D Mk III at a Durham, North Carolina, gaming convention, tiltExpo, both in available light and with mixing flash and available light. I shot all RAW files on both cameras, and ran everything through Adobe Lightroom 5.6.

A reminder: the Fuji X-E1 has an APS-C sized sensor. So, multiply all focal lengths by 1.5 to get the full frame equivalent field of view.

In summary

A strong camera for certain uses, inexplicably crippled in certain ways that make it a poor fit for certain photographers.

Maka Lee as Gnar, League of Legends: Fuji X-E1,  Fuji 23mm f/1.4,  1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 1600, ambient light.
The good: Excellent image quality: better than my Canon 60D, though, not as good as my 5D MK III. Excellent dynamic range, e.g.: nice shadow detail, easily boostable. Excellent skin tones. So light. Small enough that staff at venues that ban "professional cameras" may not recognize it as such. Fast AF in good light. Better AF point coverage of the frame than Canon offers in any camera. Relatively cheap. Can utilize YN 622c-tx trigger to manage Canon flashes in manual mode. Focus peaking makes manual focus usably quick. Easy to set up, even without reading the manual.

The bad: Flash only works in single image mode - you have to refocus between every shot if you're using flash, so no locking focus and taking a series of shots while your subject changes poses if you're using flash at all. Lame flash sync speed and high speed sync not an option, even with Fuji flashes. AF trouble on small subjects when backlit, and review zoom too small to truly check focus.

Bad stuff from other people's reviews: Autofocus stinks for moving subjects: this is not the camera for sports, dance, energetic toddlers or dynamic bands.

A bit more detail

Distilling all the above, you come up with a camera that is very, very good for certain types of photography, usable with caveats for others, and completely unsuited for some things. If its strengths match your shooting style and subjects, this is an amazing deal. If not...maybe Fuji will eventually build a camera for you.

Landscape Photography

Now that Fuji has released what appears to an excellent 10-24mm f/4 OIS zoom lens (15-36mm in full frame terms), the X-E1 would have to be considered a fantastic landscape photography tool. You can get body and lens for less than the cost of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens alone. You can even throw a 35mm f/1.4 lens and still not exceed the cost of the Nikon lens.

It's not weather-sealed, but so what? Most cameras aren't. A tiltable LCD back screen would have made it a perfect landscape camera, but I'm not going to hold its omission against it. My 5D MK III doesn't have a tilting LCD either, and I still manage to get excellent landscape photos out of it.

And, frankly speaking, this baby is so much lighter than either my 60D or 5D MK III, that I would much rather carry this and two or three lenses for a day, or days, of hiking.

And here, the lameness of the X-series lineup at the long end is not really an issue. Your choice, as of this writing, for a long lens is the 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 OIS zoom. And while that's slow for people photos, that should be just fine for landscape shots where the need for extensive depth-of-field should keep you shooting f/8 - f/16.

If you love macro, though, you may need to think things through a little more. The current macro offering of a 60mm f/2.4 only gets you to 1:2 (half life size) and a lot of photographers, such as myself, like their macro lenses in the 150mm fullframe equivalent category.

People Photography

This is a more mixed bag.

Do you like to shoot natural light or continuous light portraits, maybe with some reflectors for when the natural light needs redirecting? Then the X-E1 will make you very happy. You'll love the dynamic range and all that shadow detail you can pull out. You'll be thrilled with how low you can go with the shutter speed and still handhold the camera effectively. The image quality and lovely bokeh of the Fuji lenses will just make you smile.

For cosplay photographerss, the combination of light weight, fast primes and good high ISO performance might well make this a fantastic hallway portrait camera.

Do your people move forward and backwards (sports, kids playing, performances) while you're shooting them, in circumstances unamenable to zone focus? Forget it. By all reports you need to be looking at the X-E2 or the X-T1. Or a DSLR (or maybe an Olympus OMD-E1).

Note that all the reports on this are so consistent that I didn't even bother trying it.

Do you use flash? Because things get inexplicably odd here.

If you don't mind refocusing between every shot, and shoot in studio, or in very controlled conditions outdoors, you'll likely find the X-E1's limitations survivable, such as no continuous shooting with a flash, and a max sync speed of 1/180th, to be tolerable. The fact that you have limited action stopping capability in mixed flash and available light situations probably won't bother you much, since the AF isn't good for subjects in motion.

On the other hand, if you're like me, and you use flash outdoors a lot, and on moving subjects, to either fill  against backlight, or override the natural light for effect, or shoot fashion or cosplayers or children where being able to set focus and then shoot continuously to keep up with your subjects continuous reposing or changing facial expressions is essential, you're going to want to strangle the Fuji engineers and marketers.

Worse, the cameras that have followed the X-E1, the X-E2 and the "professional" X-T1, have maintained these same, inept, ridiculous flash limitations.

Now I realize inept, inexplicable and ridiculous are strong words. But there's no good reason for the Fuji X-series cameras, outside the X100/100s, to be so far behind the competition in flash capabilities. Let's review some history, and some of the competition, in brief.

In 1984, 30 years ago, Nikon debuted the FM2n, with a 1/250th flash sync across a 35mm frame. Canon had it in the EOS 1 by 1989. The patents on this are long since expired.

Since Fuji is using a smaller sensor, there's no reason they can't provide 1/250th or better flash sync. Canon and Nikon's equivalent APS-C sensor cameras offer 1/250th. Hell, Canon manage to pull off 1/320th on an APS-H sensor, which is bigger than APS-C.

And the inability to use flash at all when in any continuous drive mode, even the low speed 3 frames per second mode, is just jaw dropping. It's a deliberate crippling of the camera. Shutting off hot shoe communication, all of it, as soon as the camera goes into continuous shooting mode, was a conscious decision on Fuji's part. Note that this is not an issue on Canon or Nikon bodies, and hasn't been for decades.

So, in summary, Fuji has sabotaged the X-Series by choosing to be 30 years behind in flash technology. Calling that inept is polite.
Mikki Marvel as Cammy from Street Fighter:
Fuji X-E1, Fuji 23mm f/1.4,  1/125th, f/10, ISO 200, Canon 430EX II in Hexabox.
A faster flash sync would been necessary to shoot this any earlier in the day.


You may be wondering why I'm not spending several paragraphs slamming Fuji for the X-E1 AF tracking performance. It's simple: AF tracking is where all mirrorless cameras prior to the very latest generations (Fuji X-E2, X-T1, Olympus OMD-E1) suck. If you shoot a lot of sports, wildlife, performances or fashion runways shows, you're not giving up your DSLR any time soon.

I will say that with the 23mm f/1.4, the X-E1 had trouble focusing on a smallish subject in the frame that was heavily backlit, even with the focusing point shrunk for extra precision. Unfortunately, I've had issues with my 5D MK III in the same situation, so I can't really bust on Fuji for that. Also, I could have tried manual focus with focus peaking, and I didn't.

Overall Handling

I could get used to the handling. I have bigger than average hands, so things feel a little cramped to me. However, the camera handled well, both with and without the extra grip, and didn't slow me down much. That's pretty impressive given that I didn't read the manual at all before starting to use it.

The extra grip did make the camera more comfortable, but it does block access to the battery and SD card slot, meaning you have to take it off to change either. Given the X-E1's limited battery life, this could get annoying on a full day of shooting.

A bigger change was using the off center, range finder style EVF for vertical shots. That would take a lot of getting used to - during the test I kept turning the camera vertical and putting my eye up to the silver metal where the optical viewfinder is on my DSLRs are. Strangely, I didn't have the same issue with using the camera in landscape mode.


Should you jump on this camera at its current, low, end-of-life pricing?

That depends on what and how you shoot. If you've read the above and shrugged at the limitations I mentioned, then this camera is a real steal. If you cringed at the same things that I found frustrating, you may want to pass.

If I had $1500 to drop on dedicated landscape camera, I'd seriously consider the X-E1. I don't, but I will keep an eye on the system. It's possible Fuji may decide to make a camera with competitive flash features one day, or that I will decided that it's more important to have a lightweight camera, than a fully featured one.



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