Fujifilm X-E1 Review

Fujifilm X-E1 with the Sigma VF-11 Optical Viewfinder

Fujifilm X-E1 with the Sigma VF-11 Optical Viewfinder

Everything I love and hate about the Fujifilm X-E1.

I used the Fujifilm X-E1 for 9 months as a lightweight alternative to my Canon EOS 6D. As the saying goes, the best camera you have is the one you have with you and sometimes a large DSLR is less appealing when you’re on the go. The X-E1 was my sole camera for hikes through Death Valley, Big Sur, Mojave National Preserve, and a two week trip to Vietnam. I took a total of 10,451 photographs with my X-E1 for an average of about 40 photographs per day for 9 months. (I can thank my intervalometer for those numbers).

kelso-dunes-x-e1

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, X-E1, XF18mmF2R @ f/8.0, 1/320th, ISO 200

Most of those 10,000 photographs were taken with one lens: the Fujinon XF 18mm f/2.0 R. The 18mm prime was the only autofocus Fuji lens that I ever used with the camera and despite being regarded as the “least good” of the XF lenses, it makes some great photos (I also used the cheap Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye on occasion). I can honestly say that I love many of the photographs that I took with the X-E1 over the last 9 months and they directly rival (and in some areas exceed) the quality of my 6D.

Trona Pinnacles with the X-E1Trona Pinnacles, California. X-E1, 18mm, f/8.0, 1/300th, ISO 200

That said, there are still quite a few gripes that I have with the X-E1 that challenge the X-Series cameras in their role as a primary camera system. Fujifilm is one of the most responsive companies when it comes to listening to their customers, often rolling out firmware updates to improve the performance and even add features to their cameras. Some of the issues I have with the X-E1 have been fixed in the newer Fujifilm X-E2, but there are still some problems that persist. Here is a detailing of the things I hate and the things I love about Fujifilm X-E1.

Hate: Build Quality

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The X-E1’s LCD screen is a scratch magnet.

The build on the X-E1 is not particularly poor but even after my first outing with the camera, the coating on the X-E1 started showing signs of wear. After nine months, all the corners of the camera have lost a bit of finish, and the black anodize on the on/off switch is starting to burnish down to the bare metal. I imagine the silver version of the body may fair better as there is no paint to remove. Additionally, the LCD glass is, well actually it’s just plastic and it’s a scratch magnet. If you’re considering an X-Series camera for harder use and you don’t want it to show signs of wear, get the silver version and install a decent screen protector.

Love: Lightweight

red-xao-vietnam

The women of the Red Xao tribe in Lao Cai province of Vietnam. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/1500th, ISO 200

The X-E1 is a lightweight camera and is much preferable over my Canon EOS 6D for travel photography. At only 350 grams, it feels nearly empty in hand compared to most DSLRs, especially with the pancake like 18mm prime. It’s not as light as a Sony NEX 3 but it’s close. I spent two weeks traveling through Vietnam with my girlfriend with nothing but the X-E1, the 18mm prime, and a small tripod. I never felt that I needed any more camera than just that. Mirrorless cameras are making it possible to get SLR quality in much more compact camera systems; that’s a very good thing.

Hate: Lack of Weather/Dust Sealing

18mm-lens-dust

The Fuji XF 18mm F2R lens showing signs of dust again only weeks after a factory cleaning.

The X-E1 and the 18mm lens are dust magnets. Although maybe that has something to do with the places I’ve taken the camera. (such as windy sand dunes) The 18mm does not have an internal focusing mechanism and so it “breathes” when you rack focus, pulling dust into the lens. Most of the time I can tolerate some dust specks because they usually don’t affect image quality but in my case it started showing up as ugly flare spots in certain conditions.

Diana and Tiger. Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve. Maybe all this dust has something to do with the places I've taken the X-E1. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/1500, ISO 200

Diana and Tiger. Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve. Maybe all the lens dust has something to do with the places I’ve taken the X-E1. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/1500, ISO 200

I’ve sent the 18mm lens to Fuji for cleaning once and only a few weeks back from the service center it started showing signs of dust behind the front lens element. There are rumors that Fuji may announce a weather sealed body and an accompanying line of weather sealed lenses. I hope the rumors are true.

Love: High ISO, Low Light Performance

The X-E1 has one of the best sensors of any camera I have ever used. I shoot a lot of high ISO photos and the X-E1 has some of the best looking high ISO photos I have ever seen. It’s not that it takes particularly low grain photographs, grain is still present at higher ISO, and there’s typically more of it than on my Canon 6D, but the quality of the the grain is very appealing, reminiscent of the organic looking grain of film.

milky way vietnam

The Milky Way from the terraced rice fields of Sa Pa, Vietnam. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 20s, ISO 5000

This film like grain is a far cry from the rather ugly color banding that many Canon DSLRs can have at high ISOs. The RAW files from the X-Trans sensor can be pushed relatively hard and still retain an appealing grain aesthetic. This makes the X-E1 a great travel alternative to a large DSLR for the purpose of astrophotography.

x-e1 8mm rokinon milky way

Milky Way over Mt. Pinos, California. X-E1, 8mm Fisheye, f/2.8, 30s, ISO 6400

The great sensor also goes hand-in-hand with Fuji’s great lenses. The 18mm f/2.0 has ample brightness and shows very little coma aberration making it a very compact astrophotography lens. I’ve also made some great astrophotography results from the Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 fisheye, certainly spectacular for a $250 lens. I imagine that the XF 14mm f/2.8 and the newly released XF 23mm f/1.4 would be spectacular choices for astrophotography as well.

Love/Hate: Firmware Fixes/Misses

I’ll certainly give credit to Fuji for maintaining continued support of their customers through firmware enhancements. They even recently released an update for the old X100 which has long since been superseded by the X100s. This just goes to show how much Fuji cares about its customers. The X-E1 has had no less than three firmware enhancements since I first picked it up, all of which made great improvements to autofocus and manual focus functionality.

There are, however, quite a few things that seem to slip through the cracks with these firmware updates. The most annoying of these is that in some cases certain settings are completely lost when the camera goes into power saving mode. For example, if you have the self-timer set and let the camera go to sleep,  it will reset the self-timer so that it’s no longer enabled. This also happens to the shutter speed setting when using T Mode: once the camera sleeps, it resets back to 1/2 second upon waking the camera. This is particularly annoying for me because I’m often making photos with shutter speeds around the 20 seconds for my astrophotos. If I take some time to move my camera and tripod for another shot and the camera goes into power saving mode, I have to go through the routine of changing my settings all over again.

x-e1 milky way portrait alabama hills

Samantha and Sammy at Alabama Hills, California.  X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 20s, ISO 5000

The strange thing is that these issues were apparently fixed in the new X-E2 but I’m pretty sure there’s no reason why Fuji couldn’t roll out a firmware fix for X-E1 owners too. As of the latest X-E1 Ver.2.10 firmware, Fujifilm managed to add the much requested minimum shutter speed setting for Auto ISO and even exposure simulation and a proper histogram during Manual Mode but somehow they missed the self-timer and T Mode shutter speed reset bugs. Anyone from Fujifilm listening?

Also, under image review mode, it’s not possible to magnify the image enough to very effectively check focus. Strangely enough this isn’t the case while shooting in manual focus mode. It’s possible to magnify the view much more in real time before making the photo when you’re using manual focusing. So essentially, you can check focus effectively before, just not after you’ve made a photograph. I think adding an extra level of magnification when in playback mode would create a lot of value for photographers when they need to be more careful with their focus (such as in night photography).

Love: Sensor Resolution

x-e1 bridesmaid flowers

Maid of Honor. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/1500, ISO 200.

I’ll admit to sometimes being a pixel peeper. There are a huge number of factors that affect image quality beyond sensor resolution including lens performance, apparent depth of field, grain quality, contrast, and color rendition. The X-Trans sensor in the X-E1 is a 16.3 Megapixel non Bayer sensor. It doesn’t have an antialiasing filter like most Bayer color array sensors because it’s less susceptible to moire and aliasing due to the layout of its red, green and blue pixel colors. If you don’t know what that means, it just means that the X series cameras with the X-Trans sensor are capable of very sharp images. That coupled with the fact that the APS-C sensor is still rather large and the lens offerings from Fuji are typically very sharp and fast, the X-E1 never seems to disappoint with image quality. Despite its lower pixel count, the X-E1 makes photos with similar resolution to my 20 Megapixel Canon EOS 6D.

Love/Hate: The EVF

I thought the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) was going to be a weird switch for me, especially after coming from a full frame DSLR but it’s surprisingly sharp and nice to use. Well, most of the time. In low light, the X-E1’s EVF really lags a lot. Furthermore, the shutter black-out time is agonizingly long regardless of shutter speed. Even shooting at 1/4000th of a second, the viewfinder black-out seems just as slow as shooting at 1/8th of a second. This makes it difficult to gauge when the camera automatically selects a slow shutter speed when shooting in aperture priority, it just always feels slow.

Red Xao Household

Red Xao Household. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/30th, ISO 500

The X-E1’s slow EVF coupled with a relatively long shutter blackout in the viewfinder make sure X-E1 is not a fast paced camera, especially in low lit environments. I imagine the Optical Viewfinder (OVF) on the X100s and the X-Pro1 help a lot in this kind of situation.

With the latest firmware update, the X-E1 is finally getting a usable exposure preview and histogram when shooting in manual mode. Previously, the X-E1 would automatically adjust the exposure preview in manual mode, regardless of your exposure settings. This would give you the false sensation that the camera was somehow changing your exposure on you even though you just set everything manually.

Another quirk is that if the EVF LCD brightness is set to anything other than neutral, it will either clip the blacks or clip the highlights, making your images appear under or overexposed. For example, if you’re shooting in bright sunlight and need to crank up the brightness of the EVF to see better, the scene that you’ll see through the viewfinder will just appear overexposed. Brighter yes, but not in a way that preserves the look of a neutral exposure. This can make it very difficult to gauge your results through the EVF without reviewing the histogram.

The X-E2 apparently fixes some of the low light viewfinder lag issues with its faster processor which should be a welcome upgrade to the X-E1’s slowish EVF but I imagine some of the other quirks like the shutter blackout time and LCD brightness “bug” are still there.

Love: Black and White Performance

X-E1 Black and White. Kelso Dunes

Kelso Dunes Summit. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/2500th, ISO 200

The RAW photos that come out of the X-E1 are some of the best files that I’ve ever tried to convert to black and white. It’s possible to push the color channels of the file to their extremes without creating ugly artifacts in the final image. This means we can push a heavy amount of filtering in our final black and white images without degrading the quality of the image.

hidden-dunes

“Dragon’s Back” Hidden Dunes, Death Valley National Park. X-E1, 18mm, f/8.0, 1/750th, ISO 200

For example, I can pull the blue sky down to nearly black to create a more moody, dynamic look in my final black and white image. This technique is possible with any color image, but the files from the X-Trans sensor respond very well to heavy pushes in post processing, far better than the RAW files that come out of my Canon EOS 6D.

Love: The Look

Nice retro camera, you hipster, you.  Fuji has been called “the new Leica” by more than one prominent photographer. Once Fuji released the original X100 and brought back retro camera styling, many other camera manufacturers have followed suit. Olympus has the retro SLR-like mirrorless OM-D and even Nikon made a late jump on the retro bandwagon with the recently released Nikon Df, a retroized version of their D600/D610 DSLR camera. The Fuji is admittedly not as favorable ergonomically in your hand versus an SLR with a big grip, but there’s a practical side to the Leica-like style of the X-E1and it’s mostly a social advantage.

x-e1 wedding reception

Reception Games. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 1/30th, ISO 2000

The small body and corner mounted viewfinder allow you to use the camera in social settings without being intimidating to others. It’s much more pleasant to be photographed with a cute retro camera than with a behemoth DSLR. You can look through the viewfinder without hiding behind the camera like with an SLR where the viewfinder is dead center on the camera body. It might seem like a small technicality but in practice it definitely creates a different experience for both the photographer and the person being photographed. What the camera lacks in ergonomics, it makes up for in friendliness.

Closing Thoughts

The Fujifilm X-E1 is a spectacular camera with a few frustrating quirks. It’s scratch prone LCD and fragile paint coatings cheapen the feel of an otherwise beautiful camera. Its lack of weather sealing and very poor dust sealing (at least on the 18mm prime lens) limit the places and conditions in which you might want to use the camera. It didn’t stop me but the wear and tear is starting to show up more quickly than I would prefer.

x-e1 lonely speck workshop

Lonely Speck Workshop. Photo by Diana. X-E1, Rokinon 24mm (adapted), f/1.4, 10s, ISO 5000.

Although its firmware quirks are relatively minor, they can be a small annoyance tacked onto an otherwise great photography experience. Photographers should expect settings to stay set. This is especially true from a camera that centers its design around physical knobs and rings for setting shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation. While this is fixed in the X-E2, users shouldn’t need to buy a whole new camera to get such a trivial fix; it never should have had the bugs in the first place. I hope Fujifilm will be able to supply X-E1 owners a firmware fix for the T Mode shutter and Self-Timer resetting problem in particular. Most of the other quirks are passable but those two certainly annoy me the most.

The quality of its photographs are not just best in class, they rival a full-frame DLSR. The X-E1 (and any of the Fuji X-Series cameras) have impeccable low light performance from such a small camera system and I rarely have any hesitation to shoot at very high ISO. If you learn its quirks and ergonomics, you will never be disappointed with the photographs that the X-E1 produces.

Eastern Sierras from Alabama Hills, California.

First Light. X-E1, 18mm, f/11, 1/5th, ISO 200

I think that Fuji has a camera system that very well may completely replace my DSLR for both casual and professional work someday. But it’s some of the shortcomings like the X-E1’s less robust build, small software quirks and lack of weather sealing are the small details that are preventing me from ditching the DSLR.

Soda Lake and the Milky Way

Soda Lake. X-E1, 18mm, f/2.0, 20s, ISO 6400

Fuji is one of the most receptive camera manufacturers to customer input and I expect no less than great improvements on their X-Series of cameras in future releases. I’ve taken a close look at the X-E2 and the X-100s both for many of the benefits that they offer over the X-E1 but will likely wait it out to see what Fuji’s next camera announcements will be. I hope to see more of the firmware updates that we have come to expect and also hope that the rumors of future weather sealed body and lenses are, in fact, true. If I see the improvements I expect from Fuji, it’s very likely that I may make the switch.

x-e1 trona pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles. X-E1, 8mm Fisheye, f/11, 1/150th, ISO 200

While my Canon EOS 6D is still my primary camera, and while I eagerly anticipate the announcement of an improved X-Series camera that will go beyond the rather mild update offered by the X-E2, the X-E1’s spectacular image quality reminds me that the DSLR is no longer king.

 

34 Responses

  1. J July 5, 2016 / 4:28 pm

    Hi Ian!

    I just got this camera! What can I say, it is unbelievable! I want to thank you so much for making this article. It guided me to a awesome camera. I also have the Rokinon 8mm f/2.8. The wide angle is crazy! I do have one question. I ordered a intervalometer that was universal, but it didn’t make a time lapse in the camera. Can you give me a link to that intervalometer that you use.

    Thanks again!

    • J July 5, 2016 / 5:02 pm

      Also, if anyone has a intervalometer that works, please give me the link.

      Thanks!

  2. M January 28, 2016 / 4:57 pm

    An interesting review, and beautiful pictures. Your frustration with some of the features not addressed in firmware updates gave me the idea that perhaps, firmware updates could be offered with a range of enhancements; maybe their could be one firmware update for astrophotography, another variant for others.

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