By Stan Sholik
Hybrid cameras—mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses—have found a ready market among advanced amateurs moving up from camera phones and compact digitals, but they have been slow to find acceptance among professional photographers who already own a full-featured digital SLR and an array of lenses. Making hybrid cameras more difficult to sell to professionals is their small sensor size, limited feature sets, and often inferior lens quality. While the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Sony Alpha NEX-7 are notable exceptions to many of these limitations, the Fujifilm X-Pro1 was the best offering for professionals looking for a compact camera that delivers the features and image quality they expect from their digital SLR. Its high cost and surprising bulk for a small camera has slowed its acceptance.
Fuji has answered the concerns regarding the X-Pro1 with the introduction of the Fujifilm X-E1 and in doing so has created a camera system that professionals could use for event, wedding, school, portrait, and possibly even some commercial assignments. It also serves as an excellent system for personal photographs, street photography, family outings, vacations, and any other time where a big, bulky, multi-lens digital SLR isn’t needed, but the high image quality is wanted.
Where the X-Pro1 gained its bulk from its complex and expensive hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, the X-E1 is trimmed down by replacing that system with a purely electronic viewfinder. If it weren’t for a slight “shimmering” as you pan the camera while looking through the viewfinder, and the occasional visible moiré, you would think you were looking through an optical viewfinder.
The viewfinder's image quality is so good that you can use it to view the images or videos you have captured when the ambient light is so bright that images on the rear LCD are impossible to see. There is a built-in eye sensor that activates the viewfinder only when your eye is about to look through and a diopter adjustment that works well, unlike the diopter on the X-Pro1.
While it is a little difficult for a Leica rangefinder user like me to admit it, there are a number of advantages to electronic over optical viewfinders in rangefinder-style bodies. One is the ability to use zoom lenses. The image-stabilized 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens supplied with the camera surely contributed to the excellent image quality, and Fuji plans to introduce other zooms in the future.
Another advantage of an electronic viewfinder is the ability to choose a focus point anywhere in the field of view, something that is even an advantage over SLR cameras. This is compromised somewhat in the X-E1 by the poor placement of the focus point selector button. It is located at the lower left of the LCD screen, making it difficult to reach without poking yourself in the nose when looking through the viewfinder. Moving it to the front would be a big improvement. And having a focus confirmation for manual focus operation would be a big help.
Other differences from the X-Pro1 include a pop-up flash, a 2.5mm stereo microphone input for video sound recording, and the ability to use a remote electronic release (but not at the same time as the microphone). Autofocusing speed is much improved, and you can focus the X-E1 manually with the lens at maximum aperture. Write speed is also improved, but there is still about a two-second delay between single-frame captures, or capture and image review.
The X-E1 inherits the APS-C sensor and image processor from the X-Pro1. The 16.3-megapixel X-Trans sensor is mounted without an anti-alias filter. Image sharpness is exceptional for a compact camera, and though it lacks the 36.3 megapixels of my D800E, I would not be ashamed to deliver X-E1 images to any of my clients. And now that Adobe Lightroom 4.4 and later, as well as Camera Raw 7 and Capture One 7 have algorithms to demosaic the X-Trans sensor, processing raw X-E1 files should fit within your established workflow.
The camera is a pleasure to carry around when you are just out with visiting friends seeing the sights. ©Stan Sholik
While I rarely shoot anything but raw files, I did test out the RAW+FINE setting and was amazed to find that the JPEG files were excellent quality. I would think that school, event, and even some wedding photographers could shoot JPEGs with the X-E1 and save a lot of post-processing time. Overall, image quality is excellent in all respects. Metering and auto white balance are perfect in nearly every situation. Noise is reasonably well controlled even at the extended ISOs of 12,800 and 25,600, which are only available for JPEG capture, although the images can look more like watercolor paintings than photographs.
Noise is visible at higher ISO settings, but easily controlled in post-production. This is a 1:1 crop of an event photo taken at ISO 4000 with noise reduction applied in Lightroom 4.4. ©Stan Sholik
I shot a client’s birthday party with the camera using only available light in a fairly dark room with mixed lighting. Using the camera’s Auto ISO setting, the majority of photos were shot at 1/30 second at f/4, ISO 4000. The results were sharp thanks to image stabilization in the 18-55mm lens, with good color and minimal noise. Most of the time people were unaware that I was taking pictures. ©Stan Sholik
The X-E1 abounds in other features, including film simulation presets for Fuji Provia (the default), Velvia, and Astia color films. There are obvious color differences in the files with the presets, and they seem to deliver accurate simulations. You can even bracket through three film simulations, which could be these three (the default), or include negative film with high or normal saturation, monochrome, monochrome with a yellow filter, monochrome with a red filter, monochrome with a green filter, or sepia.
You can bracket through film simulations while shooting. This is a bracket of Provia (left), Velvia (center), and Astia (right). Also available are negative film with high or normal saturation, monochrome, monochrome with a yellow filter, monochrome with a red filter, monochrome with a green filter, or sepia. ©Stan Sholik
Other features include a panorama mode that automatically stitches a series of images into a JPEG panorama, dynamic range bracketing, multiple exposures, exposure bracketing and pretty much every custom function you would find on a digital SLR. There is even a setting for capturing JPEG images in square format, reminiscent of the 2-1/4 medium-format film cameras.
One of the built-in crop options for capturing JPEGs
is the square format, which is perfect for portraits
and many other subjects. JPEG quality is so good,
as is the white balance and color, that not shooting
in raw format is a real option with the camera.
However, while it can capture both 720p and 1080p HD video with excellent quality and good stereo sound, the video controls are limited in comparison to its competition. For example, the frame rate is limited to 24 frames per second, and you have no control over shutter speed, although you can control aperture. As with the first generation of digital SLRs with video capabilities, video seems more of an afterthought with the X-E1 than a fully developed feature.
Video aside, the X-E1 is a camera a professional photographer could love for personal work and use for many professional assignments. Although I only tested the 18-55mm f/2.8-4 kit lens, fast f/2.8 14mm and 18mm primes are available along with a 35mm f/1.4 and a 60mm f/2.4 macro. Future lenses include 23mm f/1.4, 27mm f/2.8 and 56mm f/1.4 primes and a 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 telephoto zoom and a 10-24 f/4 super wide zoom.
Street price of the Fujifilm X-E1 body in silver or black is about $1,000. The body with kit zoom lens is $1,400. More information is available at fujifilm.com.
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book "Photoshop CC: Top 100 Tips and Tricks" (Wiley Publishing).
Fuji X-E1 Specifications
Sensor: 16.3 effective megapixel X-Trans sensor without anti-aliasing filter "
Image sensor: 23.6x15.6mm APS-C CMOS sensor
Lens: FujiFilm X mount
Exposure modes: Programmed AE, Shutter priority AE, Aperture priority AE, Manual exposure
Flash: Built-in, 1/180-second sync
Three dedicated TTL hot-shoe flash units available
Display: 2.8-in, approx. 460,000-dot, TFT color LCD monitor
Electronic viewfinder: 0.5-inch, 2,360,000-dot OLED viewfinder
Media: SD, SDHC, SDXC (UHS-I) memory card
Image Stabilization: Lens-based image stabilization
Dimensions (W×H×D): Approx. 127 x 74.9 x 38.3mm (5.1 x 2.9 x 1.5 in.)
Weight: Approx. 350 g (12.3 oz) with battery and SD memory card
Full 1080p video
Light-weight, all-metal body
Excellent image sharpness
Focus point selector button position
RAW mode limited to ISO 6400
Two second delay between exposures
No PC-flash connection
Minimal video controls