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Fujifilm X-E1

Tim Bray Posted by Tim Bray | Wed, 06 Mar 2013
see the original posting from ongoing

What happened was, this month includes trips to Tokyo and the Big Island. And lately Ive been reading about cameras full of shiny new ideas. So I decided to indulge myself; here are way too many words about the state of cameras in general and in particular the one I bought.

I suppose this is partly a review of the X-E1, but if you want to know the most important thing (what kind of pictures it takes) just follow the blog for the next week or two. Ill do a pictures-from-Tokyo series that covers a lot of different photographic styles.

What Once We Called EVIL

For a while there, everything was either a point-&-shoot (meh) or an SLR (good); SLRs compete in a nice linear way around megapixels and sensitivity and ergonomics and lenses.

Aerial shot of mountains not far from Anchorage, Alaska

Near Anchorage, Alaska. The X-E1 seems to like taking
pictures of big things. A jpg with the 18-55mm zoom. The image resizer introduced odd color artifacts; click to see the real thing.

SLRs are fat-bodied because you need a big glass prism to bend the light from the lens to the viewfinder. If you lose the prism, you free camera designers from a bunch of constraints. Most obviously, you can have smaller thinner bodies that are friendlier to hand and handbag.

Of course, you still need to see what youre shooting. One approach is the traditional optical rangefinder, as in the Leica M; a little window through the camera that looks out beside, not through, the main lens.

Or you can take what the sensor is seeing and route it electronically to a screen on the back of the camera, or to a viewfinder you hold up to your eye, or both.

Generally speaking, serious cameras which have managed to lose the prism are now called compact format. For a while, it looked like wed say EVIL, for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, but that didnt quite catch on; a pity.

Tokyo subway corridor

Duncan Davidson used the London underground to showcase the RX1, so heres a little Tokyo tube. Raw/35mm, as are all the rest from here on in; once I put the prime on, I had no urge to go back.

Sidebar: Presbyopia

This is the condition lots of us get in middle age, where you can see fine at a distance but hardly at all up close; so you wear reading glasses. With the glasses on, its hard to use a viewfinder. With them off, its hard to use the screen on the back of the camera.

Compact Options

The Leica M is for those willing to spend $5K and way up on a camera that doesnt work with telephotos, doesnt autofocus, and doesnt have very good low-light performance. But which, everyone agrees, can take wonderful pictures.

The next big run at the format was Micro Four Thirds, which has produced a bunch of sanely-priced well-reviewed compacts and an interesting selection of lenses.

In the last year or so, things have gone nuts. Sony is expanding the boundaries of the camera-with-a-zoom-that-fits-in-your-pocket with its RX100. And at the same time shipping the much-ballyhooed RX1, with a monster sensor and fixed lens in a smaller-than-SLR body.

Olympus and Panasonic keep muscling forward with µ4/3-ware, recently including the OM-D, which made several camera reviewers unreasonably happy.

And Fuji has launched the X line, combining retro design flavors with an interesting new sensor layout and really tasty lens offerings.

So I decided to get Something New and take it along to Tokyo and Hawaii.

Camera Shopping

Like everyone else, I admire the beauty of the Leicas and the astounding lenses you can get for them, but the prices are absurd and theyre a poor fit for my love of shooting at night.

Outside the Imperial Palace East garden

This is on the footbridge over the moat to the East Garden of the
Imperial Palace, which is often open to the public. I love the textures and cracks in the wooden base.

The RX100 seems excellent, but my Canon S100 has a generally similar lens and performance curve. The RX100 has a lot more pixels but Im not sure I need them; the Canon has enough to print 40 inches tall.

Then there are all those interesting new µ4/3 products, and Ive been particularly tempted by the nifty Olympuses. But I didnt like the way an OM-D E-M5 felt in my hand, and its low-light performance isnt quite up there with the best.

Sony RX1?

The whole camera world has been a-quiver about this puppy; an unbelievably-huge sensor in a beautifully-built little body with a remarkable lens.

Tempting, and the notion of a fixed lens is appealing; my K-5 has sort of turned into one of those, with the remarkable Sigma 30mm F1.4 more or less permanently mounted. Which is a nice combo, but not lightweight at all; that Sigma is a great big honking chunk of metal and glass. And all my other nice Pentax lenses are languishing.

Spring blossoms

The macro mode is really very competent, and the bokeh does a pretty good job of getting a busy background out of the way here. These are the first tree-blossoms of spring in the garden of the Imperial Palace, which is to say powerful cultural signifiers. There were a lot of dudes with seriously heavyweight camera gear hovering around them.

But when I got my hands on an RX1, it didnt quite work for me. Its not actually that small, by no means a pocket camera. My hands didnt particularly like it. And since it doesnt come with a viewfinder (see presbyopia), Id need my glasses on. Unless I lash out for the absurdly expensive add-on viewfinder, which sticks up awkwardly atop the camera. And speaking of absurdly-expensive, sos the camera.

Also my heart sank at the thought of waiting for Lightroom to grind through 24MP raw files.


The X series was launched a year ago; they please the eye, have clever viewfinders, and the XF lens lineup looks tasty.

Also theyre using a novel sensor implementation that lets them drop the anti-aliasing filter, which should, all else being equal, buy some extra sharpness.

So I dropped by Leos Camera Supply and ended up leaving with an X-E1, the 35mm F1.4 prime, and the 18-55mm zoom, not terribly fast but image-stabilized.

Nice Things About the X-E1

The viewfinder is just brilliant. If I have my glasses on I can compose on the back of the camera. If I dont, I put the viewfinder to my eye; its got a proximity sensor and lights up automatically. The visual readout in the viewfinder is very good, and its got a diopter adjustment for less-than-perfect eyes.

The ergonomics are nifty; theres no mode dial! The aperture and shutter speed are visible at a glance and on manual dials, looking down at the camera top. If both are on A, youre in full-auto mode. If you set the shutter speed youre in shutter-priority, if you set the F-stop, youre in Aperture priority, if you set both, youre in manual. Which makes the mode dials on most SLRs feel kind of superfluous and stupid.

Fujifilm X-E1 controls

The menus arent that great but youll never need to use them. Theres a button marked Q that brings up a grid of the most commonly-used settings. Its stupidly quick and easy to twiddle what you need to.

Its a bit lighter than my K-5, and both the prime & zoom are a lot lighter than their counterparts. In particular, the X-E1/35mm combo is really a treat to hold in your hand, or to sling over your shoulder for hours at a time.

Below from left to right: Canon S100, X-E1 (with the 35mm F1.4), and K-5 (with that Sigma). The Pentax and Fuji are about the same width, but the Fuji (and its lens) are smaller along every other dimension.

Canon S100, Fujifilm X-E1, Pentax K-5

And that 35mm F1.4 lens is a peach.

The camera makes outstanding JPGs, creamy-smooth and with great white-balance guessing. I shoot raw anyhow because I like fiddling with pictures in Lightroom (had to install the 4.4 beta), but you probably dont really need to, and in some low-light shots the camera might do a better job at noise reduction than Lightroom.

Tokyo canal still life

This decidedly unglamorous canal is near Hitotsubashi and I bet the sun doesnt get in like this very often. I hate to go all abstract and hand-wavey, but it seems like the X-E1 excels at making sense of scenes that have a lot of stuff in them.


Some of those manual controls need to be quite a bit stiffer; I kept turning macro-mode on by accident, and also once or twice knocked the aperture dial from auto to F16, which you really dont want.

Theres more noise at ISO6400 than my K-5 produces. Having said that, you can fix that in the mix these days in Lightroom.

I see a bit of a tendency for the image highlights to be a little too out-of-proportion bright. But never overloaded, you can pull em back just fine while raw-processing.

Tokyo towers in Shiodome

This is in the Shiodome neighborhood, taken from my hotel room. Once again, big things.

The viewfinder is a little laggy if youre moving the camera fast, its jarring the first few times that happens and would be a real problem if you were trying to shoot sports.

The shutter is not significantly quieter than my 3-year-old K-5, which I find disappointing. And the autofocus isnt any faster either.

Image Quality

Watch the blog, there are more coming. Also, Ive starting making the big versions of photos (what you see when you click on the image here) much larger. Which may itself say something about this camera.


Theres nothing like being on the road with a new camera in a visually rich place for making you want to shoot. I came home from Tokyo with sixty-odd pictures worth keeping, and since my hit/miss ratio isnt any better than anyone elses, thats a lot of pictures I took in only three days.

This camera, its fun.

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