What happened was, this month includes trips to Tokyo and the Big Island. And lately I’ve 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. I’ll 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 you’re 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 we’d say “EVIL”, for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, but that didn’t quite catch on; a pity.

Tokyo subway corridor

Duncan Davidson used the London underground to showcase the RX1, so here’s 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, it’s hard to use a viewfinder. With them off, it’s 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 doesn’t work with telephotos, doesn’t autofocus, and doesn’t 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 Hawai’i.

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 they’re 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 I’m 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 I’ve been particularly tempted by the nifty Olympuses. But I didn’t like the way an OM-D E-M5 felt in my hand, and its low-light performance isn’t 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 didn’t quite work for me. It’s not actually that small, by no means a pocket camera. My hands didn’t particularly like it. And since it doesn’t come with a viewfinder (see presbyopia), I’d need my glasses on. Unless I splash out for the absurdly expensive add-on viewfinder, which sticks up awkwardly atop the camera. And speaking of absurdly-expensive, so’s the camera.

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

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

Also they’re 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 Leo’s 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 don’t, I put the viewfinder to my eye; it’s got a proximity sensor and lights up automatically. The visual readout in the viewfinder is very good, and it’s got a diopter adjustment for less-than-perfect eyes.

The ergonomics are nifty; there’s 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”, you’re in full-auto mode. If you set the shutter speed you’re in shutter-priority, if you set the F-stop, you’re in Aperture priority, if you set both, you’re in manual. Which makes the mode dials on most SLRs feel kind of superfluous and stupid.

Fujifilm X-E1 controls

The menus aren’t that great but you’ll never need to use them. There’s a button marked “Q” that brings up a grid of the most commonly-used settings. It’s stupidly quick and easy to twiddle what you need to.

It’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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.

Problems · 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 don’t want.

There’s 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 you’re moving the camera fast, it’s 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 isn’t any faster either.

Image Quality · Watch the blog, there are more coming. Also, I’ve 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.

Smiles · There’s 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 isn’t any better than anyone else’s, that’s a lot of pictures I took in only three days.

This camera, it’s fun.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Josh Bloch (Mar 07 2013, at 17:40)

Hi Tim,

If you think point-and-shoots are meh, why do you have a Canon S100 ;) I have an S95 and love it. The best Camera is, as they say, the one that you have with you. If it weren't for the S95, I'd be reduced to using my Cell Phone a lot of the time.

I'm not dissing mirorless system cameras; in fact I'll be getting one for my son in the very near future. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for good point-and-shoots. Back in the film era, I got plenty of great shots with my Yashica T4 while my big Nikon SLR was nestled in the closet.

Josh

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From: Matt (Mar 07 2013, at 17:49)

That's a nice looking camera, and some great pix to boot. I'm looking for something smaller to compliment my SLR. I'm leaning toward the Fuji x20, due to this size looks, and the picture quality. (Also, the price, I'd like to stay below $600) Looking forward to more pictures in the future.

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From: Mark (Mar 08 2013, at 00:54)

It sounds like the XE-1 has the same type of controls found on a 35mm film SLR from pre-digital era. I had a basic Praktica which had the aperture dial on the lens and shutter speed dial on the body and IIRC worked as you describe here. Very easy to use.

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From: Geof Margo (Mar 08 2013, at 08:14)

Thanks for your blog piece on the Fujifilm X-E1. I have followed your blog from a distance for years and especially enjoy your forays into music and photography. Knowing your experience with the K-5 and prior DSLRs, and that you have children, I wanted to ask how well the X-E1 handles photographing rapidly moving children, ie is the AF up to it. The DPReview review suggested it was not the best of cameras for this purpose but I'd appreciate your comments.

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From: Eric Bier (Mar 08 2013, at 13:23)

To avoid the problem with the Macro switch on the X-E1, press and hold Menu/Ok until "Lock on" appears. The Macro selection has no effect on the 18-55 lens in any case.

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From: Bradley (Mar 08 2013, at 14:31)

Much to enjoy, both the camera and your creativity. I've had my eye on Fuji's latest cams for awhile now.

As a fellow Pentax shooter, I wonder what you'd like to see from Pentax/Ricoh in the coming years. I, like many, am somewhat disappointed with the lack of a full-frame DSLR to succeed my K-5. Best APS sensor in its day, but they've been riding it a bit too long now. Between the K-01 (which I briefly owned) and the new MX-1 I'm not sure they have any major hits. Hopefully something is in the pipeline; I greatly prefer the ergonomics and overall experience of Pentax SLRs to the big brands. Small and solid FTW.

Also, are your Pentax lenses in need of repair or just technically outdated in certain ways? I shoot and repair many vintage lenses, and while they're often less sharp than today's super-polished plastic and glass elements, the overall rendering is usually quite pleasing as I believe you've experienced.

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From: Andy (Mar 09 2013, at 01:32)

Agree with all you have said and I think Sony are wasters for not making the RX-1 an interchangeable.

I've had my X-E1 for 4 months and can't put it down. I love manual and something like auto ISO 1250 and dare I say I like to imagine it as a cheapskate's M9 - except this week, I've been enjoying my surpisingly-sharp 30 year-old Zuiko MC 50/1.8. In some ways, it's more than a Leica.

You'll become addicted, I have to warn you :)

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From: Trevor Batchelor (Mar 11 2013, at 06:27)

Hi Tim

I have just read your very interesting intro to the Fuji X-E1.I too shoot with a Pentax K5 and so I am interested in your comparisons as I am toying with buying an X-E1. My K5 produces brilliant results even with the standard 18-55mm Kit lens. In fact I now use this lens almost exclusively. This means that I can travel light (and fast) though something more "pocketable" such as the X-E1 does seem tempting.

I await your conclusions with eager anticipation.

Trevor Batchelor

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From: Brett (Mar 14 2013, at 08:38)

Perhaps I am old fashioned but I still use and like the Cannon AE-1. With a few great lenses, it is still able to capture the beauty of the world. The ocean and mountains in our part of the world offer great opportunities to take fascinating photos.

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From: Hub (Mar 15 2013, at 14:31)

I bought the X-Pro1 for its viewfinder, the hybrid style - like on the X-100. Love it. Had the X-E1 come first, I probably wouldn't have.

Now, as it is today, I could go for the X-E1 if the X-Pro1 didn't exist. Fantastic lenses, fantastic IQ. And in a more compact package than my DSLR.

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From: Andrei (Mar 21 2013, at 06:26)

I completely agree that the Fuji X-E1 is a joy to shoot with, and so easy to carry around. I somewhat followed the same reasoning, and looked at a lot of cameras before getting the Fuji X-E1.

I mostly take travel photos, and I was fed up with carrying a bulky DSLR. But at the same time I wanted the best image quality I could afford... And Fuji X-E1 (with 18-55 and especially the lovely XF 35mm) is great.

I would have preferred higher capacity batteries and just a bit faster AF, but that's minor.

I have also started posting some pictures I took with the Fuji > http://andreinicoara.com/when-all-the-roads-lead-to-rome-have-your-camera-ready/

I am very very happy with the results!

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From: Sean Russell (Mar 23 2013, at 02:55)

Hi Tim,

I, like a lot of people, have been on a similar journey; in my case, years with a Canon 10D, to Sony NEX5 (returned), to Panasonic GX1, and ending up at the same place with an X-E1 plus the 35mm.

The JPEGs out of the X-E1 are shockingly good; I'd grown accustomed to assuming that I *needed* to post-process images to get acceptable results, but unlike you, the prospect of the necessity of post-processing is what had made photography un-fun for me. I'm thrilled that the X-E1 has freed me of that. I do think the in-camera black-and-white treatment is less good than what can be achieved in Aperture (for instance).

You're spot-on about the stiffness of the dials; I often accidentally change the stop setting.

Are you excited about any of the lenses in the roadmap? That 27mm pancake looks pretty travelicious.

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From: Graham Nixon (Mar 30 2013, at 07:03)

I'm a wedding photographer whose always looking for ways to reduce the amount (and weight) of the kit I carry around for up to 10 house a day. I've tried the X-E1 out in my local camera shop and it seems to focus just fine in daylight but I wonder how it would do in a dark church in December?

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March 06, 2013
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