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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.