Despite all the advances in digital technology, photographers are a nostalgic lot. For evidence, look no further than the cultish popularity of some recent, retro-style digital sharpshooters such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5, which looks like a miniature version of an old SLR camera, and the Fujifilm X-Pro1, which resembles a Leica rangefinder.
Truth is, this type of throwback camera design has been popular for a while. Most digital SLRs and medium-format camera systems today look a lot like their film-based, analogue counterparts from three decades ago, until you examine them more closely.
Another recent camera that falls into this classic design category is the Fujifilm X-E1 mirrorless compact system camera (CSC), which is the baby brother to the X-Pro1, and is in many ways more accessible than that much-buzzed-about model. While the X-E1 sports the same 16.3-megapixel APS-C X-Trans CMOS sensor and the same X-Mount for Fujinon XF lenses as the X-Pro1, it’s 30 percent smaller and significantly lighter, weighing in at just 12.3 ounces with the battery and media card loaded.
And, more importantly, for photographers who are drawn to these throwback cameras but are not sure they want to invest heavily in what may seem like a novelty, the X-E1 sells for about $700 less than the X-Pro1, retailing for $999.
I recently got a chance to shoot with an X-E1 and an XF 18-55mm (27-84mm equivalent) f/2.8-4 kit lens, and while it wouldn’t replace my digital SLRs for important assignments, it was a lot more fun to shoot with than I expected. More importantly, image quality from the camera’s DSLR-size sensor was exceptional.
Here’s more of what I thought of this rangefinder-style camera from Fuji that’s not, in fact, a rangefinder at all.
Simple & Elegant—With a Few Glitches
The Fuji X-E1 comes in two color schemes: all black and silver two-tone. I tried out the silver two-tone version, which looked so much like an old Canonet rangefinder film camera on my shelf, I accidentally reached for the wrong model more than once. That’s a compliment, though: That old Canonet is one of my favorites. In fact, the Canonet’s simple and elegant design, which feels a lot less pretentious than, say, a Leica M-series rangefinder, is a good corollary to the bold-but-basic X-E1.
As I noted already, the Fuji X-E1 is not a rangefinder, it’s a CSC, which becomes more apparent when you notice there’s no window for the optical viewfinder. In contrast, the more expensive X-Pro1 has a window in the top right corner for the funky, though somewhat clunky, hybrid optical-electronic viewfinder.
The regular electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the X-E1 is not bad—it’s an organic LED panel with 2.36 million dots of resolution—but if you’re already bothered by EVFs, you won’t like this one much either. While the resolution is high, there’s a slight, jerky lag when you pan, particularly in low light, which made me feel a little nauseous. Also, when you lock in focus by half-pressing the X-E1’s shutter button, the small EVF screen partially pixilates before it achieves focus. This also occurs when using the X-E1’s rear, 2.8-inch, 460K-dot LCD display but it’s less noticeable.
Fuji would also be wise to tweak the View Mode feature slightly via a firmware update. As it is, you can choose to use the rear LCD for framing shots, the EVF for framing shots or select the Eye Sensor mode, which automatically turns on the EVF and turns off the rear screen when the camera detects your eye in the eyecup. It works fine but if you want to review shots, you can only do so via the EVF not the rear LCD in this mode. Pretty annoying.
What’s also annoying is how long it takes to wake the X-E1 when it goes into battery-preserving sleep mode. I found myself having to mash on the shutter button to get it ready to take pictures. You can adjust the sleep mode and have the camera run continuously but this will drain the battery because the EVF and rear LCD suck juice.
Getting a Grip
On the plus side, the X-E1 is an extremely well-designed camera, from its overall esthetic appeal to the placement of controls and the clear and detailed menu system. Pros who haven’t used Fuji cameras in a while will appreciate how smoothly this model operates.
While the X-E1 resembled my old Canonet, it’s worth noting that it does not have an all-metal body like that camera; it’s mostly polycarbonate with metal and metallic accents. The choice to go with polycarbonate does make the camera feel more plastic-y than traditional rangefinders but it certainly makes the X-E1 a lot lighter and, ultimately, more portable. (Having said that, I’d love to see an all-metal version of the X-E1 from Fuji as well.)
I’d like it if the X-E1’s textured, leatherette handgrip was slightly bigger; my fingers got tired carrying the camera around for a day of street shooting. (There is an optional handgrip if you want it, but that’ll cost you extra.) While the X-E1’s pop-up flash is kind of rinky dink—and a sign that this camera is aimed more at prosumers than pros—there’s a hot shoe on top of the camera if you want to add a more powerful external flash.
The top of the X-E1 looks very much like a traditional rangefinder and has a similar control layout to the X-Pro1. When not in use, the pop-up flash stays flush on the top deck so it’s inconspicuous. Also on top are a shutter speed dial, an exposure compensation dial, and a shutter button that looks and feels like a shutter on an old rangefinder—minus the film winder. The responsiveness of the shutter is like a traditional rangefinder too, i.e. kind of mushy. This took me a little while to get comfortable with, especially when trying to get the right feel on how hard to press to engage the autofocus.
If you really want to go old school with the X-E1, flip a switch on the front of the camera to engage manual focus, which you adjust with a ring on the front of the lens. It’s worth noting that the X-E1 benefits from being the third camera in Fuji’s retro X-line—the first was the X100 from 2010—and each iteration gets more seamless to use.
One stumble, I think, is the lack of a dedicated ISO button on the camera. The X-E1 fares surprisingly well at high ISOs (more about that later) and it would be nice to be able to change them more quickly. As it is, you have to hit the Q (quick menu) button on back and then cycle through to change ISO. Not hard but a single button would be faster.
The overall performance speed of the X-E1 was decent if not exactly spritely. In particular, while autofocusing was much faster in good light than on many CSCs I’ve tried, in low light it felt a step slow to lock in on a subject.
As I noted already, the X-E1’s shutter is not as touch sensitive as a DSLR and there’s a screen blackout and lag of at least a second and a half between shots. While start-up time when the camera is turned off is about a second, the time it takes to wake from sleep mode can take anywhere from one to four seconds. (I missed a few candid opportunities while trying to wake the camera.)
Having said that, the X-E1 is fast enough for street or candid photography, especially if you shift to its fast 6 frames per second continuous mode. (It’s also a heck of a lot quicker than Leica rangefinders for street photography unless you have superhuman manual focus skills.)
Also, with the X-E1’s comprehensive external controls and its logical and well-executed menu system, changing settings on the fly to adjust to different shooting situations is a quick and pleasant experience. In short, if you expect the X-E1 to function as swiftly as your DSLR, you’ll be disappointed. But compare it to almost any CSC on the market, and it’s about on par.
In terms of image quality though, the X-E1 is better than most APS-C-sensor-based DSLRs on the market. Like the X-Pro1, the X-E1 has no low-pass filter, a move that’s designed to increase resolution and sharpness. Low-pass filters are typically used in digital cameras to prevent moiré patterns from occurring in images with subjects that have many vertical lines. To combat moiré, the X-E1’s 16.3-megapixel X-Trans sensor (like the X-Pro1’s sensor) has a new color filter array inspired by the random arrangement of fine film grain. In the array, RGB pixels are arranged in 6 x 6 pixel sets as opposed to the traditional Bayer array of 2 x 2 pixel sets.
Does it work? Hard to say specifically but I did get excellent detail in landscape and cityscape photos captured with the X-E1’s sensor. Also, I saw almost no moiré in my shots, even in images of the vertical wires on the George Washington Bridge. Zooming in at 200 percent on my shots, I not only saw details I didn’t know were there, they looked surprisingly sharp with few aberrations.
The X-E1’s somewhat average 18-55mm lens produced excellent sharpness as well, which I’ve got to think is partly due to the absence of a low-pass filter over the camera’s sensor. While it doesn’t have a super-fast maximum aperture, at f/2.8, the kit lens produced images with tack sharpness in the center and attractive background blur (aka bokeh), particularly portraits and macro shots. (Incidentally, the X-E1 has a very simple one-button adjustment on back to get the camera into Macro mode.)
At ISOs of up to 6400, the X-E1 also eclipsed most APS-C-based DLSRs I’ve tried, producing images with manageable levels of noise but without significant smearing of pixels from anti-noise processing. Images at ISO 12800 were, of course, much more noisy and blurry, but in a pinch I’d feel comfortable using this setting in dim conditions. In short, the X-E1 did a deft job producing crisp images in low light at high ISOs.
Because Fujifilm still, after all these years, has the word “film” in its brand name, the company seems to feel obliged to offer canned film simulation modes in its cameras. In this case, the X-E1 defaults to Provia/Standard mode, but there are also Velvia/Vivid, Astia/Soft, and Pro Negative and Monochrome modes to choose from. Kind of fun but not exactly earth-shattering effects, especially if you’ve used any filter plug-ins in Photoshop.
For video shooting, the X-E1 can shoot the increasingly standard 1080p HD but only at 24p, not at 30p as with some competing cameras. It’s also not the fastest camera to switch into video mode: You have to press the Drive button on the back of the camera and scroll down to the movie camera icon to engage the feature.
The Bottom Line
Retro-style digital cameras have become popular in recent years and while, at first, these throwback designs seemed like just a novelty, imaging manufacturers are making classic-looking sharpshooters whose performance is as good as their look. A case in point is the Fujifilm X-E1, which, in many ways, is one of the best digital cameras this venerable “film” company has ever produced. While it won’t replace a full-frame DSLR for most of your assignments, for fun, relaxed personal projects, the X-E1 is an excellent choice. This stylish, but high-performing, CSC shoots sharp images with fantastic detail and impressive dynamic range. If you can forgive the X-E1 for being a step slow to autofocus and if you can get over its plastic-feeling (but still handsome) body, this impressive little camera will make a great photographic companion.
Pros: Beautiful, classic camera design; lightweight and highly portable; excellent image quality with superb detail and sharpness; a good performer at high ISOs with only moderate noise and little pixel smearing; clear and easy-to-use menu system; significantly less expensive than the step-up model but offers many of the same features
Cons: Somewhat slow to autofocus, particularly in low light; mushy shutter button; polycarbonate camera body has a plastic feel to it; no dedicated ISO or movie buttons; needs a bigger handgrip
Prices: $999, body only; $1,399 with an 18-55mm kit lens; www.fujifilm.com
Read all of our camera reviews at www.pdnonline.com/cameras.