With many of the same features as the X-Pro1, but more affordable, is this the perfect enthusiast CSC? We find out in the What Digital Camera Fujifilm X-E1 review
With rangefinder-inspired looks and a brand new sensor technology that’s impressed, the X-Pro1 has found its way into the camera bags of both professionals and keen enthusiasts alike. But while it looks like a bargain compared to a certain German brand of rangefinder camera that its taken its inspiration from, the X-Pro1 is a premium camera in its own right. But with the arrival of the X-E1, Fujifilm hopes to broaden the appeal of their X-series CSC range further still.
With a specification that borrows much from the X-Pro1 in a slightly smaller, more affordable body, does the X-E1 hit the sweet spot for the enthusiast photographer?
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Features
One of the jewels in the crown of the X-Pro1 is the 16MP APS-C sized sensor, and the good news is that the X-E1 uses the very same chip. It’s a little bit special because of the unique and clever way the sensor’s colour filter array is arranged. Most digital cameras feature a traditional Bayer filter array to decipher colour information, but this results in aliasing effects such as moiré patterning. An anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor is then required to eliminate such artefacts, but works by ever so slightly blurring the image and results in a very minor loss in critical sharpness. The X-Trans CMOS sensor inside the X-E1 however uses an array of red, green and blue pixels that aren’t arranged in a repetitive order. With a structure more akin to film, the sensor can effectively minimize moiré and false colour, eliminating the need for an anti-aliasing filter, which should in turn deliver far sharper results than more conventional sensors. On top of this, there’s Fujifilm’s EXR Pro image processor on board, and while the native ISO range is fairly moderate, running from 200-6400, it can be expanded to an ISO equivalent of 100-25,600, though the highest two settings are JPEG only.
As you’d expect, the X-E1 uses the same X lens mount as the X-Pro1, with the range of XF lenses available growing from the initial three to now include a Fujinon XF14mm f/2.8 that delivers a 35mm focal length equivalent of 21mm, and the first zoom of the range. The 18-55mm f/2.8-4, that’ll be bundled with the X-E1 from X-series stockists, with a 35mm focal length equivalent of 27-84mm. It’s far removed from what you usual associate with this ‘kit lens’ focal length, with the finish not only matches other XF lenses (i.e. very good), but the fast if variable maximum aperture of f/2.8-4 means it’s a highly versatile proposition. Especially when you factor in the built-in OIS image stabilisation system equivalent to 4 stops and a responsive linear motor. As it features a variable aperture, there’s no longer a marked aperture ring. Instead, it rotates continuously, with each click round representing a third-stop change. To set the camera to set aperture (for instance, when you want to shoot in shutter priority), there’s a separate switch on the side to select this. Since the launch of the X-Pro1 we’ve also seen the arrival of an M Mount adapter, allowing you to use some lovely Leica glass as well.
Probably the most notable difference between the X-Pro1 and the X-E1 is the viewfinder. Rather than using the clever hybrid viewfinder that provides both optical and electronic options, the viewfinder in the X-E1 is solely electronic, saving both on weight and the cost implications incurred. But Fujifilm hasn’t just done away with the optical viewfinder, leaving you with the same EVF as the X-Pro1. Instead, they’ve improved on the X-Pro1’s 1.44m-dot LCD EVF, fitting the X-E1 with a 2.36m-dot OLED unit in the X-E1.
At the rear of the X-E1 is a 2.8in screen with a 460K-dot resolution that’s the same as that found on the X100, but a touch smaller than 3in display on the X-Pro1 with its huge 1,230K-dot resolution. Unlike the X-Pro1, the X-E1 sports a pop-up built-in TTL flash, while there’s also a hotshoe to attach one of Fujifilm’s additional dedicated flashguns.
Just like the X100 and X-Pro1, the X-E1 uses a 49-point contrast-detect AF system, fine-tuning the algorithms from the system found in the X-Pro1 to provide what promises to be faster much faster focusing speeds and low-light performance (the good news is that X-Pro1 users can also benefit from this by upgrading to Firmware version 2.0).
The X-E1 features Motion Panorama, with the camera capture multiple image as you pan across the scene, before it stitches them together to produce a large panoramic photo.
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Design
With the absence of an optical viewfinder, the X-E1, from the front at least, looks a little less rangefinder-like than both the X100 or X-Pro1. That’s not to say that the X-E1 is any less successful in the design department. It’s a nice looking piece of kit, with the sculptured lip running along most of the front top panel that helps to produce a sleek, premium-looking camera that’s a mix of contemporary and nostalgia. Available in black or silver finish, we think the silver model definitely has the edge, and one that’s bound to be the subject of the odd admiring glance or two.
The X-E1’s also been on a bit of a weight-loss programme, and is noticeably less bulky than the X-Pro1, with not only a much smaller footprint print, but also height as well, making it pretty similar in size to the X100. The build quality hasn’t been compromised though, with top and front covers made from die-cast magnesium, along with a decent rubber grip.
Like the X100 and X-Pro1, you won’t find a plethora of automated controls and shooting modes on the X-E1. Virtually mirroring the control layout of the X-Pro1, there’s a shutter speed dial on the top plate with an ‘A’ setting for auto control, while the aperture is set via the lenses aperture ring, again, with each lens sporting an ‘A’ setting to let the camera take over. So while the X-E1 can be used in Program mode by having both aperture and shutter speed settings set to ‘A’, the X-E1 encourages you to be more involved and take control of the exposure.
The shutter speed dial itself is made from machined metal, with a beautifully fine-grooved edge, though unlike the X-Pro1, doesn’t feature a central lock to stop it inadvertently getting knocked out of position. Next to that is the exposure compensation dial with -/+2 compensation in third stop increments and a sunken into the body just like the X-Pro1 to avoid inadvertent knocks.
Also on the top plate is the on/off switch that wraps itself round the shutter button that features a traditional screw cable release, though the X-E1 can also be triggered with RR-80 remote release. You’ll also find a small Fn function button which is set by default to control ISO, though this can be customised in the camera’s menu should you prefer.
Moving to the rear of the X-E1 and X-Pro1 users will feel right at home, with a almost identical button layout used, with the only notable change the Playback button moving from the right of the screen to fall in-line with the drive, metering mode and AF access points, that also double up as zoom in, zoom out and delete controls when reviewing images.
To the right of the screen is the 4-way control interface, display, quick menu and exposure/AF lock buttons, along with a button release for the pop-up flash and control dial that can be used to change a wide range of settings running along the top. There’s also a view mode selector, allowing you to toggle between the viewfinder and rear screen, though there is an eye sensor next to the viewfinder to automatically swap to the EVF when you raise the X-E1 to your eye.
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Performance
As mentioned, one of the issues that came to light when we tested the X-Pro1 was the relatively slow focusing speed delivered. The X-E1, with its improved algorithms, promises to improve on this and it’s fair to say they have. In use and focusing is much more prompt in single AF, with only minimal hunting with the 18-55mm lens. But while it has been improved, it’s fair to say the AF performance still isn’t a match for similarly priced models such as the OM-D, which tend to lock on noticeably faster than the X-E1. And while it’s hard to see the X-E1’s intended use as a fast-moving action camera, the continuous AF does struggle with moving subjects, relying solely on the central AF point for focus.
That said, the 49-point AF arrangement provides good coverage, though not to the edges of the frame, while the AF point area provides the choice of five different sizes (set via the control dial) depending on how precise you want to be with your focus. The combination of hitting the AF button at the rear and the 4-way D-pad is straightforward, though maybe a little fiddly, while the 18-55mm delivers relatively quiet focusing, though the other prime lenses still do tend to offer up the odd mechanical whirr as focus is acquired.
Manual focusing does provide better feedback, with the image coming into focus pretty quickly as you twist the manual focus ring of the lens, while the 3x and 10x magnifications offer precise focusing.
Using the X-E1 and its quite surprising how little if at all you miss the clever hybrid viewfinder that’s on the X-Pro1. With the class-matching 2.36m-dot resolution, it’s a noticeable improvement over the lower-resolution EVF in the X-Pro1, and is far from tunnel-like when looking through it. The OLED technology provides a wider ratio from black to white as well as brighter colours that will see you soon forget about the missing optical viewfinder.
The payback for the excellent EVF is the somewhat disappointing 2.8in screen that doesn’t quite cut it on a camera of this price. While more than acceptable, it just doesn’t deliver quite the same razor-sharp results as rivals, while the absence of a vari-angled screen may be disappointing to some.
The screen doesn’t offer any touchscreen functionality, but that’s not really an issue here as the X-E1’s pretty quick to use once you’ve got your bearings. Buttons, though made from plastic, are a decent size, ensuring shooting with the X-E1 doesn’t become unnecessarily fiddly, while the amount of exterior controls sets the right balance of providing the photographer with enough hands-on control while still maintaining a relatively neat and easy to navigate layout. The Quick menu provides instant access to the camera’s core settings, while it couldn’t be simpler or quicker to change aperture and shutter speed.
There are a host of drive modes available on the X-E1, so as well as single and continuous (a pretty impressive burst of 6fps), you can bracket exposure, ISO, Film Simulation, Dynamic Range and Motion Panorama. It’s within the Drive mode that you’ll also find the X-E1’s video mode. With the focus of the X-E1 being an out-and-out stills camera, don’t expect too many video features, though you’ll be able to shoot Full HD video in a cinematic 24fps with stereo sound, while there’s a 2.5mm microphone socket.
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Image Quality
Tone and Exposure
The X-E1 uses the same 256-zone metering system as the X-Pro1, providing Multi, Spot and Average metering modes.
With Multi metering selected, and the exposed shots from the X-E1 are hard to knock, delivering pleasingly exposed shots in almost every situation. On the occasion where you do have apply a touch of exposure compensation, normally boosting it slightly, the manual exposure dial means this is only a quick thumb movement away, while you obviously get to see a real-time display in the EVF.
The X-E1 also benefits from two expanded dynamic range settings, referred to as DR200 and DR400, with the aim to retain detail information in the highlights of the image, which can be an issue when shooting high-contrast scenes. Working with both JPEGs and Raw files, shooting in DR200 does see the X-E1’s base ISO increase to ISO 400, while ISO 800 will be your base ISO if shooting in DR400, but the results are impressive, with considerable highlight detail retained.
White Balance and Colour
The X-E1’s auto white balance is a solid, consistent performer in both natural and artificial light, producing neutral, pleasingly saturated results throughout the ISO range.
With a nod to Fuijfilm’s heritage, the X-E1 also features a host of film simulations modes to provide a slightly different look to your images, with Velvia, Provia, Astia, Pro Neg.Std, Pro Neg.Hi, while it’s possible to bracket a set of three different film simulation effects simultaneously. For mono shooters, there’s a selection of mono settings that include individual red, green and yellow filters.
Sharpness and Detail
The sharpness and level of detail delivered by the 16.3MP X-Trans CMOS sensor is nothing short of stunning, with the absence of an Anti-aliasing filter delivering a level of achievable detail that surpasses other APS-C based cameras with a similar resolution.
While the clever sensor design can go some way to being credited with this level of performance, the XF lenses, including the 18-55mm variable zoom, need recognition as well. They really do the sensor justice and make a fabulous pairing that would worry some full-frame cameras.
As well as delivering bags of detail, the X-E1 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to ISO performance either.
Low ISOs are smooth and devoid of any signs of image noise, with it beginning to encroach ever-so slightly at ISO 800, but it’s very subtle. While image noise does become more apparent at ISO 3200, the level of detail rendered is still good. At ISO 6400, results are still far more than acceptable, and though image noise is apparent, has a pleasing film-like structure.
Above that and it’s JPEG only at the extended ISOs of 12,800 and 25,600. Detail suffers here, as well as chroma noise becoming more prominent, it’s a pretty good performance considering.
Raw vs. JPEG
Comparing Raw files side-by-side with the X-E1’s JPEG output and surprisingly, they’re both fairly evenly matched when it comes to detail at base ISOs, though the Raw file still has the edge here. As the sensitivity is increased, and the Raw file appears to have more ‘bite’, with JPEG files slightly smoother due to in-camera noise reduction. Overall though, the X-E1’s JPEG processing is very pleasing.
Value & Verdict
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Value
With an asking price of £1149 with the rather lovely 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens, it goes right up against the similarly retro-inspired 16MP Olympus OM-D, which comes in at the same price with the slightly broader 12-50mm, though with a variable maximum aperture of f/3.5-6.3. That’s not forgetting 24MP Sony’s NEX-7 at around £949, though the 18-55mm kit lens isn’t a match for the X-E1’s.
Fujifilm X-E1 review – Verdict
While it may appear to be simply a stripped down, more affordable X-Pro1 to tempt more people into Fujifilm’s CSC family, that would be doing the X-E1 a great disservice.
Similar in size to the X100, and combined with a similar premium finish that won over so many fans to Fujifilm’s retro-inspired compact, the X-E1 manages to feel more refined and balanced as soon as you pick it up compared to the rather chunky X-Pro1.
And while it forgoes the smart Hybrid viewfinder of the X-Pro1, the payback is the sharper, crisper EVF in the X-E1 that more than makes up for this, though you could feel a little short-changed with the fairly underwhelming rear screen.
The X-E1’s AF, though improved from the original X-Pro1’s focusing, it’s still not as fast or as responsive as systems found in the competition, while the video capabilities aren’t as comprehensive either.
These points aside, and the X-E1 is a joy to shoot with. The back-to-basics philosophy won’t be for everyone, but it means its quick and easy to set-up and shoot with, while the Quick menu offers access to other key shooting controls.
The real jewel in the crown of the X-E1 is its sensor. The quality of the results and the detail rendered is excellent, delivering images that are some of, if not the best we’ve seen from an APS-C sized sensor.
While it may be a bit more of a niche camera than some other models, those who opt for the X-E1 will be rewarded with a camera that looks the part, handles well and delivers images beyond what its price may suggest.