Fujifilm X-E1 review

The Fujifilm X-E1 is a solid mirrorless camera with an innovative image sensor, but it doesn't quite have the chops to unseat the Olympus OM-D E-M5 as our Editors' Choice.
Photo of Fujifilm X-E1

The Fujifilm X-E1 ($1,399 list with 18-55mm lens) is the second interchangeable lens camera in Fuji’s X series. It omits the hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder that is included with the top-end X-Pro1, and instead includes an extremely sharp OLED EVF. Its 16-megapixel X-Trans CMOS image sensor uses a larger 6-by-6 array pattern of red, green, and blue pixels, which promises to produce more natural, film-like images than standard 4-by-4 Bayer pattern; it also eliminates the need for a low-pass filter, as it is not prone to the moiré effect. The camera does produce excellent images and will make the right type of shooter very happy, but it isn’t quite as good as our Editors’ Choice for high-end compact interchangeable lens cameras, the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Design and Features
The X-E1 features the same retro styling that has adorned many a mirrorless camera. Our review unit was chrome with black leatherette, but there’s also an all-black version available. It measures just 2.9 by 5.1 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 12.3 ounces without a lens. Styled after classic rangefinder cameras, the EVF is located on the top left corner of the camera rather than in the center as it would be with an SLR. The Sony Alpha NEX-7 also has its EVF in the same location, but it is not nearly as heavy on the retro styling as the X-E1.

The camera’s control layout is also something out of the past. Aperture is controlled via a dial on the lens, there’s a Shutter Speed dial on the top plate, as well as an Exposure Compenstation dial. There isn’t a mode dial, instead you put the camera into Aperture Priority by manually adjusting the aperture and leaving other settings to automatic, Shutter Priority by doing the same to the shutter speed setting, and Program mode by leaving both set to auto, adjusting your exposure via the EV Compensation dial.

There are two Manual modes—both are activated by setting the Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. The first is a type of ISO Priority mode—it allows you to control the aperture and shutter speed manually, but automatically varies the ISO within the set limits to create a proper exposure. You also have the option of manually setting the ISO, which gives you full control over your exposure. There’s a programmable Fn button on the top plate that, by default, brings up a menu to adjust ISO.

Rear physical controls include a button to release the pop-up flash. It’s placed on a hinge so that you can tilt it up and bounce light off of a ceiling for more even illumination. The View Mode button toggles between the rear LCD, EVF, and an eye-sensor mode that automatically switches between the two. To the left of the LCD you’ll find a Play button, a Drive Mode button (from which you also set the self timer, activate Panoramic mode, or switch to Movie mode), an AE button that sets the metering area, and an AF button that sets the active focus point. To the right of the LCD you’ll find the Menu button, a four-way directional pad, a Display button to change what is shown on the rear LCD, the AE-L/AF-L button to lock exposure or focus for a shot, and the Q button. That brings up a menu which lets you quickly adjust any of a number of shooting settings. The front of the camera houses a toggle switch to change between AF-S, AF-C, and manual focus modes.

The included kit lens is the Fujinon XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS, which covers a 27-82.5mm field of view in terms of classic full-frame photography. Most kit lenses are rather inexpensive—they work, but you’ll get better images if you invest more in a lens. We knocked the otherwise excellent Sony Alpha NEX-7 for a kit lens that couldn’t keep up with its 24-megapixel image sensor, was a bit slow in terms of aperture, and displayed plenty of distortion; this 18-55mm is a f/2.8-4 design, is optically stabilized, is extremely sharp, and doesn’t add noticeable distortion to images. You pay for this. Most kit lenses add $100 or perhaps $150 to the price of a camera. The X-E1 is priced at $999 as a body only, so you’re paying a $400 premium to add the zoom—a lens that will set you back $599 if purchased on its own.

In addition to its native lenses, Fuji supports Leica M lenses via an official adapter—and you can mount pretty much any SLR lens to the camera via a bevy of unofficial adapters available at photo specialty stores, Amazon, and eBay. There’s no shortage of shooters who look at the X-E1 and X-Pro1 as a poor man’s Leica M9-P, as the APS-C sensor only introduces a modest 1.5x crop factor to beloved wide-angle optics; much less bothersome than the 2x crop factor of Micro Four Thirds. The Sony NEX system is generally considered the best platform for adapted manual focus lenses, as cameras like the NEX-6 support focus peaking, which highlights in-focus areas of an image to help you more quickly confirm focus. Despite having a fantastic OLED viewfinder, the X-E1 does not support peaking.

Of course, you always have the option to use Fuji’s native lenses—they support autofocus and are a bit less expensive than German-made Leica lenses. The Fuji 35mm f/1.4 sells for $600; Leica’s equivalent will set you back $5,000.

The OLED EVF is extremely sharp thanks to a 2.4-million dot resolution. It is in every way as good as the excellent EVFs built into the Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras, and is much sharper than the disappointing LCD EVF in the Samsung NX20. It’s a great way to frame images—though not as high quality as the bright optical finder in the X-Pro1. The fixed rear LCD is disappointing. At 3 inches, it’s big, but the 460k-resolution is low. Even Sony’s entry-level NEX-F3 has a tilting  921k-dot display, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has a tilting, touch-sensitive OLED display.

The camera doesn’t have any whiz-bang features like Wi-Fi or weather-sealing. All of Samsung’s current NX cameras, as well as the Sony NEX-5R and NEX-6 have built-in Wi-Fi so you can share photos online with ease. You do have the option of adding an Eye-Fi memory card to the X-E1—it offers support for the card’s Wi-Fi features within its image playback menu. If you want a camera that you can take out in the rain without worry, you’ll want to look at the Olympus OM-D E-M5; its splash-proof design is one of many factors that help it earn our Editors’ Choice in this category.

Performance and Conclusions
The X-E1 is one of the faster mirrorless cameras we’ve tested with a start-up time of just 1.2 seconds, and 4.6fps continuous shooting. Its shutter lag is a black mark, as it takes about 0.3-second for the camera to focus and fire in good light; in dim light focus speed dips to about 2 seconds. These focus speed tests were performed with the 1.04 firmware installed, which promises to improve autofocus performance. The Olympus E-M5 lags behind a bit in start-up time, requiring 1.5 seconds to turn on and fire a shot, but clocks only 0.09-second shutter lag, and it can fire off shots at 9 frames per second.

The X-E1′s burst shooting is limited by its internal buffer, and the number of shots you can get before it slows down is dictated by the speed of your memory card. We tested the camera with a SanDisk card rated at 95MBps and managed to grab 17 JPG shots before slowing, with 7.8 seconds required to save them. Switching to Raw or Raw+JPG shooting reduced the number of shots to 12, with 13.3 seconds required to write all the photos to the card in Raw mode and 16.2 seconds for Raw+JPG mode.

I used Imatest to measure the sharpness of the included 18-55mm lens. The results were impressive—it’s one of the best-performing 18-55mm lenses we’ve seen. At 18mm f/2.8 it records 2,252 lines per picture height, manages 2,329 lines at 36mm f/3.6, and stays sharp at 55mm f/4, where it scores 2,399 lines. Scores stay about the same if you reduce the aperture, allowing you to use that setting for depth of field control with no worry about an open aperture sapping the sharpness from your images. Distortion isn’t an issue at any focal length—at worst it shows is a negligible 0.7 percent barrel distortion at 18mm. The Sony NEX-7′s 18-55mm kit zoom pales in comparison; it records 1,723 lines at 18mm, 1,738 lines at 35mm, and 1,703 lines at 55mm. At 18mm that lens exhibits 3.1 barrel distortion, which is quite noticeable, and it still shows 2.7 percent pincushion distortion at 35mm and 1.3 percent pincushion at 55mm.

The X-E1 also does a good job controlling noise at higher ISO settings. Fuji promises a more film-like grain pattern with the X-Trans sensor design. There are certainly subtle differences between these images and traditional Bayer sensors, but they are tough to quantify. You can push the camera to its top standard ISO 6400 setting and keep noise below 1.5 percent—more importantly, there’s only a slight loss of fine detail at that setting, regardless of whether you shoot in Raw or JPG. The camera supports ISO 12800 and 25600 in JPG mode only, although detail noticeably deteriorates at those settings. The Samsung NX20 also keeps noise under control through ISO 6400, but it starts to lose detail quickly when you pump the ISO higher than 1600.

Video recording is supported, but only at 1080p24 or 720p24 quality in QuickTime format. During our video tests, the camera occasionally had a hard time locking focus during recording. We noticed a little wobble, likely caused by the rolling CMOS shutter, during pans—the top of the frame will get ahead of the bottom of the frame during quick camera movements. The sound of the lens focusing is not audible on the soundtrack, and there is a mic input if you prefer to use an add-on. Despite the focus and wobble issues, video is crisp and clear at default settings, and you can set it for a number of saturation levels, which are supposed to emulate Fuji film stocks like Provia and Velvia.

The X-E1 has standard mini USB and mini HDMI ports and supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.

The X-E1 is a serious mirrorless camera built around an innovative image sensor, but it’s not as versatile as some others in its class. It ships with a truly excellent kit lens, much better than the one bundled with the Sony NEX-7. That camera and its sibling, the NEX-6, are better options for using adapted manual focus lenses thanks to focus peaking implementation. The NEX models also offer more extensive frame rate options and reliable autofocus during video recording. Our Editors’ Choice the Olympus OM-D E-M5 features a smaller image sensor, so it’s not the best option for adapting legacy wide-angle lenses, but has a vast library of native Micro Four Thirds lenses, is weather-sealed, and focuses much faster than the X-E1. If video isn’t a major concern, the X-E1 is a viable option—especially if you are interested in supplementing its 18-55mm zoom with a fast prime lens or two. Its control scheme will satisfy demanding shooters, its EVF is excellent, and its retro design is sure to turn heads.

More Digital Camera Reviews:

Specifications
Dimensions 2.9 x 5.1 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI, Mic
GPS No
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.22 seconds
LCD dots 460000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 2252
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.2 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 12.3 oz
Lens Mount Fujifilm X
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 82.5 mm
Shutter Lag 0.3 seconds
Sensor Size 23.6 x 15.6 (APS-C) mm
EVF Resolution 2360000 dpi

Verdict
The Fujifilm X-E1 is a solid mirrorless camera with an innovative image sensor, but it doesn't quite have the chops to unseat the Olympus OM-D E-M5 as our Editors' Choice.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc