The Fujifilm X-E2: evolution or revolution?
Mask, Oamaru. Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55 LM OIS, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/125s
From time to time I write reviews for f11 magazine, over and above my monthly column. As part of that, the Honourable Ed. gets first dibs on reviews. I dutifully wait until it has been out in the wild for a couple of weeks and then republish here.
Over the years I have owned a lot of different cameras. Some were Big Mistakes, cameras I thought I would like but which soon proved we were completely incompatible. The divorce followed quickly thereafter and they moved on to owners who could and would love them. Others were like arranged marriages. While it wasn’t love at first sight, we grew into each other and, over time, learned to work together.
Then there are the few where it was love at first sight. From the moment I first picked them up, we wanted to dance together and make visual music. My Nikon F5 was a soul mate, as was my Mamiya RZ67 and my Sony A900, and as is my D800. Now I think I may have found another. So, before I begin I would like to issue an Objectivity Alert. If you worship at the feet of the Ghost of Christmas Past, are a Child of the Enlightenment, and Bah Humbug is a treasured phrase for you, then I suggest you read no further.
A little background
The X-E2 is an evolution of the X-series, beginning with the still-outstanding X100, released a couple of years ago. What sets the cameras apart, to my mind, is the happy marriage of Old School analogue controls, developed over more than a century, and modern digital functions. On the one hand you can set Auto ISO and control Dynamic Range, but on the other, exposure compensation is a simple engraved dial on the top deck which requires no tabbing to access, just a simple glance and spin of the right thumb. I was recently in a restaurant when our waitress noticed my X-E1. Wow that is old-fashioned, she said. How long ago did they make that? Oh, about 12 months, I think. Is it digital then? Absolutely. That is so cool.
The Camera as Fashion Accessory.
Fujifilm are making a name for themselves as really listening to their users and, wherever possible, fixing complaints and introducing features they want. Firmware updates are regular and often, which makes a change from some companies which only patch under duress and then maybe never. The trusty X100 has just had a firmware update which improves it in all sorts of ways.
So what is it which sets the X-E2 apart and does it answer the question I have been asked a lot in the week I have had it, namely, is it worth the upgrade from the X-E1?
In a word: YES. In the year I have had it, The X-E1 has been the camera I have used most, the one I have picked up for all sorts of uses. I have used it to shoot professional assignments, including real estate and landscape for corporate clients. I have used it when prowling the streets, and when shooting commercial portraits. It has been my Swiss Army Knife.
But it isn’t perfect. Shutter lag and focusing speed need work, and placing the AF selection button on the left means you have to remove the camera from your eye to change focus points. The viewfinder can be difficult in bright light, especially if you wear spectacles. High eyepoint it isn’t. The artificial horizon is far from perfect. About 10˚ out IMHO. And the buffer filled too quickly for me to use it for any burst shooting. Shooting bracketed exposures for later HDR took time, anything up to 20s) before I could go again. I did grind my teeth when using Auto ISO, since for some obscure reason its default shutter speed seemed to be 1/52s, and there was no option to set a low shutter speed. But these are irritants, rather than game breakers. And the file quality is superb, easily able to be used for a print up to A0, a fact I have to keep reminding myself of whenever I pick up this ditzy wee camera.
But that was then and this is now.
Last week I had the opportunity to work with a very pre-production model, one of two in New Zealand. Mine came with a red “SAMPLE” stencilled on the battery cover, indication that it was VERY pre-production. I was warned that it might be flaky and not perform well. It did fine.
Fuji are going around the circle again. The X100 was upgraded to the X100S this year, with a revised layout, new sensor and PDAF (on-chip phase detection autofocus), which has considerably improved autofocus speed and accuracy. Next year we will see an X-Pro2.
But for now…enter the X-E2.
The hood and what is under it
One way of thinking of this camera is as an interchangeable-lens X100S. Much of the technology in The X-E2 has been tested and implemented on the X100S. There is the same X-Trans II sensor with PDAF and an improved EXR II processor. The camera looks the same as the X-E1 from the front, bottom and top, until you notice that the exposure compensation dial is now +/- 3 stops. Many times, shooting HDR for a real estate company, I wished I had that extra stop. Now I do and now I can.
The back is different, however. The screen is now 3.0” and 1.04MP, instead of the 2.8” 460k of the X-E1. While that may not seem much, the extra clarity and larger size makes reviewing much easier, as there is more screen real estate and the higher pixel count makes it easier to make good decisions when reviewing.
The buttons have been moved around in response to user comments. The awkward AF point selection button is gone, moved onto the 4-way controller. This means everything falls under your right thumb. No more taking the camera away from your eye to select a focus point. For a long time I have wanted some automation in focus point selection, similar to what happens on DSLRs, where the camera combines points to achieve focus. Sometimes there is no time to select the right point. Now there is a workaround (kind of). The X-E2 now offers face detection, a feature I usually switch on, especially for street/documentary and portrait work. Purists will sneer at this and stick to one of the three manual focus aids (magnified view, peaking display, or digital split-image). We working photogs love stuff like face detection which just works and makes for fewer decisions.
The ever useful Q button has been repositioned to the top, just near the viewfinder. Again an incremental and obvious refinement and not a paradigm shift. A great camera getting better.
The bugbear with the Auto ISO has been sorted. Now you can set upper and lower ISO limits and specify a minimum shutter speed. Brilliant. So far evolution, not revolution.
What did get my attention was the fact that the camera now shoots 14-bit RAW, a function which has tended to be the province of higher-end cameras from the Big Three. That really had my attention, because it supplies 16,384 different brightness levels bits compared to the 4,096 brightness levels 12 bit RAW can supply. In practice this means better shadow detail and smoother gradations, and being able to take your post-production frenzy further before the file looks like cr@p. For a more in-depth explanation of 12-vs-14 bit, look here.
But would the consummation exceed the expectation, I asked myself?
I headed for the streets. With a day to spend in the quaint historic precinct of Oamaru, where the shopkeepers and artists really live the Victorian Dream, I had a target-rich environment filled with bookbinders, artisan bakers, sculptors and artists, all housed in turn-of-last century limestone buildings. Perfect. I inserted a battery and card, slipped on my 18-55 LM OIS lens and powered it up. It immediately informed me that free lens firmware was available for download from the website. It wasn’t and, at the time of writing, it isn’t. Apparently the update is designed to allow use of the Lens Modulation Optimizer’, which ‘uses Fujifilm’s knowledge of each lens’s characteristics to adjust the in-camera processing and sharpening, in an attempt to combat diffraction and lens aberrations.’ I worked through the menu, making sure I set the minimum shutter speed in Auto ISO to 1/60s and the maximum ISO to 3200, DR to Auto, and Face Detection on.
Then I went prowling.
Focusing speed is faster. Way faster. Without a stopwatch, I used my X-E1 as comparison. Yep, much faster. Competitive with most DSLRs. There is minimal to no shutter or focusing lag. I pushed a little harder and tried Hi-speed shooting (7fps). The write speed is excellent. The buffer fills after 31 frames and then quickly clears, allowing you to carry on. Hell, you could even shoot birds with this instead of rushing out to buy a Canikony 800/5.6 Compensator lens. While it would seem to be the same viewfinder, in some inexpressible way it is clearer and brighter, and manual focusing is very easily accomplished. Viewfinders are the place where we interact with our subjects and a great viewfinder allows us to interact more seamlessly and intuitively. This is a great viewfinder, especially in low light, where the improved frame rate avoids that jarring sensation when moving it while it is held up to the eye. Spectacles don’t seem to get in the way either. There is an indefinable way in which the camera fits in your hand that makes it a joy to work with, a combination of function and ease of use which makes it seem almost born for the hand. And, like the X100S, you can’t help yourself. You just want to get out there and use it. Any excuse will do.
And here was the biggest surprise. Since digital cameras are really computers with a lens attached, it stands to reason that it is no longer a case of simply making a file. To complete the story you need to find a compatible raw converter which will make the most of the data. The wrong one will usually give a sympathetic result. One which is, however, perfectly-matched can deliver sublime results. You need to bring this combo together to get that astounding result you are seeking. No one size and one way fits all.
First, however, a little back story.
Some time ago, I began nagging Jim Christian at Picturecode to see if he would provide support for the X-Trans sensor in his astonishingly capable and very affordable raw converter, Photo Ninja.
Those of you who have used it will know of its eerie and almost supernatural ability to extract astonishing amounts of microdetail, while controlling shadows and highlights. At first Jim grumbled that he had too much on, but he would start thinking about how he might be able to build raw support into PN. At his suggestion, I supplied some files. Nothing happened for a while. Suddenly, one day, I received an email saying that he had built preliminary support into a recent release and would I test drive it for him. Of course. I was impressed and suggested a few places where it didn’t quite perform. He sorted those out and suddenly full support was there. To hear Jim talk, it’s all very straightforward, and he makes it sound about as complicated as washing dishes, but I guess a PhD in Artificial Intelligence does that for you. Note that this isn’t preliminary support (Capture One), or based on the open-source converter, DcRAW. Jim has written the algorithm from the ground up.
When I got back to my accommodation and opened the files in PN, my jaw dropped open. In the course of my ramblings around the precinct, I had found my way into the Grainstore Gallery, home of artist Donna Demente, whose work has been described as ‘a mix of drama, pre-Raphaelitism, taxidermy and metaphysics’. We talked and she agreed to allow me to make her likeness (Victorian for: take her picture). The photographs were shot with the 18-55 LM OIS zoom handheld using Auto ISO. The portrait image settings were 1/60s @ f8 at 3200 ISO handheld. I was stunned. With a little noise reduction added, superfine detail resolved itself beautifully. This is a file which will take being printed very large. More importantly, there is a 3-dimensionality which is difficult to get with many camera/lens/software combos.
While at first this may seem like a midlife facelift for the X-E Series, I would beg to differ. This is not new wallpaper over old cracks. This is a supremely evolved camera which wants to go to work and deliver premium results on par with the Big Boys’ Toys, in a size and form factor difficult to take seriously. All the old irks have been sorted out and with a new engine and running gear, this camera is supremely talented and capable. People who already own an X-E1 will see little in the specs to break out their wallets, but I would strongly suggest taking one for a test drive. You will be surprised. Fujifilm as a company subscribe to a philosophy of better pixels, not more pixels. And it shows. For a 16MP APS-C sensor, the results are amazing, easily on a par with full frame DSLRs.
At the beginning of this article I spoke of how some cameras lead to Instant Divorce, that others are like arranged marriages, where the couple take time to know each other, but occasionally cameras come along which stop you in your tracks, where you stare at each other Across a Crowded Room and you fall madly in love, knowing you want to be Together Forever.
I have my order in.