The Fuji X-E1: Pint-Sized Photo Powerhouse

By David Saffir Back to

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Author notes: After I finished my first review of the Fuji X-E1, I had felt at the time that available RAW processing software had not quite caught up with the demands of the new processor provided in that camera.  And as so often happens in the digital world, things have changed again!

 Adobe just released Camera RAW version 7.4. Long story short, it apparently includes upgrades to processing for the Fuji’s images. I downloaded the update and reprocessed some of the flower images I had taken with the X-E1.

 I definitely see improvements, sharpness foremost among them. The small details are rendered more naturally, with crisper edges and better textures. I also feel that brighter areas that are highly saturated have a more natural look to them, with better mid-tone transitions, improved dimensionality and detail.

 Kudos to Adobe for these improvements. Certainly they are catching up to Phase One Capture One. I think there is still untapped potential in this camera/sensor, and I look forward to continuing developments from Adobe and its competitors.

Image made with old Camera RAW processing
Image made with new Camera RAW processing

General Features and Observations

I was impressed by the X-E1’s lightness and build quality. Although this camera— made in Japan—is about 25-30% smaller than it’s big brother the X-Pro1, the camera fits my hands well.

Many key controls are located on the camera exterior. Aperture adjustment is made via a ring on the lens body.  Shutter speed and exposure compensation are manually adjusted via a dial on top of the camera. Most other external buttons are arranged around the rear- viewing screen. The lens mount and lens bayonet are both metal. Lenses (I used the 18-55mm and 60mm macro) are very well made with all-metal bodies, and crisp controls. The manual-focusing rings operate smoothly and predictably.  On the 18-55mm lens, the knurling on the focusing ring is the same as that on the zoom ring. I would like to see this change, as it is a little too easy to grab the wrong ring.

A dial on top of the camera controls exposure compensation; it is located a bit behind and to the right of the shutter button. It is easy to read and make quick adjustments. The detents are positive and easily felt. One point: the dial extends beyond the edge of the camera – it’s best to check this to make sure it hasn’t been accidently moved out of position.

The CMOS sensor is unique to Fuji, using a non-Bayer array in APS-C format that yields 16.3 megapixels. The sensor uses square pixels, and does not have an anti-aliasing filter. This proprietary design has its advantages and disadvantages. “Normal” ISO range runs from 200-6400 – and can be extended to 100-25,600. The X-E1 will capture both JPEG and RAW file formats. You can “process” a JPEG to RAW via in-camera controls. The camera also shoots HD video, with stereo audio, at 1980×1080 or 1,280×720 resolution. Continuous video can be captured for 29 minutes.

The rear-viewing screen is bright and crisp. It is a 460k-dot LCD 2.8” monitor, with approximately 100% frame coverage. It is readable in daylight but not in direct sun.

The screen can operate in live view, and offers an option to show an electronic level (artificial horizon). It also displays a histogram, exposure data, and so on. Internal menus are accessed here.

This camera uses a 2.36k-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) that has approximately 100% frame coverage. You see pretty much what the lens sees. It’s an OLED type, very bright, and colors look natural and contrast is very good. The viewfinder operates only in EVF mode, there is no optical viewfinder. Figure 2 and 3 show the camera controls.

I noticed a slight “stutter” in the viewfinder image when panning the camera but I was surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to this. One nice feature for those who wear eyeglasses – the diopter adjustment is built into the viewfinder.

The camera can switch automatically between the rear viewing screen and the viewfinder. When you raise your eye to the viewfinder, the rear LCD shuts off. When you lower the camera, the LCD switches on. Either one can be turned “on” by itself. A couple of other controls add to the versatility of the camera. One of these is a “function” button – and a number of features can be assigned to it. I chose to use this as my ISO adjustment control, as it is fast and easy to reach. The “Q” button (right below the AE-L button) provides access to presets and other menu options.

Battery and memory cards are accessible through a door in the bottom of the camera. The battery used is the same as in the X-Pro1; FUJIFILM and SanDisk SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards have been approved for this camera.

The camera includes a small, lightweight, cantilevered pop-up flash. It is a clever design, and extends and folds easily. It can be rotated upward at an angle, which could be useful in some circumstances. I have concerns that this lightweight design may be vulnerable to bumps and such. A flash hot-shoe is also provided, and Fuji makes accessory on-camera flash units.

White balance pre-sets include the usual suspects plus underwater, custom, and color temp selection. (Custom white balance allows in-camera white balance from a neutral object).

The camera can be operated in full-auto, aperture priority, and shutter priority mode. The layout and use of these controls are a bit different than one might find on a DSLR. One combines settings on the lens ring with the shutter speed dial on top of the camera.  I feel this is faster than many other setups.

Single AF, Continuous AF, and manual focus are available. An AE-L/AF-L button is provided – you can focus quickly using AF while in manual focus mode. Of course, it can also be used to lock focus independently of the shutter button.

A tripod socket is provided, but it is offset from the center of the camera. This creates obvious issues of course but for me the biggest one is that mounting a quick release plate may block the door that provides access to memory card and battery changes. (Mounting plates made by Really Right Stuff do provide a window or opening for access to the door).

Ports are provided for USB-mini, HDMI-mini, and remote release/microphone connectors. I recommend routine use of a remote release to prevent camera shake on cameras this size.

Image Quality

Overall image quality ranges from very good to excellent. I’m very impressed with the X-E1’s color rendering – it is remarkable, to say the least. Highly saturated subjects retain accurate levels of detail and nuance of structure. High-contrast transitions are crisp, with no discernible artifact at native ISO. The camera holds highlight and shadow detail quite well. Higher ISO settings up to 6400 create noticeable, but not objectionable noise; however, for serious work I’d prefer to keep ISO levels at 800 and below. This may change as software applications improve.

Fuji uses an APS-C sized XTRANS CMOS sensor, which is constructed using a non-Bayer array. Figure 4 shows a comparison, old vs. new (the new array is said by Fuji to more closely resemble the behavior of silver halide film and in combination with its new in-camera EXR processor Pro, reduces the signal-to-noise ratio, and improves dynamic range.

The new sensor design also allows elimination of the anti-aliasing filter found on most digital cameras, which in my experience improves image sharpness. (The new Nikon D800E, and many medium-format digital sensors do not use an AA filter). The modified pixel pattern in the Fuji sensor seems to eliminate issues with moiré, as well.  Fuji also incorporates a proprietary color filter into sensor construction.

Lens quality is very good to excellent, with the prime lenses taking the lead over their zoom counterpart. Focal lengths available now include 18-55mm (optical stabilization), 60mm, and 35mm (multiply focal length by 1.5).  Fuji announced that several additions are due soon. The flower images (Figure 5) was side-lit to create a challenge for the camera. Note how the details hold up in highly saturated areas. Texture and nuance of surface modeling in the leaves is also top-notch.

I also did some testing inside a building, to evaluate high-ISO performance and (informally) lens distortion. Figure 6 was shot at 6400 ISO, at 1/240 sec, at f/4.5, using the 18mm end of the 18-55 zoom. There is little significant barreling or pincushion effect, but there is some perspective distortion, which in my view is partly the result of the need to hand hold the camera in a restrictive environment. The noise level at 6400 ISO is noticeable, but the image would be usable at moderate size.

Processing RAW Files

Fuji’s new sensor design has also created a significant challenge in demosaicing and processing RAW files. There are various methods to convert the images: in camera, or through computer-based software. Current software options include SILKYPIX ® (Fuji provides this software with the camera). Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), and Phase One Capture One (v. 7 has been released). I did not test the in-camera conversion, because I didn’t want a jpg file.

Based on current experience, I believe Phase One is doing the best job of the three. Fuji’s software and ACR are pretty good, but I’d still give Capture One the prize. I used Capture One for all the final images in this article. Capture One does several things better than the others: image rendering is better in the details, color is more believable and lifelike, images look sharper, and noise control is better.

In developing these files in ACR, there is a very fine line between effectively reducing color and luminance noise, and blotting out the details. I find this less than optimal. In Capture One, noise reduction is much more controllable, and yields better overall results. I’m not saying that ACR is doing a terrible job, but at 400-800 ISO and above one can really see the difference.

I feel that software and firmware development by all companies will continue to give photographers opportunities to push the envelope in developing images from this camera. As good as this sensor is, I think we’ll see even better image quality in developed images over the coming months.

Conclusion

The X-E1 camera is a keeper. I wouldn’t hesitate to make this my everyday camera, or take it on an extended trip abroad – particularly with some of the new wide-angle lenses coming up. Light and durable, it’s completely controllable with quiet operation and great image quality.

Resources: Fuji, Fujifilmusa.com; Really Right Stuff, http://reallyrightstuff.com


About the Author

David Saffir
DSaffir
David Saffir is an internationally recognized, award-winning portrait, commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker. He teaches workshops and seminars in photography, printmaking and color management. He lives in Santa Clarita, California. He is the author of Mastering Digital Color: A Photographer’s and Artist’s Guide to Controlling Color, published by Thomson/Cengage and a photography book, The Joy of Discovery. davidsaffir.wordpress.com