Fuji X-E1 – a practical review

I have just submitted drafts of the first three chapters of my dissertation so I am celebrating by finishing, at last, my review of the Fuji X-E1, my new travel companion. I had for some months been hankering after a smaller, more lightweight alternative to my hefty DSLR; I needed a lightweight travel and hiking camera I could tote around without breaking my back. But while I wanted it to be small, light, and convenient, I was not willing to compromise on image quality. A tall order given that I was used to the sublime perfection of my Canon 5Diii. The new mirror less compact system cameras seemed a good choice. I rented the Sony NEX-7, and reviewed it in January. It ticked a lot of my boxes, but not without reservations. So I kept looking and finally, in April, opted for the Fuji X-E1. Its first outing was a city break to Venice; taking a huge leap of faith I left my DSLR at home.

fuji test shot

f2.8, 1/20, ISO 3200

I am not going to try to replicate the many fine, detailed technical reviews out there – just google the camera and you’ll find them. I am simply going to share my experiences with this camera so far. The pictures are chosen to illustrate the points made in the review rather than for artistic merit.

fuji test shot

f10, 1/4, ISO 1600

The camera and its 18-55mm kit lens set me back about £900. At that price tag, this camera is aimed at professional and serious enthusiasts. It packs a healthy but by no means massive 16 mega pixels onto its CMOS-sized sensor. That is small beans compared to the NEX-7’s whopping 24 megapixels, but the upside is the X-E1 beats the NEX-7 hands down for noise control. That is also partly due to the unique array of the sensor (see technical reviews). This next shot is a jpeg straight out of camera.

fuji test shot

f2.8, 1/30, ISO 3200

And here it is zoomed in to native resolution.

fuji test shot

f2.8, 1/30, ISO 3200

Even at ISO 6400, shots are useable.

fuji test image

f2.8, 1/55, ISO 6400

Jpegs come out of this camera looking amazing. After years of shooting only Raw, I am now shooting both with the X-E1 and more often than not have no need to access the RAW file, the Jpeg is so good.

fuji test shot

f4.5, 1/30, ISO 800

Calling the 18-55mm with which the camera is usually bundled a ‘kit’ really doesn’t do justice to this cracking little lens. It captures sharp, crisp images every time with minimal chromatic aberration or distortion. Being an inveterate pixel-peeper, I thought I’d really notice the difference from my Canon L lenses, but not so. It’s sharp right to the edges, even at 18mm and f2.8. Image stabilisation is on the lens rather than in camera, which works for me as that’s how Canon does it too. And it’s good. Of course, it helps that there isn’t a mirror clunking away inside. The next image was handheld at 1/7.

fuji test shot

f2.8, 1/7, ISO 3200

There are six X-mount lenses made for this camera at time of writing, with four more in the pipeline, and Carl Zeiss has just launched an additional three, making just about every possible focal length and aperture available to the Fuji X-E1 shooter.

The electronic viewfinder is clear and very useable, not just as back up in case the sun is too bright for the LCD but a very viable shooting option and one I have found myself using often. As with the NEX-7, it operates as soon as you hold it to your eye.

fuji test shot

f4, 1/15, ISO 1600

When the Fuji X-Pro 1, the X-E1’s bigger and older brother, was first released, there were issues with RAW; Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) couldn’t read the files. I gather that this has now been fixed with an ACR update, but I have to say I haven’t had any problems anyway. I simply convert all the raw files into digital negatives and then process through ACR as normal. The next image is a raw file processed in this way.

Fuji test image

f13. 1/17, ISO 1250

A huge part of this camera’s appeal lies in the way it handles. With the NEX-7 I was frustrated by having to navigate my way through endless menus to change even quite simple things. With the Fuij, there are dials and buttons for all the important things, like shutter speed, ISO, autofocus points, exposure compensation. Aperture is adjusted using a ring on the lens. What joy! I just wish they had the apertures marked on the ring. One niggle is that the exposure compensation dial is too easily nudged by mistake, which could result in a lot of badly exposed images. However, I quickly became used to avoiding this problem.

fuji test shot

f8, 1/20, ISO 200

There are some other interesting things left for me to explore, like the film simulation modes which will appeal in particular to photogs who used to swear by Fuji Velvia film. With its retro styling, the X-E1 is easy on the eye too. But, of course, that has nothing to do with it…

Sony NEX-7: a practical review

As promised, here is my review of the Sony NEX-7 I hired last week from the good folk at  hireacamera.com.  I am not going to try to replicate the thorough technical reviews you can find on-line.  The experts can do a far better job.  However, I will share my experiences of using the camera and maybe that will be useful to anyone thinking of buying a high end compact system camera.  For high-end this little camera certainly is; with its 18-55mm kit lens, it will set you back well over £800.

sony NEX-7

This camera is aimed at enthusiast or professional photographers who want a lighter second camera but still want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and high image quality.  This is exactly what I am looking for but at that price, I want to make the best choice, hence the hire.  I tested the camera in bright daylight in Dartmoor National Park and at night in the town of Dartmouth.

Sony NEX-7

The camera is so light I hardly noticed it despite a long day hike on Dartmoor on New Year’s Day.  I shot mostly in RAW, and the camera produced some great results, sharp, punchy images with good dynamic range.  The electronic viewfinder works reasonably well so that you can still shoot in bright light that would make using the LCD screen difficult.  The latter is, by the way, excellent.   I found that the two dials at the back of the top plate were too touchy, easy to manipulate by mistake so you have to be very careful to check that you haven’t accidentally dialled in two stops of exposure compensation, a potentially disastrous mistake if not noticed.

sony NEX-7

The Sony NEX-7 packs a whopping 24 megapixels onto its APS-C size sensor.  Considering this, noise control is reasonable.  Not as good as my old 5Dii and not even in the same league as my mark III.  But then, that’s not really a fair comparison.  Images are very useable up to ISO 800, and some even at ISO1600 but not really beyond.  I am a terrible pixel peeper (and there are lots of pixels to peep at) and at ISO 400, I found I wanted to apply some noise reduction. The noise reduction the camera applies to jpegs works reasonably well but there is a problem with it.  It does very strange things to grass, as in the detail below from a jpeg taken at ISO 400.

Sony NEX-7

And to faces (the image below at ISO 800).

Sony NEX-7

But the noise reduction in Adobe Camera Raw does a better job.  Yet another reason to shoot RAW.

Although the camera does offer a number of automatic and creative modes for less experienced photographers, they are fiddly to use as the menu is far from intuitive. The menu system is perhaps the most frustrating thing about this powerful little camera. You can find yourself compromising on the type of image you shoot simply because it’s too much trouble to fight your way through the options to get to what you want.  Using my 5DIII again on our return was an absolute breeze by comparison.  Having said that, I did try a few of the creative modes.  In particular, the in-camera HDR did a reasonable job with this high contrast scene.

sony NEX-7

I find the colours a little too vibrant but then I did select the vibrant option in the menu so that’s fair enough.  On the whole, I found the creative modes were fun, but not for serious shooting.  You can achieve the same effects only better in post processing.  But life doesn’t always allow an opportunity to start getting the tripod out and bracketing exposures. If you are trying to squeeze your photography into odd moments on a family trip, setting the camera to HDR or whatever mode suits the occasion might be a good idea.

When I go out for dinner in the evening on holiday, I do not want to take my DSLR and tripod with me.  But I usually see something I want to photograph.  This is where the Sony NEX-7 really came into its own.  With lens attached it is not really pocket sized but it is small bag sized.  And it coped very well with my demands during a pre dinner stroll through Dartmouth.

Sony NEX-7

Not too bad hand held at f.4.5, 1/8 and ISO 800.

I even gave it the difficult challenge of a shop window display at ISO1600.

sony NEX-7

With no grass or skin in sight, the in camera noise reduction did a great job with no serious noise issues even when I adjusted the underexposure of the shadow areas.

Sony NEX-7

Popped onto a handy wall and used at ISO 100, the camera did an excellent job.  In the next images, detail is retained from corner to corner, colours on white balance tungsten setting are good, and there is no visible noise, even after adding a considerable amount of fill light in ACR.

sony NEX-7

And look how close you can crop and still have loads of crisp detail.

sony NEX-7

And that is the beauty of this little camera – you can pop it onto ledges, windowsills, car dashboards, and into day bags that simply would not accommodate an enthusiast level DSLR and lens.  Is image quality as good as my Canon 5Diii?  No, not even close.  But it is better than my old Canon 400D and, as one might expect, a whole lot better than my iPhone 4.

Sony NEX-7

I have one more camera to test, but the Sony NEX-7 is definitely a contender.