Why Mirrorless? Our Review of the Fuji X-E1

[WARNING --- NERD ALERT. This post is about camera gear so unless you're interested in the technical side of photography, skip this or it will most likely put you to sleep!]

We live by the basic rule that less is more in wedding photography. Capture moments and be creative, that's the goal and it's a lot easier to do that if your bag is lighter and you don't burden yourself with too many options to choose from. The gear we use has to fit with that philosophy. 

Until recently I had always shot with DSLRs. They have served me well and I have never really had a complaint with using them on a job. But when I'm not shooting professionally, when I'm shooting street photography or just casual stuff, DSLRs stopped being fun for me a long time ago. Even my Canon 6d's (known for being about as small and lightweight as a full frame DSLR can be) are still big cameras. There is nothing causal about using them. When I take them out on the street I feel like I'm "working" instead of just enjoying myself. I've also found that people can be a little uncomfortable in front of a DSLR.

Based on Brian's experience with the Olympus E-M1 (that review coming soon), I decided I'd pick up a mirrorless camera to try and make shooting for myself something I could enjoy again. I ended up deciding between the 2-year-old Fuji X-E1 and the newer version, the X-E2.

Most reviews I read seemed to rate the cameras pretty closely, especially given Fuji's commitment to providing firmware updates for their older cameras like the XE-1. Obviously the X-E2 has some better features but as far as image quality goes, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot of difference. So I decided to get a used X-E1 and put the savings towards a set of primes:

18mm f/2.0 (27mm equiv), 35mm f/1.4 (53mm equiv), and 60mm f/2.4 macro (90mm equiv).

Like I said, the goal wasn't really to get something that I would use professionally but I quickly found myself so impressed by the XE-1 image quality that I was taking it out on paid assignments as well. I've now had the camera a little over a month. It's been with me for a few engagement/couple shoots, a couple of weddings and a ton of personal shots, so here is what I think:

Build Quality: 7/10

To be totally honest I was a little disappointed with the XE-1 when I first took it out of the box. I had read all these reviews comparing it to the old Leica and Contax rangefinders so I was expecting something that felt a little more substantial in the hands. It's mostly hard plastic and is deceivingly light, especially when paired with the 18mm lens which is almost always what I've got mounted to the camera. 

But after getting over that initial letdown I've found the X-E1 to be pretty solid. I've never dropped it but there have been some bumps for sure. I've never been known to be gentle on my gear and it's holding up quite well. Keep in mind I bought it used so it arrived in good condition but with plenty of miles on it already. Any issues due to poor construction would have most likely already popped up but there have been none. 

Ergonomics: 9/10

I added the red brass soft release button and I definitely recommend one. 

I added the red brass soft release button and I definitely recommend one. 

Before picking up the X-E1 I would read other photographers glowing reviews of the Fuji X-cameras and roll my eyes when they would glowingly mention the "Fuji Experience". I thought that was mostly BS; Hipster photographers exaggerating some mystical and un-quantifiable "thing" so they could justify their purchases and feel cool.

Well... I was kinda wrong. I think the "experience" they're all describing is actually about Fuji's fantastic ergonomics. These cameras are designed for experienced photographers, especially those who shoot on the go and find themselves frequently in AV mode. You've got the exposure compensation dial at your right thumb and of course the aperture control is on the lens itself (why did camera companies stop doing that?). It's the easiest camera I've ever used in terms of changing settings without having to look down or take my eye away from the viewfinder. 

With the eye sensor it's also virtually seamless changing between the Viewfinder and the LCD for live view. Plus the 'Q' and 'custom function' buttons makes it really easy to access anything practical that you'd need from the menu.

My only complaint about the layout and design is the placement of the SD card slot. It's in the same compartment as the battery which can make it a hassle to open up and swap cards when you're pressed for time (especially when you'be got clumsy fat guy fingers like me). It should be on the side of the camera, something Fuji seems to have acknowledged when they moved it there on it's newest camera, the XT1.

Performance [AF, EVF, battery life]: 7.5/10

This was my biggest area of concern when I decided to buy into the Fuji system. So many reviews (especially the early ones) mentioned how "quirky" the camera was and how the auto focus would leave users frustrated. But for all the complaints about the AF, there were just as many reviews out there that mentioned how helpful Fuji's firmware updates had been in making cameras like the X100, XPro1 and X-E1 miles better in this aspect. A common phrase in reading post-firmware reviews is, "a totally new camera". 

Of course, my XE-1 came loaded with the latest firmware updates already on it so I can't comment on what the camera was like before when it first cam out. All I know is, my experience with the AF has been positive. It's not as fast as one of our Canon's paired with an L lens and USM focusing, but that would really be an unreasonable expectation to have in the first place, wouldn't it?

My 18mm and 35mm are both quick and accurate. I've found that the 35mm will sometimes hunt a little but nothing extreme and it's only in the conditions that you'd expect: low light and/or very little contrast. There is some noise when focusing but overall the performance isn't bad at all. Unless you're shooting sports or something very fast moving, you'll be able to get your shot. I would compare the AF of an XE-1 and the 18mm or 35mm to using a non-USM lens on a Canon like the 50/1.8, or the Tamron 17-50 or 28-75's. It's not fast but it's not slow either.

(The 60mm is another story but that lens is notoriously poor to focus, something I knew when I bought it and since I've had no issue with my other two lenses I place no blame at all on the camera or the system).

The EVF is good but not spectacular like the Olympus E-M1. Some people complain about the lag in low light, but it's nothing objectionable. I mean, yes, there is some lag when I'm shooting on a dark dance floor with DJ lights swirling around but that's a pretty extreme situation and even then it's something you can manage. You get used to the timing of it all and adapt. And again, in typical shooting situations the EVF performs well enough that I never really find myself thinking about it. 

(Speaking of EVF's, I must say that I've really come to enjoy using them in general. It's really nice to be able to see how your shot is being exposed in camera before you take your shot. No need to chimp really, you already know if you nailed your shot. It's such a useful tool that I've actually been using my X-E1 as a de facto light meter for my old Yashica film camera)

The battery life however, is crap. No way around it. Mirrorless cameras with an EVF will always drain batteries way faster than a DSLR will. I seem to be getting between 200-250 shots per battery. I currently have 2 so I can keep a spare with me at all times but I'm thinking about picking up a 3rd before we hit NYC for a day-trip in September. I'm not saying I'll need that 3rd battery, but I want one just in case and I suppose that tells you all you need to know about battery life with this camera.

Image Quality:  10/10

Taken with the 18mm from my car while sitting in traffic.

Taken with the 18mm from my car while sitting in traffic.

I have no idea how Fuji does it. I've owned APS-C size sensor cameras before (most recently a Canon 60D) and none of them came even close to what this Fuji can do. Obviously it can't quite duplicate the shallow DOF produced by a full frame camera but as far as dynamic range, color, tone, contrast, etc, it's as good as anything I've ever used. There are shots I've taken with the XE-1 and 35/1.4 combo that I would never be able to differentiate from my 6d and 50/1.2L combo. It's that good. 

One of my first shots with the 35/1.4, I added a little contrast and warmed it up a touch but its basically SOOC.

One of my first shots with the 35/1.4, I added a little contrast and warmed it up a touch but its basically SOOC.

Are you sure this wasn't full frame? Another with the 35/1.4.

Are you sure this wasn't full frame? Another with the 35/1.4.

ISO is solid as well. My 6d's are considered to be as good or better than any other camera ever made in terms of ISO performance, so it takes something special to impress me. And I have to say, I'm mildly impressed by the X-E1 in this regard. I don't really notice noise until I get to the really dark areas of an image shot at ISO 1600 and even then I have to pixel peep to find it. I regularly shoot to 3200 and get pleasing results. The dynamic range starts to suffer a little at that level but noise is very usable. Going to 6400 can be a little messy depending on your setting but if it's a shot you want/need you can certainly live with the results. I've never gone higher than that because frankly I've never had to. I could take some kind of example shots at 12,800 I suppose but that's not the kind of review we want this to be. 

Things to Love: 

-Ergonomics- fantastic

-Sensor- APS-C is a good compromise between the micro-four-thirds cameras and full frame. I also prefer the native 2:3 aspect ratio to the 4:3 you get with m43. 

-Image quality- top notch

-Exposure meter and Auto White-Balance- both noticeably more accurate than on any DSLR I've ever owned.  

-Lens selection- Fuji has a killer set of primes. Right now I've got the 18/35/60 but the 14mm and 56mm are on my radar and people rave about the 23mm as well. I'm not a big fan of zooms but the 18-55 (f/2.8-4.0!) is supposed to be pretty impressive and the 10-24 ultra-wide has me curious. I'm thinking about renting that one for a wedding we have coming up near the water but we'll see. 

Things that are 'Meh':

-Autofocus-  Pretty good but could be better

-Build quality- Again, pretty good but could be better

Things to Dislike:

-Battery life- awful

-SD card slot placement- frustrating

Overall: 8.5/10

I'm really smitten with the X-E1 in general and the Fuji system in particular. I bought the X-E1 to use as an everyday camera and bring back the fun of shooting casually again. Not only did it do that for me, but the damn thing has been quickly become a part of my paid work as well.  

While it's not perfect, it's a pleasure to use and the superb image quality paired with Fuji's line of good, fast, affordable primes has me wondering if I'll even still be using DSLRs in another 2-3 years. 

If you're at all interested in dipping your toes into the Fuji waters, I highly suggest you pick up an X-E1 either used or new at a discount. Take the money you save and put it on Fuji glass. You can't go wrong.  

World Cup fever in Freedom Plaza, taken with the 18mm. 

World Cup fever in Freedom Plaza, taken with the 18mm. 

The wife. Taken with the 60mm which is fantastic in good light and a headache in anything else. 

The wife. Taken with the 60mm which is fantastic in good light and a headache in anything else. 

18mm, Mike hates having his picture taken and didn't even realize I did it until afterwards. I couldn't have been so discreet with a DSLR.

18mm, Mike hates having his picture taken and didn't even realize I did it until afterwards. I couldn't have been so discreet with a DSLR.

60mm macro. The lens frustrates me to no end but it produces fantastic images so I'm hanging onto it anyway. 

60mm macro. The lens frustrates me to no end but it produces fantastic images so I'm hanging onto it anyway. 

Brian and his kids, 18mm. 

Brian and his kids, 18mm. 

18mm, 2nd Street, NE. I still think Canon and Olympus colors are king but Fuji holds its own.  

18mm, 2nd Street, NE. I still think Canon and Olympus colors are king but Fuji holds its own.  

Engagement shoot, 18mm. It's become my "go-to" combo when I want something fast and wide. 

Engagement shoot, 18mm. It's become my "go-to" combo when I want something fast and wide. 

Another from the engagement shoot in Baltimore. I couldn't have gotten this with my DSLR, the guy coming out of the bar would have noticed me and moved out of the frame quickly. 

Another from the engagement shoot in Baltimore. I couldn't have gotten this with my DSLR, the guy coming out of the bar would have noticed me and moved out of the frame quickly. 

One of my all-time favorite bridesmaids Susan getting her groove on. 18mm, low light, bouncing a Canon flash, shot at 1/15 of a second. EVF lag and slow AF be damned. 

One of my all-time favorite bridesmaids Susan getting her groove on. 18mm, low light, bouncing a Canon flash, shot at 1/15 of a second. EVF lag and slow AF be damned. 

Another 18mm from that wedding. Not the greatest shot in the world but believe it or not this was spontaneous and I had to nail the focus quickly before they dropped her. Low light, back lighting and the DJ lights were swirling around but the XE-1 still nailed it. 

Another 18mm from that wedding. Not the greatest shot in the world but believe it or not this was spontaneous and I had to nail the focus quickly before they dropped her. Low light, back lighting and the DJ lights were swirling around but the XE-1 still nailed it. 

Quiet and unobtrusive are what the Fuji does best. 

Quiet and unobtrusive are what the Fuji does best. 

Brian was setting up a shot here and I had the 50/1.2 on my Canon, when I saw this scene I pulled out the Fuji with the 18mm real quick. I actually shot this entire engagement session with that Canon/50 Fuji/18 combo. 

Brian was setting up a shot here and I had the 50/1.2 on my Canon, when I saw this scene I pulled out the Fuji with the 18mm real quick. I actually shot this entire engagement session with that Canon/50 Fuji/18 combo. 

Street photography + Fuji = Awesome. I saw this bike against the hydrant and felt there was a shot there so I waited until something happened. The Photography gods blessed me with this woman walking in the frame with her bike and those pink tires.

Street photography + Fuji = Awesome. I saw this bike against the hydrant and felt there was a shot there so I waited until something happened. The Photography gods blessed me with this woman walking in the frame with her bike and those pink tires.

I was on my way to find the bride's father so he could see his daughter in her dress for the first time and all of a sudden he walked in. I had no time to think, just shoot. This was the type of situation I wasn't sure how reliable the Fuji would be but it delivered. 

I was on my way to find the bride's father so he could see his daughter in her dress for the first time and all of a sudden he walked in. I had no time to think, just shoot. This was the type of situation I wasn't sure how reliable the Fuji would be but it delivered. 

This was the moment when I fell in love with the camera. The groom is on the other side of the door and they're each reading each others letters. We were in VERY tight quarters and everyone was tearing up (myself included) I had to just fade into the background (from about 3 feet away) let them have their moment and still get the shot. In this instance, the X-E1 was the best tool for me to use. 

This was the moment when I fell in love with the camera. The groom is on the other side of the door and they're each reading each others letters. We were in VERY tight quarters and everyone was tearing up (myself included) I had to just fade into the background (from about 3 feet away) let them have their moment and still get the shot. In this instance, the X-E1 was the best tool for me to use.