Fujifilm is doing something unique with the high-end X-Series. It’s not only producing strong compact cameras that rival low-to-mid-range DSLRs, but crafting beautiful instruments that look more like luxury goods than gadgets. Strap one around your neck, and all you’re missing is a Panerai watch or Montblanc pen to complement it. Such is the case with Fujifilm’s X-E1. But at a list price of $1,000 for the body ($1,400 with kit lens), is this compact, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera worth the premium, or are you paying for cachet?
Features and design
If you’ve used old Leicas or Japanese rangefinders, then the X-E1’s retro-inspired design will feel familiar. Like Fujifilm’s other X-Series cameras, the X-E1 is stunning to look at. The design – magnesium die-cast top and bottom plates with analog dials and synthetic leather – harkens back to those wonderful metal film cameras used by street photographers and war reporters.
But, once you pick up the body of the X-E1, the weight and feel belies its construction. It’s very lightweight and the metal plates have a plastic-like feel. Think of the X-E1 as a pared down version of Fujifilm’s $1,700 (list) X-Pro1. Sharing similar traits on the inside, Fujifilm had to shave in areas to bring the price down. Nonetheless, it’s still a solidly built camera, especially when you attach one of the well-constructed Fujinon lenses (it’ll add the heft).
Don’t let the images fool you: the X-E1 is a big camera. While not as cumbersome as a compact DSLR, it’s thicker than your standard point-and-shoot. Yet, once you get a firm grasp on it, it’s comfortable to hold and the back buttons are all easy to reach. You can hold it with one hand, but operating this camera is a two-hand job (at the price you’ll pay for this camera, you better hold on tight to it). Compared to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera, however, the X-E1 feels much bigger and heavier.
What we love about cameras like the X-E1 are the analog controls that give you quick access to exposure adjustments, reminiscent of old-school cameras that the X-E1 mimics. It’s far easier to change settings this way than having to go through a menu system on an LCD. At the top there are dials for exposure compensation and shutter speed; a hot shoe and a pop-up flash; a function button for quick access to a function of the user’s choosing (ISO, depth of field preview, movie recording, etc.); a microphone; and the shutter button with an on-off toggle.
The front is mostly bare except for the lens mount, focus selector (single, continuous, and manual), and the AF-assist lamp. To the left a cover opens to reveal a port that doubles as a microphone input and remote-release connector, a mini HDMI connector, and mini USB connector.
On the back you’ll find 2.8-inch LCD that’s rated at 460K dots. The screen is a bit small, which makes composing shots or previewing photos slightly difficult (photos are even harder to see if you display info alongside them). Luckily there’s also an electronic viewfinder to complement the LCD. The OLED EVF is rated at 2,360K dots with diopter control, which makes things bright and easy to see. On the rest of the back, you’ll find a command dial, and various function and menu buttons. These include a “Q” button that takes you to a quick menu for adjusting settings, and a Drive button that takes you to various modes like ISO and AE bracketing, video, and burst shooting.
Now, to the stuff under the hood: The X-E1 uses a large 1.11-inch 16.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, which Fujifilm calls the X-Trans CMOS. It has an ISO range of 200 to 6,400, but can be extended to 25,600. It records movies in 1920 x 1080 and 1280 x 720, both in 24 frames per second.
The X-E1 can be purchased as a standalone body or with a kit lens. The Fujinon XF18-55mm lens that was included with our review unit features a max aperture of F/2.8 and focal length (35mm equivalent) of 27mm wide angle to 84mm telephoto. It has optical image stabilization (can be turns off by flipping a switch on the lens). On the lens barrel, there’s a focus ring, a zoom ring, and an aperture ring (that’s right, you adjust aperture not through buttons, but by turning a ring on the lens). The aperture ring makes it easy to control the depth of field, but there aren’t any markings on the ring to indicate what f-stop you are at – you have to refer to the LCD or EVF for that. Four other interchangeable lenses are available separately.
In terms of design, we think the buttons and dials are well laid out and easy to operate. Dials are easy to turn and the menus are fairly straightforward and simple to understand. The issues we have – and they are so minor – are that the buttons to the left of the LCD seem stiffer to press than the others, and that the SD card – located in the battery compartment – is difficult to eject or insert if the battery is in place.
If you are looking for extras like Wi-Fi connectivity, GPS geotagging, or scene modes like those found in many other cameras, this isn’t the camera for you. Photography is the X-E1’s strong point, and video capture seems to be thrown in as an afterthought. The closest thing you’ll find to scene modes is film simulation mode (photo and video), which tries to duplicate the color and tonal qualities of analog film.
What’s in the box
In addition to the camera, inside the box you’ll find a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (rated 350 shots), a battery charger with power cord, body cap, USB cable, metal strap clips, a tool for attaching the clips, shoulder strap, a detailed owner’s manual, protective covers, and a CD containing software for photo viewing and RAW file conversion.
Performance and use
For a sophisticated camera, the X-E1 is simple to operate. Having physical controls right at your fingers makes it easy to adjust the settings, instead of going through layers and layers of menu options. Once you get a feel for where the shutter-speed and exposure-compensation dials are located just by touch, as well as the aperture ring on the lens, your eye never has to leave the viewfinder. But even if you have to use the menus on the LCD, it’s fairly intuitive. The quick-menu button is a nice feature that takes you to the frequently used settings, and we like it on all cameras regardless of maker.
The electronic viewfinder is bright and responsive, but unlike an optical viewfinder (like the one found in the X-Pro1), you will notice a bit of a lag in low-light situations. Regardless, we still prefer framing our shots through the EVF instead of the LCD.
Although the X-E1 is designed to give users DSLR-like image quality in a compact body, autofocusing is where it stumbles. The autofocusing system is good, but not great. In well-lit conditions, the AF system works fine, but you’ll notice some lag in low-light situations. Even Panasonic’s G5 mirrorless shooter boasts faster autofocusing. (Fujifilm is aware of this, and at CES 2013 the company introduced new X-Series models with really fast autofocusing.)
But the X-E1’s image quality makes up for it. Thanks to the large CMOS sensor, the X-E1 captures great-looking photos with nice details. We shot a variety of photos in both program (auto) and manual modes – in RAW and JPEG – and found that the camera handles well on its own under normal conditions. What’s pleasantly surprising is its low-light performance. While still susceptible to noise, image quality is still better than an advanced camera like Canon’s PowerShot G15. One photo shot at night on a rooftop, in particular (see sample image above), looked as if it was captured during the day – we used a slow shutter speed, larger aperture, and ISO 6,400, and set the camera on a tripod. While slightly blurry and with noticeable noise, you can see the details clearly.
As we’ve mentioned, the X-E1 is all about photos, and although it can shoot video, there are better cameras for that. While recording, the camera seems to have autofocusing hiccups.
The one thing the X-E1 will do for you that most other cameras can’t – even the top-of-the-line DSLRs – is make you look cool. Strap one of these around your neck, and we guarantee you’ll get people’s notice. The perception it gives is that you’re a serious photographer. But it isn’t just all looks. The X-E1, despite the issues, is a strong camera that’s highly capable of taking great photos.
Whether you should get this camera depends on your budget. Just the body alone costs $1,000. Throw in the kit lens and it jumps up to $1,400. For that kind of money, you can get a very good DSLR. There are also capable mirrorless models from the likes of Sony and Olympus that costs less. But if you’re looking for an affordable alternative to the X-Pro1 or a hulking DSLR, or if you want a stunning interchangeable-lens camera that takes great photos, you can’t go wrong.
- Great styling
- Large CMOS sensor
- Great image quality, even in low light
- Easy to use
- Autofocusing could be faster
- Video capture is a weak feature
- No connectivity options or other features
- Build quality could feel more solid