Review: Fujifilm X-E1 is Both a Beauty and a Beast

During the earlier days of 35mm film photography, many of the popular cameras had distinct design elements that defined the look of that period — the things that come to mind when people hear the words “vintage 35mm camera”: a shiny body seemingly crafted out of a single chunk of metal; a textured covering that gives the camera style and grip; all the manual controls you need, placed in well-thought-out locations at your fingertips.

When cameras started becoming smarter and more automated, many of the convenient physical controls began to disappear. By the time cameras started becoming digital, the consumer market had become flooded with designs that looked nothing like cameras of old and more like the computers that were taking over the world.

Sleek metallic bodies were exchanged for unwieldy plastic boxes. Tangible manual controls were stuffed into menu options and hidden behind faceless buttons and dials. The magic of digital imaging and the fury of the megapixel war had seemingly blinded the industry to the fact that photographers care a lot about how cameras look to the eye and feel in the hand.

For many years, this was the compromise film shooters had to live with if they decided to jump over into digital. Well, most kinds of digital, at least.

Rangefinders didn’t lose their design mojo when they took on bits and bytes, but price-wise they generally cost an arm and a leg (ahem, Leica), and have largely been out of reach for most photo-enthusiasts.

Starting in 2010, something changed. Along with the advent of mirrorless cameras (which were humorously called “EVIL” cameras at the time), some camera companies began to toy with the idea of reintroducing old design elements into new digital cameras.

Leading the charge were Fujifilm and Olympus. The former launched the X-Series with cameras styled after old rangefinders (ahem, Leica). The latter more recently introduced the OM-D E-M5, which is modeled after 35mm film cameras. Both cameras have been widely praised for their gorgeous “retro” designs.

People are calling the looks “retro” and “vintage” now, but the style may soon be the new normal — and that’s a good thing. It’s like what Apple did for laptop computers, causing an entire industry to begin valuing style in addition to functionality.

The Fujifilm X-E1 is the latest new-school camera to feature old-school design. It’s the younger sibling of the highly-acclaimed X-Pro1; it’s smaller and cheaper at the expense of not having the X-Pro1’s fancy hybrid viewfinder.

The two cameras are largely the same, though, so if you’ve been drooling over the X-Pro1 but have been held back by the cost, the X-E1 is the camera you should be giving a close look at.

The Good

Pick up the X-E1 in your hands, and you’ll probably think, “Whoa. Digital cameras aren’t supposed to look and feel like this.”

It’s solid, with the metal parts smooth and cool to the touch — none of that cheap plastic stuff on this baby (at least on the top and bottom).

The camera is a bit lighter than the film cameras it resembles — the body isn’t stuffed with mechanical parts, after all — but it’s not something you (or your neck, shoulder, and feet) will be complaining about.

All of the wonderful design elements mentioned above are present on this camera. On the top, next to the hotshoe and built-in flash, are shutter speed and exposure compensation dials tucked neatly next to the shutter button. Manually adjusting aperture can be done using a dial on the lens rather than on the camera.

These controls are a pleasure to use. There’s no need to toggle between aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual modes. Simply turn the shutter dial off “A” (for Automatic) for shutter priority. Flip a switch on the lens for aperture priority. Specify both settings for full manual.

As with other electronic devices that are well designed, the X-E1 has a very intuitive layout; all the controls feel like they’re exactly where they should be.

For photographers who need an always-ready camera — street photographers, for example — the camera offers a relatively snappy time-to-first-shot speed.

Leave the camera perpetually set to “on,” and it will automatically turn itself off after a certain amount of time (specified in the settings). Hold down the shutter for a moment, and the camera quickly wakes up and is ready to shoot — just like with DSLRs.

It’s surprising how many cameras these days require a “reboot” when they go to sleep (i.e. pressing the shutter does nothing), with slow startup times that kill photo ops. Being always at the ready helps the X-E1 be more viable as a DSLR replacement for many photographers.

One feature that film aficionados may appreciate is the camera’s film simulation mode, which lets you snap photos that have the look of popular Fujifilm film stocks, including Provia (used as the default mode), Velvia, Astia, Monochrome, and more.

You’ll need to be shooting JPEGs to take advantage of these modes since they’re not baked into RAW files. However the camera does include a nifty built-in RAW converter that lets you quickly create film-simulated JPEG files on the go.

You’ve probably heard this already, but the image quality of X-Series cameras is ridiculously good. The APS-C sensor in the X-E1 helps this relatively small camera shoot serious DSLR-quality photographs.

Even at ISOs as high as 6400, the photographs are usable. The colors are accurate, and you’ll be surprised at how little noise there is in the frame relative to how high the sensitivity is.

Here are some sample photographs showing the image quality of the X-E1 in different environments, under different lighting conditions, with various ISOs (some as high as 6400):

Sample Photos: Fujifilm X-E1

Fujifilm actually boasted a while back that the X-Pro1 would be better than rival full-frame cameras in both noise levels and resolution. The X-E1 uses the exact same 16.3-megapixel sensor, and there does appear to be some truth to that claim. Image quality is one aspect of the X-E1 that you won’t be disappointed by.

The Bad

The X-Series has long been plagued by slothful autofocus, but recent firmware updates have done a good job of addressing this issue.

Autofocusing with the X-E1 ranges from quite good to so-so.

In situations with good lighting, you shouldn’t have any problems with the AF system: it’s decently fast and accurate. While shooting fast moving objects may still be a challenge, the autofocus will do the job in most everyday situations.

Step into a dimly-lit environment, and the camera becomes a bit less predictable. It will be obedient to your focusing wishes most of the time, but sometimes it’s unable to get a lock on things you’d expect it to focus on. This doesn’t happen very often, but it’s frustrating when it does.

The viewfinder is another feature of the camera that has the same quite-good-to-so-so range. It’s a very nice electronic viewfinder when you have plenty of light to work with. The colors are nice and the image is sharp on the 2.36-million-dot OLED display. Most of the time you won’t mind missing out on the hybrid EVF/OVF of the X-Pro1.

However, you might start feeling small pangs of longing when using the camera in darker settings, when the EVF starts becoming somewhat laggy and blurred. It shouldn’t be a problem unless you find yourself tracking some moving subject, in which case you might start feeling a little motion sickness coming on.

Back in September when we tested a pre-production model of this camera in Germany, we observed some strange pixelation that occurs when AF is locking on to a subject. That issue still exists. It’s not really a problem though… it’s more of a slight annoyance.

If you plan on high-volume shooting — and we mean anything more than some casual snapshots here and there — you should probably think about getting a backup battery. Although the X-E1 battery life is technically rated for 350 shots — 50 more than the X-Pro1 — the fact that there’s no optical viewfinder means that you’ll always be draining the battery with one of the displays.

Unless you’re in the habit of only having your camera on when it’s needed and immediately turning it off when it’s not, you might not get anything more than 150 shots out of a single charge.

The time between when the battery warning indicator comes on to when the camera turns off isn’t very long. You might only have another 20 shots or 20 minutes to work with before the battery is completely drained.

When it is drained, you can squeeze out a few more shots by repeatedly turning the camera on and quickly snapping off an exposure before it dies again, but that’s a pretty sad way to live. Just carry a backup battery.

We noted earlier that the manual functions of this camera are a joy to use. The same is true with the manual focusing. All you need to do is flip a switch on the front of the camera to switch into MF. Pressing a button-dial on the back of the body toggles between 3x and 10x zooms to help you eyeball whether focus is sharp.

This camera would benefit greatly from focus peaking, but sadly it’s nowhere to be found. Fujifilm would/will make many a X-Series user jump for joy if/when they rolled out a firmware update that adds focus peaking, but until then you’ll just have to trust your eyeballing skills.

The final annoyance we’d like to note is a quirk in how the displays work. If you set your “View Mode” to “Eye Sensor”, the camera defaults to the LCD screen but switches over to the EVF when it senses your face up against the camera. When you pull the camera away from your head, it quickly switches back.

The quirk is that this handoff doesn’t happen during the image review period after you snap a shot. For DSLR users who are accustomed to “chimping,” you’ll find that you can’t.

If you snap a shot while staring through the EVF, you’ll need to evaluate that shot on that smaller screen. If you try chimping, you’ll just be staring at a black screen until the playback time finishes and the LCD turns back on. Again, not a deal-breaker, but an annoyance (not that we chimp or anything… ha ha…).

The Verdict

In our opinion, the Fujifilm X-E1 is one of the most — if not the most — beautiful digital cameras on the market today, on par with the X-Pro1 and the X100. Someone clearly forgot to tell Fujifilm that digital cameras aren’t supposed to look this good.

The X-E1 is also a true joy to use, especially for photographers who love shooting with older manual film cameras that feature similar designs and controls. If that describes you, you finally have an even more affordable option than the X-Pro1 to cross the analog-to-digital bridge to.

At $1000, the camera is $400 cheaper than its higher-tier sibling. However, what you lose in a major feature — the hybrid viewfinder — you gain in portability due to its smaller size and lighter weight.

With a DSLR-sized sensor at its core and the same manual features at your fingertips, the X-E1 makes for a fine DSLR replacement for everyday photography. Just make sure you can live with the slightly slower AF and the lack of an OVF. If you’re sure you can, then go out and buy this camera — it’s worth every penny.