There are many reviews on the web that delve deep into the technical aspects of this little technological marvel, but I'm here to talk about what everyone interested in this camera really wants to know: how does it handle in real-world situations? Is it good enough for professional work? Will it attract the opposite sex? Well that's what I'm here to (hopefully) answer.
Love at First Sight
When it comes to the Fujifilm XE-1, there is one thing that you won't find many arguments against: it's a beautiful piece of kit. I will admit that the styling of the XE-1 is what grabbed me first. The XE-1 and its predecessors the X-Pro 1 and the X-100 all share a classic design that looks very similar to a Leica rangefinder, with a little bit of modern flair. It's a camera for camera lovers. I collect classic 35mm rangefinder cameras, and I've always dreamed of a digital version- a perfect blend of form and function, a small take-anywhere camera that is both beautiful and produces images that are just as stunning as those made using the big guns. This may be as close as one can get to that ideal without spending $12,000 for a Leica M9 + Lens!
Let me count the ways...
Ok I promised not to get too technical, but there are a few things you should know before we get to the good stuff. The Fujifilm XE-1 is a compact digital interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera equipped with an APS-C sized sensor. Fuji isn't the first to put a large DSLR-sized sensor into a compact camera- Sony did this with the exceptional NEX line of cameras introduced a few years ago. The Fujifilm X-Series cameras are an evolution of what Sony helped pioneer. One of the most attractive features of the X-Series is its viewfinder technology. With the X-100, Fujifilm introduced an innovative viewfinder that offered both optical and digital views with the ability to switch between them on the fly. The X-Pro 1 expanded on the X-100 with the ability to change lenses. The XE-1 is a slightly smaller, less expensive version of the X-Pro 1. With the XE-1, Fujifilm ditched the optical finder in exchange for a beautiful 2.36 megapixel digital-only finder, the highest resolution digital viewfinder to date. Everything else remains similar to the other Fuji cameras - the awesome manual controls, small size, classic styling, and excellent sensor. It is technologically advanced, and almost everything one could want in a modern camera.
Before I settled on the X-E1 I was looking for a camera that would be small and light enough to take anywhere and capture day-to-day moments, but that would produce quality enough photographs to be used in a professional capacity. For a few months I debated (obsessed) between the Olympus EM-5, the Sony NEX-6 and of course the Fujifilm X-E1- all similarly priced and very capable little cameras. In the end, I went with the Fuji because there was a quality I was seeing from the images that were on a different level. Part of that is the amazing sensor that Fujifilm equipped it with, and part of that is the 35mm f/1.4 Fuji lens that really shines. Fujifilm has a long history with color reproduction, starting with their film line and extending to their DSLR cameras and now mirrorless cameras. The colors that come out of this little camera are rich and vibrant.
Fujifilm just gets color.
Skin tones are nice too:
And these were shot in JPG. Say what?? Why would I want to shoot JPG? Isn't that like buying a Ferrari and then only going the speed limit? Well, Fujifilm blessed this camera with an exceptionally good JPG engine. They are so good, in fact, that you would be hard-pressed to get the same quality by converting the RAW files to JPG. So, most of the time I just use the JPG files. They are really nice. If for some reason I need the extra info that the RAW files provide -if I need to rescue some blown highlights for instance- I'll just use the RAW file since I shoot both RAW+JPG. It's nice to have options.
So here we have a little go-anywhere photographic tool capable of producing some very nice images. That's great, but it's only part of the equation. No matter how nice the results are, a camera needs to be ergonomically and functionally sound in order to perform the way the photographer demands. The XE-1 is a mixed bag in this regard.
Form and Function
There are some things about this camera that are a godsend - most notably the manual controls, which are brilliant in execution. There are no 'A', 'S', 'P' or 'M' mode dials to be found here. Want Aperture priority? Just put the shutter dial on 'A' and adjust the Aperture directly on the lens. Shutter priority? Set the aperture to 'A' and adjust the shutter dial to the desired shutter speed. And for manual mode just set the shutter and aperture directly. It's so simple and effective it makes me wish all cameras were like this. I just wish they had gone ahead and included an ISO dial while they were at it, though ISO can be set easily with the little 'FN' button next to the shutter release.
And then there's that viewfinder! It's beautiful. The first time I looked through it was almost like looking through an optical finder. The resolution is so high you really can't even see the pixels. The downside: there is some stuttering when panning in low light. So all is not perfect but in general it's really nice to have. It really comes in handy when checking focus- with the click of the rear wheel it instantly switches to a zoomed view in order to achieve perfect focus. This, in my opinion, is one of the most useful and essential functions of the camera, especially because I use a lot of classic manual focus lenses adapted to the Fuji. I am not able to do this with a DSLR. Some would argue that the newer DSLRs have this function in live view mode, which is true, but it's not easy to see the rear LCD in direct sunlight. A digital viewfinder really comes in handy when the rear LCD is difficult to see.
My main complaint is in the autofocus department. It's not the fastest on the block, but that's not what bothers me the most. Sometimes it just won't focus, at all. I believe it is more a problem with the Fuji 35mm 1.4 lens than with the body itself, though. This happens most frequently in very low light, but it sometimes happens in relatively normal light too. The focus will just rack back and forth like a lost puppy. For this reason, I don't use the 35mm for anything that is remotely fast-moving or in super low light situations, unless I have a lot of time and/or patience. My solution to this problem is just to manual focus, which isn't really an issue for me since I'm used to it.
So, can you shoot a wedding with it?
Sure. I used it as a second camera at a wedding where I was the second shooter, and it was a great way to put it through its paces.
That last one was shot at f/1.2, 1/45s at ISO 6400, manual focused. It was much darker outside than it appears in the photo. The XE-1 handles higher ISO very well, and as you can see the noise cleans up nicely. It's about on par with my full frame Nikon D700.
I would never use it as my primary camera- it's just not quite fast enough. But its versatility and adaptability make it great to have on hand. Not to mention it is very low profile, so it's great for getting candids where a large DSLR would draw too much attention.
The last shot you see above of the newlyweds having a moment in the car was taken with an old Minolta 58mm f/1.2 lens that I had converted to Canon mount, and then adapted to use on the XE-1 via an inexpensive adaptor. This is one of the beauties of mirroless cameras: the ability to use almost any lens ever made. It also happens to be a lot of fun. Here's a few casual shots of my pregnant wife that I took while we were having photos taken of us (like a little photoshoot within a photoshoot). These were taken with a Leica 40mm f/2 lens adapted to the XE-1.
It also comes in handy when you find a beautiful owl in your backyard. I quickly grabbed the XE-1 and threw my Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 on it, and got a nice 300mm f/2.8 equivalent shot. We named him Doctor Who.
What does it all mean?
So basically, this thing is really versatile and convenient. It's always within reach, and easy to grab and go. It has sort of become a part of me. It has some annoying quirks, but none of which are really deal-breakers. Could I live without my XE-1? Probably. Is it really, really nice to have? Yes! And of course the question left on everyone's mind... will it attract the opposite sex? I don't know, ask my wife.