Two Weeks With The Fujifilm X-E2 Camera

Two weeks ago I sold my Sony NEX-6 and various lenses and purchased a Fujifilm X-E2. I won’t go over the reasons why again as you can read them in this post. The camera came with the 18-55mm f2.8-4 zoom lens. I also picked up the 35mm f1.4 and 27mm f2.8 thanks to Fujifilm’s current very generous cashback offer that made the 27mm almost free.

Having shot with the new camera for a couple of weeks I’ve some insight to share about the shift over to Fujifilm from the Sony NEX system. Much of my experience is positive, though there are some negative points too. Overall my experience with the X-E2 is very positive so far and my issues with the system are relatively minor. Given Fujifilm’s commitment to offer regular firmware updates for its cameras these issues are also less important than they would be on a Sony system.

The area I’ve struggled most with isn’t software related but one of handling. The NEX-6 felt great in the hand, even more so than the three different Canon DSLRs I’ve owned. The X-E2 is less comfortable due to its rangefinder layout. There’s less to get hold of in the right hand than a DSLR or NEX camera. There is an official grip available but the price is rather obscene. There are some inexpensive unofficial grips available from China on ebay and I may pick one of those up.

My other issue with the handling is the eyecup. It’s just not deep enough to block strong sunlight coming from the right hand side. Switching to using my left eye with the viewfinder solves this but that is my weaker eye so isn’t preferable. I may have to bite the bullet and wear a peaked cap when I go shooting.

Those handling issues aside I love the design and aesthetics of the X-E2 system. The camera itself is surprisingly light and with a small lens on feels as practical as a compact. The shutter speed dial and exposure compensation dial feel great to use. There are four buttons that can be customised and already I have them set to functions that I can quickly and easily change with little fuss.

Despite my issue with the eyecup the viewfinder is large and bright enough with plenty of detail. It isn’t quite as smooth as the one on the NEX-6 but Fuji will soon be releasing a firmware update that fixes this issue. The rear LCD screen is a real joy with the fastest update I’ve seen on a camera I have owned.

There are several options for controlling EVF and screen use. It’s possible to choose one only, or have the eye sensor switch between the two. One final option turns both screen and EVF off, only turning on the viewfinder when the eye is brought to it. I like that option in theory but Fujifilm could make it so much better with a simple software update – it would be great to have the EVF on only for shooting, but the screen able to come on for image review or entering the menu, switching off as the user returned to shooting mode.

Talking of menus I’ve not got to grips with them yet. Compared to the silly, childish and unorganised menus of the NEX-6 (a brilliant camera hampered with poor software) the X-E2 is fabulous. But while the menus are thankfully more reminiscent of those in Canon DSLRs I’ve owned the organisation and structure of the menus leaves a little to be desired. I still find myself hunting around for options unsure of which page or even sub-page they are on. For example there are many options for customising the screen and EVF layout but finding these options is not always easy, especially as not all the choices are on the same menu.

Sometimes the menus aren’t too clear or not easily accessible. Take for example the subject of the face detect autofocus option. This works wonderfully – especially as enabling it enables an otherwise hidden auto-exposure mode that exposes the shot for the face. But enabling the face detect autofocus involves diving into the main menu – it is not available on the Q-menu nor can it be coupled to one of the customisable buttons. It is also not clear whether the are or single focus point modes are still working when a face isn’t detected – and if they are – let us change them without having to turn the face detect on and off again.

Being an old “back button focus” user from my Canon DSLR days I’m delighted to have this functionality on the X-E2. When the camera focus switch is set to manual the rear AF-L button orders the camera to autofocus. This enables the user to meter with the shutter button but only change focus when the AF-L button is pressed. Fujifilm needs to make a very slight change to the way this works in that the green focus light and on-screen indicator do not show when focus is achieved in this mode. The camera works brilliantly, the user could just do with a little feedback.

One very pleasent surprise is how useful the on-board flash is. Usually these are terrible things. The one on the NEX-6 was particularly good and required plenty of negative flash exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the subject. The flash on the X-E2 is superb – the software doing a great job off just using enough flash to light subject naturally without blowing it out. It’s the first on-board flash I’ve been happy to use for indoor portraits rather than raising ISO or using a faster lens.

Talking of ISO the noise performance of the X-E2 is great. We need to be a little clear though as ISO isn’t really a standard as many believe it to be. The X-E2 doesn’t offer the option of ISO 100 with ISO 200 being the lowest on offer. But online tests show that the X-E2 at ISO 200 is very similar to ISO 100 performance on Canon and Nikon gear. Similarly for the higher settings Fuji’s ISO 6400 isn’t really, it’s closer to ISO 4000-5000 on rival cameras.

Ignoring the specifics of the numbers one thing is very clear with the X-E2 – the high ISO performance is very good indeed. The images are so clean and relatively noise-free at the ISO 6400 setting that I tend to dial back in-camera noise-reduction to the lowest setting to retain more sharpness. Even when their is noise present it appears like a fine film grain than the splotches of older APSC cameras I’ve owned in the past.

While we’re talking about noise reduction let’s look at RAW and JPG files. Due to the fancy none-standard layout of the latest Fuji cameras some RAW development applications struggle to render sharp images. My favourite (and now least favourite) program DXO Optics Pro refuses to support Fujifilm RAW at all. The days of poor RAW software performance for Fuji cameras is a thing of the past – the latest version of Lightroom does a great job of getting detail out of the X-E2 raw files. An update released very soon for Lightroom and ACR will even add Fujifilm’s JPG colour profiles such as Provia and Velvia.

Naming the JPG options in the camera after its famous films such as Provia, Astia and Velvia is a great marking tool for Fujifilm. Other manufactures tend to stick with names such as Landscape, Portrait and Vivid. And having shot ith real Velvia slide film the Fujifilm JPG files are good but not really exactly the same. That being said the JPG output from the X-E2 is class leading. Fujifilm does a great job of giving you shots straight out of the camera that you don’t need to edit.

I have always been a RAW shooter. But moving from Canon DSLRs to NEX and now Fujifilm has seen me shooting more RAW + JPG. I’m rarely a JPG only shooter just as I would never get my old films developed and throw the negatives away and keep the prints. I am a technology buff and enjoy fiddling and tweaking RAW files almost as much as I enjoy taking the photos. And not being great at composing in camera – always in too much of a hurry – and will often compose my shot via cropping and tweaking on the PC later. Yet since buying the X-E2 I’ve been using the JPG files more and more. Quite a few of the shots I’ve posted on Flickr have been the camera’s own JPG file merely resized. This camera really does output fantastic pictures and I’m addicted to the exaggerated contrast and colours of the Velvia setting.

Let’s talk lenses, the main reason I moved to Fujifilm’s X system. The lenses are great. To call the 18-55mm f2.8-4 a kit lens is a real disservice. It’s a fabulous lens and faster than anything usually given in a kit. It is sharp, fast, has optical stabilisation and is built like a tank. Like many X series lenses there’s a physical aperture ring and a physical stabilisation switch. This is such a good lens that for shooting outdoors there’s much less need to fill in any of the same focul lens with a fast prime other than for artistic depth-of-field reasons.

The 35mm f1.4 is a gorgeous lens and is just the sort of thing that the APSC NEX/Alpha line-up is missing. Images are silly sharp in the centre wide open, the bokeh is lovely and it’s a wonderful lens to use. Both the 18-55mm and 35mm are pretty large for mirrorless lenses though. I could put the NEX-6 and 16-50mm in my coat pocket. That’s not possible with the Fujifilm 18-55mm mounted – it’s big and heavy. And portability is one of the main reasons I moved from DSLR cameras in the first place.

So despite my caveat that one needn’t cover ranges already covered by the zoom I picked up the 27mm f2.8 in the cashback offer. I’m so glad I did. It’s already one of my favourite lenses I’ve owned. This small pancake lens allows the X-E2 to go in my coat pocket. The benefit is not merely one of size – it’s a lovely lens to shoot – giving a very natural field of view. It’s sharp, quick to focus and great for being unobtrusive when shooting on the street. The 27mm turns the X-E2 from an advanced SLR like system into an advanced compact. I was out with visiting family yesterday and mostly shot with the 27mm. Being out and about with family doesn’t give one lots of time to think about shots and in the end I had more keepers from the 27mm lens than using the zoom.

After two weeks with the Fujifilm X-E2 I am very happy with my purchase. The quality of the images coming out of the camera is superb. I also feel much more in control of the camera – something I gave up when moving from Canon DSLR to NEX. There are some idiosyncrasies both the X-E2 and I have to work out together, but right now it’s a very happy relationship that will only get better as time goes on. The only thing I feel I’m missing right now is a longer zoom. For now I’m happy to use my Minolta MD 100-200mm f4 on an adapter but I’m already saving the pennies in the hope of picking up the 55-200mm next year.

Are there things I miss from the Sony NEX-6? Yes. I miss the better eyecup and grip. I miss the many dynamic range tools such as DRO and auto-HDR. The X-E2 does have expanded 200% and 400% dynamic range modes but these are merely underexposure/curve tricks similar to Canon’s Highlight Tone Priority. Sony’s DRO is a very clever algorithm for getting the best dynamic range out of each JPG. The X-E2 can’t even bracket three shots further than a stop apart. Sony’s manual focus peaking is better too – offering colour options that the X-E2 doesn’t have. Yet the X-E2 fights back with more control and other options when shooting manual focus.

Would I swap the X-E2 back for the NEX-6? No. Not even for two of them. The X-E2 feels like a complete package and one that will only get better thanks to Fujifilm’s support. The lenses are fantastic, the image output superb and the whole system feels like a camera designed by photographers rather than the company’s accountants. I’m delighted with my new camera.