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Photography is supposed to be fun right? Fujifilm thinks so. Its X-series is defined by a return to the retro shooting style, capturing the irreplaceable experience of hands-on photography that many of you grew up with. Fujifilm’s latest effort, the X-E1 ($999.95), can be understood mainly as a compact version of the excellent X-Pro1, and it borrows that camera’s mechanical, all-manual control, which we enjoyed so much last year.
Of course the X-Pro1 was more than just a good time. Combined with some stunning prime lenses, this predecessor captured remarkably sharp images on its new X-Trans APS-C CMOS sensor. The very same technology is in use on the X-E1.
Of course the X-E1's most important "feature" is the user experience. Iterating on the distinctive look of the X-Pro1, the X-E1’s retrospective styling is merely a vessel for a slew of fun, satisfying mechanical dials. The body itself is physically more compact than the X-Pro1, however the old hybrid viewfinder has been replaced by a less impressive, though still useful, traditional EVF.
The X-E1’s predominantly mechanical control scheme is extremely satisfying and really sets this camera apart. The “fun factor” here is huge, and we’ve had at least one employee claim the X-E1 completely changed the way they approach photography. Particularly convenient is the exposure compensation dial, which lies within easy reach of the right thumb, and makes drilling down to the perfect exposure very simple.
We were critical of the X-Pro1’s handling, mainly because the body was difficult to grip, and it was easy to accidentally strike the wrong buttons. Many of these problems have made their way to the X-E1 as well. The attractive dimpled surface surrounding the body looks nice, but isn’t actually very grippy. On the rear panel, the smaller body forces the thumb into an almost-ideal position: pinched between the command dial and the shaped lip that protrudes from the right side. This lip has not been improved since the X-Pro1, it still houses two of the camera’s most important buttons, and this means accidentally pressing them will be a common mistake.
The reason why this sensor gets its own spiffy brand is due to the omission of an optical low-pass filter, as well as a new pixel array with a higher degree of randomness. We can’t be sure how impactful the new pixel array is on final image quality, but the absence of a low-pass filter certainly makes resolution quite a bit sharper, albeit at the expense of increased moire patterns that will adversely affect video.
If you purchase the X-E1’s kit, you’ll find yourself in possession of the first XF-series zoom lens, all others have been primes. All others have also been of surpassing quality, and it seems like the new 18-55mm is no different. Aside from typical zoom and focus rings, each XF lens features an additional control ring dedicated to manual aperture control. Unfortunately it’s not mechanical, and introduces a split-second lag before the software catches up. The same is true for the focus ring, which is also by-wire.
Currently, the Fujifilm X-mount and its associated lens family are—let’s be honest—a paltry offering. There are only five lenses available: the three that released alongside the X-Pro1, a brand new 14mm F2.8, and the X-E1’s kit lens. This evaluation comes with two very important caveats though. First, we can look forward to three additional lenses early in 2013, and second, all of the lenses we’ve used have tested spectacularly well.
In concert with the new 18-55mm, the X-E1's sensor resolves some of the most impressive detail we’ve recorded from a zoom lens. Noise reduction scores are on par with most other models at this price, and dynamic range maxed out at decent 7.94. D-range continues to be an important factor distinguishing the X-series from Olympus' competitive OM-D E-M5.
Color accuracy has dropped since the X-Pro1, and since it's likely these two cameras use identical sensors, the reason for this change is a mystery. The score is still better than average though, and saturation was over by just 5%, a deduction of only one point. Looking over the gamut in detail, errors are spread out fairly evenly across all colors, with no specific trouble-spots to blame.
Despite strong still performance, potential buyers should know the X-E1's video implementation feels like an afterthought. The camera's low frame rate (only 24 frames per second) results in video content that's choppy and doesn’t look like what we’ve come to expect from this price range. The absence of an optical low-pass filter is both a strength and a weakness here. While we’re sure the omission is partly responsible for this camera’s excellent resolution, one key side-effect is significant moire that pollutes repeating patterns, especially during video.
When the X-mount debuted, Fujifilm showed a commitment to high quality glass with its first three prime offerings, but many wondered if this performance would extend to a zoom lens. Now we know the answer. The X-E1’s 18-55mm kit lens is almost exactly as sharp as the XF 35mm f/1.4, which is really quite amazing for a zoom lens. We only wish the aperture and focus rings were mechanical.
For all its quirks and details, the X-E1 is still an easy recommendation. The X-Pro1 was one of 2012's most satisfying enthusiast cameras, but if you thought the asking price was just a little too high, here's the perfect solution. Performance is a match for the X-Pro1's most crucial tests, and much of the hardware package is also the same—minus a smaller footprint.
Compared to the X-Pro1, the X-E1 is all the fun but less of the frivolity. The omitted hybrid viewfinder in exchange for the lower price is a trade many enthusiasts will appreciate, and improvements to Fujifilm's widely-criticized autofocus system are most welcome. We suggest this camera for anyone hoping to not only capture some sharp photos, but have a great time while doing so.
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