Monday, February 24, 2014

Fujifilm X-E2 Review


If it looks like a rangefinder, feels like a rangefinder works like a DSLR, then it must be a Fujifilm. The X-E2 builds on the success of the X-E1. Even though the X-E2 is a mild upgrade, it nevertheless keeps Fujifilm at the forefront of the mirrorless revolution. To wit: even though the X-T1 is the de facto flagship of the X-System lineup (X-Pro1 not withstanding), the bulk of the cameras purchased will be down the price spectrum at the mid-high price level. To that end, even though the X-T1 is the halo camera that attracts all of the attention, it's the X-E2 that matters the most to Fujifilm's bottom line.


Design and Operation

Fujifilm X-E2 Black


With the exception of a few buttons, the overall form factor of the X-E2 is not significantly different from its predecessor. The Q button has migrated towards the top of the rear plate, while AE-L and AF-L are now separate buttons. However, there is no dedicated AF-On button for back button focusing that some advanced users are fond of. As before, the camera body either comes in all-black or black/silver. Inevitably, non-photographic people who pick up the silver versions for the first time think that the X-E2 is an "old style" camera, which probably best illustrates the challenges the camera industry has in educating a new generation of photographers.

Fujifilm X-E2 Silver

Despite being smaller and lighter than a traditional DLSR, this is a still a camera that you hold in a similar manner; that is to say, with proper technique. The basic design of the camera body is boxy; even though there are some similarly shaped cameras that allow for a comfortable "just grab it" grip (Olympus PEN E-P5 comes to mind), the X-E2 isn't one of them. It's not well suited to one-handed operation, and as always, you get the most stable operating position by cradling the lens where it meets the camera with your left hand, with left elbow tucked in. There is not a lot of space to really really grapple with the right side of the camera, so you tend to operate it with more of a precision grip than a "grab" grip. 


The viewfinder has good resolution, and unlike the X100s, the eye point is relatively comfortable for people who wear glasses. The electronic viewfinder has an improved refresh rate compared to the X-E1. It's appreciably better than before, but it still won't convince those who prefer a straight-up optical viewfinder. Perhaps what would have pushed the EVF experience into the "great" category would be if it were larger and more comfortable to use, but ostensibly, that has been saved for the X-T1.Absolutely no complaints about the rear LCD, works just fine.


Manual focus aids include magnified view, focus peaking and Fujifilm's unique split-image display, which mimics what you would get from a true rangefinder mechanism. The latter is interesting to use, but in most situations, focus peaking is faster and easier to use. The split image focus aid is limited to the center portion of the screen and can only display the image in black and white. The problem with the split-image aid is that it can be difficult to see the actual image split in some circumstances. Many people find the focus peaking feature easier to use, but that too has some caveats. First of all, the focus peaking outline is white in colour, which makes it difficult to see against bright backgrounds or bright subjects. The second is that the focus peaking algorithm seems to be very precise, meaning that there's not a lot of tolerance in the system. In other words, Fujifilm's implementation of focus peaking is that the point of interest is almost either "on" or "off." This is different from how Sony has done it with the NEX-6, where the peaking outline is bright red and easy to see, and the system seems to have a slightly  looser definition of what is in focus or not. Even though it might not be as precise, Sony's focus peaking aid is more user friendly. Many cameras use a looser definition of what is in focus when they are switched to manual mode than when they are in AF mode. This is a usability consideration that keeps the system from being overly finicky for the user. An overly precise system falls under the category of being technically correct while simultaneously being uncommunicative.

Update April 30, 2014: Fujifilm has issued a firmware update that adds the X-T1's expanded focus peaking options, as well as an upgrade to the EVF performance.

Wi-Fi connectivity is built into the camera. There's a set of apps that's available for the X-E2: Camera Application, Photo Receiver and PC Autosave. Each is a variation of saving and viewing: the first allows for wireless picture viewing on a smart device, the second allows friends to view pictures from the camera on their devices and the third is an automatic file backup program. At the time of this writing, there is no means to use your smartphone as a remote trigger, nor can you view live view remotely on your smart device. However, that function is available for the X-T1 through the Camera Remote app.

Video operation is straightforward, if not too technically advanced. The X-E2 can record 1080p at up to 60fps, but shutter speed and aperture can't be adjusted during video recording. You might be wondering why that is considering that there is a dedicated aperture ring on the barrel of the lens, but that ring is electronically linked and not a true mechanical device. Hence, the lack of markings on the aperture ring.

Lens


The kit lens remains one of the best kit lenses available on the market.... for any camera system. The XF18-55mmF2.8-4R straddles the middle-ground between kit lens and constant f/2.8 zoom, and is in keeping with the nature and mission of the X-E2. A f/3.5-5.6 aperture lens would be too pedestrian for this class of camera, but a constant f/2.8 zoom would be too big and heavy for the form factor. To give some perspective, this lens is equivalent to a full frame lens that is 28-85mm f/4-5.6. However, the extra amount of available aperture does make this a relatively hefty lens by mirrorless standards, making the X-E2 kit larger and heavier than a comparable X-M1 kit or a Sony NEX-6 with pancake zoom. 

Though it doesn't have a dedicated mode dial, you can nonetheless operate the camera in the traidtional aperture/shutter/manual/full automatic exposure modes. Unlike the Nikon Df, you are never caught in a position where  the physical camera/lens controls don't actually indicate what the camera is trying to do exposure-wise. On the Df, it's possible to have to have the shutter speed dial set to a certain value and not have it mean anything because the camera is in aperture priority mode. On the X-E2, both the aperture dial on the lens and the shutter dial on the body have automatic ("A") settings. If you set both to "A" the camera calculates exposure in full automatic mode. If you leave the shutter on automatic and spin the aperture dial, you have what amounts to an aperture priority mode, and vice versa with regards to the shutter speed dial.



Just like it's in-between positioning, the build quality of this lens is in-between a kit lens and an outright professional one. The case is much sturdier than with any kit lens and the aperture ring is a joy to use. For the most part, images from the 18-55mm lens are sharp and fairly electronically corrected when images are saved as out-of -camera JPEG's: there's hardly a hint of geometric distortion or vignetting:

18mm
55mm
However, if you use the RAW file, there is a significant amount of barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens and  strong amounts of vignetting with the aperture wide open (especially at 18mm). Lateral chromatic aberration is fairly well controlled, though. Most of this won't matter for the majority of users, as the X-E2 is camera that's been tuned to give pleasing JPEG's. Let's face it: though there will be exceptions, anybody looking to downsize to a smaller camera will also have a higher likelihood of not wanting to bother with extra post-processing time. Of all of the brands out there, Fujifilm is probably at the top of the list for a JPEG only users.

Given that the kit lens is only f/4 at the long end of the focal length range, there isn't much opportunity to do blurred-out backgrounds, but at short-range (~2 feet in this instance), you can create a decent sense of foreground/background separation. Here's how the bokeh develops as you stop down the lens when it's at the long end:

55mm and f/4
55mm and f/5.6
55mm and f/8


Sensor


As before, the X-E2 uses Fujifilm's X-Trans sensor, albeit modified with phase detection sensors. There is a noticeable improvement in focus acquisition speed and motion tracking. In real-world use, the X-E2 is neither as fast as an Olympus E-M1 in single-shot focusing, nor is it as clever as the Nikon D7100 in motion tracking, but the Fuji does fall into a comfortable middle ground that will satisfy most people.

With passing time, the drawing attraction with the X-system has been less about the benefits of the X-Trans sensor and more about the overall packing and experience of the camera as a whole. The X-Trans sensor trades resolving power in the red and blue channels in exchange for more luminence (green) resolution. The upshot of this is that the sensor produces very crisp edges, but loses some detail in low-contrast areas. The result is generally a very pleasing image, as the loss in colour resolution is not normally noticeable to casual users.


Resolution aside, there is another controversy with the X-Trans sensor, and that is how Fujifilm rates the ISO sensitivity. In most situations, all things being equal, the Fuji X-Trans cameras tend to report an ISO value that is roughly 1/3 of a stop higher than for the same aperture and shutter speeds combination. The following chart shows the differences in indicated metering between four different cameras using the same evenly lit grey panel as a target. Bear in mind that these are indicated values, meaning that the actual brightness of the exposure can still vary from cameras to camera. Overall, there is roughly 2/3 EV separation within the pack; the X-E2 returns an ISO value that is approximately 1/3 of a stop higher than the equivalent shutter speed, and the D7100 is the opposite. Note: The chart below was done with the kit lenses in all cases, and assumes that the transmission efficiency (T-Stop) of the four different lenses are roughly the same. Zooms of similar focal length and aperture ranges are roughly the same in terms of T-Stops, but primes are generally more efficient (by ~1/3EV) at the same focal length.


There isn't actually a consistent way to determine ISO equivalency for digital cameras. Instead of one method, there are actually several, and as is, the camera makers tend to pick whichever method suits them. Some detractors have accused Fujifilm of inflating their ISO numbers for marketing purposes, and there is a bit of that going on here, but the end result is the same. What matters is the actual exposure that the camera requires to produce a well exposed image; the numbers describing the mechanics are just labels. Note: For an expanded discussion, see the X-T1 review.


Using the ad hoc refrigerator test, this is what the X-E2 produces at various points its ISO scale. Click on each for a 100% crop view:

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

As with all of the X-Trans cameras, the edges are crisp and there's plenty of dynamic range to be had, even up to ISO 3200 (watch how the highlights and reflections off of the bottles behave). ISO 6400 is surprisingly usable, but given the way that the camera reports the ISO values, it is more comparable to ISO 4000 on another camera. That said, even with that comparison, the X-E2 displays excellent edge retention, but fine detail is about as usable as any other APS-C camera turned up past ISO 3200. At all ISO levels, the tradeoff is in the the tighter detail of the bottle labeling, where printing on the labels doesn't quite come through as it would on other cameras. Compared to a conventional 16mp Bayer sensor camera, the X-Trans sensor makes a strong case for itself, as it can get by without an anti-aliasing filter. However, compared to later generation 24mp Bayer sensors, the advantages aren't so clear. Starting from the cameras like the Nikon D7100, D5300 and Pentax K-3, virtually all of the 24mpp APS-C cameras have done away with the anti-aliasing filter as well. On a straight forward resolution basis, the 24mp cameras win, as they not only have more resolving power, but are better able at rendering detail in the red and blue channels. However, the X-trans sensor, because it is 16mp, has larger light wells, and produces crisper per-pixel acuity.

Comparisons 


Despite being economically overshadowed by the DSLR market, there are quite a few good choices in the enthusiast-level segment of the mirrorless market. The X-E2 compares favourably against all of them. If you exclude the semi-professional Olympus E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-T1, the X-E2 is arguably the leader of the upper-middle mirrorless segment. 

Fujifilm X-E1 versus Sony NEX-6, NEX-7 and A6000


Comparing cameras from these two manufacturers is a study in contrasts. The X-E2 is firmly rooted in traditional stills photography whereas the NEX-6 is much more of a consumer-electronics device, even though it is quite a serious photographic machine. The NEX-7 is even more so; very gadgety to use, but a serious camera nonetheless. It goes without saying, the Sony machines are better at video. Ergonomically, cameras from both companies have physical controls that are easy to to use, but the Sony requires more familiarization with its menu structure.

The starkest difference between the two comes down to lenses. Fujifilm's lens set is much more serious-enthusiast oriented than Sony's, and is easily the better system for primes. Despite the considerable capabilities of the NEX-6, it's lens availability leans a bit more towards the consumer end of the spectrum, though there are some seriously good lenses available for the E-mount. In kit form, the NEX-6 with its pancake lens is a smaller and more compact camera, but the X-E2 will likely appeal more to people who are downsizing from a DSLR. Of course, the NEX-6 is the less expensive camera (by quite a wide margin), and it will likely be the value leader in the middle-tier mirrorless segment until supplies dwindle and the A6000 takes over.

The A6000 replaces both the NEX-6 and the NEX-7. The headline feature is improved phase detection autofocus, but taken as a whole, the same strengths and limitations apply; the Sony camera body has more features (or last least more interesting consumer-electronic style features) whereas the Fujifilm cameras have a more enthusiast-oriented lens set. Because of their slim build and prominent handgrips, the Sony mirrorless bodies also tend to play well when paired with lens adapters and non-native lenses.

Fujifilm X-E2 versus Olympus E-P5


The Olympus PEN E-P5 is the overlooked sibling in Olympus m4/3 lineup. The OM-D cameras get all of the glory, so much so that Olympus has added a junior OM-D, the E-M10 to the fill out the lineup. However, the E-P5 is the more capable camera; it uses the more sophisticated 5-axisimage stabilization system found in the E-M1 and the E-M5, and can be bundled with an excellent EVF. Compared to the X-E2, you are trading outright image quality in exchange for the broader lens selection of the Micro Four Thirds lineup. However, all is not what it seems, though, and despite having a smaller sensor, the image stabilization system is probably the best on the market when used with shorter (90mm full frame equivalent or less) focal lengths.

Even though it's aimed at a more experienced/engaged type of photographer, the E-M5 also makes for a price-competitive choice for anybody cross-shopping the X-E2. The E-M5 is a more comfortable camera to hold and operate, and like the E-P5, single-shot autofocusing is significantly faster than with the X-E2. However, the menu structure of the Olympus cameras are slower to navigate than with the Fuji cameras.

Fujifilm X-E2 versus Panasonic GX-7



Like the E-P5, the Panasonic GX-7 is a competitive alternative to the X-E2, and is less expensive than either of the other two cameras. The kit lens has a slower maximum aperture through it's zoom range and the image stabilization isn't as good as the Olympus though. Most people will find the GX-7's price point more comfortable to slip into than the E-P5's, but the larger problem for Panasonic in North America is the momentum of brand perception. Fujifilm is a company that is on the ascent, whereas Panasonic seems to have stalled in terms of North American penetration. That said, the GX-7 is a remarkably full-featured product that would satisfy enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. If you already have m4/3 lenses, you are better off staying with that system and going to a camera like the GX-7 or E-P5 rather than starting fresh with a brand new lens mount.

Fujifilm X-E2 versus Samsung NX300


The Samsung NX300 is not an immediate choice for camera shoppers, given that Samsung is not an established digital photography brand and that on objective tests, the image processing out of their cameras somewhat lags behind the mainstream brands. In its favour, the NX300 has better wireless connectivity options and typically sells at large discount compared to the X-E2. You could probably find an NX300 for less than half the cost of the X-E2, but its more than just half the amount of camera. Out of camera JPEG images from the NX300 are generally pleasing, but subtle low-contrast detail is not rendered as well as with the mainstream brands. Despite being a "non-camera" brand, the NX300 handles surprisingly well.With the kit lens, it's close in form to the X-E2 but it weighs less and is more comfortable to hold thanks to a more prominent grip on the front of the camera. It's implementation of a traditional command dial and a multipurpose function button on the barrel of the lens makes for one of the most under-rated "press and twirl" control schemes on the market.


Fujifilm X-E2 versus DSLR (Nikon D7100, etc)


As with the choice between the Sony cameras and the X-E2, choosing between this camera and a DSLR comes down to lenses and how you want to use them. The X-System cameras are the anti-DSLR's of the photographic world. Many Fuji owners are former DSLR users, or if they are not, they've picked up an X-E1 or an X-E2 to use as a "smaller" camera. The immediate benefits of having a smaller and more compact system are obvious, though the ultimate benefits of the X-Trans sensor can be debated and frequently are. However, there are real downsides to downsizing, including reduced lens selection, reduced ability to photograph moving subjects and reduced battery life. This has been the basic problem with mirrorless in North America since its introduction; the overlap in price with DSLR's makes for a hard case to pay more for less features. However, for some people, more is less, and that certainly is the case with the X-E2; you don't have to write a long list of pros and cons to illustrate why somebody might want it over a comparable Nikon D7100 or Canon 70D; you only have to hold it in your hand to understand.

Having said that, even though the X-E1 and X-E2 are small and light cameras, they are not small enough to carry discretely. With the kit lens, the X-E2 requires similar storage requirements to the small DSLR's (Nikon D3200, Canon EOS SL1). It's too big to fit in a jacket pocket (at least not comfortably), and it does better in a camera bag. You might need a smaller camera bag with the X-E2, but you will require one nevertheless. 

Concluding Thoughts


Even though the X-Pro1 is the flagship of the Fujifilm lineup, the actual standard bearer is the X-E2, as the X-Pro1 doesn't sell in appreciable quantities. It's the same principle that applies to DSLR's, the full frame cameras get all of the glory for Canon and Nikon, but it's the crop frame cameras that sell in the largest quantities.

If you already have the X-E1, then there is no compelling reason to upgrade to the X-E2. The focusing is faster and more reliable, but there isn't enough of a difference to warrant the upgrade, especially considering that the image quality has not changed appreciably. It's worth noting that Fujifilm is fairly active at issuing firmware updates for new and older camera bodies and lenses; you can take this to mean that they are putting in the extra effort to maintain the end-user experience or you can interpret it as being that the products are being rushed to market. The truth leans a bit more towards the latter, considering that software is the very last thing that is finished with digital cameras before they are shipped; the hardware is finalized first, hence the occasions when you see pre-production cameras being written about in the media, but from which no sample images are permitted.

With the introduction of the X-T1, the X-E2 slots down into the advanced-amateur slot while the newer camera takes the mantle of the the semi-pro slot.  That doesn't change the fact that it's an appealing camera for experienced photographers looking for a smaller device that doesn't give up the image quality that they are used to. Though the X-E2 doesn't produce the best in outright resolution, isn't the quickest to operate and isn't the smallest to carry, it's a well balanced combination of image quality, performance and size, proving that when it comes to product design, the virtues of the whole are occasionally more than just the sum of the parts.


With thanks to Broadway Camera

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