The X-Factor: Switching from Sony NEX to Fuji X
The Sony Alpha NEX-7 and the Fujifilm X-E2 are both class-leading mirrorless cameras. Both are capable of producing image files of stunning quality; both are reasonably rugged, well-made cameras of a similar size and weight.
So why did I recently decide to sell my Sony NEX-7 and buy a Fuji X-E2?
My intention is not to give a comprehensive review of either the NEX-7 or the Fuji X-E2. There are other websites which do a great job of that already. My motivation for writing this post is simply to explain my personal reasons for making the switch between these two mirrorless camera systems. What is important to me may not be what is important to you, and for another photographer, the NEX-7 may be the better choice. So I am not suggesting that either of these two cameras is ‘better’ than the other – just better suited to me personally.
My perspective is that of a photographer who is used to using a full-frame SLR camera system and my expectations of a camera are inevitably coloured by that. I am prepared to make some compromises when moving from a large, heavy SLR body to a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera in return for the reduced form factor and weight – but the compromises have to be weighed carefully against the convenience and increased comfort of a smaller, lighter body: the camera still has to be up to the job.
Before I talk about pros and cons of the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2, a little background.
I am a long-time user of digital SLR cameras. Around six months ago I bought a Sony Alpha NEX-7 mirrorless camera together with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 24mm f/1.8 lens for the Sony ‘E’ mount. I also bought a Novoflex adaptor to enable me to use the NEX-7 with my Nikon prime lenses.
The idea behind buying the Sony NEX-7 was that it would become my primary travel camera, as hauling a full-frame Nikon dSLR plus pro lenses around the world on a regular basis was becoming tiresome. So a smaller and lighter mirrorless camera system seemed like the way to go – provided that I was convinced it could do the job.
My intention was that the NEX-7 would augment, rather than replace, my Nikon dSLR gear. There was still to be a place for the full-frame Nikon dSLR in my kit bag: my thinking was that any photographic endeavour which didn’t involve getting on an aeroplane would almost certainly involve me shooting with my Nikon dSLR system as before. Additionally, any time I needed the better high-ISO performance, intrinsically shallower depth-of-field and wider angle of view of a full-frame sensor, blazing fast autofocus, or superior durability and weather sealing (generally in dusty, sandy, or wet environments – deserts, beaches, dust storms, monsoons, etc.), I would shoot with the Nikon SLR system instead of the mirrorless NEX-7 and accept the increase in size and weight.
So why did I recently decide to sell my Sony NEX-7 and buy a Fuji X-E2?
There are a number of reasons for deciding to switch – here they are, in no particular order:
Reason #1: Video Functionality
At the time of buying the NEX-7, I was sorely tempted by several of the Fuji mirrorless cameras. In fact, the only reason I bought the Sony NEX-7 instead of one of the Fuji cameras was because the video functionality of the NEX-7 is far superior, and I thought I would be shooting much more video than I am. Since I am shooting still images 95% of the time and almost no video, the main benefit of the NEX-7 to me is a lot less relevant than it was. My Nikon D800 dSLR produces video of stunning quality, and for on-the-fly video, I also have my iPhone 5. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be shooting much video with the NEX-7 after all.
Reason #2: High-ISO Performance
Although the Sony NEX-7 is touted as having good high-ISO performance, in practice I have been a little disappointed with this aspect of the NEX-7. High-ISO performance is important to me: I shoot a lot of images while travelling, often in low light, and don’t always have the option – nor want – to augment the light with strobes or flash. I am used to the excellent high-ISO performance of my full-frame Nikon SLRs, and the NEX-7 is noticeably worse in this regard – to be specific, I became very reluctant to shoot above ISO 1600 if I could possibly avoid it.
The lack of great high-ISO performance is doubtless owing to the fact that Sony have packed 24 Megapixels on to an APS-C sensor. What this means is that each light-gathering photosite has to be smaller owing to the higher density of photosites on the sensor, and this results in a lower signal-to-noise ratio which manifests itself as visible digital noise at high ISO settings. In comparison, the Fuji X-E2 packs a more modest 16 Megapixels on to the same size sensor, and the high ISO performance of the X-E2 is very, very good – in my opinion at least on a par with my full-frame Nikon D800 SLR.
I had heard that the high-ISO performance of the X-E2 was good, but it was only when I saw the image files on my monitor that I saw how good it actually was. I can shoot as high as ISO 6400 with very little degradation in image quality. I would much rather have a sensor with a lower Megapixel count and better high-ISO performance – I don’t care less about the Megapixel wars. On a full-frame sensor, 24MP is the sweet spot for me; on an APS-C sensor, 16MP is ideal. The Fuji X-E2 with its 16MP APS-C sensor thus hits the sweet spot – the Sony NEX-7 does not. I can’t help feeling that Sony’s choice of 24MP for the NEX-7 was a marketing decision driven by the desire to be ‘king of the heap’ and claim a higher Megapixel count at launch than any other APS-C camera. Not many photographic applications require a 24 Megapixel sensor; my Nikon D700 full-frame camera only had 12 Megapixels, and there have been plenty of professional jobs shot with the D700. So give me the 16MP Fujifilm X-Trans CMOS II sensor any day.
Reason #3: Auto-ISO Functionality
On the subject of ISO, I was also frustrated by the Auto-ISO functionality of the NEX-7. The maximum ceiling for the ISO using Auto-ISO is ISO 1600, which means that when the light level drops sufficiently, the ISO hits the ceiling of 1600 and in Aperture-Priority Exposure Mode (where I am 99% of the time), the shutter speed starts to drop to the point where it is not possible to hold the camera steady and image sharpness suffers. For street photography, I use Auto-ISO a lot; I care a great deal about the aperture and the shutter speed as they have a significant impact on the aesthetics of the photograph – but as long as the image is not noticeably noisy, I don’t care very much about the ISO. Despite the fact that I was not particularly impressed with the high-ISO performance of the NEX-7, I’ll take a sharp but noisy image over a blurred image any day. In other words, the ceiling for Auto-ISO on the NEX-7 is too conservative – I would rather deal with the high-ISO noise than a blurred, unusable image – and I was missing shots as a result. The alternative is to switch to manual ISO which means that you may be shooting at a higher ISO setting than you need to in a fast-moving situation with rapidly fluctuating light levels, and end up with images which are noisier than they need to be – particularly relevant given the modest performance of the NEX-7 at high ISO settings.
Reason #4: Autofocus Speed and Reliability
The NEX-7 uses contrast-detect autofocus; the Fuji X-E2 employs a hybrid phase/contrast-detect autofocus system. The difference in plain English is essentially the following: contrast-detect AF is noticeably slower than phase-detect AF, and has a hard time tracking anything which is moving, or when contrast in the scene is low. Additionally, contrast detect AF systems can be easily fooled by scenes which contain specular highlights, leading the camera to think that something is in focus when in fact nothing is. The only advantage of contrast-detect AF systems is that they do not suffer from some of the focusing errors to which phase-detect AF is prone.
You can add phase-detect AF functionality to the NEX-7 by purchasing Sony’s optional, expensive and bulky LA-EA2 adaptor – but then honestly, why not just shoot with an SLR and be done with it? –the whole point of switching from an SLR to a mirrorless system is to save size and weight.
What I noticed in practice is that I was missing shots in a travel/street-photography environment with the NEX-7, even in good light with the excellent Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar lens, on account of the autofocus speed. The Fuji X-E2 AF is by way of comparison much faster and generally pretty reliable, even in poor light. Not pro-dSLR-fast – but fast enough, most of the time.
AF performance – along with image quality, high-ISO performance and camera ergonomics – is vitally important to me, so this difference between the NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 is huge. If you are a landscape, architectural, interiors or portrait photographer, this may not bother you at all. If you are a street, wedding or event photographer and you like using autofocus, the superior AF performance of the X-E2 will enhance your ability to capture fleeting moments in a fast-changing scene.
Reason #5: Back-Button AF and a Moveable Focus Point
Although the NEX-7 is by common consensus badly set up out of the box, it is highly customisable. The Fuji X-E2 is by default set up very well ex-factory, and is similarly very customisable. However, despite the customisability of the NEX-7, there were some annoying quirks which I could not circumvent. One example is the NEX-7’s implementation of what is commonly referred to as ‘Back-Button Autofocus’. When a camera is set up to use back-button AF, the AF is decoupled from the shutter-release button and assigned to a separate button, usually on the rear of the camera: hence: ‘back-button AF’. The advantage of separating AF control from the shutter release is that you don’t need to re-acquire focus each time you press the shutter button to take a photograph. As long as your subject hasn’t moved, the focus effectively remains locked wherever it was when you last focused. This makes for a much more responsive and fluid shooting experience, and I use this set up on my Nikon SLRs for everything I shoot from street photography to portraits to landscapes. Sure, there is no benefit to back-button AF when shooting landscapes for example, but it is easier to become familiar with one way of shooting which works for everything – that way, there is less chance of screwing up when you need to work fast because muscle memory takes over and you can concentrate on the light, composition and timing and stop thinking about the technicalities of operating the camera.
It is possible to implement back-button AF on the NEX-7; however, it is impossible to then move the focus point around the frame, forcing you to use the ‘focus-recompose’ method of shooting. The NEX-7 only allows you to move the focus point around the frame when AF is fully engaged: the back-button AF set-up on the NEX-7 requires you to effectively put the camera into manual-focus mode, and momentarily engage AF each time you press the AF/MF button. Since you cannot move the focus point in manual-focus mode, you cannot move the focus point while using back-button AF on the NEX-7.
In contrast, the Fuji X-E2 permits me to set up back-button AF AND move the focus point around the frame exactly as I would on my Nikon SLRs – the only limitation is the size of the focus point, which cannot be reduced in size as it can when using autofocus linked to a half-press of the shutter-release button. This can occasionally be limiting when trying to focus on a small area when shooting with a lens wide open e.g. focusing on your subject’s eye – and in this situation I switch to using the AF linked to the shutter-release button, or simply fine-tuning focus manually using one of the excellent manual-focusing aids.
This ability to move the AF point around the frame is the way I mostly like to use AF – I much prefer it to using the centre focus point and re-composing, as it makes for faster more fluid composition, and I find that I am less likely to miss the moment or screw up the composition in a changing scene. For example, trying to nail a panning shot rendering the moving object sharp and the background blurred is almost impossible with the focus-recompose method of shooting.
In short, the Fuji X-E2 supports my default way of working with AF; the NEX-7 does not. For some photographers, the above may not matter at all – for me it is a big deal.
Reason #6: Manual Focusing Aids
Both the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 offer aids to manual focusing. Both of them enable you to enlarge the area of the scene you are focusing on to check accurate manual focus, and both offer ‘focus peaking’ (where high-contrast areas of the scene in the Electronic Viewfinder – usually those areas which are in sharp focus – ‘sparkle’ to indicate that they are in focus.) However, I find Fuji’s implementation of focus peaking much easier to see than with the Sony NEX-7. Additionally, the X-E2 offers an additional manual focusing aid – the ‘split image’ mode – which can be useful in certain situations, although I generally prefer the focus-peaking option.
Reason #7: The Lens System
The range of lenses available with the Fuji X system is already comprehensive and indicative of Fuji’s serious intentions with the X system, with a clear roadmap for future development. The Fujinon X lenses are beautiful to behold, with generally stunning image quality: sharp across the frame even wide open with excellent contrast, attractive flare characteristics, beautiful colour rendition and bokeh. Sony’s range of ‘E’ mount lenses for the NEX-7 is developing too slowly for my liking, although there are some good Carl Zeiss lenses available for the Sony ‘E’ mount. It is possible to use lenses from other manufacturers with the NEX-7 with adaptors, but then you are limited to using manual focus and also setting aperture manually – and giving up AF can be a big deal in some shooting situations.
Reason #8: Manufacturer Responsiveness and Customer Care
Fuji’s responsiveness to the photographer community in terms of listening to feedback and releasing firmware upgrades to address deficiencies is refreshing and widely reported. That kind of responsiveness and commitment to customers is rare. Fuji really seems to be listening to its photographer user base, and the fruits of this collaboration are visible in terms of the development and enhancement of the Fuji X system. Fuji is releasing software upgrades to improve the functionality of older cameras in the Fuji X range, and not just pushing its latest cameras and encouraging users of its older cameras to shell out for the latest model. Sure, the end result of this is more brand loyalty, and in the long run undoubtedly more sales for Fuji – but if it continues to be sufficiently far-sighted as to look after its customers in this way, the company deserves to be successful and make a healthy profit from the Fuji X range.
There are also numerous reports on the web of photographers who have been looked after very well by Fuji customer service when they have had problems with Fuji cameras, even when the camera is not longer under warranty. This further underlines Fuji’s commitment to its customers, which is laudable.
I have absolutely nothing negative to say about Sony in terms of customer support, but Fuji really seems to be going the extra mile for its customers, and this is another factor for me in switching to the Fuji X system.
Reason #9: The X-E2 is a true photographer’s camera
My final reason for making the switch is less tangible than the others, but I am convinced of its veracity.
I have the inescapable feeling after shooting with both the Sony NEX-7 and the Fuji X-E2 that the NEX-7, while indisputably a fantastic little camera and a marvel of technology, feels like it was designed by a team of technicians. The Fuji X-E2 feels like it was designed by photographers. Or to put it another way: the X-E2 feels like a camera, whereas the NEX-7 feels more like an electronic gadget containing lots of impressive imaging technology. The X-E2 doesn’t have as many fancy tricks as the NEX-7, it doesn’t do video as well, it doesn’t have 24 Megapixels, it doesn’t have a tilting rear screen, it doesn’t have clever low-light modes like Anti-Motion Blur or Hand-Held Twilight, and the X-E2 user manual is a fraction of the heft of the NEX-7 manual – but the X-E2 simply handles the core photographic tasks brilliantly and its ergonomics are significantly better.
Unlike the NEX-7, the Fuji X-E2 is very well set up out of the box, with the ability to be further customised to the user’s needs. Every button is exactly where you want it to be. I tried playing around with the customisation of the camera, and after a period of experimentation, reverted to the way Fuji had set it up ex-factory as I found I couldn’t improve on it.
For my style of photography, the holy trinity of camera performance are image quality, autofocus performance and high-ISO performance – and you can add camera handling and ergonomics to that. In these four areas – which are really all I care about – the Fuji X-E2 wins hands down. The autofocus system is fast and reliable, the image quality from the 16MP sensor is nothing short of stunning, and the ISO performance is outstanding from an APS-C sensor.
That is not to say that the X-E2 is perfect – the perfect camera doesn’t exist. There are a few things which I would love to see Fuji address: for example, the ability to modify the size of the focus area used when AF is momentarily engaged with the AF-L button in manual-focus mode, or increasing the maximum flash sync speed from 1/180 sec. to 1/250 sec., or the addition of a tilting rear LCD screen. But these are things I can live with.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for another photographer, the NEX-7 may be the better choice. If you want great video performance, if you want the resolution of a 24 Megapixel sensor, if you don’t need fast autofocus nor stellar high-ISO performance, or if you simply must have a tilting rear LCD screen, the Sony NEX-7 might be the perfect mirrorless camera for you.
There is no ‘best camera’ here – only what is right for you. At this point in time the Fujifilm X-E2 is the right mirrorless camera for me.