Living with the Fuji X-E2
It’s ten o’clock in the evening, and the sun still has not set. I am sitting outside with a cold beer on a balmy evening watching the sun sink imperceptibly towards the horizon. It’s close to the summer solstice in Denmark – midsummer, or ‘Sankt Hans’ as the Danes call it – and I am currently grounded, recovering from an operation on my shoulder. Neither the sun – nor I – are in any rush.
Denmark is a wonderful place to be at this time of year, with long, light evenings which seem to go on for ever; there is a glow in the Northern sky the entire night as the sun creeps eastwards, hidden only a few degrees below the Northern horizon. It never truly gets dark around midsummer here. The payback for these long days of summer are the short, grey, frequently gloomy days of winter when the sun staggers like a concussed prize-fighter into the sky some time after nine in the morning and hangs low for a few short hours, punch-drunk against the ropes, before plunging back below the horizon mid-afternoon, out for the count for another seventeen hours or so. Such is the Yin and the Yang of life in the higher northern latitudes.
As a result of being unable to fly, I haven’t been doing much travelling recently, and haven’t posted much here for a few weeks. It’s now been six months since I switched mirrorless camera systems from Sony Alpha NEX to Fuji X, and being grounded and unable to travel seems like a good opportunity to take stock of my thoughts on the Fuji X system and write a few words about it as well as share some of the photographs I have made with the camera to date.
Back in January of this year I explained my reasons for switching from the Sony NEX-7 to the Fuji X-E2; reasons which have on the whole been validated with the passage of time and the experience of using the camera on a regular basis.
Having lived with the camera for six months, I can tell you that there is a lot to like about the Fuji X-E2 – and the Fuji X lenses. Here’s why:
The camera is inherently simple, which to me is a positive thing: it does not try to be all things to all men, but simply handles the core photographic tasks well. As a result, I found that I was able to hit the ground running with it. The following images were made just before dawn in Bahrain on the very first day I used the X-E2 having unboxed the camera only the night before. I mentioned that the camera was straightforward and intuitive to use, thanks largely to the fact that almost anything you need to adjust regularly has a corresponding button or dial somewhere on the body of the camera. I like the fact that I almost never have to dive into the menu system to adjust key settings on the camera. Pretty much the only time I use the menu is to protect images against inadvertent deletion, format memory cards, or switch Face Detection on or off in the AF system. I was actually speed-reading the camera user manual in the car on the way to the location where these images were made (I was NOT the one driving the car, I should hasten to add!), and was still able to make some frames I was happy with a few minutes later despite my complete lack of familiarity with the camera beforehand.
Here are the very first few frames I made with the X-E2:
An excellent lens system
Apart from the appealing simplicity of the X-E2, it’s the Fuji X lens system which really shines. I currently use four prime lenses: the 14mm f/2.8, the 23mm f/1.4, the 35mm f/1.4 and the 60mm f/2.4 Macro lenses, and will shortly be adding the 10-24mm f/4 zoom and the 56mm f/1.2 to that list. In conjunction with the Fuji X-Trans CMOS II sensor, all of these lenses are capable of producing images of stunning quality, with outstanding contrast, colour rendition and sharpness. In addition, they all look and feel the business. Anyone who tells me that it shouldn’t matter how a camera or a lens looks and feels is to my mind wrong: a camera is not simply tool, it is also the photographer’s equivalent of the artist’s brush; how it feels in your hands – and how it makes you feel – undoubtedly has an influence on the pictures you make with it. Photography is to a significant extent a mental game. The best cameras simply get out of your way and let you get on with the business of making pictures. The X-E2 – most of the time – is such a camera. When it isn’t, I feel that I want to throw it out of the window, but fortunately those moments are rare and solely down to the occasional autofocus behaviour – of which more later.
Making a great camera better: adding an L-plate and grip
Soon after buying the camera, I added a Really Right Stuff L-plate and grip. The camera is definitely useable without the grip, but it feels much more comfortable to shoot with it all day with the grip in place. I don’t normally leave the full L-plate attached; typically I just use the base plate with the grip, only attaching the side plate when I am planning on a lot of shooting on a tripod. There is a balance to be found between not wanting to bulk up the camera unnecessarily – after all, one of the main attractions of these mirrorless cameras is the small size and weight – and making them comfortable to carry and shoot with all day. In addition, the RRS baseplate and grip make the camera feel much more solid and more able to take the occasional knock or two without adding undue weight or bulk.
Superlative skin tones and accurate white balance
I’m not sure exactly what voodoo magic the Fuji engineers are practising but skin tones are rendered better than with any other camera system I have used – including my full-frame Nikon dSLRs. Initially, it was only possible to benefit from Fuji’s wonderful film-simulation profiles (including my favourite for portraits, Pro Neg Standard) when shooting JPEG files, but Adobe Lightroom now supports the X-E2’s different camera profiles in the Develop Module, making it possible to shoot raw files and still try out these different film simulations after image capture. Given that portraiture is a significant part of my photography and I almost always prefer to shoot raw files, this makes me happy.
Additionally, more often and not, the camera nails the white balance very well on the ‘Auto’ setting, and as a result I rarely need to tweak it in post.
Great high-ISO performance
As far as high-ISO performance is concerned, my initial optimism was justified: the 16MP Fuji X-Trans sensor performs amazingly well at high ISO settings: excellent up to ISO 3200, and very useable up to ISO 6400. By way of an example, the following image was shot at ISO 6400 (hand-held at ¼ second – another benefit of a mirrorless camera – try doing that with a full-frame dSLR).
You can’t really tell from this small JPG image, but even examining the image at 100% magnification, there is relatively little luminance or chroma noise. I am right on the limits of the hand-held shooting envelope here: ISO 6400, ¼ second, shooting wide open at f/1.4. It is also testimony to the quality of the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 R. I chanced upon this scene driving home late one winter’s evening; I simply wouldn’t have got this image without a tripod with my full-frame dSLR.
As with any camera and lens system, there are a few quirks. For me, these are the following:
The lens aperture rings move too easily
On the 14mm, 23mm and 35mm lenses in particular, I have found that it is very easy to accidentally move the aperture ring on the lenses and inadvertently change the f-stop – a more positive selection of individual apertures would help. This of course is not a fault of the X-E2 itself, but rather the lenses. Taping the lens barrel with a strip of gaffer tape is one solution which I have tried, although most of the time I don’t bother and simply do my best to be careful not to knock the aperture ring – and to double-check the setting before making an exposure.
Some external controls are hard to identify by touch alone
Some of the buttons are small and hard to locate with your eye to the EVF (Electronic Viewfinder): the AF-L button is one which immediately springs to mind, as this button is used to activate back-button autofocus, which is something I use often. Despite frequent use I still struggle to find this button with the thumb of my right hand with my eye to the viewfinder – it is easy to confuse it with the AE-L button just below it, as from a tactile point of view, these two buttons are virtually indistinguishable, despite the fact that the AF-L button is very slightly raised relative to the AE-L button.
Non-uniform sizes for lens front elements
Another minor irritation from the point of view of a photographer used to shooting with Nikon (or Canon) professional glass and a standard front element size is that the front elements of the Fuji prime lenses are all of differing diameters, which means I have to carry around a stack of step-up rings to use them with the various filters I use. Fumbling in the half-light in the depths of my camera bag for the right step-up ring for the particular lens I am using can be a pain. However, that is a small price to pay for the wonderful lenses in the Fuji X range, so I don’t want to grumble about that too much.
Modest max flash sync speed
The flash sync speed tops out at 1/180 sec. which means that overpowering the sun outdoors with a single off-camera flash unit is not as easy it should be. I’d love to see Fuji up that sync speed to at least 1/250 sec. which is worth another half a stop. The only way to compensate for this is to double up on the flash units when required, since even at full power a single flash unit will typically struggle to give you enough power to underexpose the ambient in bright sunlight unless you bring the flash in pretty close to your subject. If you want full-length illumination of your portrait subject, you will more often than not need a second flash unit. This of course depends on the number of Watt-seconds your strobe can produce, but using a Nikon SB 900 Speedlight – which packs a decent punch – I often struggle to overpower the ambient light even at 1:1 power on the flash if I want strobe illumination for a full-length portrait. And don’t even think about using diffusion, which will significantly reduce the number of photons reaching your subject from the flash and cost you a stop of flash power at least.
On the subject of using flash … if you own an X-E2 – or another ‘X’-series camera – and are scratching your head wondering why you cannot trigger an external flash from your camera hotshoe nor use the pop-up flash, take a look in the Shooting Menu at the ‘Flash Mode’ setting (the lightning bolt thingy). If it is grayed out, this means that flash mode is disabled. There are two reasons why this may happen which are not immediately obvious from the camera manual (not to me at least): firstly, if you have the camera set to shoot in ‘Silent Mode’; and secondly, if the Drive Mode is set to burst – the flash triggering only works in ‘Still Image’ Mode.
One other thing which surprised me was that the camera was shipped without any protective cover for the hotshoe, so one of the first things I did was order a few plastic hotshoe inserts; it is very easy to damage or short the metal hotshoe contacts. I am surprised Fuji don’t supply this – it’s a small point, but it wouldn’t cost much.
Fixed focus-area size in back-button AF mode
I was initially frustrated by the inability to change the size of the focus area when in ‘back-button autofocus’ mode (achieved by setting the camera to manual focus and momentarily depressing the AF-L button). I was wondering whether the inability to reduce the size of the focus area might be a problem when trying to achieve focus with very shallow depth of field – for example, on the nearest eye of a portrait subject. However, I have discovered that the camera seems to do a reasonable job of finding the eye even with a focus area which nominally seems too large to be appropriate to this task, so this is not causing me as many problems as I thought it might.
Erratic AF speed and accuracy
However, my main issue with the X-E2 is the autofocus speed. Despite Fuji’s claims – and having the latest firmware installed on both camera body and all lenses – AF does still fall significantly short of what I am used to from my full-frame Nikon SLR cameras. In particular, autofocus is – for my taste – slow with the XF 35mm f/1.4 R and the XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro prime lenses, and often prone to hunting. I find AF significantly faster and less likely to hunt with the XF 23mm f/1.4 R and the XF 14mm f/2.8 R. I suspect the camera would autofocus faster with the newer internal-focus lenses such as the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS and XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS zooms, but I love the primes I have too much to give them up. I may, however, invest in some internally focusing zooms at some point for the times when I need maximum speed from the AF system – probably the two fast f/2.8 zooms due for release later this year.
AF occasionally goes haywire between focus lock and making the exposure
However, the single most irritating AF issue which I made reference to earlier – and which makes me want to hurl the camera to the ground when it occurs – is the this. Using the camera in single-focus (‘S”) mode (i.e. no continuous focus tracking), I half-depress the shutter release to acquire focus. Having acquired focus, the camera changes the colour of the focus-area rectangle in the EVF display to green, and displays a green dot bottom left to indicate focus lock. So far so good. However, when I then depress the shutter-release button fully to take the photograph, the AF goes haywire and starts hunting, racks the focus in and out, giving me a completely blurry out-of-focus image. As I have said before, I have the latest firmware installed on both camera and lenses, and I have experienced this problem occasionally ever since I have owned the camera. It happens on numerous lenses. If anyone reading this knows what may be happening, please drop me a line. It is infrequent, so I haven’t gone as far as returning the camera to Fuji to have them check it out. However, I may do this at some point.
The Q Menu (Quick Access Menu)
The Q menu – accessed directly via a button on the rear of the camera – has some strange inclusions and omissions – strange to my mind at least. In terms of omissions, Face Detection is one, and Flash Exposure Compensation is another. Either of these could be included at the expense of, say, JPEG sharpness, which I cannot believe most photographers feel the need to adjust on a daily basis. I can personally live without flash-exposure compensation being available in the Q menu since if I am going to use flash I am usually using it off-camera anyway, and am controlling the power of my off-camera flash units manually. However the fact that it is necessary to go hunting in the menu system to turn face detection on and off is particularly frustrating given that when it fails to find a face or focus on a face, it also fails to relinquish control of the AF and prevents you from selecting a focus point, requiring you to frantically dig into the menu system to switch it off. It is also not very tolerant of any facial adornments such as facial hair or glasses – nor any face that is not square-on to the camera. However, I persevere with it because there are times when face detection is genuinely useful. The Fuji X-T1 camera is offers an improvement in this regard in that it is possible to turn face-detection on an off with the press of a button.
Despite these gripes, most of which are of a relatively minor nature, the X-E2 is a wonderful camera to use. In fact I am so impressed overall that for the first time I am seriously considering selling my Nikon D800 and lenses and buying one or possibly two more Fuji X bodies – the Fuji X-T1 and additionally the Fuji X100S for the silent operation and blazing fast max sync speed offered by the leaf shutter. Selling my Nikon system is something which would have been unthinkable to me only a few months ago, and is testimony to how happy I am with the Fuji X system.
The fact is, when I reach for a camera, nine times out of ten it is the Fuji, not the Nikon, that I reach for. For travel, the Fuji is unobtrusive and much more comfortable to carry. When I am at home the Fuji is the camera which I always have with me. In fact, for almost all the shooting I do, the Fuji fits the bill.
Before I started using the X-E2, my perception was that I would generally revert to using the full-frame Nikon when I needed to shoot at high ISO; when I needed the larger angle of view offered by an ultra-wide-angle lens on a full-frame body; when I wanted the very shallow depth of field available with a fast lens in conjunction with the larger 35mm sensor; when I needed the superior durability of Nikon’s weather-sealed professional cameras; when I wanted to use off-camera flash in TTL exposure mode; or when I needed the fast and accurate autofocus of a pro SLR system.
Let’s look at each of those in turn:
Shooting at high ISO
Six months of using the X-E2 has convinced me that the performance of the Fuji X cameras such as the X-E2 and the X-T1 at high ISO is a match for – or pretty close to – the performance of my full-frame Nikon D800. I no longer feel I need to reach for the Nikon D800 any time I might be shooting in low light, as I am confident the Fuji X-E2 will deliver.
Wide glass, wide angle of view
Since I bought the X-E2, Fuji have released the ultra-wide 10-24mm f/4 R OIS zoom for the X-system. This equates to a focal length of around 15mm at the wide end on a full-frame camera: wide enough for anything I am ever likely to need. So I with the release of this lens, feel I no longer need the full-frame Nikon for ultra wide-angle photography
Shallow Depth of Field
A similar argument applies here. Fuji have released the 56mm f/1.2 lens, with a depth of field when used wide open equivalent to shooting with a f/1.8 lens at a focal length of around 85mm on a full-frame sensor. Not quite as shallow in terms of depth of field as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, but f/1.8 is plenty shallow enough. At least, the difference in weight and bulk between a Nikon D800 with a 85mm f/1.4G lens fitted and a Fuji X-E2 or X-T1 camera with a 56mm f/1.2 lens fitted is sufficiently large that I can live with it.
The X-E2 is not weather-sealed; however, the recently released X-T1 is, which will be the next camera body I buy. And Fuji are planning to release similarly weather-sealed lenses to go with it in the next few months. I love shooting in bad weather and harsh environments, as it often makes for interesting pictures. Previously, this was another good reason to shoot with the Nikon system. However, this argument is now also null and void with the introduction of weather-sealing to the Fuji X system.
TTL control of off-camera flash
When I use off-camera flash with my Nikon system, if I am working in a controlled environment where working fast is not imperative then I typically set the power of each flash unit manually. However, there are times when I prefer to hand over control and allow the camera to set the power of the remote flash units automatically using iTTL metering for what it thinks is a correct flash exposure; I then tweak the flash power as required from that baseline using exposure compensation. The reason for this is that sometimes life just won’t wait while you zero in on the manual flash exposure you want – by the time you have found it, the moment has gone. TTL control of off-camera flash gets you in the ballpark much more quickly. For example, when making street portraits, if I decide I want or need to use off-camera flash, TTL is a great help in getting the flash output approximately where I want it, fast. Or maybe I am photographing the kids running around in the garden, hand-holding a Speedlight on an extension pole, trying to crosslight with flash against backlight from the setting sun. Manual flash power is a headache here, as the flash-to-subject distance is varying as I am trying to photograph a moving subject, and the inverse-square law kills my flash exposure: setting the flash power manually, it typically either looks like I forgot to turn my flash on or my family are being illuminated by a small thermonuclear device.
In short, TTL control of flash is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the Fuji X cameras do not offer TTL control of flash. If and when they do, I’ll definitely be a step closer to selling my Nikon gear.
This the other area which causes me to hesitate to jettison my Nikon gear. The AF performance of the X cameras improves with each iteration – the X-T1 can now track moving subjects pretty well, at 8 frames per second with continuous AF (or 3 fps with Live View). However, this is nowhere near the AF performance of a modern pro-grade dSLR. I don’t shoot much in the way of action or sports, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. However, on the occasion when I have needed blazing fast, rock-solid AF performance, I have been very grateful for my Nikons. I am still wrestling with this one, and haven’t finally made up my mind. However, I have an awful lot of cash tied up in Nikon cameras and lenses, and if this is the only reason why I am keeping the Nikon gear, I can’t really justify it, as most of the shooting I do just doesn’t require this level of AF performance. And if I ever do need it, there’s nothing to stop me renting the gear I need for a few days.
So in conclusion: six months down the line, I am convinced. The Fuji X system does what I want, and satisfies pretty much all my photographic needs, almost all the time, with the two main issues for me being autofocus performance and TTL control of off-camera flash.
I am not quite yet at the point where I am going to sell my Nikon gear – but that day may no longer be far away.