Italy and the Fuji XE-1

In GEAR, News & Stuff, Travel by David

I spent three weeks in Italy this month, making photographs, teaching, and looking for great food and wine. I took with me the Fuji XE-1 and two lenses, the 14mm and the 18-55mm, both from Fuji. I took them because I wanted a light kit, because for places like Venice I just won’t walk around all day if my gear is too heavy. The Fuji was perfect. But I also wanted to give myself some new creative constraints and I’d heard such good things from others, mostly about the Fuji’s sensor, that I had to see if it would work well for me. So I took a couple 64GB SD cards, slapped on a Really Right Stuff plate with grip (the BXE1 set here), and took it to Europe.

What I expected was a good camera for street and candid photography and a mediocre camera for landscapes. I expected light, but at the expense of useability. And frankly, I expected a little of the frustration I’d had with some of the quirks of Fuji’s first foray into this category: the X100, which I struggled to really love while everyone else lauded it. I came home a convert, though with some caveats. Here, in no particular order, are some of my reactions:

  • I loved the size and handling. It’s a little light, but with the Really Right Stuff L-plate and grip, it was perfect. Hardly noticed it was there. Except when it was falling off my shoulder. The strap Fuji provides is too small for me. In the end I had a shoe-maker take the Fuji strap apart and make me a sexy new one that’s about 12 inches longer, out of ostrich leather. It’s crazy sexy and I can now wear it bandolier-style the way I like.
  • The lenses were fantastic, especially the 14mm which despite the initially confusing focusing clutch (I have to do WHAT to make this lens work?!), has depth of field markings on the lens making it easy to set the lens to f/11, find my hyperfocal distance and shoot without focusing. I love that. As for quality, they’re crazy sharp. The 14mm also has a dedicated manual aperture ring on the barrel, which I also love, but it moves far too smoothly for me and I’d constantly find my aperture changed. A strip of gaffer tape that holds down the ring will do, but I shouldn’t have to. Rubber band might work too.
  • The sensor is amazing and I shot at crazy-high ISO without thinking twice about it, in part because I like the look. Very film-like to my eye.
  • I love the ability to crop in-camera to 1:1 or 16:9, from the default 2:3, but I don’t see why I can’t do 4:5. Or, for that matter, a custom size. I shot on 1:1 for the whole trip, because it forced me to compose with a different frame and I find those constraints very freeing and energizing. I’m pretty strict with myself about getting it right in-camera, but because I shoot in RAW I can always change my mind or slightly re-crop.
  • I love the ability to shoot in B&W, and because it’s an electronic viewfinder, I can see my scene that way. I shot in B&W the whole trip, and even though I will render most of the work in colour, the ability to see without colour and focus on the moment and the lines is fantastic. Again, because I shoot in RAW, I can do what I like with the file and I’m not stuck with only B&W images as I would if I shot only in JPG.
  • I love the manual shutter and EV compensation dials, though like the aperture ring on the 14mm, the EV comp dial moves a little too freely for my taste.
  • Nice to have in-viewfinder histogram and virtual horizon.
  • The X-Pro 1 forces you to use an old school cable release, but the XE-1 has an available electronic one. Setting the XE-1 to Bulb and locking the release activates the shutter and shows a timer on the display so I can watch my long exposures without staring at a tiny LCD on the release itself. I love that. Add a smaller Lee adaptor and it takes my full landscape set-up. Looks a little goofy, but I’ve given up trying to look cool and be a photographer at the same time.
  • The writing on the bezel surrounding the lens element reflected in my filters. Lens makers should know better. This is a silly convention. I taped mine up. It’s ugly but it works.
  • Quirks? Not many. I love the Q menu for fast access to menu items. The means by which focus points are changed is cumbersome and requires me to do some weird gymnastics with my fingers. I’d love to see that changed. It’s not the fastest start-up and sometimes the focus hunted a little, but I expected worse, so wound up pleasantly surprised. The XE-1 shoots bursts up to 6fps but takes forever to process and I’m still scratching my head on how to view the sequences. Why not just let me look at them as sequential images, Fuji? Very odd.
  • There’s an M-mount adaptor available for the XE-1 which means the availability of lenses is amazing, though the price-tag won’t be cheap. Leica isn’t known for being inexpensive.

The bottom line for me is: do I enjoy using the camera, does it stay out of my way as much as possible, and how good are the photographs? We’ll all answer these kinds of questions differently, but for me the answer were, Yes, Mostly, and Fantastic. I love this thing. Will it replace my DSLR? Sometimes, yes. I’ll use it in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. I’ll use it in Ethiopia for Orthodox Christmas. And I’ll use it beside my D3s and D800 on other trips, like my upcoming grizzly bear trip or my safaris. If you’ve been contemplating a smaller camera, you owe it to yourself to try the XE-1. It won’t help you see light, lines, or moments any better, but it’s capable enough to capture them beautifully.

If you want to see some of the images from this camera, and you’ve not already seen the postcards I published last week, you can see them on this post, this post, and finally this post.