Fujifilm X-E1

The Fujifilm X-E1 is a compact system camera (CSC) unlike any of the competition out there - that's clear from taking just one glance at this well-oiled, retro-designed machine.

But it's what's on the inside that's most exciting. When Fujifilm revealed its X-Pro1 CSC there was quite a buzz about its - rather absurdly named - "X-Trans" CMOS sensor. It works unlike anything else out there and produces image quality that punches above the weight of most APS-C sensors. Good job then that the X-E1 has ported the very same sensor to its heart, but can it deliver with equally impressive features and performance?

Design & Lenses

It's like winding the clock back (in a good way) isn't it? The X-E1 plays to Fujifilm's X-series' strengths. Not only does it look gorgeous, it's also built like a tank. It's heavy, but not in a hefty way; more the kind of reassuring weight akin to old rangefinders. Though let's be clear: the X-E1 absolutely is not a rangefinder camera.

When talking about the X-E1, it's helpful to have some grounding in what the X-Pro1 is all about. The latter - and Fujifilm's debut CSC - has a whole bunch of tricks up its sleeve to set it apart from more mainstream CSCs.

READ: Fujifilm X-Pro1 review

Upon launch the X-Pro1 was available with a choice of three prime lenses. Unconventional, but with its lean toward a pro audience it made good sense. The X-E1 can make use of these lenses, as they are the very same XF lens mount, but its slightly, let's say, more casual design sees it introduce the 18-55mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens to the fold.

A zoom, eh? That might sound strange to any X-Pro1 users as that camera's hybrid viewfinder makes great use of an optical preview with crop marks (though not so with the zoom lens), something the more budget X-E1 lives without.

The X-E1's design instead favours an electronic-only viewfinder, which provides an ultimately different feeling to the wider-than-100-per-cent field-of-view optical system of the X-Pro1. The X-E1 is "easier" to use as its "what you see is what you get" field-of-view system doesn't have any parallax error to adjust for either. There it goes again: the X-E1 proving it's just a smidgen more mainstream.

The 2.8-inch screen on the camera's rear may not match up to the X-Pro1's WRGB 3-inch version, but the X-E1 makes up for this in the viewfinder department. The 0.5-inch OLED panel is made up of 2.4-million dots, making it the equal highest resolution electronic viewfinder available on the market. And boy does it feel like it; in fact it's more than twice the resolution of the X-Pro1's EVF. Nice touch. Our only moan is the slight delay in the eye-level sensor firing up the preview when raising it to the eye.

All Fujifilm XF lenses come with an aperture ring that can be set to auto or rotated to digitally select through the available range. The position of the aperture ring on the 18-55mm zoom means it's rather easy to knock when in use, as it sits closely behind the rotational zoom barrel.

To work in conjunction with the aperture ring is a shutter speed dial on the main camera body itself. As both controls feature an "A" for auto it's possible to configure aperture/shutter priority, programme auto or full manual control as you choose. No generic "PSAM" type dial to be found here - so if you're not at least a little au fait with photography then this isn't a camera for newbies.

There's also a separate +/-2EV exposure compensation dial that runs flush with the rear of the body. It's rather easy to knock out of place though, and as there's neither a lock nor indicator light this can be a nuisance when pulling the camera from a bag. On the flip side, its protruding position and easy-to-move motion make it great to use when shooting via the viewfinder - a deft touch with a finger and the adjusted exposure previews in real time.

Performance

The X-E1 is all about customisation. Jump into the quick menu - accessed via the "Q" button on the camera's rear - and there are seven customisable presets. Not only do these touch on the usual ISO and other main settings, they also detail noise reduction, highlight/shadow tone levels, colour and sharpness too. There are also film simulation modes that not only offer filtered black and white options, but also mimic classic Fujifilm chemistry, including Velvia, Provia, Pro.Neg H and S film types - though the "NH" and "NS" symbols won't necessarily make that immediately clear, and you're still free to adjust ISO sensitivity as desired so it's not exactly the same really.

So far so good, but the autofocus speed isn't able to match up to the competition; it's noticeably slower than what else is on the market.

The X-Pro1 raised similar concerns and complaints that were addressed, in part, by a firmware update. The X-E1 feels like the X-Pro1 post-firmware update - it's ok, but it's not going to operate at the lightning speed of some other CSCs out there. It's one of the biggest moans we have about this camera. Lock the 60mm macro into place, for example, and it can hunt - noisily, we might add - for a long time before finding focus.

For a select few this won't be a bother. That macro lens used with manual focus might see autofocus seldom be used, for example. The X-E1's digital focus-distance indicator also produces aperture-dependent depth of field information to ensure detailed front-to-back focus.

Autofocus comes in two flavours: multi, which is essentially "auto", or single point. The latter can be positioned at any one of the 49 points as displayed on the rear screen when in the adjustment mode. For greater accuracy the rear jog wheel can be used to resize the AF point between a medium-small size through five different levels down to a far more pinpoint square. Great for still life work.

Continuous autofocus is also underwhelming. Its centre-only cross-selector AF point isn't not going to keep up with fast-moving subjects, and won't be particularly useful in combination with the burst mode. Where the burst mode does come in extra handy is with its variety of bracketing options - whether ISO, exposure, dynamic range or film simulation modes, they're all just a couple of clicks away.

However the "macro" mode - accessed via an upward press of the d-pad - isn't able to produce particularly close-to-lens shots with the 18-55mm lens. Even at the 18mm setting, it's in the region of 20cms from the front of the glass (yet further to the sensor plane). The 60mm macro lens, as its designated name suggests, is far more up to scratch for close-up work.

Fridge magnet shot with 60mm macro lens, handheld at ISO 3200

But the 18-55mm lens is excellent on the whole. Its build quality and operation is far beyond that of most 18-55mm lenses we've ever used. Just a quick rotation of the wonderfully smooth lens barrel with confirm this, while the f/2.8-4 aperture range is also brighter than most.

Elsewhere in the performance stakes there's a burst shooting mode that can hit six frames per second and rattle off up to 13 raw + JPEG frames. That's pretty good going, though the card write time does take a little while - hardly surprising, given that shots are around 5MB per JPEG and 26MB per raw file.

But all these goodies have quite an impact on the battery life, which didn't last out as long as we had anticipated. Best work up the cost of a spare into the purchase price then.

Imaging Magic

The X-E1 is all about top-tier image quality. Its secret is that the X-Trans CMOS sensor has a unique colour filter array that decodes colours per pixel differently from a standard camera. This different processing technique removes the need for an anti-aliasing filter that would otherwise soften the image - but is essential to the way almost all other digital cameras work. This isn't marketing buff either, it's considered engineering that really works.

The X-E1 produces images just like the X-Pro1. They're rich with detail, helped along by the range of XF lenses that are all sharp, including the latest 18-55mm zoom. Better still is the 60mm macro that, while expensive, really packs a punch.

60mm macro at f/2.4 delivers a tight depth of field and superb detail

The camera's ISO 100-6400 sensitivity range is usable throughout and particularly impressive at its low-mid settings. It's not often that a camera can produce shots that look similar from ISO 100-800, but that's the case here. There's little interfering grain or image noise to speak of, and while it does begin to crawl into images from ISO 1600 and upwards, there's still a good level of sharpness.

The twilight shot above shows the kind of exposure, colour and dynamic range that can be achieved. And this example is a handheld shot snapped at ISO 1600.

Is there a better APS-C sensor in a compact system camera? We're yet to see one, save for the X-Pro1.

Verdict

The Fujifilm X-E1 is a modern-day classic, but not in the mainstream sense. It's like a cult movie - it will perfectly fit the niche for some, why others will think it's mad.

On the one hand this retro-styled, medium-sized compact system camera is expensive (£1,149 expensive) and lacks the kind of pepped-up performance of something like the Sony NEX-6 or Panasonic's range of G-series CSCs.

But on the other hand here's a beautifully crafted, fundamentally different, and incredible imaging machine. It's the final quality of the X-E1's shots that elevate it to such high standards - assuming the so-so autofocus and battery life, small screen size and electronic-only viewfinder are manageable considerations.

Let's not forget that there's no better APS-C sensor in a compact system camera that we've yet seen, and that's why the X-E1 is, in spite of its listed shortcomings, a loveable winner.