A Week With A Digital Camera
The Fuji X-E1 in the hands of a film guy.
A little over a week ago and after nearly a month of research and scouring craigslist, ebay, and amazon I purchased a Fujifilm X-E1. Now anyone that’s into Fuji photography will likely know that the X-E1 is a product that is upwards of two years old (I believe it was released in September of 2012), but for me, it’s not just a piece of outdated gear, it’s my first true exposure to digital photography.
In the beginning, there was FILM
Like nearly everyone my age, I've had phones and cheap, point and shoot cameras growing up (almost elusively on whatever ‘auto’ setting was available). My real exposure to photography began about a year ago, when I stumbled upon some old, mechanical, 35mm SLRs.
Fascinated by how they worked and how proficient you had to be to actually get quality images, I became slightly obsessed, continuously finding myself investing in more bodies and lenses (where I could get them cheaply). I still consider myself a novice in photography, but one of the things I love about much of the old 35mm camera gear is that it’s only relevant to a small (but potentially growing) niche market. As a result, the quality of images you can get from a $10 body, a $30 lens, a$3 roll of film will typically outperform any digital camera you’d get for three or more times the cost (and usually, in a pretty big way). In addition, there’s something calming about the patience required for manual focus and something downright exciting about getting a roll developed, not knowing how good of a job you've done until you have prints/scans in front of you, but there certainly is a lot more work required.
Now this isn't about comparing digital to film, but it is to say that I've always been a person who prides themselves on being cost-effective. If there’s something that can do 90% of the job at 40% of the cost, that’s what I’m after. As a result, dropping a ton of money on a digital body and even more for lenses didn't seem very appealing to me when I was perfectly content with the images I was getting on my cheap, old 35mm cameras. That changed when I stumbled across a beautiful image on flickr, using the same 50mm manual focus Rokkor lens I had. Curious what type of film/processing was used, I scrolled down to the description I noticed this photo actually had exif information, and in tiny font it said ‘Sony NEX-6.’ After a few minutes of frantic googling I was exposed to the world of mirrorless cameras and beginning to realize that my cheap, manual focus lenses could extend their value into the digital realm.
I soon discovered the mirrorless camera market presented a vast array of choices, but I kept coming back to the Sony NEX series and the Fujifilm X cameras, and (after hours upon hours of research) ultimately decided on the fuji due to it’s familiar control configuration and alleged image quality. Ultimately, I planned to purchase an X-E2, but a used X-E1 popped up on Ebay and the opportunity was too good to pass up. I bought a wireless SD card reader to supplement the camera’s lack of wifi, and was ready to play the waiting game.
I've lost track of what shows up on my doorstep from amazon, so packages rarely excite me anymore, but this was one I tracked like a hawk, and opening it up was a little like Xmas morning. I was still skeptical of the images I would get, but I knew some of the rudimentary functions form the dozens of videos I’d watched and all the knobs and controls were exactly where they should be. The connection was immediate, and I quickly swapped on some old lenses with an adapter (that had arrived a few days previous) to play with.
I was able to get out of the house on a few occasions and the the images I get on the XE1 continue to surprise me. The kit 18–55mm kit lens is incredibly sharp (for what it is), and the depth and clarity of the sensor has turned out to exceed all of my expectations. My previous reservations that I had to spend a fortune to get great images were dissolving quickly.
There are some things that a film fanatic will love about the Fuji X cameras, the first of which is the intuitive control scheme. All your important goodies (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, etc.) are right where they probably are on your old SLRs, and the electronic viewfinder’s clarity is stunning. The buttons are easy to customize, and the UI is simple, clean, intuitive and, most importantly, you don’t have to spend much time there.
A big surprise to me that I didn't see covered in many of the reviews was a double exposure mode on the camera. I think film folks that have experimented with double exposure will find this particularly nifty as it gives you a live preview of the double exposure on the second shot. This is a feature Fuji didn't need to put in, but it’s really cool they did.
In addition to all the wonderful things that make the Fuji X cameras a natural fit for film enthusiasts, there are some oddities that you might learn to love or hate. Fujifilm has a series of what they call ‘film simulation’ settings which are essentially color profiles for your jpg images (if you shoot raw I believe you can simply adjust post or convert to a film/color profile in the camera UI). I found the standard colors of the X-E1 to be somewhat unexciting, and have spent a lot of time playing with the sensor settings as I can’t simply drop in a different roll of film. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of interesting colors, or that I’m just being presented with much more choice than I’m used to, but it’s an oddity for me nonetheless. That being said, the depth of the black and white photos is unreal, and I find myself choosing the monochrome photos over their colored counterparts when I have film simulation bracketing turned on.
The electronic viewfinder on the X series has ‘focus peaking’ which is intended to highlight the focal points of your image when using manual focus (which I’m in most of the time). The issue with this method of manual focusing is that the only highlight color option you have is white, and in a bright scene, the color white isn't as distinctive as it should be. This is the one distinct area where I feel the Sony cameras seem to have an edge, as focus peaking can be changed to different colors and designs (I’m hoping Fuji will adopt this this in a firmware update). I still can’t quite tell if I prefer focus peaking/zooming to the standard focus assist that is build into the 35mm SLRs, but the manual focus time seems to be comparable when I’m trying to get a shot quickly.
In The End
I feel as though we’re coming to a time in camera technology where sensor tech isn't advancing as quickly as maybe it once was. Although this is completely anecdotal, if this is true it means that good sensors will continue to get cheaper and that the guilt factor of buying a year old camera might not be a big as maybe it once was, where a year would come and go, and the technology would now be 5 times better, resulting in your image quality not being up to par anymore. For people like me, who purchase things largely on a cost to performance based ratio, this has to be a good thing.
Long story short, I absolutely love the Fuji X-E1 and I think any of the Fuji X series cameras will make a fantastic transitional tool for folks like me trying to make the transition from film relatively inexpensively. I think these line of cameras do a great job and mirroring the experience of a the traditional SLRs we know and love, while adding all the digital goodies. I‘m pretty stoked to be exploring this new exciting world of digital photography, even if I’m 15 years late to the party.
Most of the images above are cropped jpgs straight from the X-E1 with no editing (for science (and laziness)).
Find more photos by me at 500px.