On the left, my new Fuji X-E1 with an old Canon 35mm RF lens (my new "normal") mounted via a Fotodiox adapter. On the right, my nearly 50-year old—and clearly indestructible—Canon 7s rangefinder film camera with a 50mm ƒ/1.8 lens, my old "normal," mounted via Canon's Leica thread mount. Note the soft releases screwed into the shutter buttons and the antique Leitz 50mm accessory bright-frame viewfinder now used with the Fuji, which allows me to compose on the normal with both eyes open.
By Jim Hughes
Not too long ago, maybe three years at the most, my wife and I were bussing our own table at our favorite breakfast restaurant in Camden village when an acquaintance, a local filmmaker of some note who teaches a volunteer course at the high school, walked by, spied my 35mm rangefinder camera on the table next to the empty plates, and asked, a little incredulously, "Do you still shoot film? That looks suspiciously like an old Leica."
I explained that as long as my stock of Kodachrome held out and Dwayne's, the one K-14 lab left in the country, remained willing to process it, I would continue to shoot film. But no, I told him, the camera wasn't a Leica, but it was an old rangefinder 35. What he was looking at, I informed him, was a 1967 Canon 7s, the feel of which I actually preferred to the high-priced brand. I had purchased that Canon, with an editorial discount, for not much more than $100, directly from Bell & Howell in Chicago, the Japanese manufacturer's distributor back in the day.
The filmmaker, a bearded fellow in heavy canvas motorcycle pants, was accompanied by a young man, probably one of his students, who seemed intrigued. "May I see it?" he asked politely. Sure, I replied. I picked it up and handed it to him. Whereupon my prized possession promptly slipped through his fingers and bounced off my foot, which I had reflexively stuck out, and onto the hard tile floor with a thunk. I don't think he expected the heft of brass and steel in this age of plastic composites. I winced, picked the camera up, examined the base upon which it had landed, saw no dents or dings, advanced the film with a flick of the Canon's butter-smooth lever, focused the lens through the bright rangefinder window and fired off a couple quick exposures. Everything still worked, as it had unfailingly for nearly half a century.
"No damage that I can find," I announced, "except to my big toe. This camera and its lenses were engineered like little tanks and built to last." And they're a joy to use, I might have added if I'd been in a better mood. Despite its fall, and countless previous unprovoked encounters with doorways and numbskulls, the Canon had always kept going like the Energizer Bunny, along with my even older and just as reliable Kodak Retina IIa, a folder that I often carried clammed-up in a coat pocket until needed.
But the next year Kodachrome died, soon to be followed by the inevitable cessation of its processing. I tried substituting Fuji Velvia. I found it good for some subject matter, not so good for others. Eventually, I gave up the fight and bought my first digital camera, an Olympus E-PL1, whose multitude of buttons, menus and submenus gave me fits, and whose otherwise pleasantly retro Pen-like appearance suffered massively from the huge hump of its accessory eye-level electronic viewfinder that this left-eyed photographer absolutely required. Worse, it kept falling off. Worse yet, like most smaller digital cameras, its shutter button was not threaded for a cable release—meaning I could no longer use the soft-release mushroom extenders I had equipped almost all my cameras with for many decades, allowing me to handhold at the ridiculously slow shutter speeds Kodachrome often dictated. Still, the Olympus sensor and JPEG engine combined to give me a lot of well-rendered images, and its mirrorless Micro 4/3 design allowed me to use, in manual mode, most of my old Leica Thread Mount (LTM) Canon rangefinder lenses, glass that I had come to dearly love over the years, and whose characteristics were, and are, a good match for my particular way of seeing pictures. (As Ken Tanaka once wryly noted, "Wherever I go, there I am.")
Then one day during a snowstorm the Olympus' own lack of heft did it in. Its nylon strap slipped off my shoulder without my sensing it while I was crossing a street. The camera fell to the asphalt and landed on its backside. I tested it after brushing off a mess of slush, and everything seemed to work fine; but a couple nights later when I wanted to download the SD card and opened the door to its compartment, the adjacent battery just jumped right out onto my lap. The tiny plastic tab that is supposed to hold it in place had been shattered by the fall. So now every time I wanted to download a card, out would pop the battery like a little self-propelled rocket. When I realized that the out-of-warranty and probably already discontinued camera would have to be returned for service, and I would doubtless receive a refurbished model in its place, requiring me to go through the painful setup process all over again, I decided to just live with this and any future problems; it was time to relegate the Olympus to part-time status as a light-duty backup, and buy my second brand new camera in as many years.
After much research, I decided on the Fuji X-E1, second in that venerable company's X-trans APS-C interchangeable-lens line. Both look like real cameras, with shutter and aperture dials where they should be; both offer threaded shutter releases, and both have the same unusual random-pattern 16.3-MP sensor in 3:2 format (an important consideration for this 35mm no-crop shooter, who hated 4:3). I had at first considered the even costlier X-Pro1, but I thought the double-duty viewfinder (optical frames/electronic focusing) would prove too finicky for my purposes. Additionally, the Pro requires supplementary diopters to be attached to the eye-level viewfinder. The E1, on the other hand, has a fine-adjustment wheel built in, which allows me an exact match to the +.4 my left eye requires (for those who are wondering, my right eye needs no correction...it just doesn't visualize pictures the way my left eye does). Since the X-E1's excellent EVF provides a 100% view, and I've always liked frame lines that allow me to isolate a "picture" inside a shifting broader scene, at least with a "normal" focal length, I realized I could just slide the accessory finder, shown above, which I already had, into the camera's hot shoe.
I purchased the X-E1 in March, during Fuji's heavily discounted lens sale that in effect made the system, if not inexpensive, at least more affordable. [Ed. Note: Fuji's lens sale has just returned, as of midnight last night. Go to B&H Photo, look up any of the Fuji X cameras, then click on "Savings Available."] I went with the 18–55mm (27–84mm-e) ƒ/2.8–4 zoom, the kind of all-purpose lens I hadn't used since I traded my original Pen F many years ago, plus the normal 35mm (53mm-e) ƒ/1.4. If Fuji had offered an ƒ/2 35mm equivalent (as on its fixed-lens X cameras), I would have bought that as well. As it is, I am waiting for the much anticipated 23mm (35mm-e) ƒ/1.4 and/or the 27mm ƒ/2.8 (41mm-e) pancake. My two most used full-frame focal lengths for 35mm film cameras have always been 35mm and 50mm, and at my age I'm not about to change in that respect. And I've found the Fuji lenses I have been using for the past several weeks to be fine. Better than fine, actually, in terms of sharpness, tonality and color rendition, at least when teamed with the X-E1's sensor. My only problem is relative size. Relative, of course, to what I've been used to. Not that they are heavy (the Canons, in fact, are heavier). The Fuji lenses are just bulkier.
The Fuji X-E1 with the Fuji 35mm ƒ/1.4 and, at left, the 18–55mm ƒ/2.8–4 Zoom. Any way you look at them, they are beautiful lenses—but big. Micro motors for aperture control and auto focus will do that. The zoom uses a center-pinch lens cap (not shown), which can hold itself fairly securely inside the supplied flower-petal shade. The 35mm, on the other hand, comes with a similar cap, which unfortunately cannot be used with the rectangular lens shade that comes with it. Fuji does supply a rubberized cap which fits over the outer rim of the shade—but it falls off instantly with any brush of a coat or shirt sleeve. I no longer use the shade, but in my junk box I found a flip open, spring-loaded plastic lid (shown, to right) that screws on securely, works just fine, and extends far enough out to block most stray light. Life's a compromise. The X-E1 body does not have image stabilization, but the zoom lens does. I keep it turned off. If I haven't learned how to hold a camera steady by now, I ought not to be photographing. I've ended up giving the zoom lens the most use, at least for now, since it is the type of lens I have the least experience with.
Adapters allow the Fuji X-system to be greatly expanded with small, although not necessarily light, lenses—assuming a willingness to focus and adjust apertures manually. Here, from the left, are the lenses that form a basic kit (I do have more): Olympus 100mm (150mm-e) ƒ/2.8 with Fotodiox OM adapter; Spiratone pre-set 85mm (128mm-e) ƒ/1.9 with T-mount adapter; Canon 50mm (75mm-e) ƒ/1.8, Canon 35mm (53mm-e) ƒ/2 on X-E1 camera, Canon 25mm (37mm-e) ƒ/3.5 (the original pancake?), and Canon 19mm (28mm-e) ƒ/3.5, all with Fotodiox Leica-M-to-screwmount adapters.
I can hand-hold this lens, but its weight makes it difficult: Preset 180mm (270mm-e) ƒ/2.8 Isco-Gottingen Tele-Iscaron, a surprisingly sharp optic. I purchased the Isco for for $75 from Cambridge Camera in New York many years ago. It came in a Praktica M42 screwmount and I used it with an adapter for a Miranda SLR. For the Fuji, I just replaced the adapter with a Fotodiox M42-to-Fuji-X adapter.
No matter the lens mounted, the camera itself exceeds my expectations. (I cannot in good conscience say that about its user manual, which is so badly designed and written that it should come with its own second manual just to interpret its turgid non-guidance; but after considerable time and consternation, I did finally soldier through.) Rather than going through all the possible setup permutations and possibilities, I suggest lots of experimentation. Turns out the menu system itself is pretty transparent and, unlike the manual, seems to have been designed with serious photographers in mind. Here are the imaging choices I have made after several weeks of carrying the camera wherever I go. The menu for most of this is instantly accessed by pushing the "Q" (for quick) button on the back, scrolling with arrows, changing values with a Command dial/wheel, and setting values with the OK button, all with your right thumb, while either looking at the rear LCD or through the viewfinder. My first order of business, by the way, was to push the view mode button on the back, and select Viewfinder Only, shutting off the LCD panel while I'm shooting (unless, of course, you are one of those willing to take photographs at arm's length, or enjoy the camera's "eye detect" automatically and annoyingly switching back and forth between screen displays). Second order: push and hold the Disp/Back button, to put the camera into silent and invisible mode, thus shutting off annoying focus beeps, visual indicator LEDs and focus-assist light. If needed, you can always turn everything back on.
Now for my own image-quality set-up, which can be done with "Q" or, if you have the time, the layered "Menu" system:
- Film simulation, Astia-S (for "soft"), which I find is not soft, fortunately, but beautifully subtle. What it also is, is open, allowing for post processing in most any direction. I never need to do much. I did try Velvia, but it seemed overly saturated and constricting.
- White balance, Auto.
- Dynamic range, 100.
- JPEG, Fine. I have yet to need RAW.
- Noise, –1.
- Highlight tone, 0.
- Shadow tone, –1.
- Color, +1.
- Sharpness, +1.
Generally, I set the shutter dial to Automatic, and change apertures. I also keep the exposure compensation dial, on the top, where the film advance used to be, set at minus 2/3 EV (a hangover, perhaps, from "underexposing" Kodachrome), and adjust from there according to what highlights and/or shadows look like in the viewfinder. And I set ISO with the Fn button on top, just to the right of the shutter release. Range is from 200 (with a "pull" to 100) all the way up to 25,600. I have yet to need anything higher than 1,600, and prefer the range 200–800, where noise is negligible. Astia 200 actually is pretty close to the look of Kodachrome!
This may sound counter-intuitive, but I have the Focus lever on the front always set to "M," for manual, no matter whether I'm using one of my legacy lenses or the Fuji automatics. For the latter, at "M," the half-press of the shutter button that normally auto-focuses the lens is disabled, allowing me to press, with my right thumb, the "AE-L/AF-L" button on the back for focus and exposure instead. Then if I need to fine tune manually with the focus ring on the lens, I can. And a press of the control wheel gives me 3x magnification in the viewfinder, or more if I need it. There is no so-called focus peaking on the E1, but the edges of what's in focus do visibly shimmer, sort of like the old microprisms on SLR screens. Works for me. With manual lenses, I just bypass autofocus. There is a setup that allows you to choose the direction of focusing-ring turn, so I matched the Fuji lenses to my Canons. But when I switch to a manual lens, I do have to remember to reset a menu setup option to "shoot without lens." Go figure. Nothing's perfect. The Olympus E-PL1 does this automatically.
The X-E1 offers a choice of exposure-metering modes: "multi," which does more thinking than I want any computer to do for me; "spot," which reads an area equal to 2% of the frame—sometimes useful, but usually much too narrow and hard to control; and "average," which strikes a balance of the light striking the entire frame. I prefer the latter most of the time, but I keep wishing for a fourth option: "center weighted." Unfortunately, it's not offered.
After I bought the camera, I checked out various websites and blogs regarding the X-E1 (I know, I should have done this prior to purchase!). A blogger named Ken Rockwell, while generally praising the camera, declared that in bright light, the camera produced surprisingly dull colors. Others said the opposite. So I waited and waited for the sun to come out (a rare occurrence in Maine in late spring). Finally, we had a few days of clear skies. The Fuji produced nary a dull moment. In Part II, later today, some pictures.
For many years, Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35 and, later, the founding editor of the original Camera Arts magazine. His books include the biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance, and the monograph Ernst Haas in Black and White.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Anderson: "Jim, I agree about the Fuji manual, it could be a lot better, and because of that there is an excellent third party book that answers a lot that is not explained well enough by Fujifilm: Mastering the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 by Rico Pfirstinger. I bought the Kindle version. The XE-1 and X-Pro 1 are fundamentally so similar it will be fine for both. Mike may want to put a link to it on Amazon for folks (I am not connected in any way with the author, just a customer). [Ed. Note: There is a new edition arriving next fall that incorporates the X-E1.]
"Optical image stabilization: don't be proud; give it a go, you will be amazed. I never switch it off unles I am using a tripod.
"On the X-Pro 1 and I assume on the XE-1 you can leave the 'Shoot Without Lens' turned on all the time even if using XF lenses. (I do certainly).
"I use screw on hoods with clip on lenscaps. Very cheap on auction sites. I only use lenscaps when putting the camera away in a bag, so I tend not to lose them.
"Lastly, Ken Rockwell loves super-saturated, unnatural colors, hence his comments."
ben ng: "Thanks Jim for a wonderful piece of writing, not only about the camera, but about photography. I look forward to the second part. I always liked the quote attributed to Kertesz that 'the camera is a musical instrument.' I use the X-E1 myself, along with the Olympus OM-D. The X-E1 reminds me of my old Mamiya 6 rangefinder. Wonderful feel, great images. Even after I dropped it...!"
Jay Tunkel: "In my view the Fuji X-E1 is a frustrating camera. I'm trying it out right now with the 35mm ƒ/1.4 and the kit zoom. I've updated all the firmware. I love the images, but I hate the slow autofocus and the manual focusing (which I now prefer) has very little in the way of useful focus confirmation—I tried, but could not confirm the 'shimmer' in the EVF that you discuss. For the type of 'less deliberative' shooting I find myself doing, this camera doesn't quite cut it. For slow and careful work you will get excellent, sometimes incredible, results."