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“My X-Trans-Formation”: First Impressions of the Fuji X System from a Canon DSLR User

Once again, here are thoughts from our Technology Director, Raj Tavadia, on recent changes he’s made to his gear, and in a larger sense, his approach to photography. — AG

So there I was, making the leap to mirrorless after years of lugging various Canons everywhere.

Unboxing Fuji X-E1

It was a surreal moment when I first held the box containing my new Fuji X-E1. Obviously, I knew the camera would be vastly smaller than my beloved Canon 5D Mark II, but I was still taken aback by the sheer tininess of the thing. And the weight — wow. Things were going to be different.

The second indication that I was living in a different world was, upon connecting my Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens to the X-E1, I was prompted by the camera to download and install new lens firmware. Not the sort of thing I’m used to, but I’m not complaining. One of the reasons I took the plunge was the chorus of “Fuji is leading the way in post-purchase support” I’d heard over and over. For example: recently — literally years after releasing the X100 — Fuji posted new firmware for the camera that makes major improvements, even though the X100 is long-replaced by the X100s (which may itself be supplanted next year, if the “X200” rumors are correct).

Fuji X-E1 firmware update message

The X-E1’s ergonomics are near-great. The body itself feels solid and confident, being based on the classic Leica rangefinders. The rear screen and electronic viewfinder are slightly laggy, and would benefit from an upgraded CPU (which has recently become available in the form of the just-released X-E2). Compared to the grip on the Canon 5D2, though, the Fuji’s grip area is lacking. Perhaps this was deemed less important as mirrorless bodies and lenses are so much lighter than those of DSLRs, but I believe they fell short here. There are aftermarket grips from Fuji and others, but those come with various caveats. The most egregious mistake comes via Fuji’s own HG-XE1, which feels great in the hand, but — inexcusably! — blocks access to the battery/memory card door. For a camera with fairly dismal battery life, this should never have happened. The Really Right Stuff grip kit comes highly recommended, but at nearly $200, is quite a bit more spendy than I’d like. I’m sure it’s very, very well-made. Just not for me.

Top view: Fuji X-E1 and Leica M3

Making pictures with the X-E1 feels very different than doing so with the 5D2. I haven’t been a “Green Mode” (a.k.a. “Idiot Mode”) shooter for years, but there is definitely a learning curve associated with this camera. The biggest difference is with autofocus. It is, to be very kind, weak.

The X-E1 uses Contrast Detect Autofocus (CDAF) while high-end DSLRs usually use Phase Detect Autofocus (PDAF). One of the hallmarks of CDAF is that awful period where the lens travels up and down its focal range, attempting to maximize sharpness at some AF point. Usually this period lasts about one second, although it often feels like twenty minutes. To someone dutifully trying to capture the critical moment of cuteness, the CDAF hunt is the bane of his existence. The new X-E2 goes a long way toward solving this, bringing on board the PDAF system from the X100s and thereby a much faster time-to-focus, particularly in low light. While no one is claiming that the X System cameras are suited to sports photographers yet (and their less-well-paid counterparts: parents of small children), there does seem to be hope for the future.

The practical upshot of this situation is that X-E1 and X-Pro1 shooters need to become comfortable with manual and zone focusing. An interesting side note to this is that a significant portion of our community (and it really is one) enjoy taking vintage glass and adapting it to the X System. There are adaptors, at various quality and price points, for hundreds of lenses from Nikon, Canon, Leica, Voigtländer, Olympus, Sony, Yaschica, and others. You’ll usually lose autofocus abilities connecting via these adapters, but if you’re already focusing manually, you’ve effectively lost nothing.

An embarassingly over-shot pose

Capture speed is also a weak point. Even with the fastest SanDisk Extreme SD card, I spend entirely too much time glaring at the Card Access light. Yes, I have lost shots thanks to it being impossible to resume shooting once the “buffer flush” begins. I suspect the X-E1’s on-board memory buffer is both smaller and slower than that of the 5D2… which I didn’t expect, given that the Canon is a camera from 2008, and those particular pieces of hardware should be much smaller, cheaper, and faster by now. Of course, this might be a blessing in disguise, as I absolutely used to abuse this ability to play “papa razzi” with my baby. After having edited tens of thousands of almost-identical images taking up hundreds of gigabytes of space, though, I have learned my lesson. Promise.

However! On the whole, my experience has been positive. The lenses in particular have been wonderful. As I mentioned in my previous post, my walkaround lens was the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L (Mark I). Now, I head out with the 35mm (effectively 53mm) and the 18mm (effectively 27mm) Fujinon primes. My standard bag is the Domke J-5XB (loaded with a couple rolls of microGAFFER, of course). But yes, it is quite possible to spend a day out with a couple of lenses (and spare batteries) stuffed into various pockets.

The “weaknesses” of the system have forced me to become a more competent photographer; as in any kind of art, putting constraints on yourself can be invigorating. Back when I used the Canon, I already did “zoom with my feet”; now I have no choice. I was a somewhat-competent manual focuser; now I’m getting better at that, too. I already knew predicting where to stand was a crucial part of action photography; now that discipline is even more top-of-mind. I’m excited and inspired again about the craft, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for me, Fujifilm, and the rest of the industry.

“My X-Trans-formation”: Switching from Canon DSLR to Fuji X Mirrorless

Each week, it seems that I spend a lot of time talking about the evolution of photography in the digital age with Raj Tavadia, our Technology Director. I’m coming from a long tradition of film-based, pre-Photoshop, photojournalism and corporate assignments — still somewhat romanticizing the way things used to be. At the same time, I’m trying to accept the legitimacy of Instagram and the billions of images taken each day that record all the minutiae as well as the really important moments that document our world.

I’m very lucky (at least I think so most of the time) to have worked for decades when I could own all the rights to my work, be well paid for my assignments, travel without post-9/11 constraints and anxieties, and when the outlets for my work were far more numerous than today.

A good part of our conversations is about the equipment we used and are using now. In the simplest terms, it’s about the iPhone vs. high-end DSLRs, and everything in between. I’ve written about this before, but Raj brings his own perspective, informed both by his fine skills as a photographer, technology enthusiast, and father. Here are his thoughts…  — AG

A few years ago, my life underwent a major change.

Raj, steward to all things electronic

I’ve been Tech Director for Visual Departures for some time now, which has allowed me to work on a wide variety of projects, from web sites to video production to social media and more. I’m lucky to be able to say I can talk shop with a CBS News director, TIME-LIFE Magazine photographer, and successful entrepreneur on a daily basis… and all at the same desk! Allen doesn’t tend to brag about this sort of thing, but, well, this is a guy who’s found himself skiing with President Gerald Ford (apparently, he was the only one in the press pool that day who knew how.) You’re bound get a different perspective from someone like that (like: “what do you mean you can’t ski?!”) Well, what can I say? I grew up in Queens.

Joining the Visual Departures team wasn’t the big change, though.

I’ve owned a Canon 5D Mark II for nearly as long as I’ve worked with Visual Departures. My “walking around” lens was the drop-dead gorgeous Canon 24-70 f/2.8L zoom. I know it’s not the most beastly rig one can imagine, but even so, it’s awfully large and expensive. Overkill? Perhaps. (To my credit, I don’t own a Hummer or a big-screen TV.) My ophthalmologist once noted during an exam that I am a “clarity freak”, so it seems I am biologically unable to ignore sub-par lenses. And I am flattered by Allen’s rating me a “very fine photographer”, as that usually goes beyond the ability to simply make a sharp image and balanced histogram.

At any rate, I’m a fit fellow, and I usually didn’t mind carrying those seven pounds on hikes around New York City, various Hawaiian islands, and anywhere else my wife and I were lucky enough to find ourselves. I loved my “5D2”, and it seemed to love me back. With practice, we reached that point where photographs were made without hesitation. I envisioned a scene 20 years into the future, with me admiring the worn-down spots where I had gripped that same camera for two decades.

Everything changed when we learned that we were going to have a baby.

Forty weeks later (just as my initial shock was starting to wear off) our baby was delivered. During labor, I remembered Allen’s complaint about some people’s failure to experience things with their own eyes; it seems that whatever monumental event they could be witnessing, they feel it more important to document it (essentially watching it through a 4-inch screen) than to live the moment. So, when I got to meet my son, I set my camera to a forgiving aperture, snapped away from chest high, and regarded him with my own eyes, exclusively.

First Touch

The first year was very difficult for us all, but I was constantly grateful for the high speed and quality of the 5D2. I resolved that my son would have beautiful photographs of his early life, which, one day, he would treasure. Tens of thousands of exposures were made in the hopes of capturing just the right expression or pose to sum up that moment in time. I was digging a hole that my sleep-deprived eyes wouldn’t be able to climb out of for years.

The second year was not easy, but manageable. We took the little guy to Oahu for a memorial service, and I hiked up craters and through forests with him on my back. Thanks to hefting the 5D around all those years, he didn’t seem that heavy!

Now, he’s closing in on his third birthday and is bigger, faster, and more independent than before. And I started to wonder: between his gear and my own, how realistic would it be to keep hauling it all around the Bronx Zoo, the National Mall in Washington DC, Diamond Head crater, or wherever else we might be spending our day? Might there be another option? As a technologist, I had to ask: where had the leading edge moved in the five years since the 5D2 was released (and had changed everything)?

Serendipitously, I had started to notice a lot of people talking excitedly about the new Fuji X Series cameras. Fuji’s engineers claimed to have solved the moire problem of traditional Bayer-type digital sensors by using a new pixel layout, which they called “X-Trans“. Eliminating the moire issues meant that they could now drop the low-pass filter, which has been a standard part of nearly all high-quality digital sensors. Naturally, the fewer filters you use, the better clarity of the image hitting the sensor. Both well- and lesser-known photographers were talking excitedly about these new compact, mirrorless cameras with great ergonomics and image quality… some even went so far as to say “Fuji is the new Leica”.

Fuji X-E1 beside the Leica M3

It actually looked like there was a scene forming around these cameras. David Hobby took to YouTube for a 40-minute demo of the Fuji X100S, and, of course, posted great tips for how to take advantage of the X100 series’ special features. Zack Arias openly mocked Canon and Nikon, characterizing them as out-of-touch geezers. He ran several blog posts on the topic, including one showing off his new, compact gig bag packed with four X-series cameras plus assorted gear. The kicker: it still fits under an airplane seat. Chris Cookley said he’d shot more often and more happily with his young X-E1 than his years-old top-line Nikon rig. Many more had similar sentiments. Fuji’s marketing team could see what was happening, and started to adopt the “switcher” theme on their social media streams. As a 20+ year PC user who changed over to Mac last year, I was about to do about the same thing this year on the camera side.

In future posts, I’ll talk about what was better, worse, or just different. I’d also really enjoy hearing about your experiences (or questions), whether you’re a Fuji switcher, on the fence, or a DSLR die-hard. Please feel free to tweet @visdep, or drop us a line on Facebook or Google+.