Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Authentic Rangefinder Experience?

Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Authentic Rangefinder Experience?
October 2017, Carl Garrard

Fujifilm X-E2 Review II: When I wrote my original review on the Fujifilm X-E2 some time ago, the review was prepared from the typical  prosumer stand point. This review will be much different. Back then, the X-E2 was also a much higher price and in higher demand, but today they can be found in like new condition or new for a steal in comparison. Lately I've been in search of cameras for my readers that are better suited for manual control photography, but more specifically one that could mimic a rangefinder shooting experience without paying for a full priced Leica M system. Sound impossible? Fujifilm's X-E2 at least on paper, seems be an ideal and affordable option for just this task (if you don't mind the 1.5x crop factor) . This review is based on using the X-E2 with the very latest firmware (v.4.01) in manual modes only for the purpose of mimicking a rangefinder system camera. If you want a general perspective on the X-E2 (prior it's comprehensive firmware update) go here: Fujifilm X-E2 review.  Spoiler alert: The new firmware has been quite a surprise and makes the X-E2 a whole new experience.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)
Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Introduction

Lately I've been tooting the "having less is more" proverbial horn in my recent articles. Being limited by older, simpler cameras such as my Leica M's has grown my photography skills immensely. I will never part with them because they give me an experience, a challenge, that no other can (bar film camera's) . This is why I use them as my main camera system now- to keep sharp, grow, and be involved in the photographic process. And, this is exactly why I think its so important to write an article to help my readers get into this type of photography- so they too can benefit from this type of experience. But most of us do not have the cash or desire to plunk down on say, a Leica M camera system.

Thus my main motivation of this article: To get you into manual style rangefinder shooting, with a limited budget.


In this article, I'll assess the X-E2 as that type of camera and outline the settings that are required for back to basics manual type photography. For those of you whom can't afford a Leica Rangefinder, the X-E2 may be about as good as you'll get to that experience for the money. Although the X-E2 isn't a purist rangefinder experience technically, if used as I demonstrate in this review, you might find that you'll be right in the ballpark and have additional capabilities available at your fingertips as well.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II-About the X-E2

So what would happen if a love child between a Ricoh GR II and Leica M9 was born? You'd basically get an X-E2 from Fuji. Its size, features, and performance can mimic (and even surpass) the Leica M cameras quite well. Ironically, it also appears to be a near perfect fusion of two of my favorite cameras in terms of capability and performance overall. I'm definitely impressed with the X-E2 on my second go around with it (more on that later) - especially considering how it performs with the new version 4.01 firmware. To use a U.S. military reference, the X-E2 is born again hard.

Since I have recently confessed my abandonment of gear lust, I was taken aback when I considered that the X-E2 could actually take the place of my second tier camera system. I will freely admit that I wasn't prepared for this kind of impression nor my reaction to it. The X-E2 is a fine camera regardless of the way you want to use it, and just may be one of the very best bargains as a digital camera out there. But I don't want to get ahead of myself just yet.

Side note, if you want a capable trifecta of compact street photography type cameras, the picture below may be the three amigos for you.

These three cameras have a lot more in common than you might think,  but the X-E2 incorporates the best of both in one mid sized body. It's smaller than the M9, but bigger than the GR II. All have excellent sensors without aliasing filters and produce beautiful photographs. But the best thing of all, is that they all handle superbly.

So why on earth did I decide to review the X-E2 as a rangefinder like system? Well, several reasons. But first I'd like to say that of all the cameras out there available today, its design layout and handling are more like a true rangefinder than almost all other digital cameras for its price point. This was essential for recommending a camera as an affordable "rangefinder system". But there are a list of other reasons the X-E2 was chosen for this review too, listed as follows:

Very much a rangefinder body style with manual controls in similar locations. The real deal with the X-E2 is that split prism manual focus mode that ill get into later.

  • X-E2 was the first digital camera with a split prism manual focus mode, which is the best digital simulation for an optical rangefinder focusing system out there. It's so similar, I'll compare it directly to my Leica M8/9 experiences.
  • The evf is truly excellent.. It provides an optically crisp huge detailed view, refreshes quickly, and auto gains up when you stop down your lens manually. This feature keeps your brightness the same at nearly all f-stops (again similar to a Leica M experience). Yes its electronic and not optical, but a very good electronic viewfinder it is.
  • With the electronic shutter mode, you can make silent shots up to 1/32,000th of a second (thanks to Fujifilm updating the firmware) which negates its lowest base ISO of 200 in raw and opens up new photographic opportunities as well.
  • Since the 16mp sensor in the X-E2 has no anti aliasing filter, there is no need to sharpen raw images in post process, just like a Leica M and GR II
  • Its price is also extremely attractive, it's easy to find a used X-E2 for about 200-400 dollars USD, which is why I chose it over the X-E2S or X-E3. With the new firmware, this is a hell of a bargain in digital cameras.

Affordable rangefinder system impossible? That is the goal of this review. If  you want to mimic a rangefinder system for much less, there may be no better choice for the dollar. Trust me, I've done the research. An X-E2 and two or three small prime lenses will be less than one Leica M8 body only (if you choose well priced lenses). The M8 is your next "affordable solution". And if you already have some manual focus lenses around, all you need is an adapter (which I purchased for this review).

I even passed up on other digital Leica products for this review because none of their products give you a similar experience as a rangefinder (no built in finder/split prism mode, much more expensive too). This is as close as it gets to an affordable authentic rangefinder system period. You could pay more for an X-E2S or X-E3, but why?

A good demonstration of size comparison- Leica M9, X-E2, GR II. Not too big, not too small, any of them. But the X-E2 is right in the middle.
I also passed up on the X-E1 because it doesn't have the split image manual focus aid like the X-E2. And there are no options our there to shoot on a full frame system that have that kind of focusing system at all, or any sort of rangefinder layout or handling (this is key). Therefore in the context of this article, the X-E2 is the only truly affordable "Leica M system replacement" option that I can come up with. But does it feel like a Leica when you use it? Read on to find out.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)

Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Firmware v4.00

"It's a 27 point, major comprehensive firmware update that keeps the X-E2 in line with its successor, the X-E2S. In fact, they had to rewrite the manual for this camera as a result."

Note: Fujifilm have completely upgraded the firmware on the X-E2 since my last review and need to be commended for doing so. It's a 27 point, major comprehensive firmware update that keeps the X-E2 in line with its successor, the X-E2S. In fact, they had to rewrite the manual for this camera as a result. I don't recall ever seeing a firmware update as comprehensive as this one, even from Fujifilm. As I've mentioned before, Fujifilm are to be commended for their comprehensive and feature adding firmware updates. Stunning additions, if you are interested in reading. Also they did a smaller addition, version 4.01, adding some lens profiles to the X-E1 after the comprehensive version 4.00. If you upgrade to 4.01, you get of course all the benefits of 4.00.

More info here on how extensive v4.00 is : http://www.fujifilm.com/news/n160115_07.html

New manual is located here: http://www.fujifilm.com/support/digital_cameras/manuals/pdf/index/x/fujifilm_xe2_manual_en.pdf





Using the new UI/menu system during this review completely changed my view on Fuji's UI/menu system in general. It's a much cleaner layout, easier to use and navigate more than ever before. I actually found it as pleasing to use as Ricoh and Canon UI/menu systems. That is saying something. Huge kudos to Fujifilm for these changes. One of my nitpicks with Fujifilm in the past has been the disorganization of these systems. That's all changed with the X-E2 in its current form.



Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Manual Focus "Rangefinder Setup"

This section is about using the X-E2 using manual focus lenses, to mimic a Leica like, M rangefinder experience. The goal here, is to simplify your shooting experience. The use of live view on the LCD will be eliminated, and any custom settings allowing for quick video as well. I want to help you set up your X-E2 so you can practice fundamentals, and get back to basics. The true joy in photography is making choices for your exposure, not relying on a camera to do it for you. Fortunately Fujifilm see the value in this and have a comprehensive and easy to use menu system that allow for customization of your X-E2 for this task.

To mimic a Leica M rangefinder experience as close as possible, I recommend the following settings:

  • Set the cameras control to manual focus on the front of the camera, and leave it
  • Attach a manual focus lens to your X-E2 (with or without the use of an adapter, I'm using Leica M lenses with a $25.00 Fotodiox adapter)
  • Set "Shoot without lens" to "On" (camera menu 3)
  • Set the manual focus assist to "digital split image" (camera menu 4)
  • Set shutter type to MS + ES or ES  (camera menu 5), this is to take advantage of the higher shutter speeds
  • Set camera to Raw + Fine JPEG (learn to use raw, now!)
  • Set evf to +2 brightness (custom set up 1, screen set up)
  • Set fn 7 to ISO or metering, or anything but video (custom page 2 button/dial setting)
  • Set four way pad fn settings to items of your desire (same page, no video!)
  • Set drive button on back to "still image", single shot only folks
  • Set AEL Lock button to on/off switch (camera menu 4 ) and/or use shutter half press to lock *
  • Press disp/back till no live view appears, histogram and settings are allowed, but no screen focusing or composition, its about using a viewfinder
  • Keep exposure compensation dial at 0, do not move it. Learn to use metering lock

*Using shutter half press for AEL Lock disengages "split focusing" not an ideal solution for having the rangefinder experience available at all times. I recommend using the shutter speed dial for exposure compensation, or the AEL Lock button in the configuration as shown above.

Now after you've set up your X-E2 this way, you get to go out and shoot with it in fully manual mode. Take your time and enjoy that process. As a tip, I go back and forth using the entire shutter speed dial and/or "A" mode. When its bright out, I prefer A mode because I like to keep a lens wide open a lot, and the electronic shutter will kick in above 1/4000th of a second quite often. So for consistency sake "A" mode works for me. But please try both.

Please don't use the camera in any auto modes. Learn the X-E2 this way. The idea here is to make cognitive choices for each photograph, to get your head in the game and zone out on the photographic process. I cannot stress how helpful and enlightening shooting this way can be for you. Choosing your aperture, shutter speed, ISO setting, and manually focusing for every shot really engages you in the process. Doing so frees your mind of distractions and instead puts that energy into photographing. Keeping your shooting habits simple and focused like this will really help improve your photography.
 
Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Personal Experiences

Full confession time. When I reviewed the X-E2 originally, I wasn't enamored with it. Just to be clear however, I did like it. However I should be clear that at that time I was in a different state of mind on how I approached my photography. I used and reviewed the X-E2 as a "normal" camera. In other words, I relied upon it for all of its bells and whistles, auto-focus, video, you name it.

I found it to be highly capable camera but honestly, it was pretty distracting to use at times as a stills only camera when trying all of the other features too. I couldn't decide whether or not to use it as a simple camera with a prime lens attached, or a full blown system camera with many lenses.

Pop-up flash, sure when you pull it back as a bounce flash, you bet. It works surprisingly well. One feature I do like having vs. my Leica M rangefinders.

Switching back and forth between video and live view and panorama shooting just became too much. Handling suffered with larger and heavier lenses which ended up being its weakness as a complete system camera. I still think more smaller prime lenses with aperture rings should be available for it, but the beauty of mirrorless are really good adapters and almost any lens can be attached to them.

I would not recommend even a kit zoom lens on this camera. Balance is way off and the standard grip is not substantial enough to make it a comfortable experience. If you insist though, I'd suggest you add the accessory ad on grip.


Since the original X-E2 review I've changed to a more simple, stills only manual shooting style where I use an aperture ring, focus ring, and shutter speed dial constantly. I've simplified my photography greatly, and slowed down tremendously. In addition to that personal change, Fuji have also introduced new features and a simplified/reworked menu system that have made the X-E2 more customizable and intuitively usable. It's a marked difference.

"During this review process, I found myself humbled and pleasantly surprised how easy it was to use. I bonded with it similarly as I do with my Leica M cameras."

As as a result of change within myself, and Fuji's firmware changes, the X-E2 has become an extremely pleasing and fun camera to use. During this review process, I found myself humbled and pleasantly surprised how easy it was to use. I bonded with it similarly as I do with my Leica M cameras. I did not expect that reaction, at all. What a nice surprise. Simply switching my thinking to using it as a devoted rangefinder with a small prime lens was the key, the changes Fuji made to the firmware the icing on the cake. Fuji's X-E2 is now a magical little fun camera to use for this task.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Digital Split Image

Keep in mind that I have switched to using an M8 and M9 rangefinder as my main camera system of late. Normally, that is all I shoot with now. So I've become very much honed into the rangefinder way of shooting. This is completely different than employing typical DSLR autofocus type of photography. It's been a life changing and rewarding experience. I've grown very fond of using a rangefinder type viewfinder and a focusing patch, and I'm quite good at it now if I'm being modest.

So when I say that the X-E2 can mimic a similar rangefinder experience to my Leica's, I know what I'm talking about (using the settings I've noted earlier in this review). In fact, the shooting process is so similar, it caught me off guard. I found I wanted to pick up and use the X-E2 much more than I thought I would want too. The experience turned out to be much more authentic to a real rangefinder than I thought it would be. Pleasantly surprised? Oh yes, I am.

To me it's mostly about that digital split focusing feature. Fujifilm have some talented and creative people working for them. This is simply an awesome feature to have in a digital camera. It does not feel gimmicky at all.

The image on the left is how hard edges look out of focus, and in monochrome, they stand out more. Very similar to a Leica M rangefinder patch indeed, only larger, monochrome, and a bit more effective honestly.

Above is a diagram showing this feature, and below is a short video from Fujifilms website to demonstrate how it appears in the viewfinder. Instead of two overlaying images like Leica M, there are four layers that are split and work in nearly the same way. This gives you a larger area of focus, and more split lines to work with, making it faster and a bit more effective and accurate to use in most circumstances than the Leica M cameras focus patch system.




Of course part of the fun of using an M is the challenge of it, it slows you down, forcing you to think through your shots so that the quality of each shot goes up. But don't worry, you still have to slow down using the X-E2 when used as I suggest. The experience is shockingly similar to using an M Leica, and very effective. And while I'll admit, the X-E2 is a more complicated design than a Leica M, those distractions tend to fade away in the background once you focus on using it as a simple camera.


"If I'm to make one point in this review, it is simply this: You cannot fully replace a Leica M rangefinder system with any other camera system. Yet the X-E2 and a manual focus only prime lens used in the manner that I set out in this review, is the very closest you'll get to that experience."

If I'm to make one point in this review, it is simply this: You cannot fully replace a Leica M rangefinder system with any other camera system. Yet the X-E2 with a manual focus prime lens (used in the manner that I set out in this review) is the very closest you'll get to that experience without purchasing a Leica M. So close in fact, that it makes me appreciate Fujifilm's attention to detail and execution more than ever. This combination is indeed a budget Leica M system.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- General Use Notes

On the technical side of things, I've made some notes about the X-E2 worth sharing. What I'm about to say here in general about the X-E2 has a two fold argument, so keep this in mind.  

The Fujifilm X-E2 is generally easier to use, and a technically superior rangefinder camera to my Leica M8/M9.

Whoa, broad sweeping claim there. However, that's only one side of the coin.

The other side is that the X-E2 isn't superior in every single way. It has a more cluttered external design than a Leica M, and a deeper menu system to work through. Simpler cameras with less features can be a huge advantage, I know this from personal experience as many rangefinder shooters also know. But from a pure capability standpoint as an imaging device to rely on in more demanding circumstances, I'd pick the X-E2. When I have less demanding situations or subjects and desire to take my time to make a photograph, I'll go with the Leica M.

That, is a lot of controls. My aim in this review is to keep you from having to mess around with many of them.







Capability vs. Simplicity. Both are capable, but one more than the other. Just as one is more simple to use than the other. They are just different experiences. But oddly, not all that different after using both extensively for simple manual focus work. This is where the two have much in common. I'd enjoy using the X-E2 for a wider range of photographic tasks, but perhaps not as much as a Leica M for more specific tasks.



Below is a breakdown list on some notes I've made about the X-E2, using it as a rangefinder:
  • Good balance of size and weight 
  • Compact, yet solid, comfortable grip, and sure handed with a small prime lens attached
  • Build quality is better than I recall, and it's made in Japan. Not as well built as a German made Leica M, yet in some ways it's actually better (a more durable exterior finish for example)
  • Manual shutter sound is fantastic, only a little vibration added
  • Going stealth with the electronic shutter is three fold advantage: quieter, ultra high speed, and even less vibration
  • Handling and controls are now excellent to use because of firmware upgrades
  • Raw files are excellent, plenty of resolution (higher ISO's give the image character without degradation of important details)
  • Customizing the top four way pad button to metering, and the right side pad to shutter type, gives me a naturally situated handling advantage (all without having to remove my eye from the finder) 
  • Very good battery life, better than expected
  • Good balance with a well made small prime, enjoyable to hold and operate
Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Image Quality

As is the case with most modern digital cameras these days, Image quality is quite good with the X-E2. Particularly I enjoy the fact that no sharpening is needed in camera or in post process because there isn't a filter to eliminate false color (Anti Aliasing filter), which would blur fine detail. On top of that the sensor has excellent dynamic range, and good noise control up to ISO 6400. On the artistic level, I really appreciate the look of the images when shot in the 400-6,400 ISO range. The way the noise looks adds an organic and imperfect texture to the images; with it being more organic and imperfect the higher you go in the ISO range.

ISO 3200, very low ambient light. 100 percent crop below. ACR Raw "adobe standard color" converted, no film simulations added. Excellent performance (ISO 6400 looks very similar)

Close inspection: Nice texture, clean transitions. Love the artistic grain, and lack of fixed pattern banding.
ISO 2500 (the highest ISO of the Leica in the picture). Noise control looks much better than the M9 can produce at the same ISO value, not that I care personally, but worth a mention here in the review.


100 percent crop. Click on it.

Fuji makes their own branded, unique, "X-Trans" sensors. They have a unique look from raw images that I've grown to like. Adobe has many of the popular presets already for you in Adobe Camera Raw, but I prefer to use the standard Adobe color  profile, the film presets are too contrasty for my taste, unless I'm being experimental. I prefer the most color range, and most accurate color possible, but that's just my taste.

ISO 200, love the orb weaver and Halloween background colors of the fall chaparral.

There's not a lot to say about image quality other than it is superb, detailed, has excellent color and dynamic range through the entire ISO range in raw (200-6400). There are no bad habits of the sensor output and you can make some beautiful images with the X-E2. Image quality is not going to be a limiting factor in your photography, period. It's not far off from my Canon 6D full frame camera in terms of noise control and even has better dynamic range (slightly) at base ISO. Few more samples below (just so this review isn't all text), all at base ISO (200)






Fuji have some of the best films, and their simulations of them are excellent out of camera. Although I admire what they are doing, I'm more of the mindset to develop and process my own images. But if you like the look of them, the X-E2 has a good selection including Classic Chrome (think Kodachrome from Kodak). Although it lacks the "Acros" black and white simulation, it has many others to choose from in monochrome.

Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)


Fujifilm X-E2 Review II- Concluding



The experience of using the X-E2 as a rangefinder has a pleasant ending. It's a perfect budget camera body for the beginning of a Leica-like rangefinder system. It has a digital split image simulation in the viewfinder that I find not only mimics the feel and challenge of an optical rangefinder system (almost to a tee), but in some ways surpasses the capability and effectiveness of that optical system. The point though is, that it feels almost the same when you manually focus. That is the key.

During my second time around with the X-E2, I find it to be a different camera than my first impression. Fuji should get a award from TIPA or EISA for the best firmware upgrades on the camera market. I'm not kidding. The new X-E2 is almost a completely different camera now, especially in terms of eliminating irritating issues and simplifying the UI/menu system. What's best (in the context of this article) is that the changes make the experience more conducive to manual focus and fundamental photography as well. Once you get your X-E2 set up, it becomes an intuitive, fluid, and fun camera for making images the old fashioned way. If you are so motivated.

Looking back further, I never mentioned the X100 series camera in this review. I found myself a bit frustrated with the X100T in use, and it didn't feel like a Leica to me at all. The opposite couldn't be more true with the X-E2 with a prime lens. If I'm asked what to recommend, you know what I'm going to say. The slight size advantage of the X100 series cameras simply melts away when you use the X-E2. There are no frustrating issues left in this camera worth mentioning, and especially so in the context of this review.

The goal was to see if I could find a digital rangefinder like camera for a good price that could effectively mimic the shooting experience of a true rangefinder for my readers. Goal accomplished. For those of you wanting to get into that kind of shooting, and you have a limited budget, pick one up, put a nice prime lens on the front, and get shooting. Start simple, take your time. You'll be rewarded with better images, and a much more gratifying experience, I can promise you that.

Being selfish, I can say that I'd definitely like to add the X-E2 as a second tier camera that compliments my main Leica system. The X-E2 at the very least, makes a strong argument for this kind of thinking. Fuji themselves make a Leica M adapter for their cameras, so it's plainly obvious they are inspiring users to shoot in this fashion. Using Fuji's X-E2, I can see a lot of inspiration from Leica, and respect for that kind of shooting experience in general.

Stay focused.

-Carl Garrard

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Fujifilm X-E2 Body Only (Used and New)
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