Fujifilm X-E2 Australian Review: Photography, Back To Basics

There was a time back in the mid-1970s — around about the era of the Canon AE-1 — when photography was simple. Automatic exposure made taking good pictures easier than ever before, and cameras were getting cheaper by the day without sacrificing design or build quality. Some time in the new millenium, with the birth of mirrorless, things got complicated, and cheap cameras felt cheap. The Fujifilm X-E2 is a breath of fresh air — it's easy to use, and built very sturdily, but doesn't skimp on cutting-edge features.

The Fujifilm X-E2 was preceded by the X-E1, which laid the groundwork in terms of a compact mirrorless camera with Fujifilm's X lens mount, its novel X-Trans APS-C camera sensor, and offset electronic viewfinder. The X-E2 takes all of the learnings of the X-E1 and improves on them, adding new features, refining existing ones, and generally smoothing out any bumps in the road that the initial iteration may have uncovered.

As electronic-viewfinder, interchangeable-lens (EVIL, natch) cameras go, the X-E2 doesn't break any rules. Take the lens off, cover the branding, and Fujifilm's mid-range snapper could equally well be a Panasonic LUMIX or a Sony Alpha. With dimensions of 129 x 75 x 37mm and tipping the scales at just over 350g including its 350-shot-rated rechargeable battery, the X-E2 isn't tiny, but at the same time it's a hell of a lot smaller than any digital SLR or DSLR-style camera. There's little to pay attention to on the front of the camera apart from the small finger-grip on the right-hand side; an autofocus assist light, lens mount release button and autofocus mode switch are the only other features.

Around the X-E2's back and top panel, though, things get somewhat more complicated. That's not to say the Fujifilm X-E2's interface is busy, or inscrutable, though; its controls are perfectly clearly laid out. The camera's rear is dominated by the fixed 3-inch, 1040K-dot widescreen-ratio LCD, with the accompanying electronic viewfinder on the camera's top left. The viewfinder itself is a beautiful 2360K-dot OLED unit, with an automatic eye sensor and a wide range of diopter adjustment. Across the rest of this mirrorless body's backpane, the button arrangement is standard Fujifilm X; there's only a single shooting adjustment dial, but the reason for that quickly becomes clear.

On the top of the Fujifilm X-E2, and on the base of the ring of all the lenses that you can buy for the X-mount system, are two important, carefully machined rings. One is for manual adjustment of the lens' aperture, and one is for setting shutter speed, and there's also a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The sum total of these dials is that, if you want it, you've got a hell of a lot of adjustment available for shooting photos manually. But if you're content to shoot in automatic mode — and the X-E2 is so good at that — you can leave the dials alone and use them only as visual evidence of how cool and retro your new camera is.

Hidden away in the top panel is the camera's inbuilt flash; although it's not especially powerful, it comes in handy when you're in an especially dark space and need that extra boost in available light. If you need more power, the X-E2's flash hot shoe is next to the pop-up flash, although it's slightly offset from the centre-line of the lens mount.

The X-E2's rear LCD may be good, but its viewfinder is great. The tiny eye panel is incredibly detailed, has a fast refresh rate even in dim lighting, and has an interface that shows all of the salient details around your photography without being unnecessarily busy or complicated. It's also easily adjustable, and Fujifilm's simple, uncluttered layout for the rest of the camera's systems makes it a joy to change settings whenever you need to.

Capturing photos with this camera is a blast. It's one of the first electronic viewfinder cameras that we're able to say that about, too — it's the greatest compliment we can give to the X-E2 to say that the viewfinder doesn't get in the way and impede the photo-taking process. Leave all the dials and buttons alone, with the camera in auto-ISO and auto-exposure mode, and the frames that it's able to capture are lovely. Maybe it's an unannounced feature of the Fuji X-E2's nonstandard, in-house-developed X-Trans II CMOS sensor, but there's a smoothly contrasted, sharp but not overly sharp, special quality about this camera's photos.

It's capable across most of its native ISO range, too. As a non-full-frame sensor, it struggles with particularly high ISOs and particularly difficult lighting settings — prepare for some serious grain and chrominance noise at ISO 25,600, for example — but in anything from broad daylight to the dying hours of sunset, the X-E2 performs very impressively, maintaining its white balance accuracy and most of the detail of its photographs as you ramp up the digital sensor's gain. This is a camera with a very small dose of that Leica magic that makes digital photographs look vaguely filmic.

Fuji's various film simulations — Astia, Provia, Velvia, a throwback to the heydays of Fuji's silver nitrate supremacy — all make an appearance in the X-E2. We generally left the camera on its reasonably low contrast Astia simulation, to preserve the most colour detail when shooting in RAW. If you're shooting in JPEG, though, it's hard to resist the punchy, contrasty appeal of Velvia. You can adjust any of the simulations or roll your own as well; these are the kind of shooting adjustments that appeal to enthusiasts and beginners alike. There's no gimmicky 'miniature' or other fancy-slash-pretentious photo modes, though — the Fuji X-E2 is all about capturing a pure digital photograph in the best possible quality.

Here's a photo gallery of a slice of our experience with the Fujifilm X-E2, snapped around Circular Quay, using Fujifilm's 23mm f/1.4 prime lens:

Using the Fujifilm X-E2's in-camera RAW conversion, we processed a portrait of Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell, then added the same RAW into Lightroom and tweaked it for the best possible results. Here's the two photos side-by-side: what this shows is that the X-E2's in-camera RAW does a surprisingly good job, and that while there's a quality advantage in processing on your PC, it isn't necessary to capture a good photo. Lightroom RAW is on the left, the X-E2's in-camera RAW is on the right.

Beyond simple photo mode tweaking, there's also a dynamic range extension mode — only effective when you're shooting in JPEG, since RAW has the maximum dynamic range available in all its files anyway — that works well to give a faux-HDR effect to the photos you capture. It's a nice enough effect when you want it, but it's not always appropriate. The Fujifilm X-E2 is, in our opinion, best shot in RAW and images tweaked to your liking in an external editing program like Lightroom or Aperture, or locked to a single colour balance like Velvia or Astia and used like a point-and-shoot film camera — automatic mode, point and click, with no complicated photo tweaks to play with.

The X-E2 has a rudimentary Wi-Fi feature that lets you share your photos from the camera wirelessly t a PC, tablet or smartphone; iOS and Android apps are both available. We had more luck with the Android version, since iOS's walled garden actually gets in the way and prevents the app from automatically finding and connecting to the X-E2's Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is still a little complicated to use, but it's easy to drive after a little practice — we expect it'll advance further and become more seamless as Fuji does a little more app development.

Bad news: video mode on the X-E2 is still not good. At all. There was significant moire and aliasing in the test footage that we captured, both in low light and more favourable conditions. It's a result of the imperfect way that Fujifilm captures video on the X-E2's novel non-Bayer sensor layout, and then downscales it to produce the resulting Full HD 1920x1080pixel files, both at 60p and 30p frame rates. Similarly, there's no accommodation for changing any exposure settings for capturing video; you can set the lens' aperture on its physical ring, but shutter speed and ISO are out of your hands. If video makes up any more than a tiny part of your consideration of the Fujifilm X-E2, we'd hold off until Fuji releases an update to fix the issue.

To its credit, Fujifilm is developing a solid reputation as a company that is both happy to update its cameras with new features and quick to respond to consumer demand. At the time of our review, six months after the camera's official announcement, the X-E2 is on firmware version 1.20, with incremental improvements made to autofocus speed and accuracy with new lenses. Another firmware update is in the works, of course, and we can't wait to see what new gizmos it adds.

If you don't want or care about video, and you can appreciate a well-built, simple, capable, versatile camera, Fujifilm's X-E2 is worth serious consideration. It has a modern, advanced digital imaging sensor, controls that hit just the right compromise between basic and powerful, and an easy-to-understand menu system.

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