The Fujifilm X shootout – X100s vs X-E1

After multiple attempts of “We should one day go take some photos together” at work, we finally managed to get some people together to go a bit photographing. Freiburg im Breisgau it shall be! It’s small and lovely city in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. That’s in the SouthEast of Germany, close to France and Switzerland – you probably didn’t know and that’s fine, it’s not so famous. But now that you know you should really visit if you ever come to the region.

Wait, stop being a Baden fan boy. There was an underlying goal for myself: I was going to compare the Fujis!

So I left my “big guns” at home and brought along my Fujifilm X100s as well as the X-E1 with the Fujinon 35mm f/1.4 lens. It’s the same camera family, they look comparable, the menus look identical and still they’re two different beasts.

X100s
X-E1
Viewfinder
Hybrid (OVF + LCD EVF)
OLED EVF
CMOS Sensor
X-Trans II
X-Trans
Lens
23mm f/2
X Mount exchangeable lens
Shutter
Leaf shutter
Focal plane shutter
Shutter speed
30 – 1/4000 sec
But 1/4000 only at f/8 or smaller
30 – 1/4000 sec
Integrated ND filter
~ 3 Stop
None
Flash sync
Every speed
1/180
Material
Solid, a lot of metal
A bit more plastic fantastic and hollow
Weight (no battery, no card)
~405g
~300g (no lens)

Like twins, they’re similar but each one has a different talent.

Viewfinder

First let’s have a look at the viewfinder, possibly one of the two big facts that make a difference for every photographer. It’s the famous Fujifilm Hybrid viewfinder in X100s and an OLED electronic viewfinder in the X-E1.

Hands down, the viewfinder of the X100s is superior. The possibility to use the optical viewfinder with LCD overlays is amazing. You can customize what you want to see with gimmicks like a digital horizon, framing helps (16:9, rule of thirds,…), your exposure settings and a lot more. Like a rangefinder camera you also see what’s happening outside of the frame. This is THE thing that made this camera so popular with the street photography crowd. You know if someone walks into your frame before it happens. The OVF is naturally not so accurate so it’s great that with the whip of a small control you can change to the EVF. Here you get a digital through the lens image of what the sensor is seeing. This combination makes for the perfect solution for every shooting situation.

Don’t get me wrong, the OLED EVF of the X-E1 is no slouch either. It has a good resolution and offers reasonable dynamic range. It’s just nothing special as there are good electronic viewfinders offered by other camera lines like the Sony NEX or the Olympus OM-D. Both Fujifilm camera’s EVF tend to be a bit laggy in very low light situations where the camera has to apply a lot of gain to make the image visible in the finder, this hopefully should be solved by more powerful hardware in the future that can deliver a higher framerate even under bad conditions.

Both cameras feature an diopter which helps us blind moles. If you lust after the X-Pro1 you will need to buy screw-in diopter lenses. I clearly prefer the integrated, adjustable solution.

Lenses

Being a premium compact camera the X100s already brings its lens along in contrast to the X-E1 which as a mirrorless system camera allows exchangeable lenses. This is positive and negative, depending on the perspective. The big advantage of the fixed lens is that it is optimized for the sensor and the camera, there are less compromise to be implemented from the manufacturing side. This also strongly cuts down on size and weight of the system. If you look at a weight of a hint over 400g vs. a hint over 300g, it is clear that you won’t get a 23mm f/2 lens for the X-E1 with a weight of only 100g.

Fujifilm decided for the X100s (and its predecessor the X100) to go for a 23mm lens, offering the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a “full frame” sensor. Luckily for me, that’s my favorite focal length. 35mm is a very pleasing middle ground between too wide and too long. While many people enjoy the 50mm field of view because it is deemed more natural, the 35mm can allow you to photograph people from the other side of the table while still capturing their surroundings.

The downside of the fixed lens is that… well, you will have it forever, no options. I used the X-E1 with the 35mm f/1.4 (giving a field of view of 53mm on a 135 format) and it just isn’t my cup of tea, it was often not wide enough and sometimes still not long. There are also these moments when f/2 will not cut, be it because it’s too dark to get a reasonable exposure or because you just want a bit more background blur. With a exchangeable lens you can adapt to the situation.

According to certain internet fora, the lens of X100s is not really the sharpest when used wide open. That’s certainly true, you get a good boost to sharpness by stopping down to f/2.8 or f/4. This is another compromise of the small size and – if we compare it to buying a body plus lens – reasonable price.

With the focus on the lens it really is the decision between convenience and size vs. flexibility and ultimate image quality.

Auto focus

The auto focus is a delicate business when it comes to Fujifilm X cameras. Their rather slow focus behavior combined with a certain lack of dedication to actually lock focus when it gets dark is the main gripe most people voice all over the internet.

In bright light both cameras focus acceptable fast and – thanks to CDAF – very accurate. The X100s has a notch better performance compared to the X-E1 due to the use of on-sensor Phase Detect Auto Focus (PDAF) pixels. PDAF is the concept with which DSLR cameras focus, it is faster but less accurate than Contrast Detect Auto Focus. So theoretically a combination of PDAF and CDAF can get you the best out of both worlds. Unfortunately this doesn’t come with some gaps as the PDAF pixels are only available on approximately 40% of the sensor which spans the center 9 auto focus fields. In addition you only get the on-sensor PDAF when you have sufficient light available which means basically that it’s probably not gonna do you any good when shooting a candle light dinner. Still it’s a favorable advantage when shooting outside during the day.

The X-E1 on the other hand lacks these PDAF on-sensor pixels. It’s advantage, especially in low light, again are the exchangeable lenses. When using a lens with an f/1.4 aperture you let in twice the light as with the fixed f/2 lens of the X100s. Logically that means that you can expect the same auto focus speed and accuracy with only half the light. I you favor to shoot in available light scenarios, the X-E1 therefore might actually be the favorable camera for you.

In general it can be said that both cameras are only average in regards to their focus speed and focus accuracy in very low light scenarios so in the end, decide by your habits regarding bright vs low light shooting.

Overall responsiveness

Comparing these two cameras regarding their responsiveness in general is an easy task. It’s X100s all day, hands down. You really notice the improved system speed when it comes to operating the menus, saving the shots to the SD card or when using the camera internal RAW converter. It’s as I said, they’re just not the same generation of camera. Like with computers you can expect better/faster performance when upgrading to a newer generation.

This is no deal breaker in my opinion so I think both cameras are sufficiently fast.

I would like to repeat the point about the shutter lag I’ve mentioned earlier in the Fujifilm X-E1 post. This problem is existing in both cameras and probably also in other mirrorless system cameras. After fiddling around with the cameras for a while and discussing it with other photographers it seems that it’s basically a limitation of the system architecture. The moment you press the shutter, the camera will completely open up the aperture to take a exposure metering, then close down the aperture to working aperture and expose the frame. This also happens in completely manual mode and the lag is higher the smaller the aperture due to the way the aperture blades have to travel. The only way to overcome this is by half-pressing the shutter button before you want to shoot so everything is ready to go the moment you completely press the shutter.

Shutter

Both the X100s as well as the X-E1 offer a shutter speed of 30 seconds to 1/4000 seconds on paper, that’s where the similarities end.

It’s the never ending story of leaf shutter vs focal plane shutter. Both have benefits, both have disadvantages. Leaf shutters are basically none existent except for crazy expensive medium format lenses or 30 year old medium format systems. The reason isn’t that focal plane shutters are inherently better but that thy are cheaper and easier to produce.

The X100s’ leaf shutter is listed with the same shutter speeds on the camera’s whitepaper but that’s only half of the story. Because of the nature of the leaf shutter and how it closes over the open aperture it is not capable to deliver the same shutter speeds at all apertures. If you look back, many leaf shutter cameras had shutter speeds of maximum 1/250 or 1/500 – even the newest Phase One leaf shutter lenses only do 1/1600. Now you wonder how Fujifilm managed to make the X100s shoot 1/4000 at an aperture of f/2? They didn’t. The available shutter speeds go slower as the aperture opens up, the full 1/4000 for example is only available when shooting at f/8 or smaller. It’s just a question of how fast the shutter can travel to cover the whole aperture opening without getting visible in the image.
The advantage of the leaf shutter on the other hand is that you can flash sync at every shutter speed. A lot of people think directly of the studio when they think about flash but the better scenario for this is shooting flash in an available light scenario. Ever tried to shoot at a flash sync speed of 1/200 with an aperture of f/2 on a camera with minimum ISO of 200? Here comes either f/16 or the ND filters now… STOP! We have leaf shutters, baboom! Shooting at 1/1000 is over 2 stops more flexibility than 1/200. Therefor leaf shutters are amazing for shooting in sun light while using flash. Due to the abundance of ambient light your flashes will not freeze movement like they do in the dark so especially for moving subjects the additional speed of the leaf shutter can be amazing. You know how it could be even better? Camera intergrated ND filter, activated with one button click! Now you have 3 stops darkened image from the ND plus the blazing fast synch speed of the leaf shutter. The X100s is probably the most affordable camera if you want to use flash in bright sunlight conditions.

The focal plane shutter on the other hand has none of these fancy gimmicks. If you’ve had a DSLR before you’ve probably had a focal plane shutter. It’s in the body instead of the lens and has different behavior. It is not as silent and will not sync to the same flash speeds (cheaper cameras typically 1/160 sec, pro-cameras up to 1/250 sec). But on the other hand it will offer all shutter speeds at all apertures as the shutter always travels the same space in front of the sensor. So even at f/1.4 you will get the full 1/4000 sec speed. Unfortunately the exchangeable lens cameras from Fujifilm don’t offer the integrated ND filter, in combination of the minimum ISO of 200 this means that you should consider to purchase a screw on 3 Stop ND for your lens if you desire to shoot f/1.4 in bright daylight.

If this was a Christmas wishlist I’d like to have one or two leaf-shutter lenses for the system while the body has a focal plane shutter. Standard could be the focal plane shutter with a special function to chose the leaf shutter (I wouldn’t even mind if you have to cock it manually). Best of both worlds but probably unreasonably expensive for most users and therefore not enough demand.

Build quality

Both cameras consist of a mix of metal and high quality plastics but still there is a certain difference in haptics. The X100s feels just more solid and robust while the X-E1 feels more hollow and plasticy. I haven’t handled the X-Pro1 so far but according to other sources, some people had the feeling that the looks promise more than the touch, I clearly feel that this is true with the X-E1, too.

I never dropped either of the two but I wouldn’t set the same trust on them as on my Canon EOS 5D III to survive the impact. So if you want a camera for really tough shooting conditions I would suggest to first evaluate if the built of the Fujifilm X cameras will do it for you. For basically 99% of the people it’s solid enough. We’re not living in the times anymore where plastic translates to sketchy quality, big parts of high performance cars are executed in high tech plastics.

The flaps over the USB ports on the other hand make the impression like it would be a piece of cake to accidentally break them off. Never heard any cases so far though.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to decide for one of the two. There are times when you’d like to drive a sports car or a station wagon; sometimes you feel like beer, sometimes it’s wine. Both systems have their advantages and perhaps it’s not absolutely fair to compare the 1st generation X-E1 with the more advanced X100s but let’s face it, customers have to make this decision currently.

Personally the final decision point I see, independent of all other benefits or disadvantages, is if you need exchangeable lenses or not. The size of the camera, the weight, the image quality, the shutter type and sound, all unimportant of you can’t get the shot you want or need because the focal length is wrong or the aperture is too small for the light situation.

I found the X100s to be the overall better camera, more convenient to use and better performing. Still I have decided to keep the X-E1 and get the soon to be available 23mm f/1.4 because I’m a low light freak. If there was a big ass 23mm f/0.95 lens for the Fujifilm X system I’d probably get it. There are rumors about a X-E1s or X-E2 being announced within October 2013 so if you don’t need the camera immediately, I’d give it a moment.

In the end, horses for courses.

Unfortunately the shooting fun at our Freiburg trip was somewhat limited. Weather was mostly overcast all day and in the end even the rain did catch up with us. As there’s no weather sealing of any kind in the Fujifilm X100s or the X-E1 you might want to beware of the downpour, independent of your choice.