Holiday camera: Fuji X-E1 and XF 35mm

As mentioned in my Day 1 post, I took my Fuji X-E1 and XF 35mm f1.4 lens to Malta for a week. I limited myself to just the one prime lens for two reasons, the main one being size and weight. The 35mm is quite a light lens, and given I spent most of my time with it in my hand (secured with a Gordy’s wrist strap), that was certainly a point in its favour. Plus, although with the hood it sticks out a bit, it’s nevertheless still small enough to easily fit in my Domke F-5XB with room to spare for other bits like wallet, phone and keys.

So, a camera that was nice to hold in one hand all day was one reason, but the second was an experiment of sorts: to see if I could manage with just a 50mm-equivalent lens for a week in a place full of novelty and inspiration.

fishing boats in MarsaxlokkFishing boat in Marsaxlokk bay, Malta

Some background

When I got my X100, in June 2012, I more or less used it exclusively, barely touching my Pentax K10D or Ricoh GR-D III. I found the 35mm-e focal length quite comfortable and flexible, and it was only when the X-E1 was announced that I felt some temptation to get another camera. The X-Pro1 never caught my attention in the same way – I use the EVF almost all the time on the X100, so the lack of an optical/hybrid finder on the X-E1 was, if anything, a point in its favour, as was the smaller size and lighter weight. What finally swayed me, I think, was the 18–55mm kit lens. Although I find the X100’s built-in lens perfectly usable, I was also feeling the itch for something with a bit more reach, and something too that could go a little wider; the zoom seemed to fit the bill, and reports of its optical qualities were encouraging.

Almost as an afterthought, I got the 35mm lens too, since I felt I ought to have a small and light prime to go on the camera, and if it turned out I got on with it, the idea was I could sell my X100.

Well, that hasn’t happened – I still have both, with no plans to get rid of either. I like the X100, even if it is kinda slow sometimes. I like the X-E1 + 35mm combo too, although I’m still not as comfortable with that focal length as with the X100 lens’s. Perhaps it’ll come with time, or perhaps, unlike Robert Boyer, I’m more of a ‘35mm man’ (I suspect if Fuji released a small, lightweight 23mm f2 XF lens, I’d be all over it, and would have no reason to keep my X100 around).

Fuji X-E1 with XF 35mm lensMy faithful companion

Results

Camera

I have almost no complaints about the X-E1: it really is a nice camera to shoot with. It’s lightweight, plenty responsive enough for the kind of shooting I was doing, and the sensor is great. The EVF is generally fine in bright light, even if sometimes I had to shade it with my left hand, but I’ve had similar problems with optical viewfinders in the past, and being able to preview the exposure and have 100% accurate framing outweigh any supposed advantages optical finders have in my mind.

I want to specifically mention the EV compensation dial here, too. Many reviewers/users have complained that it’s too loose, too easily knocked from its 0 setting. To be blunt, I have no idea what these people are talking about. I was changing it almost every shot, given the highly variable nature of the scenes I was photographing, so having a stiffer dial like on the X-T1 would just have been annoying (amazingly, Mike Tomkins from Imaging Resource thinks the X-T1’s dial is too loose, which I cannot comprehend at all).

With regards to the size and weight, in that respect the experiment was a success: I had no issue carrying camera around in my hand all day.

There are a few things I would mind seeing improved, though. First off is the rear ‘thumb grip’, which is rather hard-edged and slippery (although at least it exists at all, unlike on the X100).

Second, the maximum 14000 shutter speed was limiting on a number of occasions, in the absence of an ND or polarising filter – in bright sunlight, I couldn’t open up the lens past f3.6 or so before hitting that limit. Of course, even at 18000 I’d still be a stop and a bit short of the lens’s 1.4 maximum, but even being able to shoot at 2.2 would have been nice. I think a 52mm polariser is in order.

Finally, there’s battery life, a problem seemingly every mirrorless camera suffers from. Despite supposedly being able to get around 350 shots on one charge, I often found the camera running low at the end of a day, even after only having taken 200 or so pictures. If there’s one thing I miss from my DSLRs, it’s being able to basically ignore the battery. I guess I should just buy a spare.

Lens

I have mixed feelings about how well I got on with the 35mm. Most of the time, I didn’t feel very limited by it – there were a few occasions where I’d have preferred something longer or wider, but that could happen with any lens; you just need to learn what works, and accept the fact that some things just don’t.

Part of the problem is that I’m just not very good at framing things with a 50mm-e without making them seem a bit distant. Looking back over my Malta photos, too many of them, I think, have a sense of being on the outside looking in, whereas with a 35mm-e, it would have been easier to make pictures with more of a feeling of being involved in the scene.

This could be an inherent attribute of 50mm-e lenses, but I think it’s more me trying to treat that focal length like something it’s not. Some of the pictures do indeed feel ‘part of the scene’, like this one:

waterfront flats

Others, though, definitely have a more ‘telephoto’ look:

Rabat parish church

I think perhaps I just need to move in closer, put myself in the scene first, and then try to find a suitable composition, resisting the urge to back up in order to ‘fit everything in’, that being a common failing of too many photos, mine or otherwise. I find that difficult, though, because I tend to prefer pictures that offer some context to the subject, rather than just details. Not only that, I wonder if I just respond more to photos with a stronger exaggeration of near-far relationships, a perspective effect wider lenses are ideal for rendering.

Onward

I’ll continue to stick with the XF 35 for now, after all I’ve only had it around eight months, and only recently had the chance to really get to know it. I do hope one day I’ll be as comfortable with it as I am with the X100’s lens, and I intend to keep at it until I can come to a solid conclusion one way or the other.

There’s also the 18–55mm, too, of course – a fine lens but one I’ve hardly used. If I were to go on holiday again soon, I’d take it and carry the camera on my Black Rapid Snapr 35 (with just the strap, not the small detachable bag) since the camera with that lens is a little too heavy to carry in the hand all day, and I can’t stand neck straps.

Getting used to a zoom is a whole other matter, and given how long it takes just to master one focal length, I can’t imagine the amount of time needed to master a whole range of them.

Maybe I’ll have all this sorted in … 20 years or so?


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