Astute readers may note a certain incongruity between the name of this modest little blog and the fact that two of the last three cameras introduced here are digital. This is not lost on your correspondent. But I have an explanation: while I prefer the process and results of film photography, there are times and applications where a digital workflow is useful and, in fact, even appealing in some ways (have you ever processed, scanned, and edited 20+ rolls of film?).
The fundamental problem with digital has, for me, always been the look of the photos. The best word I’ve found to describe most digital photos is “clinical”; overused, I know, but that’s how they feel to me. Technically excellent (for the most part) but lacking any sort of life. As you’ve probably figured out from the pictures shown here, I’ll take imperfect and alive over perfect and soulless any day of the week.
But it’s impossible to ignore digital photography’s advantages, so I have kept trying different cameras in an effort to find something I found satisfying in both use and results. The Pentax K-5 I bought recently is a step in this direction, but while using it is wonderful, the photos still feel distinctly digital to me, even through older legacy lenses. And in any case, it is a large DSLR, and there’s no way I’m going to carry it as often as something smaller.
Enter Fuji. Fuji has, over the last few years, moved into a very particular niche market, building a whole series of cameras that harken back to film rangefinders in many ways. These cameras have been well-received by the serious photography world, both for their design ergonomics and the quality of the photos they produce. Without getting overly technical (and repeating more detailed explanations available elsewhere), the sensor in these cameras – Fuji calls it the X-Trans – uses a different method for producing color than most digital sensors, with the results being, to my eyes at least, a bit less clinical and a bit more film-like.
Some of these cameras are fixed-lens models, while others accept interchangeable lenses. Fuji’s native FX mount lenses are considered excellent, but I have no desire to get into another system of lenses. Thankfully, adapters are available for almost every other lens mount ever made. A variety of viewfinders are used, some being hybrid optical/electronic, while others are purely electronic. Most share a control layout that is quite simple, with shutter speed selection and exposure compensation on dials on the top plate.
Cost was a consideration – between body and lens, a new kit could easily run into four figures (USD). Nonetheless, intrigued by what I’d read and heard, I decided to see if I could find a used body for use with my collection of old lenses. I soon came across a barely used X-E1, and after a brief exchange it was mine.
The X-E1 uses only an EVF, which makes it simple to use with legacy lenses. Between the body control for shutter speed and the aperture and focus adjustments on the lens, handling is virtually identical to a film rangefinder. It’s about the same size as my Canon LTM cameras, if notably lighter; I find the body a little bit thin for my hands, but adding a leather half case and a thumb mount (as seen in the photos) improves this a lot.
The sensor, though fairly large, is not full-frame, so there is a crop factor of x1.5 to consider. This means that, in normal use for me anyway, the X-E1 is more likely to be wearing a fairly wide lens. I quickly decided that my Voigtländer 21/4 would be the primary lens for it, giving the equivalent of roughly a 32mm field of view on a 35mm film camera. The 21/4 is a bit of a specialty lens on my film cameras, but it makes a good standard wide on the Fuji.
More importantly, however, are the photos (the camera is, after all, just a means to an end). After several outings with the camera mounting the 21/4, I came to the (entirely subjective) conclusion that the photos produced by the Fuji were notably different from those I’ve seen out of my other digital cameras. They are smoother and with greater apparent depth than most digital photos. The tones in monochrome were nicely represented, though low contrast scenes did look a bit muddy straight from the camera without using one of the contrast filter modes and a little boosting of highs and lows. Color (there are several modes, each identified by their film equivalent – an indicator of Fuji’s intent) from the in-camera JPEGs is quite good; even the most saturated “Velvia” setting doesn’t have the retina-burning qualities seen from some digitals. I have not tried shooting in RAW yet; I have found I don’t have the tolerance for editing every digital shot, and the JPEGs are really very good.
So is this the beginning of the end of film photography for Your Humble Filmosaur? Hardly. No matter how good I find the photos from the X-E1, and how pleasant it may be to use, the photos are still clearly digital. More important, the process of film photography is still my preferred method, and in the end it’s the look of film that Fuji is trying to emulate, so when circumstances allow, why not just go for the real thing instead of a copy? But that said, it is nice to have finally found a digital camera that doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve made an unsatisfying compromise.