Preview: The 2013 Fujifilm X-E2

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The Fujifilm X-E2 is a welcome update to last year’s popular X-E1. The camera takes the innards of the X100s and puts them in an X-mount body; it isn’t the X-Pro2 that a lot of users were hoping for, but it’s a significant enough update – for those who had issues with AF speed at least – to warrant serious consideration. In fact, I was sent a list of 61 improvements the X-E2 carries; some new to the camera, some inherited from the X-M1 and others from the X100s. I personally have had a rather inconsistent experience with Fujifilm products; on one hand, I absolutely love their films – Acros is my mainstay in all formats – but was left highly expectant and then disappointed by several cameras, first the original X100, then the X-Pro1, the XF1 and finally the X20. These are cameras I wanted to love, but found lacking in several areas; ultimately, I landed up with M4/3 as my compact system choice due to maturity of cameras and lenses. Many have asked why I don’t seriously consider the X system; I was offered a pre-production prototype by Fujifilm Malaysia, and I cleared a few days in the schedule to seriously revisit the system.

Note: the camera’s firmware is not final, so there will be no evaluation of image quality yet, or full size files or crops. Also bear in mind that some of the observations may change after final firmware. Most of the images in this review are mostly SOOC JPEG; a few have minor color corrections and all B&W images were converted from colour source files.There are also more samples in this Flickr set.

I also have the X-Q1 here; I just haven’t had time to shoot with it yet.

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Quick thoughts on the Sony A7 and A7R


Image from B&H.

The internet is going to be full of anticipation, excitement, speculation and various forms of virtual hand-wringing over Sony’s latest announcement: full frame mirrorless. I’m sure some bloggers have already had a chance to use one, but given the local market entity’s attitude, don’t expect to see a review from me anytime soon (if at all). As interesting as it is, I simply won’t be able to get a camera. What I can do is put together a few initial thoughts. I don’t normally join the equipment frenzy, but I think this is significant enough that it warrants some serious consideration.

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Thoughts on system choices, part two

In part 1, we dealt with SLR systems. Today, we’ll look at what will probably be a secondary system for most serious photographers, or as primary system for less serious ones.

Nikon 1
On paper, the system makes sense for consumers – it definitely doesn’t have the image quality required for commercial work – however, Nikon shot themselves in the foot twice: firstly with the obscene pricing, then by dropping it to laughable levels. And then they dropped an anvil on the same foot by crippling it with a whole slew of slow consumer zooms. I think it would have had a much stronger response with a series of fast pancake primes – two isn’t enough – because the sensor itself is actually quite good, and the camera’s AF performance is unparalleled in the mirrorless world, and rivals that of DSLRs. I can’t recommend this system at the original asking price, but at the last closeout prices of $350 or so, it’s a very interesting option against a premium point and shoot – especially given the larger sensor, built in EVF and interchangeable lenses. But I just can’t recommend it otherwise, unless you want to put your F mount glass on it via adaptor and use it for birding (then, it makes sense: 300/2.8 turning into an 810/2.8 with AF and VR, anybody?) It’s surprising how a company that makes DSLRs that are so ergonomically and functionally right can make both compacts and mirrorless cameras that are so bad.

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Thoughts on system choices, part one

Not so long ago, there used to be only two real choices for the amateur or beginning pro – I’m going to exclude the high end medium format systems and specialized large format systems because if you need that, you generally already know it – Nikon and Canon, Nikon and Canon, and that was about it. The last year or so has seen both smaller systems breach the limits of sufficiency, and larger systems possibly become overkill for most applications. From the general chatter online, in the comments and in my inbox, it seems that a lot of people are in the process of rethinking their gear: lighter and smaller is a definite trend. There’s a lot less thought given to switching than previously; the image quality differential these days is pretty much nil at the low to mid levels, and with the exception of the D800E, also true at the high end.

The confusion now comes from the fact that mirrorless is not only disruptive, it’s mature, alluring and possibly also cheaper – but more importantly, the promise of small and easy seems to have put the fun back into photography for a lot of people. Perhaps it’s because of the weight facilitating portability (and thus having the camera with you all the time), but I think it’s actually because psychologically, the smaller cameras aren’t seen as being quite so serious – thus encouraging experimentation and perhaps unexpected, but welcome, results.
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Quick thoughts/ hands on: The Hasselblad Lunar

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I’ll admit that I was one of the Lunar’s early detractors. There is no doubt that this is a polarizing camera; it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Many were left questioning Hasselblad’s decision to effectively rebody a Sony NEX-7 – in itself a competent camera – but it was likely the price and design direction that really created a bit of a tempest. There’s no question that the Leica-reshelled Panasonics do look better; the design is cleaner and less fussy. And the premium is partially explained by the extended warranty and inclusion of Lightroom with your purchase. This isn’t the case with the Lunar/NEX-7 – the price difference is several multiples, almost certainly due to the choice of materials.

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Yesterday I met with the MD of Hasselblad’s Asia Pacific distributors, Egon Heldner of Shriro. He had with him a Lunar prototype; at some point during the conversation – initially about Zeiss – the camera magically appeared in his hands. I got to play with it a little (but not make test shots) and have a conversation to try to understand exactly what they were thinking when they decided to push the collective go button on the project. Please note that this camera is an engineering prototype, which means that electronics, fit and finish (and even some aspects of design) are not final. It was working, however, and felt remarkably well put-together for a prototype – though unfinished in some areas.

Firstly, the Lunar is not just limited to the NEX-7. As has been reported elsewhere, there will be other variants based on existing Sony cameras; to what extent the cameras are modified beyond external appearance is still not disclosed, but it’s possible – even likely – that they will have some customized processing algorithms to bring in some of the DNA from the firm’s medium format cameras. (I presume this means things like tonal response and color palette etc.)

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Secondly, none of the photos or press images I’ve seen do the camera justice. In the metal, I won’t say it’s minimalist beautiful in the way a Leica M is, but it certainly isn’t ugly. The odd orthogonal projection for the original drawings didn’t have any sense of perspective and overemphasized the size of the grip (I do consciously think about these things, because I am a product photographer). The big surprise for me was the way it felt in the hand – it has an ergonomic ‘rightness’ to it that most cameras lack, including the original NEX-7. The grip shape is surprisingly very comfortable, and for the most part, the choice of materials is excellent. I still think the rubies are utterly pointless, and I’m undecided about the carbon fiber front plate, but the titanium top deck is utterly gorgeous. And I don’t mind the wood either, to be quite honest. As much as I like the idea of blue leather, I suspect that it’s going to be utterly impractical; I live in the tropics and cameras getting wet from rain or sweat is inevitable. Hasselblad’s designer got one thing absolutely spot on: the tactility of the object. If you spend a large number of hours every day with camera in hand, you don’t take these things for granted; the weight (yes, something can be too light); the way the controls feel in terms of dial/ button resistance etc.; the grip shape, etc. are all very, very important. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not bonding with the D600: it’s not the image quality or functionality, it’s the angular feel of the grip that just doesn’t make you want to hold it for very long. As a result, I don’t use it.

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Again: it’s not for everybody; a lot of people think it’s a) ugly and b) pointlessly overpriced. Yet some will buy it because it’s a ‘Blad/ status symbol. I wouldn’t not buy it because it’s a rebodied Sony; the original could definitely use some improvements in the tactility department. But I’ll say two things: firstly, I strongly encourage people to pick one up and feel it before making a judgement. Secondly, it’s not going to be as expensive as expected.

Here’s an interesting thought about publicity – they say any form of it is good – at the release of most modern DSLRs/ enthusiast compacts, on forums you’ll get a whole bunch of people saying ‘I’ve preordered’, a number saying ‘if only it had XYZ’, and others saying it’s pointless. Let’s ignore the usual silent majority. With the Lunar, I think there were 500+ comments on the DPReview announcement page within a day; about 70-80% were negative. Yet there were 20% who liked the camera – given that something of this price is an emotional purchase, generally buyers tend to fall into one of two camps: you either like it, or you don’t. Sadly, most of their buyers won’t be pros or serious photographers – though that doesn’t stop them from making it a serious photographic tool. I don’t think Hasselblad will sell many of these as body-only outfits; most buyers won’t have lenses, and the obvious choice for bundling would be the new Zeiss AF series.

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And even if Hasselblad sells 100 of these things off the mark, that will represent a significant chunk of change. I’m sure the actual number is much higher – there are apparently quite a number of pre-orders in Malaysia already – given that their target clientele generally don’t frequent forums. The difference here is whilst a lot of people on forums will coo over a D4 or 1Dx, most will not buy one for various reasons. At the other end of the market – and I know this from being involved in the high end watch business – a very different dynamic is at play.

As much as this camera is really a NEX-7 rebodied, it could be much more. Sony have already confirmed that the E mount is large enough to accept a full frame sensor; what if Hasselblad were to put a D800E sensor in it, default to DX mode when using the regular E mount/ lenses, and then include an F-E adaptor to allow the use of ZF.2 lenses? That would certainly be a very interesting option, and would at a stroke solve the shutter vibration issue. I’d definitely like to see a conventional hotshoe, though. Again, there’s a watchmaking analogy here: a lot of very high end watches use pedestrian base movements; whilst some of them really don’t do anything with a $200 movement other than put it in a case, slap a brand on it, then add a couple of zeroes at the end, there are others who consciously select the pedestrian tractor as a base to develop off because it is a) reliable and proven; b) easy to service; c) has the properties required to support complications; and c) frees up limited development funds that would otherwise have been spent on the base movement to be used in other parts of the watch. I’m sure you can see the parallel here.

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Here’s the thought that’s been nagging at me all of this time: if you ignore the design, price etc – the positive vibe about the NEX-7 at launch was incredible. If that had been launched at the same time with a series of AF Zeiss lenses and supplied in sufficient quantity, I think Sony could have well gotten the jump on M4/3 – at least in the high end market. We have that happening now with the Lunar – yet just because it’s been rebodied doesn’t make it any less capable a photographic tool than the original camera was. Is it four, five times better like the price suggests it should be? No, but then again neither are any of the $5,000 cameras (except perhaps the D800E). Take a D4 or M9-P for example: with the former, you gain speed, high ISO capability, ergonomics and AF, but less resolution and considerably greater bulk. It’s not five times faster, nor does it shoot ISO6400 like the NEX-7’s 1600. With the latter, resolution is probably about the same given the lack of an AA filter, but it’s much, much slower, a poorer performer at high ISO, and nowhere near as reliable. Yet it doesn’t stop Leica selling in impressive numbers.

Yes, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the more I think about it, the more I think the Lunar gets a surprising number of things right and actually hits a part of the market most forums don’t see – right or wrong – whether those things are important to you or not are a different matter. Taste is relative, personal and subjective. I think I now understand why this camera exists – and it’s not entirely because of marketing. Before you think I’ve gone completely crazy, I encourage you to hold one in your hands for a little while. MT

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and open this up to a general discussion – please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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Mirrorless system lens compatibility recommendations

For those of you with legacy system lenses, compact system cameras seem to make sense, yes? You can use all of your old lenses on newer bodies via adaptors and you’ll not only get to use your favorite optics, but you’ll save money to boot. And the really short back flange distances of some of the lenses mean that just about everything from an SLR or RF mount will fit with the right adaptor.

Well, not quite: firstly, all the fields of view will be different unless you’re going between APSC and APSC. Then there’s also the issue of size: why buy a compact mirrorless systems with the intention of reducing weight when you then go stick an enormous lens on the front?

Bottom line: there are many disadvantages to using legacy glass on mirrorless systems; more so than advantages. I knew that going in, and only use my micro four thirds system with dedicated lenses; but I have got a whole drawer full of adaptors, mostly purchased out of sheer curiosity.

If you are hell bent on making unholy pairings, then read on.

Quick aside: ‘Good’ means lenses work well, and deliver excellent or outstanding optical results; better than the system’s native lenses. ‘OK’ means that they work about as well. ‘Bad’ means that you shouldn’t bother; most of the time this is due to non-telecentric wide angles not playing nice at the edges due to very short back flange distances and a lack of offset micro lenses on the sensor to counter sharp angles of incidence between image rays and sensor. This manifests as purple fringing, chromatic aberration, vignetting, and corner softness. It could also mean the lens just doesn’t have enough resolution to deal with a very high density sensor – for instance the 24MP Sony NEX-7. There are exceptions to this rule, and where I’ve found them, I’ve noted them. The Ricoh GXR M-module is an exception because it does have offset micro lenses and was specifically designed for RF glass.

Sony NEX
Good: Legacy Sony/ Minolta telephotos and normals; new Sony midrange and high end zooms; Leica M telephotos
OK: New Sony wides; Leica M normals
Bad: Older wides; Leica M wides; C-mount/ CCTV lenses (won’t even cover the image circle!)

Micro Four Thirds
Good: SLR high end telephotos, SLR normals, RF telephotos. Exception: Zeiss ZF/ZF.2 glass, Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE.
OK: SLR midrange telephotos; some of the slower RF normals
Bad: Leica M wides (pay attention to your adaptor: cheaper ones probably won’t be planar, and land up causing obvious astigmatism. They may not even focus to infinity, or minimum distance!). The Leica Noctilux 0.95 does not do well on micro four thirds; it displays a lot of CA and blooming. I suspect that it is only optimized with the focal plane precisely at 28mm from the flange. Most C-mount/ CCTV lenses – these lack the resolving power and flatness of field.

Nikon 1
Good: Any of the new Nikon lenses, say post-2009; almost all of these are telecentric and of sufficiently high resolving power. Any of the SLR high end telephotos, RF telephotos
OK: RF normals, all other cheap telephotos; older Nikon MF glass; RF normals
Bad: Cheap C-mount/ CCTV lenses – these lack resolving power; RF wides

Ricoh GXR
Good: Any Leica M

10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Mirrorless ILC tips

Mirrorless: the middle child? Maybe. But even a diehard sceptic like me has discovered that these things have their uses –just be clear about your expectations.

Disclaimer: I’m assuming you already know the basics, but want to get serious.

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10: Spare batteries are an absolute must. Due to the large sensor, LCD and high demands from lens focusing motors, stabilizers and the like, mirrorless cameras have the highest power draw of any type of camera (other than medium format digital, it seems). Make sure you have at least two to get you through a day, maybe with an additional spare.

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Moon over Prague Castle tower. Olympus E-PM1, 45/1.8

9: When selecting a camera, look at two things: useability (including lens choices) and raw sensor quality. I’ve tried the Panasonics, Sonys, Fuji and Olympus systems; of all of these, only the Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini stayed more than a month. Why? Because it’s the most responsive and configurable of them all. The Panasonics are very configurable but not very user friendly. The Fuji X100 has the best image quality, but the firmware is a disaster and it’s slow as molasses. The Sony is reasonably responsive, but not so easily configurable and the lens choices are pretty limited. And the NEX-5 I owned had a strange color palette. And don’t pick one so big that you might as well take your DSLR.

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Lange Datograph. Olympus E-PM1, Panasonic 20/1.7

8: Use a hand strap instead of a neck strap. If it’s in your hand, you’ll be ready faster. And more likely to use it. And the weight/ size aren’t so bad you need to hang it around your neck or shoulder for relief. It also takes up less space in your bag when you have to store it.

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Reflections. Olympus E-PM1, 14-42 kit lens

7: Adaptors are useless. Although they seem like a good idea, mirrorless systems are optimized for telecentric lenses with very short back flange distances; conventional SLR or RF lenses aren’t designed like this and thus don’t work well on mirrorless cameras. It’s quite well known that RF wides have numerous issues like cyan/magenta shifted corners, increased CA and vignetting. Adapted lenses are also bulky and lacking in automation – no AF, no aperture control, no stabilizer. And accurately manually focusing something held at arms’ length is near impossible.

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Burlesque. Olympus E-PM1, Panasonic 20/1.7

6: Remember the lag. Even though release lag may be in the 30-40ms range, you’re going to have another lag induced by the LCD itself – the best models refresh at 60hz, which means you’re looking at least another 15-20ms (or more) of additional lag as the screen refreshes to show the current scene. Practice to get a feel for the rhythm of the camera.

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Garage classic. Fuji X100

5: Avoid continuous AF. Contrast detect AF systems still aren’t good enough to track moving subjects – with the exception of the hybrid system in the Nikon V1 that also has phase detect photosites built into the sensor – so either prefocus and anticipate, or cover with DOF.

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After school in Kathmandu. Fuji X100

4: Carry it everywhere. No point sacrificing image quality if you’re going to leave it at home like the full size camera. This is also why I’m drawn to the smaller, more pocketable mirrorless cameras like the Olympus Pen Mini. I’ve put it on a hand strap and use a pancake lens most of the time; it’s not a lot bigger than a compact but produces vastly better image quality.

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Mosque architecture. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 kit lens.

3: Use the EVF if you’ve got one. Like any optical finder, bracing the camera against your face helps stability immensely. I’m not recommending going out and buying an add-on finder; these are usually flimsy, unwieldy and dramatically increase the size of the camera – defeating the point of mirrorless in the first place.

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Before prayers. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 kit lens.

2: 1/focal length rule doesn’t apply anymore. Why not, aside from crop factor? Because most of the time you’ll be using live view and holding the camera at arms’ length – this means increased propensity towards camera shake. Double, or even triple that for critical shots or action. Or use a flash. And while stabilizers help, they probably bring the safe speed into the 1/fl rule or maybe very slightly better.

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Arch. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 kit lens.

1: Compose like an SLR, shoot like a compact. They’re hybrids, right? Treat them as such. You get the DOF of an SLR – which means you have to watch your focus point, and take care in choosing perspectives. But you also have the limitations of a compact – so remember to watch your exposure/ highlights/ shadows; prefocus; don’t expect it to be able to track moving objects. Remember the limitations of both, and that should give you a good idea of how to get the most out of your mirrorless camera. MT

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Hitchcock scene, Vienna. Olympus E-PM1, 45/1.8

See more of my work from the various large-sensor mirrorless cameras here on flickr: Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1; Sony NEX-5; Fuji X100; Leica X1

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