I decided to sell the unexpected GH3 when the E-M5 was repaired. Thanks to the lens and grip bundle deal I got on purchase I came out even, or near enough. I put the money towards upgrading my portrait lens from the Olympus 45/1.8.
As I’ve mentioned before, the choice for me is either the Panasonic 42.5/1.2, or buy into the Fujifilm X system with the X-E2 and get the 56/1.2. I went for the Fujifilm option based on my experience with the X100S. It’s a lovely camera to work with and it significantly out-performed the Olympus E-M5 for the fireworks and tall ships.
There is a lot to like about the X-E2. It has the same great handling characteristics as the X100S, minus the optical viewfinder but with a few subtle improvements around the buttons. I’m now a big fan of the the dedicated dials for exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speed rather than the mode dial design found on most cameras.
Both the 56/1.2 and 18-55 “kit lens” are solid feeling and metal bodied. The zoom is only £200 if you buy it with the camera which is a great deal.
Where it all goes wrong
My first outing with the X-E2 was to see Roo Panes at Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s a really nice venue with faded charm and nice acoustics. When I looked at the pictures I was somewhere between disappointed and angry.
The fatal issue was that the X-E2 couldn’t focus for toffee. It’s not just that’s slow and can take a few attempt to lock-on, which is true, but that once it does lock-on it’s flat wrong. The vast majority of pictures taken were significantly out of focus. I was genuinely shocked by how poorly it did.
The E-M5 can handle this kind of photography as a matter of routine, and the GH3 was just as good, so to see a new camera struggle like this is weird. It seems to be low-light related, the X-E2 + 56/1.2 combination is fine in good light. The X100S, which you’d think would share a lot of the technology, was at the same gig and it did perfectly fine if not quite as well as I’d expect from the M43 cameras.
I took some pictures manually focusing. The EXIF data doesn’t show focus mode, at least not in Capture One or SilkyPix, but when you view the focus point in-camera the ones I know were MF show as centre point, where the AF photos would all have been using a corner/off-centre point. The following pictures were taken a few seconds apart.
When manually focusing I was using focus peaking, so the camera is clearly capable of telling when something is in focus, it just chose to ignore it in autofocus.
So it’s junk, right? Send it back, eBay it, throw it in the bin and get the Panasonic 42.5. Well it’s not quite that simple as the pictures that were in focus looked pretty good. The sensor gives the same smooth, noiseless images as the X100S. It’s also free of the high ISO banding seen in the E-M5. The E-M5 also seems slightly strained with high ISO, while the sensors in the Fujifilms seem comfortable playing in the bigger numbers.
Although the Panasonic lens is definitely a better lens than the Olympus, as it should be for the price difference, I’m not convinced it’s enough better to drag the whole system performance up. I wanted to try and make the X-E2 work.
I’ve never been one for manual focusing, so my skills here are underdeveloped. Getting better isn’t a bad idea regardless of the X-E2’s issues as particularly in the M43 world there are some interesting lens from companies like Voigtlander which are manual focus by design.
My next opportunity for some real-world practice was Lux Lisbon at The Lexington. You can view the full gallery from the night which is a mixture of X-E2 with 56/1.2 (MF) and the X100S (AF). I did take a few exposures of one of the support acts in autofocus, but no idea if those made it through the cull.
Assistance and hindrances
Of the manual focus assist modes I preferred peaking over the split screen. The peaking at Lux Lisbon seemed less effective than at Roo Panes, in that the cues were very subtle and were often little more than increased sharpness on microphone grills. Faces, presumably due to being low contrast, showed cues far less frequently or obviously. Peaking gave me no help at all with the drummer.
The X-E2 has a ‘focus check’ mode which is simply a zoom-in during focus adjustment. This can either be turned on for every shot, or activated for one-shot by pressing in the control wheel. This is useful but introduces lag on shutter release. If you release the shutter whilst zoomed in, the camera first comes out of focus check and then exposes. This takes about half a second and can easily lead to missing a moment. You need to enter focus check, trim the focus and then come out with a half-press on the shutter to wait for the moment.
The focus mechanism itself is by-wire which has some issues. Firstly, it’s not very good for subtle adjustments as you get no focus movement at the start of the turn and then a small jump. In dry testing at home I also found the minimum focus step size meant I couldn’t exactly focus where I wanted on near objects.
The by-wire focus adjustments also only work when the camera has time to do so. If you have the camera in burst mode and hold down the release, while turning the focus ring, the focus point won’t change. Even if I was a manual focus genius who could subconsciously track people round the stage whilst choosing when to fire off exposures, it wouldn’t be possible with this camera.
Having said all of that, the results weren’t too bad. Certainly much better than the autofocus attempts at Roo Panes.
What you’re not seeing are the pictures I didn’t take. Between the camera’s limitations and my own, I couldn’t capture fleeting moments as the performers moved around. I really needed people to stay in one place for maybe up to five seconds to be confident. How much this matters is artist dependent, at Roo Panes it was much easier as there was little on-stage movement but for Lux Lisbon there was more going on.
Here are a couple of images I’d like to have included in the main set, but aren’t quite close enough for whatever reason:
The AF on the X-E2 isn’t good enough, and is way below competing cameras in the M43 world. Taking photos at Lux Lisbon with manual focus increased my workload significantly, not helped as I was manually exposing for much of the gig as well.
Looking at the results, certainly there were a few pictures that got away, but I’m still left with a pretty reasonable set. I have taken Lux Lisbon gig photos twice before, May 2013 and October 2013, and I think this most recent set is my best effort. Of course, these are from different venues, with different lighting, different processing and a year more of practice.
Whether this is a better combination than the Olympus E-M5 + 45/1.8 is going to depend on the event. The image quality of the X-E2 + 45/1.2 is better, but the MF limitation means I’d be very worried about just not being able to cope during high energy performances. It’s fine when it’s just my hobby but if I was commissioned in some way for an event I’d definitely have the Olympus in my bag as well so I’d know I could get something.