Dirt Cheap Mirrorless Fun
By Ben Bird
As many of the guest contributors before me have done I want to thank Steve and Brandon for a chance to share my experiences with all of the other readers of Steve’s website. I hope you will find it as enjoyable to read as I have many of your reviews! (Thanks Ben!! – Steve)
I don’t have any exotic gear to review for you, no ultra-rare vintage glass that has been found in an attic and saved from the brink of extinction… nothing terribly exciting… what I do have for you all is a review of a dirt cheap and very fun mirrorless setup that I have been beating around with a lot of average and common legacy glass on some adapters.
Let me back up a bit and give you some context…
(I can assure you it isn’t anything special. You could probably guess the next few paragraphs and be spot on!)
I have been a Canon DSLR shooter for 12 years. I started out with a Rebel XT then moved on to a 20D, a 40D, a 5D Classic and recently a 6D.
I take pictures of anything and everything. I have photographed weddings as a Primary and a second shooter off and on over the last 6 years. I also did portraits, families shoots, seniors and events, but have since retired from those pursuits. I shoot a lot of candid portrait work and spend a lot of my shutter time with family and friends socially.
I also work part-time photographing an amazing local motorcycle shop here in Lincoln Nebraska called Great Plains Cycle Supply. I document the employees, customers, and events for their social media and websites. (Check them out!)
My current full-time day job allows me to work outdoors and I attempt to take my camera with me at all times, never going anywhere without it tagging along… but as we all have experienced, that isn’t always possible.
Eventually the hassle got to me and I started to leave the DSLR at home more and more often.
While I have enjoyed the image quality of my DSLR’s I have long been pining for something smaller and more discreet. The heartbreak of missing a really amazing photo because I simply didn’t want to take my big DSLR along was really taking it’s toll on me. And of course… who doesn’t want to get closer and be ignored more when taking candid photographs of people?
As you have no doubt realized, it’s going to be another one of “those” reviews… DSLR to mirrorless… we’ve all read them, and everyone is doing it these days… so I will try to hurry past some of the more cliché parts and spend a little more time on what I can offer that is unique.
I really wanted to try a mirrorless system and see if I could make it work for me… but I was concerned that being a full frame DSLR shooter for so long I would never be able to “let go” of my obsession with full frame “look” and embrace the crop sensor files.
Fortunately I have the internet… and if there is one thing I know how to do well; its kill hours of my life while looking at photographs on the web!
I spent a lot of time enjoying thousands of photos taken with mirrorless cameras and at some point I realized I had forgotten that I was supposed to be analyzing the image quality of the photos and had just been enjoying the photographs! The image quality has ceased to be that big of an issue for me… and I also had realized that no matter how amazing the full frame files looked… if that full frame camera wasn’t with me when the photo presented itself… the photos would never be taken at all… and all that sexy full frame goodness was going to waste at home in the camera bag.
Finally I came to the conclusion I had to try for myself. In my circle of friends the only mirrorless cameras were a couple of Fuji’s. So I borrowed an X100 from my friend and took it for a couple of test drives.
And I was disgusted.
I couldn’t get the camera to cooperate with me; I couldn’t take a decent photo to save my life. I worked and worked and was constantly frustrated. But worst of all… I couldn’t seem to do anything to the Fuji files to make them work for me. I was crushed. I was so ready to be on board… I had seen loads of beautiful Fuji photos, so I knew that the system COULD work… but I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.
I threw up my hands in disgust and went back to my DSLR’s and said I would never switch over to Fuji.
But, the years went by… and I saw more and more beautiful photos taken not only with Fuji, but also with the other mirrorless systems.
I forgot my disgust and frustration and started to daydream of the day I could carry a tiny discreet camera around my neck all the time.
I tried other systems in the camera stores. I lusted after the RX1 and RX1R, the OMD’s the A7’s and thought that maybe they could work for me but everything was out of reach financially.
A friend of mine had recently left Canon and bought a used X100s and an X Pro 1 for not a lot of money and was making beautiful photos with them on a regular basis. He encouraged me that working with the Fuji files was indeed different and that I should be patient and give it some time before I ruled out Fuji entirely.
I would look at the work done by so many of the great photographers on the web and all of the great reader reviews on this site and say to myself:
“Clearly it can be done right. Why can’t I do that? It has got to be me and not the cameras fault. “
Finally I’d had enough… I decided I had to jump in and actually put the hours into learning the system and stop blaming the equipment. After all… that IS what I preach day in and day out: It’s the photographer… not the camera that makes great photos. I was being a hypocrite.
So it was way past time for me to put my money where my mouth was!
It just so happened that my bank account and I weren’t on speaking terms at the time, so I couldn’t just rush out and snatch up a new system.
So, I looked for the cheapest possible way to start shooting Fuji… and I found a mint condition used XE-1 for 300$. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford glass for a long time, but I had some old manual lenses In the house… some M42, some Nikon and even an old Voigtlander 35mm f/1.7 Ultron that I could use on the Fuji with some adapters.
So I pulled the trigger and got the XE-1 and an adapter for the Voigtlander.
Well… I wish I could say it was a match made in heaven… but it wasn’t.
There were a lot of teething problems and I spent most of my time cussing the Ultron and trying to get the hang of the incredibly bad minimum focusing distance of the lens (somewhere around 2-2.5 feet!) I am so used to being able to shoot closer that it really threw me off. I could never tell if the lens was just a little soft or if I was just always blowing my focus.
Eventually I got a few shots I liked, and started to get the hang of the XE-1… but my poor manual focusing ability and the Ultron butted heads constantly.
Perhaps I should say a word about the XE-1’s focus peaking here:
While I am grateful for the focusing aid, and it does indeed help me some days… it’s not as fool-proof or precise as it was made out to be to me by some. Perhaps I haven’t gotten it set up right, or am missing something but I can also say there is a HUGE difference on my XE-1 on how the focus peaking works in the viewfinder and the rear LCD. It is MUCH easier to see on the rear LCD and it feels as though it is barely working in the viewfinder. It also seems to work better with some of the other lenses I ended up using on the XE-1 later on down the road.
And for whatever reason… my copy of the Ultron doesn’t seem to play well with the focus peaking. It’s a shame… because the Ultron is the smallest , lightest and the fastest focusing lens I have and I really thought it would be my favorite lens for the Fuji… but it has turned to be a bear for me to nail focus with.
I have a few good shots from the Ultron to share, but let me say it was a LOT of work to get those few shots! My hit rate was terrible!
So, as I was struggling so much I borrowed some adapters from a friend for my M42 and Nikon lenses to see if they would work any better.
At this point I was also still struggling greatly with the Fuji files, and not really able to consistently make photos that I liked.
Part of it was me still trying to learn how the camera “read the light” and where it’s sweet spots were. And another part of it was not finding a look in post that made me happy.
I was very frustrated again and starting to doubt my decision all over again. At this point I was only shooting RAW and bumbling around in Lightroom with every shot.
I decided it was time to try the famous Fuji Jpegs that I had read so much about… so I switched the XE-1 over to Jpeg, fiddled with the settings, put my Super Takumar 50mm F/1.4 onto the Fuji and started playing again.
Well, right away I felt better about the purchase… the Takumar was sharp, as well as having a buttery smooth focus ring. Focus peaking seemed to show up a little better than with the Ultron. However… on the down side… the Takumar was much heavier, and the focusing while being more precise… was much slower and the focus ring has a much longer throw from stop to stop.
So, I had found a lens that started to work well, and I made a little progress with the Jpeg settings. However, I decided I really needed to buckle down and sort out the Jpegs before I went any further.
I spent about a week of hardcore testing with all the jpeg settings in camera. Shooting, comparing and pixel peeping to try to figure out what I liked and how they all worked for me in post.
Eventually I found a setup that allowed me a good starting point with the Jpegs that would allow me to process them in any direction I liked… for the most part.
The color was mostly there and I liked the way they converted to black and white after the fact in Lightroom.
So I started to work with just a single default Jpeg setup that allowed me a consistent baseline to try the various lenses in all sorts of lighting situations so I could learn the sensor and lenses personalities better.
This alone made such a huge difference in my Fuji learning curve… just having a stable baseline to always work off of.
These are the settings I finally settled on:
ISO Auto 200-6400 range
Astia film simulation
Highlight Tone +1
Shadow Tone +2
Obviously, settings are very personal and this may not work for anyone else, but this is where I start from with every one of my photographs now.
After I got that sorted out I went back to my lens experiments.
Next up was my Super Takumar 35mm F/2. A beautiful looking lens, that is really quite large and heavy. I really thought this lens was going to knock me out of the park. Out of all my legacy lenses this tank has highest quality FEEL to it, and a fairly stiffly dampened focus ring. I also wrongly assumed that at F/2 it would be very sharp wide open.
Well… it’s not. It’s a little soft all over and only a little sharper in the middle. I was disappointed by how much the stiff dampening slowed down my manual focusing on moving subjects and frequently missed shots.
I struggled to find a good way to use this lens and was about to give up and put it back on the shelf when one early morning I took a few flower shots to stay busy and I checked the screen and OH MY GOSH!! WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!
The out of focus rendering when wide open on this lens in AMAZING with the right background, light and distance to your background.
I know this sort of rendering isn’t for everyone… but WOW… this lens has some serious character in the right situations!
See for yourself… I can’t say much for the weight or the handling as it adds a LOT of weight and size to the little Fuji, but I pull this guy out whenever I want to take some photos where sharpness isn’t critical with some interesting bokeh in the background. I haven’t even come close to exploring this lenses potential but I am most certainly not going to be selling this one anytime soon.
Around this time I realized that I was really getting to enjoy the EVF a lot on the XE-1 when the light was nice. Lots have been written about both Fuji’s EVF’s in general and the lagging of the older models viewfinders and/or LCD screens in low light so I won’t try to quantify it for you in this review but I can say that:
a) (The older models) They leave a lot to be desired in low light.
b) They can be really great to use regardless of the shortcomings.
In nice light it’s really fun and relaxing to use. What you see is what you get. Quite a nice change of pace from the chimping we have come to assume is mandatory with our OVF’s of old.
(Like I said, all of this is old news these days and every “DSLR to mirrorless” review has already broke ground with all these points so I don’t have any shocking revelations for you!)
The camera’s ergonomics were growing on me as well. While using my legacy lenses really makes the XE-1 quite unbalanced and “nose heavy” at times, it is still pretty fun to use and hold. After spending some time with my Super Takumars, I pulled out my Nikkor 50mm F/2 AI and mounted it up.
First impressions were that it was a pretty light lens compared to the Super Takumars and it was quite enjoyable to focus with as well!
The Nikkor has a very lightly dampened focus ring and a very fast action with a pretty short throw stop to stop that makes it very quick to focus and to date is my favorite legacy lens to focus out of my small collection.
The focus peaking seemed to be a bit easier to see with this Nikkor as well, and it really makes an easy to use lens if you like this 75mm equivalent focal length.
I enjoy shooting this lens wide open or stopped down to F/2.8 from time to time as a candid portrait lens, or just a general do everything lens with a little more reach. I’m not an expert in this area but I can say it was plenty sharp wide open for me and I never found a problem with the image quality from this lens. Another keeper for me!
Next up was an old Micro Nikkor 55mm F/2.8 macro lens that I use as my primary macro lens on my Canon DSLR’s.
I am already fond of this lens from my years spent with it, so I can tell you with great confidence that it is slow focusing and precise and it gets nice and close just like you want with a good manual macro. I am not sure what else you need to know! It works, it’s cheap, and it allows the Fuji to really get in there!
If that is your thing, then it’s a great cheap way to go! (Sorry… but that’s the bottom line for me. It works well for me, but I am not a hardcore macro user… so your mileage may vary!) I would love to give you more details but that’s really all I have!
Around this time I realized that I was really feeling a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders… I could shoot in Jpeg and not worry about larger memory cards, filling up my precious hard drive space with monster RAW files, Lightroom was working faster (my CPU is getting a little long in the tooth) and I found that I was less concerned with blowing shots.
I was trying harder to get the shot exposed and composed the way I wanted it in camera, but if I couldn’t, or I was too slow, or the shot had way too much motion blur… I wasn’t nearly as upset at myself for screwing up a shot… I simply said “oh well” and moved on.
I was clearly relaxing and enjoying photography more now.
But, the flipside was that because I had a hard time confirming that I nailed focus … I ended up taking a LOT more shots to make sure that I got SOMETHING that day. (Thank goodness I was shooting Jpeg!)
I was hedging my bet… which seemed very counterproductive and a little silly to me.
So my time with the XE-1 was being spent wrestling with my desire to nail every shot, get it right… but also to not freak out if I missed something and try to relax and let it go.
It was a confusing time. But slowly I was enjoying it more and more.
I was feeling more and more comfortable with the Fuji files as well. Where they Full Frame Canon files? No. Did they have to be? No.
I haven’t sold my Canon’s yet, and I and I don’t know if I will… but not because I think that one sensor is superior to the other anymore… it’s because I realize they are merely two different ways to render a photo.
Cameras are paintbrushes. Tools. You use different paintbrushes to render a work of art in different ways. You use different tools to do different jobs.
I like the very disparate painting styles of Monet, Davinci, Robert Williams, Salvador Dali, Frank Frazzetta, H.R. Giger, Gil Elvgren, Phil Noto, Simon Bisley, and Alphonse Mucha.
I love the photos of dozens of photographers with very disparate styles like Diado Moriyama, Henri Cartier- Bresson, Joe McNally, Patrick LaRoque, Magdalena Switek, Thierry Nguyen, Gabe Mcclintock, Laurent Nivalle, and Gordon Chalmers just to name a FEW!
All the artists that I love and appreciate use different “brushes” and utilize them in very different ways.
Is one better than another? No. They are merely different… not better.
I had come to realize that I while I hadn’t nailed down the way I preferred to process the Fuji files and they seemed a little mushy to me at times, and I WAS frustrated by the details I was losing here or there compared to my full frame files… I really was becoming quite fond of the way this first generation X Trans sensor rendered photos. It was a look all by itself and I had really grown to love them.
Steve has talked before about how the second generation Fuji sensors can absolutely sing with the right light and the right settings… and he is right… but he is ALSO right that when the ISO’s climb… they can get mushy, muddy and flat looking.
I can say now that I agree with Steve and I prefer the look of the first Gen X-Trans to the high ISO rendering of the second Gen X-trans… but like I said, I had come to find a little charm in the files regardless of the flaws. I am POSITIVE that if I spent more time with a second Gen Fuji sensor I would come to love that look as well… different… not better.
So, as I worked to become more comfortable with my lenses and the new sensor, I was enjoying the learning process more all the time and leaving the DSLR at home pretty often now.
Then one day I realized what was missing from my Fuji experiment: One good do-everything, universal lens. I really wanted to leave the house with one lens that would do everything (if possible) and have a Fuji setup that worked something like the X100 was designed to be: practical and useful for almost every situation.
I was digging around the web, and hoping to find a cheap option when I checked the back room on a whim… and low and behold… I found an old Minolta XGA that I had forgotten about, with a Tou/Five Star 28mm f/2.8 macro lens attached. Hmm…. That would be about a 42mm equivalent and kind of fast at 2.8. And the close focusing ability would certainly be appreciated.
So I got myself an adapter ordered and crossed my fingers. Well, the day came… I slapped the adapter and lens on the Fuji and took it out for a spin. And it did not disappoint. I can honestly say this is the most practical and enjoyable legacy lens I have ever used. Not flashy, not fancy, not sexy, not rare, it doesn’t have tons of character… it is just really handy for all kinds of photos.
It’s a little heavy, and focuses slower than my 50mm Nikkor, but it’s not terrible. The focal length helps with moving targets, and the macro focusing ability makes it really versatile and quite fun no matter what you are doing. It even will take a decent portrait if you are careful as it doesn’t have a lot of distortion. It’s sharp, has great contrast, nice color rendering and can be purchased for very little money. Yes, it is still a little front heavy, and when it is cold the grease gets sluggish in the action and the focusing can be even more dampened.
There is lots of lens flare with no hood, and it’s not blazing fast at only f/2.8… But it is a really great daily companion for the little Fuji if you want to keep costs down and have a lot of fun like I did. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was ready to commit to using a Fuji most or perhaps even all of the time. I had come to love the Fuji first Gen X Trans sensor and the small body of the XE-1.
I had realized that I could have fun and take nice pics even with slower manual lenses. The Fuji was coming along with me everywhere, was fairly quiet, and fairly unobtrusive and I decided that if I could enjoy my time with the older lenses, then the Fuji autofocus lenses might be alright for me as well.
Three days ago I managed to scrape up enough money to buy my first AF Fuji lens, the XF27mm F/2.8 pancake lens.
Initial impressions are great and I love having such a feather light lens on the XE-1 after a lot of the heavy legacy lenses. It’s not a blazing fast autofocus camera, but I have already been working around that slower speed so it was actually quite an upgrade for me!
In conclusion, I think that if any of you readers out there would like to give Fuji a try, but don’t want to invest huge amounts of money into a system that you might not like… give the old XE-1 or X-Pro 1 a long hard look. Start with a few cheap adapters and beg, borrow or steal some old legacy lenses to try.
And please… give yourself a while to get use to the system and to learn how to work with the files… I am almost 4 months into this experiment now… and I was really struggling until about my 3rdmonth.
Have some patience and invest some time into getting the camera set up like you want and see what you can do with it.
The final word for me is this… I am absolutely certain I can nail my photos 90% of my time with my Canons. I am confident I will get my shot, I will make it work, and I will be able to process it the way I want 90% of the time.
Why? Is it the sensor? Is it the camera?
It’s neither. It’s the 12 years of practice and one million photos I took with that same system.
I’ve been using a Fuji for just a few months… come back and see me in 12 years and I am certain I will say the same thing about my Fuji’s.
If you would like to see more of my Fuji experiments you can see them on my Tumblr that I set up just to share the Fuji shots. I have been tagging all the photos with lens information for the curious!
Or you can see a larger sample of all of my photos both Canon and Fuji here on my Flickr page:
Thanks again to Steve and Brandon for giving us all such a great site to enjoy!