Review of the Fuji X-E1 + Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 for street photography

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Motoring along nicely, MIA, June 2013

Taking pictures of people, particularly street photography, has been the mainstay of my photographic journey ever since I picked up a camera some years ago. I realized that my shooting focal length is around 50mm and almost exclusively shoot around that range these days. I have been an OM-D faithful for the past one and half years. The OM-D with the Leica Summilux G 25/1.4 (equivalent to 50mm) is a dream combination. It has given me so many good frames it puts every other camera/lens I have owned to shade.

There are a few things that make a camera/lens combination work for street photography. The most important things are:

  • Ergonomic gear – intuitive controls (hardware and software), balance of the camera/lens
  • Reasonably light weight but well built to withstand the trauma of street photography
  • EVF or OVF – this is really important as it makes midday shooting in the streets possible, and extends battery life
  • Great battery life – can never have more of this
  • Ever ready to shoot

The cameras that fit all these criteria are truly the rangefinders from Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtlander. When the light is good and high-ISO noise is not a problem, it is my Zeiss Ikon that makes me grin. I never turn it off and it is always ready to take a picture. When the sun goes down it is another story. Nothing beats digital in poor light. You can push film and overcome the speed issue. But that is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. So I keep my film for daylight and go digital past 5PM.

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The Fuji X-system came out with a cool retro style that reminded everyone of the rangefinder days. The system also makes a nice backup for the M-Mount lenses with a Fuji-made high quality adapter. The M-mount lenses become too long on my OM-D and so is not practical for street photography. The Fuji, on the other hand, makes my Biogon 35mm into a 50mm lens, which is perfect.

I am a great fan of Carl Zeiss lenses. I still use old Contax G lenses (made by Zeiss) with an adapter on the m43 system for portraits. Once you get smitten by the Zeiss color (warm and high contrast) you would never settle for anything less.

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Nine months after announcement, the Zeiss lenses for Fuji X system was finally available on the market and Popflash was one of the first retailers to stock. I like Popflash since they ship the same day and the blokes are great to interact with. I placed my order on the very first day when it was in stock and in a week (due to shipping from US to Qatar) I had it ready to go. I got the Touit 32/1.8 as the only dedicated lens to go with my Fuji X-E1 body.

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Styling and ergonomics

The first things I noticed about the lens was the styling. Zeiss is trying to reinvent lens style for the 21st century. It is like Apple’s first iPod. Some may like it and some may not. I absolutely love the new styling of the lens. Sigma moved to a new smooth style with its ART series, which has issues in manual use. The smooth body is fine for autofocus use but in manual focusing mode, the smooth focus rings are really a pain.

Zeiss has moved to a curvy body with a velvety metal finish. For the focus and aperture rings Zeiss has chosen rubber. The rings are grippy and very practical, but attract dust like a magnet. One hour in the streets and the lens already looks like a veteran that has done a few years of service – due to the amount of dust in the focus ring. The lens is very well balanced when mounted on the Fuji X-E1. Another thing that I didn’t like about the ergonomics of the lens is the placement of the ‘A’ detent that stands for automatic setting of the aperture. It occasionally moves to aperture 22 and I got a few shots that were too blurred before I noticed. Most of the times I worked between F/8 and F/2.8 and so when I feel sloppy and want to go automatic, I have to turn the ring all the way to the other end. Zeiss should have put the ‘A’ right next to F/1.8 with some increased distance and a deeper detent that would make accidental turns less frequent. The aperture ring itself turns with a nice feel that conveys quality and a feel of luxury.

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Manual Focus

Manual focus is fly-by-wire but this is the most enjoyable fly-by-wire manual focus I have ever used. The main reason is the increased spacing given by Zeiss for the critical zone of close distances when even a small change will move objects out of focus. In shorter distances you have to turn more to move focus and for longer distances you have to move less. There is really no reason to worry about manual focus in this lens. Manual focus is so much better than other fly-by-wire lenses I have used. It is not a full-manual Zeiss or a Leica, but it is close.

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Color

Fans of Zeiss colors have no worries. This is a true Zeiss lens in color and rendition. The signature warm colors and the high contrast is evident in every image.

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Stray cat, shot at F/1.8

Sharpness

For street photography sharpness is not a critical factor. It doesn’t mean sharpness is not required, just that the operating zone in good light is F/8 to F/4 and almost every lens available today (except for some poor kit lenses) is sharp. Another factor to consider is edge-to-edge sharpness is also a pure technical requirement for lens analysis, not for photographic aesthetics. This is because 99% of the times the object in focus will be somewhere around the center and the edges are always out of focus. Unless you focus on a wall, evaluating edge sharpness is difficult. Having said that, the sharpness of the lens is stellar.

The sharpness of the lens for street photography is also undone by the absence of image stabilization (both in-camera as well as in in-lens). I really wish Fuji brings some in-body image stabilization in future. Fuji bodies are used more and more as a backup for M-mount lenses and image stabilization will be a critical factor.

Another important factor is the amount of sharpness you have to apply in processing. I use LR4 and now LR5 to process all my images, and Fuji files need more sharpening than every other camera I have used. It is critical for one to master sharpening techniques to make the Fuji RAW files work.

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Contrast

The contrast produced by the lens is signature Zeiss – high contrast without losing details in the shadow. I find the same signature in the Contax G glass as well as the M-Mount Zeiss lenses. It is also helped tremendously by the X-Trans sensor of the Fuji.

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The Zeiss Tout 32/1.8 is a little noisier than other newer lenses. The noise and the rattling is comparable to the outstanding Panasonic 20/1.7.

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Focusing in low light is a little tricky. You have to get the subject in the middle of the frame, focus, and the reframe to get the shot. In street photography it is really not practical to fiddle with the focus points. I missed a few shots initially and then I started relying only on focusing at the center of the frame. Now it is not an issue.

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Fuji and Zeiss is a great combination to get fantastic colors from your pictures. The above shot was during the evening in the middle of the summer in Doha when day temperatures are 45C and evening temperatures are still in the high 30s.

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Conclusion

The Fuji X-E1 + Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 combination is a little difficult to adapt initially. Out of the box it is not as easy as the Olympus OM-D + Leica Summilux G 25/1.4. But once you get adapted to the Fuji, the output never ceases to amaze. The colors produced by the combination is stellar and the images have more depth to them. Finally that is what counts. There are a few cons but lots of positives. The deficiencies are quirks that can be overcome easily in practice, but the positives are something that cannot be matched easily by other systems.

My wish to Fuji:

  1. Make the camera faster
  2. Make the lowest possible shutter speed to be set in the menus (this is a common complaint from everyone)
  3. Add in-body image stabilization in future (for this reason the OMD beats every other camera for night shooting)
  4. Make the battery last long

Wish to Zeiss:

  1. Move the ‘A’ on aperture ring to the other side
  2. Make the detent between ‘A’ and other settings deeper and harder
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