Summer 2016 (so far)

It’s raining right now, so what better time to write a small post about this year’s summer (so far). To be honest, this is mainly meant as a shameless way to show off some of my photos.

Grenzroute 2, near Kelmis, Belgium

We went hiking already a couple of times, mostly over well-known routes. I played it safe and brought my EOS 60D and the Canon EFs 18-200 plus polarizing filter which have never let me down. I tend to shoot less photos than I did a few years ago. Maybe this is because I have so many photos of landscapes sitting on my hard drive, or maybe it’s because I know that taking too many pictures will greatly decrease my motivation for editing them afterwards. Still, I like to think that I am still improving my skill ever so slightly each time I pick up my camera. A while back I even devised a Lightroom preset which approximates a Fuji-like color rendition for my Canon RAW files which I have been using ever since.

Wanderung Grenzroute 2
Wanderung Grenzroute 2 Wanderung Grenzroute 2

We have been living in Aachen for almost eleven years now. One the one hand this feels like an eternity, but on the other hand it’s a nice feeling to be that familiar with the surrounding country side, villages, cities, people. Only last week I discovered some cool mapping websites which will come in handy for hiking and biking around here. I’ve come to appreciate the topographical features of these maps when planning somewhat longer biking trips. It pays off to pay attention to elevation, otherwise the ride might end up shorter and more painful than anticipated.

Orsbach
Orsbach Wanderung Grenzroute 2

Orsbach, Mulleklenkes, Aachen

The Hike & Bike Map is an OpenStreetMap overlay that includes hiking and biking routes, and, more importantly, has topographical data and terrain shading. The OpenTopoMap has a different base layer, better contrast and more accurate rendering. I guess it’s up to you which of those you prefer. The map on Waymarked Trails also includes the Lonvia routes, but has a really nice popout legend where you can hover over the routes in the view and quickly see their outline. This is a cool feature since the hiking routes around here are sometimes densely packed which makes it hard to follow an individual route.

Orsbach

Fujifilm - X100, X-E1, X-T1

Early in 2015 I was ready for something new camera-wise, so I started looking at Fujifilm X-series interchangeable lens cameras. The aim was not to replace my X100 (no camera could ever do that), but merely to see whether a Fuji could potentially replace my EOS 60D for travelling and nature photography.

Rocky

Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/150sec, f/2.0, ISO 400

After a long period of research and deliberation, I started looking for used cameras and quickly found a good offer: A silver X-E1 with the great Fujifilm XF 35mm f1.4. I decided on the X-E1 because of price and some negative feedback I had read about the X-Trans II sensor in later models (X-E2, X-T1). Later in 2015, I got a Fujifilm X-T1 on loan for a few months, allowing me to directly compare the X-E1, X-T1, and X100. I don’t want to talk too much about technical differences between these systems, just the ones that I noticed and that impacted me.

X-E1: OVF, Shutter, Focus, Buttons

The first thing that immediately struck me was the size of the X-E1: No matter which lens, it would never be as compact as the X100. The X100 fits into my pocket for some of my jackets, the X-E1 almost never does.

In terms of buttons and menus, the X-E1 is a welcome evolution of the somewhat awkward UI that the X100 started out with. The X-T1 retains the same menu layout. As far as buttons and usability is concerned, Fujifilm has stayed true to its often-praised layout, with dedicated hardware buttons for important things like shutter time, aperture, and exposure compensation. No suprises here, all of these cameras handle amazing which makes you want to take them with you wherever you go. My only gripe with the X-T1 is that it does not have a threaded release button.

Centre Charlemagne, Aachen

Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/100sec, f/1.4, ISO 200

Neither the X-E1 nor the X-T1 has the same hybrid viewfinder of the X100, and for me that’s OK. While the OVF might be nice for hardcore street photographers, I’ve rarely used it on the X100, usually preferring the exposure preview of the EVF. The EVF in the X-E1 is OK, but not really any better than the X100. This is different with the X-T1: Its viewfinder will knock your pants off! It’s huge, it’s bright, it rotates the display, and it actually allows you to manual-focus stuff without guessing (also thanks to various focus-assist features). This is the way I want to be using my cameras going forward.

The shutter in the X-E1 is outright loud when compared to the silent leaf shutter of the X100. Having said that, it’s still not as loud as my DSLR. With the X-T1, you can choose between an equally-loud mechanical shutter or a completely silent electronic shutter. The electronic shutter might create some ghosting effects and other artifacts under some circumstances, but in general it works really well. For me, being able to shoot in a church with not sound at all is a great feature in itself. If you focus manually you won’t even hear the chatter of the lens.

Portrait Katrin

Both fotos: Fujifilm X-E1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4

As far as auto-focus is concerned there were no real surprises: I was shooting with the XF 35mm 1.4 most of the time, one of the slowest AF lenses from Fujifilm. Still, with the latest firmware upgrade, the X-T1 was able to drive the focus with a surprising pace. Certainly quick enough for all my needs. The X-E1 is no slouch either.

X-Trans vs. Bayer

A lot has been said about all of these cameras before, and especially with regards to very technical aspects like AF speed, resolution, sequential capture speed, battery life. For me, none of this matters that much with these kind of cameras, my EOS 60D is still able to beat the Fujfilm cameras in any of these aspects (sadly). What the Fujifilm cameras have going for them is the very natural handling and their gorgeous color rendition.

Portrait X-E1 Portraits

Left: X-T1, Right: X-E1. Both: Fujifilm XF 35 1.4

What I didn’t really realize until shooting with the X-E1 and X-T1 was that they were actually using the Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. Basically, these sensors are different because they have a different color pattern than traditional Bayer sensors, such as the one in the X100. Now, I really don’t care about the pattern of the sensor, even if it’s supposed to render colors even truer to what the human eye is able to perceive. I do care however if the sensor introduces problems that haven’t been there before.

There are a few things about the X-Trans sensors that I really dislike, and it all comes down to conscious decisions made by Fujifilm. First off, the film emulations render differently, often with more contrast and less dynamic range. The most obvious difference to the X100 is that they no longer render as “warm” as my X100 did, which has actually been observed by a number of people who traded their brand-new X100S/T back in for an old X100. But with some different settings I can still work with the JPEGs that these cameras drop.

Grenzroute 3, Aachen

Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm XF 18-55 | 1/210sec, f/5.6, ISO 400

The biggest flaw is certainly the rendering of skin tones at high ISOs by X-Trans II sensors. This is an issue that has been described in countless forums threads as “waxy” or “plastic” skin tones. Sadly, photographing people in dimly lit settings is something I do quite often. The only remedy here is to shoot RAW and develop in Lightroom, which presents the next problem: RAW support for Fujifilm X-Trans files still sucks in Lightroom. The files often come out looking like an impressionist painting (see: “watercolor effect”), especially with details like foliage. Also I didn’t want to start developing RAW with these cameras when JPEG always worked fine for me. For now I shoot RAW+JPEG and usually throw away the RAW files until the effect is really noticeable.

Maastricht, NL

Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm XF 35 1.4 | 1/30sec, f/1.4, ISO 1250

Manual lenses

The cool thing about a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is that you can get all sorts of neat manual-focus lenses from the days of full-frame SLR film photography. There are plenty of cheap adapters available. As far as the lenses go, you should do some research about good ones. These do not come dirt-cheap since everyone has realized the value of these old gems by now.

Fujifilm X-E1 with Canon nFD 50mm 1.4

Fujifilm X-E1 with Canon nFD 50mm 1.4

I got myself a Canon nFD 50mm 1.4 and a Canon nFD 24mm 2.8 from eBay. Together, these lenses cost me about €120, a lot less than any experiment with used Fujifilm lenses would have run me. To be fair, the 24mm is not a very sharp lens. It has to be stopped down before you want to use the pictures it produces. The 50mm 1.4 is a lot better: It has some issues wide open (slight CAs and general sharpness), but it produces beautiful images and still has a creamy bokeh when stopped down just slightly. While these are not the lenses I use every day, they are fun to shoot with as they force you to slow down and further complement the whole rangefinder-like hands-on experience with these cameras. When using manual focus lenses, the X-T1 is clearly superior to the X-E1 because of its huge EVF.

Canon nFD 50 1.4

Fujifilm X-T1, Canon nFD 50 1.4 | 1/40sec, f/1.4, ISO 640

Verdict

In the past few months I had some time to dwell on the differences of these cameras. I’m now sure that neither of these cameras can replace one or the other unequivocally. The X100 is unique because of its size and perfect sensor/lens combo. Furthermore, the 23mm focal length of the X100 is perfect in my opinion. It made me get a 24mm pancake lens for my EOS 60D and I was even considering the XF 23mm 1.4 for the X-E1, stupid as that may sound. The X-E1 is the compromise of an X100 with interchangeable lenses. The X-T1 is the absolutely bonkers workhorse in the line-up: fast, professional, solid. Still, it is not able to replace a rangefinder-like camera such as the X-E1 for everyone. The fact that neither camera can be recommended over the other is remarkable. With DSLRs, the “larger” models are always preferable save for price and maybe size.

Fall

Fujifilm X-E1, Canon nFD 24 2.8 | 1/140sec, f/x.x, ISO 400

For me, having three cameras (plus my DSLR) did not make it any easier to find a verdict about which of these cameras might be my main camera. When I was in doubt I just took my X100 (mainly due to size), and it never disappointed me. My advice for someone who wants to enter the Fuji X system would be this: Start out with one of the older models. They can be had for fair prices and in terms of image quality they are still on the same level (or even above) the newest models. If you like the system but need things like a quick AF, you can always keep your lenses and trade your body for a newer model.

While this review might sound slightly negative, this is just me being pedantic. All of these issues I mentioned are minor and quickly forgotten once you start using the cameras. The image quality and color reproduction are amazing, the lenses are tack-sharp and the cameras are a joy to shoot with. I’m not yet selling my EOS 60D, but I find it increasingly hard to pick it up. The EVF and the manual handling really improved my photography and frequently make the difference between mindless snapping and conscious photography.

Heidelberg - November 2015

Heidelberg, Germany

Here are some impressions from our trip to Heidelberg in November 2015. We had a weekend there, with one night which we spent at the Schlosskommers (a kind of student festivity) in the ancient Heidelberg castle overlooking the city. The day before that we spent wandering the city and its Christmas market, and hiked the mountain behind the city center. I only took my trusty X100 and, as always, it did not let me down one bit. Enjoy the photos!

Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany

For me, one of the must-sees of Heidelberg was the Studentenkarzer (Karzer meaning "prison"), where students would be locked up for various durations for all kinds of infractions. As you can imagine, this quickly developed into a rite of passage, especially among the many fraternity members who would go out and try to get arrested as creatively as possible. Their tales of how and why they were ultimately arrested adorn the walls of the prisons, along with the insignia, colors and various other drawings.

Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany

On Sunday, before leaving, we walked across the river Neckar and up the hills to the Philosophenweg. This trail snakes along the hills north of the city center and offers a few beautiful vistas, including the castle.

Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany Heidelberg, Germany

Brussels & Gent - 2015

Gent, Belgium

Living in the border region between Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium means that some of the closest cities are in fact not German. From Aachen, it’s only a 30-minute drive to Maastricht (NL) or a 45-minute drive to Liege (BE). Sadly, most people who come here to study never use the chance to explore those countries. This is especially tragic if you realize that the part of Belgium bordering Germany has a lot to offer in terms of nature. I wrote a couple of blog posts before on Belgium: Vacationing, Liege, Hiking.

Gent, Belgium

I had never been to Brussels though, which is inexcusable since it’s only a 90-minute drive from Aachen. So last year I ran out of excuses and Katrin and I drove to Brussels for an extended weekend. There we met an old friend who was in Belgium for a conference, who also wanted to see some of the country.

Brussels, BE

Brussels was very much like I imagined it would be. The huge and serious district which houses all of the EU administration and the rest of the city, which is distinctly Belgian. The only thing that really surprised me was the choice of supreme restaurants. Up until then I had never thought of Belgium as the home to a lot of high end restaurants, but our guidebook pointed out that Belgium has the largest amount of star-adorned restaurants per capita.

Brussels, BE
Brussels, BE Brussels, BE
Brussels, BE

After Brussels we got into the car for the short drive to Gent/Ghent, the second biggest city in Flanders. Up until then I had mainly seen cities in the Wallonie, the French-speaking part of Belgium. When we crossed into Flanders we could immediately make out some of the subtle differences between the two parts of the country.

Gent, Belgium

Gent itself is absolutely lovely and must-see. I’d describe it as a mixture of cities like Amsterdam, Aachen, with a unique Belgian touch. The city center is small enough to explore on foot, and it has a good supply of impressive churches and small canals. Gent is also home to a large university which adds a lot of life to the city center and the main river crossing it. Without using too many words, Gent is the most beautiful city in Belgium I have seen so far and definitely worth visiting. I am fully aware that some day I will still have to see some other places like Bruges and Antwerp to complete the picture.

Gent, Belgium
Gent, Belgium Gent, Belgium
Gent, Belgium Gent, Belgium
Gent, Belgium
Gent, Belgium
Gent, Belgium

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