Last month, I posted my initial impressions of working with the Fuji X-T1. Since then, the internet continues to be flooded with a wave of hype on this little camera. More and more photographers are either switching to a mirrorless camera or foregoing a traditional DSLR and beginning their careers with the Fuji or Olympus mirrorless cameras. If you’re among those wondering if you should jump into the fray, here’s more of my experience with the X-T1.
Right off the bat, let me say that I love this little camera. I love its small size and quiet shutter. There’s something so satisfying about shooting with it that’s probably more emotional than logical. This is the first camera that I truly take everywhere and look forward to shooting on a daily basis. Yes, my Sony NEX camera was smaller and lighter, but it was missing that special something that makes a professional photographer lust after his gear. Whatever that magic pixie dust may be, the Fuji X-T1 has it.
The X-T1 though is a little bit like that crazy girlfriend who constantly makes life difficult – but you just can’t get enough of her. Along with beautiful image files, this camera comes with the most difficult, steepest learning curve of any camera I’ve ever worked with. Over my career, I’ve owned the Nikon FM, N80 and f4 film cameras, the early Nikon digitals D100 and D70, Fuji S2, the Canon 20D, 1D MII, 5D and 5D MII, the Nikon D3s and D800E, the Sony NEX 6 and 7, the Hasselblad H1 with digital back and, for those moments when I’m feeling particularly creative, a Horseman 4×5. All of those cameras were a summer picnic compared to the X-T1.
Sure, you’re thinking that with it’s retro styling and simple dials, it should be easy to use. Ha! Not so. The X-T1 is a tricky little devil with its own, non-DSLR, way of doing things. Don’t get me wrong, shooting with the X-T1 is easy enough; mastering it is another thing altogether
All I Wanted is BBF and Fuji Wouldn’t Give It To Me
My biggest complaint is that there is no system wide setting for Back Button Focus (BBF) as there is with virtually every other professional and prosumer camera on the market. The X-T1 is without questions being marketed to pros so there’s no reason that this should be missing.
Now, before someone corrects me, there are a couple of versions of BBF on the X-T1. First, when the camera is in manual mode, BBF may be enabled through a menu setting. The problem with this is that focus area box is set to its largest setting. This is so that you may set up the viewfinder to show both a full version of the scene and a magnified crop equal to the sensor area to determine if the subject is in focus. While this is indeed a helpful feature, the downside is that the large AF area unfortunately confuses the AF sensor and often times the camera gets confused and focuses behind the subject.
Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about. I used manual focus with BBF and the focus area set to the woman on the right. We’re talking dead-on, with the subject right in the middle of the AF box. The camera instead decided to focus on the people behind her. (By the way, the lower the light, the more likely the focus is to be off.)
Indeed, today as I photographed a very simple and traditional family photo (after a nice Easter lunch with a friend’s family), I used BBF with the camera in manual mode to focus on the middle person’s face. The X-T1 completely blew the focus. Fortunately, I’m familiar enough with the camera at this point that I checked and caught the error before committing to the shot. Instead of relying on the AF, I manually focused.
To be clear, this is a complete fail. No DSLR that I’ve ever shot with would blow the focus on a shot like this (unless it’s malfunctioning by back focusing). The problem could be solved if the focus area could be adjusted to a smaller size (so it knew to select the face, not the mountain in the background) – which is possible in both AF-S and AF-C modes. Likewise, if BBF was able to be activated in either AF mode, the problem would be solved.
Other BBF Options
Before I go on, I suspect a few smarty-pants will point out that BBF is an option in both AF modes. Yes, that’s true and there are two options here – neither of which proves an optimal solution. One method is to hold the back button down continuously while shooting. When the AF-L button is depressed, focused is locked. In practice though, it’s more of an issue to keep one’s thumb down instead of just hitting it once (or repeatedly as I often do) when shooting. Often, when using it in this way, I find my thumb strayed thus allowing focus to be released.
There’s also an option via a menu setting to set the back button to lock focus with a single hit. The catch is that the user must also hit the back button to unlock the focus. Sounds easy enough but in practice it’s a mess. Despite the green dot that shows up when focused is locked, it’s easy to forget whether the AF is locked or not once you get into shooting and working with a subject. I lasted about 30 minutes in this mode before I determined that there was no way in hell that this would work for any sort of critical moment.
Having said all that, a simple firmware update could fix this issue. Here’s hoping Fuji is listening.
My other issue with the AF is when the camera is in Continuous Focus mode. Unlike my Nikons (or Canons before), when the X-T1 is in AF-C mode, it’s constantly hunting for focus. It never locks on. Supposedly this is helpful for when the subject is moving. The unfortunate consequence of this is that when you decide to take the photo, the camera doesn’t immediately release the shutter. Instead, because the camera never settles on focus before the shutter release is depressed, it has to find focus and then it shoots. So there’s always a bit of a lag – which for a moving target can be just long enough to miss the shot.
I reported earlier that the low light AF astounded me. It still does – sometimes. The X-T1 can focus in some pretty amazingly dark situations. But it doesn’t always. Best to double check focus whenever possible. In putting the camera to the test at the opening of a dark restaurant bar, I was able to get most of my shots – but it took some work. My hit rate was way above that of the 5D Mark II so this isn’t a criticism so much as it is an acknowledgement of the camera’s limitations.
My other gripes have to do with the layout of the buttons. Trying to find the focus magnifier button to check focus is next to impossible. Same with finding the buttons to move the focus point. Not only are they tough to find, too small and hard to depress, it requires two taps of the appropriate button to adjust focus. Where I can quickly move the focus point around using my DSLR’s, the Fuji’s setup is just tedious enough that I rarely use it when I’m trying to photograph any sort of dynamic situation (such as people doing pretty much anything). Even though the Sony NEX wasn’t great in this department, it’s head and shoulders above the Fuji.
There’s other issues too that annoy me and take some getting used to. For example, formatting a card takes wading through several menus. Also, scrolling from one image to another during playback can’t be done when an image has been magnified. Or you don’t know what ISO or shutter speed the camera has selected in Auto mode until you depress the shutter half way. Irritating.
The 8 frames per second of the Continuous High mode are great, but because of the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), you lose sight of the subject when the shot is being taken and then it takes a slight delay for it to reappear. This makes tracking a subject challenging at times. Despite the hype, I would not use this camera for any sort of tight-in, rapidly moving subjects where the outcome really mattered.
Beware the In-Camera Plastic Surgeon
One more thing: unless you want your subjects to look like they’ve had plastic surgery to their faces, turn the noise reduction down to minus two when shooting in low light. Not an issue if you’re shooting raw, but for jpegs, the effect when shooting at 6400 is gawd awful. Even at minus two, the effect is still there – just not as bad.
Here’s a cropped sample of the jpeg image with in-camera noise reduction and a sample of the raw without. In addition to the skin being smoothed out, notice how the detail in the hair and eyes disappears. (If you click on the image, you’ll get to see a larger version.)
The Good Stuff!
Enough with the complaints. Let’s talk about the good stuff. The main reason I bought this camera is because of the sharpness of the Fuji glass. This camera delivers!
Here’s a crop of an unsharpened RAW photo from the D800E with a 28mm lens at f5.6 that’s been reduced to 16 megapixels (the same size as the Fuji):
Here’s a straight out of the camera jpeg from the X-T1 with the 18mm lens (28mm equivalent) at f5.6. Because it’s a jpeg, there’s some sharpening and a contrast bump that’s done in camera. Regardless, no excuses need to be made for this file.
The way the lenses hold focus and then give way to out of focus in the background is simply beautiful. This image below was shot with the 35mm at f1.4. And oh yeah, the lenses are plenty sharp wide open.
Then there’s the files. Fuji color is famous, but there’s more to them than that. Here’s a file that’s a good stop-and-a-half over-exposed. If I’d shot this with my medium format digital back, the highlights would be blown and the transition would look like hell. Even though it’s overexposed, Fuji still holds the transitions to highlight pretty well.
The beauty of the Fuji files is their flexibility. In dropping the above raw file into Lightroom, all of the data in the above image is easily recovered. No highlights are lost. Even the sky retains its density. Back when digital was in its infancy, photographers would complain about how digital images couldn’t hold highlights compared to film. Digital has come a long way in the past ten years, but the Fuji just set the bar out of reach.
Overall, I just love the detail, color and dynamic range of the files. In the mage below, the countertop to the right should be completely blown out. Meanwhile, notice how all the detail in the foreground woman’s hair is retained.
The day was overcast which usually means that the sky should blow out. To compensate, I generally underexpose by a stop or more to retain the sky. No need to with the Fuji. This camera captures it all.
The reason why I love the X-T1 boils down to the fact that it’s small enough to be mostly inconspicuous, I can carry an extra lens in my back pocket – no camera bag required – and the images just rock.
This one I shot from ground level. With the pop out LCD, I could easily compose my shot as the camera hovers just above the sand. No can do with my DSLR’s.
With their new 5.4 update to Lightroom, Adobe now supports X-T1 files. Not only that but Lightroom comes with the same film simulation profiles that one may select in camera for the jpeg files. Available are Velvia for extra punch, Astia for faces and Provia as a nice in between. They’re a definite improvement over the stock Adobe profile.
To finish off this post, let me say that this camera is certainly more than capable of professional work. However, to capture consistent results in varying conditions, it’s important to understand the limitations and abilities of this camera. For better or worse, it’s not a DSLR. Sure, if you’re just out shooting for the fun of it, this camera will probably work fine out of the box. But if you’re on the hook for documenting important moments in a dynamic situation such as a wedding, prepare yourself with plenty of practice.
If I absolutely, positively had to get the shot, I have to say that I’d stick with my Nikons. While the Fuji offers benefits and emotional pull that I can’t deny, sometimes there’s no substitute for the big boys. For everything else though, my X-T1 is there.