I’ve been a Nikon guy since carrying an FE-2 and a bunch of manual focus lenses up to the Mount Everest base camp twenty-five years ago. There have been many Nikons between it and my present D800 that’s part of a package of over twenty lenses and accessories. I like the durability, ergonomics, and image quality of Nikons, even the way they feel in my hand versus other brands. But then I had a family.
Lugging around the D800 and lenses on a family vacation where shooting is priority zero became a drag. A not-great back doesn’t help. While I like the noise performance and shallow depth-of-field of full frame, and love optical viewfinders, I wanted to cut size and weight, but as much as possible, retain a similar capability to my Nikon package. As a film director/DP by trade who spends a lot of time with a camera in hand, I was also looking for a camera to ‘bond’ with. The intangibles; the intersection of ergonomics and feel are very important to me.
Four summers ago, with a family trip ahead of us to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, I began my hunt for a mirrorless system. Going the Nikon DX (APS-C) route didn’t look to be a significant size/weight savings. Choosing a D7xxx or D3/500 would be at least 50% more weight than going mirrorless. Nikon mirrorless? Not sure what they’re waiting for on that (The 1” sensor CX series was not a consideration). Further is that the Nikon DX lens line had some holes for me — it looks more focused on consumer zooms than enthusiast/pro pieces, thus forcing me to go with larger/heavier FX glass in some focal ranges.
Though there were some holes too in the lens lineup, I rented a Sony NEX-7 to test. It was well-built with a compact form. In the field, however, I was immediately maddened by the side-by-side control dials. The aperture on a camera is in front of the shutter — the front/back control dial scheme of my Nikons always made sense in this regard. I found it work to remember which dial I set for what (left is aperture, right is shutter speed?) and simply slow to have to jog my thumb from dial to dial rather than use two fingers simultaneously as you do in a front/back setup. Further, the menu system was, to my mind, nonsensical from a photographer’s point of view. Could I get used to these things? Sure. Would I ever enjoy shooting with the NEX-7? It was not the camera for me.
Before my FE-2, I owned an Olympus OM-1. Awesome, distinctive camera and I’ve had a soft spot for Olympus since. After some brief testing, I brought the Olympus EM-1 and some zooms with me on the trip. This was a FAR lighter and smaller package than going with my Nikon, and some of the lenses were excellent, such as the Zuiko 50-140mm zoom and the Panasonic 35-100mm.
I read the manual and practiced with the EM-1 before the trip, did battle with the, let’s say, obtuse menu system and wrangled it into workable shape — but while I got some good images (and of course some pedestrian ones, having nothing to do with the camera), I never fell in love. Although the Olympus was well-built and configurable in a hundred different ways and had a comprehensive, lightweight lens selection, I struggled with engagement. I was interfacing with the EM-1 more than partnering with it. Further, a sense of dread arose when having to dig through those menus. I was also increasingly aware of the expanded depth-of-field, low light performance and other limitations of the relatively small 16mp m4/3 sensor. While not for me, there is no system I know of, however, that lets you travel lighter, with more capability than the Olympus. The EM-1II may well address some of my issues.
From the EM-1 I understood I wanted APS-C. Going back to B&H Photo sometime after that trip, I played with a well-reviewed Sony mirrorless. Ok viewfinder, menu system reminiscent of my RX100, which is to say counterintuitive at best. I put a Fuji XT-1 to my eye — the big viewfinder had me at hello. I could engage with the image. And the ergonomics were mostly obvious from the start. Having grown up on the FE-2 and an Aaron LTR 54 motion picture camera — I quickly got (and liked ) that the Fuji was coming from a film camera/external control perspective on the interface. Particularly with the supplemental grip, the XT-1 felt good in my hand and button placement felt natural. I could keep my eye to the EVF and make ninety percent of the adjustments I might want to make without digging through menus. There was an extremely short learning curve to understand a great majority of its functionality. The XT-1 and I ‘connected’, it all made sense. A trip the following summer to Glacier and Yoho National Parks sealed the deal: I had the smaller, lighter package I wanted without much sacrifice. To compare, my present Fuji ‘traveling’ package including four zooms is smaller and weighs roughly a third less than a comparable Nikon package (3942g vs. 5230g). That difference is obvious on my back. Most important though, I really enjoyed shooting with the XT-1.
Yeah, yeah on the ergonomics, but what about image quality you might ask. In my job I shoot with RED cameras, the Alexa, some Sony and Panasonic cameras, and so on — while you have to learn the imaging strengths and weaknesses of each and choose the appropriate tool, the fact is that for 95% of the shooting I do, cine or still, the camera is not the limitation. Further, post-production grading tools are advanced to the point it can be impossible to tell which of a competing class of cameras was used. All the still cameras I looked at were plenty capable, the limitation in most situations would be my craft and imagination. Understanding that, I was and am more focused on the shooting experience of the camera and the system it’s a part of.
Much as I liked the XT-1 though I had few gripes with it; many were addressed by the XPro-2. Among them, the bump to 24mp and the focus joystick. There were some shooting situations and larger prints where the XT-1’s 16mp were a limitation. And I never liked the multi-way controller on the XT-1 for moving the focus point (or much else); it was an oft-used and annoying downgrade from the D800 ergonomically. Further, motion tracking of focus was unimpressive.
And then there was the holy grail: the XPro-2 had an optical viewfinder¡ The camera seemed perfect — but I didn’t much like it. I shoot with a lot of zooms, and I’ll guess that my ‘average focal length per shot’ is longer than most out there. My inclination is to step back and go longer in many situations. I tend to see and want images with more compression than most still shooters — my loose theory is that cine is more of a telephoto medium and still more toward wide angle. So yeah, the optical viewfinder became a tiny rectangle for me in many situations and not the engaging tool I had hoped. My inexperience with rangefinder cameras showed there, and with regard to form factor: I was used to the feel of the XT-1 (and DSLRs generally) in hand; the perceived blockiness of the body and side-placed hybrid EVF felt foreign. When I knew the XT-2 was on the horizon, I sold the XPro-2 and waited.
And waited, but now that I’ve used it extensively, I can say I love the XT-2. My nits largely addressed, I expect to have it for a long time. The joystick makes selective focus quick and direct, and it’s a feature used for virtually every shot. That’s meaningful improvement. A click to auto-center the focus spot is a Fuji-typical useful touch. The viewfinder is even better than that of the XT-1 — class leading of those I’ve seen, approaching the direct connection to the image I feel through an optical finder. The tracking autofocus is now legit and the lens system is mostly complete; my favorites being the 56mm prime (beautiful rendering of color/contrast/hot highlights and nice bokeh) and the 50-140mm zoom (extremely resolving), but I like and own several other Fujinons as well. The main hole for me in the lineup for me is a relatively compact and light prime zoom, somewhere in the 200mm range. I did pick up the 100-400mm (very good image quality and some nice ergonomic touches) for a trip to the Galapagos Islands last month; below are some results using that lens and the 50-140mm.
We’re back to film in a way in terms of choosing the right camera within a given class. In my FE-2 days, choice of film stock was the major determinant of look; camera choice was more about the feel and supporting system around the camera. Today’s sensors will get better, but limitations are few and waning for most photography. For me, this puts primary emphasis on the things I deal with every shot: feel in hand, quality of viewfinder, responsiveness, ease of adjustment on a moment-to-moment basis. For me, at this moment, the XT-2 is the ideal tool. Rock on Fuji!
As you all know, the XT-2 has been covered extensively all over the net. I’ll just give a few brief impressions using it in the Galapagos:
– As promised by Fuji and reported many other places, the autofocus is hands-down better than the XT-1. It’s a bit of apples to oranges comparison, I only shot some sports with the XT-1 and birds (so far) with the XT-2, but I encountered little focus-hunting with the XT-2. Inconsistent tracking focus was the norm with the XT-1. I did not formally test this but anecdotally found the zone focus mode to be more accurate than wide/tracking.
– Video has been vastly improved over the XT-1, though tracking focus here could use improvement. Image quality is good enough that I could use it as a B or C camera on some shoots.
– The camera is quicker in all functions than the XT-1. This increased responsiveness lends the feeling of it being a more direct, almost mechanical tool; an immediate extension of my hands and thoughts. I find even short lag times create distracting tension while working an image.
– Dynamic range on the raw files is impressive. From black lava landscapes to hot equatorial skies, the Galapagos presents very high contrast situations. My exposure method was generally to take a spot reading from something at or close to middle gray in the frame, then recompose and shoot. I was frankly surprised at how much sky held detail in many shots.
– Unsurprisingly, I’ve found the 50% megapixel jump useful for larger prints and some of the cropping I had to do for faraway wildlife. I don’t feel a huge need for another MP jump going to the next generation.
– The ISO and shutter speed locks are great; I’d love to see one on the exposure compensation dial was well. Though it has more tension than the other dials, it’s still prone to unwanted/unexpected movement. Having to check it regularly is a distraction.