New Seeing-how I (finally) learned to love the Fujifilm X-T2
Fujifilm X-T2, XF 55-200 LM R OIS
ISO 200, 20s @f5
I don’t do tech posts much anymore, however this time I want to make an exception, because there are things I want to share, not so much why Fujifilm gear is better than any other manufacturer’s equipment, but for the new way of working it has given me.
It has taken a while, but I have finally found myself enjoying the Fujifilm X-T2. In fact it has become my go-to camera (admission through clenched teeth). There are reasons.
About 6 months ago, I bought a Fujifilm X-T2. I bought it for a commission which required the ability to deliver top-quality files in low light. I couldn’t use any form of artificial light, for artistic and cultural reasons. I considered using my Nikon D810 kit, which has been my go-to kit for professional and artistic work for the last three years. I did have an X-T1 until about 18 months ago, when it was stolen from my flat. However the files from it could never match the Nikon for subtle tonality, dynamic range and mid-tone transitions. After all, while the images from the 16MP APS-C might be sharp enough, they could never match the tonal rendition of a 36MP full-frame sensor. Furthermore, in low-light, the D810 isn’t a riveting performer. I rarely use it above 400 ISO, because the files become too noisy and beyond the ability of noise-reduction software to correct. The X-series cameras, however, are stellar up to 6400 ISO, and have been ever since the X-Pro 1, a result of the X-Trans sensor’s unique design, with its extra green pixels. Since noise builds first in the green channel, the extra green pixels hold it out for longer, and so it proved with the commission. The camera performed perfectly for the commission, delivering everything required of it.
About 18 months ago, I had a test-drive of the Pro-2. I was particularly interested in the results from the new sensor, up-pixeled from 16 to 24MP. Would this be a big shift in quality? Would it be enough of a shift in quality? Would the files be able to be printed as fine art A1 prints, my preferred size? Would the tonalities be as good/close to those from the Nikon? Some initial experiments convinced me they could, without resorting to my toolbox of post-production trickery to make them look as they should. In fact, they were so close that I began to wonder if the Nikon was necessary at all.
However, I still didn’t really like the camera, and avoided it for my personal work. Sure, it delivered amazingly-accurate skin tones, but since I don’t shoot portraiture often, that isn’t important for me. Sure, it has more bells and whistles than I have seen on any camera, including my Nikon, with its 500-page instruction manual, but I prefer to shoot simply and concentrate on making pictures, so that was of no real value to me either. I found the ergonomics…difficult…for my large hands. Somehow it still felt prosumer, with lots of fiddly knobs, and buttons too small to really find when shooting under pressure. Even with the battery grip, it didn’t feel serious. Not like the Nikon.
Which I didn’t like much either. The size was right, and the Nikon’s weight and heft were great, although not as intuitive as a Canon. However, I found focusing it frustrating. The D810 has its focus points clustered in the middle of the viewfinder. I have given up counting the number of times I wanted to focus on something near the bottom of the frame but couldn’t get a point onto it without recomposing, focusing and recomposing again. The Fuji has most of its screen covered in focus points, so it was a simple matter to move the focus point(s)to cover a specific part of the screen.
In low light, even with a fast (f2.8) lens, focusing on the Nikon could be a fraught business. Time and again I would switch to Live View or manual focus, simply because it couldn’t achieve lock-on in low light, especially in the time between day and night where I love to work.
And then there was exposure. Being an optical viewfinder, there in no in-viewfinder live view. This means guesstimating the correct amount of exposure, making an exposure then chimping the histogram, making any adjustment if necessary, then shooting again. Being a faithful servant of ETTR (Expose to The Right), I would adjust so the histogram fell just short of the right-hand side, and then make the capture. I was paranoid about noise in the shadows. This method was very time-consuming and counter-intuitive. And old school.
It was then I realised that The D810, for all its amazing sophistication was a throw-back, a film camera with a sensor in it. Using it wasn’t that different to the method I used with my Nikon F5, or my Canon 1V-HS. Its genes went all the way back to the original F1. While this wasn’t a bad thing, and comfortable for a photographer who came from a film background, it was still old thinking. Was there another way?
Then the epiphany came, in the form of a phone call from my friend David, who has taken the title of techno-nerd to a new order of magnitude. He dumped his Canon 5D kit a couple of years ago in favour of the X-series.
“I am doing it differently now,” he said.
Really. Do tell. Meh.
“You have to trust the EVF. I set aperture and shutter speed, and then leave the ISO on Auto. Then I use the exposure compensation dial to move the compensation dial until the picture looks right.”
LOOKS RIGHT?????? YOU TRUST THE EVF??????
“Yes. I watch the Live histogram until the highlights look right, and then I push the button.”
AND THE SHADOWS?????? (Voice rising incredulously)
“Oh, I don’t worry about those. You can recover those easily in post. And anyway, they are noise-free.”
“True. Just try it.”
Anyway, (still clinging to old-school), I find it awkward using the exposure compensation dial (haters gotta hate).
“Oh, that is easy too. Just put it on the front wheel in the custom button function. Set the compensation dial to ‘C’ and spin the wheel. You’ll see the EVF darken or lighten as you adjust. Just watch the highlights until they have texture in them. Don’t worry about the shadows. And with it set on ‘C’, you get ± 5 stops.”
IT CAN’T BE THAT EASY.
“O, and have you downloaded the latest firmware update? Now you can truly have LRGB histograms (Luminance-Red-Green-Blue).”
Fujifilm firmware updates keep rolling out so fast it is hard to keep up. A new camera every few months. Nikon updates are rarer than dragon droppings. I think there have been two in the entire time I have had the D810.
And, because David is the ultimate geek, and extracts things from files I never thought possible, because he can talk D-Log curves, I listened.
But tried not to.
Then, early one morning I walked out my gallery door while it was still dark. Fog was starting to wander down the harbour and ooze out like ethereal toothpaste from the Narrows. It was still dark, but the light from the lone sodium-vapour light at the boat ramp on the other side was pointing a bony orange finger directly at me. A voice whispered in my head. I reached for the tripod and the Nikon. The batteries were flat. My bad.
I then tried for the Fuji. (Mostly) full batteries. Fortunately, I had made all the custom adjustments he suggested.
I wandered across the road and found a spot where the framing worked. Half-dark, but the autofocus found something to grip onto. Impressive. I knew the Nikon would have struggled.
The EVF made composition easy. Live view in the viewfinder.
Then a simple twirl of the front dial until it looked right.
Then The Ghost of Photography Past whispered in my ear.
“Think like you are shooting slide film, Tony. Expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows.”
I dialled the exposure back using exposure compensation until the light fell within the histogram and made exposures. 20s@ f5, with compensation of -4.87EV.
“Forget the shadows. You can get them back in post.”
Still ever the Doubting Thomas, I consoled myself with the fact that if it wasn’t successful, there would be another opportunity on another morning.
However, David and the Ghost were right. It worked.
It just worked.
This is what I have learned.
- The X-T2 is not another DSLR in the tradition-laden way of the D810 or 5D, which are essentially film SLRs with a D on the front. That is, you still work in the traditional way necessitated by an OVF (optical viewfinder). You make a test exposure, analyse the histogram and make any exposure adjustments necessary, or use Live View.
- With the new methodology, you essentially work in a more intuitive way. You activate live histogram in the viewfinder, then dial in compensation until the picture looks correct but, more importantly, the highlights have textural detail. The live histogram will help supply a final check on exposure. Then all that remains is to press the button. Job done.
- Occasionally the dynamic range in the scene will mean using an HDR bracket. I shot the header image both ways, doing a 5-stop bracket, but once converted in LR’s Photo Merge HDR, I found there had been no real need anyway. There was little difference between the HDR file and a ‘pushed’ straight file.
- The XT-2 is fussy about accurate exposure of highlights, since there is very little headroom for post-processing. However, the same cannot be said for shadows, which have, as far as I can tell, perhaps 4 stops of detail able to be extracted in post. And it is noise-free.
- More importantly, the EVF is trustworthy. What you see is what you will get, if not more. This opens all sorts of possibilities for imaging images, and better reflecting what we actually see, without having to add in the layer of decision-making necessary with a DSLR.
- The focusing is phenomenal, with the camera able to lock on in light much lower light than my D810. And there are focus points all over the screen.
More importantly, I have a found a new way of seeing.
When the student is ready, the right tool will appear.