Finding Goldilocks-The Fujifilm X-H1
Te Wairua O Hokianga
Fujifilm X-H1, XF16-55/2.8
ISO 200, 1/1700s @f8
“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials Trilogy
Leaving the Past
In an earlier post, I wrote how I finally learned to come to terms with the Fujifilm X-T2, because of a few significant features which began to change how I saw, and how I reacted to what was in front of me. That led me to re-evaluate my entire picture-making process, and the way in which I worked. It also led me to question the reason for using a DSLR at all, in an era when mirrorless, EVF-equipped cameras have finally begun to mature, and, therefore offer us new ways to interact with our subject and equipment. As I posted, to my mind, the DSLR is, in its own way a dinosaur, a relic of the film era, or put another way, a film SLR with a sensor in it. Its form factor evokes the SLR, and its way of operation is really an evolution of that way of working. You have a guess at exposure, chimp the histogram, make exposure adjustments and then reshoot. There is a delay in process between previsualisation and capture. Modern mirrorless cameras, with their in-viewfinder histograms, remove the need to take the camera away from the eye and re-evaluate exposure. Furthermore, it can mean (merely) adjusting exposure until the image looks ‘right’ and the highlights are not blocked, then making the capture. More intuitive, more immediate.
For the last three years I have run a Nikon D810 system alongside my Fujifilm equipment. As an X-photographer, I am permitted to run parallel systems, unlike Canikon brand ambassadors, who must swear fealty to the One True Faith. Fujifilm recognise that there are no Swiss army knife cameras, and that sometimes a different kit is needed for a specific job. X-photographers are working professionals, and all professionals know that a specific commission sometimes requires a specific toolkit. I originally purchased the 36MP full-frame Nikon because of a commission which required BIG files, and a level of quality the X-T1 I was using at the time could not deliver, with its smaller 16MP APS-C sensor.
However, the X-T2, with its 24MP sensor, closed the gap for me. When I saw the files enlarged to A1, the size I offer for sale in my gallery, I realised that there was little if any thing between them in terms of image quality. The kicker, for me, is not sharpness or resolution but the ability to make fine tonal differentiations, something the D810 does incredibly well. I realised the T2 came so close that there was little if anything to get concerned about.
So, I sat there, looking at the images on my gallery wall for several weeks. Then it occurred to me that the Nikon had sat in its roller for some months without being used. When I asked myself why not, I realised that I was falling out of love with it. The D810 is a fine camera, one of the best DSLR’s out there. The image quality is stunning. The camera is built to take a direct hit from a nuclear weapon, indomitable and bulletproof. The shutter let-off is almost instantaneous. The viewfinder is magnificent, and the battery life extraordinary.
But there were things I didn’t like.
All the focus points are clustered in the middle of the viewfinder, so if you want to focus on a lower third or quarter, you must adjust composition until you achieve a lock, then recompose to take the picture. Or use manual focus. I thought the D850 might remedy this. It hasn’t.
The thing weighs a ton. Shooting a wedding with a kit this heavy is a job for the young, fit and strong. Not a middle-aged guy like me.
Low-light focus is abysmal. The low-contrast scenes I tend to shoot have continually defeated the D810. Again, it is back to recompose-recompose. Or use manual focus.
Live View is budget at best. In soft pre-dawn light, it is often a best-guess to achieve critical focus. And the resolution of the LCD leaves a lot to be desired.
ISO-less photography simply isn’t possible with the D810. To make the most of its extraordinary sensor, I find I need to stay below ISO400. So forget that for an idea.
I was reminded of the story of the Three Bears. The D810 is Papa Bear. The bed was too hard and the seat too high. Goldilocks moved on.
The X-T2, however, has none of those issues, except for three (and these are personal prejudices): the build-quality is, to my mind, on the light side for heavy commercial photography, where there is no time to be kind to my equipment. Shooting from a helicopter at $1500/hr with the door off needs bulletproof equipment which ‘just works’. I shudder at the thought of dropping or bumping it. To my mind this is a camera at the upper end of the prosumer category.
Meet Mama Bear.
The other issue is the responsiveness of the shutter and speed of focus, which, while very good, just isn’t…quite quick enough. I have an X-E2, which I love-except for the sluggishness of its shutter button. Press the button, then have a cup of coffee and a muffin while it gets around to doing something. In that respect, the 5D and D810 leave it in the dust.
I have a commission coming up which involves a lot of helicopter work. I was intending to take the Nikon.
Until I met the fujifilm x-h1.
Recently, as part of the launch of the H1, all of New Zealand’s X-photographers were summoned to a -pre-launch preview of the H1. We were introduced to the camera. We had a little time to hear about its new features and have a play with it. That night I began the process of trading in all my Nikon kit.
The time had come to go Full Fuji.
Here is why.
Much has been made of the fact that it is a video camera with stills capability on the side.
Not true. I am a stills photographer. I haven’t yet embraced the world of F-Log and codecs. Soon. Perhaps.
The build quality is massive. Fujifilm claim that there is 25% more strength in the body, with weather-sealed everything. It certainly feels like it. It is distinctly masonry out-house in its construction. While it may be only a little larger in size than the X-T2, it is substantially heavier when paired with the 16-55/2.8 which is my go-to lens. It is still a lot lighter than a D810, but noticeably more than an X-T2. It exudes strength and robustness. There is a reason. The H1 is (in their words) the first camera in Fujifilm’s professional line. Even the shoulder strap and attachment lugs are sturdier. Pair this with the new VPB-XH1 Battery grip and you have a camera which is somewhere between a gripped X-T2 and a gripped Canon 6D in weight. Some of you will find the H1 on the large side. Others of you will find it just right.
The shutter is hair-trigger. VERY hair-trigger. VERY VERY hair-trigger. Expect to shoot a lot of shots of your feet, camera bag and passing power poles before you get the hang of it. I love it. Apparently shutter life is >250 000 cycles. The shutter sound is astonishingly quiet, in the same league as an M-Leica. If not quieter. Strangely this is only in landscape mode. When you rotate the camera to portrait mode, the sound increases. Go figure…
The camera has IBIS (in-body Image stabilisation). This means that all lenses now have up to 5.5 stops of stabilisation, which means that two of my favourite lenses, the XF 16-55/2.8 and the XF 56APD are now able to be used hand-held. At the pre-launch I made a riveting and glitteringly-sharp composition of my feet under the desk at 1/2sec! The 5-way sensor recalculates 10 000 times/sec!
It has a touch screen LCD, when working on a tripod or reviewing. You can now pinch to review or focus. At Last. It has Bluetooth to sync to your mobile device, along with transferring GPS data from your phone or tablet. For the moment Android devices seem to pair more effectively than iOS. However, that is soon expected to change.
Focus is even quicker than the X-T2. Lock-on is almost instant, and it seems to work better in low-contrast situations. What’s not to like?
X-T2 or H1?
I haven’t mentioned its video capabilities, and I won’t, because I have no idea what I am looking at. YouTube will help you there.
However, these are my thoughts on the stills functionality of the X-H1, for what they are worth.
If you are a hobbyist or semi-pro, who doesn’t expect to shoot vast numbers of files under pressure, then you are probably going to be better going with the X-T2. If you want to prowl the mean streets of the city surreptitiously and incognito with a minimal rig, then the X-T2 would be the way to go. If you are the sort of photographer who is religious about replacing your lens/body caps as soon as you have used a lens, then think: X-T2. If you travel on holiday a lot with your camera, where weight matters, then buy the X-T2.
If, however, you make your living from photography, shooting sport, weddings, portraiture, travel or commercial day-in and day-out; if you need a camera that can take mistreatment and the odd knock, then buy the H1. If you want every lens to be stabilised, including those funky Rokinons, old-school Rokkors and exotic Takumars, then you KNOW you NEED an H1.
My gearbag now has both cameras. The T2 is a great backup, however the H1 will be my frontline kit.
It wasn’t without much soul-searching that I let go of the Nikon. No Nikon I have owned has EVER let me down. I kept it because it was utterly reliable and in spite of its foibles (see above), I knew it could deliver if I was patient enough.
Then The Fujifilm X-H1 came along.
Then I decided It was time to go Full Fuji.