Events, Technical Stuff

The Fujifilm X-T1 – On Assignment

15 Jun , 2014  

This is a summary of my experience with the biggest investment I’ve made in camera equipment in over 5 years: the Fuji X-T1.   This is not a review of the camera’s technology, image quality, etc. — there are dozens of them out there and adding another one more assessment of that isn’t of much value.   This is, however, an attempt to show how well (and not well) the X-T1 fits into a working photographer’s daily life versus the “traditional” DSLR.   I review why I purchased the camera and then discuss how it performed across a blitz of photography gigs I had in May – shooting around 4,000 frames in the span of a few weeks.

The Rationale

0010-20144-032-0100This is (more or less) my first image from the X-T1 – a nature photograph.  Outdoor photography is what drove me to purchase the camera, but this review will be discussing almost everything but that aspect because I haven’t really had time to use the camera for that class of photography – mildly ironic.

In a few months I will be taking a week long wilderness trip to the Boundary Waters.  This is a paddling trip, not a photographic expedition – but of course I want to take photographs of this pristine wilderness.  As we started planning for the trip it became obvious that there was no frickin’ way I was going to drag my normal camera kit with me.  Unlike other trips I have taken there is no “base camp” and we will have several portages where we need to slog our shelter, food, supplies and boats.   The average age of our party is, well, let’s say mid 50’s – so this trip is a bit of stretch for all and heavy cameras were not part of the plan.

[UPDATE: You can read about the full kit and how the cameras performed on the wilderness trip in my article here.]

I had purchased a Fuji X100S as my xmas present and was pretty happy with that camera, but knew that it alone would have too many compromises from an image composition standpoint (it’s a fixed focal length camera) – so a small camera with multiple lenses seemed like a good idea.  The whole “mirrorless” transition was always in the back of my mind (I’ve been telling people who ask me about cameras to not purchase a DSLR for the past year or so — few listen…)

When the reviews of the X-T1 appeared, I thought this might be the camera for the job.  Fuji optics are certainly on par with Canon, and the image quality of the X100S implied that the X-T1 would be more than acceptable.    Losing the optical viewfinder was not an issue for me. I’ve been a “hybrid” viewfinder user for years.  Ever since Live View was introduced into my Canon DSLRs, I’ve used it.  Its the only way to shoot video, of course, but I was using it for landscape photography – preferring the more contemplative approach of using the screen and “loupe” to fine tune focus and composition.

And so here’s my equivalent of what Zack Arias referred to as “what makes me smile every time I see it” — that bag on the left is “more or less equivalent” to my standard camera kit on the right.

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Let’s start with weight – after all that was driving the purchase in the first place.   My Canon kit weighs in at just under 26 pounds.  (To be fair, it has a bunch of other stuff for video production, but that’s probably 2-3 pounds of that payload).

The Fuji kit weighs in at 6.5 pounds.   I expect that will tick up a bit as it’s not a proper camera bag and lacks some accessories – but I’ll wager the final kit will be around 8 pounds.

I don’t care how old you are – 1/3rd of the weight is nothing to sneeze at.  But I’m not 30 any more – so 1/3rd of the weight turns out to be a major game changer and we’ll touch upon this several times in this article.

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For those who care, here’s a rough inventory of each bag:

Canon Kit: 2 bodies (5DMk2, 7D), 16-35mm f/2.8L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 70-200mm f2.8L IS.  Plus: Zacuto Z-Finder, Sennheiser wireless microphone tx/rx, JuicedLink mixer, CamRanger, plus filters, batteries, and gizmos.   25.8 lbs.

Fuji Kit: 2 bodies (X100s, X-T1), 10-24mm f/3.5 IS, 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0 IS, 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 IS, filters.

(Note: I used a small camera bag that I’ve been using as a utility bag for a few years.  I haven’t worked out a “proper” bag yet.)

1st gig: Low-Light Concert

As I write this article, several weeks into having the X-T1, I’m still learning how to to customize the controls and learn its various features – so issues discussed might have solutions I have yet to discover.

The X-T1’s first real project was some concert photography at the Stone Mountain Arts Center.   This is a very familiar place for me – I’ve photographed there for nearly 8 years now with literally thousands of frames under my belt using a number of Canon bodies over that time.

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This particular show had the lights set pretty low and I didn’t have a great seat, so it was a challenge both technically and for good composition.   Overall I thought the image quality was pretty respectable – most frames were exposed at ISO 6400.

This is not a rock concert, so based on my experience with the X100S I was looking forward to the relative silence of shooting vs. the mirror slap of the DSLR.  The X-T1 is certainly quieter than the Canon bodies, but there is still a mechanical shutter in play (more on this later) and it isn’t as stealthy as I had hoped it would be.

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I experimented with both auto and manual focus.   The first thing I noticed was that the auto focus on the X-T1 was greatly underperforming compared to the Canon cameras  (and the 5D Mk2 is definitely not known for it’s low-light auto focus).    Over the weeks of using the camera I’ve come to believe that the DSLR auto focus sensors still have an edge over the X-T1, but that’s just anecdotal.

All 3 lenses have image stabilization and, as far as I can tell, it works wonderfully across all of the lenses  (only my Canon 70-200 has IS, so this was most welcome.)

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However the camera body may not be totally at fault here.  Most of the photos were shot with the 55-200mm lens.  The Canon 70-200 lens I normally shoot with is a pretty fast f/2.8.  The Fuji lens is f/4, so the AF system has a full stop less light to work with and the depth of field is deeper providing less precision for locking focus.  So it may be that the lens speed is putting the X-T1 at a disadvantage.

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Manual focus isn’t something I tend to use in a handheld situation like this, but I thought I’d give the X-T1’s very cool focus assist feature – which is a small magnified version in the viewfinder.  (I’ve since learned there are some better variations of this feature but I don’t think they change my observation.)

In the low-light of the concert two factors made manual focusing less than wonderful:  1) because I’m looking at an exposure simulation instead of the brightest view possible (that an optical viewfinder would provide) it was difficult to make out the scene and 2) the f/4 aperture was forcing a high ISO (3200) and while the final images look quite nice, the 10x focus assist area was awash in sensor noise.  This noise made it extremely difficult to discern when I had good focus.

This concert uncovered another Canon “advantage” versus the Fuji lenses — and in the most unlikely of places: I very much dislike the Fuji lens hoods.

When you have an interchangeable lens system, this invariably means that one of the lenses is going to be off the camera — and the photographer doesn’t always have the luxury of having a case/bag to put the inactive lens.  In the case of this particular gig, I keep the lenses on the table and switch between them.  Here’s the Fuji 18-55 vs Canon 24-70:

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‘Nuff said?   The Fuji 55-200 doesn’t suffer from this affliction, but the other two lenses are essentially unstable.   (A variant of this peeve will reappear later in this article…)

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In summary: the Canon’s faster lenses and potentially more accurate autofocus make them the better choice right now for this venue – although the weight, size, and relative quietness of the X-T1 are powerful counterpoints.  Despite the lens hoods making it awkward to exchange lenses, I will continue trying (and have already used) the X-T1 in future concert shoots, but I’ll likely have the Canon kit in the car… just in case.

2nd gig: Indoor/Outdoor Event

The next day I had a community event in town that I had volunteered to provide photographs for. With no client money on the line this seemed like a good time to really get to know how the the X-T1 with little risk (other than my reputation if it utterly failed).

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The Spring Art Walk lasts about 3 hours and I am covering an event that is happening along two streets in our downtown area – both on the sidewalks and in the stores… so I’m doing a lot of walking from venue to venue and I’m changing from interior to exterior shooting every few minutes.

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My approach in these events is as a photo journalist: just find the moments – little to no staging or posing.   I intended to use the constantly changing scenes as a way of forcing me to try various modes of the camera: manual and auto exposure, different AF modes, and make use of all 3 lenses.

With the Canon kit, I’d normally travel with 2 cameras: one with a wide-angle zoom and the other with the 70-200.    So I was at a slight disadvantage with just one body and 3 lenses.   That said, everything fit neatly in the bag which I strapped to my waist.  The light weight of the camera and the lenses was overwhelming.  I always enjoy working with the camera, but the freedom and the lack of fatigue with the X-T1 vs the DSLR made photographing the event a joy.

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When you are carrying 10+ pounds of glass around with you and shooting like crazy it can wear you down after pounding the pavement for the equivalent of a mile or two.  My neck and back were quite happy that the 5D and 7D were sleeping in my office that afternoon.  As expected, the 18-55mm was the workhorse lens for the day.   If I had a second body, I would have put the 55-200 on it as there were times when I wished I had the extra focal length, but didn’t have time to swap lenses.

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I was still a novice with the camera at this point (it takes a few weeks to get the hang of it), but other than a few messed shots because I had accidentally turned on Macro mode the camera performed quite well, moving smoothly between outside and interior shooting.

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It was during this event that I noticed a couple of the drawbacks of the X-T1 design (vs. the traditional DSLR).

The first will undoubtably fade with experience, but I found myself losing shots because when I went to take the photograph I was staring into a black viewfinder.   If you don’t use the camera for a short time, it goes to sleep.  This is a good thing battery wise, but it means you have to activate the camera before you take a look (and that activation takes a full second or so).   I haven’t yet developed the reflex of pressing (and you really have to hold it down) the shutter button when moving the camera to my eye.   I’m just used to raising the camera and starting the composition process.  (I’m over a month into this and still have this problem.  30+ years of habit/expectation is hard to change.)

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The second issue is seemingly minor, but still annoying – especially because I shoot primarily in manual mode.  Despite all of the signature “old school” design of the X-T1 and it’s many dials – when I glance down at my Canon camera I know EXACTLY what my settings are.  With the X-T1, the aperture is unknown until I look in the viewfinder — and, quite frankly, it is VERY easy for the aperture ring to be turned so once I put the camera down for a few minutes and pick it up again, it’s a bit of adventure figuring out what configuration we are in and I’ve lost a couple of shots because I was fiddling with the camera getting it back into my preferred setting.  (I can also dial in my f stop on the Canon before even lifting my eye to the viewfinder — I will often start ball parking exposures with my camera down as I scan the area.  Only 2 out of 3 with the X-T1.)

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I don’t think it is quantifiable, but when it comes to this type of event photography – where you are in the midst of a lot of strangers and hunting for those special moments – having a camera that is easily 1/2 the size of the DSLR is an advantage.  People are less intimidated by the equipment and it is easier to blend in.  I find that the less people notice me the better the images are.

Here’s a nice 10mm shot composed with the back viewfinder held way overhead.

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Summary: The X-T1 system was head and shoulders the equal or better than my Canon cameras for this (it would have been nicer if I had another Fuji X body so I had 2 lenses ready at all times.)  The weight reduction alone was worth the price of admission — I could have keep shooting all evening when in the past I was exhausted after a few hours lugging 2 DSLR bodies and lenses around.  Still a few quirks to deal with, but overall this was a good gig for the camera.

3rd gig: Theater Production

With a concert and outdoor event, I felt emboldened to bring the X-T1 to a paying client gig.   This was, again, familiar territory as I have shot promotional images for the Acme Theater group several times now and I have a good sense of the lighting and other challenges.  That said, I brought along the Canon kit as well, just in case.  Happily I didn’t feel the need to turn it on at any point.

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Now, normally these shoots don’t involve low-light conditions.  Their stage lighting permits ISO 800-1600 shooting at f/4 – so I wasn’t too worried about a repeat of the issues I had with the concert shoot at Stone Mountain.  But clients always throw curves and in this case the conceit of the production was that it took place during a blackout.  It’s not worth explaining here, but suffice it to say the lighting was extremely varied and I settled on using ISO 3200 for most of the shoot.  The photo above was a definite low-light situation, but the combination of good high ISO performance and image stabilization across all of the lenses made for some solid image making.

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I normally shoot with a monopod to help stabilize the closeups, but since my camera plate is on order I elected to go handheld for the entire shoot.  I was not disappointed with the results.

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But, as always, nothing was perfect…

I didn’t discuss this earlier in the article, but when I photograph concerts and stage productions, I typically shoot in burst mode. This is because when people are talking or singing, their facial expressions are often awkward and it takes a series of shots to find one that looks pleasant.  I probably shot 500 frames at this performance, and easily 2/3rd of them get tossed on the first edit round.

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I was surprised to discover some very annoying behaviors with the X-T1 in burst mode – and I truly don’t understand what is going on yet (or why the engineers decided for it to behave this way).  I should probably verify this, but I don’t think the X100S behaved this way either…

Besides reduced noise, one the the presumed benefits to not having a mirror jumping out of the way would be less interruption of the viewfinder when shooting – but in many ways the X-T1 can be worse than the DSLR in this regard.  (And the situation gets worse in the next gig…)

I fully accept that there might be a stutter in the viewfinder when the actual image is being captured, but the X-T1 designers seem to intentionally black out the viewfinder.  I found this quite jarring – with my eye having to readjust to the brightness and reacquire the scene.  Oddly enough the problem seems worse in low-speed burst — it’s as if the camera goes into slow motion instead of just grabbing frames at a lower rate!

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The next X-T1 “semi-minor annoyance” vs. my Canon kit is somewhat expressed in this next image:

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Those are my Canon lenses on the left and their Fuji analogs on the right.  While that glass on the left certainly weighs a ton (vs. the Fuji lenses), they have handful of of subtle, but very practical, advantages for the working photographer:

  1. All of my Canon lenses are f/2.8, while the Fuji glass currently varies between f/2.8 and f4. When switching lenses with my Canon camera I don’t have to worry about resetting the exposure just because I changed a lens.  With the X-T1 I’m constantly distracted with these changes (instead of concentrating on composition, etc.)   I paid good money for this luxury and I look forward to the day when I can do the same with Fuji lenses.
  2. Similarly, all of Canon my lens caps are interchangeable – as are my my polarizing filters, etc. No need to think about it when capping a lens – grab one and click it on.  I’m going to have to color-code the Fuji caps because I can never figure out which one goes where.  Again, a distraction I could do without.  (But no fault of the manufacturer.)
  3. I made note of the less than wonderful lens hood designs for the wider-angle Fuji lenses.  Well a similar criticism goes to their lens cap design.   I feel extremely comfortable putting my Canon lenses on a flat surface with the lens cap.  The Fuji lens caps have thin ridges that they sit on and they feel like they’ll topple over with the slightest push or breeze…

 

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I’m torn as to which kit I will bring to the next show.  While I think I can certain capture fine images for my client using the X-T1, my “keep/discard” ratio is much lower than with the DSLRs due to their better autofocus tracking in these limited light situations.  So I end up shooting more frames and having to sort through them in Lightroom, and that, quite frankly, cuts into my profit margin. The monopod offsets the weight advantage of the X-T1 somewhat (it counters with more composition flexibility).    I’ll likely try it a few more times as my proficiency with the X-T1 increases and I learn more about it’s quirks and strengths.

4th gig: Weekend-long Event

For 10+ years I’ve been photographing our local student-run television/radio station’s “banquet weekend”.  Starting on a Friday I spend the weekend capturing their end-of-year activities and put together a slide show for the banquet itself on Sunday evening.  The activities range from laser tag (indoor and dark) to “capture the flag” (outdoors/action) to “mini golf” (outdoors) to the banquet itself (indoor candids and posed shots).   I always use this weekend to try new techniques and equipment – so it was the perfect event for my new camera.

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We start at the roller rink and laser tag place.  Here’s where the less than stellar low-light autofocus of the X-T1 reared its head again.   Again, when comparing the two systems the differences in the speed of the lenses may be contributing more to the AF tracking, but I suspect it is a little of both.

In this series of shots you can see that the X-T1 is certainly capable of locking onto larger moving targets, but I get the impression that the AF sensor areas are larger than in my DLSRs and so smaller targets are harder to discern.

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Which brings us to the next X-T1 disadvantage: the display blanking and burst rate get MUCH WORSE when in continuous auto focus.   This is especially troubling because, well, continuous AF and burst shooting pretty much go hand in hand.   If you depend on this style of shooting, I think you will be disappointed by the X-T1 vs. even the mid-range DSLRs.  (Face it, when it comes to AF performance, even my 7D and company can’t hold a candle against the 1DX and it’s companions — so I didn’t have super-high expectations with this still early-generation Fuji system).

I don’t have many disappointments with the X-T1, but this is probably my biggest one so far.  Whether or not this is a bad camera configuration on my part or if a firmware change can improve the situation, I don’t know.   (I hope so!)

Laser tag is an ISO 6400+ environment and the stabilized wide angle lenses were most welcome!

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I always shoot RAW, but the opportunity to shoot at ISO 12800 was too good to pass up.  The fact that the X-T1 only offers those speeds in JPEG format means it has less to do with the sensor’s capability than with them doing some in-camera processing to simulate that film speed.  Still, nice to have when you need it.  (The next 3 images are all ISO 12800 JPEGs)

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Moving to the outdoor shooting, where low-light autofocus should be less of an issue, I still saw a lower hit rate vs. the DSLR.   This leads me to think that the AF sensor areas are bigger and so it is harder to position one on just your subject and have it lock.   When the subject is fairly large, no problem:

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But as the composition changes, the camera would often grab the background before finding the subject:

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My other auto-focus peeve with the X-T1 is that I haven’t found a comfortable way of using “back button focus” yet.  It might be buried in the camera configuration menus, but so far it eludes me.

To be clear as to what I mean, I set up all of my Canon DSLRs so that the autofocus is only engaged when I press a button on the back of the camera.  I let that button go and autofocus locks wherever it is.   This lets me focus on the subject with whatever focus point I have enabled (typically center since it is the most accurate) and the compose my image and shoot.  The shutter button’s autofocus role is completely shut off.

Well, you can coerce this behavior on the X-T1 when you are in manual focus mode, but (as far as I can tell) not in either of the AF modes.  So deeply ingrained is this in my style of shooting that I consider it to be my second least favorite part of using the X-T1.   (I’m hoping that some nice Fuji engineer will come to my rescue with a firmware change for this, as I think it clearly could be made available.)

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So, overall I felt that the X-T1 autofocus in these situations was “competent” but not stellar….

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Once again, the primary benefit of the X-T1 vs. my Canon kit was the weight advantage.  It was soooo much easier romping through the woods and fields after these teenagers with compact and lightweight set of lenses in my strapped around my waist.  I’m really excited about refining my kit and someday having a second body (besides the X100S) to shoot with.

On to Sunday morning and mini-golf at Kimball’s….

This first shot is a great example of having a flexible viewfinder.   I was standing outside in line and saw this image.  I turned on the back viewer, tilted it up, propped the camera on the window ledge and shot up with complete ease.   I’ve found this capability to be useful many times since and it often reminds me of my first camera (40+ years ago) which was a twin-reflex where you looked down into the viewfinder – which engages with the subject in a much different way.

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The X-T1 performed well in the bright sunshine and shadows both…  I know that most Fuji owners are in love with the look that comes out of the camera, but I shoot RAW and so I have created a custom Lightroom develop setting based on the Adobe’s Provia emulation, but I thought it was a bit too contrasty.  I’m sure I’ll continue to tune these settings to my liking in the coming months and narrow the distance between what I see in the viewfinder versus what it looks like in Lightroom.

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I was very happy with the X-T1’s shutter lag.  I nailed several of these shots with no difficulty whatsoever:

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The 10mm provides a surprisingly flat wide angle view…

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As I mentioned I often shoot in manual mode, but I took the opportunity to see how the camera behaved in “full auto” mode (auto ISO, shutter and aperture) — and played with the different exposure settings.  Overall I thought it did pretty well exposure-wise.  No complaints.

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And now the last task for that weekend – the banquet itself…

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The candids work out well because of the stabilized lenses and good ISO performance (as the lighting sucks).

I’ve done this event with both flash and no flash and despite all of the drawbacks, I prefer working  without a flash here.   I missed my back-focus button feature – I use it heavily in these situations – but eventually I just set an autofocus point on the presenter and generally everything lined up OK.

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Because the lighting situation is so bad up there I had a hard time dialing in the right exposure as people moved in and out of the spotlights.  While they share the same exposure (1/125, f/4, ISO 3200) the image above is dark, but this one worked out OK:

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So, as before, when things aren’t moving around too much the X-T1 performs quite well:

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Normally when I go for a crowd shot I stretch out my arms and try to aim the camera into the scene and hope for the best (usually varying the angle).   If I was a photojournalist, I’m sure I’d have it down reflexively, but I’m not – so having the tilting viewfinder on the X-T1 is a godsend for composing and capturing a difficult shot like this:

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Summary/Conclusion

So far I’ve been pretty happy with my X-T1 purchase.  The past couple month’s experience is a strong indicator that reason I purchased it in the first place will likely be validated in the coming months: it is a competent, lightweight system capable of producing very high-quality images.  It works well with experienced hands at the controls and can also do a very respectable job in “auto-pilot” mode (which my wife will be taking advantage of in a couple of weeks when she takes it on a cruise).

I didn’t purchase it expecting that it would replace my Canon kit (mostly because I shoot as much or more video with my Canon DSLRs – and video is not an X-T1 strongpoint) but I can certainly see how certain photographers would be inclined to jettison their heavy DSLRs for this sports car of a camera.  For all of its flaws and drawbacks versus my Canon equipment, the weight advantage looms large.  Even though photography is my job, and maybe because it is my job, I want it to be a joyful experience, not a physical challenge.  I feel I can shoot more and frankly better photographs when I’m not saddled with a 25 pound backpack for hours on end.  The X-T1 will certainly figure prominently in my future shooting assignments and I have some other specific uses for it that I didn’t cover in this article but will in a future post (this one has dragged on long enough as it is).

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found something of value if you are considering purchasing or “switching” systems.

Resources and Afterthoughts

 

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2 Responses

  1. Bob Hayes says:

    Couple of things you have probably figured out already:
    Put the camera into “high performance mode” – fixes sleep.issue and much more, kills batteries, though.
    You can change the size of the focus points – although at the smallest size, there are performance issues.
    Try “face detection” (not “phase”,) when shooting people. It helps.

    Other than those items, I mostly agree. I have NO problems shooting a wedding with a XT1 and an X100S. And with the lighter weight, I am not a train wreck.at the.end.of.the day.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks Bob. I’ve been toying with the “high performance mode” (which I did find out about after writing the article). While it might be improving things a bit, I still see lots of focus hunting with the 55-200 in low light – even when I think there are contrasty bits to lock on to.

      In “normal” lighting conditions, I thought the continuous mode wasn’t tracking well while working in the viewfinder, but was quite pleased with the images. Still learning…

      I haven’t tried face detection (assuming it would be slower than phase detection) – I will definitely give it a try!

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