Two male elephant seals fighting for territory. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, California
As soon as Fuji announced the new XT-1 camera I knew I was going to upgrade it. The feature set seemed to match what I saw of the weaknesses in the XE-1 — which, I should note, is a really good camera. While I felt the XE-1 was a great landscape and street camera, the autofocus, the sometimes laggy shutter and the general responsiveness kept me from thinking about the XE-1 as a camera for use out in the field doing critter or bird photography. This feeling was reinforced one day when I was out in the Merced refuges and the geese were spooked, the camera really struggled to keep up with the action of trying to shoot wide angle images with 15,000 geese chaotically flying around in a panic. Still, when things were slower, I really loved the results.
My XT-1 arrived Friday along with the 55-200 zoom, which gives me the equivalent of about a 300mm lens on a full-sized sensor or 35mm camera. Obviously, I was going to try it out, but where should I go to give it a workout?
Welcome to the jungle (out of camera unadjusted)
I grabbed the Xt-1 and the 55-200, hung them from a sling, and headed out to see what the camera was up for. This is the public dock in Moss Landing Harbor. It’s noon, in bright, glaring sun. Even better, this location is backlit, the sea lions are dark, the water is bright and full of specular highlights, so there’s a massive dynamic range, and if the sensor is weak at grabbing detail in the shadows or shows a tendency to add noise, this location is going to bring it out. On top of that, this harbor is full of kayaks and other activity, so I could get some shots exploring its color rendition, and perhaps even some shots with some visible skin to evaluate skin tone. All in bright, glary, unforgiving mid-day light. Iv’e seen cameras whimper and ask to be transferred to the Sears baby portrait division rather than shoot this location at this time of day. No sane photographer would try to shoot here mid-day.
It’s a great place to test cameras for how they perform out in the real world of wildlife photography.
Since this is a brand new camera, the RAW format isn’t supported by Lightroom or Photoshop yet, but Adobe has a version of Camera Raw (8.4) in beta and available for download for testing on their labs site. This also included a version of their DNG convertor, so I used it to convert all of the raw files to DNG, which Lightroom then imported just fine. Adobe should release support for the camera soon, but until then this is an easy workaround. For the purpose of this test, I shot RAW+JPEG, so I could compare the camera’s view of the image vs. what I saw importing the converted RAW into lightroom. The RAW files are a bit greenish compared to the camera jpeg, but easily adjusted. If that’s not ‘fixed’ in the converter when Adobe ships it officially, it’s easily fixable in the import sequence.
For the purposes of the test I made limited changes to the “out of the box” settings. I set the camera to Aperture mode and manually set the aperture. I set the autofocus to use a larger block in the center and the shutter to use focus priority over shot priority. Exposure was mostly a center-weighted evaluative. I shot with spot exposure a bit as well. In other words, I mostly left it to the camera to figure it out.
Once I started shooting I used exposure compensation to give hints to the camera, and because I was shooting mostly dark blobs in a backlit and glary situation, I set compensation to +2/3 of a stop for most of the shoot. Otherwise, I left it to the camera.
How’d it do?
Here’s the first image the camera took, directly out of camera with no adjustments (1/420 at F7.1, 100mm, ISO 800).
That’s actually not bad. the sea lion’s head has visible detail. There are both blown out specular highlights and fully dark shadows so this image is spilling off both sides of the histogram, bit the bright areas are pretty well managed, I like the look of the specular highlights, the color rendition of the sea lion is great, and you can see the detail of the sea lion’s head; it’s not a dark blob.
here’s how it looks after some Lightroom processing.
Getting it there took some pushing:
The information was in the raw image, and the image took a lot of pushing in the shadows without generating noise; in fact, despite shooting at ISO 800 and beating the shadows with a very large stick, I had to add zero luminance noise reduction. Zero. None. the only reason there’s color noise reduction in the image is because that’s a default and I forgot to turn it off.
Here’s a 100% look at the sea lion’s face, out of camera and after processing (now with color noise reduction turned off):
I’m not seeing any noise or grain. I’m not seeing and color noise. I’m surprised at how well the texture of the wet fur along the neck comes out, given it was in shadow. There is a bit of blue/purple cast to the shadow part of the seal but it seems to be the light bouncing into the shadow and the oils in the fur, not any camera-generated shift.
The reality of a shot like this is that all you can ask the camera to do is get the information into the RAW file where you can pull it out in post processing. In the film days, most photographers would simply go home. Today, with most cameras you’d need to haul out a flash or two and attach Better Beemers on them to get coverage, and then hope. I’m really rather impressed.
Here’s a shot unprocessed where I set exposure compensation to about +2
Here’s a shot with a lot of sun reflection off the water, maximizing the joys of the dynamic range of the location and throwing blown out highlights everywhere.
And here it is after some basic processing
skin tones? They look fine
Point it at a flying bird and see if it’ll lock focus and take a sharp image:
Check. (kids, do not try this with an XE-1. it’ll make you cry)
Obligatory shot of a sea otter feeding with his pet gull. check. (out of camera unprocessed)
Cropped and processed. Notice how much detail came out of the gull.
One of the things I was curious was how well I could shoot a situation like this at 300mm equivalent instead of hauling out the big heavy glass in the situation. The answer is surprisingly well. There’s enough detail captured that in many situations you can successfully crop the 200mm shot and not need 300+mm to get the shot. I’m thinking this body with a 400mm lens would be killer if it has decent AF.
So from an image point of view — which, frankly, if it doesn’t pass the rest doesn’t matter — this camera works wonderfully. Low noise at high ISO in bad lighting condition with good detail. I think there was one autofocus botch in the entire shoot, which is amazing. By setting to “autofocus” as the priority it wouldn’t take a shot unless the AF locked on, and I never had a sense that the camera was costing me shots. I never got the feeling there was AF or shutter lag. I will note that while this wasn’t an easy shoot for the AF system, it wasn’t an “oh my god” nasty one, either. But it was being asked to do things I found the XE-1 couldn’t handle well.
How does it handle?
I’d spent a bit of time with the camera before hitting the field, and some time with the manual, but for the most part was new to the camera. Overall, it fits the hand well and I found it well balanced. The 55-200 isn’t the world’s fastest at autofocus but I didn’t see significant struggles at locking on or searching for the focus point. Very little hesitation. I quickly got confident that I could hit the shutter button and get the shot, not hit the shutter and wonder what shot I was going to get. Overall, I felt it worked fine, and most of the challenges I ran into with AF was with the speed of the lens, not the camera body. the 55-200 is a good lens, but not what I’d call perfect for this kind of shooting.
Fuji’s done a lot of work making camera functions available via buttons, knows and other twistie-things (that’s a technical term). Much of what you had to go into the quick menu to set now has a thing somewhere on the camera you can adjust it with. They may have gone a bit overboard here: my first reaction is there are lots of buttons and controls on the camera, enough that I worry this camera may be intimidating to someone picking it up the first time. The good news is you can ignore most of them, if you’re brand new to the camera, you won’t know that.
I found on a number of occasions I’d accidentally hit a button that fired up the video. I’m not entirely sure which button I kept hitting, to be honest, and once I figure it out I’ll disable it. But it’s disconcerting to go to take a shot and find out it’s been taking movies of your shoe for a few minutes. Again. This is the only “pilot error” I ran into on the shot, and I expect through experience and some control tweaking it’s quite manageable. it is, however, a side effect of this “everything needs a control on the case” mindset this camera seems to have.
I expect once I learn how this camera thinks and I customize the controls a bit, I’m going to love having all those controls on it. But I can see how this is going to scare and intimidate some photographers, and there are times when the case feels a bit crowded because of it.
I quickly got used to grabbing the camera hanging on the sling and getting it to my eye without fumbling. The camera feels good. The case has a wonderful faux-bakelite texture that will give it a nice grip in damp conditions and looks nicely retro. Add in all these controls and it does look like a throwback to an older age. Except for the big LCD, of course.
I like the LCD. it works well, shows nice detail, and showed up well in bright light once I adjusted up the brightness.
I don’t think I have ever, ever liked an electronic viewfinder. Ever. The XE-1 is okay for the EVF. The one on the XT-1? I pretty quickly forgot it was an electronic viewfinder. It just — worked. I am amazed. I am impressed. I like it. I didn’t expect that.
The menu controller (the menu button with the four buttons in a ring around it) and I are still having a discussion. My initial reaction was that I didn’t like it much. I’m fumbling trying to operate it well. It’s been somewhat recessed, likely to limit accidental operation, but in return, I’m finding it difficult to use. I’m not sure whether I’ll get used to it and if I do, whether I’ll learn to like it. It’s so far the one thing on the camera that’s left me a bit grumpy. If that’s my biggest complaint, I’ll go shut up and take pictures:
My bottom line: I set high expectations for the camera. It met and exceeded them. I didn’t find any weakness worth talking about, at least not so far. The image quality is great. the responsiveness is great. the controls are good, the feature set is solid. I see it as a big step forward from the XE-1 and I think it’s closed some of the gaps in the kind of shots I want to take that I struggled with when I gave up carrying my wide-angle canon kit — mostly in terms of wide angle landscape with lots of action going on.
I don’t believe this is going to cause me to retire the rest of my Canon kit, but if I could get a 400mm lens for this body, I might be tempted. I still need to work with the camera in a situation where burst most is a big advantage; I still think that’s going to be the place where the 7D still earns its keep.
I’ve been a convert to Fuji for landscape and street type work for about the last year. The new XT-1 starts to make mirrorless bodies a viable some parts of my wildlife/bird/critter photography as well. I don’t think it can completely replace my canon kit, but it’s a big move in that direction. I would love to try this camera with the newly announced Tamron 150-600, for instance, although Tamron hasn’t announced as an option — but this body is the first mirrorless body that makes that lens a legitimate option.
I’ll give the camera 8.5 out of 10. I still need to spend time learning the quirks of the body and figuring out how to customize it to my preferences, but the “out of the box” experiment went very well, the image quality is stunning, and it handled a tough shooting situation with relative ease and gave me images I could easily haul through Lightroom and export good quality images.
Well done, Fuji. Well done.