In and around everything that’s been going on, my Fuji X-T3 body arrived. Since I was about to head down to SoCal again, I unpacked it, powered it up and made sure it worked, added a memory card and set it to RAW+JPEG (because at the time Adobe hadn’t released the Lightroom update and I wanted the JPEGS to do initial evaluations on) and hooked it to the 100-400 and stuffed it in my bag.

As I headed out on the I-5 Tango again, I took a side-trip and spent an hour or so at Merced NWR with the camera, just to see how well the thing worked on factory settings while doing bird photography with factory settings.

With most cameras, this is a recipe for disaster; autofocus generally struggles with a lot of brush and visual clutter obscuring the subject so I’m generally tweaking AF modes and settings to compensate. Same to a good degree with exposure; pointing a camera at the bird in a sky will often get you a pretty blue sky with a featureless black blob in it.

The Fuji? I got plenty of those, too. But I also got some surprisingly good shots. This white-tailed kite started out very much like that black blob, but the Fuji captured enough info in the shadows that a perfectly decent photo could be found in it — without blowing out the sky to compensate.

White-tailed Kite. Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Autofocus worked fairly well, even on wide-field AF:

Sandhill Cranes Landing, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Please note these shots are all around 2 in the afternoon in mostly clear skies with a lot of glare and really intense shadows. Not exactly prime conditions, but I love testing a new camera in lousy lighting just to see what it can do, because if it can handle that, it generally really shines in better light; and, of course, if it can’t? well, with the kind of photography I do, I see that lousy light a lot, and it’s rough using a camera that’s not up to the challenge.

I then shifted to a different location where things weren’t backlit and shot into the brush, taking the super bright sky out of the equation. Here, though, clutter and obstruction in front of the subject can make the autofocus nuts.

And while I did get some focus botches, overall I saw many fewer than with the X-T2 and massively better than the X-T1.

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Great Egret, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I should probably also note this: I’m shooting at 400ISO, F/8 at 560mm, and for these last images, getting right around 1/500 of a second for a shutter speed. Handheld out the car window.

There is some motion blur visible, but — 600mm at 1/500sec handheld? That should likely be between 1/1500-1/2000 to be really crisp, but this is an indication just what the image stabilization is able to pull off.

In the last couple of days Adobe released the new Lightroom Classic CC with support for the camera, so I loaded all of the RAW files in, converted them to DNG, and started processing. At first I felt I was seeing a lot of noise in the images, until I realized I had them at 2:1 (200%) viewing, not 1:1. I need to get used to the higher resolution sensor and understand how to adapt my sharpening, but I was pretty happy with the results, and the ability to crop a smaller picture while maintaining > 2200 pixels or more on the edges.

Color rendition is definitely Fuji, with intense and pure greens and blues. I’m quite happy with the rendition of the golds and browns of the dry brush as well. Looking at the Great Egret, the camera does a really nice job of not blowing out a pure white subject without deteriorating the rest of the image.

Day 2

After an hour or so, I had to take off. I reviewed the jpegs in the hotel that night, and sat down to play with the body, starting to tweak configurations closer to how I had my X-T2 set. With autofocus I usually switch between spot and narrow field (9X9 centered) depending on what’s going on; often spot is the only way to dig through the clutter to focus on the bird. I also shifted the exposure system to center weighted (well, more correctly, I did the next day mid-shoot when I realized I hadn’t). I’ll switch between spot and center-weight depending on the scene. I also bumped the ISO up to 160o.

As it turned out, I found a free hour to go out and explore an area down in Irvine, the San Joaquin Marsh reserve, and ran into some semi-cooperative birds.

Tropical Kingbird, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

This is spot AF, spot AE, 1/6500 at ISO 1600, at F8.

Osprey in Flight, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Osprey in Flight, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

An Osprey against the backing trees locked focus nicely, the same bird against blue sky was dark but recoverable (again spot focus but missing the bird).

San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

American White Pelicans, a black and white bird and a classic photography problem, but the Fuji does a night job of managing the whites without crushing the blacks.

The Torture test

And then the torture test.

If you want to reduce a bird photographer to tears and make them want to throw their gear in a river, there’s a simple task: go shoot swallows. Small, fast flying birds with a high level of random movement. How hard can that be?

Trust me, I’ve shot thousands of images on trips without getting a single useful one. So if you want to torture test your autofocus, this is how. I set AF back to full-image, panned after swallows chasing mosquitos above the surface of the water, hit the shutter button and took bursts, and prayed.

Cliff Swallow, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Cliff Swallow, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

And you know what? the autofocus did a surprisingly good job of tracking the birds. I’m rather impressed. These aren’t by any means perfect shots, but the birds are also back lit. Still, the AF locked on quite well, and the birds are actually recognizable (they’re Cliff Swallows).

My initial thoughts

It’s far too early to really have an opinion on the new camera, but my initial reaction is positive. I really liked the X-T2 and everything I liked about that camera is here; from early tests it feels like Auto focus is much more flexible and improved. I’m still trying to get a good feel for how best to use it. On the exposure system, there were times when I felt the edges were getting too much influence in the exposure, but I haven’t really done careful testing of the modes to see how I ought to be setting the camera (soon, soon).

One other thing I want to experiment with: I’ve typically shot with aperture priority and let shutter speed vary. This has its plusses and minuses but for this kind of photography has traditionally worked best. Looking at the capabilities of the camera and thinking it makes sense to start from scratch and experiment, I want to go out and try setting a fixed shutter AND a fixed aperture and making the ISO be the aspect of exposure that varies. Setting a min-ISO to the camera min and a max ISO around 3200 or 6400 would give a lot of flexibility and make it easier to freeze action in variable light when you hit shadows as your shooting. It might be an interesting way to work, it might be a disaster. But I’m looking forward to trying it…

I also want to see where head/face/eye recognition works AT ALL on animals and birds, or whether it’s human shaped heads only. One can hope, no?

Herring Gull, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

and as far as birds in flight are concerned, something tells me this camera body is going to make me really happy.