UPDATE 12/15/2014: I’ve caught some grief in online discussion groups for the images in this post and it made me realize I should have been more clear about my intentions. You can find articles everywhere online that show off the best a camera can do. The images here are not those. My goal was to illustrate challenges the X-T1 has and where Fuji needs to improve the X Series features if they want to better serve certain markets (sports, wildlife, etc.).
The other goal I had for this post was provide an answer to the question I’ve received more than once from my clients: should they bring their mirrorless camera on one of my safaris? Until now, I’ve had to say, “I don’t know.” With this experience, I can give them a more balanced answer.
In a recent post, I described the kit I took on the most recent photo tour I led to Africa. The kit included the Fuji X-T1 and in this post, I’m going to talk about my impressions of using that X-T1 in the field, how well it performed, and whether I would bring it again. At the end is a gallery of images I made with the X-T1.
When I told some people I was bringing the X-T1 on safari, they shook their heads. While people love their X-T1’s, there’s general consensus that it’s not suitable for sports or wildlife photography – anything with fast action. And for those who follow online forums and Facebook groups and are familiar with the challenges many people face with the X-T1, much of this article will be predictable. That’s probably a good thing: ultimately I just want my systems to be better and if Fuji is already aware of their gear’s good and bad points, that increases the likelihood that they’re already working on improving them. And that’s a good thing because I’m biased: I want this gear to work well since it has many great points and ultimately my goal is to change my kit to use gear that is lighter and smaller than my current gear.
My standard safari kit for several years has included the Canon 5D Mark III and that is my benchmark for the X-T1. I may not need the X-T1 to measure up to the 5D3 in all areas but there are a few areas of functionality that are critical to successful shooting on safari:
- Autofocus performance. Wildlife moves, compositions change second to second, and you need a camera that can keep up with how quickly you think. The 5D3 is almost identical to their 1-series autofocus system and it shows. It acquires focus incredibly fast and is amazingly accurate. When I use it, I’m highly confident that I’ll get a high rate of keepers.
- Responsive controls. For the same reasons you need great AF performance on safari, you need controls that can keep up. Canon’s controls are well-placed, easy to use, and show their years of refinement that allow users to make rapid adjustments.
- Weatherproofing and “ruggedness”. I have no hard data about the 5D3’s repair record but I know many photographers who use it as their day to day workhorse in rough conditions and it’s never failed them. Africa is a dusty place where you can bounce down the road for hours and whatever you bring needs to handle it.
- High quality, long focal length lenses. Canon’s long lenses are legendary. Crisp, and contrasty with fast autofocus. Their price, weight, and size are also legendary.
- High image quality. Although Canon’s latest cameras are lagging the competition when it comes to dynamic range, the 5D3’s resolution and color are excellent and I’ve shown and sold many large prints made from my 5D3.
How does the Fuji X-T1 measure up in those same areas?
Before leaving for Tanzania, I did some research on best practices for configuring the X-T1. The consensus online seems to be to have High Performance mode turned on and to make the focus area/point a little larger than default. My informal tests at home seemed to bear these out but I welcome other opinions.
When it comes to focusing speed, the lenses in the Fuji system vary. The 35mm lens is one of the original lenses and it feels less responsive. Focusing my other lenses felt much more snappy and that’s ok because I’d brought the Fuji as a substitute for my mid-range kit (usually a Canon 5D3 with a 70-200mm lens). Using Fuji’s 55-200mm lens on the X-T1 performed quickly. I never had an issue with focusing speed.
Focusing accuracy is a different issue though. With some basic analysis in Lightroom, I can see my keeper rate for shots with the Fuji is about 2 out of 3. Compare that to the 5D3 where it’s 9 out of 10. A lot of my issues seemed to occur when there is low-light. Although I’ve had scenarios where my 5D3 struggles and seeks, those are rare exceptions. It was always on my mind with the X-T1 which was an unwelcome distraction. And these are subjects that are mostly stationary or very slow moving – no high speed expectations here. For what it’s worth, when the focus is off, it always seems to back-focus.
Take this picture of a lion cub coming through the grass – a classic example of a challenging situation for autofocus:
If I’m being picky, it’s just a hair (no pun intended) back-focused but completely acceptable. I’d feel comfortable selling that image as a large print. But the giraffe below is barely moving and yet it’s the branches that are sharp. This should have been an easy shot:
Based on the entire set of images I made, my conclusion is that, while Fuji’s autofocus is fast enough, it is not accurate enough to have my complete trust the way the 5D3 does. I’m sure that solving this problem overlaps a lot with improving the AF system’s low-light sensitivity.
(As a side note, it’s really nice having the autofocus sensors co-located with the imaging sensor. This eliminates the need for calibrating focus with micro-adjustments. With Canon, unless you spend the time to calibrate a specific lens to a specific body, you always wonder if focus issues are caused by limitations of gear or user skill.)
In general, I can get used to almost any system. It doesn’t matter if a button or dial is located here or there. While Fuji’s controls are very different from Canon’s, I’ve been using them long enough to be proficient with both. That said, there is too much of a disparity between how Canon lets you choose the autofocus point versus Fuji. With the Canon, there is a dedicated joystick for this. Without removing your thumb from the joystick, you can move the point around the viewfinder or press it to reset to center.
Fuji has their D-pad and by now most T1 users know the trick to program all four of the directional buttons to activate the same mode where you can move the point. But you still need to move your thumb between the buttons and you still need that extra button press just to get started. Not to mention that the X-T1’s D-pad buttons are recessed too far and have almost no tactile feedback (a huge regression from the X-E1 and X-E2 in my opinion). For wildlife, I have my thumb on the Canon’s joystick on every shot and I use it to follow the subject around the frame. Simple and intuitive. Fuji needs a better solution here.
Although I love the big, clear optical viewfinder of the 5D3, I’m now sold on recent, high-quality, electronic viewfinders like that in the X-T1 for one main reason: the EVF immediately shows the results of adjusting the exposure compensation dial. With a traditional SLR, the best you can do is chimp your histogram afterwards to see if you guesstimated properly. On safari, this difference counts. A good leopard or lion sighting might be up in a tree under the canopy and you’re shooting against a bright sky. You might need to dial in anywhere from 1 to 2 stops of increased exposure. You don’t have a lot of time to experiment with settings.
Finally, one smaller issue that probably can’t be helped. I’m left-eye dominant and most of the population (about 70-80%) is right-eye dominant. With the Fuji’s smaller body, the buttons on the back are all close and when I’m looking through the viewfinder, my nose is blocking some of the buttons I need to use. This sounds silly, I know, but potentially a real issue for some people.
Fuji markets the X-T1 as being weatherproof. I wondered if it would hold up to safari conditions. I don’t have much to say here as I had no significant issues. The Fuji seems rugged and after two weeks of bouncing down dusty/muddy roads in both dry and humid conditions, there were no signs of wear and tear and all worked well. I change lenses on safari where others do not but did not have any issues with dust on my sensor.
The one issue that I’ll file under “ruggedness” is the flimsy memory card door. It’s way too easy to open. Just picking it up out of my bag on the vehicle floor might slide it open. It would be great if Fuji gave this a positive, clicking lock like Canon has on the 5D3.
The news here is no surprise to Fuji fans. Fuji’s lenses are generally excellent and performed well for me. As mentioned above, focusing speed was good. I shot about 750 frames with the X-T1: about 400 with the 55-200, 300 with the 10-24mm, and the rest with the 35mm.
The 55-200mm lens gives about an 80-300mm reach in 35mm equivalence. At it’s best, it’s superlative. My only wish is that it were sharper when wide open. It’s really at its best about two stops down. For example, this ostrich holds up at 100%. You can see the hairs on its head:
This lion was shot wide open and, even though it is in focus, it is pretty soft. While I like the image very much, I’m not comfortable selling prints of this:
Fuji has recently shown a 150-400mm lens (about a 225-600mm equivalent in 35mm) which seems ideal for safari work. I expect the optical quality will be top notch. It’s unclear how fast it will focus and the lens needs to be sharp wide-open. I look forward to evaluating this lens.
As expected, image quality that I see with the X-T1 is high. The main distinction to make is between acutance and resolution. With the high quality Fuji lenses and the lack of an anti-aliasing filter on the Fuji, acutance is high – in my opinion, equal to the 5D3 and in some cases maybe slightly better. When it comes to absolute detail though, Canon’s 22MP resolution seems to have an edge over the Fuji’s 16MP, even with Fuji’s lack of AA filter.
For comparison, here is a shot of a Lilac-breasted Roller taken with both cameras. Both are tack sharp but the Canon shows more detail in the feathers:
To be fair, this is not a rigorous comparison because the Canon lens is 400mm where the Fuji is at a 300mm equivalent. The Canon can get closer and should show more detail because I had to crop it less to get the matching frames above. But the good news is that even with this “handicap,” the Fuji has excellent results for a lens that costs $700 compared to the Canon’s $11,800.
Overall, I still want the Fuji to have more pixels though. Matching or beating the 5D3’s 22MP while maintaining the current low noise levels would be ideal for me when I sell large prints (the smallest print I sell is usually a 12×18 inch). It’s also still true that Fuji files sometimes have that odd, painterly rendition of some fine textures. It’s frustratingly unpredictable but usually shows up in grass and other common safari backgrounds.
Misc. & Oddities
In no particular order:
- Fuji’s batteries don’t last as long as I’d like but I understand why: the point here is a small and light camera body. For safari, just bring several batteries. To be fair, I could/should use the accessory vertical grip although that defeats some of the point of trying to bring a smaller camera.
- Shooting in continuous mode has a strange pause after finishing the burst. Why? The camera says it is “saving.” I know that. You’re doing that when I shoot in single mode so why tell me here?
- Why are Fuji’s RAF raw files so large for a 16MP camera? RAFs are typically 33MB and converting them to DNG in Lightroom results in about a 23MB file – about 33% smaller. Canon CR2s usually reduce only 10% smaller when converted to DNG.
So after all that, would I take the X-T1 again?
I’ll divide that into two questions:
Would I take the X-T1 again as part of a kit that also has my Canon gear?
Probably. But if Fuji’s offering stays the same, it’d be in the same backup role rather than as a primary camera.
What would need to change for me to take an exclusively Fuji kit on safari?
Although I mentioned several things above, two things must change for this:
- Fuji needs to offer a high quality, longer lens. I hope I can evaluate the 150-400mm on safari in 2015.
- Fuji needs to offer better autofocus performance AND controls.
And one thing should change but probably wouldn’t be a deal-breaker: I’d like more, high-quality pixels.
Anything I missed? Feel free to ask me in the comments. Below is a gallery of a few images, all taken with the X-T1 on this safari.