Is the Fujifilm X-T1 a Viable Sports Camera?

I love my Fujifilm X-T1. So much so that I'd love to be able to use it exclusively for all of my personal and professional photography. While I've found the X-T1 perfectly capable for most purposes, the one area where it has been lacking is sports. For that purpose I use a Nikon D750 equipped with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. When Fujifilm released an equivalent lens, the 50-140mm f/2.8, I was anxious to see if there was a chance that my X-T1 could perform on par with my Nikon rig and possibly replace it. As I wrote in my original testing with the 50-140mm back in February this year, that possibility proved to be a no-go for the main sport I shoot - pro ice hockey. The X-T1's autofocus system, while no slouch by any means, simply wasn't anywhere in the ballpark with the D750. 

A few weeks ago I ran into the Fujifilm reps at a camera expo in Austin and we got to talking about my prior tests. They asked if I would be interested in trying again with the latest firmware. I was skeptical but agreed to give it another go. I had resigned to the fact that there is an ideal tool for every task and the X-T1 just wasn't the best choice for fast paced sports. Horses for courses as they say. The Fujifilm folks flashed my X-T1 to the latest firmware (4.10) and I received a demo 50-140mm lens (firmware 1.10) a couple weeks later. 

The Texas Stars had a home game last night so I brought the X-T1 and the 50-140mm along. My plan was to just shoot warm-ups with the X-T1 and use the D750 for the game as usual. My first shots in warm-ups weren't encouraging. I tried the wide tracking autofocus option and it just wasn't staying locked on. I tend to use the D750's 3D tracking mode quite a bit and I was hoping the wide tracking mode on the X-T1 would be similar. Nope - at least not with pro hockey players. These guys move way too fast and since the X-T1 has to switch to contrast detection at the wide points, it just isn't able to keep up. After some playing around with the autofocus settings I settled on the zone focus option. I opted to use only a 3x3 center focus area figuring that should use the phase detection points only. This worked the best, although I found that I had to get onto the subject and follow longer than I'm accustomed to for the AF system to lock on. Here are the settings I ended up using:

  • Continuous autofocus (C on focus selection switch)
  • High speed burst rate (CH on top dial)
  • Zone autofocus area in middle (3x3 grid)
  • Image quality: Fine (Pro Neg film simulation)
  • DR100
  • Autofocus with release priority
  • Face detection: off
  • Pre Autofocus: off
  • Power Management: High Performance On
  • No image review

Here are a few shots from warm up (click for larger views):

The X-T1 wasn't as responsive as my D750 and the number of keepers wasn't as high as I would have liked. However, I was getting enough acceptable shots that I decided to start the game coverage with the X-T1. After all, I really couldn't get an accurate feel for how it handled a game without shooting actual play. The only thing that really bothered about using the X-T1 for game play initially is that I feared image quality might be an issue since I shoot for the Stars' graphics department. My images need to be sharp and clean. Now, I have no problem with the X-T1's image quality for most things but when people are in my shots I like to be no higher than ISO 1600. In order to get the shutter speed I needed (1/1000), I had to crank the ISO up to 3200 even shooting at f/2.8. That's the point where Fujifilm's algorithms tend to muck up flesh tones a bit. It's really annoying. I push my D750 to ISO 3200 to get to f/4 for more depth of field. The higher ISO on that full frame sensor is no problem. Since I was shooting a game and not portraits, I forged ahead with ISO 3200.

It took me a while to settle in with the X-T1 once the game started. There were some misses of shots I'd really like to have nailed - one save in particular that got away - Argh!!! I resisted the temptation to bag the X-T1 and kept at it. My efforts were rewarded and the keeper rate climbed slowly. Basically, I had to get on the player as soon as possible and allow the X-T1 the little bit of extra time it seems to need to lock on. I started by using back button focus like I do on my D750. It doesn't seem to work the same way on the X-T1. It either stops the continuous focus when the shutter button is hit while the back button focus is pressed or it slows way down. I'm not certain which - I'll have to play with that some more. Bottom line, using the shutter half-press to focus while tracking worked best for me. 

Here are a few shots from the first period:

I learned a few things after the first period. The X-T1 did pretty well tracking approaching players at a distance. As they got closer, within 20 feet or less, the AF system had a real hard time staying locked on. To be fair, my D750 struggles with that too. The fast, erratic movement of the players is a real challenge especially up close. One thing the X-T1 seemed to do better than the D750 is that on shots all the way across the ice (goal to goal) the X-T1 did a great job at locking onto players instead of getting fooled by the contrasty ads on the boards. On the other hand, players skating in the path of the subject I was tracking would throw the AF system off easily. The X-T1 did do a good job at staying locked onto to a subject, like the goalie, when there was activity immediately on either side. Initial focus lock on when changing distance by a large amount was sluggish. I didn't get that snap I get from the DSLR rig. I really liked the 10 frame a second rate of the X-T1. A lot happens in a second of hockey play and my D750 only shoots 6 per second.

Second period:

For the second period, I moved to the media box between the team benches. This is an unobscured area (no protective glass!) that puts the photographer in the middle of the action. Shooting from the corners as I did in the first period (through a cut out hole in the glass) involves a lot of oncoming shots of players. Shooting from the bench is more lateral moving shots and into the goal. This demands that the camera be able to track focus from side to side and be able to maintain focus where I want when shooting into layers of players around the goal. The X-T1 didn't too terrible at lateral tracking but it could have been better. Again, I used only the phase detection area so I was pretty much locking on with the center focus area and panning with the player. My D750 is stronger here with more phase detection points across the frame. The X-T1 did better on shooting into the goal, possibly even better than my D750 does when aimed into a dense crowd in the goal crease. It tends to have trouble settling down on a focus point while the X-T1 was locking on to the right places.

Third period:

The third period I was back in a corner and I worked on getting those oncoming shots nailed. I had a little better luck and managed to get a few good keepers of players in close, maybe 10 feet or closer. The key seems to be getting locked on as far out as possible and bursting away as they approac. This is difficult because the EVF looks rather erratic during bursts and keeping my composition was quite tough. This is an area where looking through a DSLR's prism and mirror through the lens is advantageous. Because I was only using the center phase detection zone, my primary subject had to be in there somewhere. That's tough for hockey where an attacking player will often come in with a defenseman right along side. This means I had to frame loosely and crop. With my D750 I can use 3D focus tracking to grab a player and the AF system will keep on him no matter how he moves or how I reframe. For shooting into the goal I found that it was often best to switch to single focus, lock on to the goalie, then recompose to get the action in front of the net in the frame.

So, after shooting a full game (Still can't believe I did that!), what's the verdict? Is the X-T1 a sports camera? Well...no...but it did do better than I expected with the most recent firmwares. In fairness, my D750 really isn't a true sports body either. I use it because it's the best camera in my budget. I'd use a D4s if I could afford it. I don't make my primary living as a sports photographer so I go with "good enough." The question is probably better asked, is the X-T1 a "good enough" camera for sports? Well, maybe. Based on my experience shooting a pro hockey game, arguably one of the most challenging sports to photograph, I'd say the X-T1 would do just fine for a good number of sports events. No it's not a sports camera, as in specifically designed for that purpose. It doesn't cost $6000+ either. For its price point, if you like its feature set and image quality otherwise, it might just be the right camera for you.

The strengths and weakness I found in the X-T1 in my experience are as follows.

Pros:

  • 10 frames/second bursting (more than a lot of mid-range DSLRs.)
  • EVF - fast refresh and you see your exposure/white balance in real time.
  • EVF - I can chimp a shot without having to look down at the LCD.
  • Front switch makes it easy to switch from continuous to single autofocus.
  • Good auto white balance. I shot the entire game on AWB. Arena light is a moving target and the X-T1 gets it in the ball park. I'd never use on AWB on my D750 in this environment.
  • Much lighter than a comparable DSLR rig with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
  • Supports higher speed cards than a lot of DSLRs currently on the market.

Cons:

  • 1 stop less sensitive than my D750 rig (had to be at ISO 3200 at f/2.8, while my D750 could be at 1600 at f/2.8).
  • Wide AF tracking isn't fast enough for pro hockey players. Need to use center phase detection points.
  • More AF misses than D750, i.e. lower keeper rate. This may improve as I adapt to the quirks of the X-T1 AF system.
  • Slower to acquire initial AF lock, especially if changing by a great distance.

Things Fujifilm could improve in future bodies for sports shooters:

  • Add more phase detection points for better wide tracking.
  • Add a focus range limiter switch to lenses for faster focusing in known ranges (Canon has this on their 70-200mm f/2.8).
  • Add a configuration parameter to autofocus menu for adjusting lock sensitivity, i.e. how long to maintain focus lock before switching to a new subject or point. Canon and Nikon have this.
  • Add dial based custom user settings. I miss C dial settings like on the DSLRs I've owned.
  • Add a second card slot. While I've never lost any shots due to bad cards, I have had them start to flake out before and I disposed of them before it became an unrecoverable problem. As fragile as SD cards are, I'd like to have that peace of mind knowing I've got a backup.

Is the X-T1 the right camera for sports for you? Only you can answer that. Rent or borrow one and find out for yourself. Will it become my sole camera platform as I have hoped? I don't know. I'm encouraged by my experience in this one game but on the whole I still give the nod to the D750. It's got a better AF system and because it is full frame it handles the necessary higher ISOs better. That said, I can't rule out the X-T1 as a "good enough" camera for my needs. The benefits of standardizing on a single platform would be huge. Being able to sell my D750 rig would let me get a second X-T1 body so I'd have identical bodies to work with on the job. That idea is intriguing enough that I just give the X-T1 another go at the next home game in a couple days. I'm not sold yet. That said, I have a glimmer of hope that the X-T1 might just be good enough for my needs. More to come.

If you want to see more all the shots from the game you can find them here.