A couple more Texas Stars games have passed since my initial writeup on using the Fujifilm X-T1 as a sports camera for covering pro hockey. I concluded my thoughts on the first experience by saying that the verdict was still out on the X-T1 as a sole camera for a fast paced sport like hockey. The little X-T1 didn't perform terribly by any means that first game and since my Fujifilm rep was kind enough to let me keep a copy of the 50-140mm lens over the holidays, I decided to use it at a couple more games last week. In total, I have 3 full pro hockey games under my belt using only the X-T1. Here is what I've learned.
I went into this experiment cautiously. The first game I carried my Nikon D750 and 70-200mm lens around with me all game, just in case the X-T1 wasn't getting me the shots I needed. At the second game, I still took the D750 to the arena but I left it in a locker as an emergency backup. By the third game, my confidence in the X-T1 was high enough that I left the D750 at home. It was obvious that I was able to come away with as many keepers as I would have gotten with the D750. After the first game, I checked in with the graphic designer at the Stars since she is my customer and got a thumbs up on image quality. It is important to note that she did notice the same tendency of the X-T1 to smooth skin in unnatural ways at ISO 3200 - not enough to be a problem though. It is still something I wish Fujifilm would address.
At the second and third games I continued to experiment with the X-T1's settings. In my last article I mentioned that wide tracking continuous autofocus didn't very well for this sport. I gave it one more try for sanity's sake and my opinion hasn't changed. I needed to restrict the focus points to the phase detection areas of the sensor by using the 3x3 zone focus grid. I also tried switching from release priority to focus priority autofocus. While I've always favored release priority on DSLRs that I've used, I was happier with focus priority on the X-T1. Other than that, the only other change I made in my settings from those I listed last time was switching to Provia film simulation from Pro Neg Hi for a bit more color pop.
Here are all the relevant camera settings that I settled on:
- 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 (Provia film simulation)
- Autofocus with focus priority
- Face detection: off
- Pre Autofocus: off
- Power Management: High Performance On
- No image review
My exposure for all shots posted here was 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 3200.
I can prattle on and on about the X-T1 shooting experience but the proof is in the pictures. There are several key shooting scenarios in hockey game photography and I'll provide some examples of each.
Oncoming Player Movement
Players at the pro level have amazing speed. I've found that oncoming players present the biggest challenge to camera autofocus systems. Even my D750 struggles with this as players get in close. What I found with the X-T1 is that I had to get the autofocus system tracking a player as far out as feasible. The X-T1 is slightly slower to get an initial lock than my D750 but it does a pretty job at staying with the subject once I get it locked on. The X-T1 did quite well at staying on players and not getting distracted by the contrasty ads on the boards. I was able to get some pretty close shots of moving players close in, provided that I got locked on before they were right up on me.
Lateral Player Movement
Lateral or side to side movement is a little easier for cameras I've used. The main glitches in this area tend to be when an autofocus system grabs onto the boards when players are close to them or locking onto a different player than I intended. The X-T1 did well on all counts. As long as I got a lock and followed through by panning with the players I didn't have any issues.
Tight Groups of Players
One area where my D750 can struggle is when players are packed together tightly, as is often the case around the goal. A wide focus point array can lead to the camera hunting too long as it decides what to focus on. I found that the X-T1 did quite well at staying with my intended subject when using the 3x3 zone array.
A lot happens in a split second of hockey and the high frame rate helps catch the action and give me more shots to pick from after the game. The X-T1 beats my D750 in this area. I came away from more interesting puck-in-flight shots in the last games than I usually get.
Last time I wrote about the X-T1 at the hockey arena I was undecided. While I got some good shots, I wasn't ready to say it was definitely up to the task. Have my feelings changed? Well, I have to say that after 3 games with the X-T1 and just as many keepers as I normally got with my D750, I guess I can safely say that the X-T1 can absolutely work as a sports camera albeit with certain limitations and with good technique on the part of the photographer.
Stuff I really like about the X-T1:
- Light weight. My wrists, arms and back are much happier with this rig.
- Auto focus is solid once locked on.
- Fast frame rate.
- Front switch makes it quick to switch between continuous and single autofocus modes.
- Great image quality in smaller JPEG files than a lot of DSLRs.*
- Auto white balance works better with flickering sports lighting than my D750.
Stuff that's annoying about the X-T1:
- On a DSLR, I configure back button focus and focus continues while the back button is pressed and the shutter button is held down. The X-T1 doesn't do that. If I use a configured back button to focus, it stops focusing when the shutter is pressed. That makes no sense. I had to use shutter half press only for focusing.
- Only middle points (phase detection spots) are good for fast paced autofocus. This means I sometimes need to shoot loose and crop to get the composition I want.
- ISO sensitivity seems to be almost a stop less than my D750.
- Can't turn off noise reduction completely (even at -2 there is still odd smoothing of flesh tones at ISO 3200.)
- Only one SD card slot. Give me two in the next body, please!!!!
- Takes too long (with the 50-140mm lens) to transition from close to distant focus points. My DSLR is way snappier.
- Lack of dial based custom settings. It takes too many steps to go from a sports oriented setup to a more static subject setup. It's just a turn of a single dial on my D750.
- The EVF can flicker or black out during burst shots. I actually haven't found it to be a deal breaker since I've been training myself to keep both eyes open for safety's sake anyway.
There are a lot of negatives about using mirrorless camera like this for sports to be sure. However, I didn't hit anything insurmountable in my tests and at the end of the game I'm getting the shots I need from a camera system that I really like. Am I ready to switch completely to the X-T1 platform? I'm seriously thinking about it. I don't use my D750 for anything except sports anymore and it sure would be nice to have a single platform. I'd buy the 50-140mm and a second X-T1 body so I could have everything from wide to telephoto shots with the same body. That would be most excellent. I've proven to myself that sports photography can be done with the X-T1 and a complete switch is under consideration. I'll let you guys know if I make the leap. Am I crazy? Feel free to weigh in through the comments section.
*Yes, I shoot JPEG only for sports and events the majority of the time. I don't have time to deal with processing raw files when I've got hundreds of images to sift through and deadlines to meet. Fujifilm JPEGs are notoriously good. If the lighting is absurd due to low light or extreme dynamic range, I'll shoot JPEG+raw.