As of the new hockey season, I'm all in with Fujifilm X series cameras. My Nikon D750 is gone. The only reason I'd kept the D750 around was to shoot hockey games. With the release of the Fujifilm X-T2 I felt like I no longer needed to keep the D750 around. Now that I've gotten a few games covered with the X-T2 I wanted to share my experience. Is the X-T2 a DSLR killer? Read on.
First off, let me say that I am no longer covering hockey as much as I used to in the past. I still work with the Texas Stars. My work situation changed last year though and I decided that I just didn't have the time any longer that sports photography demands for as many games as there are in a hockey season. I'm now on backup status and will be filling in from time to time. This definitely had an influence on my decision to ditch the Nikon gear. I no longer felt I needed specialized gear with sports photography being a major priority. Would I have made the move if I were still "full time" as a hockey photography. I think so. In full disclosure though, I just wanted to put my situation out there.
Let me cut to the chase. Is the X-T2 a sports camera? In the sense of being purpose built and optimized for that genre of photography - no. Can it handle sports with acceptable results? Yes. I had to adapt my technique to the X-T2's capabilities. When I did, I came away with just as many keepers as I did with my old DSLR rig. What's different? I think the biggest thing is that it just doesn't have that that snappy near instantaneous autofocus that a good DSLR has, especially in continuous mode. With my D750 I could move between subjects and the focus just snapped right in. The X-T2 isn't as responsive. I found that I needed to get on the desired player sooner and give the camera a little time to lock on with its tracking. Once it locks on, I'm good. It requires more anticipation and planning on my part. Skills I need anyway. Once I had that understanding, I was able to get along with the X-T2 fine.
I've shot with Canon cameras in the past, with my last Canon being the 5D Mark III. The AF continuous tracking configuration in the X-T2 looks a lot like Canon's interface. Enough so that I wonder if some technology was licensed from Canon here. Seeing that was a disappointment to me. The Canon system could be endlessly tweaked. That was never a good thing to me. Maybe hockey is a special case but I never found any measurable benefit to the level of control in Canon's system. Nikon has a simpler system. I'd just set my continuous mode to 3D autofocus and done. It just worked.
The Fujifilm AF configuration options are sadly reminding me of my Canon days. I tried all the options, giving extra experimentation time to option 5 - Erratically Moving and Accelerating/Decelerating Subjects. That sure sounds like hockey players. Oddly, that setting resulted in the highest miss rates. The default general purpose mode (option 1) produced the best results. I need to get these camera engineers out to a hockey game. Clearly.
After experimenting over the course of 3 games, my relevant camera settings are as follows:
- Performance boost enabled.
- Continuous AF (C on front switch)
- High speed burst (CH on top dial)
- Zone AF (mid size area)
- Focus priority continous AF
- Pre focus off
- EVF only
- Fine JPEG only (STD)
The X-T2 has a faster frame rate than my D750 did and that is even without the battery grip that boosts the frame rate even higher. I got more frames in bursts of action sequences than I ever have before. On my D750 I always used release priority on the continuous AF. On the X-T2, release priority just resulted in lots of out of focus frames. Sometimes it never achieved AF. I got much better results with focus priority. Again, with the X-T2 it is best to get on the subject and track with it, giving the camera as much time as feasible to figure out what you want it to hone in on.
Let's get to some pictures. First, here are some samples of oncoming player tracking. This is, in my opinion, the most difficult thing for any camera to track. Pro hockey players move amazingly fast and there isn't much time to get a lock when they are racing toward the net.
Lateral movement is the next type of movement to track. It is as much difficult for the photographer as the camera as I have to keep the camera following the player while the camera continues to stay locked on the player in the AF zone without being distracted by high contrast ads on the boards or other players. Here are a few lateral tracking samples.
There are plenty of contrasty things to distract a camera AF system and a good sports camera needs to stay locked on to the desired player. The X-T2 does OK with this. Honestly I don't find it as solid as as the D750 but if I got on the player early the X-T2 did good enough that I didn't lose too many shots. This is one area I need to spend a little more time trying to tweak the tracking lock through the custom settings I think. Here are some samples where the X-T2 had to track a player through potential distractions.
In hockey a lot happens in a split second. This is where the camera's ability to stay locked on with focus while bursting a high frame rate comes into play. Again, I wasn't using the vertical grip. I got some great bursts using the X-T2 as-is and got more frames to choose from than I would have with my D750. In tight action sequences around the goal I think the X-T2 actually did a bit better than my D750 at staying locked in without trying to jump between players. Here are some samples of net action.
I mentioned that I was used Zone mode for continuous AF tracking. Why not the Wide Tracking mode? Because it doesn't work - at least not at the hockey arena. These guys move way too quickly and erratically and the Wide Tracking mode just doesn't seem to be able to deal with it. My miss ration went WAY up when I tried it. Zone mode is the way to go here. I used the mid sized region as a happy medium between the small 3x3 grid and the largest zone setting.
As said previously, I got the best results with the default general purpose (option 1) AF setting. The zone area switching mode is Auto in the setting I used which is supposed to start in the center then move around as needed for tracking. I found that the AF system still seemed to favor front facing (closer) subjects in some scenarios. Picking a player from a crowd, the AF system sometimes decided to snap to a nearby closer subject. The contrasty zebra striped on-ice officials were often preferred targets for the AF system. Take the shot below where I was tracking a player in the center when the AF system decided to jump over to the referee. I also had difficulty isolating players on the bench without switching to single focus mode.
I hope the image samples here illustrate that the X-T2 is certainly capable of getting good sports shots. No, it isn't going to top a more expensive DSLR in the AF department. Still, it is quite good - good enough in fact for this part time hockey photographer. I trust the X-T2 to enable me to deliver quality images to my client.
I focused a lot (heh, see what I did there) on the AF system. What about other aspects of the camera? There is a lot to like about the X-T2 and a few things that are annoying. Here is a quick list of things that come to mind from my experiences thus far.
- Dual memory cards - yes!
- Light weight.
- Auto white balance is quite good (I still use a custom setting at the hockey arena.)
- JPEGs are fantastic. I do little more than crop as necessary before delivering my files.
- Analog controls for shutter, aperture, ISO as it should be.
- Sensor noise is very low up to ISO 6400. Over the X-T1 I can now shoot up 6400 to get a tighter aperture for greater DoF with little noise introduced.
- EVF is fantastic. I didn't have any problems with blackouts.
- Battery life isn't so great. I went through a battery per period.
- Too many AF settings that don't help much (at least in hockey).
- Too many key strokes to format cards. Drill down to one to format then you get popped back to the main menu to drill down again for the second card. NOTE: A Fujifilm representative informed me of a shortcut. Hold down the "trash can" button then press the rear dial. That gets you to the SD slots.
- Lack of dial based custom settings. I'd love a dial for being able to quickly transition between tracking AF and static single point AF settings. On my old DSLRs it was much faster to change from ice to bench and fan settings (different exposure, single vs continuous focus)
In summary, the X-T2 can serve as a perfectly adequate sports camera. I'm not going to say it's revolutionary, mind blowing, DSLR killing, etc. because it's not in my opinion. It's a camera system that I really enjoy working with and I've preferred X system cameras for everything outside of sports for the past several years. With the X-T2 I feel I no longer need a DSLR in my camera bag. It's not perfect but it's good enough to for me to do my job as a pro hockey photographer.
All shots in this post were taken with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens with the latest firmwares at the time. The standard (Provia) film simulation was used and all images are camera JPEGs with light post processing in Adobe Lightroom for cropping and slight exposure adjustment as needed. Images were captured at 4000-6400 ISO. Images are property of the Texas Stars.