Leather by Revival

Those who frequent my blog will be familiar with Revival Cycles in Austin, TX. In addition to their annual Handbuilt Motorcycle Show, they host other cool events regularly, like their monthly Gearhead Sundays. These guys are passionate about all things motorcycle related and besides their custom bike builds, they hand craft a lot of other great stuff. I’d been eyeing some of their leather accessories for a while and at a recent Gearhead Sunday event I made a couple of purchases.

Revival gives back a lot to the motorcycle enthusiast community. I decided to purchase a new camera hand strap and wallet to give back a little to them. The goods that Revival makes in-house are top notch. I got to hang out in the leather workshop where they design and make their goods. Patrick, one of their leather craftsmen, showed me around and we talked about what I wanted. I actually ended up ordering a couple of custom items, as Patrick was happy to make a few simple tweaks to get me exactly what I had in mind.

I had been wanting a nice leather camera wrist strap for my Fujifilm X100F for quite some time. The cheap one I had on there for the past year was getting frayed. I was happy to discover that Revival actually makes a couple of camera straps. To be honest, the price was a bit higher than I had in mind. Not outrageous mind you, just more than the typical stuff you’ll find on eBay or Amazon. But hey, you just don’t get quality leather goods like what Revival makes on the cheap from anywhere. Buying the strap from a local company that custom makes them by hand was absolutely worth the price - especially when Patrick would make some simple changes at no extra cost. I chose a soft mahogany vegetable tanned leather - butter soft to the touch. My strap was made without a stiff insert for greater flexibility and I had him put smooth leather on the inside of the strap instead of the usual rough out.


While looking over the rest of Revival’s leather goods, I found a wallet that caught my eye. My wallet was starting to fall apart and the guys had a prototype for a passport wallet out on their display table. I loved the soft feel of the leather they used, although the prototype had a snap clasp that I didn’t care for. I prefer my wallet to be as minimal and thin as possible. Patrick offered to make one the way I wanted it.

Both of the items I ordered were delivered to my home less than a week after ordering. They were packed in neat little cloth bags and I’m using one of those to hold cables and things in my messenger bag. Bonus! The wallet is as awesome as the camera strap - soft luxurious leather that feels like a quality piece of craftsmanship. My wallet fits like a glove into one of the side cargo pockets of the 5.11 pants I always wear. Now I have a wallet that holds my stuff in a thin profile that slips into a side pocket. I no longer sit on my wallet!

Check out Revival’s camera straps and wallets with the links below. I’m just a happy customer and I don’t get commissions from Revival. Note that my wallet is a new design they are working on and may not be on the site. I’m sure they would be happy to help if you give them a call.

Camera Straps

Wallets

Simplicity

I mentioned a few weeks back that I had an epiphany of sorts while doing some live music photography. No, I wasn't trying to be coy in not divulging the details until now. It has simply taken me some time to process the decision I made and put together my thoughts. I'll cut to the chase for those who would rather not read the entirety my ramblings. The photo above represents the sum of my digital photography gear - well, except for my iPhone that I used to take the photos in this post. Everything else is gone. Things are much more simple now.

Really, I had already gotten down to a fairly small amount of gear before I made my decision to minimize my gear down to the Fujifilm X100F and a couple of conversion lenses. I had my Fujifilm X-T2 with the 35mm f/1.4 and 50-140mm f/2.8 lenses. The X-T2 was more of a working camera for me. I used it for sports and some portrait work. Since I decided to not do my sports gig any longer, I had gotten to where I only grabbed my X100F when leaving my house. The X-T2 rig was collecting dust for the better part of a year, since the last time I shot a hockey game. After taking it to a show recently and using it along side my X100F, my mind was made up. The X-T2 and its lenses were sold a couple weeks back. 

I've photographed a lot of different stuff over the years. Sports was never really my thing. Fun to a point, but a lot of work and the pay isn't so great these days. I do kind of like portraiture but it is something my introverted self has never been truly comfortable in doing. When I do choose to make portraits, I prefer more environmental sorts of images so I really don't need a long portrait lens for tight headshots. When I consider the things I really like photographing - live music, cars & bikes, and urban environments - I find that the X100F is really all I need and it's the camera I enjoy using more than any other that I've owned.

Some of you may be be surprised to hear that I would give up the X-T2 in favor of the X100F for live music of all things. Wouldn't the X-T2 be better capable of autofocusing quickly in that environment? Maybe a bit. My experience is that the focus speed is only marginally better and good live music shots IMO are more about anticipation and timing than a reaction that relies on fast autofocus anyway. My overall experience with the X100F supersedes any minimal benefit in autofocus with the X-T2.  Additionally, even though the controls are fairly similar between the two cameras, the X100F just fits me like a glove and I found myself fumbling with the X-T2 when I tried to work with both cameras at once. 

I have discovered that the X100F is sufficient for me. Actually, I'm not sure that's the best word to describe it. "Sufficient" sounds like I'm settling for something. That's not it at all. The X100F exceeds my expectations. It's truly a wonderful tool for photography.

What's so great about the X100F? Here's my list.

  • It's a great size for discreetly carrying anywhere. Smallish yet big enough that it feels comfortable in my hands.
  • The viewfinder. In the left corner it works perfectly for us right eye dominant folks. Center viewfinders involve nose mashing against the back of the camera and they are not easy to use with my progressive eyeglass prescription. In addition to optimal placement, the viewfinder is very versatile. I switch between optical and EVF modes depending on the situation. 
  • Silent. Nobody knows when I snap a shot. 
  • Builtin ND filter. I use that all the time outside during the afternoon. I can get a more shallow DoF on bright days without having to carry a screw-on filter around.
  • Leaf shutter. I don't do a lot of flash photography but when I do, the incredible sync speed of the leaf shutter, in combination with the ND filter, can turn day into night. 
  • Versatile focal length. The 35mm equivalent lens can be used for everything from landscapes to snapshots to portraits. It's truly a Goldilox lens.

I could be content with the X100F as-is and I'm confident I could make the 35mm equivalent lens work for anything. Fujifilm provides a couple of options for the X100 series though and I own both the telephoto and wide angle conversion lenses for my X100F. In truth, I love the 50mm equivalent focal length of the telephoto conversion lens. 50mm is really my favorite focal length, although it isn't as versatile as 35mm. The telephoto conversion lens sees a lot of use at concerts and for portraits. Then there are also times when I need a little wider focal length. This is usually at concerts where my movement is restricted and I'm right at the edge of a low stage. So, I have a few options with this X100F rig. Not too many - just right. Simple.

No doubt that many people will view my choice as too limiting. I find it liberating. I've relieved my self of most of the burden of choice and the "analysis paralysis" that my obsessive analytical mind sometimes gets trapped in. Now I have one very small camera bag that I can grab and head out the door knowing that I've got a bit of kit that I know well, love to use, and will prove to be perfectly fine for the type of photography that I enjoy. The X100F isn't for everyone. For me, it's just right.

 

Ecosystems

I'm sure I'm somewhat of an oddity among photographers. While I enjoy making photographs, i.e. using my camera to capture images, I don't like post processing. I spend way too much time in front of computers at work and the last thing I want to do is to spend hours more at home staring at the glowing screen while pushing pixels around. There has to be an easier way. I've been looking for that way for some time and have been testing the waters with a new workflow. Actually, it's more than a workflow. It's a commitment to ecosystems.

Before venturing into something new, I put a lot of thought into what I wanted in a photography workflow. I came up with a set of wants and desires.

  • Mobile capability - I don't want to have to be seated at my office desk to work on photos. Maybe I want to sit on a couch or a in a comfortable chair. Maybe I want to pop into a coffee shop or pub and work on some photos while enjoying a beverage.

  • Simplicity - I've scaled my post processing work down the past couple of years to where I do minimal work on my images. I don't need powerful bloated editing applications any longer. Dodge, burn, tone curve - I could live with only those capabilities.

  • Cloud based storage - I use a few cloud services for my images, which up until recently were only for hosting and backup. I wanted to be able to edit cloud hosted images as well. Sure, I'll maintain a local backup but I don't want to have to be plugged into a local piece of storage to get to my stuff.

  • Lower hardware requirements - Given my minimal editing, I don't need a powerhouse machine any longer. I was looking at getting a new system and I didn't want to have to spec out an expensive machine since I'm not going to be doing things like editing with dense layers in Photoshop.

After much deliberation and experimentation, I settled on Adobe Lightroom CC with their cloud service as my main image storage and editing platform. The scaled down desktop app provides everything I need for my editing. Over the course of a week or so, I uploaded all of my images into the Adobe cloud. Prior to beaming everything up, I did a good bit of Spring cleaning, ruthlessly deleting a lot of old work. As of this writing, I have 32,000 images in the Adobe cloud. My subscription is for both Lightroom Classic CC and the CC cloud only app. When it comes time for renewal, I expect to move to CC cloud exclusively. That will cost me a mere $10 a month for the cloud storage I need.

I mentioned my decision to a good friend of mine. "You're committing to an ecosystem", he said in a scoffing tone. I was greatly amused by his comment, as he works for Apple - the epitome of a tightly closed ecosystem. Apple is in fact the other ecosystem to which I have aligned myself in my grand experiment. My 27" iMac was gifted to my wife whose aging iMac was dying a slow death. I found a 13" MacBook Pro on sale at a decent discount and that is now my primary system. 

The first few weeks with the MacBook weren't as rosy of an experience as the software. I quickly discovered that the keyboard is really annoying. I'm forced to use the Bluetooth keyboard that went with my old iMac. The thermal performance of the MacBook leaves a lot to be desired as well. The fans kick on loudly if I do much more than use a web browser. It's louder than my iMac by a considerable amount. The only time my iMac every made any noise was during video rendering. The keyboard gets quite warm but since I'm using the external keyboard that isn't much of an issue. Don't get me started on the fact that Apple has gone to only USB-C ports and that my model only has two. Not one fucking USB-A port? Ah well, I knew that going in. Dongles it is.

I had another hardware issue in that my old Wacom tablet was getting flakey. As I considered the cost to replace it, I decided to instead put my money toward a basic iPad. It was actually my original thought to get an iPad Pro instead of a MacBook but when I looked into that possibility I concluded that would be too much of a limitation, at least today. Local storage is the biggest factor. While I'm embracing cloud storage, for now I still want a local backup. Maybe in a few years I'll change my mind. It will take a while to gain the confidence to let go of that level of control and possession. 

In any event, I've grown to love editing with Lightroom CC on my iPad. I use a simple stylus and I can do everything I need for editing my images. To my surprise, working with raw files is actually faster on my iPad than on my MacBook Pro! The desktop CC app seems to do more rendering work during editing while the iPad works off the Smart Preview it generates. While the cooling fans of my MacBook scream like a banshee if I dare open a Fujifilm raw file, the iPad whips right through them. I had gotten away from raw editing almost entirely over the years since I started shooting Fujifilm cameras and now the iPad with Lightroom CC makes it quick and fun again. I love that whether I pick up my MacBook, iPad, or iPhone that all my images are available (assuming I have a WiFi connection, of course.) I've actually used my iPhone a few times now to show images to people and even do a few edits.

My workflow is a bit broken up at the moment. I haven't gotten a card reader for the iPad yet and I'm using my old workflow for ingesting images on the MacBook. I use Photo Mechanic to cull images before pulling them into Lightroom CC. Once the images are in the cloud, I switch to the iPad for editing. While editing is quick, exporting is way too slow and cumbersome. I'm thinking there must be an easier way to do this on the iPad but I haven't had to time to pursue it. For now, once the edits are done I just do the batch export on my MacBook and upload the images to my web gallery. 

My images are in 3 places in the cloud: Adobe, SmugMug, and Backblaze. The original unedited files are on an external drive attached to the MacBook. Adobe keeps that in sync for me when it is connected. On import all of my files are beamed up to Adobe and when the drive is connected they are replicated locally. Backblaze copies that external drive to its cloud. I anticipate using this system through this year before I reevaluate. This gives me 2 cloud copies of original files and edits (Adobe stores the originals along with metadata, SmugMug is edits only, and Backblaze is both.)

To get my wish list, I've aligned myself with 2 ecosystems - Apple and Adobe - for better or worse. We'll see how this goes. I'm excited about the mobile editing on the iPad more than anything. That thing has become a regular companion, not only for photography, but for education and reading as well. I watch a lot of education videos on that thing and it's easier to tote around than the MacBook. Apple seems to be devoting a lot of their efforts to improving the mobile side of their business and by the look of things on my MacBook, perhaps that area is being a bit neglected. If the iPad experience continues to improve, I won't shed a tear over walking away from desktop computers for good.

Quiet Night at the Bar With The Fujifilm 18mm f/2

It was a quiet Thursday night at Hanovers last night. After the crowd last weekend for the tribute band night, the place seemed eerily deserted. I was there to meet up with a fellow photographer who was selling a Fujifilm lens I was interested in - the XF 18mm f/2. The price was right and I impulsively jumped on the deal. Sudden case of G.A.S. (i.e. gear acquisition syndrome)? No, not really.

It's a weird time for me to be buying gear as I've been in the process of carefully scrutinizing the things in my life and I've been offloading a lot of stuff of lately. It's a process of simplifying things - efforts toward a more minimalist lifestyle. If the new lens works out, it may replace one or two others. It fits between my 16mm and 23mm lens and I'm wondering if it is capable of doing the jobs of the others well enough. Time will tell.

I grabbed a few test shots before buying the new-to-me lens. It was a good test environment. This is my usual territory. Little light, pulling something out of virtual nothingness. Lens wide open, ISO up, shutter speed down. Not too bad. I'll look forward to putting this little lens through the paces.

Fujifilm X-T2 Hockey Update

I've got a few more games under my belt since I last wrote about my experience using a Fujifilm X-T2 as a dedicated sports camera for covering pro level hockey games. It has taken me a while to get things dialed in and I'm happy with the results I have been getting. As I've said before, the X-T2 is not a purpose-built sports camera. However, for my use in covering games for the AHL Texas Stars hockey team, it is working well enough that I no longer own a DSLR. 

My hockey gear kit now consists of the X-T2 with the XF 50-140mm lens mounted. I also carry my old X-T1 for use with either the XF 16mm or the 35mm. lenses. That's it. This all fits in a small Billingham bag. I'm digging that. Shooting with the X-T2 exclusively for game play has required some adjustments to my technique and it has taken some time to get the autofocus system dialed in. I've said before that the continuous AF system looks a lot like Canon's AF configuration menu and I wonder if some technology was licensed here. Truthfully, if that is the case, I'd rather Fujifilm have used Nikon as a model. Having shot both Canon and Nikon at the rink, I found the Nikon system much more accurate. While it's not a perfectly tuned AF system for fast action sports, I've managed to make the X-T2 work for me.

There are a number of settings that can be configured in the X-T2's AF menu. None of the canned AF scenarios really worked extremely well and I was frustrated at first. Having spent some time tweaking things, here is what I find works best for me.

  • AF Mode: Zone (3x3)

  • AF-C Custom Settings

    • Tracking sensitivity: 2

    • Speed tracking sensitivity: 1

    • Zone area switching: front

  • Pre-AF: OFF

  • Performance: Boost

  • Focus priority AF

  • EVF view only

The zone area switching set to front seemed to help my keepers go up. I'd tried auto but the AF system would hunt too much trying to decide what to lock onto in situations with players packed tightly together. I found this also helped AF be a little snappier in locking onto close moving subjects. The real key to success with the X-T2's focus tracking is to get on the subject as soon as possible and follow for a moment before blasting away with the shutter. The DSLRs I have used in the past were more snappy in acquiring subjects quickly and I could bounce from player to player without much lag. The X-T2 demands a more calculated approach. There is more effort on my part to anticipate player movement and strategy. That's probably not a bad thing. 

I'm not sure why but I seem to have better results using the shutter button for AF in addition to firing the shutter. I've always used back button focus with DSLRs and configured the shutter button for its sole purpose. For whatever reason I get more keepers with the shutter button handling AF on my X-T2. I'm wondering if AF on the back button cuts out when the shutter is firing. 

At the end of the day, no matter what gear you use all that matters is that you are getting the shots you need. I can honestly say that I don't feel like I'm missing anything having switched exclusively to the Fujifilm cameras. The real measure of a camera system is in the images it produces so here are some favorite shots from the last couple of games. 

First, here are a few 3 shot action sequences to give an idea of how the X-T2 tracks in game play. The frame rate of the X-T2 lets me easily fire 5-6 shot bursts with no lag. In the last 3 images of this group you can see how the AF holds on a fast moving subject up close. That's the lens cutout in the glass you can see as I'm continuing to shoot while backing up to avoid getting my lens broken!

Below are some single frames of key action moments. Some of these are from a burst sequence but several are more reactionary captures of something quickly happening. The X-T2 isn't as adept as a high end DSLR for those "in the blink of an eye" grabs but as you can see it can deliver. I included some scenes with potential distractions like other players at different distances in the focus zone. Those zebra stripes of on-ice officials can really be an attention grabber for AF systems. I'm impressed with the way the X-T2 usually ignores them to stay on target. Changing zone area switching from auto to front seemed to help with that.

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 are property of the Texas Stars.

Shooting Stars with the Fujifilm X-T2

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.

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • 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.

Fujifilm X-T2 First Impressions

This is a first for me. I'm not usually one to be an early adopter of anything technology related. I prefer to let others jump in first and get the bugs shaken out and fixed before I commit to buying in. Well, I broke this personal rule of thumb when I pre-ordered a Fujifilm X-T2 about a month before it started shipping. It was not an easy decision. I absolutely love my X-T1 and given the substantial price jump on the new model I wasn't sure I needed the upgrade. The tipping point might be surprising to some. It wasn't the increased resolution, improved autofocus tracking, dual memory card slots or other performance related upgrades. It was Acros.

One of the things I love most about Fujifilm's X cameras is their wonderful film simulations. These days when there is so much that you can do with raw files in post processing that this may not make sense to a lot of photographers. I know it doesn't because I routinely get told I'm foolish for shooting in JPEG mode. Here's the deal. I hate post processing. I hate staring at a computer screen pushing pixels around trying to get the look I'm after. Some people live for that and post processing is the driving force behind their creativity. That's not me. I find it tedious and stifling to my creativity. I'd rather be out there shooting and have little to do with my images when I get home. 

When I look at Fujifilm's JPEGs I rarely find that I can do better in post processing for the most part. Yes, there are times when the raw files are needed. Most of the time I find that for me they are not. I do have to say that I haven't been that crazy about Fujifilm's black and white simulations. While most of the other film simulations have tighter connections to specific film stocks, the black and white mode didn't seem to be modeled after anything specific and the results for me were kind of bland. I found that I got better results shooting in Classic Chrome mode and converting to black and white in post (even though I hate post processing). Now, with the Acros film simulation I don't think I'll be doing that anymore. Fujifilm finally has a black and white film simulation modeled after an excellent film, Acros. It's a film that I still shoot today from time to time. Perfect.

The Acros simulation has been out for a while now in the X-Pro 2. I could have picked up that camera and had the film simulation I wanted months ago. I chose to wait for the X-T2 because I knew it would be the better fit. I shoot a good bit of action stuff - live music, sports, events. That's where those other new features come into play. To justify the price of this upgrade it needs to perform in demanding conditions. A film simulation based on a much loved film stock is the main allure but the camera has got to be able to do everything I need it to from portraits to live music to fast action sports. I'm taking the gamble that it will. I'm all in.

My X-T2 came in late last week and I picked it up yesterday at Precision Camera. It went straight from the box to my camera bag. I didn't even have time to charge the battery before I left to photograph a local band. Thankfully my X-T1's batteries work just fine in the X-T2. With full faith in my untested purchase I headed out to catch a late show of my friends Horseshoes and Handgrenades at the Saxon Pub in south Austin.

Of course, I set the X-T2 to the Acros film simulation. Fine JPEG only, no safety cushion of raw files. I dialed in the standard settings I'm accustomed to using at live music performances around here: -1 highlights, -1 shadows, noise reduction as low as it will go (now up to -4 on the X-T2). I set dynamic range to auto and operated between ISO 1600 and 3200, full manual. I used single point autofocus. The lens was my favorite XF lens, the Fujfifilm 35mm f/1.4.

I was struck by the dynamic range I was getting, especially in shadow detail. The -1 setting ended up being a little too open for me in shadow detail when I saw the images on my computer screen so the above files are tweaked just slightly with a bit of boost in the shadows to darken them for my tastes. In the future I think I'd go 0 or +1 on shadows. I like the -1 highlights to help roll them off gently for a more film-like look. The auto dynamic range helps to keep highlights in check as well. 

Auto focus performance was exceptional. I had no hunting whatsoever - although the stage lighting at the venue was pretty decent. The X-T2 seemed to breath new life into my 35mm lens. The 35mm is a first generation XF lens and a lot of people view it as sluggish compared to more recently released XF lenses. It locked on quickly, especially when using a phase detect point. I can't think of a single shot that I lost due to slow AF speed. I can think of lots of shots I missed with the same lens on my X-T1 in similar shooting conditions. 

I did fumble a few times with the new controls. This was due to my inexperience with them and not any short comings of the camera. The new AF point joystick is, well, a joy to use. When I remembered it was there it was amazingly fast to move the point around and get it where I needed it quickly. My X-T1 is setup such that the back arrow keys control the AF point and I found myself repeatedly hitting the arrow keys on the X-T2. Old habits die hard but the new way is much better. I was also having to fiddle with the new lock button on the ISO and shutter wheels. The XT-1 requires you to always press the ISO dial button to turn the wheel. Now the button acts kind of like a ball point pen clicker. Click to lock or unlock and it stays that way until you click again. It's an improvement that I'll have to get used to.

Also improved on the X-T2 are the doors for the memory cards and connection ports. I was always managing to open the memory card door on my X-T1 accidentally. The door and latch is much better now and I don't think I'll be having that problem any more. Speaking of memory card slots - there are two of them now. Hot damn, I love that. For paid work I really like having that instant backup. It's hard to put a price on peace of mind. SD cards are kind of fragile. 

The eye cup that was so great on the X-T1 is even better on the X-T2. The EVF display is amazing as it was before. If you wear glasses, this is the mirrorless camera for you. No question about it. One other thing I noticed and I'm not sure if this is just because it is new but the articulating LCD has a more solid feel now. It stays firmly seated against the camera body until you deliberately pull it up. My X-T1's LCD lifts very easily - too easily in comparison.

So far I am thoroughly impressed with the X-T2. It remains to be seen how the revamped AF system tracks in fast action sports. Thankfully hockey season is closing in fast and you can expect me to give the X-T2 a chance to prove itself at a Texas Stars game soon. I have a feeling I'm not going to be disappointed.

Addendum

I intended for this post to be just a quick first impressions write-up. While I was playing around with the tone options here at home I thought I'd add a short addendum about that because I think there is some neat stuff here. I grabbed a shot in raw of my sometimes willing model, Chloe, sitting in late afternoon window light. It is a high contrast scene with hard window light on one side and just some faint lamp light on the other. This is ISO 3200 and f/2.8, DR200 (by auto choice.) I processed JPEGs in camera at each of the shadow detail settings (-2 through +4). Highlights are at -1 in all except the last, which is at +4 highlights and +4 shadows - an extreme case that I don't think I would ever use but I wanted to see what the histogram would look like. I didn't include the full highlight range because I usually prefer to pull highlights down if anything.

The interesting thing about the push/pull of highlights and shadows in the Acros simulation is that the extreme ends are lifted. You won't see clipping in either end of the histogram as a result of pushing the tone controls to the extreme. The result is very film-like. Maybe I should say Acros-like. Based on my experience with Acros I'd probably be inclined to keep the shadows no higher than +1 for general use, especially something like a portrait. This will take some more experimentation. 

Olympus XA 2

I've been looking around for a small pocketable film camera for those days when I'm scooting about the back roads on my motorcycle and I don't want to be burdened with a camera bag over my shoulder. A few weeks back I stumbled on a little Olympus XA 2. The form factor is just what I wanted and I liked that it has a sliding lens cover instead of a cap. Without knowing a whole lot about this little camera I snapped it up.

This style of camera is really different for me. I tend to use my cameras primarily in full manual mode. That's not even possible on the XA 2. The only exposure control it has is the ASA (ISO) setting. The aperture and shutter speed are determined by the meter. There is no precise focus control - only a 3 position switch with icons for portrait, group, and landscape. The viewfinder is a simple window with a frame line. No through-the-lens composition here. I'm giving up a lot of control and that's outside my comfort zone. This will be an interesting and challenging camera!

The shutter button is kind of unusual on this little camera. It isn't a button so much as a pressure sensitive area. I thought it felt odd at first. The nice thing is that I had no trouble activating it even with motorcycle gloves on. One thing that is kind of annoying about the camera's operation is that when the sliding lens cover is closed the focus distance resets to the middle "group portrait" setting. That behavior got me more than once!

My XA 2 came with a flash and the original case. The flash is neat in how it attaches to the side and blends right in. I don't intend to use it so I removed it right off the bat. I intend to use this camera mostly during the day as a snapshot tool on my little motorcycle journeys and I won't need the flash for that sort of stuff. While it is all lightweight plastic, the XA 2 doesn't feel cheap. I've already had it out for a test run and the results are impressive. Photos taken with this little gem will be coming up in the next post.

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.

Back It Up or Lose It

I'm playing catch up this week after being down with computer issues for a few days last week. My main data drive where my photo libraries are kept started acting up. It wasn't a single catastrophic failure - I just knew the drive was imminently going to go belly up. It had developed frequent slow downs and odd noises. At a little over 3/4 capacity I had plans to replace it anyway this summer after hockey season wrapped up. It decided to retire itself a little early. 

This seems like a good time to step on my soapbox and preach about the importance of backups. I frequently hear about people needlessly losing data because they don't have a backup plan in place. Hard drives fail eventually - it's not a matter of if, it's when. I recommend at least two backups of any files you value - one local and one offsite. My backup plan involves a secondary drive that I manually backup to at least weekly or after any photography job. I use a program called Carbon Copy Cloner to do this. Additionally, I subscribe to BackBlaze for my offsite backup. Every night my files are synced to the cloud.  Technically I have a third backup of most of my important photos, as I upload them to my web portfolio host, SmugMug. One final measure - my Lightroom databases that manage my photo organization scheme and edits are backed up separately on a weekly basis. This provides a little extra protection in the event of database corruption - it happens.

Speaking of drives, I prefer to keep things simple. I use individual drives rather than RAID setups. I have worked for almost 20 years in storage testing and development and I have to say that I just don't trust any consumer level RAID devices. They just don't go through the rigorous testing that enterprise class stuff goes through. If you do choose to use some sort of RAID, just remember that RAID is redundancy for uptime. It is there to keep you up and running while you replace a failed drive. It is NOT a backup.  I also stay away from the low priced consumer external drives that you find in discount stores. I've been using OWC Mercury Elite Pro external drives for a few years and I like them. They use top tier 7200rpm drives and I like their fan-less aluminum enclosures. The whole enclosure acts a heat sink to keep the drive cool. This is important as a lot of failures can be attributed to heat. A weak point in a lot of enclosures I see is the fan. Companies will stick a 10 cent fan in a $200 drive enclosure and when that cheap part blows its bearings your drive is toast. G-Tech makes similar fan-less enclosures. Enclosures like these will be more expensive than the "bargains" you see advertised but they are worth it. Whatever you get, remember that you need to buy at least two for primary and backup.

My new drive installed and receiving data from my backup drive.

My new drive installed and receiving data from my backup drive.



The Tactical Light Stand Bag

I've written before about my favorite camera bag, the "tactical camera bag" as I dubbed it (aka the Maxpedition Versipack Jumbo). Camera bags are a love\hate relationship with me. I've owned a number of them and have found most to be lacking in some form or fashion and usually overpriced. I've found that sometimes non-camera specific bags just work better for me. It's not just cameras - I have solutions for other things such as my strobe/flashes and accessories. Up until yesterday I'd been carrying light stands in a golf club bag. As I was gathering things up for a photoshoot, I found an even better solution.

I was rounding up my light stands and the soft case that I use for one of my competition rifles caught my eye in my garage. For some reason it had never occurred to me that my collapsed light stands are a little less than the length of the rifle bag. Sure enough, 3 stands fit perfectly with room to spare for a couple of umbrellas. The outside pockets held my hot shoe flashes and triggers. Cool! Now I had a compact bag for that gear that I could carry in one hand or over my shoulder. That and my camera bag were all I needed for the shoot and the combination was a lot easier to carry than my previous solution that involved separate bags for cameras, stands, and flash gear.

These sorts of bags are made by a variety of companies and should be easy to find in a sporting goods store, gun shop, or online from a place like Midway. They are built tough and are probably going to cost less than a specialized light stand bag. Here's what mine looks like.

Checking Out the Fujifilm XF 50-140mm F/2.8 Lens - A Brief Review

I've said before on this blog that I'm not much of a camera gear head and I'm not one to begin salivating every time a new lens comes on the market. However, I do believe that it is important to have a camera and lens(es) that you connect with and feel comfortable using. That's what I feel with my Fujifilm X-T1 and the handful of lenses I have for it. I love shooting with that camera and anything else in the digital realm just doesn't do it for me. Is it a perfect camera? No, not at all. In fact, it downright fails at one of my primary photography jobs - covering pro hockey games for the Texas Stars. I have a Nikon based DSLR rig for that. Now, I do like my Nikon gear. I don't love it though and if only my X-T1 could keep up with the task of reliably maintaining autofocus on fast moving hockey players I'd ditch my Nikon gear without a second thought. Sadly, this hasn't been the case and I continue to lug my D750 around with a 70-200mm f/2.8 attached to catch the action on the ice. My beloved X-T1 is relegated to capturing candids, wide angles, and other more static photo ops at the games. 

To be fair, I'd never had a comparable lens on the X-T1 to pit against my DSLR rig in an apples to apples comparison. I'd played with my XF 55-200mm but it was much too slow. I'd also experimented with my XF 23mm and 35mm lenses. They showed a glimmer of promise but the focal lengths weren't really that great for hockey rinks. Most of my shots are toward the long end of 70-200mm so I really needed that range to judge whether the X-T1 was up to the task. Well, Fujifilm finally came out with the 70-200mm equivalent 50-140mm lens late last year. Since then I have been bugging my Fujifilm rep for an eval copy and he finally got one in my hands last week. The Texas Stars only had one game at home before hitting the road for a 2 week road trip so I eagerly headed to the rink to see what the X-T1 could do with the 50-140mm attached. 

This lens is by mirror-less camera standards a beast. It's smaller and lighter than a DSLR equivalent but not as much as you might think. This lens feels like a hefty hunk of metal in my hands. It feels solid and the build quality is reassuring. Fujifilm really outdid themselves on this thing. With the lens hood attached it looks massive. With the small X-T1 attached this rig is decidedly front heavy. You don't get the sense of balance that you would feel with a comparable DSLR rig. When I switched on the camera I immediately noticed a hum from the lens. Kind of sounded like a small fan actually. Ah, I thought, the image stabilization is on - that's what it is. I turned off the IS switch but the sound remained. If I put the camera in image playback mode the sound would go away. As soon as I was back to shooting mode the sound was back. As heavy as this lens is I'm sure there are some large glass elements inside and I'm guessing there is some sort of active dampening on at all times. I was left wondering what that does to the already not-so-great battery life of my X-T1.

Before I attempted to use my X-T1 and the 50-140mm lens to shoot incredibly fast athletes, I configured the camera with every optimization I could find in my research online. The following settings were configured.

  • Continuous autofocus (C on focus selection switch)
  • High speed burst rate (CH on dial)
  • Single autofocus area in middle (various sizes tried)
  • Image quality: F
  • DR100
  • Autofocus release priority - both release and focus tried (I use release on my DSLR)
  • Autofocus mode: area (set to center)
  • Face detection: off
  • Pre Autofocus - tried both off and on
  • Power Management: High Performance On
  • No image review

At the rink I shoot at ice level either from a hole in the glass or from the player bench. I don't shoot through the glass at games. Yes, I have been hit with pucks, sticks, players. Don't worry, no Fujifilm products have been harmed. While I'd hoped to get some initial time working with the lens at a practice or morning skate prior to a game, a delivery snafu resulted in me not getting it in time. The best I could do was to see how the X-T1 and 50-140mm lens fared in the brief warmup period before the game.

When I shoot hockey, I track players while trying to lock the autofocus on their jersey logos. I keep the subject under the AF point (center only in the case of the X-T1). If the players are moving, every shot is burst of at least 2-3 frames. During warmup I was able to get a feel for how well this Fujifilm combination could keep up with the players moving laterally and towards me. Rapidly approaching players racing to the net or to touch up a dumped puck are the most challenging shots even for my DSLR rig.

How did it go? Well, I'll cut to the chase and say that the X-T1 and the 50-140mm won't be replacing my Nikon rig for hockey. Realistically I didn't think it would but I wasn't going to write off the possibility without at least trying as close of a match in lenses as I could. I love my X-T1 and I so wanted it to work, at least well enough to get an acceptable number of keepers. So what went wrong? The biggest problem I saw was with initial focus lock. The X-T1 just wasn't able to acquire focus quickly enough for oncoming players. These players move quickly and erractically and when they are charging toward the net or boards split seconds count. I have to get my shot and get my camera out of the hole before it meets its demise. It simply took too long for the X-T1 to get that initial focus on fast approaching players. If I started to focus at the blue line, they would be right up on me before the X-T1 could get a lock and produce sharp shots. Side to side movements were a little better, although the X-T1 would stutter with obstacles like other players briefly passing through. Movement of hands and sticks seemed to easily distract the X-T1 from the jersey logos as well. The X-T1 did hold on to the main player relatively well when other players were in close proximity. I didn't have too much trouble with it jumping to the high contrast board ads (something that can sometimes be a problem on a DSLR with expanded autofocus points), as long as I did my part to keep the focus point over the subject.

Some samples from warmup are below. These are all camera JPEGs that I brightened just slightly in post as needed. No other modifications were made. On the static shots, the lens was tack sharp wide open. On action shots, the sharpness was often lacking because the focus just wasn't nailed. Shooting at f/2.8 by necessity, there isn't a lot of room for error. I was bursting the shots on all of these where the players were in motion, capturing 3-5 frames on each typically. These are the best of the burst sequences. I expect some frames to be out of focus when shooting with release priority. However, I was doing good to get one acceptable frame per burst. Setting to the autofocus priority to focus didn't help much because it took too long to lock on. This wasn't encouraging since the players weren't moving at full throttle in warmups. Click for larger versions.

One interesting item of note - my typical exposure with my Nikon rig at the Cedar Park Center where the Stars play is F/3.2, 1/1000, ISO 2500. The 1/1000 shutter speed is about as slow as you want to go with pro hockey players. I had to set my X-T1 to F/2.8, 1/1000, ISO 3200 with the 50-140mm lens and the exposure was still just a tad bit darker than I'd like it to be (easy enough to bump up 1/3 to 1/2 stop in post.) Every lens varies a bit in my experience and my X-T1 seems to generally be about 1/3 stop down from my D750. In combination with the 50-140mm lens I was a bit over 2/3 stops down. I don't like taking the X-T1 above ISO 3200 and this put me right at the edge.

On the Canon and Nikon DSLR platforms I have used there is more control over continuous autofocus. You can typically adjust the "strength" of autofocus lock before the camera tries to focus on something else. The X-T1 doesn't have this ability that I can tell. You can usually adjust the number of points around the primary focus point of a DSLR where the camera will use the peripheral points to track a moving subject. Again, the X-T1 doesn't offer this level of fine control. The DSLR 70-200mm lenses usually have a focus limiter to minimize seeking through the entire range when the subject is further away. I use this quite a bit at the rink and the 50-140mm doesn't have this feature. It did seem like some of the slowness was rooted in the fact that those heavy elements were being pushed and pulled through a large range.

Unfortunately, my experimentation in a game warmup didn't give me the confidence to use it on my X-T1 during the game. The keeper rate was abysmal compared to my Nikon rig and I just couldn't risk blowing critical shots in game play. No hard feelings on my part. It was worth a shot.

Let me be clear at this point. I'm not knocking the X-T1 or the new lens at all. I love my X-T1 and I was attempting to push it into an area of photography that it simply isn't designed to excel at. So the X-T1 and the 50-140mm aren't the optimal sports rig. That's probably not going to surprise many people. What about other shooting other stuff? Well, first of all as I said before this is an amazingly sharp lens - even wide open. Are you the portrait guy who loves to shoot at F/2.8? This lens will do for you just fine. It's damn sharp. I think it's sharper than my Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VR II. It's certainly right up there. It's also just as sharp as my XF prime lenses. See for yourself below. I couldn't get a model other than Chloe the poodle on short notice but her fur serves to help illustrate what you get at F/2.8. Camera JPEG, no post production sharpening at all. Note: I do always keep my in-camera sharpening at +1.

52mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO 200

100% crop for pixel peepers

My sample lens arrived at an awkward time for me in the middle of a busy week. I'd hoped to get a portrait session together in addition to the hockey test but on short notice that didn't work out. I decided to take it on a short photo walk instead. As luck (or the lack of) would have it, the weather wasn't very cooperative and it was a blustery, rainy afternoon when I had the opportunity to take it out. It's a weather resistant lens though and a bit of drizzle didn't seem to bother it at all.  Here are a few shots from my little walkabout. All are camera JPEGs with the Classic Chrome film simulation, slightly adjusted for contrast in Lightroom.

The 50-140mm was already sharp wide open and it of course didn't disappoint when I stopped down to mid-range apertures of F/5.6 or F/8. I made use of the image stabilization feature and that seemed to work well. While I didn't test to see how slow of a shutter speed I could get, it did enable me to handhold at 1/60 and get sharp images at the longer focal lengths. It seemed to settle fairly quickly with a stable image in my viewfinder.

I didn't get to walk very far, maybe 30 minutes before I decided it was too cold to remain outdoors. My time was sufficient to decide that the 50-140mm is an exceptional lens in the image quality department. My only issue with it on a photo walk is its weight. It was heavy on my shoulder in my Maxpedition bag with a generously padded shoulder strap and the weight was quite evident while shooting. It is also big and conspicuous, which is probably not a huge issue in Austin where you can't throw a rock and not hit a photographer. If you are looking for a discrete package for shooting on the streets, this won't be the ideal choice. 

While this Fujifilm lens is a formidable, perhaps even optically superior alternative to the workhorse 70-200mm F/2.8 of the DSLR world, I'm not sure it will find a place in my camera bag - at least not right now. If it could work for my sports shooting, I'd be all over it. As it stands, I see it as more of a studio lens. Part of what I really enjoy about my X-T1 and my XF prime lens set is the amazing quality in a diminutive size. I do have a XF 55-200mm that gets use at certain outdoor events and some portraits. Whenever possible though, I prefer to travel light. The 50-140mm lens is the first XF lens that gives me pause because it is really starting to get a little too close to that DSLR lens size and weight. If you got into mirror-less cameras to lose a bit of gear weight, this sizable lens may be off-putting.

Fujifilm is doing great things with their products. They listen to their customers, they fix bugs that arise - heck they even add new features to their cameras via firmware. What other camera company continues to add value to the product after they have your money? They have an incredible piece of glass here that will hold its own against the DSLR equivalents. If you need that 70-200mm F2.8 experience for your X camera, this is a no-brainer in most situations. If you're shooting action stuff like me, it looks like we're going to have wait a little longer for better autofocus performance in Fujifilm cameras - assuming they decide to seriously pursue that area. I can only hope they will.

 

 

The Tactical Camera Bag

Camera bags suck.  I've owned and handled a bunch of them and it seems like it's always close, but just not exactly what I want.  The bags I've owned have been compromises, always lacking in some feature that is just enough to really annoy me over time.  Recently, I purged myself of every dedicated camera bag I have with the exception of my Thinktank Streetwalker.  It is still the best bag I have for toting around my DSLR kit with a 70-200 lens.  The majority of the time though, I'm toting a much smaller kit and I've gone anti-camera bag for that.

Some time back I wrote about my shoulder bag solution at the time, my first tactical camera bag.  For the Olympus m4/3 kit I used to own, it was a good solution - at least for a while.  Over time it became a little too bulky and cumbersome for me.  I like to travel light and even that moderately size bag was just a bit too much for what I needed.  This was especially true when I got out of m4/3 cameras and went to carrying just my Fujifilm X100.  The original tactical camera bag was replaced with a Domke F-803.  It was an adequate bag for carrying around my X100 and iPad as a daily bag and I used it for a little over a year.

Equipment and needs change over time and I recently decided to get a Fujifilm X-E1 and a couple lens for a more versatile compact camera kit. The F-803 bag was no longer adequate and it was time to look at camera bags again.  Ugh!  Before setting out in my quest, I made a list of what I considered absolutely essential for my next bag to carry:

  • Fujifilm X-E1 with lens mounted

  • At least one extra lens

  • Lens cleaning cloth

  • Extra batteries

  • Memory cards

  • Flashlight

  • Business cards

  • Filters

  • Remote shutter release

  • Notepad and pen

  • Water bottle

  • Sunglasses

I'm lucky enough to live in a city that has a large camera shop, Precision Camera.  They have a huge selection of bags on display and I spent a good part of an afternoon combing through them.  In spite of the plethora of choices, I just wasn't seeing what I wanted.  Right size, but no way to carry a water bottle.  Nice layout, but too big.  Not enough pockets.  I didn't want to compromise this time around but it was looking like I might be leaving the store in defeat.

I was just about to call it quits when I found something on the shelves that got the gears in my head churning.  It was a small insert for turning any old bag into a camera bag.  I had used something similar in the previous tactical camera bag incarnation.  This was the first time I had seen one in a compact size like the small Crumpler Haven that I held in my hands.  The size looked to be just right for a shoulder bag that I had all but forgotten about back in my closet at home.  I took a chance and brought the Crumpler insert home.

Years ago I purchased a Maxpedition Jumbo Versipack.  It was an impulse buy that I picked up during a sale.  I loved the bag's layout and used it for various things over the years.  It has served as a small range bag and a day bag for short motorcycle trips.  I had wanted to use it as a camera bag and I looked for a suitable insert over the years without any luck.  As it turns out, the small Crumpler Haven is a perfect fit!

The Haven nestles into the Versipack snuggly.  A couple of Velcro attached dividers are provided with the Haven and I was able to configure it to comfortably stow my X-E1 with an attached lens and a spare lens.  The compartment is large enough that I can optionally carry a SLR film camera like my Nikon F2 and spare lenses.  The Haven is well padded without being bulky and like other Crumpler products I've seen, very well made.

Maxpedition makes great stuff.  Their bags are very durable, water resistant, and have plenty of well organized places to put things.  Perhaps most exciting to me is that they have a real water bottle compartment that will hold a 32oz or greater container.  When you live in a place that is triple digits all summer, this is a huge deal.  A front pocket holds all my small essentials and a hot shot shoe flash if I want.  A side pocket opposite the water bottle side is large enough to hold a small lens or a light meter. A rear hidden "concealed carry" compartment is just big enough to slip an iPad into.  On the top is a long, narrow compartment that is perfect for sunglasses.

The Jumbo Versipack holds a lot of stuff.  However, it is designed to carry close to your body so it doesn't feel big when you wear it.  The shoulder strap attaches to flaps that sort of wrap around your waist and help the bag conform to your body.  The strap is wide and distributes weight quite well with a generously sized pad.

Is the Jumbo Versipack the perfect camera bag?  Time will tell for me.  If it's not, it's certainly the closest I've come to so far.  Camera bag manufacturers would do well to take note of Maxpedition's rugged and utilitarian designs.