Hockey and Tri-X

Hockey is an incredibly tough sport to photograph. For reasons that escape me at the moment I decided to make it even harder on myself and snap a few shots at a recent Texas Stars game the old fashioned way. I used my Olympus OM-4Ti with a 85mm f/2 lens and some Tri-X black and white film. No autofocus, no bursting frames and pushing the heck out of some way too slow film. It would take luck to get anything good with this setup.

But this is how things used to be done, before we got cameras that rip numerous frames a second and track players with advanced continuous autofocus. We have it so easy these days, don't we? Shooting things old school like this once in a while is a humbling experience that keeps me grounded. I realize how much I rely on that bursting shutter over my own experience, intuition, and anticipation. It's really hard to get good shots without all that technology. Guys like Bruce Bennett did for years though. 

I'll be honest - there weren't many keepers out of the 24 or so frames I shot. And the ones I kept, well, they won't win any prizes. Still, it's a fun exercise to do once in a while even if it can be a little frustrating. If every shot mattered as much a frame of 35mm film, imagine how much better our shots could be with those modern whizz-bang cameras.

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.

Texas Stars Season 7 Highlights

Season 7 for the Texas Stars has come to an end. The team was eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs in the first round last Friday night by the San Diego Gulls. Hockey demands a tremendous amount of skill, stamina, pain, and sacrifice to claim its highest trophies. Making it to the playoffs says a lot of the team. While it would have been great to see the team go further I can say that I'm proud of these guys and honored to have been along for the trip as one of their photographers. It's a daunting effort to distill thousands of photos to a few highlights. My archive from season 7 contains nearly 10,000 images! It wasn't easy to make the picks but looking through them all brought back a lot of exciting memories. Click the link below to see my favorite shots from season 7. 

Season 7 Highlights

3 Shots of the Game

It's playoff time and the Texas Stars have completed 2 games in the first round against the San Diego Gulls at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. On Thursday the Stars gave up the first game to the Gulls in a 3-1 loss. Last night, Saturday, was payback time and the Stars came away with a commanding 5-1 win. The team hits the road this week to play out the rest of the series in San Diego. It will take 2 wins on the Gulls' ice for the Stars to advance to the next round.

The first shot from Thursday's game (above) is Brendan Ranford battling it out to get to the puck in a corner. The second shot is Travis Morin facing off against former Texas Star Chris Mueller. The third shot is Curtis McKenzie tumbling over the Gulls' goaltender, with a little help from the Gulls' defense of course.

Full image gallery from Thursday's game is here.

The first shot from Saturdays game is a beauty of a goal for Matt Mangene. The puck is seen in flight into the net. The second shot is Brett Ritchie showing no brotherly love to younger sibling Nick Ritchie. The third shot is a rebounded puck in front of Jack Campbell's net as the Gulls pushed hard to get some points on the board. He did make the save on the rebound.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.

 

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Barracuda

The Texas Stars had a pair of games this weekend against the San Jose Barracuda. It was Military Appreciation weekend and the Stars were sporting tiger stripe camo jerseys. The special jerseys were auctioned off for charity. It was an exciting weekend all around as the Stars managed to clinch a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs. 

There weren't many high points of the Friday game for the Stars. The Barracuda shut the Stars out with a 3-0 win. It was a tough game to watch as the Stars failed to get a single puck in the net. The first shot above is an impressive 2 for 1 hit by Niklas Hansson to tie up two opponents at once. The second shot is an ice spray that got me through the lens hole in the glass as Jason Dickinson grabbed the puck in the corner with an opponent right on the heels of his skates. The third shot is a solid check by Jesse Blacker on a race to the puck in the corner behind the Stars' net.

Full image gallery from Friday's game is here.

Saturday's game didn't look so good for the Stars as the Barracuda struck first and at one point had a 3 goal lead on the Stars. Maxime Lagace started in net for the Stars and was replaced by Jack Campbell after the 3rd goal. Two more shots would get by Campbell before the Stars sprang to life about mid game and took control of the game. The Stars turned a 3 goal deficit into a 3 goal lead for a 8-5 game win and a clinched playoff spot. The first shot above is Jason Dickinson getting the puck and himself into the Barracuda net. The second shot is Curtis McKenzie barreling over his opponent in a fierce battle for the puck around the net. The third shot is a deflected puck from a shot on Campbell's net heading straight for this photographer's position. No lenses were harmed.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Wild & Moose

The Texas Stars had back to back games on Friday and Saturday nights this weekend. Friday was the second game in a week against the Iowa Wild. After a win by a healthy margin against the Wild last Wednesday, hopes were high for a repeat. It was a hard fought battle on the ice with the teams exchanging goals until ending 3-3 in regulation. The Wild would score the final winning goal in the overtime period. 

The first shot above is Brandan Troock celebrating as the puck makes its way into the Wild net. The second shot is Matt Mangene battling it out for the puck deep in the Stars' end. It was one of those shots where I got my lens out of the hole in the glass just in time! The third shot is a valiant scoring attempt by Curtis McKenzie in the overtime period. Coming in at speed with a defenseman tailing him, McKenzie lost his edge and slid to the ice.

Full image gallery from Friday is here.

Saturday's game was against the Manitoba Moose and that night went heavily in the Stars' favor as they trounced the Moose with a 6-1 win. The Stars' absolutely dominated the game and racked up twice the shots on goal as they did the previous night. 

The first shot above is Curtis McKenzie being "escorted" into the Moose defensive zone. The second shot is a goal by Cole Ully. I didn't catch the puck in flight off of the quick snap in my burst of frames but the look on the goalie's face makes it obvious where the puck ended up. The third shot is Stars goalie Maxime Lagace swatting away a shot on goal with his stick.

Full image gallery from Saturday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Monsters

The Texas Stars had a couple of games against the Lake Erie Monsters over the weekend at Cedar Park Center. Both games were nail biters but the Stars came away with wins in each. It was an overtime victory on Saturday and they got it done in regulation on Sunday with a tight 2-1 final score. 

In Saturday's game (above) the first shot is Curtis McKenzie celebrating after getting puck into the Monsters' net. The second shot is a huge face-off win by captain Travis Morin. His opponent seemed stunned by a lightning fast puck grab and turnaround. The third shot is Maxime Lagace making a save in the midst of an intense battle in his crease. The full image gallery from Saturday is here.

The first shot from Sunday is a beautiful pad save by Lagace while fighting off his opponent with his glove hand. The second shot is Jason Dickinson kicking up a snow flurry while trying to slow down before impact with the glass after coming in hot against an opponent to get to the puck in the corner. The third shot is Travis Morin dishing out a hip check that took Sifers airborne. The full image gallery from Sunday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Gulls

The Texas Stars had another double header weekend, this time taking on the San Diego Gulls Friday and Saturday nights. The teams each got a win in the heated games. The Gulls won by a goal Friday while the Stars had a resounding 5-2 victory on Saturday. 

The first shot above from Friday's game is Derek Hulak leading the Stars into the offensive zone through the Gulls' defense. In the second shot, Matt Mangene applies some defensive pressure in the crease of the Stars' net. The third shot is Julius Honka racing for possession of the puck deep in the corner of the Stars' end.

Full image gallery from Friday is here.

Curtis McKenzie fights to gain control of an airborne puck behind the Stars' net in the first shot from Saturday's game. The second shot is Gemel Smith maneuvering the puck around a Gulls defensive wall as Remi Elie recovers from a tumble during an offensive push. In the third shot Stephen Johns puts a solid hit on an opponent behind the Stars' net.

Full image gallery from Saturday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Wolves

The Texas Stars had a busy weekend, taking on the Chicago Wolves in back to back games Friday and Saturday. It was great series for the Stars as they dominated the Wolves in both games and came away with solid wins in each game. 

Friday's game was a 3-1 win for the Stars. Philippe Desrosiers was in net for the Stars for both games and he put on an incredible performance on Friday in particular. It was close to being a shutout until a late 3rd period goal by the Wolves. The first shot below is Remi Elie putting a walloping hit on an opponent. The second shot is Esa Lindell giving Desrosiers some defensive help in a battle for the puck in front of the Stars' net. The third shot is a breakaway scoring attempt by Curtis McKenzie, coming in hot in a face to face challenge with the Wolves' netminder.

Full image gallery from Friday's game is here.

The Stars enjoyed a 5-2 win in Saturday's matchup in front of a packed house at the Cedar Park Center. The first shot below is thwarted scoring chance by the Wolves in the first period. Good defense and solid goaltending kept the Wolves at bay. The second shot is a fierce 2 on 1 battle for puck possession in the Stars' zone. Matej Stransky and Julius Honka teamed up to stop a scoring attempt. The third shot is a second period goal by the Stars as seen from the mezzanine level. If you look closely you can see the puck entering the net below the goalie's glove hand.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.

Snapshots and Slap Shots - Shooting Hockey with the Fujifilm X-T1

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)
  • DR100
  • 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. 

Action Sequences

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. 

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.