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A cataclysmic shift
I had a cataclysmic shift in my photographic equipment this year. As many seem to be doing now (after dipping my toes in the waters over the last few years), I bit the bullet and sold my beloved Nikon D3X and lenses, and swapped fully over to Fuji. I won’t bore you all with the minutia of the details – but suffice to say it was a very big emotional and financial endeavor. I have been shooting Nikon for over 30 years now – starting with the Nikon F3 and worked my way up through all the models, ending with the D3X. My wonderful Nikon F4 served me so well for many years of shooting ‘stock’ in the heyday (90’s).
However a few miles under the belt and a few creaky bones later, I was finding it increasingly difficult to lug my huge D3X and Nikkor 70-200 around in the tropical heat of Asia. My wife and I live in a small gold-mining town in the Western Australian desert. It is the most boring forsaken place on the face of God’s earth. However, with stable paying jobs and other reasons we choose to live here at the moment. However, because there is nothing to photograph here, my cameras sit locked in their little cupboard most of the year. Fortunately travel to Asia from Perth airport (not counting the 8 hour drive to get there), is cheap and not many hours flight. We go to Asia a lot and that is where I love to photograph.
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Cutting to the chase – having sold all my gear this year and switching over completely to Fuji, I was very keen to fire all my new gear in ‘anger’. I have shot a few race days here (horse racing carnival) and a few other things, but I never consider my gear fully tested until it has done the rigors of the heat and dust and grime in Asia. I always hire a motorbike and head off by myself. The banging around on dusty roads on motorbikes is all part of the test my cameras must endure. I have a 4 week trip booked next month, to go back to Myanmar for an extensive trip. I was a bit anxious to head off there with my new acquisitions without having them properly tested first.
Suddenly I had a bright idea – it was my wife’s birthday in November so I told her I would take her to Bali for a week. She loved the idea, so we headed off mid-November on our new quest. My wife is Vietnamese, and we have been to Vietnam many times. I have been to Cambodia 13 times now over the years, and not counting Laos, Thailand, and many other countries – Bali was a totally new experience for us both.
It really is the easiest way to taste Asia for people who don’t want to get too far out of their comfort zones. The people are the most placid, lovely generous people in all of Asia – by far. We had no confrontations over bills and other things like we often get in the rest of Asia. The traffic if very calm and peaceful and I don’t feel like I am ‘running the gauntlet’ like I feel each time I get on my motorbike in Vietnam. The photographic opportunities are marvelous and the place is very cheap to travel in compared to the rest of Asia. Myanmar is very expensive so I am expecting a hefty bill there this Xmas. However, Myanmar is the most awesome photographic experience in all of Asia and not to be missed.
After trying and testing lenses and reading everything I could, I decided on the Fuji XF 55-200 and the XF 18-55. Having tested them on my new X-T1 and X-T2 around home and any local happenings – these were my conclusions. To me (and only my opinion – you are welcome to disagree) the 55-200 is an extremely sharp and wonderful lens. Particularly up close and to the mid-zoom range it is very sharp wide open. It is actually a fairly fast lens and reasonably light considering it is basically an equivalent to a 70-200 (and beyond), in the 35mm arena. I was a little disappointed with the 18-55. It is reasonable up close, but I shoot a lot around the 55mm mark (80-90 portrait) and it is disappointing at that focal length wide open. However they both have great image stabilization.
The big disappointment
The one major factor that started to dawn on me as I got closer to going to Myanmar was the fact that these lenses are not sealed. It really started to get to me as I am very particular with my equipment. The places I go to and particularly Mandalay, are the filthiest places one could imagine. I will be there in January and that is the beginning of the dry season. With the smoke from the burning and the dust from the many unsealed roads, visibility gets down to a few hundred meters sometimes. I have to wear an industrial particle mask whilst on my motorbike just so I can breath. However, it is the dust and filth that creates the amazing light that one can only find in Myanmar. The thought of sucking all of this into my camera each time I zoomed, was not comforting.
I started reading a lot about the 18-135 mm lens. I loved the fact that it is sealed. There was no way I wanted a lens that was as slow as 5.6, but I didn’t have much choice. No way I wanted to lug that 1kg 50-140 monstrosity around. That being the case I could have just kept the Nikon gear. I bit the bullet and purchased the Fuji XF 18-135. I already had the 35 f2 that I had hardly ever used. With that being also sealed – it was an easy choice to choose the two lenses which were going to Bali – the precursor to my trip to Myanmar. I ‘glued’ the 18-135 onto the T2 and the 35mm onto the T1, and with these in tow we headed off to Bali.
Right from the outset I loved the feel of my new equipment. The T1 with the battery grip and 35mm lens is just magic to carry around. The 18-135 endeared itself to me very quickly with its ease of use, lovely quality feel and small size. The more I used it the more I thought this could be the answer for my dust problem in Myanmar. I have two small bags from the ‘Thinktank’ system. They live on the belt that comes with that system. I carry them around my waist. When I’m ready to shoot, the T1 goes around my neck on a strap. It is so light I could carry it all day. The T2 with the bigger lens is a bit heavier so it goes over my shoulder and dangles upside down on my ‘Black Rapid’. Oh man – what a perfect system. I can walk all day with this gear deployed for action, or tucked away in their bags around my waist. Boy oh Boy – when I think of that heavy Nikon with the big 70-200 in its ‘Thinktank’ holster dangling from one side of my waist all day long. It twisted my back and gave me pain and it was such a nuisance because it hung very low – and on the motorbike it used to bang and hit things. The size and weight and feel of the Fuji gear has revolutionized the way I shoot and has given me such fresh enthusiasm and enlightenment for my photographic career.
‘A picture tells a thousand words’
I won’t bore you with all of the details about where we went and what I shot. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. It was a marvelous experience using the two Fujis. The autofocus on the 18-135 never let me down and was so snappy and fast. I even used that very silly, piddley little flash that comes with both cameras. I stuck it on and used it for fill flash on many occasions and it was wonderful. The gear felt so solid and reeked of quality. I even used them in some light rain showers, near the ocean with salt spay splattering everywhere. Each night I would clean them down in the hotel and they never missed a beat.
When I travel by myself (Myanmar), I always take the laptop and download my pictures in the hotel at night. It was my wife’s birthday and I had to spend quality time with her. I didn’t want to encroach on that by fiddling with pictures at night. For the first time I took a handful of memory cards and no laptop. I could only see the pictures on the back of my screen and I knew I would have to wait until I returned to Australia to really find out how things went. Would the pictures shot from my favourite destination (Asia) come even close to the magic I used to get from my D3x? When we finally got back and my images popped up on my big 27” Mac screen – I was blown away. Oh boy – Fuji magic. I also thought I may be disappointed with the older sensor from the T1, but I think it stands up admirably to its newer sibling. To me, the images from the T1 still have that gorgeous look and there is still plenty of room there to pull up the shadows and crop. Perhaps that was because I only used the magic 35mm f2 on that camera. With all the dozens of Nikkor lenses I have used over the years, I can honestly say that lens is right up there with the very best and sharpest from Nikon.
The Big Question – how did the 18-135 perform?
I can say with certainty (because I have taken many thousands of shots now to compare), that at all focal lengths – wide open – my 18-135 is noticeably sharper than my 18-55. This is marvelous news. The majority of my shooting is wide open wide angle (27mm equivalent) up to around portrait length (90mm equivalent). This is where the 18-135 really shines. It is still sharp wide open up to about 135mm (equivalent), but beyond that – right out to 200 mm (equivalent) it is not as sharp as the 55-200. This is a little bit disappointing. However, just like everything else in life like relationships, colleagues that we are forced to work with, the way we look – and our cameras – everything is a bit of a trade off. We must decide what we can accept and what we can’t. We filter the good and bad bits and hopefully are happy with what is left – what we can live with. This is the 18-135mm. I don’t shoot all that often out to its full telephoto length, so I can live with it not being as sharp there. However, where it really counts – where I will use it the most – it is beautiful. Happily it has rendered my 18-55 obsolete – the 18-135, being so much better, I really have no reason to use the smaller lens. However, the 55-200 is much sharper than the 18-135, so I will explain a bit further on where I will be using that lens.
The Big Bad News (The kicker)!
It’s like the old good news bad news jokes. The bad news is usually so terrible that the good news pails into insignificance. Not so in this case, but there is one major minus I have inherited with this new Fuji system – compared to my Nikons, and I’m having trouble living with it. The major lack of ability to isolate the subject from the background, has changed the way my images look. I was well aware of this like everybody else. We all know that full-frame isolates the subject better and has less depth of field at an equivalent focal length than does an APS-C sensor. However, I didn’t realize to what extent. With the 18-135 being a fairly slow lens – even shot wide open – I am usually around f4-f5.6. At this aperture and the common focal lengths that I am using, I am not getting the beautiful soft blurred backgrounds that I am used to with my Nikons. It is hard to imagine but even at only 50mm (the 35mm lens), I am getting more blur in those backgrounds with that lens at f2 than the bigger lens shot at around 135mm etc but on f5.6. This is the only disappointment with my new system and I have no answers on how to fix it!
In the studio
Two days after arriving back from Bali I had a studio booked to shoot over 25 models. Our local TAFE (Technical and Further Education Centre) has a Hairstyle and Beauty section. The girls sitting their course have their annual assessment at this time of the year. Each student has to provide three models and do a ‘beauty’, ‘bridal’ and third choice makeup on them. Then they are shipped off to the hairstylist. I was then asked to photograph each model – which will go on the student’s portfolio. Of course I had each girl sign a model release, so I can use their photos at my discretion. I was really hoping to have tried out the T2 in the studio before testing it on a professional paid shoot, but I said yes with confidence. I could have used the T1, but some of the girls wanted B&W, and I was keen to use the new Acros simulation. I certainly was not disappointed.
Of course no dust issues here so the 55-200 was perfect. I shot it at around 100-120 mm equivalent and around F9. As you can see from the samples the shots are beautifully sharp. Consequently, my 18-55 will be sold off and I will be keeping the 35mm and 18-135 for travel and use the 55-200 for studio and other stuff locally.
I just found the T2 a real joy to work with in the studio. I had so many models to shoot, it took from 9am till 5pm, with barely a break. I took around 600 photos and used less than three batteries. The lights in the studio had optical slaves on them, so (yes you guessed it), I triggered then with that pissy little geeky Fuji flash that comes with the cameras. I placed it on ‘commander’ mode and it worked perfectly. I love it that they take no batteries – you only have to use one set for camera and flash – well done Fuji. The camera never got hot at any time or missed a beat.
A Few Niggles
There are a few niggles that no firmware update in the world is going to fix. When I did the studio shoot (and outside as well), the wretched aperture wheel on the 55-200 kept getting bumped. It doesn’t matter outside so much because I always shoot automatic on ‘aperture priority’ – if it is bumped then it may effect the depth of field, but the camera will still meter correctly. However, in the studio, because the camera is on manual – and I metered to the chosen aperture – when it is bumped, then of course it makes a difference. I was aware of this but of course when you have to talk to the models and direct them, things can happen without one knowing. I would suddenly notice it and adjust – but boy it was so frustrating. I noticed now that I am post processing all of the photos in Lightroom, some are slightly out because of this. That is why I love using the 35mm because it has a proper aperture ring with lovely clicks – it has never been bumped once. Unfortunately the lens I will be using the most has that silly wobbly ring like the 55-200 (18-135).
My other bugbear (and this annoys me 10 times more than the first one) is the silly diopter switch on the T2 moves sooo easily. I shoot with glasses so I need that thing cranked way the hang up there just so I can see properly. It can be up to 5-10 times a day I have to stop and adjust the wretched thing – because everything has become blurry again. In fact the one on the T2 is worse than the one of the T1 – Fuji actually went backwards on this!!@#!! As I said, no amount of firmware updates can fix this. Looks like I am stuck with this silly thing for a very long time. The one on the D3X was an engineering marvel. One had to flick it out with the fingernail and then adjust the diopter, then with a click it would return back in and lock. With years of using that camera it never had to be altered. ARE YOU LISTENING FUJI?
The Tilting Screen
I must add at this stage that the tilting screens on these two cameras have totally changed the way I work. I wrote a blog on here recently outlining my thoughts on this. I could NEVER go back to a camera now that does not have the tilting screen. I cannot use my X100s because of this and I have given it to my wife. I shoot mainly street and travel/candid photography. I have always had a problem with lifting the camera up to my eye and people detecting that motion and freezing/start posing/looking embarrassed/sticking the finger sign up (as they always do in Asia), and just generally stopping the flow of whatever they were doing that was worth photographing. Now – it is totally different.
Most of the photos on here the people never even knew that they had been photographed (except when I was waist deep in the water). The children playing at the school – I was just standing there observing – watching. I had my camera dangling ready (with the screen flipped out) – I am just looking down appearing to fiddle with my buttons – smiling. As soon as the magic moment happened, and the boy put the bucket on his head, I banged off a few shots and nobody even knew. I did not interrupt the flow of life, nobody was alerted or had to pose or change what they were doing. These little cameras with those screens have completely revolutionised my photography. I could guess and say that maybe over 80% of all of my candid pictures are taken now (except in the studio or when working with a client), at waist level. The field of view is nicer and also gives a different perspective from always taking the photo at eye level. this would have to be the greatest plus from using these two cameras. Kudos Fuji!
In spite of my few niggles I mentioned on here, I am really stoked swapping over to Fuji. Not that my photography was stagnant before or I was lacking inspiration, but my whole photographic experience has reached new vistas. The small size of the cameras, their ease to travel with, their utterly gorgeous files, and the consistent updates from Fuji to make them even better – really makes for a marvelous all round experience. Even though I doubted at the beginning, I now have no doubts whatsoever that I did the right thing swapping over to this new system. The trip to Bali was a fantastic experience and when I see those new files on my website, it tells me that there will be many more to follow from the wonders of Myanmar.