Dim light and unpredictable action are why I bought into the Fuji X system. Is the new X-Pro 2 the best answer for these scenarios, or is it still too quirky? [Tbd. Dance Collective at the Bancroft Street Market; Fuji X-Pro 1, ISO 6400, 1/250 @ f/1.4]
I’m not a gear pig, but a recent series of freelance gigs left me with some spare cash to invest in upgrading my camera equipment. I decided to spring for a Fuji X-Pro 2, as an upgrade to my old, tired X-Pro 1 (purchased used) and as a possible replacement for my X-T 10 (nice camera, but I don’t like owning too many cameras.)
I’ve given the X-Pro 2 as thorough a workout as I feel I can justify without losing my return privilege, and frankly I’m still conflicted about keeping it. Yes, it’s a huge improvement over the X-Pro 1, which feels as if it’s constantly operating in a barbiturate-induced coma. But the pictures it makes are not life-changingly better than those from the much less expensive X-T 10 – and like all my Fuji equipment, it has a lot of quirks that drive me slightly crazy. I decided to make this worst/best list as a way to help me decide whether it stays or goes; follow along, if you’re likewise on the fence…
Third Worst: Still no in-body stabilization
Olympus, Sony and Panasonic have definitively proved that in-body stabilization is practical, useful, and doesn’t have to mean excessively enlarging the camera (which would be catastrophic in the case of the X-Pro, which is already overgrown considering its sensor size.)
I got involved with Fuji primarily for low-light documentary shooting: its lineup of wide-aperture, fixed-focal-length lenses and its good shadow detail at high ISO give it an edge over the other mirrorless options I’ve tried.
In-body stabilization would enhance both these strengths by giving a bit of extra insurance at marginally-hand-holdable shutter speeds – but Fuji stubbornly refuses to get with the program. The introduction of the X-Pro 2 as its new flagship camera would have been a perfect time to roll out this major improvement, but no such luck.
Third Best: Focus Stick
Ever since getting my first autofocus camera, I’ve used what’s called the “focus-and-recompose” technique: center the AF frame on the subject, lock focus by half-pressing the shutter release, then reframe to get the composition I want.
(Historical note: The Minolta Maxxum 9000 film SLR was the best camera ever for this technique; its touch-sensitive shutter release let you move fluidly from tracking, to locked focus, and back to tracking while keeping your shutter finger constantly at the ready for the next shot. Nothing since has ever come close.)
Various Grumpy Uncles of the internet photo-blogosphere tut-tut about how bad the focus-and-recompose technique is. They urge you instead to compose your shot first, then fiddle with the camera controls to select a focus point that covers the subject.
I’ve always ignored them, because I’m one of those horrible people who put more stock in our own experience than in strangers’ blog posts. Dinking around with moving the AF point has always taken so long that I’d miss the peak moment and wind up with a lousy picture.
Fuji may finally convert me, though, because the X-Pro 2′s tiny AF-adjusting joystick – aka the “focus stick” – makes focus-point adjustment quick enough to be practical. I still don’t believe that this really gives better focusing than the focus-and-recompose technique, but it does make sequence shooting easier. For example, when shooting a vertically-composed portrait, I can put the AF frame on the subject’s eyes and make a series of pictures, without having to reframe if s/he moves slightly during the series.
Repeated focusing on the Black Swan’s evil eye would have been easier if I had positioned an AF point over it. That’s a fiddly operation on the X-T 10 I used for this picture, but the X-Pro 2′s focus stick makes it a breeze. [Vivi DiMarco for Ballet Nebraska; Fuji X-T 10, ISO 200, 1/180 @ f/8.]
Second Worst: Mediocre EVF
A camera’s electronic viewfinder is important to me because – get ready to be horrified, Grumpy Uncles – I always shoot in manual exposure mode and use the EVF to judge correct exposure.
(Note: The EVF’s “exposure preview” mode needs to be turned on for this to work.)
For the mixed-up lighting conditions under which I often take pictures, this works better than trying to meter the exposure. I just look through the finder and choose the settings that give the best compromise among the various subject areas. Once you’ve calibrated your camera’s EVF brightness to match your results, it’s a quick, reliable, consistent, and predictable technique. I haven’t needed to take a meter reading or twiddle an exposure compensation dial in years.
I can work this way with the X-Pro 2, but it’s not very pleasant – because its EVF is just about as stinky as the one on the X-Pro 1. The finder image is always cold, grayish and smoky-looking, with mediocre shadow detail.
Adjusting the brightness and color settings available under the Screen Setup menu helps a bit…but the view never gets anywhere near as good as that of the X-T 10, let alone those of the Olympus E-M 5 Mk II or other competitors. And oddly, whatever EVF adjustments you make don’t seem to carry over to the handy little pop-up version of the EVF that can be summoned when using the optical viewfinder. Dumb call, Fuji.
Second Best: Dual card slots
Here’s another eccentricity about the way I work: I always shoot in raw+JPEG mode, then use an Eyefi wireless card to push the JPEGs out to my iPad, running the fabulous ShutterSnitch app to capture and manage them.
Side note: I ignore the chorus of claims that Fuji’s in-camera JPEG files are so magically good that there’s no reason to shoot raw at all. To me this is like saying that your favorite feature about your new Ferrari is how quietly it rides on snow tires. The statement may be true, but it suggests you’re missing the point…
With many of the things I photograph, there’s an Iron Law: If you don’t have something on Facebook within an hour, your event might as well be ancient history. The Eyefi > ShutterSnitch workflow lets me monitor my results as I shoot, pick the best images, and get them out to social media right away. The raw images go home onto my computer for archiving and higher-quality editing later if necessary.
Why not use the camera’s built-in WiFi instead of a card, you ask? Because most cameras’ wireless implementations, including Fuji’s, force you to stop and pick individual shots for transfer; they can’t just push all your photos as you shoot, the way the Eyefi+ShutterSnitch combo can.
I’ve developed this workflow over several years, and there’s only one real snag with it: Eyefi cards are kind of lazy. With the other cameras I use, it often takes about 12 seconds to write both the raw and the JPEG files to the card, then transmit the JPEG to the iPad. That means if I’m shooting more than one picture every 12 seconds, the transfers fall behind and create a backlog that can become hopelessly large after a couple of hours.
Somewhat to my surprise, the X-Pro 2′s dual card slots almost completely slay this problem. I put a conventional memory card in one slot and the Eyefi card in the other, then set the camera to write the raw files to the conventional slot and the JPEG files to the Eyefi slot. The camera seems able to write to both slots in parallel, so neither card holds up the other.
This trick slashes my Eyefi transfer speed to about 3 seconds, meaning I can photograph for hours with no backlog at all. As one of our Presidential candidates might say, that’s YUGE!
Absolute Worst: That Idiotic ISO Dial
Film-era nostalgists love all the knobs and dials on Fuji’s cameras. They talk about color and image quality and lens selection, but deep down inside their little ids are screaming, “Ooh, look, knobbies! It gotses lots and lots of knobbies, wit numbers on dem! Me wannie!”
To me, most of these gratuitous knobs are useless but only slightly inconvenient. Sure, I prefer the efficient interface of an Olympus, which puts all the controls I need onto two easy-to-reach finger wheels. But I can ignore or work around most of Fuji’s superfluous knobs.
The glaring exception is the X-Pro 2′s new ISO control dial, a design nightmare that’s an inconvenient, irritating, and completely unnecessary step backward. It requires the user to release his/her grip on the right-hand end of the camera, lift the hard-to-grasp outer rim of the shutter-speed dial, twist it to select the desired ISO from an array of tiny numbers in a squinty window, then drop the rim back into place.
It’s ridiculously fiddly to use, and – as an extra bonus nuisance – the sloppy play in the rim makes the shutter-speed dial itself feel jiggly and cheap.
This is particularly frustrating because previous Fuji models had ISO setting totally nailed. Once you assigned ISO to a function button, you were golden: All you needed to do was press that button and turn the front control dial until you had the ISO you wanted. You could do it in seconds, without changing your grip or removing the camera from your eye.
Why on earth did Fuji ditch this nearly-perfect system and substitute one that’s needlessly worse? I have to assume it was a particularly craven ploy to cash in on a fog of bong-water-irrigated nostalgia among former hippies who might remember using the same type of control on their 1960s Pentax Spotmatics and Minolta SR-T 101s.
Those old SLRs had primitive meter systems that required complicated mechanical couplings between the meter mechanism and the exposure controls. The lift-the-ring system reduced cost and complexity by letting the designer use the same coupling for the shutter-speed and film-speed settings.
In other words, the lift-the-ring system was a crude hack that was recognized as inconvenient even back then; we tolerated it only because you hardly ever needed to change it. At most, you’d reset it when you loaded a different kind of film, and if you usually used the same kind of film over and over, you might not touch it for years.
But in today’s photography, ISO is a primary input. I like to work by selecting the best shutter speed and lens aperture for the picture, then adjusting the ISO to get a correct exposure – so I need easy access to ISO all the time.
Other Fujis give me exactly that; the X-Pro 2 gives me this idiotic knob instead. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I can only hope Fuji will admit its mistake eventually and issue a firmware update so we can set ISO the same way we do on other Fuji models.
Absolute Best: Optical Viewfinder
An optical viewfinder (OVF) is an old, simple, crude, and not-very-accurate way to aim a camera. It uses a small rectangular lens on the front and an eyepiece lens on the back to show approximately what will be in the picture.
Most photographers don’t need an optical viewfinder. Most photographers won’t like an optical viewfinder. Most photographers shouldn’t buy a camera with an optical viewfinder. Most photographers will be hugely better off with the big, bright, accurate, and information-rich electronic viewfinders (EVFs) found on modern mirrorless cameras.
And if you don’t need an optical finder, there is absolutely no reason to buy an X-Pro 2. Fuji’s other camera models offer more advantages for less money, and so do many competitors from Olympus, Lumix, and Sony.
So why are a few of us willing to pay extra for X-Pros – or, worse yet, Leica Ms – just to get that crude, inaccurate optical viewfinder?
It’s because for a few specific kinds of photography, the OVF has two key advantages:
- No tunnel vision: It can show what’s going on outside the area the lens will see. You can view your picture within the context of what’s happening around it.
- Continuous viewing: It doesn’t black out, even briefly, during exposure. You get a sense of the continuous flow of the event you’re watching.
These points are important to me because I often photograph spontaneous activities in which I start out with absolutely no idea what’s going on. The only way for me to make sense of the situation is to observe it closely until I understand what pictures to make.
Usually I can manage this just fine with a regular camera – but in challenging scenarios, the OVF’s wide, blackout-free view can really help.
Not even the dancers knew what was going to happen next in this improvisational performance. The blackout-free view through an OVF helps me feel a little more connected to spontaneous action like this. [Tbd. Dance Collective at the Pet Shop Gallery; X-Pro 1, ISO 6400, 1/125 @ f/1.4.]
As optical viewfinders go, the X-Pro 2′s is nothing special. Its brightness and clarity are okay, but not great, and its dinky 0.6x maximum magnification is underwhelming compared to most Leica M models (or the old Epson R-D 1 digital rangefinder camera, which offered an epic 1.0x finder that you could use comfortably with both eyes open.)
But against all that, the best thing about the X-Pro 2′s optical viewfinder is simply that it’s there. It’s a complicated, expensive feature that most photographers (most likely including you) don’t need, won’t use, and shouldn’t pay for. Most companies’ bean-counters surely would have been sorely tempted to say sayonara to it. Yet it’s still there, for those who need it.
That’s what makes the optical viewfinder not just the X-Pro 2′s best feature, but its only real reason to exist at all.
Does that mean I should keep the one I bought? I still don’t know…