Jimmy Moore as "David" in David Sedaris' cynical, hilarious, one man holiday play, "Santaland Diaries." At Zach Theatre.
I photographed a previous rehearsal of this play (with no audience in attendance) last Saturday. We felt like we needed the energy that having an audience would bring to Jimmy's performance and so we added a second shoot to the schedule for this past Tuesday. I like to switch cameras in order to compare the handling and the actual output of each. On Sunday (see blogpost here) I used several Panasonic G9 cameras and (mostly) the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro zoom. On Tuesday I relied exclusively on the Fujifilm X-T3 and the "pedestrian" Fuji 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 zoom. These are my observations about the latter system; the Fuji.
There are trade-offs between the two camera systems. Let me get those out of the way first. The G9 is much better designed to hold and to operate. The grip is bigger, the body more solid and the controls logical. The feedback loop is also better. I never worry, with that camera, if what I'm focusing on will be what the camera focuses on. I never worry about the image in the viewfinder matching the image I anticipate seeing on my monitor when I get back to the office. And I know that my raw file will be better than my Jpeg file (although that's certainly a mixed blessing...). The G9 has a sensor that's smaller than the X-T3 and so, shoots like this one that happen mostly with the lens on each camera used wide open and both camera set to ISO 1600 (+ or -) show up the technical differences between the sensors. Since the Fuji lens is at least a stop slower (it's variable) I give up one stop of technical difference in sensor performance between the two....But...
The Fuji files are a bit softer, or less contrasty, right out of the camera, either in raw or in Jpeg. This makes them easier to do small (and large) corrections on. The Fujis dig into the shadows a bit better than the Panasonic files but in both cases the almost pure black of the background causes both camera to show small, white, noise dots in the black when I dial back the noise reduction in order to get more details in the overall files. They are both about the same in terms of producing the little dots but since the Fuji has a bit more resolution its files don't get enlarged as much so the dots are a bit less obvious. If I were looking for one perfect image and had infinite time to do post processing to the one "keeper" image, I'd select my main object (Jimmy) and invert my selection and then hit the background with noise reduction --- just in case --- with either camera (no real winners here). But... I need to deliver many files and so I compromise and split the difference between the ultimate sharpness and detail with a pleasing "calming" of the edgy shadow noise. Both cameras do well with noise in the mid tones and in the highlights.
The Fuji files have a smoother roll off in the highlights which means having to take less care to avoid clipping. Both the Fuji and the Panasonic have highlight and shadow controls which allow one to change the characteristic curve of each parameter separately; which is an advantage over cameras which only provide a "contrast" control which affects both sides of the curve equally.
If you provide the right input to the camera, vis-a-vis white balance, both cameras look very similar in their final files, color-wise.
The Fuji is less sure footed in a shoot than the Panasonic which means I trust it just a bit less. When you switch from S-af to C-af the X-T3 finder brightens as you make exposures. It's disconcerting in that I want the finder image to constantly display the preview image that reflects exposure (and color) settings. You have to wait until you finish with a continuous burst to review the final image in the burst to be sure that the camera really did hit your intended exposure.
The Fuji grip is smaller which makes handling the camera for two hour straight through is less comfortable and secure than is the G9.
But the bottom line is this: The Fuji makes better image files. The files at ISO 1600 are more robust. There is less pixel whiffle to see when you inspect and image at 100%. The roll off in the highlights is a very positive thing when shooting under stage lights. And this is inspire of me using a variable aperture zoom lens on the Fuji which is less than half the cost of the Olympus 40/150mm Pro. I'll eventually get the Fuji 50-140mm f2.8 to use for theatre work and switch to the X-T3 to do stage photography with. Also portraits.
I've yet to compare video to video but I think handling issues in that arena would supersede any visual quality difference in that arena.
But now, on to the unexpected takeaway:
I am starting to distrust online reviewers and data-driven reviewers of cameras, and especially lenses, more and more. I bought the Fuji 55-200mm as more or less a placeholder to use while I was introducing myself to the system. I wasn't sure I'd stick around to play with their more expensive glass and I was mostly interested in seeing how the bodies would perform. The 55-200mm, I thought, would do a decent job under bright studio lights and out in the bright parts of the world but after reading various reviews (with one exception) I came away expecting that: A. the lens would not be very sharp when used wide open. B. the lens would be even less sharp at any focal length longer than 150mm and that, C. overall the lens's ability to resolve detail with enough contrast would be much lower than a more expensive, professional lens.
Interestingly (to me) I used the long end of the Fuji lens for many (most) of the images I'm showing here. Go down three images from here and click on the image to see it larger. The detail and then the almost three dimensional differentiation between Jimmy's arms and hands and the background is so amazing. Even more so when you consider that the frame was shot of a moving target by a moving camera (not on a tripod) at 1/125th of a second at a wide open aperture. In every parameter this is where the reviews online led me to believe that I'd be met with abject failure. But it's plain to see that this is not the case. Going further down in the stream of images are two profile shots of Jimmy. Clicking in on these to 100% showed me good detail in the skin on his face, the stubble on his chin, the fabric of his costume and each individual strand of hair. This is the kind of sharpness I would only expect if I was shooting with flash. It's not what I would expect in a fast moving show with a handheld camera at ISO 800-1600.
The one person who had the spot-on review of this lens, and insight into its potential was good, old Ken Rockwell. He basically nailed it. The lens is sharp at every aperture and focal length until it hits the point where it is diffraction limited (different f-stops at different focal lengths). Hammering home once again the importance of taking the time to test this stuff instead of believing pundits on the web who may have pulled the lens out of a box in their poorly lit living room, handheld it at 1/4 of a second while trying to snap a photo of their escaping cat, and then pronouncing the lens's performance as ........ soft.
So, as of now, having used Canon, Sony, Nikon full frame cameras extensively I would say that if I was starting over from scratch and wanted to put together ONE system that could do the best job in video and stills (instead of one or the other exclusively) I'm afraid I'd have to go with the Fuji X-T3.
Caveat: If you don't need to blow stuff up big, or work at the edge of some strange performance envelope (shooting everything at ISO 6400), you'll be able to get as close as most of us need to with your current m4:3 camera or equivalent. You won't see much difference (or any at all) jumping up to a full frame camera from the Fuji either. Right now, with the exception of ergonomics, I declare the Fuji X-T3 to be the sweet spot.
Final Thought: I was so happy to see the Fuji combo do so well that I rushed over to Precision Camera to pick up a X-Pro-2 I'd seen on the used shelf. The price was right and the camera was in good shape but when I spent half an hour operating it and holding it I had my sales guy put it right back in the case. It's not really a Leica for modern times. It's too big and clunky and the operational manner of the camera isn't my cup of tea (or, being from Texas, not my Big Gulp Cup of Dr. Pepper). It went right back onto the shelf. Not every camera that is insanely well reviewed is that great either. Your mile will vary. Until you put a camera in your own hands and bring it up to your eye level it's all just fiction. Test em. Reject them. Embrace them. But understand WHY it's right or wrong for you.
It's not physics or optics or anything esoteric. It's like cars, girlfriends and pizza --- people like what they like and you may not like their choices.
I did pick up a very clean, used X-E2 to use in tandem with my X-E3 when I'm doing the prime lens shuffle (a different lens on each body...). It's cute and set me back less than $300, with a natty leather strap (that is too spindly to use). It felt much better laid out than the X-Pro-2. Sad, on paper I always wanted to own an X-Pro-2. Having spent time with it in my own hands I'm happy to move on.