Final thoughts on using the Fuji X-T3 and the 55-200mm Fuji zoom for my 2nd rehearsal shoot of "Santaland Diaries" at Zach Theatre.

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.

Post Project Blues.

If you follow this blog you probably know that this Fall has been extremely busy. Not busy in terms of writing about new gear or hip lenses, but busy taking existing cameras, lenses and lights out into the field and working for multiple days, and multiple weeks, for real, traditional, conventional clients who need photography. I've been tightly focused on the logistics of actually getting to locations that most people don't travel to. Places beyond paved roads and coffee shops, and conveniently located camera stores. 

Making tight travel deadlines can be stressful. Driving an unfamiliar rental car to a rural waypoint, guided solely by the GPS on your phone can be nail biting when you loose that cellphone connection. Getting to a project miles and miles from the nearest small town only to find that there are no restaurants, no gas stations, and not even a convenience store in which to get a microwaved burrito, can be a sobering experience for a photographer who spends the majority of his time in a modern, urban hub. While we love to bitch about the hardships of the road  most people who do this kind of work secretly love the challenge and the access to an alternate existence the likes of which most office dwellers are largely unaware. I know that I have a current of anxiety that runs through me at some level every minute that I'm on assignment outside my lifestyle comfort zone. 

But there's a weird reality on the other side of the assignments. I'm calling it post partum project depression. It's when you've been running full steam on a serial collection of intense work and client engagements and then, all of a sudden, you come to the natural end of the projects and all that adrenaline and feeling of connection to your work,  and basic sense of purpose ebbs. Now you have time to linger over a cup of coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop, time to read the latest news, but there's also a feeling of being disconnected... sitting in neutral.

I always feel a bit lost after a big tranche of work. I've been engaged in work pretty much non-stop since the beginning of the Fall season and one gets into the habit of packing just so, and doing quick research about the next destination on the schedule. I've gotten efficient at shooting on locations and then using my "downtime" waiting for the next flights to do global color corrections of the resulting images and uploading them to galleries for my clients. 

When I finally unloaded my mental baggage this week (and literally unloaded all the lighting gear and camera gear I've been using) I realized what I miss out when I'm on the road. I miss the Friday lunches with Ben (he works from home on Friday and we head to the local sandwich shop for Texas Tuna sandwiches = Whole wheat buns, tuna salad, guacamole, fresh sliced jalapeƱos, provolone cheese and all the usual condiments) and I miss family dinners. I miss my other clients. I miss the friends I usually hang out with and I miss my fellow masters swimmers. I miss Studio Dog.

The cure, for me, for the whole post project blues is to re-engage with all the things I love about being home. That, and buying another camera or lens... Yes. Yesterday I bought a Fuji X-E2 and ordered a 7Artisans 55mm f1.4 for the Fuji cameras. Why? It was all cheap stuff and it was motivated by seeing the results I got from my second rehearsal shoot of "Santaland Diaries" at Zach Theatre. But that's all in the next post......

Freelance work is so different from a steady job. If you work for a big company chances are you labor in a familiar framework from day to day. You might invent new stuff or market new products but you generally arrive at a certain time, you know where the office coffee maker is, you have a certain amount of time for lunch, you know what traffic will be like in the evening, etc. You know your familiar process.

If you work as an independent business, like photography, you'll find that nearly every assignment from a range of clients is different in large and small ways. From location to billing, from lighting style to deliverables. And then there are the opaque stretches of time in between. The uncertainty is more or less a consistent mantra. The allure of the "next" job seems predicated on the amount of time you waited for it to manifest...

I actually bailed on a job this week. I'd talked to a client that we do event work for about photographing their Holiday Event on the 15th. It would have been easy work with a decent payday at the end. But as the holidays progress I/we had conflicts with the date. My new neighbors are having a big party that evening. My swim team's annual party is also that evening. I talked to my client and they understood. They found someone to take over. Maybe the new guy will be so good the client will never call me again. But my post project sense of priorities gives greater weight to getting my social connectivity and quality of life back into balance. You only get so many good neighbors in a lifetime. You only get so many opportunities to hang with your fellow swimmers. 

Work-Life Balance versus the lure of work. It always seems a bit off. 

Just had the Texas Tuna Sandwich at Thunderclouds with Ben. Easily worth a day rate fee.