One of my favorite clients: Esther's Follies. A forty year Austin theater tradition. The best comedy in all of Texas!

The current cast of Esther's Follies. 

Humor. Magic. Political Commentary. Beer. Mexican food. Brilliant acting. Austin Weird Fun. 

If you were coming to Austin to try and find some of those old Austin traditions that helped create our city's unofficial motto: Keep Austin Weird I'd make one of your first stops Esther's Follies on East Sixth Street. The building is covered with amazing mural art by Kerry Awn and others. The interior is all old Austin. It's amazing fun. 

I've been photographing for the folks at Esther's for well over a decade and it always seems like we're just getting warmed up. This is from our January 2019 shoot, last week. Three big lights in umbrellas and a fast shutter. All fun all the time. 

At the end of every photo shoot at Esther's Follies they toss everyone together for a cast and crew shot. 

I was curious to see if the Fuji XT3's eye detect AF would work well with the 60mm f2.4 macro lens so while I was on a location assignment I tested it.

So, here's the scenario: you're on location with your motley collection of lights and modifiers, stands and cameras and, after you've roughed in the lights (in this case one electronic flash with a sheet of diffusion on it for the background and one electronic flash with a 48 inch octabank) you want to see if your ratios and exposure are in the ballpark so you'd like to have someone sit in for a few test shots. Then you realize that there's no one around to use as a guinea pig so you decide to make good use of that expensive self-timer built into your camera and use yourself as a stand-in. 

Around the same time it dawned on me that I'd really never taken advantage of the eye detect AF in the Fuji XT3 I was about to use to photograph six different doctors. I didn't want to try it if its performance was spotty. I set the self-timer to ten seconds, walked back to the little portable bench I'd brought along for my subjects, and waited for the shutter to go off and trigger the flash. I'd set the AF for continuous to make sure it would lock onto me once I was seated. 

Wow! It worked. I was happy since the room we were shooting in was lit only by the 150 watt modeling light stuck behind a couple layers of diffusion in the octobank. I tested it five or ten times (and also used these tests to adjust light levels). 

The 60mm f2.4 has had a reputation for being slow to focus but I didn't find that to be so. Could be that the latest firmware update (3.11) improved the performance, and since I am late to the Fuji game I've dodged some earlier performance issues....

As you can see from my self-inflicted (and very dour looking) samples the camera nailed focus on my right eye, which was marginally closer to the camera. The menu allows for left or right eye selection or auto. I chose auto. In a series of tests, and then 260 shots with client subjects, the camera nailed all but a few shots. 

Now the real question: Why did I look so glum in these photos?

At the point in time when I took this photo (all three shots are different crops of the same frame) I'd already been up to Round Rock, Texas at 6 am to make a few executive portraits, we spent the middle of the day doing paperwork and supervising Studio Dog's ever important agenda. I left the studio around 3:30 to drive north on the dreaded Mopac Expressway, arriving at Austin Radiological Associates' business offices around 4:30 pm (Yes, nearly an hour to go about 12 miles on an "expressway.") to unload my gear and be set up and ready to photograph by 5:30. 

I was scheduled too tightly. I needed to have this job finished by 6:45 pm so I could wrap everything up, get all the gear back in the car and be at Zach Theatre (opposite end of town)  by 7:30pm to be ready to shoot their season premiere, from 8 to 10 pm. With a little rain in the forecast, and the tendency of people to arrive a bit late for appointments, I figured I'd have a white knuckle/mario andretti journey back my side of town.

I needn't have worried as everyone came right on time. In fact, my last subject was ten minutes early so my margin of safety grew from "yikes" to "comfort zone." 

I don't normally book multiple shoots that close on the same day but I shot the technical rehearsal of the play a few nights before and felt comfortable that if I didn't get the first 15 or 20 minutes of last night's production we'd still have more than enough good content to cover it. As it played out everything worked. I even had time to grab a bottle of water before the show. 

Yes. I think Fuji's ancient 60mm macro is a fine lens, and sharp.

By the way, the play was good. Well lit. 
That's what I notice most as I'm photographing...

Test your gear before you embarrass yourself.

A brief and happy review of the FujiFilm 55-200mm f3.5 to 4.8 Aspherical. Works well with a long reach for theater photography.

Dress Rehearsal for Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Zach Theatre, Austin, Texas
Fuji 55-200mm at 200mm. Wide open aperture.

As a working, professional photographer I sometimes feel almost duty bound to buy only zoom lenses that have the specification: "f2.8" in their names. There seems to be a pervasive belief in the minds of photographers and lens reviewers that a faster lens is always a better lens. There is an additional corollary to this which is a more expensive lens is always a better lens. I think this is mostly the false construction of a last gasp barrier to entry by people who feel like their chosen careers are in jeopardy of being overrun by the unwashed. I feel duty bound to inform such folks that the barrier-to-entry train left the photo station more than a few years ago....

My experience has been that some slower lenses perform as well or better than their faster and more expensive peers; at least for the things for which I use lenses. A case in point is longer zoom lenses. I've been photographing stage shows for a long time and have used the 70-200mm f2.8 lenses from Nikon, Canon and Sony for some of this work. All of them have been good enough when used wide open and as sharp as you'd want at f4.0 and beyond. Had I imagined I was going to burrow into Fuji's X system as quickly and with as much gusto as I have I probably would have reflexively bought the faster and more expensive 50-140mm f2.8 but, then again, I may have still made the same choice and selected the 55-200mm instead. 

Why? Well, I had the idea that most of Fuji's lenses were pretty good. Better than average; at least. At the price of $699 ( I paid retail at a bricks and mortar camera store in my own city) I figured it was sure to be a cut above the mostly plastic, mostly slower kit lenses (you know, the 18-55 + the 55-200 variety) offered by the big two camera makers. I also trust my local merchant and if the lens wasn't up to my expectations I knew they'd take it back, no questions asked, as long as I hadn't tossed the packing materials for the lens, or filled out any warranty cards. The store is good that way.... But the biggest reason I chose the 55-200 f3.5-4.8 over its faster sibling had to do with the extra reach the slower lens offered. 

But that's where a bit of trepidation seeped in. I kept reading in online reviews that the lens was really good for the most part but scraped its knees a bit at the longest focal lengths. One reviewer estimated that one would need to work with the lens at f8.0 to make it "acceptably" sharp. I cringed when I read that. But then I tested the lens at a couple theater productions and all the angst of the web failed to materialize; failed to match my reality. If you live in the real world you can use this lens wide open through its range of focal lengths and get very good sharpness and contrast. The data is right there in the files if you know how to handle your camera, how to focus accurately and how to hold your camera system still enough to eliminate user-inflicted issues. You can stop reading here; that's the gist of my review. 

But, of course, I have more to say about the lens...

The 55-200mm is a dense lens and is heavier than it looks. It offers image stabilization so it's a good choice for Fuji camera bodies like the XT2 and XT3 which don't have IBIS. The promotional material indicates that you'll get about 4 stops of stabilization when using the lens only but about 3.5 stops of stabilization when used on an XH1 body. The camera menus allow one to select whether the image stabilization is on all the time (continuous) or just works when you click the shutter. I tend to work with it in the "just when you click" mode for normal and shorter lenses but always use the continuous setting with longer lenses because I believe the additional stabilization helps the camera to focus quicker/more accurately. That may or may not be true but the stabilized viewfinder certainly helps me do a better job composing...

The lens has a 62mm filter diameter and a huge, long lens hood. I won't complain about that because I value what lens hoods do; kill flare, increase overall contrast and help increase image saturation. 

Do you walk around with your lens hood reversed on your telephoto zoom lens and even actually shoot that way? You are under-informed and need to correct that bad habit. Use a lens hood for every shot. You'll like your images better. Also, you won't look like a dork.

I shot about 1200 images with the 55-200mm lens last night at the dress rehearsal of the musical/play: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  I found that using the smallest focusing square in AF-S mode was the best way to always nail focus in the exact spot I was aiming for. I did shoot the lead walking toward camera and walking across the stage using AF-C, and the entire frame of focusing sensors, and the XH-1 I was using locked on and nailed focus even though half the time I was shooting with fog on the stage, and with lots and lots of backlighting. I don't shoot a lot of sports but imagine that in good light the continuous focus would be even more tenacious. 

With the XT3 and XH1 (with battery grip on the XH1) cameras you can enable a "boost" mode which speeds up focusing, increasing the read speed for the LCD/EVF and, in general, makes those cameras feel more responsive. This increase in performance worked for me; I had very few frames ruined due to focusing issues. For calm, slow photo days I turn off the boost and that makes my batteries last 25% or more longer. 

So, the lens works well and even wide open I can see the texture of the actor's skin and the granularity of his make up, not to mention individual, well defined blonde hairs, with the lens handheld at 1/125th of second, at 200mm, at f4.8, shooting at ISO 1600 and 3200. But, in reality, it's never the lens alone doing all the work, without a good camera all the great optical performance is mostly meaningless. I like the handling of the XH1 bodies a lot. I've yet to see a big difference in image quality between the HX1 and the XT3. It may be there but if a difference exists I suspect that we'll see it mostly at the base ISO. 

A wider view of the stage at Hedwig, taken with a Fuji 18-55mm, also used wide open. 

Another handheld 55-200mm shot, wide open at 200mm. 
You might not see it in a file that's 2048 pixels wide but 
in the original 6000 pixel wide Jpeg image one can see the striations in 
the actor's iris and amazing detail in the eyelashes. 

I wouldn't ask for more from a lens.