Scene with "Scrooge" and the "Ghost of Marley" from Zach Theatre's
Technical rehearsal of "A Christmas Carol."
In my new zest to try out the Fuji cameras (X-T3 and X-E3) I took both of them to the technical rehearsal at Zach Theatre Sunday evening. The cast of "A Christmas Carol" was doing a run through of the entire performance, in full costume, and I always like to come and do a "pre-shoot" or scouting adventure before the dress rehearsals on Tuesdays. Doing this shows me the blocking and lighting and gives me ample opportunity to move around and get images from any angle I want. I don't have to step over audience members on Sunday nights because there are none.
I tend to take cameras I am testing, or breaking in, to the tech rehearsals; that way, if I screw up or get stumped by a shy menu item, I still have the actual dress rehearsal in which to get all the images buttoned down and correct.
I packed the two cameras and the small selection of lenses I've accumulated thus far: 18-55mm, 50mm f2.0, and the 55-200mm. I brought along extra batteries, a couple extra SD cards and my best, well worn, black cotton baseball cap; the one I bought at the Gap twenty three years ago... to cover my bright head of hair...
So, here is the first conundrum of the evening:
I presumed that when set to the same menu settings the cameras would generate files that look identical (with the exception of actual resolution). I was expecting to see the same color palette and overall tonality on the rear LCD of both cameras but it didn't turn out that way. With both cameras set to "Provia/Standard" and all the fine-tuning controls zero'd out the images on the rear LCD and EVF of the XT-3 were lower in contrast, showed more detail in the shadows, and had very good color.
The images on the screens of the X-E3 were much contrastier, with the shadows blocking up very quickly and color also looking compressed. As with any active experiment I kept shooting and going back and forth between cameras. At intermission I changed lenses, using the lens from the other camera and vice versa. My first thought was that the difference was probably in the preview and would probably be more similar once I pulled all the files up on my studio computer. Perhaps, I thought, the lower res of the screens on the cheaper camera were causing the disconnect.
When I got back to the studio and dug into the files in Lightroom I saw a difference between the two cameras' files but it wasn't as drastic as it appeared in the field. The X-E3 seems to create a snappier and more saturated file with less information in the shadows. I've gone through and checked every parameter looking for something that would cause the differentiation but I've come up empty handed and with no other overarching theory to explain it. If you are a Fuji expert and have any ideas I'd love to hear them.
Here are a few other things I discovered in my test shooting:
Both cameras are quick to focus on things that fall in the center of the frame (actually a big target area) as that's where all the groovy phase detection AF points reside. Fine with me as that matches the way I usually set stuff.
The 55-200mm zoom is pretty impressive at most of the shorter focal lengths; it only starts to lose a bit of sharpness (fine hairs and threads) at focal lengths above about 150mm. This isn't distressing at all since the files are still very nice and it's actually a good performance considering that I was shooting mostly at the widest aperture... And, please remember that these are results when using the camera at 1600-6400 ISO, which could be part of the equation.
The choice of review settings in both cameras is a bit coarse. You can review your images for what seems like a micro-second, or 1.5 seconds, or continuously. I'd prefer a 3 or 5 second set time preview that automatically cancels when you touch the shutter button.
The files from the E-X3 were sharp and contrasty but responded well to the use of the shadow and highlight sliders in Lightroom. The images were much nicer on the studio monitor than in the camera review but interestingly I never previously noticed the same overall performance when I shot the camera outdoors during the days before. I'm still toying around with it and it just dawned on me that I might need to set the controls on the EVF differently... Again, if you've had experience with this, chime in.
The 50mm f2.0 is certainly sharp enough to use wide open and then gets better and better as you head toward f5.6. The character of the lens is really attractive. So much so that I'm also buying the 35mm f2.0 as a complement for it.
The previews and review in camera for the X-T3 looked flatter in both the LCD and the EVF. Sometimes it almost looked like I had F-Log engaged (I did not). But when I pulled those files into Lightroom they seemed perfectly normal; more or less what I expected.
I also used this opportunity to see how the X-T3 worked at various ISO settings. I'm here to report that files at ISO 800 and below are perfect. No discernible noise and no weird artifacts. Even the handful of raw files I shot to potentially help with some difficult mixed lighting situations opened nicely and without any of the ill effects I've heard about in rants about the Adobe/Fuji processor mismatch.
A lot of the background on the stage goes to black in this show and it's an opportunity to see how well the cameras handled noise. At 100 % viewing and at 1600 ISO I just started to see small white and colored dots in the black areas of the frames. I made a quick attempt to quell them with the noise reduction controls in Lightroom but the total removal of the tiny spots caused the sharpness to degrade a bit more than I would have liked. Shooting at 3200 and 6400 ISO with the X-T3 gave me a bit more noise in black areas but in brighter scenes and in bright areas in darker scenes the noise was well controlled. Trying to shoot into jet black is a challenge for most cameras and I think the Fuji performed a bit better than my Nikon D800e or D810. Also, when used in Jpeg mode the camera does a much better job at noise remediation than I do with raw files.
I tended to use my faster lens on the smaller camera so I didn't do the same range of ISO testing with that one. I'll try it again in the near future.
I'm happy the cameras both use the same batteries because you'll go through them if you engage the high performance setting in power management menu. I got through the entire show with one battery in the X-E3 but the bigger camera with a higher res sensor and a higher res EVF seems to be a bit more power hungry. I made it 3/4 of the way through the production before I was down to one or two bars of battery strength indicator and I chose a safe moment to change the battery out. I didn't want to keep going on a largely depleted battery and have the camera shut down just when the cast comes together in a group pose at the end of a musical number.
You can gnash your teeth and bitch about the battery life but if you like using the camera you could just buy the battery grip and add two more batteries to the mix for a total of three. That should work for just about any daylong job ----- unless you get the urge to shoot 4K video. If you do that I think you'll get about three total hours of recording time before you've exhausted all three.
I just carry a good supply in the camera bag and change them when they need changing. I'd rather spend my camera money on lenses than accessory grips. Chalk up a big plus for Panasonic G9 and GH5 batteries --- they run circles around the Fujis...
The overall handling of the cameras and lenses was good. Not sure if I'd want the X-E3 as my primary shooting camera (button ergonomics, zany touch screen swiping that I'm having trouble figuring out) but it's a nice, casual shooter and an effective back up camera. My advice? Keep your X-T3 healthy. Or buy two of them instead. If I like the system well enough I probably will.
We shoot the dress rehearsal tomorrow and I'm going to switch gears and go back to the G9 cameras. There's so much I already like about them. Tomorrow I'll shoot them in the raw file mode and see if I can squeeze them through post processing with enough competence to get close to matching the output of the better Fuji files. It should be an interesting experiment. Same show, same lighting and actors, just different cameras and lenses. May the best camera win.
I shot 1,500 files with the two Fujis last night and edited down to about 750 files that cover the entire show. I shoot lots of variations because I'm trying to play the odds and get images where most of the actors have their eyes open coupled with an appropriate expression on their faces. You might be Superman with your camera and get every scene squared away in just five or six shots. I'm just human and can't quite seem to watch ten or twenty actors' expressions and eyes, through an EVF, all at the same time. I work on overall scene composition and then play the odds to get enough frames to get some good ones.
Then it comes down to choice. I deliver a large number of photographs because I may have a different perspective or point of view than my client(s). I'll let them decide which expressions best sell the production instead of being maniacal about just giving them a bare minimum edit. Some clients like it and some don't. But it's better to have a couple hundred too many photographs than to fail to deliver a useable one in every scene.
But how was the performance? Not of the camera and lenses but of the play? In short, this is my favorite play of the year at Zach Theatre. It's not your mom and dad's Christmas Carol because it incorporates Broadway quality lighting, staging, acting and sound. It also gets light-hearted in places with great contemporary music and songs. Along with some pretty incredible, and fun, choreography. It's more a musical than a traditional holiday play and that makes the whole thing absolutely fun. I love the message of hope, joy and redemption and I love some of the incredible ballads. Love the use of "Halo" as a pivotal song in the production! Director, Abe Reybold, just absolutely knocked this production out of the ballpark. It's the Leica M series of Christmas entertainment. (the M4 of holiday plays. With a dual range 50mm Summicron).
I look forward to seeing it again tomorrow and I'll probably go back whenever I need an emotional/mental health recharge during the holidays. I can't help but feeling great when the curtain comes down. But that's what a good theatre production should do for you. Come to Austin, buy a ticket and see how a show is done when it's absolutely perfect.
The Fujis are not perfect but are very, very good and imminently usable for professional work. Even mine. Full frame? Who cares?