Equipment, August 2015

Going Smaller and Lighter

The past year has been a time for rethinking gear for this photographer. I’ve been shooting for over 50 years, the last 20 or so with Nikon gear. For the past two to three years, I’ve found myself not looking forward so much to doing photo outings on my own. My wife had commented on that as well observing that I’m enjoying teaching much more than shooting. When and how did that happen?

I’ve come to the realization that it’s about my gear - the carrying part. Now, understand, I love my FF Nikons - every camera, every lens. But, by the time I put what I need/want in my backpack, it becomes quite a load for two prosthetic shoulders, not to mention little annoyances like arthritis and a 40 year-old back issue. Not complaining - better than some alternatives. But, it’s getting in the way of enjoying, feeling the enthusiasm and even the emotion about “the shoot”. I’m not quite ready to narrow my photographic range of options because of a physical limitation here and there.  And, I can’t quit and just play more golf. I’d lose way too much money that way.  My golfing buddies already send a cab to pick me up for tee time.

You might ask, “why not take only what you need when you go out?” Been there-done that! I’ve had too many of those “boy, I sure wish I had brought my xyz lens” moments.

So, I started thinking smaller and lighter. I started thinking mirrorless. “No, no George, get counseling”. During the last week of 2014 (very quietly, so no one would notice), I rented a Fujifilm X-T1 (APS-C sensor) and the 18-135mm lens and spent the holidays playing around with it. Then, I repeated that for our Yellowstone Tour in January.

While I was trying out the rentals, I did a lot - I mean a lot - of research into mirrorless. I read review after review (especially dpreview's 20 pager), asked questions, re-reviewed the reviews. I learned Fuji listens to their customers (imagine that!); they add improvements, not only in new gear, as everyone else does, but with firmware upgrades to existing gear (in other words, no X-T1e, X-T1s, etc.) and that they’re pretty transparent about what’s in the pipeline as far as new equipment is concerned. 

I put the gear through all the paces. Some say video is a weak point but I don’t do, and don’t intend to do, professional video and what it does meets my needs for the occasional clip. Another known downside for the X-T1 is that it eats batteries and autofocus tracking was just OK. But, when I need great tracking and predictive AF (like for wildlife) I’ll go to my Nikons. And, I always carry extra batteries. From a TTL flash standpoint, Fuji needs improvement but I don’t do a lot of that either.

Finally, I looked at how many of my peers had gone mirrorless; some for travel only, others moving totally away from DSLR to mirrorless. Bill Fortney, Brenda Tharp, Terry Eggers had all switched to mirrorless at least part-time (so much for these cameras being for “enthusiasts”). Bill and Brenda had some really nice things to say about Fuji too. Bill gave me an e-book he had written about his Fuji experience. Hmmm!

In March, I took the plunge and bought the X-T1 along with the 18-55mm “kit lens”. The latter is one of the sharpest “kit lens” you’ll find anywhere in the universe. I used this combo for about a month. I was even more impressed.

I added the 56mm f/1.2 and rented the 14mm f/2.8 and 50-140mm f/2.8 for a trip to Ireland. I rent from Lens Rentals and, after several days of use, I exercised the option to buy both while still in Ireland. Then I used the gear at our Yosemite workshop in May and, finally, on an impromptu trip to the Palouse to shoot with our friends, the Eggers’ who already shoot mirrorless with Olympus and where I was encouraged to publically confess, “I shoot mirrorless”. Of course I also shot close to home. Later I added the 10-24mm f/4.

As I said earlier, I knew I’d have issues with AF especially for any moving subjects. A lot of that was fixed in late June with Firmware 4.0; AF took a big leap forward in my opinion. The focus is faster and while its tracking ability and predictive AF doesn’t yet challenge my Nikons, still, it’s a darned good improvement. So, if you’re into fast sports action or BIF, you may not do well with the X-T1. Conversely, the camera is well suited for travel, landscape, wedding, portraits, slow moving subjects or any other type of shooting that doesn’t involve very fast or erratically moving subjects. I admit however, as the pilot gets more familiar with the controls, more improvement is probable.

My Nikon gear? Again, I love it. I just can’t carry it as well as I used to. Walking a mile or more with that gear on my back was once a slam-dunk. Not anymore. And air travel has become increasingly difficult in terms of both size and weight especially with international travel. To make matters worse, IATA is recommending a decrease in carry-on sizes by 20% in volume. Some members of Congress are petitioning them to leave the limit as-is. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, it’s fun being able to pack everything in a Lowepro 20L Flipside Sport, a Think Tank Airport Essential or a Gura Gear 18L Bataflae, be confident I can carry it all with no sweat and know I can put it in ANY overhead or under-seat location - even in small regionals. (As you can see, like a lot of you, I’m a card-carrying member of the Backpack of the Month Club). So, that addresses the smaller part. Being able to go to smaller bags addresses size but not necessarily weight.

OK - How about lighter?  Well, in the first place, comparing any APS-C gear to FF isn’t really an honest apples-to-apples comparison but I am saving 3-1/2 pounds carrying two bodies plus three lenses that cover an FF equivalent Angle of View range of 15mm to 210mm (AOV - not magnification - trust me)

Now 3-1/2 pounds may not sound like much. Remember though, it’s my shoulders and back we’re talking about. So, for me, it’s substantial. And for the distances I’m willing to walk, it’s the difference between “a walk in the park” and “aren’t we there yet?”

What about results? I’ll skip the report about how it feels, location of dials, electronic viewfinder, low light performance (terrific by the way) and all that stuff because if I thought it was awful, I’d have looked elsewhere and, anyhow, a lot of that is personal preference. That which appeals or is acceptable to me may not meet with your approval and visa versa and that’s fine.

The real test is the print. I printed two images from my Palouse trip shot at base ISO of 200 on 13x19 Epson Exhibition Fiber paper at 360 dpi; straight from Lightroom using Epson’s 3880. Even at a reasonable distance from my nose, the prints are awesome. How big can you print? Bill Fortney has prints up to 4 by 5 feet and, if you don’t know Bill, I can tell you his images are absolutely tack sharp.

Finally, maybe you’re wondering why not Sony (especially full-frame) or Olympus or Nikon or whatever. Or how about downsizing to DX?  First, I’m not swayed by mega-megapixels. I’m very happy with 16 MP (yes, I have a D810 and a D4 and will still use the latter for wildlife). Second, when thinking of a major change one has to look at “total systems”.

From my perspective, Sony FF is still “big” - especially lenses  - not smaller nor lighter. Then, sizing up the X-T1 against a comparable 2.0x m4/3, the Fuji has 30% larger pixels (which generally means a wider dynamic range and higher signal to noise ratio) and is almost 15% lighter. Nikon’s 2.7x CX sensor is just too small (for me). As far as DX is concerned, Nikon isn’t doing much to support the format from a lens standpoint (only four or five released in the past five years). Last, I have to admit I love the X-T1 retro classic camera design.  


P.S. A Word About Post-Processing

It’s a well-established fact that Adobe continues to have problems with raw conversion for the Fujifilm X-Trans sensor. The X-Trans consists of a 6x6 array while the more prevalent Bayer array is a 2x2. The result is that Fuji raw images processed in Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw exhibit softness, especially in foliage, that can best be described as “painterly” and no amount of sharpening in either in Lightroom or Photoshop yields the same level of quality we’re used to seeing in NEF or CR2 files. Adobe is making progress and has pledged to continue working on the issue but, while Lightroom CC 2015 (6.1) showed some improvement over version 5.7, it has a ways to go.  

Enter Iridient Developer - $99 Mac only raw processing software. The difference between it and Lightroom/ACR is like night and day when it comes to the X-Trans sensor. Once I import my images into Lightroom and create a collection of my “best images” (my usual practice), I export them to Iridient, do all my RAW adjustments (non-destructive) and save them back into Lightroom as TIFF’s where I can tweak to arrive at a final image. By the way, customer service at Iridient is outstanding. Need help? Got a question? Brian gets back to you really quick.

Though more expensive than Iridient, Phase One’s Capture One software also does a better job with the X-Trans than Adobe Lightroom/ACR and is available for Mac/PC as a purchase or by subscription. There are quite a number of tutorials on their website to help one navigate between Lightroom and Capture One. An excellent alternative for PCer's.