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Roadtrip Review Redux: The Fujifilm X100F

by on May.28, 2017, under Reviews


Beautiful flowers in golden sunlight along the southern California coast

I had to leave all my musical instruments in Cincinnati when I first moved to Seattle three years ago. Recently, I found the time to road trip back and collect them. Seattle is about as far removed from the rest of the United States as a major US city can be, while still being part of the ‘lower 48’. This means that if you’re headed a great distance East, there are a number of ways you can go. And when you work at DPReview, there are also a number of cameras you can take. 

Welcome to my journey down the West Coast, where I have decided to discuss one of my favorite cameras from the past couple of years to use as a point and shoot. That ‘point and shoot’ bit is very important. This is my vacation. All of these photos have been taken in a state of total relaxation, focused much more on enjoyment and capturing places I have traveled. With enjoyment in mind, I take you to where my journey began:

This photo was shot alongside the 101 in Washington state, where it all began.

Highway 101 is a road that circles the Olympic peninsula and runs all the way down Washington, Oregon, and California, with large sections of it skirting the Pacific coast. My plan was to avoid the interstate freeway entirely until I made it to Los Angeles two days later. It turned out to be a good decision. 

Now, to the camera: the Fujifilm X100F. 

The first time I impulsively decided to drive cross-country it was right around the end of 2012. I had a week of time off to burn and decided it would be a great opportunity to rent a camera I was considering purchasing: the original X100. 

The X100-series is perfect for road trips. The 23mm, 35mm equivalent field of view lens handles a variety of duties well: it can be wide enough for landscapes, tight enough for environmental portraits, and the minimum focus distance allows the capture of close-up details. Its size encouraged me to bring it absolutely everywhere. It even fit perfectly in the pocket of my car door, ready for action whenever the road got interesting. 

The result was a camera that I looked forward to using at every stop. It led to the eventual purchase of an X100S, which I loved up to the moment it stopped working (full disclosure: it was my fault).

The Astoria-Megler bridge crossing the mouth of the Columbia River. The total length of the bridge is a staggering 4.1 miles.

While making my first stop in Astoria, OR, the X100F was igniting the romance all over again, even in the dismal grey that had fueled my wanderlust since last October.  One of the biggest differences between all the X100 cameras are their sensors. We start at 12MP with CDAF only with the X100, then to the 16MP X-Trans with Hybrid AF on the X100S, then the 16MP X-Trans II in the ‘T’, and finally the new 24MP X-trans sensor from the X-T2 and X-Pro2 in the ‘F’. 

Meandering about the docks of Garibaldi, OR was great for stretching out the legs and showing off the X100F’s Acros mode

Not everyone agrees that the move to the X-Trans style of color filter array was the best for the X100 series. I, for one, wasn’t always a huge fan of the JPEG output of the X100S like I was with the X100. Sure, there was an improvement in sensor performance, but without changing the default noise reduction settings, things would start to look a bit waxy at higher ISOs. 

The X100F still uses X-trans, but the 24MP sensor and updated processor combination is a significant step forward for the series. While in the northern parts of Oregon I switched the camera to Acros, one of my favorite JPEG modes, to try and make the most of the grey overcast conditions by adding a bit more contrast.

Combining this mode with the optical viewfinder is a real treat, blending nostalgic elements of film photography with modern convenience. Plus, it made it way easier to sit and wait for seagulls to fly through the emptiest part of the frame before releasing the satisfyingly quiet leaf shutter. 

‘Combining this mode with the optical viewfinder is a real treat, blending nostalgic elements of film photography with modern convenience.’

Somewhere south of Tillamook, the grey suede blanket of clouds that covers the Northern parts of the coast ended. So far for in 2017, Seattle has been posting record rainfall and a record lack of sunshine along with it. After crossing this meteorologic divide between blue and grey, I didn’t see a cloud for three days. It was time to take the camera out of black and white and choose a color film simulation to bring the best out of the new found daylight. 

The Oregon coast of the Pacific Ocean under some welcome blue skies.

Velvia brings out the blue in shadows too much for my taste, and can look cheesy when used outside of landscape duty. While Classic Chrome has its moments, I think I’ve moved past the shifted blues and crushed shadows. For this trip and the already vibrant environment around me, Provia worked perfectly. 

When I shot with the original X100, I mostly used focus and recompose in AF-S and rarely used the optical viewfinder due to focus not being a sure bet. AF improved with each iteration of the camera, though. And with the X100F, armed with improved PDAF coverage on the 24MP sensor, I feel comfortable shooting with the optical finder because of how reliable AF is.

When AF-C is turned on, the camera depth tracks using a single point (in good light) with ease. It also repositions the AF box in the viewfinder to help keep framing corrected for parallax. This means that if I am waiting for the perfect moment, I don’t need to worry about subject distance changing as long as I have kept my subject under the focus point.

As the sun raced for the horizon I found the X100F’s focus slowing down, although its pace is still miles ahead of the early generations of the X100

Good AF-C also meant that when shooting close-up subjects, like a leaf in the sunset, I didn’t have to worry about my body rocking back and forth or a gentle breeze moving my subject, as I would if I were shooting in AF-S. This wasn’t a scenario I ran in to too often on my trip, but it is something that makes the X100F much more versatile than previous iterations.

The final sliver of sun from my amazing first day on the Pacific coast.

The camera’s autofocus abilities aren’t perfect though, due to two main issues. First, when using AF-C, focus acquisition (the time it takes for the box to turn bright green, confirming focus) is delayed compared to AF-S. Second, as light decreases, or if the lens is stopped down past a certain point, focus can hunt, slow down or fail entirely. In spite of these issues, I still feel that this is the X100 camera I like best since the original.

One day for the Oregon coast isn’t enough. Plan two, or maybe three, if you ever intend to visit.

As my first day of sunshine came close to an end, I came close to the end of Oregon and the start of California. The former’s coast, with its rocky shores and blue waters, adds to what has become my favorite state in the ‘Lower 48’. I have only began to glimpse the surface of Washington’s downstairs neighbor and hope to spend more time exploring its corners. My last moments basking in a sunset on the beach simply cemented my conclusions.

The second day started brilliantly with a walk around a sunny farmers market and several of the best grilled oysters I’ve ever had.

Growing up landlocked means I was never around delicious seafood like these spicy grilled oysters from Humboldt County. The close focus capabilities of the X100F allowed me to capture all the spices and pieces of dill floating in those beautiful shells.

Having the ability to shoot both wide and close-up shots is one of the great things about the X100F and its 35mm equivalent focal length, even if the lens is a bit soft wide open at the close end. Having a close minimum focus distance helps fill the frame with smaller subjects, and as mentioned before, the improved depth tracking in AF-C helps keep these shots sharp when snapping handheld.

Reviewing my images the night before revealed some of the lens’ sharpness shortcomings in regards to fine detail in landscapes, which isn’t a huge deal to me personally. For me, the camera’s biggest downfall became apparent when I was in tight quarters, surrounded by massive trees towering above me. I couldn’t help but long for something a bit wider (I did not have the wide angle adapter with me). 

The Avenue of the Giants

Even so, I think if I were stranded with one camera, the X100F would be one of the contenders for my choice. Leave it in full auto mode, and it works almost flawlessly. Of course classic ergonomics and physical controls have always been part of the X100-series DNA. But robust continuous autofocus has not. Fortunately, with the X100F, suddenly the camera’s autofocus can keep up with the movement of a quickly approaching subject. Combine that with the ultimate timing precision of an optical viewfinder, and you are left with a simple and fun camera that can easily capture that ‘decisive moment’ – even if that decisive moment is just a seagull entering your frame.



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How do you know you need a new camera?

by on May.27, 2017, under Reviews


Introduction

For the vast majority of shooting I do, even on weddings, I find my aging DSLR is still more than enough camera for the job. After all, it’s the photographer, not the camera, right?
Nikon 35mm F2 D
ISO 200 | 1/1000 sec | F8

‘Do I need a new camera?’

Unsurprisingly, I get that question a lot. I also ask myself that question a lot, especially after working at DPReview for the last eighteen months. My answer has always been ‘no.’

Until now, that is.

You see, I shoot all my personal work on a Nikon D700. Why is that, you might ask? Well, I was handed-me-down a Nikon D80 way back, built up a collection of lenses, and followed the (questionable, these days) full-frame upgrade path. And once I got there, to my used (and abused) D700, I abruptly stopped. What on earth did I need more camera for?

I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of this D700 because a) it’s covered in tape to hold it together, so its ugly and therefore worthless to most resellers, and b) it’s been around the world with me and back again, and hasn’t missed a beat.

It still shoots 5fps, and that’s usually enough for weddings and events. Exposed properly, ISO 6400 is perfectly usable. It’s stood up to everything I’ve thrown at it (and accidentally thrown it at). And, most importantly, I’ve become familiar with all of its ins and outs, and how to work around its limitations. I am able operate it completely by muscle memory and, despite its aging tech, I’ve been confident that if I didn’t get the shot, it wasn’t the camera’s fault – it was mine.

With my flash and exposure set, focusing and grabbing this image of a soloing saxophonist on the dance floor didn’t pose much of a problem for the D700 and an 85mm F1.8 D lens I was using – but that wasn’t always the case.
ISO 6400 | 1/200 sec | F1.8

But as I was shooting a recent wedding, the Nikon D5 kept popping up in my mind. I was lead reviewer for that camera, and this nagging voice kept saying ‘the D5 could make this so much easier.’ And when a camera makes the task of capturing an image easier, my mind is that much more free to focus on composition, lighting, posing, and so on.

So am I buying a D5? Well, not without selling my motorcycle and my car, which would be a problem for getting to gigs since Nikon hasn’t included teleportation into their $6500 flagship. But now I’m finally looking at something a bit newer, and not just because I think it’ll make things easier for me.

Megapixels do matter

Sometimes, anyway.

For my own casual photography, for when I want to just take a camera along and document a camping trip, a friend’s barbecue or snap some photos at Thanksgiving, 12 megapixels is plenty. No one’s printing these photos big, and friends and family are just going to put them on Facebook or Instagram anyway. Maybe, just maybe, I might make some 4×6’s.

It’s for these sorts of wider group shots that I really came to lean on my second shooter’s higher megapixel cameras.
Canon 35mm F2 IS
ISO 100 | 1/1000 | F3.5
Photograph by David Rzegocki

Then my second shooter and I were wandering around the grounds of the University of Washington in Seattle with the bridal party, and shooting some more expansive group shots; shots that I knew that if people zoomed in to their faces on my D700 files, they could be disappointed. So I borrowed my partner’s 6D (or just let him frame up the shot) to make sure that, should they want to make some prints, or just take a closer look at their dresses and suits, they had the resolution they needed.

Now, I said they could be disappointed. There’s every chance that they wouldn’t care. But I’m reaching the point in my freelance career that it just wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.

‘What? The autofocus missed?’

Now don’t get me wrong – the pro-grade autofocus system in the D700, lifted directly from the D3, is still pretty fantastic. Most of the time. But I’m increasingly realizing that I want a system to be fantastic all of the time – there were a few strange autofocus mishaps I experienced that cost me a shot I was hoping to nail.

Surely it’s more about the mixed, dim lighting and old screw lenses than the camera in this case, right? On the contrary, I knew from my time with the D5 that Nikon’s newest autofocus system absolutely sings even with older lenses like mine, with a level of precision in marginal light that I’d expect from the D700 in bright daylight.

All I wanted a quick candid of the back of the bride’s necklace. It looks okay at 590 pixels, but zoom in any further and it’s soft, despite the lens being stopped down and the autofocus point having been placed over the necklace (so plenty of contrast).
Nikon 85mm F1.8 D
ISO 200 | 1/320 sec | F2.8

Lastly, as many times as I have insisted to our technical editor Rishi that 3D Tracking works ‘just fine’ on the D700, I shall now be unceremoniously cramming those words into my mouth. It was so unreliable compared to the newer models that I fell back on manually placing my autofocus point. I’d been doing this for years before I experimented with tracking on the D700, so my muscle memory came back pretty quickly, but I still knew I was taking a step backward and making just a little more work for myself.

Plus, that eight-way controller on the D700 is like an undercooked banana loaf; it’s just a mushy mess.

So what’s next?

Nikon 35mm F2 D
ISO 200 | 1/1600 sec | F8

I have officially sold one of my two D700’s (the one that’s in mint condition, not the one that’s dented and covered in gaff tape to keep the grip rubber on). And as for now, I’m not really sure what’s next – Nikon would probably be my first choice, as I still have plenty of lenses, but I’m totally open for some camera-brand soul searching.

One thing’s for certain, though. I’m going to take my time with this one. That’s because I want the next ‘main camera’ to be one that I can keep and be as satisfied with as long as possible, just like the D700. This may sound odd coming from a camera reviewer, but I just don’t want to upgrade all the time. I want to build up the same level of muscle memory I had with my old Nikon, and besides that, I have enough other interests and expenses that if a new camera won’t make a really measurable difference for my style of photography, it’s best to just skip it.

But then again – if I hadn’t had the opportunity to experiment not just with the Nikon D5, but also cameras like the Nikon D750, Canon EOS 5D IV, Sony a7R II, the Olympus E-M1 (original and Mark II), Panasonic GH5, Fujifilm X-T2 and many, many more, I wouldn’t have known what I’m missing.

Nikon 50mm F1.4D
ISO 6400 | 1/200 sec | F2

Now, for better (for my photography) or worse (for my bank account), I do know what I’ve been missing. After having so many opportunities to try out all those alternatives, I unequivocally know that a newer, updated camera could really benefit me as a photographer. And that’s how, finally, I know that it’s a good time for a change.



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Video: Portrait pro Tamara Lackey on self-doubt

by on May.26, 2017, under Reviews


Self-doubt and/or self-consciousness can get in the way of your photographic goals, especially when it comes to making pictures of people. Fortunately Nikon ambassador USA and portrait photographer Tamara Lackey has sound advice on the subject. Instead of seeking to overcome your self-consciousness, embrace it and use it as a tool to bring out authentic expression in your images. How? Watch the lecture and find out.



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