Fight sports: One of the fastest growing sports categories in the world, and for good reason!
As a martial artist who's trained a wide variety of different disciplines, I have a tremendous level of respect for the men and women who devote so much of themselves to competing. The hours upon hours of intense training in and out of the gym, the dietary restrictions, and of course, the mental preparation required to step into the ring or cage and engage in an often brutal and satisfying few rounds of high level martial arts expertise are things reserved for a select part of the world's population. Then there's the recovery that comes after the fight...
But enough of the philosophical banter.
As a massive advocate for the capabilities of the FujiFilm XT-1 and its always improving FREE firmware upgrades, the testing of the XF16-55 R LM WR was an itch that was in well need of a scratch. Any extra funds that I can allocate for gear typically go on new prime lenses, because, like Optimus, I am a Prime guy (get it?!).
For this project I hit up the ever awesome Leigh Diprose at FujiFilm Oz and he sent me the XF16-55 for a few weeks along with an X100T for some other projects. I now very much understand why folks have raved about this lens, it is a beast! It's fast, sharp as a tack, and very responsive!
In order to give this lens a fair run for its money I sought to shoot a Muay Thai Fight Night alongside a great friend and amazing photographer, William Luu of W.L Fight Photography. Absolutely massive thanks and appreciation goes to him for helping make this happen and welcoming me into his domain.
For starters I went into the backstage preparation areas to see how the fighters for Warriors Way were looking. The light in there was pretty awful to say the least but the XF16-55 managed to handle itself well, and the XT-1's high ISO capabilities did the shots justice too. The constant F2.8 aperture is brilliant and the lens did not hunt around trying to gain focus using Zone Focusing mode.
Shooting fight nights isn't typically a comfortable affair. I'll take 12 hours at a wedding any day (because I love it!) rather than being stuck on my knees in a space smaller than 1m2. Regardless, I was hooked up with a good fixed position for the night at ringside that yielded some pretty awesome results and a few close calls with fighters almost falling out of the ring.
For most of ring bound action I set my XT-1 up in the following manner:
Normally I shoot RAW or RAW and JPEG small for weddings, because I don't typically shoot using high burst rates. However, given the nature of fight photography I wanted the camera to be as responsive as possible and with the EVF and consistent lighting, I knew I could guarantee my exposure would be on point for the show.
For most shots outside of ring, such as fighter walk-ins, I switched the camera to the following:
Switching between the two modes was an easy process made so by the very well laid out controls and visuals on the XT-1. As you can imagine, the light of stage wasn't always great and it was made even more difficult by visual obstructions like the ring. Again, the XT-1 and XF16-55 hit the mark almost every time in the 3000+ shots that I took throughout the night.
I am a big fan and user of the tilt-screen on the XT-1, and not having it on the new X-Pro2 has been a big reason why I I'll be waiting for the XT-2. Then again, the XT-1 is a formidable camera that is serving all my needs more than adequately so an upgrade may not be necessary unless desire takes over. Back to the tilt-screen.
In the case of this show I found it incredibly useful when keeping myself and the fighters safe because I could keep the angle of the camera where I wanted it under the ropes and easily pull back as fighters came near. It was also very useful for some of the low-angle shots of the fighters in their corners during rounds.
I used one single Sandisk 16gb extreme card for this show since i was shooting in JPEG. For most of the show I shot in CL (Continuous Low) so I could get manageable 3-5 shot bursts, and on occasion for some of the bigger fights I used CH (Continuous High), which you can see some sequenced examples of lower down. Panning and zooming in during bursts in these modes worked brilliantly and I experienced little to no misses and only on 1 occasion did it focus beyond the fighters to the other side of the ring. Honestly, I didn't expect it to respond this good! I can only imagine how much better it'll be with the fast EVF refresh time on the XT-2.
As for battery usage for the ~3700 photos I took, I used just over 2!
I'd imagine that shooting JPEG is much easier for the camera and card to transfer, meaning less processing power is required and thus, greater conservation of battery power. Very impressive!
What can I say that hasn't already been said about this combo?
I had such a great time shooting with it and my expectations were met and then surpassed. I am certainly no pro fight photographer like William Luu, but if I was thrown into the world of fight photography professionally, I would have no qualms shooting with this combination. Alas, my passions in photography lay elsewhere and Will does an outstanding job, living and breathing the fight photography scene down here in Melbourne.
If you've considered this lens for applications like this or otherwise, you'll be hard pressed to find fault with it. It's got a good bit of heft behind it so you could certainly balance it better with a battery pack on your camera body, but it's certainly not uncomfortable. I will soon be writing a follow up post to this where I shot the majority of a rather special wedding using this as my first ever zoom.
You may have seen my earlier post about my First Day Impressions of the Fujifilm XF90,
which details my Fuji fan-boi experience with the new kid on the block. One month on and a fair few more shooting experiences later, this lens has done nothing but impress and inspire me. At my favoured full-frame equivalent focal length of ~137mm, the XF90 fits me like a glove and allowed me to move completely away from my Canon system, which had always been a go to when I needed the sharp and speedy 135mm F2 L.
This past month with the XF90 saw me checking out temperate rain-forest waterfalls in Victoria's east, shooting in stunning Western Australian sunsets with my dear friend Dan at Matsu Photography, exploring the historical sites of federation era Australia, and shooting for Ormsby Guitars and the Melbourne Guitar Makers Festival. On each and every varied occasion the XF90 never missed a beat and I have been left pondering how FujiFilm will outdo themselves next in their world of supreme, high quality consumer photography lenses.
There's something really frustrating about the XF90 - it leaves many of its brethren feeling somewhat inferior (emphasis on 'somewhat').
What Fuji have managed to achieve with this lens and its new quad-motor system is a lens that is incredibly responsive, accurate, and works extremely well in tough lighting conditions, such as low light and heavy back-lighting. I couldn't believe how well it focused on my mate Dan (below) during sunset, or at night as I often put it through its paces targeting objects near and far. As much as I love the XF56 1.2, after using the XF90 it feels somewhat slow and outdated and simply doesn't perform anyway near as well. Also, the XF90's bokeh trumps it by a long shot. Sorry, I know that F1.2 is still a hell of a feature and I'll continue to use mine, but the bokeh it produces simply isn't as smooth and rich.
Something sports and action photographers are going to love about the XF90 is how well it plays with continuous focusing mode, zone focusing and bursts, even at F2. It's smooth, accurate and damned responsive! Overall, a consistently high focus hit rate on par with what I was used to when using my Canon 7D/6D and the 135mm F2.
Did I mention that the XF90 is sharp?
Take a look at the 3 pictures above. I'm not normally a 'here's a 1:1 crop guy' but in this case I had to provide a quick screen grab at that ratio from my LR module (post grain added). I'll just leave you with those snaps to ponder.
If you're considering this lens be aware of how beneficial it is to have a ridiculously close minimum focusing distance on a lens of this focal length. I have loved utilizing the 60cm min. focusing distance so often and cannot wait to try it on some detailed wedding ring shots soon. If you like getting out and shooting a bit of wildlife like me, it's also particularly useful for some more intimate nature shots or flower snaps that provide a beautiful level of compression at this focal length.
I'll keep my conclusion simple. If you're a Fuji X-series user, buy this lens.
If you're on the fence about coming on board to the Fuji-side, get this lens and an XT-1 or XT-10 and be prepared to be blown away.
Before I get started, if you're here for photographic proof of what I have written below, I don't have it quite yet. Well, I do, but unfortunately I cannot share the pictures I have been taking so you're just going to have to trust me until I get usable proof in my next post. I merely want to get numerous other XT-1 users excited for the new update to Firmware 4.0.
As I write this I'm a few hours out from getting on a plane headed for Ireland to shoot a pretty massive wedding between a fine Australian lad and a lovely Irish las. In preparation for the big day I have assembled a very nice and flexible kit for my wife and I to shoot with - she loves the Canon stuff and I'm a big Fuji convert.
After selling my X100s I was quite adamant about getting my hands on the XT-10 after seeing how much smaller it is than the XT-1 and in some aspects, smaller than the X100 series, thus making it 'pocketable' and discrete. I opted to pick up the XF27 as well and honestly, I am a much happier camper with this setup than with the X100s. A significant reason for that though, is the interchangeable lens ability of the XT-10 and the absolutely impressive new Firmware 4.0. The AF system of Fuji's X-series has been reinvented with this update and I have been achieving results that were simply unattainable with the old firmware. Kids running wild shot in continuous zone focus mode on the XF56 at F1.2? Yep. That happened this week for me.
If you're keen to read up about all the specifics involved in the new update, take a look at this link.
Since picking up the XT-10 a day after its release here in Australia, I have been testing it each day on a whole bunch of active school kids, which unfortunately means I can't share the actual proof of what I'm writing just yet. Onto the camera.
The XT-10 feels solid in the hand but could certainly benefit from a grip of some sort. One of the features I have really enjoyed (aside from the new AF system) is the face and eye recognition. This function is absolutely brilliant when paired with the XF56 at F1.2. It's snappy and every time I've shot with it it's made the mark. It will certainly be interesting to see how it holds up at the wedding next week.
Let's get to the really good stuff - Continuous and Zone focusing.
Good God! Or should I say 'Good Fuji!'?
The new focusing system is amazing! Is it perfect? No. Is it on par or better than many of the big guns? YES!
Imagine this. 4 young kids running around a play ground, chasing each other and me snapping in Continuous Zone focusing mode in High Burst with the XF56 at F1.2, focusing on 1 kid. Guess how many photos out of 5 hit the mark? 4! The 5th didn't make the mark because one of the kids came straight towards me at lightning pace and the shallow depth of field of 1.2 meant that the top the kid's head was in focus and not their face. Regardless, the camera tracked beautifully and I achieved something I'd never experienced before with the X-series cameras. Stopped down to F5.6, I spent some time on the sidelines shooting a basketball game. 30 something shots later, not a single miss! The XF16 also tracked exceptionally well and handled objects that were moving laterally and towards the camera exceptionally.
At this point I'd say it tracks better than my trusty Canon 7D and it is definitely better than my long standing (pre-Fuji) favourite, the 6D.
My apologies that I don't have the proof you're all probably looking for of my very large claims. You're just going to have to trust me. I will be posting photos via my usual Facebook and Instagram feeds over the coming weeks whilst in Ireland, hopefully providing insight into how well the XT-10 and XT-1 focus in low light situations with the new firmware.
I'm about to make quite an about-face opinion on my experience with the XT-1 and its ability to be used in fast paced sports photography with continuous focusing mode engaged. For those who are familiar with my previous posts I have been quite critical of the XT-1's ability to function well in continuous mode with the XF56 1.2 for sports shooting. Upon reflection I have been really quite biased in my evaluation of that combination given the size of the lens, elements/glass involved, and the crazy F1.2 aperture I was shooting in for most shots. After shooting the same circumstances except with the XF18 instead I can see why I was setting very unrealistic expectations for the XT-1. Heck, how many Canon shooters out there use the 85mm 1.2 behemoth for sports shooting with such an insanely shallow depth of field? Not many if any.
As per usual, let's talk shooting specifications. For this bit of casual shooting I was using the XF18mm in Continous mode CH burst, set to ISO1600, varying the shutter between 1/200-1/500sec, and mixing the aperture up between F2.8-F4. These were all shot in JPEG normal with my beloved Chrome setting followed up with some quick tweaks of my own and some radial filters. For a tiny lens this thing produces some darn sharp images that have a beautiful 3D pop to them and awesome resolution that allows for some pretty heavy crops.
So in case you're a bit new to focal lengths, aperture, and their effect on depth of field (DoF), let's look at a comparison of the XF18 and the XF56 and the average aperture I was using on each occasion, and why the XF18 performed substantially better for very logical reasons.
XF18 @F2.8 at a subject distance of 8 feet = 8.23 feet of depth of field
XF56 @1.2 (because that's what you buy the lens for!) at a subject distance of 8 feet = 0.29 feet of depth of field
These two distinctively different levels of DoF explain a lot, particularly why I found continuous focusing mode to be so frustrating in the past. The XF18 didn't hunt around like the XF56 because it didn't have such a dramatically shallow DoF to work with so naturally continuous focusing mode is going to perform considerably better. That said, the XF56 did work well in single shooting mode and even if I shot at an aperture of F2.8 I'd only be getting a DoF of 0.69 of a foot = struggle town for focusing.
Something else that I found quite remarkable though when using the XF18, which probably has a lot to do with how much glass had to be moved around or rather not, is that with 619 photos on a single battery, the indicator hadn't even dropped to the less than 50% remaining mark!
Read that again!
619 photos on a single battery! And plenty more to spare.
After a solid browse through the 619 photos I took, I also noticed that the across bursts the XT-1 DID NOT miss focus mid shot. Amazing!
So why can't the Fuji perform well for sports shooting at wide apertures like my Canon 6D and 135mm F2?
The Canon 135mm F2 L has been my go to sports lens for a while now and was the first lens I owned on my 7D and continued to use on my 6D as well for various purposes. It's well documented that the 135mm F2 L is an exceptional fast focusing lens, and the most underrated piece of L series glass around, so naturally, comparing a Fuji XF56 lens to it is probably unfair. I know from experience that the 85mm 1.2 won't keep up with the Fuji though. I guess I'll just have to wait until the XF90 F2 arrives and see if it'll be the Canon killer!
My recent experiences with a borrowed XF18 lens (sorry Luis! I'll get it back ASAP!) have convinced me yet again that Fuji are making an exceptional product that meets all my needs as a photographer. The fact that I can walk around the streets with the XT-1 and XF18 inconspicuously yet use it to shoot close-quarter sports like Muay Thai, MMA, and BJJ demonstrates its versatility. It's truly hard to fault it as a camera system, particularly being able to use the EVF to get real-time exposure previews across different settings. I think it may be time to sell my X100s to fund a second body with my own XF18 lens or similarly wide lens.
Lightning fast and responsive AF systems that take hundreds, if not thousands of shots on a single charge are a must have for many photographers. Typically such a combo is only ever found in high end DSLR systems that have a bulking mass, particularly when battery grips and the 'must have' 70-200 zoom lens are attached.
Prior to owning the FujiFilm XT-1 two of the most sought after pieces of information I Googled before purchasing it were how well it performed in fast-paced sports situations and whether or not the battery was as 'bad' as many proclaimed. Coming from a Canon rig (7D and 6D) I was used to very solid cameras that did well on the sports field and provided high IQ in low light and responsive focusing. So, with just over a week of experience into the very talked about XT-1, how has it performed so far in comparison?
In case you've not seen it, I documented my first and very awesome day with the XT-1 here. The next thing I really needed to knuckle out was how well this thing handled fight photography and similar fast action. What better place to test it than with my fellow training partners in MMA and Muay Thai.
EDIT 4 April, 2015: I have had a completely opposite experience to this recently using the 18mm F2 in Continuous focusing. I'll post about it soon.
I'll be straight up. The XT-1 and 56mm 1.2 didn't perform adequately or well enough to the point that I feel I could photograph an event thoroughly with enough images that were on point. This experience could've been exacerbated by the lens I'm using, since it has so many big heavy glass elements and simply isn't designed for such circumstances.
I've done a fair few different fight and sport shoots in my time and they were typically done with my Canon 7D and 135mm F2 lens, or my Canon 6D for indoor stuff like fight nights with my Sigma 35mm 1.4. Those combos always performed admirably and provided me with an extremely high keeper ratio. The XT-1 at a simple training session on the other hand simply missed focus far too often and its Continuous Focusing function was a sluggish and unresponsive headache. It was frustrating to see the camera focusing near and far despite only using the central focus-point at maximum size and often when I wanted to take the shot the delay was that split-second too late. As a fellow martial artist I'm pretty good at predicting when the hit is coming and I NEED my camera to be able to snap within that instant otherwise it's just a lousy post-hit shot.
That said, it wasn't all bad news!
I decided to mix up the focusing modes to see what it was like with Single-Focus mode and briefly dabbled in the manual focusing modes. I actually found Single-Focus to achieve better results because it was really quick and responsive between focusing and taking the shot. The PRE-AF mode also worked quite well here too and combined with high speed burst got some sound results. Overall though the 1-2 hour shooting experience left me feeling like the worst photographer in the world, particularly when looking at how many shots focused beyond the subject and in contrast to my previous experiences shooting with Canon gear in the same environment that went very well.
So how did the battery life perform in such a demanding situation where the camera had a busy time focusing?
Well, quite exceptionally! I managed to shoot ~650 shots without passing the 1/2 way mark (I know it's not technically halfway and probably closer to 1/3 or less) and deliberately kept the same low battery in there for another day, rounding out my single battery to...
782 shots! Yep. 782 shots on a single battery on the XT-1!
How did I achieve such black magic? I have the camera setup so it's EVF only with the eye-sensor but also run it in High Performance Mode. It sounds unbelievable but I've been able to achieve it twice now with similar results on one battery charge. Switching the camera off when not in use for extended periods may also prove beneficial.
So where does this leave me with the whole DSLR vs Mirrorless or Canon vs Fuji argument?
For now the Canon gear will stay until I can get a hold of something like the 50-140mm f2.8 and see if it performs any better than the 56mm on the XT-1. I will also be testing the XT-1 in some better lit settings that don't feature lots of background movement and objects that could be causing issues for the camera's focusing system.
The X-series is such a great system and the results I have achieved in other areas of photography have been nothing short of exceptional. I simply love the colours and how sharp the images are coming out of the XT-1 and shooting the 56mm 1.2 @1.2 a hell of a lot is a total blast!
Check them out below.
The XT-1 is an inspiring camera and a definite keeper!