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!