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.
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.