Fujifilm X-Pro2 in an Action Shoot ?
What’s it like using the Fujifilm XPro2 in a fast paced, chaotic, action environment, you ask? Well there’s really only one way to find out now isn’t there?
I was chatting to fellow photographer Matt Widgery over coffee recently. We had been having a little X-pro2 test day. I had let him take my camera out for some shooting when the test had been cut short by the rain. We were chatting in a coffee shop whilst sheltering from the sudden shower. There, we were pondering if the Fuji X-Pro2 would be any good on a fast action shoot. Matt was fairly sure it would do it, I was not so convinced. I suggested what was needed was a proper field test. A real life actual job, where heads would roll should you not be able to deliver the goods. As it happened, I had a couple of overseas shoots coming up that would certainly fit the bill. They would be frantic, dangerous and with zero margins for error. It was then that he sort of challenged me to do it. As I say, I was not sure this was the right camera for the job. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the Fujifilm cameras, but with primes, as a travel camera system. However, on the journey home, I found myself thinking maybe I should give it a go. So it was then I decided hey why not, after all, what’s the worst the can happen, eh?
I had been asked if I could create a series of stills images to be used in a new aircraft brochure. The main thrust of the shoot consisted of various ground detail shots and a series of planned aerial shoots from a light aircraft. These would be air to air, from one plane to the other. I would be operating from a very small Cessna 172. Not my first choice for this kind of shoot, I have to admit. But, as this was all that was available within the budget I was going to have to make do. I requested for the door to be removed and the front seat to be taken out, to give me a fighting chance of getting into the right position to get the shots required. The subject I would be shooting was a small plane used by government agencies as an observation platform. The little German built carbon fiber motor glider starts life as a fun aircraft the public can buy. It then gets heavily modified and fitted with millions of dollars worth of gyro-stabilized camera and tracking equipment. It can then be deployed to monitor large sporting events, shipping, border patrol and a whole host of other secret security things.
I had spoken with the art director of the project Bill and he had a very clear idea about the style of shots he wanted. This was great to hear, as it’s always nice to work with people who have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. He was also keen to see this new camera I had been raving about, the X-pro2. He had a passing interest in camera gear but was not really aware of what has been going on in the world of mirrorless. However, he was onboard with the idea that this was a proof of concept shoot and we would be trying out the Fujifilm Xpro2 and Fujinon 50-140mm f2,8 for this particular job. Something we were both quite sure and not been done before.
Could it be done without comprising the shoot? What was our hit rate going to be? Could the images from the X-pro2 live up to the expectations of the client? Well, we were going to find out soon enough.
More often than not with air to air shoots we tend to see a lot of images of aircraft from the side, maybe slightly above and from the side. However, Bill really wanted to illustrate that this is a plane for observing and looking down on things. The photography, therefore, was to reflect just that. He was asking if it’s possible to shoot top down over various geographical features, such as a solar farm, forest, urban, docklands etc. I explained that to achieve this I would need to way out in the airflow to get these images from the platform we were using. A situation you would normally try to avoid at all costs. I would be getting battered for over and hour in 110+mph winds on each of these aerial trips, it can be brutal. Also that due to the exact placement of the aircraft in the frame he was asking for, I would often need to be holding the camera on its side or even upside down. We were also probably not going to shoot exactly top down, but “I could get very close,” I told him.
Over dinner the first night in Belgium, we wrestled with the various logistics of how we might replicate the images that he had brought with him in a rough mockup version of the brochure. Much to the confusion to the other diners in the hotel restaurant, we experimented with various shooting scenarios with beer mats, napkins, and cutlery on the floor of the dining room. Whilst also making the noises of aircraft etc. To be fair, by that time had been chugging on many of the excellent local beers on offer. Hey, we are in Belgium, right!
My main concern was ensuring I didn’t fall foul of camera shake. That would be a killer for the images. But I was unsure what sort of speeds I could hold the camera at in the wind and still not get motion blur. Often for shooting propeller aircraft you would like shutter speeds around 1/60th, you get a nice blur on the propeller then. I explained that this was going to be out of the question on this shoot. If the blur was required, we needed to come up with a workaround in post production. Also, fatigue would be a problem as would losing concentration. As that could be fatal.
After a few more beers at the hotel bar, I assured him we could get pretty much what he had in mind.We ended up with a fairly good plan and decided to draw up a rough ‘storyboard’ for the main images we thought we would need. “Let’s just give it a go, it’ll be fine,” I said.
What’s the worst that can happen?
The following morning after a good breakfast I headed to the airport to meet the guys who operate the “spy” plane. The pilot and company owner was ex-special forces and used cryptic words like “foreign agency” when he was talking about private jobs his company had been contracted to do. He would be the pilot of the subject plane and seemed to be a good pilot. My camera ship pilot was a quiet older guy. I couldn’t quite work him out at first. Often, I find there are two main reasons people are quiet in these situations. Either they have been there and done it and don’t want to show off, the modest types. Or they are covering the fact they aren’t very experienced and feel it better to keep quiet and hope no one notices. The latter make me nervous, I am quite literally putting my life in their hands. Fortunately, as I found out later my guy was the former.
One advantage of this system, especially when you find yourself working in very cramped tight spaces is that it’s relativity small. I always use the same MountainSmith grab bag for shoots from vehicles. It’s drawstring side pockets are extremely useful for securing bits and bobs in a hurry. Also, the inner is bright yellow making the finding of all those bits of black plastic we photographers seem to need much easier. I was able to fit the X-Pro2 with 50-140mm f2.8 attached in the main, top loading section of the bag. With spare batteries and cards in the pockets and still have room for a second body and 14mm in the side mesh pockets.
On these air to air shoots I utilized the single shot drive mode, with continuous focus, most of the time. I just used the little joystick to place the smallest focus point to the exact area I wanted the subject aircraft to be in the final frame. I have also setup the rear focus lock button and experimented with that a little. It was simply a case of just nailing it when it hit the right mark with a good background. I think this is where we start to see a real advantage in using a mirrorless camera system such as the Fujifilm over say an SLR. The fact that I am able to shoot using the live view in a real-time split second situation and I’m able to rotate the camera to appear to be giving me different angles and therefore more shot variation is one of the big benefits. This became apparent almost immediately once we landed and started reviewing images in Lightroom over a coffee.
That fact that I didn’t have to dig around in menus was also very useful in this sort of environment. I never found myself fighting with the camera to make it do what I needed. It was pretty easy to bend it to my will in the ever changing light I had.
The dual card facility is also a blessing to get with this camera. I chose to set this to backup mode, Meaning, when I take an image it’s written to the card in slot one, a second identical image is then written to the card in slot two giving you an instant redundancy. I have to admit I love this, it’s a welcome feature giving me an instant backup and therefore saving me time back at the hotel. I can simply drag the images into Lightroom whilst on location and then I have my two backups on the SD cards. Less time in the hotel room watching progress bars equates to more time at the hotel bar.
It’s a sad fact, that in the world we now live everyone wants to see the results immediately. This job was no different. I had five people swarming around the laptop as soon as I was on the ground. This was within four minutes of engine shutdown. I was importing the images into Lightroom, whilst still taking my harness off and people were already forming options and critiquing the images. I was also laughing at Bill as he had gone a color between green and blue. Maybe due to the fact he had had a few too many of the local beers the night before and was also now suffering from a slight hyperthermia. I was cold too, but was I about to admit that in front of my ex-F16 pilot and the two special forces guys, was I hell!
I had had quite flat, boring light many times during the shoot due to broken cloud, but sometimes the background was interesting enough for me to grab a few frames here and there whilst directing my pilot to chase the gaps in the clouds. I was, therefore, thankful for the Fujifilm film simulations. I used Velvia as a preset so there were various oohs and ahs as images popped up. First impressions count and I would be hard to explain about flat looking Raw files to people who are not into the photographic process. The Velvia simulation gave enough punch to the files plus a little sharpening of around 25 that the images popped. Thankfully everyone was pleasantly surprised and any doubts about the camera and lens choice were soon dismissed.
One thing I really don’t like is how fuji have pandered to those people who were crying about having to add the old glass diopter to the X-Pro1. I rather liked that old, Nikon type, screw in diopter lens.
We now have the adjustment dial and where it’s situated, on the outer edge of the body, you’re likely to knock it. You will then be wondering why you are going blind for the next 2 minutes until you realise you have moved the thing. The best solution is to tape it and forget it. Frankly, from day one as soon as I took my Xpro2 out of its box I could see it would be an issue. It would need me to rectify it immediately and after a little consultation with Dr. Gaffer tape, things were fine.
To add a little context to this issue, I would like to say that I don’t think this a big miss on Fuji’s part. I have had to travel around the world with all sorts of bits of tape and velcro stuck on dials of all sorts of cameras from other manufacturers. Some of these cameras costing in the region of $50,000+. So I see it as just a fact of life that we have to do these modifications to our gear.
The ISO dial on the Fujifilm X-Pro 2 is incorporated into its shutter speed dial. Though this is a little modern marvel and great to look at, it is just plain fiddly when all hell is breaking loose. Now don’t get me wrong, In future models, I would like to see it retained it’s cool and sure, for a gentle stroll around the streets it’s neat. But what I would like is to see is a way of overriding it on the Xpro2. So I can change it some other way, say with a button or a dial. (Possibly by the time of reading this it has already been done- yay)
Battery life and settings
Battery life can be an issue in certain situations with the Fuji X-Pro2. Even with my rather conservative shooting style, being originally a film shooter, I’m more than likely to shoot over 350 images in a 45-70min flight. This means I am possibly forced to do a battery change mid-flight and that’s not ideal. Especially if using the screen a lot and a lens that draws power. Now, I’m glad that Fujifilm decided to retain the same battery as used by the other cameras in the system. So this is not really a fault of the camera and hopefully, we will soon see a higher capacity battery when the technology allows it.
In most situations, I don’t mind having to swap out a battery or two and I always carry a couple on me in a thinkTank battery pouch. It’s just the fact that having any loose items slip through your fingers in a plane with the door off whilst flying in close formation with another aircraft is a scenario that fills me with dread and best avoided.
This is something I’m very interested in both in stills photography and a video. Us photographers have limited time to achieve the objective of a shoot, so the more high quality ‘keepers’ I can get in a short period of time the better. On this shoot, I was shocked frankly, at the high rate of success. I mean I’m talking about 95% or more. I’m used to handing the all Raw files over for retouch to an agency or my video tapes to an editor, the hit rate is important. You will be judged by how much of the work you shot is usable.
It’s rather like the film days where you might have to hand the unprocessed films over to the newspaper after an event. You will be found out rather quickly if most of your images are bad. It’s the same working in TV. You are a cog in a bigger machine. Editors and producers and loggers get to see your entire day’s work, warts and all when they review the tapes. So it’s not a bad idea to be as good as possible and give them a tape of 90% usable footage. So if you are finding the equipment is making you look bad and it’s letting you down it can be very frustrating. The X-Pro2 was great in this respect, delivering an unheard of rate of perfect images. I am still slightly surprised at how many great images we managed to get from the days shooting. It has helped boost my confidence in the Fujifilm X system enormously.
Being able to position a focus point right towards the edge of frame with the little joystick is extremely helpful in a situation like this. Something i’m not sure I would be able to do with a DSLR. There is no need to waste time with a lock and recompose workflow with this camera. If I had to do that, I would have been missing shots for sure.
In conclusion, I will say only this. I was nervous going into this shoot using exclusively the Fujifilm X system. I have come away thinking it is a near perfect setup for this kind of work. I’m not sure I could have attained such a consistently high quality, high volume set of images with any other camera system.
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Now much of the success of this particular shoot is also down the rather surprising Fujinon 50-140mm. There is a certain amount of overlap in the review of that lens and this camera due to it being done on the same assignment. However, it’s well worth a read, particularly of you are at all interested in a short tele-zoom for the Fujifilm X system.
The review of which can be found by clicking here.
The things I liked about the X-Pro2
- the handling
- joystick for focus
- twin card slots
Things I would like to see improved –
- battery life (so not a camera thing really)
- iso dial thingy – it slows me down (not always a bad thing)
Equipment used on this shoot –
Lenses – 14mm f2.8, 35mm f1.4, 50-140mm f2.8
Bodies – X-Pro2, X-E2, X100t
Flash – Godox 360 with softbox, Godox V850 x2
Bags – thinkTank Roller Derby, Moutainsmith daypack
Note About the Author
Phil M is a photographer, traveler, adventurer and ex-BBC cameraman/director. He also has an interest in aviation. You can view his blog where he talks about all the equipment and techniques used. Follow him on Twitter.
I’m sure there are a number of people who judge a camera on its features and technical specifications before ever actually using it. To me, this is just wrong. It seems a rather boring way for me to evaluate cameras, to just simply read spec sheets. I need to go and really put them through their paces. I want to see how successful I am with it and how it makes me feel using it. I hope to reflect that in these write ups. As a result, they are as much about the situations I have used the equipment in and the results I find myself getting, as they are about the actual hardware’s technical details.