Rediscovering Something Old in Something New: Thoughts About My New Fuji X-T1 and Life

From left to right: Sony SLT-A77 with 16-50/2.8 zoom, Fuji X-T1 with 23/1.4R, and Honeywell Pentax SLR with 28/2.8 lens – circa 1965. Photo taken with an iPad!

“It looks like it is from the ’80s.” That was the first thing my wife said about my Fuji X-T1 as I excitedly handed it to her. She didn’t mean it as a compliment. The blow to my enthusiasm, coming as it did right after my post-unboxing high, was a little like deflating one of those hotdog shaped air packs with a pocket knife. “No, this is completely awesome,” I protested. But she was right. We were both right. The Fuji did look like a camera from the 1980s, and it was precisely one of the reasons I bought it.

The road to this camera was a long, crooked one.

I grew up shooting film. We had a darkroom in the basement that my father used for his graphic arts business, so I always had access to equipment and chemistry. My dad’s Honeywell Pentax (pictured above, far right) was probably the first camera that I knew enough about to covet. I learned how to load cannisters with 4×5 sheet film for his Crown Graphic by the time I was in high school. By college I was printing Cibachromes, processing my own E-6, and even printing color negatives in a home darkroom… which isn’t easy. I shudder at the thought of the chemicals I must have poured down the drain.

My main workhorse camera in college was a Contax 139 with a standard 50/1.7 Zeiss Planar lens. It’s an absolutely beautiful SLR with a crystal clear pentaprism, nicely balanced. I carried it everywhere, wearing the leather cladding on the body through to the metal. Kodachrome 64 and 200, Technical Pan 25, Plus-X, and the then-new T-Max films. I loved them all. Eventually, I saved enough money for a Rolleiflex 2.8C Xenotar, a really nice early 1953 model that I would visit frequently at my favorite camera shop until that great day we could be together… at last!

But things change. About six months after I bought the Rollei, I quit taking photographs of any kind. In the summer of 1993, everything went into a box.

Fifteen years later, I spent the 2008-2009 academic year at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Here I had the good fortune to meet Joe York and Andy Harper, who produce films for what is now called the Southern Documentary Project. In the spring of 2009, Joe and I team taught a senior seminar on documentary film, he being the technical guy and me being the historian who would help the students uncover stories. There simply was no way in hell this class would have had a prayer of working without Joe, but in the process my interest in visual storytelling had returned. It was like a long dead part of me had come back alive.

A Canon EOS Rebel T1i, purchased in 2009, would be my first “serious” digital camera. The T1i was the very first in what would become a very successful (and still manufactured) line of consumer-grade DSLRs for Canon. The idea of recording motion pictures with DSLRs was comparatively new in 2009. I couldn’t afford a 5Dmk2 or even a 7D, and I really didn’t know what I was doing when I got into digital filmmaking in any event. But I learned enough to record dual system audio with a Zoom H4n and syncing in post (it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that the T1i didn’t even have a microphone jack). I found that recording in 720p/30 on the little Rebel worked satisfactorily, and that I could get around the limitations of no manual control of video by mounting the 55/1.8 Super Takumar lens from my father’s old Honeywell Pentax with an M42 adapter. Yes, the sensor would overheat. Yes, I could record only 20 minutes at a time. Yes, I burned a dead spot on the LCD when I aimed the Zacuto Z-finder oh-so-momentarily at the sun. But the results weren’t bad, considering the tiny budget. I used this setup, in fact, to shoot my first feature documentary film, This Haus of Memories. Cliché a it may be to say, content is more important than equipment.

I decided to replace the Rebel with a Sony SLT A77 in 2011. Despite all of the success that I’d had with the Canon T1i, I wanted something that shot in 24p, and especially, had an EVF. The Panasonic GH2 seemed like a decent alternative (and for video, in retrospect, would have been better) but it was impossible for me to hold it without depressing the button that detached the lens. Plus it the Panasonic felt cheap. What I didn’t realize was that I would be buying a camera that would be used almost exclusively for stills, and that my love of still photography was about to blossom. About six months after getting the Sony, I was able to get a Sony FS100, which is still my go-to rig in the Documentary and Oral History Studio at Loyola. The A77 was to be my stills camera. For its part, I gave the T1i to a friend, who may or may not know what to do with the Magic Lantern firmware I installed on it. (As an aside, we all owe ML a debt of gratitude for keeping manufacturers honest. I’m not sure we’d see the accelerated features we have today without firmware hackers holding their feet to the fire.)

The Sony A77 still has a lot going for it. It is a very, very sturdy camera. I can be hard on gear, and it certainly withstood my abuse. The LCD screen on the back remains one of the better examples of this technology available and should be copied shamelessly by every other camera maker. In fact, it is probably my favorite feature of the A77. You can turn the thing in almost any direction and you never worry about breaking it off. For a one-man interview setup, a pivoting screen is a particularly attractive thing to have. At its introduction, the Sony’s EVF was revolutionary. Not better than a good OVF as some had claimed, but it did have advantages – like in shooting video. Some may disagree, but the autofocus on this camera strikes me as being extremely fast. Then again, I’ve never shot a Nikon F4 or a Canon 1D for comparison. I’ve shot thousands of photos with the A77, and have gotten a few nice ones along the way.

One of the biggest detractors of the A77, however, turned out to be its “professional” size. I’m always stunned when I see a tourist walking around my fair New Orleans with a giant Canon 5D3 and the equally massive (and expensive) 24-70/2.8 zoom, the defacto standard gear of wedding photographers everywhere. The body alone weighs about 2 pounds, and the lens doubles that load. Add a battery grip and it is like hanging a 5 pound sack of flour from your neck by a camera strap. In fact, maybe I’d rather carry around a sack of flour, because they cost only about $4, and so I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning it on a park bench. The reward for the pain in your back and shoulders for carrying around this getup is that observers will believe that you must be a pro. At the same time, you hear photographers who have abandoned the “bigger is better” paradigm – whether in motion picture or in stills – that their clients won’t think that they are serious if they don’t see a thumping large full frame DSLR wearing gigantic zoom or see a big shoulder-mounted cinema camera. In the business, it seems, image is everything in more ways than one! The Sony A77 had that pro look (and heft), for sure. But that wasn’t why I carried it. Big cameras are conspicuous, and I’d rather people not pay attention when I’m shooting. Plus, 85% of my shooting is for fun.

Big wasn’t a unique problem of the Sony. Somewhere along the way, camera bodies began getting larger, probably about the time we started seeing autofocus motors in SLR cameras in the early 1990s which, along with the lenses, were simply bulkier. Plastic bodies also seem to be a factor, though most pro cameras use a metal body even today. I have seen it argued that these bigger cameras are easier to grip. Maybe. But how, then, did pros for years manage to hold onto their old Nikon F2’s and Leica M3s? Then there is the seeming need for a giant lens – an old phenomenon dating back to the first consumer zooms. I will leave the phallic dimensions of this argument to others and simply say that I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone with a $2,000 pro camera body with a shitty, slow, enormous $500 brand-x zoom lens on it.

The “bigger is better” idea has long driven the PR on consumer cameras when it comes to megapixels (and zoom focal lengths). There is something to having a very high-resolution sensor, and when the A77 has good light you can end up with some remarkably sharp images. In fact, much sharper than the 16-50 lens is capable of resolving. For those committed to the Sony A-mount (my condolences) you can buy the fine Zeiss glass to go with the camera and I am certain you will end up with beautiful imaging… in good light. For a while I had thought about picking up a Sony/Zeiss 24-70/2.8 for just a whisker under $2,000, but it is a stubborn fact that this lens alone weighs more than 2 pounds. And in low light, much over 2500 ISO, the A77 breaks down, a byproduct of all of those pixels on the crop-sized sensor. I love to shoot in low light. Lastly, the A77 will surely be the last A-mount camera I buy. Nikon has long stressed better pixels rather than numerous ones in its top-of-the-line DSLR stills cameras, with the exception of the D800. Even Sony has recognized the need to read pixels differently (and make a smaller camera) with its new mirrorless 4K-capable A7S which has all the cinema bloggers abuzz. It’s a 16MP stills camera but has mindblowingly good low light sensitivity. The Sony A7 shares many features of the Fuji X-T1 in concept, and is a sign, I think, of things to come.

Thankfully the bigger-is-better phenomenon is beginning to crumble a bit amongst pro users. I picked up a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera for the Studio. It’s not the easiest thing to use, but there is enormous beauty in its all-business approach. You can also get one for under $500 right now! The aforementioned Sony A7 series is a breakthrough in full frame sized cameras. Panasonic and Olympus have been doing interesting things with the micro four-thirds mount for some time. Canon will have to get serious about mirrorless technology at some not too distant juncture.

The biggest letdown of the A77 was that it really wasn’t that much fun to shoot. Our university photographer Harold Baquet always jokes that there is “ten years of experience built into the camera” these days. He’s right. Even our iPhones make pretty good images. But in the end it’s a little like driving a hybrid car, which I jokingly suggest are perfect for people who don’t like to drive. Why? Because they are essentially like operating a golf cart. They move you efficiently from point A to point B. They are for people like my friend who likes the idea of a CVT because, as he says, he doesn’t have to hear the gears shifting. This worldview makes me want to cry, probably because it is increasingly the norm. BMW ran a commercial once where an old 3.0 CS gets crushed by a falling tree, its spirit releases and jumps into a new BMW. Priuses, if they had a religion, would be Buddhists. Crush one, and there is only nothingness. Drop your Sony A77 in a lake, and you won’t shed a tear, you’ll just order a replacement from B&H. Maybe something better, because there is something better introduced every four weeks. The loss is financial, not emotional. Kind of like when your refrigerator craps out. I guess I just love machines too much. Hell, I don’t even like headlights that automatically shut off. I recognize that this is not the world’s problem, it’s mine.

It took an old friend to remind me what I had been missing in my photography. That old friend was my Rolleiflex. Several rolls of Tri-X sat in a desk drawer for almost a year before I finally got around to running them through the camera. After a very unsatisfying experience with the first roll’s processing at a local lab, I soon bought a tank, chemistry, and a scanner for the 120 negatives. By the time my son was born in December, I was beginning to get re-addicted to analog photography.

It was about this time that I had decided I wanted a digital counterpoint to my Rolleiflex, something that captured the feel of real photography but with the numerous benefits of modern image making. A Leica M9 or Monochrom were unapproachably and almost ludicrously expensive. I’d been eyeing the Fuji line for some time, and at first thought X-Pro1, then X-E2. But then they introduced the X-T1. This was the one, I thought.

I got over the comment about the camera being “from the ’80s” pretty quickly, and so did my wife, who has taken wholly to its charm. If you look at the picture at the header of the post, you’ll see that the Fuji is roughly half the size of the Sony A77 and about on par with the old Pentax. In fact, in size, weight, and feel, it reminds me a lot of my beloved old Contax 139. With the 23mm 1.4R lens, it weighs less than half as much as my A77 rig. I like to take a lot of pictures, and I knew that I’d be toting a camera around with my son. Smaller was important to me. Smaller turned out to be much better than I’d thought. I’d found a camera with a soul.

There are many of features that I adore about the Fuji other than its compact size. Let’s start with the optics. Unlike the Sony A-mount, to which is difficult to adapt other lenses because of flange distance, the X-mount can wear almost any lens system with the right adapter. This means that my next purchase is going to be a Metabones C/Y to X adapter so I can use the lovely 1.7/50 Planar from my old Contax on the Fuji, which on the crop sensor translates into an 77mm equivalent portrait lens. I dig the film simulation modes and that you can switch back and forth from a 3-film simulation to a single shot raw with the flip of a lever. My bracket is Provia/Velvia/B&W with a red filter. The Fuji color science is excellent and I’m happy with the on-the-fly unedited images when I don’t feel like playing around with raw images in Lightroom. When I do shoot raw, the 16mp images have great dynamic range and can be pushed around if you care to do so (I often do not.) The solidly-built, compact 1.4/23 lens is a joy. The Fuji optics are pricey, but not much more so than comparable Canon lenses. Sony, a much larger company, should offer such razor sharp optics in these useful focal lengths and speeds for its new A7. The EVF is astonishingly large and clear – my wife’s favorite feature. Sony’s was the best in 2011 with the A77 (and I understand that the new A7 is quite good). The Fuji EVF was the first of its kind that I’ve seen that is actually better than an optical viewfinder – a bold claim. In fact, I could wish that my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera had such a viewfinder. That would be amazing.

Features are one thing, but I bet you are wondering by this point where I find the “soul” in this camera. The fact is that you can treat it like an old camera and it responds in kind. Case in point is the manual focus. To get back to the viewfinder, I wasn’t aware of how good the EVF on the Fuji was until after several months of not using the A77, I decided to compare the two side by side. It was like the difference between looking at a flip phone screen and the iPhone’s Retina display – it was that pronounced. This in of itself isn’t the “soul,” but it does make possible is the sort of manual focusing that is difficult to do on a lot of DSLRs, even those with optical viewfinders. Somewhere along the way, DSLRs lost the split prism finder, and the Fuji is able to make an approximation of this digitally – and it wouldn’t be possible without such a great EVF. Since motion picture is basically all manual focus, I’m used to it and like that style of shooting. I must also admit that I love the manual dials all over the camera. The quirky focus ring on the 23mm lens where you pop it back for manual focus is the sort of thing Lancia or pre-General Motors Saab would have done if they had made cameras instead of cars. Nikon users can even set the manual focus direction to move the opposite direction than the one used by the rest of the world. Overall, the camera is a very successful fusion of the old features we have missed in modern digital cameras with all of the benefits of digital imaging.

No camera is without quibbles. The autofocus on the X-T1 is good and I suppose I will learn how to use it more effectively in time, but I sometimes miss shots when I rely on it too much. Some people complain about the door to the SD card and the USB/HDMI port. It does feel flimsy, but then again, I have never had it come open when I didn’t want it to do so. The video codec on this camera, along with the features, are ridiculously bad, by far its weakest feature. With better firmware and a different codec like found on the GH3, this could be a great motion picture camera because of its superior EVF. I didn’t buy the camera for motion picture, but all the same it is deeply unfortunate that the image is this bad on video. At least Fuji, unlike Sony, supports all of its products, including old ones. We can hope for a firmware fix because to hope for such an outcome from Fuji is realistic. Asking Sony to offer easily implemented firmware fixes – let alone Canon – is as efficacious as praying for it to rain Krugerrands.

Below are two images shot right before graduation this spring at the Superdome. Here a group of my wonderful and handsome colleagues pose for the Fuji. The top is Velvia simulation and the bottom is B&W+R. Both images are straight out of the camera. Velvia is great for warming up institutional lighting. The Fuji B&W is of a contrast that I enjoy.
I haven’t actually put much from the Fuji online because I take lots of pictures of my family, and those are usually private. But here are a few images I took on a recent trip to North Carolina.


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