I’m in an odd relationship with Fuji's new X-Pro2. We were a hopeless couple on our first date, but after 7 months together, we're going steady. It took us so long because I came with lots of baggage from my other relationships - all my DSLR-grown instincts got in the way. It took me ages to realise that the X-Pro2 is completely different to a DSLR. With all its hidden charms and character flaws, I needed a whole new set of habits to give this relationship a chance. I wish I’d known these quirks before buying it, so I’m sharing them here to help you jump straight into a great relationship and avoid months of counselling, or - worse - a messy divorce.
First, a couple of unexpected charms. Then the bad bits.
1. The optical viewfinder is great with flash
The optical viewfinder makes flash intuitive. Unlike with a DSLR, I get to see the actual moment of exposure in all its flashy glory. I see instantly if all my external flashes fired throughout an entire burst. I see instantly if I nailed the timing. I can sometimes even see when a flash mis-fired at the wrong power. On a DSLR, I have to chimp through every picture to check these. Shooting with a DSLR and flash now feels like shooting blindfolded. The optical viewfinder keeps my shoot flowing, settles my worries about triggering, and improves my hit rate.
And even though it’s an optical finder, a tap of the “play” button (quick to reach with my thumb) brings up the last image as an overlay so I can chimp instantly - even in full sunlight - and nobody knows that I’m checking images.
But the optical viewfinder has an awkward catch 22: it can’t show you the exact focus point and framing until it’s already in focus. Instead, it shows you a bigger zone that the focus point must be in, but because of parallax, you can't be certain what you’ve actually nailed in that zone until after it’s focused. At portrait distances I sometimes miss first time, like here:
You sometimes have to focus twice with the optical finder. The full frame is on the right (the bottom on small screens); detail from a mis-focused earlier frame is to the left (or top). The focus box started on the face with the optical finder, but parallax plonked the actual focus on the book. Once focus is close enough, the camera corrects for parallax in the finder and there's no problem. UPDATE WITH FIRMWARE 2.0: the frame lines are said to be more accurate now, but it's not a problem that can ever be entirely fixed. Fuji X-Pro2, 35mm f/2 lens at f/2.8. 1/80th sec at ISO 1000. The photo is Shannon Gordon from the Eat Well Travel Often blog.
2. Silent shooting is amazing
The electronic shutter makes the camera almost silent - an absolute joy for shooting people with the optical viewfinder. No blackout, no shutter lag and a silent 8 frames per second for ages. This is how photography should be. It’s one of the reasons that the X-Pro2 is a keeper for me.
The “clack” of an SLR works as a vote to the model. It’s encouragement to “do more of that, please” whether you want them to or not. It gets in the way. Photographing a corporate workshop for a charity, the silent electronic shutter let me take all kinds of liberties that would have been plain rude with a noisy camera. I could get right in close with a 14mm lens (21mm equivalent) without awkward, self-conscious glances from the participants. One of them leaned across to me and whispered to me to slip him my card. It allows a different type of interaction. People are less self-conscious about the camera, and it’s superb for family photos.
Silent shooting with the electronic shutter lets you get more relaxed photos without professional models. Equally handy with your own family as a paying one! Fuji X-Pro2, 35mm f/2 lens at f/2, 100th sec at ISO 250, electronic shutter
But the electronic shutter has limitations.
UPDATE with Firmware 2.0, the electronic shutter works with continuous autofocus, but I've found it reduces the effectiveness of focus tracking (see below).
Firstly, the electronic shutter doesn’t work with continuous AF. This is a huge shame, as continuous AF with electronic shutter would have been fabulous for shooting people.
Second: the shutter button itself clicks softly - a curious choice on a camera that would otherwise be 100% silent.
But the killer is fluorescent lights: their flickering makes four prominent bands through the picture unless the shutter speed divides exactly into the flicker speed: 100Hz in Australia and Europe, and 120Hz for most other places. So get out your calculator before you shoot. Here in Australia, I find only 1/100th sec, 1/50th, 1/25th, 1/20th, 1/10th sec and slower come out stripe-free. But none of these numbers appears on the shutter speed dial, and none is fast enough to freeze a person laughing. At least the shutter speed dial lines up with the US frequencies for avoiding flicker. Essentially, it means that indoors my shutter speed stays locked at 1/100th sec or 1/50th sec. All that camera, only 2 usable shutter speeds if I want silence. Surprisingly, I find the trade-off is still often worth it, and I enjoy using the electronic shutter a lot. The stripes aren’t subtle - here’s 1/200th sec.
The electronic shutter gives four prominent stripes from fluorescent lights at any shutter speed that isn't an exact multiple of 1/100th second in Australia, where mains frequency is 50Hz. Fuji X-Pro2, f/4, ISO 320, 1/200th sec.
3. The electronic viewfinder makes me socially inept
The electronic viewfinder makes me awkward when I photograph people. I can’t “read” and predict their faces through the electronic viewfinder like I can through an optical viewfinder. I feel clumsy and I get more shots of people mid-breath, blinking, and looking unengaged. It's only a problem on one type of shoot: when I’m talking to someone and photographing them naturally at the same time, ‘rapport-building’, shooting as if the camera weren’t there. I have no problem when I’m shooting people who are deliberately posing for me. What’s going on?
At first I thought is was the long viewfinder blackout of 1/7th second with each shot: twice as long as most DSLRs. But I still felt that something was amiss before the first shot. My best guess is micro-lag. The electronic finder is so smooth that I can't see any lag, and the book says it’s less than 1/85th second behind the real world. Yet this seems enough to throw me off people’s social cues. I feel out of sync with the person I’m shooting, with less connection and I can’t shoot to the rhythm of their face. It might be linked to the way that people synchronise their micro-expressions when we really engage in conversation. Whatever the cause, my keepers rate plummeted until I swapped to the optical viewfinder.
With the optical finder, the X-Pro2 excels at connecting with people while I’m shooting: it’s small, silent, and I can keep both eyes open. But it just doesn’t work for me with the electronic finder. I’m keen to know if others have found the same.
The electronic viewfinder is still great for everything else, including for working with a model or anyone posing for me. Social cues aren’t vital for that. And the electronic finder is simply delicious for shooting by instinct. But I struggle when I’m building a connection, so I just switch to the optical viewfinder and all is good again.
The type of photo that - for me - is easier with the optical viewfinder
4. I’ve had to learn to focus from scratch
Focus behaves differently to a DSLR. One isn’t always better than the other - they both have strengths and weaknesses. But my DSLR instincts were all wrong, and I had to learn from scratch how to focus well with the X-Pro2. First, the strengths of the X-Pro2.
The single-point autofocus excels in low-light, especially with fast prime lenses. In a side-by-side test, I found the X-Pro2 could focus in light a little darker than the mighty Nikon D750 could handle, both using f/2.8 lenses with a stationary target. The X-Pro2 had no trouble focusing accurately for portraits with the ambient at EV-1. No hunting, 100% perfect focus every time. That’ll do me fine, thanks.
For things that don’t move much, accuracy is superb. It just doesn’t miss. And face-detect focus does such a good job in modest to bright light that I’ve dedicated a button to it. I use it way more than I’d expected when the light is good. It really nails focus on the nearest eye. When I’m shooting posed models, focus with the X-Pro2 is a dream. Better for me than a DLSR.
Autofocus update with X-Pro2 firmware 2.0
With the original firmware 1.01, I found focus tracking to be good with things that moved predictably, like cars and brides gliding down the aisle, but totally ineffective with things that moved erratically, like a child accelerating to a run. I got a 0% hit rate every time. But that's all changed with firmware 2.0.
With one major exception, focus tracking is now up to SLR standards, and sometimes better. Firmware 2.0 has transformed what I can use the camera for, and has brought me the closest I’ve come to selling all my SLR kit, if it weren’t for that one big exception...
I did a torture-test for autofocus tracking: a child accelerating to a run towards me while I tracked focus with continuous shooting. I tried it under two lighting conditions: modest indoor fluoro light (EV6) and 16 times brighter outside in the shade (EV10). The indoor test is tough: my 8-year old Nikon D3 with 70-200 f/2.8, only got 35% in good focus indoors. We did a total of 23 runs (I was paying bribes per run). The X-Pro2 used a fast-focusing 40-150 f/2.8 lens, single-point phase-detect continuous AF in High Performance mode, and release priority, and I compared performance with Continuous Low and High shooting speeds and with mechanical shutter and electronic shutter.
The X-Pro2 with firmware 2.0 now rivals DSLRs for focus tracking... as long as you don't use back-button focus. Here, a well-bribed child accelerating towards me was nailed in good focus in 70% of photos outside (EV10, top photos) and 45% of photos inside (EV6, bottom photos). The full picture is on the left, 100% detail from the same picture on the right. Fuji X-Pro2, 50-140 f/2.8 lens at f/2.8. 1/1000th sec, ISO 1000 (outside photo); 1/500th sec ISO 12800 (3200 pushed 2 stops for inside photo) single point continuous AF (with the point within the phase-detect region), High Performance mode.
Indoors, the X-Pro2 with mechanical shutter averaged an impressive 45% of photos with good focus - better than the Nikon D3. But this average hides the real strength - its reliability. On EVERY run, it got about half in focus while the Nikon ranged between 10% and 60% in focus per run - sometimes it was great, sometimes dismal. I feel like I can trust the Fuji more, and the shots it missed tended to be the tough ones at the start when Carmen was accelerating the most.
Unexpectedly, autofocus tracking didn’t seem to be affected by shooting speed: tracking was equally effective with the faster 8 fps Continuous High speed shooting as with 3 fps Continuous Low speed. But the Electronic shutter did take a toll on performance: the in-focus rate slipped from 45% down to 25% indoors. The electronic shutter isn’t suitable for someone running anyway; they distort too much from the rolling shutter effect, but I can’t wait to try it at a wedding. Silent shooting at 8 fps is delicious.
Outside in brighter light, autofocus tracking was even better. The in-focus rate jumped to over 70%, with excellent reliability, never slipping below 60% in focus per run, and the electronic shutter didn’t have any noticeable impact on performance. As before, the out of focus shots were clustered at the start - the X-Pro2 isn’t tuned to track acceleration very well. But overall, a great result.
So what’s the exception?
Forget back button focus
AF tracking doesn’t work with back-button focus and continuous shooting. At all. I got a 0% hit rate every time, with the camera not making the slightest effort to track movement. So while there’s an option for back-button focus to be either AF-S or AF-C, it doesn’t work. I tried everything: Continuous Low, Continuous High, Focus Priority, Release Priority, Optical Viewfinder, Electronic Viewfinder… nothing. The only way I could get some limited tracking with back button focus was to swap out of continuous shooting into single-frame shooting, largely defeating the purpose of focus tracking in the first place. And even then the tracking was hesitant and unreliable - nothing like the excellent tracking when focusing with the shutter button.
I hope this is just a bug with firmware 2.0, because I'm a die-hard back-button focuser.
Even since firmware 1.01, back-button focus has been tricky with the X-Pro2 for three reasons. First, back-button focus behaves differently to normal focus. You don’t hold the assigned button until you get focus - instead you just tap it to launch focus, and it only stops seeking when it gets focus or decides it never will. Even in continuous AF you only hold the button if you want to track a moving target. While it’s seeking from that initial tap, the shutter becomes locked and you can’t shoot. Even on “release priority”, the camera - not you - decides when focus is good enough to shoot. Can there be a more serious problem with a camera than not being able to shoot when you want to? The delay is small with phase-detect AF because the focus is quick to acquire or give up (it's not the old-fashioned racking the lens from one end to the other), but it can be enough to miss the peak of a smile when I would have rather compromised on perfect focus.
A bigger issue is that I can’t reach either of the two back-focus buttons (AEL button or AFL button) without shifting my grip. It might sound trivial, but this handling quirk eclipses any issues with AF speed: reaching for the button is slower than AF acquisition with any lens. And it makes one-handed shooting a precarious affair unless you buy an accessory grip. I’d love to be able to customise the joystick to activate focus with a press.
The final problem is that back-button focus doesn’t play nicely with the optical viewfinder. With continuous AF, the enlarged image in the pop-up area freezes while the camera is seeking focus - and that means all the time you’re tracking focus by holding the allocated AF button. So while it’s tracking, you can’t see for certain what you’re focusing on nor whether it’s in focus. Only when you release the button to stop focusing can you see what it was focusing on a moment ago. It’s an unusable combination.
5. You can't use polarising sunglasses
In landscape orientation all the displays disappear if I wear polarising sunglasses. Totally black - I think the camera is off. No electronic viewfinder, no rear LCD and no numbers or frame lines in the optical finder. Living in the subtropics with prescription sunglasses, I’ve had to swap to unpolarised ones to use with the Fuji.
Other things I wish I'd known sooner
ISO is slow to set with the lift-and-turn dial. This has been mentioned elsewhere, but it needs fixing. I have to change my grip, lift and turn a clickless dial through a large angle (often in two bites) and I frequently knock the shutter speed at the same time. I’d assumed that I’d be able to customise one of the unused camera body dials to set ISO. But I can’t with the current firmware. Auto ISO works well for available light shooting, but when it’s not an option (e.g. when using off-camera flash at night), I feel like I’m fighting the lifty-turny dial.
Lightroom takes ages to process Fuji X-Trans raw files: over 10 seconds to render each full-size preview on a 3-year old Macbook Air (8GB, i7 with Lightroom CC 2015.6). That's 3 hours of rendering to see a shoot with 1000 photos. Way too slow for me to handle raw files in large quantities. But jpegs look great, and the camera doesn’t seem to slow at all by shooting raw + jpeg to different cards. So I work mainly from the jpeg card, and only download the raws for files that need the extra latitude.
What’s the verdict? Is it a keeper?
I can see why some people fall in love with Fuji X cameras while others think they’re impractical. It depends a bit on what you shoot, but much more how you like to shoot. It’s personal.
I often get better pictures of people with the X-Pro2 than with SLRs. The reason isn’t technical - it’s in the interaction. The X-Pro2 doesn’t get in the way as much as an SLR, and people actually like being photographed by it. Better connection means better photos. It’s almost the perfect tool for shooting people in a studio, especially a portable or makeshift on-location studio as with commercial photography or corporate headshot photography. If only it could shoot tethered to a laptop, it would be a slam-dunk. Even the extra stop of depth of field from the half-frame sensor normally works in my favour, letting me open up the aperture and halve the recycle time of my flashes. It’s no wonder that Zack Arias and David Hobby love Fuji cameras - they're just wonderful for this type of shooting in so many little ways.
Now with firmware 2.0, I'm confident enough to use the X-Pro2 on shoots that have some unpredictable movement and action, with the DSLRs relegated to backup. If Fuji get a proper wireless flash system and fix tethering and back-button focus, I can cut the DSLR umbilical cord.
The X-Pro2 is already my favourite personal camera, family camera, and travel camera. Small, light, discreet, powerful, silent. I love taking it out to shoot. And so does my 10-year-old daughter, who used it on her first paid shoot with Daddy recently at an event that was filled with children. Now it's a serious contender to be my main work camera too.
I see differently when I’m using the X-Pro2 - I spend more time looking and composing out of the camera, then lift the camera to put a frame around what I’ve seen. With a DSLR, I do more composing through the viewfinder. Neither is better, but the rangefinder-like experience feels more spontaneous, nicer.
On our photography courses in Brisbane, we ban our trainers from saying the words “should”, “must”, and “have to”. We don’t believe photography has “should”s. It’s fiercely personal. Wouldn’t it be pointless if it weren’t personal? That’s why there’s room for a camera like the X-Pro2. It’s not a jack-of-all trades workhorse like a good DSLR; it’s better at some things and worse at others. If you shoot people with flash or without, it could be the perfect alternative to, or complement to your DSLRs. Just don’t come into this relationship expecting it to be like your previous relationships with DSLRs. It's different. For me, the key has been learning what the differences are, and how to work with them.
My wife has been saying the same thing to me for years.
Big thanks to Carmen for her patience with the photographer's eternal lie: "Just one more...", and to Saul, Ryan and the awesome team at Digital Camera Warehouse in Annerley, Brisbane for their loan of the lens, their help, and their beautifully-timed "Is that all you're paying your daughter?" comments.