A castle, a waterfall, and a Fuji XT-2

Let me start with a disclaimer; I am not a Fuji X Photographer, I am not sponsored by Fujifilm in away, and I buy all my own equipment with my own hard earned money.

Now I have that out the way, I will also say that this isn’t a technical review of the Fujifilm XT-2. The web is full of these, I know, I’ve read and/or watched most of them.

 

A castle, a waterfall, and the Fuji XT-2

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Lynn Falls, Aberlour – XT-2

As you can see, I shoot a lot in portrait format. This is because magazines (and of course their lucrative covers) are this shape, so it makes sense. I always shoot a portrait and a landscape version of every image wherever possible for this very reason; a cover in portrait or double page spread in landscape, or something smaller in either format, and I am almost always covered.

This is where the XT-2 has a real advantage – the new screen flips out in portrait mode, which means I have the modern equivalent of a waist level finder (i.e the screen) in both landscape and portrait orientation. This is great, I like this feature very much, although the catch to release the screen in portrait mode is just ridiculously hard to operate once it is rotated on the tripod (at therefore now under the camera) and probably, as least so far, impossible to do with gloves on. Today, gloves were very much needed, it’s February, it’s Scotland, there is SNOW on the hills, and I mean the hills as well as the mountains. It was cold, damp, sometimes wet, blowing a hoolie as they say in these part, and frequently darned right unpleasant.

Another immediate advantage, and great with gloves, is the joystick focus point adjuster. I had my four way buttons set for this on the XT-1, which reduced my access to common settings by reducing my Fn, or function, buttons by three, but it made life easier for many a shot. The joystick means I now have my four way buttons set for useful things I like, not the defaults by the way, and I still have the even more instant directional control of the focus point. I like this very much, very much indeed.

The tripod socket is now where it always should have been, and without having to buy the extra grip, although I miss a little the depth of that extra grip. The new body is more ergonomic than before, although still not DSLR hand friendly, but I will get used to it. I contemplated the battery grip but it added to the size and weight of the camera and they didn’t have any available anyway.

I like the locking dials. I wish the compensation dial also locked, but it is noticeably stiffer than the XT-1 and much, much, stiffer than the XPro-1, which was always moving around with the slightest touch and causing many problems if it went un-noticed, which it did, when using filters and a tripod and being lazy and thinking exposure was ‘sorted’.

I like the four metering patterns instead of original three. I actually use all the patterns, and even today used all four during shooting. The zone metering, or whatever Fuji are calling it, seems to be quite accurate for most circumstances. I still like Average for the landscapes and spot for working out the grad filters required to balance the sky to the land.

I also like the fact I can use a traditional cable release, and I have ordered one from Amazon (which should arrive by the weekend). Today I used the self timer, as I have previously with the XT-1, whilst using longer exposures or on a tripod, or both. With any exposure over 1/30 section I don’t like to touch the camera if I can help it. Why use a tripod and then let your body interfere with the stability?…makes no sense to me.

What don’t I like? Well, actually, there is one big niggle – what the hell have Fuji done with the bloody menu’s?!?

Things I use often, like Format, now require press, scroll, press, press (instead of just press, press). Some menu’s have new titles which mean nothing, or certainly seem a great way of hiding what you’re looking for. Sure, there are more options, and many more menu’s, or least it seems, but you can’t find anything. I spent several frustrating minutes setting up each of my common functions or preferences last night. And I am still trawling through menu after obscure menu to do simple adjustments in the field today. Thank heavens for the MY Menu, obviously someone at Fuji thought the same thing as me! But…why can’t I put second tier menu items in it? I want to put Format in it, but no, first tier only and not all of them are available either.

There are things I want routinely that are hidden in the ‘Save Data Set-up’, like Switch Slot (Sequential). Why can’t I have something simple like Save Image, and then just Slots, and Slot 1, Slot 2, order? Nikon do this much better.

And why did it default to use Slot2 first? Where did that idea come from? Again, please look at Nikon menus. Btw, I think having two SD card slots is a great idea of course. I can have sequential running, and back up. I don’t shoot JPEG and RAW, just RAW, but if you really wanted to, you could have a card for each. You would need to make the RAW card a lot bigger naturally.

I actually needed the manual to decipher one third of the options; Save Org Image for example.And why is Format for the SD cards under User Setting? It used to be under the spanner symbol, at the bottom, easy to find.

And used to be second layer, now it’s hidden away under three layers of menu. It may not be annoying when you only need to do one card, but trust me, sit and do 10 of them and it will drive you nuts.

some reason working on Fuji files this afternoon crashed my LR three times over.

But what is also worrying me, aside from awkwardness of use at the moment compared to the XT-1, is that I am now doing a bit more work in Lightroom than I ever did with Fuji products before. Ok, I have to get used to the new camera, but the RAW files do seem to need more tweaking for the same results. It could be that LR has yet to catch up with the new files of course. That would make sense since the compressed RAW files don’t have a preview at the moment, and so I am reluctant to use them. LR also crashed three times this afternoon, the first time I had tried processing the new RAW files. At least it can actually open them though. I remember a few occasions when a camera would come out and it would be three months before you could open the RAW files from it in anything other than the manufacturers, usually awful, preparatory software.

Of course, all of these things I will get used to. Even an upgrade needs to be considered as a new camera. The XT-1 and the XT-2 look similar, and the dials and physical controls might be the same, but as soon as you look at the EVF or the screen you know its a difference beast.

A plus and a minus for those of us to whom age is not being kind in the eyesight department; the diopter adjustment works perfectly (wish it was lockable) and the eyecup is an improvement for spectacle wearers, but the text and symbols on the display appear smaller (same size, more dots per inch?). Anyway, its a pain. I was already having to take off my glasses to use the XT-1, but now I really do need to consider varifocals!

And there is something really weird about the noise…it looks like little worms. I had a look at the sky (base ISO 200) and at 4:1 enlargement, there are what look like little worms. Weird. I will keep and eye on the worms and put up an screen grab if I spot them again…

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Auchindoun Castle (handheld) XT-2

I also need to change the sharpening from my previous settings (which I used for all images) and will need to create a new preset. I now need a 1.5 radius instead of 1.0, and change the gain to 30% instead of 50%. I did expect this to change, due to the increased resolution of the new sensor. Talking of which, can I see more detail? Actually well yes, a little bit. A very little bit, but then I have  retina screen 27″iMac to see it on. I have not compared the prints, and as I don’t have the XT-1 anymore I cannot shoot the two side-by-side for a direct comparison. But this is all very scientific and at the end of the day there are more important (to me) considerations. The main one for me is the ability to crop a landscape into a portrait if I wasn’t able to shoot both that the same time. I always shoot the landscape first, in case the light changes dramatically or for the worse, as this then will give me some portrait option, although not idea.

Obviously, this reduces the image at least by half, and when you have more pixels that half isn’t half as bad.

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Craigellachie Bridge, XT-2, final shot of the day, ACROS film simulation in Lightroom

For some reason, images saved for the web in Landscape are far better than images saved for the web in portrait format, even thought the settings are the same, and resizing is done for longest edge. To see what I mean, look at the rendition of the ‘last XT-1’ shoot image, and compare that with the Linn Falls shot. Both same lens, both same tripod.

And to compare like for like, both XT-2, look at the Craigellachie bridge image compared with the Linn Falls image.

So, conclusions from todays shoot: I would say is that the higher resolution sensor is more demanding. It is more demanding of the photographers technique, and of the lenses naturally, but it is also very demanding of the filters. The only difference between the last shot and the first shot shown here was the bridge had no filter use. The hand held shot was in extremely windy conditions, and freezing cold, so I am happy to take the wrap for user error. But I really think that my, somewhat well used, filters may have to be replaced, again. The resolution is definitely effected by putting my filters in front of the premium glass. Damn…

I would add to this that the XT-2 is a joy to handle, if you’re old school, and grew up with film cameras and still work using fully manual operations. It is quiet, the focus is much more reliable, quicker, and requires a small focus point, although perhaps not as small as I would have hoped. Precision is key, but this difference is really going to apply to shallow depth of field or portrait work more than landscapes. With landscapes we are often shooting at f16 so there is a lot more latitude in where you place the focus point in the scene than if you need to get the eyes spot on with an f1.8 portrait, for example.

I often use the depth scale for landscape work, although I am a bit confused by the two calculations offered by Fuji in the XT-2. I want a simply metres distant, show me nearest point and furthest point. Now there are two settings, and they don’t make much sense at least to me. This is something I will only be able to work out if I have access to a lens with a scale on it and manual focus really. Sadly at the moment, I don’t. Zooms don’t often have scales, because they would change and that creates a headache for the designer and added expense in manufacture. For now, its play around with it, bracket, review, and continue to evaluate.

I also admit that I have work to do on my handheld techniques, but this won’t do me any harm, and I have spend so much time using my tripod since I got the Gitzo that I can’t actually remember the last time I was working hand-held. Practice makes perfect as they say, and practice has to be kept up. Mind you, it was spectacularly windy and that’s my excuse (and I’m sticking to it).

One last thing: ACROS is really nice, it reminds me of Ilford’s slow B&W film, FP4? Maybe, can’t quite remember. Of course, that might not be what Fujifilm wanted to hear, but then it could equally have inspired the settings for all I know. It’s just a shame I can’t use it retrospectively on the XT-1 images…the standard Monochrome from Fuji is bland by comparison and I get fed up with concocting my own combinations.

So, there we have it. Rather longer blog entry than anticipated, but hopefully of use to someone. If you like it, or even just find it slightly useful, then please share it.

 

A little bit of history…

Well, I fell in love with photography using fully manual 35mm film cameras (Olympus mainly, then more latterly Nikon). I then fell in love with medium format (Hasselblad 500C’s), and in particular the advantages to image quality of the larger film size coupled with the waist level finder.

When the world began its love affair with digital, I was an ‘early adopter’ as it came with my job. A conspiracy between Kodak and Nikon, produced a beast of a battery attached to a 35mm camera knock off body, with a teeny tiny sensor, and around 3MP (and all for the same price as the house I was living in at the time). I kid you not.

Being an ‘early adopter’ of the digital sphere does mean I know what you can do with very, very little. I was producing brochures with technology that would now be dwarfed by a very cheap and nasty PAYG phone! If I can make 6×4 prints from 3MP then to me, the pixel race was over around 10MP, or the mid noughties.

When DSLR prices became within mortal reach, and we had 1.5x APS-C sensors, I opted for the Sony Alpha. Due to the lack of choice for lenses, this was soon to be replaced by the Nikon D80, then the D200 (the last CCD sensor and CMOS colours etc. are nowhere near as good), then full frame with the Nikon D700. Some domestic issues meant I was forced to sell up and so when I finally got back on my feet, I troubled myself with a Canon (cheaper good glass) for a while, a very brief while, because it failed me mid shoot just days out of warranty. Funnily enough, my only foray with a film Canon ended the same way, on holiday, in Keswick, in the early ’90s.

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Quick blast of the Canon – great lens, ok camera, unreliable shutter, uneconomical to fix…

I then tried the fairly new Fuji X-Pro1. I loved it, the lenses were fantastic. The camera…was not so much. But my affair with Fuji had started, mainly as the colours were fabulous (and reminiscent of the films I loved of old). The glass quality was there and the range increasing, slowly. At the time, I wasn’t so keen on the Rangefinder approach, and the lack of long lenses as I was going through a wildlife phase. But I can’t deny the quality of the images if I put the effort in.

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Fuji X-Pro 1 in Glen Coe (yes it was cold)
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Shot with the D3200 – not the kit lens of course

At the time, Fuji wasn’t offering much else. So, with reluctance, but due mainly to need for the work I was doing, I moved back to Nikon. A D3200, was swiftly followed by a D7100. At this point my age caught up with me, and I became very tired (and sore) of lugging around good, but silly heavy, decent Nikon glass. You may have guessed that I have always placed an emphasis on good glass over even half good bodies. The glass is the bit between you and the image you want. A cheap lens on an expensive body will so every fault, a good lens on a cheaper body (within reason) will surprise you.

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Nikon D7100

I was getting on with the D7100. Sure it wasn’t full frame, but it had enough control and enough resolution and resolving power to do the job. I printed 3ft x 2ft prints of the D200, so I really don’t get the whole MP battle so much. To me, it is the dynamic range I am paying attention to, and the ease of capturing what I want to capture. Sadly, clients seem obsessed by those blasted pixie counts and don’t seem to realise by the time I have turned the high resolution TIFF into an email’able JPEG, the whole question is no longer remotely relevant!

Anyway, by this point, dear Fuji had just come out with the XT-2, and that made a plethora of used XT-1’s within affordable reach. I had coveted the XT-1 when I traded in the XPro-1 (for some nice binoculars at the time).

I went to the Fuji open day at Ffordes, one of those few occasions when they open at the weekend!

(Yes guys, that is a huge brick-through-the-window sized hint. I bet if you opened just Saturday mornings, you’d sell loads of gear to people resident from Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond, who really don’t want to be stuck with Argos and Jessops as their only non-mailorder options.)

Anyway, whilst men with deodorant related issue drooled over the XT-2 almost as much as they did over the model, I tried and then bought an XT-1, and some really nice prime glass (glass over bodies as always).

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From the Fuji XT-2 open day (shot on my XT-1)

Then a few months later I nearly dropped two prime lenses in a swamp-like loch and decided to get a zoom instead. I went the whole hog and got the 16-55/2.8 monster.

So, there you have it. A brief history of my digital SLR and mirrorless cameras and bringing us up to the image below. Shot two weeks ago, and sold several times over on stock and print sites online since.

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The XT-1’s last shoot (and I loved it)

If I was happy with the XT-1 then why change it? Well, the focus of the XT-1 is not reliable, or very quick. There are cumbersome operational issues the XT-2 looks likely to fix (position of tripod socket so you can change the battery without taking it off the tripod or taking off the tripod quick release plate, access to the focus points, the portrait tilt screen, just to name three).

Logically, when funds permitted (and greatly encouraged by finding out my Fuji XT-1 had 10 dead pixels in a row across the middle of the sensor, and also finding out, at the same time, that it was almost out of warranty) and the move to the XT-2 was a “no-brainer” as they say.

So on Tuesday, I picked one up. Which is actually quite difficult, as most suppliers have long back orders with Fuji (one way to retain the initial momentum and keep the price high…). Today, I took it out for a test run.

 

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A Trip to Sutherland

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There was a heavy frost on the car and it took several minutes to clear the windows and get going. The forecast was for sunshine, with a 20% possibility of showers, but venturing into the Scottish Highlands that 20% could easily grow and the showers could be rain, sleet, hail or even snow. It is winter, after all.

Heading towards Inverness, the view across the Moray Firth was enough to get the heart racing. The northern hills were covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was crystal clear with the odd wee cloud for interest. The low sun, still not fully risen, was bathing the trees in a weak but warm light. It would be a good trip. There was hardly a breath of wind, and no sign of rain at all.

Passing through Ullapool however, the first spots of rain hit the windows. It was snowing on the tops, that was easy to see, but would it hold off?

The first stop was Stac Pollaidh, which I first photographed in 2015. The light was getting worse, although the wind wasn’t too bad, but the spits and spots of rain were still present and the threat was still menacing. The light wasn’t great but the wonderful shape of our Polly and the dead tree and foreground rocks still made for a nice image. Balancing the exposure of the sky and the landscape was increasingly difficult as the contrast became exceptionally high and without a mix of graduated ND filters it would have been impossible.

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The second destination was Ardvreck Castle, which I had also first photographed back in the Autumn of 2015. The spots of rain had now became much more frequent as we travelled towards it. Spots became light rain, then light rain became much heavier rain, as we headed northwards. Then heavy rain got a bit lumpy whilst approaching Inchnadamph, as the rain turned to sleet.

Arriving at the castle’s car park the rain/sleet intensified yet further, and it became impossible to even contemplate getting out the car, let alone taking any photos. The loch disappeared, then the car park disappeared, as the rain/sleet and now hail, hit the screen. It was so cold the screen had misted up in seconds after stopping the engine. The rain continued to pound the roof for a good half hour, my stomach rumbled, and heading off for lunch became a lot more likely than the prospect of photos.

Abandon the trip and return to find a nice cosy pub in Ullapool? It was tempting, but this is when the photographers dog’s inability to sit still (especially in exciting people places) saved the day. There would be no warm pub, but finding a shop and having a snack in the car. I could have murdered a cup of tea though.

Down hearted? Yes. But a thought occurred  – let’s continue on to Lochinver, source lunch and a tea, ideally from the Spar (which actually wasn’t open), and perhaps wait it out? It might improve…

Lochinver: Where the motto is ‘Welcome to a small drinking town with a big fishing problem’ or at least that is what the t-shirts said, in the only shop that was open. The Spar, was closed, the hotel was serving food and the Caber’ was open but I wasn’t leaving the photographer’s dog in the car alone in the cold. So, crisps, Twix, and a couple of cold drinks later acquired from the odd newsagents, and we were sitting in the half empty car park, looking out on the hills surrounding the fishing port…

It might improve…

But, to be honest, it wasn’t looking good. The weather, back in Moray, was glorious of course. Twitter, Facebook, and their like can be terrible for informing you of exactly what you are missing. Over here, on the West Coast, in the highlands, that slim 20% chance of rain, was now a 100% reality.

Still, it might improve…

Lunch was boring, and there was a lack of tea. Bring flask? No, buy a camper van! Make hot drinks and hot lunches, and not have to pee behind bushes! Ok, I will give Lochinver another credit; having a nice, dry, and clean public convenience in a time when they are becoming rarer by the day.

 

In fact, the front that brought the rain also gave new fresh snow to the mountains, and a freshness to the semi-frozen lochs. The water enlivened the landscape, bringing a reflective quality that made the trees and heather almost shimmer. The sky cleared slowly, but the clouds it left gave it an interest that a sunny day would not have had. They clung to the tops of the mountains and competed with the sun.

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A walk in the shadow of the Quinag, mainly to stretch the legs of the photographer and the photographer’s dog finished with the shot above. Majestic, the Quinag is often only seen ‘end-on’ from the shore of Loch Assynt….

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…which was also producing the wonderful, but highly contrasted, view as shown above. I am a bit of a sucker for loch reflections, for breaking the rule of thirds to put the subject in the centre, and for trees on wee islands. This shot has it all. The contrast was the difficult bit, and meter readings varied wildly. In the end I shot one using the Centre Weighted, one using Spot, and one using Average. The histogram showed I needed still to tweak with the settings to keep the sky from going, whilst the shadows were off the other end. Sacrifice one or the other. Try both in camera, and choose on the big screen later.

Using the exposure compensation dial to move 1/3rd of a stop at a time, I dialled in the histogram at one end, shot the shot, then dialed in the other. Using a 0.6 soft grad brought in the sky a little bit I still worried about the highlights on the water almost as much.

This is why I love my Fuji XT-1, there is the latitude, if you use the histogram properly, to get back something from either end (or in this case, both ends!). The JPEG preview didn’t look anything like as good as the RAW file, which is why the histogram is so important.

Now, with two potentially great shots in the bag, the trip was already a success. This was in spite of having a fairly late start to the photography due to the weather. Now to return to Ardvreck Castle. Would we keep the light long enough?

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Arriving at the western side of the loch it is possible to see the castle with a loch-side perspective. There is parking, and it’s important to ensure you are off the road, but don’t take spaces for granted. In winter it isn’t so much of a problem, but this is now part of the 500 route and so that situation isn’t going to get any better.

Due to the location it is possible, although not that easy, to get the castle, the house that replaced it (now also a ruin) and the wonderful snow capped mountains behind and in the same shot. It does make the castle rather small, but the wonderful light on the snow of the mountains of Glas Bheinn and Beinn Uidhe were worth the effort.

Driving along closer to the castle, and then parking in the same car park we had sat in a few hours earlier, I wasn’t convinced the light would do anything. It was heading towards dusk and the light goes very quickly in winter, especially as a mountain just to the south west of the castle really gets in the way of it. I thought, well you are here now and it’s a long drive, make the most of it. Get out the car, and go see, I thought.

This is what I rewarded with this:

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I concentrated on the foreground interest initially incorporating the rocks of the indented shoreline. I watched the increasing cloud, and was still convinced I would loose the best light. Had I missed it? Did I spend to long on wandering about the other side of the Quinag?

Bursts of sunlight teased the far mountains behind me, but would they tease the castle or the slopes of the end of the Quinag?

I slowly wandered toward the castle, tentative as if approaching a wild beast, waiting, waiting on a moment of light. Just as I was marvelling at the reflections and getting the legs of the tripod adjusted to suit the change in terrain, the sun burst onto the slop of Quinag. Thankful for my Gitzo’s quick grasp leg locks, I was ready.

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In fact I was spoiled as the light danced across the end face of Quinag, and the clouds frolicked creating reflections beautifully in the mirror-like stillness of the loch itself. What a reward for not abandoning the trip earlier. It lasted no more than five minutes but it was enough. Enough that using the 16-55/2.8 Fujifilm zoom that I could get the range of shots I needed with very little shifts of my own position.

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What a reward for not judging possibilities solely by the light during the drive, and the poor light in the car park. I could have stayed in the car, shrugged, and given up. But I thought I would take a quick look, a look that turned into an hour, and made the final descent back into Ullapool one taken almost in full darkness.

A quick stop for a warm pee (thank you Tesco) and another snack, and it was time for the long drive home. It was now fully dark whilst driving the main road from Ullapool to Inverness, but the new-looking snow poles are great for showing the bends well in advance. The ice warning on the car changed from orange to red as the temperature dipped from the 4.0C to -2.0C as I climbed to old Aultguish Inn (Inn no more, sadly). Some lunatic decided my 50-60mph wasn’t enough and overtook me. Then another, but I was pretty convinced I would see them in a ditch somewhere further on. An ice warning and low temperature coupled with the road side ice warning signs flashing away still doesn’t deter some idiots.

Arriving in Inverness where the temperature rose, I caught the second of the overtakers back up on the Kessock bridge. It might have a little warmer, but it was still barely above freezing, and the temperature dipped again as I headed along the coast towards home.

It was a fabulous day rewarded with more great photos than I had hoped for, and proved once and for all, that you shouldn’t give up, and where possible, always wait a few more minutes, delay that ride home, and take a few chances.

 

If you enjoyed my tail, please feel free to comment, follow, share, P-interest me, or whatever. You can also purchase prints from this trip HERE