Last year I went through a phase where I didn’t really care for shooting digitally at all. I carried my 5D around with me but only ever really wanted to shoot with my film cameras because they brought me such joy to use. The feel and experience taken on when winding through a roll of film was unmistakably great and I failed to get the same kind of connection with my digital cameras. This left me somewhat disinterested in the results I got with my 5D at the time. I used it more as a means to reach an end rather than as a tool to capture my favorite work behind a camera.
Earlier this year as you all know by now, I started up a project where I could share images every single day of my life. A digital journal of sorts that pushes me to keep shooting no matter how boring or dull my day may be visually. This brought my 5D out of hiding. While it has been as wonderful as it has ever been shooting with my trusted Canon digital, I started feeling that same drag again. My enthusiasm wained as the large camera body started to get in the way while navigating my busy summer months in live audio. My poor 35mm f/1.4L looks like it’s been through a war after being bumped and dropped among so many surfaces as I drug it everywhere with me.
I decided it was time for a change. I long thought that my next digital camera would be the Canon 5D Mark III. It is a beautiful full frame camera with more capability than I could ever imagine honestly needing for my style of shooting. For the longest time I thought for sure I simply had to have a full frame camera to get the kind of depth in my shots you all know and love but as I started reading and researching more this perspective slowly started to change for a couple of different reasons.
My wife YoungDoo shoots with a 5D Mark II and we have a wonderful kit building within this universe, a well rounded selection of lenses, a nice hard shell pelican case to organize and travel with, as well as a few studio lighting basics. I look at this collection and realized that maybe I did not need to continue down this path, especially with my most common style of lifestyle/documentary shooting. I have my trusted Hasselblad for portraits and a handful of fun 35mm film cameras for travel, but it was my day to day shooting that I felt could use a fresh start. Therefore my 5D days would not be behind me, just more parallel to my daily shooting needs.
As you know, I have been a happy 5D owner for years now. Funny thing about my story as a photographer though is that while digital camera technology excelled to new heights in the past five or so years, I seemed to head in the opposite direction and started shooting film more and more. I figure I should enjoy it, and get the most of it while it was easy to get ahold of and enjoy. But, as you know, things change, arts evolve as people evolve and technology is driven forward as we crave convenience and forward thinking.
This brings me to Fujifilm, their X series of cameras, and the body I have chosen to be my new day to day digital shooter, the X-Pro1. They have clearly been designed with film shooters in mind. Fuji’s engineers have a firm commitment to helping bring the joys of their old emulsions to life with the technology they have created to eventually replace it. It’s interesting to me because as a film company they have quietly been killing off more and more of their classic films, yet be it marketing strategy or a honest attempt at making users of their past film products happy, they seem determined to make this inevitable transition without loosing sight of their heritage.
The success of the Fuji X series cameras has been a slow burning one. Despite the runaway success of the X-100 thanks to its word of mouth popularity among a few key photographers over the past couple of years, the popularity of the X-Pro1 seems to have been a slow climb as they fought with focusing issues which lead to a lot of mixed reviews early on.
Of all the camera manufacturers currently leading the market, fuji seems to be the unsung hero of the slowly growing unrest among old school photographers missing the simplicity of older film cameras (I wrote about this over a year ago here as well). While many will claim Leica digital cameras, with their even more simplified yet lusciously priced cameras, best Fujis attempts, you can not deny that they are in their own realm price wise and hardly deserve a mention in the same way you don’t hear people comparing medium format digital sensors to Canon’s mid range 5D series. Price is a clear dividing line here in my opinion, there are those able to spend $9,000+ on a camera system, and there are those who can not.
What Fuji has done is stepped into a quickly changing and infamously finicky market space and laid into place the intention to keep alive the long standing essence of photography while still managing to maintain a clear strategy in keeping various levels of more casual shooters fulfilled as they work their way backwards from the flagship X-Pro1, a camera released over a year ago yet rather than haphazardly releasing a predecessor, has chosen to refine and improve on its existing tech through firmware updates and trying out ideas on the other cameras in the line as well as through a continuously expanding native lens selection. A strategy that shows confidence and an understanding of its core audience who does not want to buy into a system only to feel quickly left behind in the wake of newer bodies. If you build something right the first time, why rush to replace it?
I bought this X-Pro1 from a friend shortly after Fuji released a firmware update to the camera that once again was said to improve focusing. In my time spent with it I have not had any trouble at all once I got used to the approach of using the body in general.It’s quite simple really. You have your optical viewfinder (OVF) with a simple overlay on which you choose what info is to be displayed, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that slides into place in front of the OVF, and the obvious LCD on the back of the camera body. I have had great success jumping between all three depending on the circumstances. In general the OVF with its automatically adjusting frame lines which compensate for parallax error has been perfect for shooting quickly while out and about. The EVF is effortlessly pulled into place when I need to get in close to my subject so I get my framing just right, and the LCD is there for any awkward angled shots I may want to snap without contorting my body into weird positions. Let me validate this for those of you in doubt of that last one, there is nothing at all wrong with framing a shot using the LCD.
Many of you reading already know the tech specs and details of how this camera works so I don’t feel the need to go too much farther than that into its technical performance. I will say that the sensor and its clever color pixel pattern makes beautiful, smooth images. I am not a low light, high ISO junkie like many photographers seem to obsess over for whatever reason but I have found this sensor performs admirably in low light. I prefer a camera’s digital sensor be able to shoot at wide apertures in bright sunlight, give me a sensor that starts at ISO 50 and well talk. That said, the fact that the fuji, like many other small sensor shooters out there today, starts at an ISO of 200 had me pretty worried based on my own shooting habits but after pushing it a bit I am more than happy with the results. Even if I push an exposure to the irresponsible point where my highlights are pure white and no longer hold information to edit, results have been smooth and easy enough to balance out a bit in post. While I will obviously avoid shooting this way all the time its nice to know I can fudge the proper thought process here and there and still get nice enough results.
Another thing worth mentioning on the technical side of the fence, which really surprised me to be honest, is the outstanding JPG images this camera renders. For years now I have been a firm devotee of the RAW format because of its extended editing capability yet I find myself gravitating toward the JPG’s from the X-Pro1. Their film emulsion emulations are really quite nice and should not be ignored. They are subtle and appear to offer some basic correction for barrel distortion, vignetting, etc.
The button layout took a little getting used to, especially considering the years of using film rangefinders with only three things to adjust. I do miss the little joystick on my 5D but Im getting used to the more common, directional buttons with enter in the center style. The Q menu is brilliant, simple, quick and gets you to all of your important options straightaway.
I have a great appreciation for the fact that there is no wheel on top with silly circumstantial auto modes. Just pure simplicity, choose your Shutter Speed or Aperture for manual control or switch either to A to let the camera help you out on either end. Only what you need, nothing more, unless you want more, in which case it is there waiting for you. I have all instant preview settings turned off and have paired the camera down to its essentials so none of the technology gets in my way. It feels fantastic to shoot this way.
As many have been saying since this cameras release, it is so very easy to fall in love with it. Even down to the little details like avoiding any branding on the front of the camera shows what audience they were targeting. I can’t count how many times I have seen a photographer tape over logos with gaff tape.
In comparison to the latest from Olympus it is clear that Fuji and Olympus are after two different markets, at least in my eyes. Fuji, more the film loving shooters wanting simplicity and quick access to the fundamentals of shooting, and Olympus is clearly playing the spec sheet game adding a multitude of controls, weather sealing, and a more bells and whistles approach to attract users. After coming really close to going with an Olympus body I opted for Fuji simply because of their understated approach.
There is one other thing I wanted to discuss here along with this review which I think is even more interesting than the fact that I am shooting with a new digital camera for the first time in years. I have long been pushing myself and other photographers to use as little post work as possible to complete their photographic visions but my opinion on this seems to be changing since I have started to shoot with a modern camera body and lenses.
Most of the newest camera systems on the market today have little to no character that define the photos they produce. All camera manufacturers seem to be after the same thing, optical perfection. Manufacturers are so bent on pleasing the pixel peeping tech sheet obsessed “this is how it should be” photo elite that the images most new cameras produce are starting to loose the characteristics that once made different systems so unique from one another and that is their personality.
The closer I looked the more I realized that new cameras and lenses take increasingly neutral photographs. Beautiful, sharp, pristine photos, but lacking in any personality that you could define them with. I look at some of my favorite cameras and lenses and they all have very distinct personalities. I used to be able to explore the pages of flickr and study the unique abilities of different cameras and lenses but the more I look at galleries from newer cameras I discover that the photos I am seeing and enjoying could almost have come from any of the newer camera systems available today. Camera performance across the board is becoming a bit ambiguous which leaves your choice of a system based on its physical performance and style as much as the quality of photos it can take because there are so many amazing systems out there.
As I have discussed in the past, I have a number of film cameras and films that I use in very specific ways because of the way they behave and the types of images they produce. I know the shortcomings and strengths of my favorite cameras and lenses and I put this knowledge to use to create something distinct and in line with what best suits the tools I have chosen to use.
Now I start to see the increasing popularity of preset packs such as that from VSCO and services such as what the talented Rebecca Lilly offers where you are conjuring up a personality virtually because of the neutrality of modern cameras. Without being able to choose your film you are left to rely on your lens choice to add any character to your shooting but even in this space, most new lenses are also becoming to efficient for their own good. I feel things have come to this point due to the fact that post film photographers have eclipsed those with classic experience in photography and have no problem looking to digital post work to make up for this lack of personality. Seems pretty obvious to me now. Presets are the new film.
While it’s strange to me and slightly depressing in some ways, I am starting to accept the direction things are going. Remember, there is plenty of room for film and digital shooting to co-exist. A heavier reliance on post work is just a different approach and it’s new to me and my usual mindset when it comes to photography in general. The photos I am getting with the X-Pro1 are beautiful as they are, but to make them unique and to add some personality to them I look to post work to add that final touch to complete my vision. Even with a perfectly lit moment I look at the resulting image and think, “oh, so close, but not quite what I have in my head for this image.”
I have used my Yesterday Was Only project to push the limits of post work and see what I can get away with. It’s been fun to see what works and what doesn’t and in a way it’s reminded me that once again, there is plenty still to explore and thats exactly what I intend to do.