Night Photography with the Mirrorless Fujifilm X-T1
Since its arrival on the mirrorless scene a year ago, the Fujifilm X-T1, along with its contemporary mirrorless competition, has created quite a splash in the camera market. Mirrorless cameras are quickly catching up to the DSLR realm in terms of speed and performance. Today, the photographer entering the market is faced with a real dilemma when it comes to which interchangeable-lens path to follow—mirror or sans mirror.
In the Dark
I am, primarily, a night photographer. As a photographer, I find that daytime is decidedly less inspiring than the night. One of the genres of photography that has been most affected by the digital revolution is night photography. Once the forum of quirky loners who could wax poetically for hours about film reciprocity before heading out into the darkness for hours on end, digital camera technology makes night photography accessible to almost anyone who has the patience to set up a tripod and use a remote release. Honestly, with the way digital technology is headed, it is only a matter of time before you can snap a picture of the Milky Way with your smartphone while driving a car down a highway in a remote area of the world.
Reviewers have praised the Fujifilm X-T1 for its image quality and performance. The Fujinon X-mount lenses are getting high marks, as well. Knowing this, I wanted to put the X-T1 through its paces after sundown to see if it would complement my night-photography process, or contradict it.
As a point of reference, my night shooting has been done almost exclusively in the past with Nikon SLR and DSLR cameras and a variety of both manual focus and autofocus lenses. The modern DSLR camera, overflowing with technology and horsepower, leaves its mirrorless competition with big shoes to fill.
EVF at Night
When contemplating a mirrorless camera purchase, the thing that most kept me from diving in head-first was not the financial considerations of starting, from scratch, the purchase of a new camera system, it was the electronic viewfinder (EVF). I love looking through glass when I take a photo. In my opinion, the physical act of looking through a machine to compose a scene and take a photograph is what makes SLR photography an immersive experience. I do not particularly enjoy composing on an LCD screen, and early EVFs did not enamor me. Because of this, I steered clear of the mirrorless realm, even though other photographers were enjoying and sharing remarkable images taken with mirrorless cameras.
The latest generation of mirrorless picture-taking machines features incredibly good EVFs. I have used Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, and the EVF experience is now a close second to looking through your lens. If there is a disadvantage with today's EVF, for me, it is more emotional than technical. I know I am not looking through glass, and that thought stays in my head when shooting mirrorless. Does it really matter? You'll have to answer that question for yourself. The advantage of the EVF is that a lot more information can be presented with the image. The X-T1 shows me not only aperture data and a light meter in the same manner as a DSLR, but it shows a mini live histogram, an artificial horizon for leveling, and more.
On the X-T1 you can select one of three viewfinder modes. “Full” uses the entire frame to show your image. “Normal” gives you a thicker black frame around the image and projects data into the frame instead of overlaying the “Full” image. “Dual” shows a smaller main image, while giving you a miniature version of the digitally zoomed focus assist image simultaneously.
Back to night photography, the X-T1 viewfinder definitely gets noisy in the dark. If you had forgotten that you were not looking through an optical viewfinder, because the resolution of the EVF is so good, a bunch of digital snow will remind you that you are definitely not using an optical viewfinder. Is it distracting? Not really. I just mention it because it is there.
To me, especially when doing night photography, one clear advantage of the EVF (or the rear LCD in live-view, for that matter) is the ability to view your exposure before you take the shot. On a DSLR at night, I rely heavily on the camera’s built-in light meter or high ISO test shots to determine my exposure. My first night out with the X-T1 and I was manually dialing in the exposure simply by evaluating the EVF image and histogram. I honestly didn’t look at the camera's light meter reading. Very cool!
Uploading the images onto my computer at home, it was obvious that the EVF and histogram were showing accurate exposures, as the final results were remarkably similar to the image from the viewfinder and LCD.
One of the challenges of night photography is accurate focusing. In very dark settings, I rely on several manual focus lenses with hard stops at infinity that allow me to simply rack the focus wheel to the stop in total darkness. Many modern lenses lack this hard stop, so accurate focusing must be done through a viewfinder or on the LCD using live-view. The Fujifilm X-mount lens family does not have a hard stop at infinity and, when focusing manually, by turning the focus ring the photographer is manually commanding the autofocus motors in the lens to adjust focus.
Shooting at night in an urban environment, the X-T1’s autofocus was very accurate and, as long as I had the sensor trained on areas of sufficient contrast, it acquired focus quickly and accurately. When focusing manually, focus peaking is a great system for helping to achieve accurate focus, and it has become a staple on mirrorless and live-view DSLR cameras. On the X-T1, when I was photographing distant objects, the peaking seemed to get confused. Photographing the Manhattan skyline across the East River, from Brooklyn, the noise in the viewfinder nearly masked the focus peaking "noise," so I had to rely more on my eyes and the clarity of the viewfinder/EVF image.
I use a Metabones adapter to attach manual focus Zeiss, Leica, and Nikon lenses to the X-T1. One selling point of the adapter is that it is “designed to reach infinity focus.” It looks like the hard stops are still accurate, but I need to do some more shooting to verify this on the different lenses. The Metabones adapter that I have does not transfer electronic information between the X-T1 and these lenses. However, the EVF/LCD image still shows your actual exposure, and the camera's light meter works, as well.
The X-T1 has one more trick to help you get accurate focus. A dedicated “Focus Assist” button on the rear of the camera, near your right thumb’s resting position, digitally zooms into the frame to assist in precision focusing. You can even display this magnified image alongside the main shooting image inside the viewfinder in the aforementioned “Dual” mode.
No remote? You can avoid camera shake with the X-T1 by using either the self-timer or Wi-Fi.
Remote Shutter Release
I intentionally did not order a wired remote cable release for the X-T1 because I wanted to test the optional ways to trigger the release to see if they would be sufficient for night photography. Yes, I know—blasphemous! I may still purchase one while I hope that the return of the threaded shutter release button (nice job, Nikon Df), is coming.
Welcome to the world of mirrorless. Yes, you can use the camera’s self-timer, as there is no need to activate mirror lockup to reduce vibrations. Not only is there no need, there is no mirror to lock up. Bonus! I will say that I wish Fujifilm had added the self-timer option to the dial with the shooting modes for faster selection of the mode. To get to the self-timer quickly, you must hit the “Q” button that activates the Quick Menu, scroll down three clicks (or up one) to the self-timer icon, and then roll the rear command dial to activate the two- or ten-second delay. The procedure is not overly cumbersome, but, for my purposes, having it on the shooting mode dial makes more sense. Also, if you power-off the camera in between shots in an attempt to save battery power, you need to go back to the Q menu to re-select the self-timer.
Until now, I have never owned a camera with a Wi-Fi connection and camera remote-control capabilities. The Fujifilm Cam Remote application is not doing well with the ratings in Apple’s App Store. Android users seem to like it better. Is there room for improvement? Certainly. Is it a pretty tricky tool to use to take photos? Definitely.
The app gives you full exposure control over the camera. You can adjust shutter speed and aperture from your phone, from several feet away, and trigger the shutter. I tested the range by walking across the street to trigger the camera, and it fired immediately. The app has some quirks, but, once connected, was fun to use and play with. My biggest issue with the app was that, after taking a photo, if I wanted to recompose the image and take another picture, as long as my smartphone was connected to the camera wirelessly, I could not use the camera’s LCD or EVF to compose the next shot. I did have a live-view on my phone, but I need at least three hands to perform this operation: one to loosen the tripod’s ball head, another to hold and reposition the camera, and a third to hold the phone showing the live-view image. I ended up having to disconnect from the app each time I wanted to move the camera between shots. Reconnecting takes a bit of time, so having to disconnect, recompose, and then reconnect definitely slowed my shooting down. It would have been wonderful if the LCD and/or EVF would still work while connected in Wi-Fi mode.
In a word: superb.
A great deal of attention gets devoted to the low-light/high ISO performance of digital cameras. This review does not talk about the high ISO performance of the X-T1 because I have not shot the camera over ISO 200. Working on a tripod, with the self-timer or Wi-Fi release, I shot, and will continue to shoot, the X-T1 at the native ISO. I suppose there is a scenario where I will need to bump up the ISO at night, but I have not come across it yet.
See the images illustrating this article. They have been adjusted in Lightroom, but not in any crazy or time-consuming manner. I am a post-processing minimalist; if I spend more than a minute or two on an image it means I probably got the shot wrong and should be moving on.
The Fujifilm X-Trans sensor really made the night colors pop on my screen and the image sharpness was as good as my DSLR ever produced.
The Fujifilm X-T1 is a great all-around camera and a capable tool for the night photographer. There are some minor quirks that are easily overcome (self-timer accessed through a menu and the app), but these did not detract much from the shooting experience. I would love it if Fujifilm could figure out a way to incorporate Olympus’s “Live Bulb” feature into the camera with a firmware update, but that might be a lot to ask. The EVF worked well for night shooting, and they will continue to get better and better. I am sure a lag-less 4K resolution EVF is not far from the B&H Photo shelves.