Two NatGeo/Lindblad Instructors Test Fujifilm Mirrorless Camera in Asia

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The beginning of the New Year is a magical time, rich with the anticipation of new adventures that lie ahead. Photographers Jennifer Davidson and Krista Rossow, who both instruct photography on National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions across the globe, recently steeped themselves in the magic of this season during a whirlwind journey through Cambodia and Vietnam, all while testing Fujifilm’s mirrorless camera system.

Above photograph © Jennifer Davidson

“I’m on a quest to find out if (camera) size really matters,” Rossow exclaimed at the beginning of her trip. “With my [DSLRs] at home and my bag substantially lighter, I keep thinking I’ve forgotten something!”

During their journey, Rossow and Davidson relied on the FujiFilm X-T1 mirrorless body with the Fujinon XF16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR, and the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4R as a go-to lens. Davidson also tried out the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4R as a prime lens, the Fujinon XF 60mm F2.4 R with macro subjects, and enlisted the XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS telephoto zoom for shots from the bow of the chartered vessel, Jahan, during her voyage down the Mekong River, through Cambodia and Southern Vietnam.

A motorbike traverses the bamboo bridge on the Mekong River at Kampong Cham, Cambodia. This bridge is built each year during the dry season and deconstructed before the flood season begins. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson

All told, Davidson traveled by eight different conveyances during the trip—including an ox cart and a tuk-tuk. “Does size matter after you’ve been traveling for five weeks, carrying your gear on planes, trains, cycles, and oxcarts and through jam-packed streets and long uphill hikes through the countryside?” she asks rhetorically. “Absolutely. A few years ago, I injured my back. After even one or two weeks of carrying my larger gear on trips, my back is sure to let me know how unhappy it is,” she notes. “The smaller size and lighter weight of the Fujifilm system allowed me to dive into my work and do what I love without thinking about my gear or [potential soreness] the next day. On this trip, there were only two or three days when I felt sore, and those were after particularly bumpy rides or days when I had to pack a heavier bag due to other needs.”

Oxcarts move alongside rice paddies at daybreak, near Kampong Tralach, Cambodia. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson

Rossow met up with Davidson in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the city closest to the renowned religious complex, Angkor Wat. In addition to the X-T1 and zoom, her gear bag included the Fujinon XF16mm f/1.4 R WR, the XF23mm f/1.4 R and the XF90mm f/2 R LM WR. “The XF90mm lens came in handy when I needed to compress a scene or get faraway details,” she explains. And, while Rossow only used the 16mm or 23mm on rare occasions, she loved how small those lenses made the camera feel. “Size definitely matters, but bigger isn’t necessarily better,” she points out. “[On this trip] I was able to pop [my camera and attached zoom] into a small bag and also bring along another lens or a Gorillapod. I could walk around a city all day long and not become physically fatigued by carrying my gear. I’ve often sacrificed by leaving an extra lens back in a hotel or by not even bringing out my DSLR because it was so physically cumbersome, but with the Fujifilm that wasn’t an issue.” 

While visiting Angkor, Cambodia, Rossow and Davidson went to Srah Srang, a reservoir where lions stand guard over the baray, or artificial pool. Photograph © Krista Rossow 

As for the camera’s megapixel size, Rossow found the X-T1 files to be more than sufficient for her general purposes of editorial or stock use. “For ease of use, I’d definitely take the Fujifilm cameras on a city or cultures assignment anywhere, but I’d still turn to my DSLR for wildlife photography,” she says.

Both photographers have an extensive social media following, and they posted pictures and comments about their experiences to Instagram from the road (using @kristarossow, @jendvdsn@lindbladexp#fujifilmX_US, @FujifilmX_US, #FujifilmXT1, @bhphoto, #mywinteraway#samecameradifferentvisions, #Fujifilm@natgeotravel, among other hashtags).

Davidson responded to one query about her comfort level with the gear by saying, “I've really enjoyed the camera. It’s great for traveling. Light and quiet… like any new gear, it takes some time to familiarize yourself with [things], but it didn't take long for me to forget about [the camera] and focus on what I was shooting.”

The Khmer temple of Banteay Srei, also known as the Citadel of the Women, is surrounded by the Cambodian forest. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson

One of Davidson’s favorite system functions is the aperture control on the lenses, which offers a degree of exposure control that’s a throwback to analog shooting. This self-described aperture-priority DSLR shooter switched almost exclusively to shooting in manual mode with the X-T1, and she was easily able to make any needed exposure adjustments. “It surprised me how quickly I adapted back to having [the aperture control, after not shooting] a 35mm film camera for years,” Davidson says. “[The control] is where it’s supposed to be and I didn’t realize how much I missed it. It may have been a little nostalgia, but I enjoyed the features that I was accustomed to when I was a film shooter, including shooting freely on manual.”

Colorful lanterns for sale in Hoi An, Vietnam. Photograph © Krista Rossow
 

During their travels, Davidson and Rossow spent several days shooting on bustling city streets, where the unobtrusiveness of the Fujifilm mirrorless system really came in handy. “I felt that I was less 'obviously' a photographer,” says Rossow. “These cameras are less intimidating when pointed in a subject’s direction, which for me is essential, because I strive to photograph people when they are relaxed and going about their everyday lives, not when they become intimidated by a big camera.”

Davidson and Rossow prefer to be physically close to their subjects. “With the X-T1, I was able to come in close, interact with the people I was photographing and not break that interaction once my camera was in front of my face,” Davidson explains. “People who are not accustomed to being photographed can become quite uncomfortable when a nearby camera is pointed in their direction. I appreciated that I looked less intimidating with the smaller Fujifilm camera and felt that [my subjects] were at ease with my being there. It was also nice to be able to move around the crowded streets or into tight places without having to worry about how far my camera or bag stuck out.”

Hanoi’s Old Quarter can be hectic, like this scene on Thuốc Bắc. In a city short on space, shops are chockablock beside one another and sidewalks become parking lots for the ubiquitous motor scooter. Photograph © Krista Rossow

In getting up to speed with her new gear, Rossow quickly adjusted to the X-T1’s digital viewfinder, a feature that she initially thought might trip her up. In the harsh lighting conditions of Southeast Asia, she had to learn to not necessarily rely on the way an image looked in the viewfinder and instead pay close attention to the histogram. “I found that sometimes, especially out in bright daylight, it was hard for me to see details if they were in the shadow areas, even though the histogram read that I wasn’t losing shadow detail.” 

Davidson also found that use of the digital viewfinder required a certain amount of trust, as well as reliance on the live histogram. In particular, she notes, “When photographing with a polarizing filter, the effect that showed in the viewfinder was more subtle than what I’m used to with my DSLR. I eventually learned to look closely at small parts of the screen where the effect would be more evident when adjusting the filter. [In these cases,] I was always happy with the way the final images looked.” 

Performers from the Phare Cambodian Circus put last-minute touches on their makeup and costumes, in a makeshift dressing room behind the scenes. Photograph © Krista Rossow

While Davidson and Rossow were using the same gear and surrounded by the same subjects, their shooting instincts made them aware of their distinctive visions. “I found it fascinating how we would each focus on different details of a situation, but were often drawn to the same scenarios,” Rossow says. “I think I lean towards packing layers into a scene, and Jennifer has a very clean and elegant style.” 

“Much of Krista’s work has focused on travel photography as a means to get people interested in visiting a place, so she is very good at finding beautiful areas to focus on within a scene,” Davidson notes. Her own recent work focuses on more remote, impoverished areas, “to tell a story about the people who live there,” she says. “I think those experiences determine how we first come to a scene. For instance, while walking through a market one evening, I noticed that it was the interesting faces that first drew my attention while [Krista’s] eyes were looking toward a stall with appealing arrangements of produce. We may end up photographing something similar but we often come to that point from different directions.”

Two distinctive visions from the Phare Cambodian Circus performance by Rossow (left) and Davidson's image of the rehearsal (right). Photographs © Krista Rossow/Jennifer Davidson

This visual dynamic between capturing human expression and aesthetic appeal is aptly illustrated in two images made during the pair’s visit to the Phare Cambodian Circus, a performance troupe in the vein of Cirque du Soleil. Rossow shows troupe members in the midst of a balancing act, while Davidson’s overview captures troupe members practicing in front of a lighting rig and other aspects of the stage set.

Davidson expanded on her image with insights about the troupe in an Instagram post. “In addition to being a circus, @pharecambodiancircus is an active force of good in the community,” she explains. “Its parent organization was established by refugees after the fall of the Khmer Rouge with the goal of bringing art to underprivileged children. Now they have fully functioning schools that train children in art, music, theater, and the circus. They are bringing opportunities for expression and employment to those who would otherwise not have them, and they are bringing the richness of an active art culture back to Cambodia.”

Hoan Kiem Lake is draped in lights and ready for Tet. Rain or shine, day or night, people enjoy the open spaces the lake offers in the middle of bustling Hanoi. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson

In the city of Hanoi, Davidson and Rossow captured images from dawn to dusk. “I loved getting up early and seeing a different side to the city,” Rossow says. “The early morning hours are a wonderful counterpoint to the frenetic activity that builds in the rest of the day.” Yet one of Rossow’s absolute favorite times to shoot is at twilight, before all the light has emptied from the sky.  

These situations are a great test for a camera’s focusing system, and the X-T1 didn’t disappoint. While Rossow generally shoots in aperture-priority with a DSLR, using exposure compensation to nuance contrast levels, she quickly slipped back into manual shooting with the X-T1 after training herself to turn the right buttons. She consulted the manual to set up the back buttons as she wished for focusing. “I’m used to [using a] back rocker dial to move my focus point around, and once I got the Fujifilm set up it was great,” she exclaims. “I also love how I can select focus points across the entire frame.”

Davidson calls out the “Focus Check” button as a feature that she used a lot in low-light situations. “A quick push of this button and the screen zooms to the highlighted focus point so that I could manually set the focus with accuracy,” she says. Davidson notes that autofocus functions are often thrown off in low-light situations. “When visiting people’s dark homes, I would switch the focus to manual and [didn’t have to] worry about the autofocus assist light disrupting what they were doing. It was really nice to be able to trust that [with the Focus Check button] the image would be sharp, even in the near dark.”

Vendors, selling everything from sausages and chestnuts to noisemakers and balloons, fill the streets of Hanoi to mark the countdown to midnight on the eve of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet. Photograph © Krista Rossow

Rossow and Davidson’s Southeast Asian journey coincided with the build-up to Tet, Lunar New Year in Vietnam, which provided exciting photo opportunities at the end of their trip. “I always love looking for the things that we share in common as people, like celebrations and festivals, and then delving into what makes each culture unique,” Rossow says.

“There is a ritualistic side to the holiday, and we saw glimpses of people burning various paper items in small urns outside their shops,” says Davidson. “Part of the Vietnamese tradition includes burning the Kitchen God’s hats and shoes as an offering before the holiday, to help the Kitchen God make its way to Heaven. After the Kitchen God has left the house, people are free to clean and decorate their homes for the upcoming New Year celebration. “This is something you would only see if you were a guest in someone’s home,” she notes.

A worker cleans up the path in a pastoral area of gardens and small orchards bordering Hanoi’s bustling Tây Hồ (West Lake) neighborhood, where vendors come to buy blossoming peach tree branches used during the celebration of Tet. Photograph © Krista Rossow

Seeking a more authentic experience of the holiday, the pair made contact with a local guide, who took them to visit an orchard on the outskirts of Hanoi to see where gardeners grow and sell kumquats, peach blossoms, and all other sorts of plants. While there, they documented the custom of bringing fresh flowers and plants into the home to welcome the Lunar New Year and celebrate spring.

“We saw sellers coming to buy cut branches and artfully loading them onto their motor scooters to take into the city center to sell,” explains Rossow. “It reminded me of my family tradition for Christmas in going out to a tree farm to choose our Christmas tree; there was the same excitement in the air.”

Left: At an orchard outside Hanoi, a peach tree is loaded onto a vehicle bound for an Air Force Academy, Photograph © Jennifer Davidson. Right: Detail of a peach tree blossom, Photograph © Krista Rossow. After the celebrations, the trees are returned to the orchard and replanted, to grow until the following year.

As Davidson notes, “The cut branches were very skillfully packed onto motorbikes and secured with line, so that the buyer could maximize their trip to the outskirts of town. Care was always taken not to damage any of the blossoms in this process. We met women who make five trips a day out to the orchards and return to sell the plants in Hanoi. It is a booming time for business and obviously a very special time for the Vietnamese,” she adds.   

“We also met people coming to select a specific tree for their home. Some were not actually buying the trees but renting them. Two weeks later they would return the trees to the orchard [to be cared for] until the following year.”

During an excursion to Vietnam’s Sa Pa district, Rossow and Davidson were guided across misty hillsides and terraced rice fields, which seem worlds away from the hustle of the capital city. Photograph © Krista Rossow

On one final adventure, Rossow and Davidson traveled to the mountainous region of Sa Pa, in northwest Vietnam (a 6-hour drive from Hanoi), and hired a guide named Giang Thi So, or just So, who took them to visit her relatives from the Black H'mong ethnic minority group. They hiked through misty mountains, passing hillside after hillside of rice terraces dotted with villages of people who rely on the land and what they can produce for their sustenance. “So told us that the terraced rice paddies had been in use for 700 years,” says Davidson. “We also saw many small lush gardens, ducks, chickens, and pigs, all for eating.”

“The shooting situations were tough,” Davidson notes. It was a cold day and the clouds hung low over the landscape. While it was quietly beautiful and moody, the fog prevented us from seeing the magnificent views that we knew were there. Because of the weather and New Year preparations underway, people were mostly indoors, not quite what we had envisioned.”

So ("So"), a woman from the Black Hmong ethnic minority, walks through a village near Sa Seng, Vietnam. The families in Black Hmong villages are self-sufficient, growing lush gardens and raising ducks, chickens, pigs, and goats. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson


 

Another challenging aspect to this trip was learning about the aggressive manner some of the minority groups in the area employ to sell their handicrafts. “I was disheartened because the area is known for its beautiful women and the embroidery that they do,” says Davidson. “I [questioned] our ability to photograph [the women] making their craft when I realized that we would probably be seen as a potential sale, above all else.”  

Rossow and Davidson’s guide checks the stitching on one of her sister-in-law’s garments. Photograph © Krista Rossow

Yet, in communicating with their guide, Davidson and Rossow were able to express their desire to see and photograph everyday life without being sold to at every turn. She took them to her village and to the homes of several family members, including her own.  

“The home was lit with one bulb and the kitchen fire,” says Rossow. “I turned the ISO of my X-T1 up to 6400 and shot wide open with the Fujinon XF16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR at 1/60 second, using manual focus. I [also] loved watching [these women] consult each other about how to do certain stitches, between moments of laughter and stories,” she explains. “Seeing them in community, discussing their work and art, brought to mind how I imagine women throughout the world have shared their lives with each other around fires and kitchens for centuries,” says Davidson. 

Seated beside a small fire for warmth, a Hmong woman stitches an outer layer of clothing for her daughter. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson


 

“[The scene was dark], but we were beside the fire as well, and were able to photograph [the women] as they cooked, visited, and made the embroidered clothes they are known for,” adds Davidson. “I love the intimacy of the situations we experienced that day. During the six hours we were there, we did not see another foreigner, nor were we asked to purchase a thing without us expressing interest first.”

“[Once back outside], we were back in the clouds,” Davidson sums up, “left to guess about the stunning views and centuries of human connection to the land that surrounded us.” 

At the end of their visit, So walks into the cloud-covered landscape near Sa Pa, Vietnam. Photograph © Jennifer Davidson


To see more photographs by these photographers, click on the links for
Jennifer Davidson and Krista Rossow. 

On a final note, Rossow will be speaking at the second annual B&H OPTIC Conference, in June, 2016, in New York City.

5 Comments

Ms. Davidson and Ms. Rossow...Great article, wonderful trip. I've been to some of the locations in Hanoi. VN is an awesome place full of good humans. 

I've been considering purchasing an X-T1 for a while and your story was the frosting on the cake for me. I ordered an X-T1 and a 35mm f/2 lens today (May 11, '16) from B & H. I'll get it when in Las Vegas next week and will return to my home in China with it at the end of the month, Hanoi again not long after that with my first Fujifilm camera in tow.

Thanks for this interesting story on your SE Asian journey.

Greetings Tom, thanks for your compliment on the article, as well as for your recent purchase of the X-T1 from B&H! Jennifer and Krista will be thrilled to learn that their images and experiences with the camera are what fueled your purchase, and we're all very excited to hear about your future experiences with X-T1 too! Thanks so much for reading Explora and please keep in touch!

Ms. Waterman,

My sincere apology for not acknowledging you in my comment, you wrote the article! Simply terrific. I'm looking forward to getting my X-T1 next week. I feel like a kid at Christmas.

If you ever get the opportunity to see SE Asia, do so, it's a wonderful part of the world (except for some of the taxi drivers). 

Hi Tom, thanks for your quick reply to my comment, and for the acknowledgement. It's actually a huge compliment to get your affirmation that my writing was transparent enough to convey Krista and Jennifer's experiences and personalities in such a direct way to result in your camera purchase... I'm as excited about this as you are! Happy shooting and please keep in touch ... we love feedback!

Fantastic news, Tom!  It really is a great system for travel, and I've heard very positive feedback about the 35mm f/2 lens.  I'm happy that our experiences in Southeast Asia were helpful in you making your decision.  Enjoy the new gear and safe travels!

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