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Note to fashion photographers everywhere: Pigeons make horrible models. Even with the snappy new Fujifilm X-Pro2 digital camera, I was constantly frustrated by the inability for even the most lethargic pigeon to hold his or her pose for more than a fraction of a second.
I chose to test the new Fujifilm X-Pro2 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shooting Duke Riley’s latest (and largest) art installation, Fly By Night. Riley, a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist and pigeon fancier, has worked extensively with pigeons before—even training a squadron of 50 homing pigeons to fly from Key West, Florida, to Cuba to retrieve some cigars—and he has been raising them since he was a boy after rescuing one while he was a child, living in Boston.
For Fly By Night, Riley trained more than 1,000 LED-equipped birds—representing six different species—to fly above the East River at sunset and return to their temporary home on a retired US Navy helicopter-landing training ship, the Baylander. (The Baylander happens to be the first vessel on which I, and thousands of other student Naval Aviators, ever landed a helicopter.)
Most people think little of the pigeons of the world—annoyed by the presence of the unfortunately nicknamed “sky rat,” but pigeons have been bred and kept as pets for thousands of years. They have been raised in Brooklyn for more than 100 years. In fact, the US military had one of its largest pigeon centers at the Navy Yard, where the birds were trained to fly messages over long distances during World Wars I and II.
I asked one of the project’s volunteers why someone would choose a pigeon as a pet over another type of bird. “They are quiet and they can fly,” he said.
The X-Pro2, the latest and greatest from Fujifilm, is a direct descendant of the popular 35mm rangefinder camera—known for its usefulness and skill in the world of documentary photography and reportage. Photographing Riley’s project would be a great test for the camera since the documentary aspect would be right in the camera’s wheelhouse, yet the camera would need to do some duty as a telephoto action platform.
I was always mystified by the X-Pro1’s hybrid viewfinder—wondering how it could so seamlessly switch from an optical image to an electronic one. To me, this was like the yellow lines on TV during an NFL game—something magical that would bring on a migraine if I thought too much about it. The X-Pro2’s hybrid viewfinder is even better and more advanced than its predecessor. Pass the Motrin, please.
Not having been raised on a rangefinder, I found myself using the EVF screen more than I used the optical window. But, if you have a Leica, Contax, or another classic rangefinder in your blood, you’ll undoubtedly love the experience of a contemporary rangefinder’s performance as produced by the minds at Fujifilm. Switching from optical to digital literally happens with the flick of a switch on the front of the camera. The camera automatically gives you precise frames in the optical viewfinder for whatever Fujifilm X-mount lens you attach.
Fujifilm has improved on almost every aspect of the X-Pro1 with the new camera. You can now use the top shutter speed dial to change your ISO—much like many classic film cameras and their dual-function dials. I found myself adjusting the ISO constantly as I photographed the pigeons in the fast-changing light of sunset in Brooklyn.
There is a small “joystick” above the thumb pad controls that makes switching autofocus points much quicker and easier. This will be a welcome upgrade to the other Fujifilm X-series cameras we expect to see in the near future. While tracking pigeons in flight, this was a crucial upgrade to the earlier X cameras that required you to pre-program the thumb pad buttons to shift focus points. Press the joystick in, and the “cursor” returns to the center focus position.
I still wish Fujifilm would make a locking mechanism for the exposure compensation dial, but the X-Pro2 has an added custom setting that allows up to ±5 EV shifts—another boon for the documentary shooter trying to capture action in fading daylight.
I had only one night to photograph Riley’s project with the X-Pro2, so I needed to make the most of it. Already familiar with the X-T1, using the X-Pro2 was akin to speaking a different dialect of the same language. The two cameras are similar, but not all the controls are in the same locations. Once the birds took flight, there was not an instant to waste looking at the LCD to see what I was capturing. I knew that I wanted to capture the birds with the highest possible shutter speed, and also let them streak through the frame with longer exposures. The X-Pro2 kept up with my changing needs flawlessly. I was quickly switching from tripod to handheld shooting, and aperture priority to shutter priority, all while shifting exposure compensation, changing ISO, using multiple autofocus points, and switching between the Fujifilm 14mm, 35mm f/1.4, 56mm, and 90mm lenses. Being a digital rangefinder with retro controls, the speed at which you can change shutter speed, aperture, or ISO is a bit slower than that of a modern DSLR with front and rear command dials, but the tactile feel of the Fujifilm dials rewards the user with a different experience.
One thing I missed was the secondary dial to control the exposure metering mode. On the X-T1 you can switch from matrix to spot or center-weighted metering with a flick of your forefinger. The X-Pro2 requires that you do some button pressing, and the process is slowed.
Overall, the X-Pro2 was a great camera to have for an action-packed documentary outing in fading daylight.
The X-Pro1 became the standard bearer for the rangefinder camera of the digital age. Now, that standard has been passed to its much more refined and capable 24.3MP successor, the X-Pro2. If you loved your X-Pro1, you will love the new version. If you loved shooting film rangefinders, you will find the X-Pro2 is exactly what the modern rangefinder should be, all while being familiar to your hand and eyes.
Fly By Night
Duke Riley’s project runs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, from May 7 to June 12, 2016.