Night Photography with the Mirrorless Fujifilm X-T1

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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.

The X-T1

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.

Focusing

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.

Image Quality

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.

Conclusion

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.

35 Comments

Is there anyone that can give me exact settings for shooting low light with movement? No matter what I do, I'm getting way too much blur. I would love to know what specific settings you use via the menu, in terms of focusing etc., as well as what ISO and aperture you get good results with.

This is driving me crazy! Thanks for any help.

Hey Suzanne,

There are many possible answers to your question, but, first, I have to ask you some questions:

I assume you are talking about motion blur in the image, correct? You seem to be referring to that, but your mention of "focus" later in your comment could lead us down a different path.

If you are shooting handheld at night, and your shutter speeds are slow, you will get blur from camera movement. The key is to always use a tripod at night and use mirror lock-up on a DSLR while triggering the camera remotely. Focusing at night is as critical as it is during the day, but auto focus systems sometimes struggle at night. Unfocused images will have a different blur than blur caused by camera movement.

Check out this article from Jill Waterman: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/10-essential-tips-night-photography

And, check out my other night photo article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/how-set-your-camera-night-photography

Standing by for follow up questions! Thanks for stopping by!

Hi, 

So how do you like the manual focus performance in the dark? You mentioned that you like setting hard infinity stops and that there is noise, but is it altogether decent to use? I'd like to hear what mode you prefer, too! 

Best wishes! 

Hey D,

I have a fairly complex answer for you after months more experience in the dark with the camera.

I am NOT a fan of the focus-by-wire system on the Fujifilm lenses. I tolerate it, but I prefer mechanical focus. Having said that, the focus dampening on the rings are very nice, so it has a mechanical feel minus the response.

Focus peaking is awesome to use in low-light situations. It works equally well on the Fuji lenses and on adapter-mounted lenses from other manufacturers. In better-lit urban environments, it is especially good. Minus the peaking, the "focus assist" function gives you sufficient magnification to confirm focus accuracy.

In the darker environments, the viewfinder gets very noisy and the focusing is more difficult. However, that is true for DSLRs as well. That is when I really miss the infinity hard stops...

I hope that answers your question. Thanks for reading!

Hi,

I'm contemplating getting a mirrorless camera for night photography as I love panning at slow speeds but my D610's mirror gets in the way.

would the evf be good enough or would I be better suited to the optical viewfinder of the Fuji X-Pro 1?

i tried a few test shots with my D610 on a very slow 5sec delay,my images were nearly there but opviously it's like I'm shooting blind with the mirror up.

my photography is aviation so trying to capture an aircraft with a blurred background is key.

looking forward to your reply.

lee 

Hey Lee,

Good questions!

You can tell your D610 to behave like a mirrorless camera by using Live View, or is that still not working for you?

An EVF might be your solution. The X-Pro1 and the brand new X-Pro2 have hybrid viewfinders that switch between optical and electronic—really cool technology. You might like them or you might find them foreign. If you live near the store, feel free to come in to try them out!

As an aviation photographer (and aviator), can you tell me what shutter speeds you are panning at? I am curious to see your results!

Thanks for reading!

Hi,

as an example I can shoot at ISO 6400 f4.5 and 1/8 sec and get usable results.

but just last week I tried to get an aircraft taxiing past me on a 5sec delay,I followed the aircraft before pressing the shutter and continued to pan (blind) when the mirror blocks the viewfinder.

i think if it were a mirrorless camera my result might have been better,no double image or a blurred aircraft.

A camera dealer said I needed an optical viewfinder on the mirrorless camera (maybe wanting me to splash out on the x-pro2)

The Fuji X-E2s looks a great camera for less than half the money of the x-pro2 and the high ISO of 52000 would really help a lot,though I would go anywhere near that sort of setting.

id post some of my results but I don't know how too.

Hey Lee,

Gotcha. A few thoughts...

Folks have been panning for years with SLRs and DSLRs...practice makes perfect, so you can keep trying and see what you get.

If you are shooting a prime lens, you could make a hot-shoe mounted "viewfinder" like they used to make for underwater cameras so you could compose with a SCUBA/snorkel mask on...basically a rectangle on a mount that approximates the field of view of the lens.

A rangefinder will not hide the view when shooting, but mirrorless cameras I have used will go black while the shutter is depressed. As far as the X-Pro2...not sure as I haven't put my hands on one yet...but it is basically a rangefinder in many ways.

Do you have a website with your images?

I tried out a Fuji X-T10 today at a low 1/8sec and the viewfinder does go black just like you say it will.

So an EVF viewfinder is no good at all as it reacts just like a DSLR.

On the other hand I tried an X-Pro1 but found it a little weird with the viewfinder being in the rangefinder position.

and unusual to be able to see the lens in the lower right corner.

on the plus side though you get no real notification that you have taken a picture with it being optical.

on the down side though,anything I'm viewing through the viewfinder (like an aircraft) the object will be slightly to the left when the camera takes it won't it?

if that's the case then it's like going back to the days of the 110 pocket film cameras or the early bridge cameras with that terrible shutter lag.

I will sort my Flickr account out with some slow panning shots so you can look at what my D610 results have been like and post the link here.

the latest I've been to the airport was 00:15 and it was that dark,I had to shoot in manual focus lol

Hey Lee,

Sounds like you might be out of luck! Sorry, mate! You might just have to practice practice practice and see if you get better at it.

By the way, on most rangefinders you will see the lens through the viewfinder. Leica invented this so that you could always keep an eye on your super expensive lens! And, yes, there is some parallax, but the image should be composed in the framing lines of the viewfinder if there are some.

Standing by for your link. Cheers!

Hey Todd and other interested parties,

I did find this very thought after web page on how the X-Pro1's AF actually works whilst using the OVF (possibly X-Pro2 as well) 

Note how the border inside the OVF actually reduces depending on the lens being used.

so I'm guessing the 55-200 XF lens will produce a small image but the rest of the OVF will be clear.

Fujifilm on Facebook confirmed it will still go black but only the cropped frame inside the OVF,the rest will remain clear.

I have one trick left to try before considering the X-Pro1 and that is to try and use my D610 in the dreaded Live View.

I have never used it on any of my cameras only my dedicated video camera (Panasonic V750) and I find it very hard to use (probably because I need more practice)

Here is the link I mentioned earlier,as I said it might be very useful to others on how the hybrid viewfinder sees things.

http://vopoku.com/fujifilm-ovf-focusing/

Lee

Thanks for sharing the link, Lee. Good stuff. I look forward to hearing how your experiments go! Keep us posted!

Hey Todd,

my first Flickr album is now live and is dedicated to low light panning.

here is the link.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/64654433@N04/albums/72157664342597685

This is a work in progress so don't expect dazzling images.

Lee

Hey Lee!

EVERY photographer's work is a work in progress! That is the fun of photography!

Having said that...awesome stuff! As a former aviator, I have always loved airplanes and airliners. 

I think that your panning idea is very cool and, regardless of the gear, practice is going to make perfect. Are you using a video panning tripod head? I would recommend that to help remove "extra" movement. But, yeah, you are going to just have to keep shooting an hope to get lucky with the precise amount of pan and tracking for each shot.

Thanks for sharing the link! Here are a couple of mine: 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/trvphoto/sets/72157641289286233

https://www.flickr.com/photos/trvphoto/sets/72157641191943285

Enjoy! 

Great post, quite informative and timely as I approach a year of almost nothing but noght and low light shooting. I too shoot with an X-T1 and am quite happy with it. I would love to join you on a night based photo walk.  Feel free to shoot me an email if you wouldn't mind a tag along shooter. You can see some of my work on Instagram at Scene_In_NewYork.

Hey Federico! Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments! Stand by for a message! 

I use the Fn button on top to change the setting for the self timer and find this more convenient than using the Q menu.  

Good move

Thanks, Paul. Nice moves, yourself!

Great idea, Steve! I will change my settings ASAP! Thanks!

Todd- thank for your excellent article, I want to know some of Fujifilm X-Pro 1

Hola Todd, quiero que me des por favor un comentario de la Fuji X-Pro 1. Saludos

Wonderful article and lovely pictures illustrating it. On my Sony a 77II I've been using the Night Scene feature for night photography and I'm plainly satisfied with it. 

Thanks for the article.

Thanks, Walmir,

Good to know about the Sony modes. The Fuji has film simulation modes, but no real "shooting modes" like many of the newer DSLR and ILC cameras, likely due to its old-school interface. Thanks for reading!

Todd - thank you excellent article - and your photography is amazing!  I learn so much reading your articles - you are a terrific asset to B&H.  Regards, Ed

Hi Ed,

Thanks so much for the compliments and thanks for reading and shopping at B&H Photo!

Todd....You mention that you've been night shooting with the XT-1 at ISO 200. What little night shooting I have done, in bright city light situations in the Chinese urbanscape where I live, has been at ISO 800 for best results. And that's with my Sony RX 100 M3. My question is, is night shooting at ISO 200 unusual and is this a trait of this particular, very fine camera? Perhaps I need to try dailing down my ISO at night.

Thanks for this article. Let's hope that it stays in the load of cement between my ears! 

Hey Tom,

Thanks for your question. In general, the consensus of night photography experts is to shoot at your camera's native ISO from a tripod. If you use a tripod, the duration of the shutter will not matter, unless you are trying to capture a certain amount of movement of a subject or element inside a frame and need a shutter speed of a specified duration.

The camera's native ISO is the setting where the camera does not boost the ISO signal, nor does it electronically simulate lower ISO. This native setting should give you the least amount of noise and the best sensor performance. For more on ISO, check out this link.

An internet search shows that the native ISO for your Sony is ISO 125.

If you are shooting handheld, you might need to increase your ISO in order to get your shutter speed faster to reduce camera blur.

 May I ask why you feel you are getting better results at the higher ISO setting (800, in your case)? Your answer may help me give you a better response.

Thanks for reading and writing in!

Hey Todd....Actually, I haven't been trying other ISO settings at night with the RX 100. I set my ISO at 800 for the first night shots I took with it and the results looked fine to me and didn't try any lower settings. I was pleased at 800 and assumed that low settings such as 200 would result in a dark exposure. I was shooting handheld. I've only owned this camera for a month and so I need to get deeper into the night time settings and look at the results. Saying that I obtained "better" results at 800 is somewhat of a misstatement on my part, I should have said that I was satisfied. So, I'll definitely be dropping that down to the native ISO at night. Also, I need to get into more night time work as the opportunities presented in a colorful Chinese city are bountiful. Thanks again for your articles, they help me tremendously as photography is relatively new to me and I'm bringing along a young Chinese student and teaching her what I do know. I'm using your articles on focus, metering, ISO, etc. to teach her. They are most helpful! 

Hey Tom,

When shooting handheld at night, the higher ISO is likely a necessity to keep your shutter speeds fast and reduce blur caused by camera shake. Many cameras are virtually noise-free at ISO settings up to 800 (or higher). But, if you are working off of a tripod or other steady support, I would encourage you to maximize your sensor's performance by shooting at the native ISO at longer shutter speeds.

I am delighted that my articles are helping you capture the city and teach others! Thanks for sharing that and thanks for reading!

Thanks for the review! Could you say a few words about video capabilities of this camera?

Hey Nikola,

Truth be told, I have not made a video with this camera yet. From what I have heard and read, it does video very well. However, I am a still photography shooter. I will look into seeing if we can do a review of the video capabilities of this camera in the future. Thanks for reading!

Good article, very fair and reasonable review.  My only comment would be the fujifilm 23mm 1.4 and 14mm 2.8 both have manual focus rings with distance and depth of field scales that end at infinity which help with manual and autofocus in low light + landscape shooting.  Keep up the good work!

Hey Jeremie,

Thanks for reading and commenting. Those two Fujifilm lenses are on my wish list! Let me know if you want to send yours to me!

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