Going the X-tra mile. Travel photography with the X-series
Piet Van den Eynde
Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author and trainer, specializing in travel portraiture. He likes to work with flash to create striking environmental portraits in remote locations, whether it’s the Mongolian Altai mountains or the Omo river valley in Southern Ethiopia. When he’s not traveling, he’s writing books and creating tutorials about photography, lighting and image editing. In his spare time, he likes to reverse engineer the lighting setups of popular tv-shows or play Monopoly with – and get beaten by – his seven year old son Noah.
Life before X
My desire for a small, lightweight yet high quality camera system dates back to 2009. That year, I undertook an one-year bicycle trip through South-East Asia, for a project called PortratisOfAsia. Together with my girlfriend, I cycled through parts of Turkey, Iran, India and Indonesia. Unfortunately, at that time, a small and light camera still was synonymous with “too many compromises” – and the Fujifilm X-series was still a couple of years from being announced, maybe even conceived.
So, I started the trip reluctantly with my full frame DSLR and a slew of lenses, flashes and other accessories. I lugged around 12 kilograms of camera equipment. On a bicycle! About halfway through the trip, I literally got tired of dragging this weight up the Iranian Alborz mountains and I exchanged the setup for a lighter and smaller crop factor DSLR camera and matching lenses. Although technically that new camera wasn’t as good as the one I had started the trip with, I noticed that my images improved, because I actually used the lighter camera more.
It was the first time I experienced that sensor size isn’t everything.
From ex-DSLR to X-shooter
Fast forward to 2012. I am planning another cycling trip. To Georgia and Armenia, this time. The X-Pro1 had just been announced and I had contacted Fuji Belgium to see if I could get a sample to see whether this could become my ultimate travel camera.
It was love at first sight: I loved the retro, inconspicuous look of the camera and the spontaneous images it helped me capture. But as with all relationships, there were also some quirks and annoyances: the camera’s write to card speed was very slow and being a super wide angle fan, the 18 mm (27 mm full frame equivalent), which was the widest lens available at that time, felt like I was photographing through a telescope! Furthermore, being used to a fast 85 mm 1.4, the 60 mm 2.4 often did not give me the bokeh I was used to. As a result, the 35 mm 1.4 quickly became my favorite lens of the three initial lenses in the Fujfilm lens lineup: built like a tank and capable of nice foreground to background separation at f/1.4.
From one X to the other
I have shot with about every X-camera there has been, except for the original X100.
After the X-Pro1, I’ve used the X-E1 and the X-E2 and especially the latter, I liked a lot. I took the X-E2 to the travel photography workshops that fellow X-Photographer Matt Brandon and I teach in India.
Over the past years, my lens and camera arsenal have grown significantly: I now use (and sometimes positively abuse) 2 X-T1s, 1 X-Pro2 and 1 X100T. My favorite lenses include the afore-mentioned 10-24 and the 56 1.2. Lately, I’ve also been using the 50-140 and the 16-55 a lot. When the latter was released, I was so hoping I would NOT like it, because of its weight and size. However, after a couple of test shots, I was hooked: this lens is probably the sharpest in the whole Fuji lineup and it’s an essential lens for any serious X-shooter.
As I explain in this post on my blog, I was honored, humbled, frightened and excited to be chosen as one of only a hundred photographers worldwide to receive an advanced copy of the long awaited X-Pro2. You can read the full review there, but suffice to say that it gives us X-shooters yet another step up in terms of image quality, sharpness and responsiveness. And that focus joystick. I haven’t been this happy to use a joystick since the video games of my amusement hall years, a couple of decades ago.
The X100, my eXtra camera
Of all the cameras in the Fujifilm lineup, the X100 series, of which I’ve used the S and the T models, holds a special place in my heart: this is the camera I take with me when I want to work super-light and super-quiet. It accompanies me on family trips, but I also use it as a specialty camera when I do flash photography: because of its leaf shutter, it can sync with a flash at speeds up to 1/2000th of a second. This means not only means that you can freeze action in broad daylight, but also that a simple hotshoe flash can become as powerful as a big studio strobe on a camera with a regular sync speed.
History repeats itself
In my immediate neighborhood, more and more DSLR photographers are making the switch to mirrorless cameras. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a question that invariably goes something like this “I am tired of lugging this big camera system around, can you recommend something that is smaller and lighter, yet of good quality?” I know the feeling. I was there almost 5 years ago.
I invariably point them to the X-system for the following reasons.
1) An excellent weight and size to quality ratio.
I still remember that when I gave a talk about the original X-Pro 1 on the 2012 edition of Photokina in Cologne, Germany, a guy came up to me and said he could not believe that the big (1.5 x 2.25 meter) prints that were exhibited at the Fujifilm stand, were made with an X-Pro 1. He thought Fujifilm had secretly used a medium format camera! It’s the best – unwanted – compliment I’ve ever heard about the X-system.
What I especially like is the flexibility of the raw files in terms of post processing: part of what I do is teach post processing. I love to explore what I can do with the colors and tones of my raw files and the Fujifilm files are very willing travelers in that journey. This is also the reason why there’s a visible difference in the post production style of the images in this post: I wanted to show some of the different styles I’ve been working on lately.
2) A lens line up whose major problem is that there’s so much quality glass to choose from
As we all know, the camera is only part of the story. Unless you’re into pinhole photography, even the best body is nothing without an equally good lens. It’s hard to believe that from the limited choice between 18, 35 and 60 millimeter only a few years ago, the situation has now been reversed: there’s almost too much to choose from with focal lengths ranging from 10 to 400 mm and apertures as wide as 1.2! With a choice of fast zooms, even faster primes and a couple of convenience lenses, there’s almost everything a pro shooter, let alone an enthusiast, needs. The only thing missing was a super telephoto, and the 100-400 has filled even that hole.
3) State of the art viewfinders
I just love Electronic Viewfinders. So much that on those very rare occasions when I do pick up a DSLR (usually owned by one of my workshop participants), I am completely at a loss. As I do a lot of flash photography, I like the fact that the EVF lets me set my ambient exposure without firing a test shot and that I can instantly review the image I just made in the viewfinder without putting the camera down and therefore risking to loose great shots. Also, the fact that a simple push on a button (the Focus Assist button on the X-T1, or pressing the Rear Command Dial on the X-Pro 2), lets me zoom in to 100% on the focus point I selected to evaluate sharpness, is fantastic.
4) The instax Printer: instant Karma
As a traveling photographer, I like to give the people I photograph a small token of my appreciation in the form of a small print. I used to use a different system which involved cables and really weak batteries, but with the advent of the instax Printer, I can now print wirelessly from my camera to the instax.
5) The Kaizen company
Last but not least, there’s Fujfilm’s attitude as a company: first of all, they are one of but a few camera companies that actually seem to care about their clients: they constantly listen to feedback, they bring out new firmware (like the recent X-E2 firmware upgrade which basically turned that camera into an X-T10, free of charge) on cameras that other companies would consider obsolete. I am kind of wishing I hadn’t sold my X-E2! This kaizen-approach probably makes Fujifilm loose money in the short run because people use their existing cameras longer. In the long run, however, I think it creates an incredible goodwill and brand loyalty. In today’s competitive world, it’s good to see camera companies think about the long run.
In that same spirit, I appreciate the fact that Fujifilm regularly update their lens roadmap. Again something that very few – if any – other companies do.
My eXpectations for the neXt 5 years.
Now, is everything just smelling of roses? Is the system perfect after only 5 years? Of course not. The main thing I am missing in the Fujifilm lineup is a native, well-versed flash system. In my DSLR days, I was used to a complete flash ecosystem with off-camera TTL and High Speed Sync. For some reason, flash was the weak link in the Fujifilm ‘Evolution to Revolution’. Which is all the more strange, considering among its best-known proponents are people like Zack Arias and David Hobby, who both are very well known for their flash work.
Now, this hasn’t stopped me from using flash, as you can see from some of the images in this post. In fact, I have “reinvested” almost all of the weight savings that switching to the smaller and lighter X-system gave me, into manual flashes, including a 600 Ws one. That gives me loads of power, but no High Speed Sync.
But, low and behold, it looks like my wishes won’t take 5 more years to materialize. Fujifilm has recently announced the EF-X500 flash with remote control, TTL and High Speed Sync! I also hope that Fujfilm will open up their TTL protocols to third-party developers so that we can hope to see even more powerful, portable studio flashes that can do High Speed Sync and TTL with Fujifilm cameras.
And of course, I am looking forward to the new X-T2, the successor of my favorite X100 , an X-Pro3 with a tilting screen and the rumored Medium Format Fuji. And while we’re at it, I’d love to see a really wide angle fast prime or zoom, like a 10-24 f/2.8. But in the mean time, I’m mostly looking forward to the travels and photo opportunities that these current and future lightweight marvels of technology will enable.
Piet Van den Eynde