Dylan Van Graan - Fujifilm X-T2 and AAD 2016Nop

Fujifilm X-T2 and AAD 2016

Dylan Van Graan

African Aerospace and Defense (AAD) comes around every 2 years and the 2016 edition took place from the 14th to the 18th of September.  As in 2014 I was fortunate enough to gain press accreditation for the event thanks to the assistance of the good people at the International Society of Aviation Photography, of whom I'm a member, who kindly provided me with requisite credentials to complete my application.

Gaining press access formed only the first part of my master plan, with the second involving the other good folks at Fujifilm South Africa, a certain Mr. Barry Matthews in particular. Ever since the acquisition of my Fujifilm X-T10 and the release of the new Fujinon XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR I have been hounding the poor man for an opportunity to test this combination on subjects aviation related, and of course the arrival of the X-T2 just provided further impetus. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I begged but I would like to believe the imminent arrival of AAD and the press badge in my grubby little hand might have served to convince the team at Fujifilm to finally part with an X-T2 and a 100-400mm during a clandestine operation involving a certain well known coffee establishment and a very unassuming Clik Elite camera bag.

Said bag also contained two other items of desire, the first being the Fujinon 2X teleconverter and the second the new X-T2 booster grip. Thankfully 3 batteries and charging equipment also made their way into the Clik Elite.

Arriving home and ignoring my wife, the cat and the dogs I unpacked all of the above and with the deft hands of a sniper I proceeded to assemble my new "shooting" device and aim it at my first victim. Who can be more deserving of close on to 1200mm effective focal length than the most patient sitter of them all? The moon!

Of course being the cool aviation shooter I am, I regularly shoot at ridiculously slow shutter speeds handheld to blur moving props and blades just to prove I can. Thus using a tripod is beneath me, but in truth I was just itching to shoot anything, this image of the moon was shot at F11, 1/400th, ISO 1600 racked out all the way to 400mm with the 2X attached. I mean seriously this image says a lot more about the lens' stabilization than my prowess at keeping still but it bode well for images shot of helicopters at 1/80 to get as much prop blur as possible.

The next week was spent customizing the camera and reading the user manual downloaded from the Fujifilm website as well as pointing the lens at many, many, many birds.

Soon a steady stream of press releases and invitations to briefings started to fill my inbox and heralded the arrival of AAD 2016.

As informative as the news coming out of the media communications were, my main aim was to test the new X-T2, 100-400mm lens combination and Friday the 16th saw me stuck in traffic trying to reach entrance 4 at Waterkloof Air Force Base. Eventually making it onto the base and after a quick visit to the media center I reached the flight line just as the SAAB Gripen from the SAAF took to the air to start its display. I promptly assembled everything and after dialing in the requisite settings I very soon realized that the Fujinon 2X teleconverter slowed the rig down to the point where I had serious difficulty tracking the fighter during high speed passes. I had to reverse the assembly process and with the converter safely back in the camera bag it was on to the serious business of making images. 

And very serious it was, considering that it soon became obvious that transferring the shooting techniques that worked for my current setup was not going to simply translate to the mirrorless system. Not helping was the fact Friday proved especially tricky in regards to the prevailing conditions which were especially blustery and hazy.

First a caveat, this is not a technical review as some might yearn for but a real world report on the suitability of the X-T2 and the Fujinon 100-400mm in managing with the unique challenges offered by standing on the ground whilst making images of aircraft screaming past. Does the system help in doing this or do you need to fight your equipment in the process, and finally are the results of an acceptable quality? If highly technical reviews are more to your liking you will find many and more such reviews on the Internet and I can assure you there is no reason to believe that the camera sensor combined with this particular lens is anything but capable of delivering outstanding image quality.  I mean look at the wear and tear on the leading edge of the wing of the K-8 displayed by the Zimbabwean Air Force. It's the camouflaged aircraft with the backseater staring at the very impressive Fuji setup........

So how is the Fujifilm rig different from my current setup? Well, currently I shoot a Canon 70D with the venerable push/pull version of the Canon 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS USM lens.

So where do I start, having gotten image quality out of the way handling became my primary purpose and the first challenge I faced was getting used to turning the barrel to zoom in or out.  With all the myriad disadvantages mentioned in reviews and forums about the push/pull action of the Canon lens, I have gotten comfortable using this action to follow fast approaching aircraft "in" as they approached my position on the flight line. In the case of the Fujinon I found the zoom action to be quite stiff.  Whilst some might consider this an advantage it does become tricky if the zoom ring needs to be turned while panning at slow shutter speeds and long focal lengths. Granted the loan unit could not be called "worn in" as far as zoom action goes but it didn't do me any favors when following a fast jet approaching my position and I found myself losing my subject in the viewfinder as it passed. To be honest, I think the way I shoot might also be partially to blame here, as I tend to start firing the shutter with aircraft too far out from my position. I sometimes have to remind myself to wait for the the aircraft to fill my viewfinder before shooting. Come Saturday I started working harder at this and found the going to be easier by waiting for the aircraft to fill my viewfinder rather than following it in while firing the shutter.

I did find that the image stabilization on the lens was very effective - refer to the image of the moon - and I was able to shoot helicopters at 1/80 of a second resulting in very nice prop blur, something I've never really been able to do with my Canon kit. Prop and blade blur could be considered the Holy Grail of aviation photography and it sometimes becomes common practice to have bets running up and down the flight line as to which photographer can shoot the sharpest image at the slowest shutter speeds, creating the most pleasing blur, the image of the Safat 02 helicopter being a case in point, shot at 1/80 and considering that I had more than one image to choose from to present to you as an example, the image stabilization on the lens could be considered adequate.

We never chimp on the flight line but we do regularly check the LCD screen to assess image sharpness and exposure. On one such occasion I became a bit worried that my keeper rate at "normal" shutter speeds between 1/125 and 1/200 weren't as many as I would have expected considering the above mentioned results at 1/80. In an attempt to conserve battery power (I only had 5), I spent some time Friday using my Canon setup and soon realised that I was having similar sharpness issues there as well! It turned out that the gusty conditions were to blame and by removing the lens hoods I saw an almost immediate improvement in my keeper rate.

One of the areas where mirrorless cameras have fallen short in relation to fast moving subject matter has always been focus tracking and the internet is riddled with one opinion piece after another stating that DSLR's are still the king of the hill in this regard. This was likely the area where I was the most worried that the X-T2 might disappoint but boy is the ability of this camera a leap forward! With 325 AF points, 91 of which being zone focus, the days where the difference between DSLR and mirrorless are as obvious as night and day are numbered if not over. Would I say that the FUJI is as good as my Canon? Considering the subject matter I can only say that it's very close and without a doubt the FUJI is very capable of tracking aircraft in flight when the correct custom settings and focus area were set to suit the situation and I would suggest that one spends some time getting to know the focus tracking options allowed in the focus setup menu before the flight line is approached. The levels of customisation the X-T2 allows trumps my current setup hands-down and the ease with which I was able to change focus settings on the fly was nothing short of amazing. Setting the Fn2 button on the front of the body to toggle between the focus-tracking sets and using the joystick to set focus areas and points worked incredibly well to help me switch between options even as an aircraft approached my position.

This leads into the next point I would like to cover and that's the usability of the system. I could almost write this full article expounding on the virtues of the FUJI eco system and how it truly does seem that FUJI actually listens to the users of their equipment and makes gear to suit. After the initial learning curve and setting the camera body up to suit my requirements it was really a pleasure to use, with everything being where I needed them to be. Two areas that tripped me up though was the fact that setting up back button focusing seemed tricky and using it just didn't feel as natural as using this on my Canon and the second being the new menu system. It took me a bit of time to find the setting to format my SD cards and I found it hidden under user settings. I do own a Fujifilm X-T10 and find its menu system easier to use.

Physically I would find the X-T2 without the booster grip a bit small and unbalanced with the 100-400mm attached and to be quite honest I wouldn't even leave the house without the booster grip attached to the body when shooting any form of action subject. I sometimes like to turn the camera to portrait orientation during airshows as this brings a unique perspective not often seen in aviation photography and having the body controls and customizable options mirrored on the grip is certainly a plus. Of course setting the switch to boost on the grip brings with it faster and improved performance including a frame rate of up to 11fps depending on the power levels available in the batteries, which brings us to an achilles heel in regards to mirrorless systems, that is battery life. Unless you have at least two full sets of batteries available (six total), one in camera and two in the grip you might want to become prudent about when 11fps would be necessary or not. I had the set provided by Fuji as well as my own two batteries and I had to be careful to keep an eye on power consumption. Granted only one of the total number of 5 batteries on hand was the new type that promises more efficient power supply, power consumption remains for many a problem on mirrorless systems. Changing the settings on the X-T2 to allow for lower power consumption definitely helps and on the Saturday I changed to EVF only to try and save on power consumption and this definitely helped.

Attaching the 100-400mm and booster grip rids the Fujifilm setup of one of its most common benefits as touted by mirrorless pundits and that is weight. My Canon system and the Fuji kit I tested were very much alike in the weight category. Granted the Fuji included the booster grip and as mentioned before the advantages that the grip brings far outweighs the weight saving considerations one might be pondering.

Pun intended by the way.....

Image quality is almost a non issue and my 70D's performance at higher ISO pales in comparison to the X-T2. The dynamic range is possibly the single aspect of the performance of this camera that impressed me the most. More often than not airshow photography is a very contrasty affair and camera exposure meters often struggle to keep up with the changing lighting conditions that can occur, even during a single pass by an aircraft, and heavy lifting is often required on the RAW files to recover dark shadows or blazing highlights. The image of the L-15 Falcon trainer displayed by the Zambian Air Force was completely dark around the bottom of the fuselage and very contrasty overall.  The DNG file converted from the RAW image proved to be very forgiving in the edit and I was able to pull the shadow detail out with hardly any increase in noise.

The L-15 is the other jet making a dirty pass, the one that says AF1003 on the nose. We call it dirty because it has bits sticking out.

The image of the C-17 Globemaster (the big one) was made using my X-T10 with the very non-standard Fujinon 18-55mm zoom attached to the front. Considering that the X-T2 comes with the improved 24 megapixel sensor one would not be far wrong in expecting that all things being equal handling and tracking wise the quality of the images produced would be anything but amazing. The image of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II only serves to prove the point. I mean you can count individual rivets on the fuselage and wing, while it hangs around on the apron waiting for clearance.

The JPEG files coming out of the camera are pure FUJI and the Velvia film simulation resulted in nice images right out of the camera. Of course I shot RAW to one card and JPEG to the other as the the X-T2 also offers dual card slots and the advantages offered by beautiful JPEGS right from the camera cannot be overstated when culling and getting images out into the world for consumption.

In conclusion, handling wise the mirrorless system has its quirks and working through an EVF I had my hands full on the first day next to the flight line, but after applying what I learnt on the Friday I had a much better day two on Saturday and as a result I was very sad to see Barry arrive at our office to collect my new favorite piece of camera gear. As I handed the very stylish Clik Elite bag to the man I simply couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks and as grown ups often do to get kids to stop crying he promised that I could get to play with the X-T2 again once the other kids had their chance to play. This time trying the 50-140mm F2.8 and X1.4 tele which apparently works really well on the X-T2 tracking wise.

By the way, it was my wife who reminded me after approving this piece for public consumption that it was I who was slightly concerned regarding the apparent performance of my new Canon 70D after my first day next to the flight line after upgrading from my then trusty 20D. Each new camera has its quirks, they have to, otherwise we would never need to upgrade.

Practice makes perfect, or so they say...........