The Fujifilm X-T3 with XF23 F1.4 & XF35 F1.4 Review.
It's probably a general photographer's thing that we're always looking out for new gear.
I've noticed this semi-constant questioning of your kitbag tends to go in waves - you do a great set of shots with your current set up and you're really happy, but if you're going through a bit of listless patch it's obviously your gear's fault, so like some lustful teenage boy you start 'looking around'.
Now saying all that - and cod psychology aside - it's pretty common, and indeed wise, to look over the fence at what's going on with other manufacturers systems to see if there's something to help you get better shots and with that in mind I've been looking at Fujifilm's offerings for some time now.
The combination of really charming 'retro' styled bodies, small bright lenses and the famous Fujifilm colour science was really quite enamouring, not least as my first digital camera in 2001 was a Fuji MX1700 (1.5 megapixels of raw power!) so I was keen to go back and check what they'd been up to in the intervening 18 years.
So, one big courier delivery of flight cases offered up an excellent counterpoint to my current Sony A7r ii, all set up and ready to go for a week's testing.
The Fujifilm X-T3.
So what is this beast? Well, the XT3 is the newest kid on the X-Series block. It looks fab - like a proper camera! - and sports all the latest stuff like pop out screens, a little joystick for moving focus points in AF mode and lots of tactile, easy to access dials for ISO, shutter speed etc.
This is important and one of the reasons why my interest had been piqued by the XT3, because as mind-bogglingly good as the A7r ii is, there are drawbacks: the handling is a bit sub-par, the menus are deep and annoying and (I find) that you're always fighting the camera a bit when you should be shooting. Would the XT3 with all it's vaunted ease of use be any different in the real world?
The other elephant in the room is the sensor. The Sony is full frame, and the Fuji is APS-C.
Now, I'm not going to go into a proper technical breakdown of differences in this piece (there's loads of stuff on the internet about that - if you're interested try here), but suffice to say a bigger full frame sensor has more pixels, increased dynamic range (e.g the amount of light and dark you can play with in post, plus low light performance) and also allows you to get better depth of field at wider apertures.
But again, away from a technical test, how does this equate out in the real world actually using an APS-C camera vs a full frame one - would I notice any difference?
The XF lenses:
For this test, I'd picked up the two brightest lenses that Fuji produce for this mount. The XF23mm F1.4 and the 35 F1.4.
These respectively (because of the smaller sensor size and various other timey whimey science stuff) land up full frame equivalent to 35mm at F2.1 and 53mm at F2.1, so essentially I was pitting them toe-to-toe with my Sony Zeiss 35mm and 55mm lenses.
One thing, I would say is these guys are built beautifully - and both include that most wonderfully old fashioned thing: an aperture ring!
Another plus point straight out of the box is the size. My Zeiss 35 is HUGE, but this is down to the bright 1.4 aperture and it being built for a full frame sensor. It’s just physics. The Fuji 23 despite being much smaller and lighter, is built for a small sensor and is only (really) running at 2.1.
So we're looking at a trade off: will the benefits of well, weighted, lighter lens really best a brighter lens on a full frame camera with it's increased DOF despite its increase size? Only getting out there and taking some shots would show.
At Carters Steam Fair.
The initial opportunity to try out our dynamic trio was a right old test - for both system and butterfingered user.
Carter's Steam Fair is a bit of an institution around Maidenhead way, and with the fair in town and a firework display in the offing, it was the obvious event to try out how the X-T3 handled low light conditions plus if the lack of in-body stabilisation (which I have on my Sony) really made that much difference?
As I said, it was a tough gig and I was all fingers and thumbs among the chairoplanes and huck-a-duck for a good 45 minutes until I got a bit more used to X-T3, but I was impressed by the Eye AF in the low light (but less impressed that it's either on or off unless you delve into the menu - on my A7r ii, I toggle it with one button) and I was equally happy with the focusing speed I was getting.
The proof is in the pudding however, and the next day gave me the opportunity to have a good old look at the files.
As expected, my wobbly hand had got a bit lazy with Sony's excellent IBIS so I had a fair few fails due to camera shake, although that had been solved by upping the shutter speed (which in turn increased the ISO, unfortunately...) however this wasn't as much as an issue as I had previously thought.
Yes, the low light performance wasn't nearly as good as the A7r ii, but where I did get noise it was quite filmlike.
The issues I did have which frustrated me were two-fold - and not unexpected. Firstly, with the APS-C sensor it's really difficult to get the depth of field that you'll get with full frame, so certain subjects didn't quite 'pop' out of the background as much as I'd like, and secondly as the dynamic range isn't as good there were quite a few shots in that light that if taken with the Sony might have been a keeper, but with the Fuji didn't get a star in Lightroom.
Of course, it was the first run and one thing that did shine through was the famous Fuji colour science. Great skin tones where I captured them and bright reds and greens.
The following day, and in marked contrast to the low light of the fair, we popped over to Oxford in the bright sunshine. I spent a good part of the day switching between the two lenses, and I quickly realised that I favoured the 35 F1.4.
There's something about the 23 F1.4 that I couldn't put my finger on - whereas the 35 has a proper almost Leica like analogue look at times, the 23 just had me a bit meh. I don't think it's the focal length - I regularly get 35mm shots on the Sony that I'm delighted with - I just think it's not a lens I'd rush to buy: the 23mm F2 from Fuji is much cheaper, smaller and modern, and if I was buying this system that would be the one I'd plump for.
Our trip to Oxford took in all the usual haunts, from the covered market to the Pitt Rivers via back streets to the Ashmolean and by the end of the day, I'd say I was getting just that little bit more used to the XT3, and really enjoying the easy access to functions via dial as opposed to the slightly disconnected Sony world I usually live in.
Finally, I travelled into town for one of my usual days of street photography. Deciding that the Fuji colours were begging for a hit of colour, I went down to Liverpool Street to walk around Shoreditch, Hackney and Hoxton in the hunt for hipsters and blinding street art.
One thing I would mention at this point in proceedings is weight, which is a real plus for the system. Usually, after a day out and about, my mid 40's Dad bod has an aching back and shoulders, but with the lighter Fuji lenses and body, I definitely felt a bit better after a few hours in the saddle.
As expected, the graffiti and street art suited the colour science of the Fuji, and the fast focusing allowed for a couple of shots I might have missed with the Sony, but I found myself struggling with the un-togglable Eye AF (i turned it off in the end) and the focus point joystick which frankly, just got in the way. These might be user error of course, and from what I've heard Fujifilm are excellent with firmware updates so the former might get sorted soon.
Another issue I found was considerable lens flare on the 35mm. I'm not sure if that was the coating on the supplier filter or an issue with this copy, but I didn't notice it in camera and was disappointed when a few shots got junked in post due to over the top flaring. Shame.
You'll have guessed by now that this isn't one of those hugely technical reviews (they're plenty of them out there) but just my experience with the Fuji X series system I had for the week.
So, in the style of all the best of these sort of things. here are the pros and cons of the Fujifilm X-T3 series in my subjective opinion:
Those Fuji colours.
I shot mostly in RAW but the JPEGs looked great too. Plus skin tones are bonza.
Loved the dials and quick access, although I do think the online banging on about it being miles better than Sony is a bit OTT.
I've not got a backache. Yey!
Two SD card slots.
Failure is not an option.
As a system, it's cheaper than the Sony especially if you want some nice Zeiss lens wear.
The Depth of Field.
I'm sorry, I tried, but I really, really missed it. The ability to isolate your subject to the degree I get to do with the A7r ii is something I couldn't be without.
The Dynamic Range.
It can't hold a candle to Full Frame here. No sir.
The Eye AF.
Being either always on or off and not button assignable drove me a bit mad, but when it’s on it’s really quite good.
The 35mm F1.4 has a lovely look, but mine had lots of flaring and it's a bit noisy - quite a bit of clunking as it's hunting for focus. As mentioned, I found the 23 just a bit bland.
Would I switch systems?
As I said right at the top, we're always looking for something new that would bring some extra quality to our photography and I'm as guilty as the next man, but my ruling at the start of this process was I need to be wowed by the Fuji for me to take the slightly odd move of - in theory - 'downgrading' from Full Frame.
Unfortunately, I wasn't blown away. Don't get me wrong - if I had a budget that didn't get to the Sony system and I didn't want Micro Four Thirds then the X-T3 is an excellent product, with tiny lenses, great colour and brilliant usability but once you've got spoilt by big fat 48mp files with bags of dynamic range and lovely DOF, it's going to have to be something a bit more special to make this photographer change systems.
My caveat to all this is that it’s my belief that you really need a few months with a new camera/lens to get in tune with it and find out it’s full strengths, so I might not have got the most out of the X-T3 in a week’s test.
If Fujifilm ever went full frame, added IBIS and updated some of the wider aperture prime lenses, I might well be there. But not yet. In the meanwhile, I'm sticking with Sony unless something blows my skirt up.
Perhaps something with a red dot. But that's another story...