Merely 3 days after getting this camera I was due to be at the European Drag Racing Finals at Santa Pod in Northamptonshire.
This seemed like an ideal opportunity to give the camera a bit of a test and start to get used to the differences between it and my previous X-system bodies. Unfortunately, I was not and am still not in receipt of the VPB X-T2 power booster grip, which increases performance for action shooting in several key areas, including frame rates, EVF refresh rate and AF-C performance. The booster grips are due in any day, so hopefully I will have it soon. Obviously any results from the shoot at Santa Pod are based on the camera without the grip but switched into "boost" mode via the power management menu. I consider a grip almost essential for shooting with big tele lenses as it makes the camera more balanced, steady and easy to hold. Without a grip it can feel like a fag packet camera stuck on the end of a bazooka lens! Manageable but not ideal.
Using a big lens requires a rethink in straps too. The normal, thin and small mirrorless straps are not really up to it. A Peak Design Slide Light has therefore made its way into my inventory. Using the capture plate provided, it can be screwed into the lens tripod foot for a sturdy carrying solution that does not stress the lens mount.
I used the camera exclusively with the 100-400 zoom during the 2 days I was there. Due to awful, wet weather on Saturday, there was no racing, but on Sunday the conditions were superb and great for very fast runs. As always with telephoto lenses, atmospherics from heat, moisture and smoke affect IQ, especially over longer distances. Dragsters throw out a lot of heat and vibrate like crazy when that engine cuts loose, so pixel level sharpness is not always perfect.
I was there with my 5 year old son, enjoying the show and shooting from normal positions within the crowd, so this was not only a photography trip, but nevertheless, I did do enough to have a good play with the camera and form a few initial opinions about its performance.
Drag racing is of course only one form of motor sport, but it is the fastest motorsport on earth! There are many classes of vehicle from barely modified cars right up to the exotic top fuel funny cars and dragsters. To be honest, it is hard to explain the experience of watching a top fuel race without actually taking someone along to see for themselves. Top fuel is the fastest class of all, with rail type dragsters powered by V8 combustion engines that knock out 10,000 (yes that's 10K!) horsepower. The secret to this is the use of exotic nitromethane fuel, huge superchargers and equally manly fuel pumps and ignition systems. A top fuel race is an all-body experience, not just a visual spectacle. The instantaneous explosion of power as the cars launch, washes over like a shock wave and is all-consuming of your attention. The ground shakes and the sound punches down your ear canal painfully. Wearing hearing protection is strongly advised. Just as incredible is the amount of traction the cars get off the line. They reach 100mph in around 0.8 seconds, in twice their body length and were completing a standing 1000ft (302m) run in 3.6 seconds at 312mph. They don't do standing quarters any more as the terminal speeds were getting too fast. Anyway, it's awesome and everybody should see a race at least once.
Back to the X-T2. I wanted to enjoy the racing and didn't try to pan with the top fuel dragsters....they are too fast and zooming and keeping them tracked would be very tricky unless you were in a favourable position set back from the track. I took a few shots as the machines launched off the line, trying to react as soon as the drivers nailed the power. You don't get much time to react on the shutter button before they are gone! In reality you actually have to press the shutter in anticipation of launch as the top fuel monsters accelerate so fast they are at least partly out of the viewfinder in your reaction time! (that 0.8 secs to 100mph statistic again springs to mind)
The X-T2 is a complex camera, with many setting options to consider. I wanted a sensible frame rate that gave me a continuous option with AF tracking, while not filling my HDD with tons of crap to delete later. CL at 5fps seemed to be a good option without the grip as I wasn't going to benefit from the full boosted performance offered by the grip. I used mechanical shutter and set image quality to record RAW to SD card 1 (fast UHS 2 card) and jpg fine to SD card 2. I set the AF system to AF-C in zone mode, with a 3x3 focus zone and in preset mode 5 (erratically moving and accelerating/decelerating subject)....no shit...acceleration doesn't get more extreme! With the choices of mode available, it could be argued that maybe mode 3, which ditches the erratic part, could have been suitable or even better. The cars do go straight, but of course the distance between them and the camera varies hugely and very rapidly during a run observed from the spectator bank. More experimentation would be a good idea. I was using the shutter button both to focus and release the shutter and mostly manual exposure mode with auto ISO, setting the aperture and shutter speed I thought I needed.
The AF points were illuminating responsively as the cars waited to launch, with no significant hunting or searching through the focus range, which was reassuring. I was quite pleased with this one which shows the awesome release of power as a top fuel dragster launches. Note the flames leaping from the exhausts and the raised front wheels! The sheer blast of sound and awe of the moment can make one forget to press the shutter button!
Here is a top fuel burnout and a top fuel funny car launch.
I did try tracking focus on a variety of other cars and bikes. Bear in mind these are fast machines....I mean seriously fast. Some of these vehicles are knocking out standing quarters in 5-7 seconds at over 200mph. Most of the time the AF system tracked really well with the AF points dancing reassuringly within the focus zone as I tracked the vehicle in the finder. If it acquired the target it seemed to stay locked on. One may think this is a simple AF test for a camera, but I actually disagree. Think about it....when a car is waiting to go the camera is basically tracking focus on a static object surrounded by other things, some of which are moving. People, posts, barriers are in front of, level with and behind the cars. When the car launches, the AF system has to acquire the target and track a ridiculously fast object. It was certainly a challenge for a photographer, especially from the public banking where you get heads in the way, restricted movement arcs with the lens etc. Lots of misses were undoubtedly down to me not following the subject properly or shaking too much and being out of practice with panning. Anyway, here are some tracking shots of cars and bikes ripping along the strip.
Occasionally the AF sensibly switched to another target once the original had fallen behind or from view. This switching is a setting that can be selected or adjusted within the 6 AF-C custom settings provided.
Slower subjects like this wheelstander car and jumping monster truck were no trouble at all for the AF system.
I was actually impressed how the 100-400 superzoom lens stood up to the significant increase in sensor resolution compared to the earlier X cameras...24 v 16 MP. It really is very good indeed, especially below 400mm and absolutely stellar at 100mm.
We had a nice, low flypast from the Battle of Britain memorial Flight Lancaster. The X-T2 tracked this really confidently against the bright sky.
So what was my overall feeing about the camera after this shoot;
Well, it retains all the good features of the earlier X cameras that makes them such a delight to shoot with slightly refined ergonomics, some of which make a big difference. The AF joystick is one of those. It's a fantastic idea and so fast to use compared to the traditional 4-way push button pad. The auto ISO implementation is better, with 3 customisable presets to choose from.
Resolution is a big step up, which is very nice to have anyway, but very useful when cropping too. Any artefacts such as noise, more easily disappear at a pixel level.
Image quality is fantastic, being more of the same as before. We have the wonderful film simulations and customisable jpeg settings. Images are packed with detail, have great dynamic range, with easily recovered shadow detail. I was amazed by the noise performance, which I would subjectively rate at a stop or so better than before. Using higher ISOs in daytime conditions for action shooting, made no perceptible difference to IQ.
Overall responsiveness of the camera is much better. Gone is that somewhat "elastic" "boing" when the shutter button is pressed and the camera reacts to gain focus.
The AF system really does seem in a different league to be honest. There are up to 325 AF points available that cover a huge area of the frame, much better than DSLR cameras and lots of these are the faster phase detect sites too. Whereas before I personally really struggled to get meaningful results with AF-C in real world shooting using the X-T1/X-T10, now I would use it without hesitation and it seemed as good as most SLRs I have tried, if not better. I also experienced much more confident focus in any mode with a backlit subject, something I have had issues with before on the earlier cameras.
Assisting with tracking and continuous shooting is the viewfinder. The one in the X-T1 was awesome and this is a refinement of that, being notably brighter and having a faster refresh rate, even without the booster grip, such that I did not have difficulty tracking objects. Before, I would totally lose sight of my subject after firing a burst. With the 100fps refresh using the grip, VF delay is hopefully almost insignificant.
The way I used the camera...AF-C activated lots of the time, powering a big, heavy image stabilised lens with no additional battery grip and regularly reviewing images, was clearly a torture test for batteries. Unsurprisingly I did get through 3 batteries during the day and onto a 4th. I have little doubt that in normal use it will do much better. As always with mirrorless cameras, the smaller size means small batteries. No big deal....get some third party ones and take plenty.
Any negatives? Nothing serious so far:
I do feel that the rear command dial that you now have to push to zoom in on an image, is a bit too small and recessed so it is easy to mush it without properly pressing it.
Also, when I have been in the main menu to adjust something or save a setting, when I exit and then go back into the menu, the camera has always defaulted back to the "my menu" section. While this is ok most of the time, when you are setting things up or expect the top level menu, it means more menu navigation.
Despite the number of function buttons I still want more! There are so many useful settings that it is hard to prioritise between them.
I am not sure if it is just my expectations based on using other previous Fuji or non-Fuji cameras, but I did struggle to find a couple of things in the new menu system (card format for one!) and actually found myself heading to the manual to get my head around a couple of things. I guess it is just a result of having so many features to organise within the camera menus and no two designers will have exactly the same idea as to what should go where!
Despite the new choice of 3 auto ISO settings, I do think that an automatic system based on the focal length of the lens attached, with the option to customise the shutter speed to a lower or higher threshold, is still a better idea.
When I get the chance I will take it for another outing to do something different. However, it was good to get a reassuring performance from the camera in an action scenario, as that was what I wanted the investment in this camera to achieve for me. Something I can happily shoot airshows and the like with. It is complex enough that experience using it and its various options will undoubtedly improve its performance further. It feels like a mature product and a compelling overall camera that could turn its hand to anything confidently. So far so good!