Is the Fujifilm X-T1 a viable camera for music photographers?
Written by Alessio Michelini
A couple of months ago I had to shoot Corner Boy for Red Bulletin Magazine, and because I could shoot the entire show I tried to bring my Fuji X-E1 alongside with my trusty Canon 6D, just to see how it behaves in such light conditions. While the AF was struggling sometimes and the white balance in some shots was completely off, a good amount of shots were pretty usable, even despite the kit lens – which is an excellent general purpose lens, but not so much for gigs.
When the X-T1 came out with better specs, faster AutoFocus, faster buffer, better viewfinder, and many other improvements over my old school X-E1, I wondered if this new camera could do the job. So, I asked to Fujifilm if they could lend me an X-T1 to test it and see if this camera is a viable alternative to a DSLR. To be honest I didn’t think I would receive any answer, but to my surprise, they did answer – and they told me that they could lend me a camera for a couple of weeks.
Before I start to tell you if this camera is good or not, let me clarify which characterstics a camera must have for a music photographer:
Fast and accurate autofocus – While we might not need the tracking performances as our fellow sport photographers, simply because a musician doesn’t run as fast as a Formula 1 car, when I press the shutter button the camera must focus accurately, quickly and often in the pure darkness.
Very good high ISO performances – I generally shoot at 1600, rarely I go under than this, if the gig is really dark sometimes I go above this settings, 3200 or in rare cases 6400, and what’s important for me is to have as less noise as possible, and possibly no banding or color noise.
Fast buffering – I often shoot rapid shots, sometimes even 10 frames for the same scene, in a couple of seconds, and while my average is way higher than most of my fellow music photographers, and sometimes I could shoot 700 or more photos in just 3 songs time, and the last thing I want is to see the LED of the buffering working and losing a good shot because the camera was busy saving previous photos.
Quick access to any settings – I shoot in manual mode, the only automated setting I use is the AF. The rest; aperture, shutter speed and ISO is set manually, and I need to change these settings quickly during a show, so easy access to these functionalities is extremely important.
So, now that we clarified what it’s essential for a music photographer (or at least for me), we can see how the Fuji X-T1 behaves.
When I tried the X-E1 during a gig the Autofocus had really tough times trying to focus what I wanted. But it’s understandable, gigs are not easy for several reasons, you might pass from a decent situation where the subject is well separated from the background, to others when it has just no contrast to work with, or there are situation where the subject is heavly backlit, for example take a look at the following photo:
As you can see, while we have a nice silhouette (one of my favourite type of gig photos) – apart from the edges of the subject there is no contrast. Bear in mind this photos has been processed – I always shoot in RAW which enabled me to recover details of the face (this is one of the reasons why you should always shoot in RAW). The majority of the time when taking a photo like this, the camera fails to focus because it can’t hook onto anything – what I generally do is to focus on the edges like the hair/ears and then quickly recompose the shoot. It’s not as simple as it looks and if you don’t have very good AF it’s gonna be very hard to capture photos like this one.
But is the X-T1 good enough?
Well, I have to say that in some cases it failed. It just didn’t know where to focus – but, I would say only 5% of the time the focusing failed completely, then 20% of the time struggled a little bit – but at the end it was in-focus or almost in-focus. The remaining 75% was in focus. It sounds quite bad, but if you compare the same statistics with other DSLR’s, like my old Canon 7D – just to be in the same sensor-size family, and with good AF; you get almost the same numbers.
Of those 75% of shots that were in-focus, the X-T1 was extremely fast to focus, just a notch behind the DSRL I have / have had previously. The X-T1 it was very close, and if I were comparing to Canon or Nikon, I would say “scarily close”.
“I can barely believe how good this camera is”
High ISO performances
As I said earlier, high ISO performances are really, really important for a music photographer. You often shoot in the dark, especially in small venues where you just have a couple of crappy lights – having a camera that can handle high ISO is essential. And for what I saw, the X-T1 is impressive (at the very least). Again, I compare it with my old Canon 7D, which it might be a bit old to some of you, but was the last crop sensor I had and it’s still a really good camera – modern DSLR’s with cropped sensors don’t really have any edge to the 7D. But in terms of High ISO, the X-T1 humiliates the 7D.
But let’s stop a second. I have to remember that I had to test the Fuji X-T1 with the kit lens, which is a good lens in general – but way slow for me and to compensate this lack of speed I had to set the ISO to 3200, which is twice as high as I generally have. It still wasn’t ideal for me, but despite that, the noise at 3200 was incredibly good.
There’s no banding noise and no colour noise like the cropped sensors I’ve tried in the past. Actually, it matches the nice noise I get with my full frame Canon 6D. Obviously the 6D is better simply because it’s a full frame; bigger pixels = less noise, but I was really well impressed with the performances of the X-T1. I can barely believe how good this camera is.
I’m not saying that it has no noise, the noise is there, but it’s well controlled and it looks beautiful to me.
Take a look at the next four images:
I think you can barely recognise which photos were taken with the Canon 6D and the Fuji X-T1 without reading the metadata.
So, even on this front, the X-T1 is totally capable to replace a DSLR – and, if compared to other crop-sensor DSLR’s, it surpasses them.
As I mentioned earlier, when shooting a gig I take an insane amount of shots in a very short period of time. “3 songs no flash” is the rule, which is about 10-15 minutes (or 3 minutes in the case of a punk band), and the very last thing I want to have is an unresponsive camera because the buffer is full and it has to write the photos on the memory card. You just risk to lose too many good shots only because of that problem. And with the X-E1 this was a problem, a big one. You take 3 to 4 rapid shots and the camera becomes unusable. Yes, you can keep shooting but you can’t review your pictures, for example – which is pretty annoying.
But with the X-T1 was a totally different story. I could keep shooting as much I wanted and I never felt like I had to wait for anything. Even after a long sequence of photos the camera was always responsive and you could always review the photos – it was as fast as all my DSLR’s. I really couldn’t tell any difference.
So, even with buffering – which was my main concern about this camera after my experience with the X-E1 – all fine.
The controls are probably the only weak point I could find for this camera when compared with a DSLR. I know that everybody is loving these controls on top of the camera – and I’m not saying that I don’t like them, I love them when it comes to do some street photography; but while they are still a big improvement from the previous models, I still think that the combo on Canon cameras (and I think on Nikon is pretty much the same), where I can control the aperture with my thumb and the shutter speed with my index finger, it’s still the fastest option to manually change your basic settings. Yes, you need to press a couple of buttons to set the ISO, but generally I don’t play much with ISO, I keep one ISO settings and I keep it for the entire gig.
On the X-T1, whilst it’s pretty easy to change the aperture (thanks to the aperture ring on the lens), it’s a bit problematic to change the shutter speed. It’s just not as accessible as on my DSLR – you are forced to remove the camera from your eye and then change the shutter speed. In theory you could do it while still have the eye on the viewfinder, but it’s not that easy for me, or at least not as fast I can get with my DSLR.
With this camera, what you have to do is not change the shutter speed very often, and play with the aperture ring to get the right exposure. It’s not a big deal in the end and probably just for people like me where I always want to set everything manually, if you are shooting in Tv mode you will barely see this as a problem.
A few more things
There are a few things that maybe are not as essential as the points illustrated above, but it’s worthwhile mentioning them. The viewfinder is amazing. The viewfinder of the X-T1 is the best I’ve seen so far on a mirror-less system, it’s an entire world inside the camera.
I also love the body of this camera, it feels solid, it has a good grip, better than my X-E1, and the fact is weather sealed contributes to give the impression to have a little tank on your hands – but at the same time keeping the camera lightweight, which is a big selling point for this camera as too many times I had my neck sore because of the weight of my DSLR + lenses.
I know that some of you would be concerned about the battery life of this camera when you take 350 shots it might lead you believe that you might end up with a dead battery way before you have to leave the pit – but in real life it’s not a problem. Bear in mind that these numbers refers to a normal usage of the camera, where you take one picture, you reviewed it, and maybe you spend an entire afternoon taking pictures. That’s not the situation of a gig, as you use the camera for only 3 songs, and you take plenty of rapid fire shots, you use the viewfinder and the screen much less than normal conditions, that’s why with my Canon I can do 2,000 photos and still have a good 60% of the battery, even if in theory the battery should last less than half of those shots, and it’s the same with the Fuji – at a gig you can take 700/800 photos and there’s still plenty of energy left in the battery.
Is it true than, if you use it for street photography and you spend the entire afternoon shooting around and you leave the viewfinder or the screen on for hours, it’s not gonna last long, but again, that’s not the situation of a live show.
I was sincerely shocked how good this camera behaved in the pit – way better than I thought, and apart from the controls which maybe are not the best, I’m pretty confident to say that the Fuji X-T1 is definitely a viable option for a music photographer. While someone can point out that the price tag for this camera is higher than any entry-level DSLR, it’s also true that this camera has insanely good ISO performances for a cropped sensor – possibly the best performance you can find, and if the weight and size of the camera is important, it’s definitely a good reason to choose this camera over a DSLR.
And if you want to commit to the Fuji system, and you want to invest a bit of money, I think the X-T1 with a couple of fast lenses, like the 23mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/1.4 or maybe the combo 23mm + 56mm, is possibly one of the best option you can find for shooting gigs, or at least the small and average venue size, as unfortunately at the moment Fuji lacks to any big tele-photo lenses, which are needed in case of big venues, stadiums or festivals, but according to rumors Fuji might come out with a fast tele lens in the next few months.
Fuji did an outstanding job on this camera. Whilst the sensor is not that different from the previous generation, everything else a step, maybe a couple of steps forward.
This is definitely a viable camera for music photographers, without a doubt.
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