How shooting the Fujifilm X-T3 helped me determine what’s important in my photography experience.

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What is it about photography that keeps us clicking the shutter and making images? For some, the act of shooting is paramount. For others post-production is more fun. The entire experience is important to me, from shooting to optimizing the images in my post-processor of choice, though I do try and place more of an emphasis on the shooting side of things.

Recently, my shooting experience has taken some hits. Whether it’s job responsibilities (I’m a university professor of design and photography) or family. The ability to get out and shoot is limited. And I needed to change that, so I figured I’d shake things up by getting an X-T3 by Fujifilm. I needed something smaller and lighter for my increasing travel schedule as well. I’d been eying the Fujifilm for quite some time and decided to take the plunge.

A brief history

The first camera I regularly shot was the Pentax P50 (P5 in the US). I was borrowing it from my brother who bought it in Hong Kong when he was 15 and was visiting a friend that recently moved there (that was in the late 80s). Then my car got broken into and the thieves stole the camera. So I bought a Contax 167MT. After that camera broke, was repaired then lost by UPS, and then UPS replaced it with a new model, I sold it online before you sold things online. I then “upgraded” to the F5 by Nikon. With that my days of using a small and classic-styled camera were over. That was 1996. Then in 2003 I switched to Canon after soaking my F5 in an underwater housing in Hawaii. In 2007 I switched to the original 5D from a film camera and then the 6D then the 5D4. The basic story here is that I’ve always had excellent gear with which to create my images. I’ve never felt any hinderance because of my gear.

With that, I’ve never been a “full-time” shooter either. By training, and most of my career, I’m a graphic designer. My core interests, however, are photographically based. For lack of better terminology, it’s my passion. It’s what motivates me to be creative. I suspect you have similar feelings about photography, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. 

I’m way more than a weekend warrior though too. I teach this stuff at a university and have been doing so for 12 years. And my advanced degree that allows me to teach this stuff is not in graphic design but in digital photography. 

The situation

I realized about a year or two ago that I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I talk about photography an awful lot. After all, I do have two podcasts on the subject, and I work with students all the time as they go out and shoot and refine and shoot again. This essentially boils down to one thing for me: Jealousy. I’m jealous of all the stories I hear of those going out and shooting more than me. I’m thrilled to vicariously be a part of their experience but I came to realize I have no one to blame but myself for my lack of getting out there to shoot. Life is about priorities and I simply wasn’t making the act of being out there and photographing a priority.

So I asked myself “why is this the case?” Why don’t I get out and shoot more? Certainly the job keeps me busy. As does my wife and four children. Life is about priorities, right? Then there’s other aspects of life that pulls you one way or the other. The bottom line though was that I pretty much never clicked the shutter unless I went out and traveled somewhere, usually more than 200 miles away from home. I could schedule the random photography excursion during my educational breaks, summer, spring break, Christmas and sometimes Thanksgiving too. And that is great. But what about all those extended times between the breaks my academic work schedule afforded? I wanted a fix for that. So I began thinking about ways to overcome this. 

Inspiration

A few months ago I picked up the book, Making Photographs, developing a personal visual workflow, by Ibarionex Perello. It’s an excellent book and if you’ve not read it yet you definitely should. My main take away was his insistence on always having a camera with you, one that’s not your phone. I pretty much scoffed and said “yeah right, like that’s gonna happen.” The 5D4 is huge and a bear to take with me constantly. In my younger days when I got the F5 I loved that beast. And even in 2016 when I got the 5D4 I loved that beast too. I had casually considered a smaller camera but never took the plunge. Until I read Ibarionex’s book. I even interviewed him on my Latitude Photography Podcast

The trial

At the university we have a few cameras to rent out to students who need them for their photography courses. One of those cameras is the X-T10 by Fujifilm. We only have the 18-55 lens and thanks to the last student who rented it, it now has a small scratch on the front element. I decided not to care about that. I just went out shooting. And I LOVED it. The experience was so different and wonderful. I felt quite liberated. 

I even took it to graduation and it was never in the way. And I got some great images. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time processing the images. I was focusing on the shooting experience. I started seeing all over again in every day situations. The act of shooting was more accessible to me and I was scratching that image-making itch more frequently. It was awesome.

The plunge

So I went “all in” on Fujifilm and purchased the X-T3 with the 23mm f/2 and 14mm f/2.8 lenses. And that was it. Ibarionex and I talked about limitations that we set for ourselves to enhance creativity, to allow us to dive deeper into a subject. That’s what I did and I was in creative heaven. It was most excellent. 

I shot it a bit around town but I figured the true test would be to head out to the Oregon Coast and shoot the sea stacks and other subjects it’s known for. I was already planning on doing additional scouting out there for a few days and I figured I’d leave the Canon at home and take just the Fuji with these two lenses. I didn’t miss the Canon at all even though my lens options range from 16–300mm. I was creatively liberated once again! I’m really proud of many of the images I made there. I also made a bunch of images I’m totally not proud of, either my technique was off or I was exploring compositions that didn’t quite work. I was very pleased though with those that did work out.

A bump in the road

I was determined to get these images out there right away. I was talking about this on my podcast and I wanted the listeners to know what my experience was. Things were going so well and I wanted to be sure I could share the whole story with them. So immediately upon my return I got to processing the images and I focused on them quite a bit. I put other projects to the side and focused like a laser on these images. I started in Lightroom but I knew from research online that I’d probably need to look at others. So I bought Capture One and On1 Photo Raw. I had other reasons to buy these processors, so I didn’t mind the purchases. I also ended up with a copy of Luminar 3. I knew I’d have to process these images differently, but for some of them I didn’t realize how differently things would need to be. Pretty much each of the photography news and review channels I keep an eye on will sing the praises of the Fujifilm X-Trans sensor but they almost never go into any details about processing the images during their reviews. You need to rely on other sources for that information and in addition to turning to Ibarionex and Dan Bailey, I also interviewed David duChemin, all Fujifilm shooters that I have come to greatly respect. I also solicited help and advice from my podcast listeners who have more experience with Fujifilm files than I do.

With my Canon CR2 files my general practice is to use the Lightroom Sharpen Amount slider to do a quick analysis of the technical quality of the pixels. Most would call this needless pixel peeping. But that’s all I do, a quick look to see exactly what I’m dealing with. Once I understand how good, technically, my image is, I know how large I can print it and still be satisfied with the results. For me, an exquisite print is the gold-standard for making a good image. If I can do that I know I can have it look good anywhere, and besides, printing gives the image a different purpose, a new life as it were.

Pushing that slider, even a bit, causes an odd “worms” phenomenon to appear and I admit, I was taken a back by it. To add to my consternation, they appeared inconsistently. Some subjects had zero worms, some were pretty bad. 

Then I came across this image

The image in question, the entire frame reduced for showing here on the blog.

This sand image is a closer-in detail of a small wind-blown dune on the Oregon Coast. I was doing some studies of light, shadow, form and texture. I was having so much fun shooting it. I created at least 50 images of different dunes and subjects in the sand. I could have easily explored the same with my Canon camera. So, in that regard, the shooting experience was very similar to doing it with my Canon, but better since it was so much smaller and lighter. My 190 Go Carbon Fiber tripod by Manfrotto did beautifully well with the smaller camera.

Sand “worms” with Sharpening Amount set to 40 in Lightroom. With this setting the new Adobe default, I was a bit surprised at what I was looking at.
The same slice of image with the Lightroom Sharpening Amount set to Zero.
The same slice of image processed by the Fujifilm camera to JPG.

Then I got home and tried processing it and that’s when I really started to question if this camera is for me. Take a look at the details here. This is a 1:1 representation set to 700 px wide. And this is the JPG the camera itself produced. This shook my confidence quite a bit. I interviewed Dan Bailey on my podcast and was describing this to him and I have to say “it doesn’t even ‘look’ like sand.”

Due diligence

I really wanted to make sure I was giving the camera the best effort and I needed to exhaust all options with fully understanding what was happening. I had David duChemin scheduled to be on my Latitude Podcast and if you’ve been following David for more than a week you know he’s a HUGE proponent of saying that the gear simply doesn’t matter. It’s not the gear, it’s the photographer that makes the images. I decided to take the “risk” and ask him a gear question at the end of the episode. I explained my case and what was happening and I believe David gave me the best answer I could have received. He essentially said that not all tools are created equal and if this tool doesn’t help me achieve my goals, whatever those are, then I need a different tool. I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the main idea. 

I wondered, was I being “crazy” in thinking there was a problem with my files? Where my expectations misaligned? Many of my podcast listeners also chimed in with a few bits of advice and thoughts as well. I’m so grateful to all that spoke up and helped me out. Some gave me processing advice, others essentially confirmed that they too have the same struggles. I decided to do more shooting and it would be a test of my own creation.

The test

I decided I needed to do a head-to-head shoot between the Canon 5D4 and the Fujifilm X-T3. Many will argue that this isn’t a fair comparison. My point in doing this test was to see what camera will give me the best prints. A superb print, as previously stated, is my gold-standard for judging whether or not an image has reached its ultimate status. 

I went to Whitman Mission, a National Historic Site administered by the National Park System, to do this shoot. I shot 35mm on the Canon and 23mm on the Fuji. I then generally matched my settings. I realize I’ll get different depth-of-field if I completely matched my settings, so I was careful to not judge DOF in the quality of my print assessment. I was looking primarily at technical details here. My reasoning was that IF I could get the Fujifilm to match the quality of the Canon across a variety of subjects then I was set, no problems. And remember, I’m only judging the technical quality, i.e. how sharp I can get a subject without the worms or other weird details.

I shot five or six different subjects of varying textures and detail. I tried to get a variety of subjects that represented a majority of what I normally shoot. It was an overcast day, however, so I wasn’t able to do anything with high contrast. I had to rely on other photos for that test.

I then processed each image in Lightroom and then additionally, I processed the Fujifilm images in Capture One. So I had three prints to compare. In all of those images, the Canon won. Just barely, but it won. However, I determined that it’s just my processing technique that is to blame since I have 12 years of experience processing the Canon files. I decided to call it a draw since I’m sure I could modify my processing a bit further and I’d get equal quality out of the X-T3. Then I came across the image with the dirt pattern. And it was way easier to get a better rendition out of the Fujifilm if I ran the “enhanced details” option in Lightroom first. The quality of the image was excellent. It narrowly edged out the Canon, and I knew I was on to something.

I then decided to print a bunch of Fujifilm-only images, those from the coast. Doing so allowed me to really hone my skills on processing these images, but I also admit, I did this somewhat quickly. Afterall, my return window with B&H was closing fast. I needed answers fast. 

I got some excellent results. Sometimes I needed the “enhanced details” and sometimes not. But results were getting really good. I was super stoked. My prints were becoming very good and I knew I was going to be happy with my decision to switch to Fujifilm.

Another bump in the road

As I was printing I realized I really didn’t have any “blue sky” images nor did I have any high contrast images. So I found this one. I love the silhouette the tree creates here and how it frames the scene. I pushed the raw file pretty hard to get a good result in the sky and I then used local adjustments to bring out a smidge of detail in the trunk. I printed it and then I saw the pretty bad halo-like thing around the limbs and twigs shown here.

1:1 detail with Sharpen Amount left at 40. Notice how rough the edge detail is.

So I revisited the image and realized I hadn’t corrected the default sharpening setting that Adobe applies which is 40. Why they increased the standard to 40 from 25 is beyond me. I generally don’t like sharpening in LR this way and with Fujifilm images a setting of 15 is the limit for me, sometimes it needed less. 

1:1 detail with Sharpen Amount set to zero. Much better, but still a bit rough, this isn’t a lens issue. There might be some chromatic aberration contributing to the issue, but it’s not the sole issue.

So I reprocessed the image and I still had some rough anomalies with the edges of the twigs and limbs. I then upped the ante and went with the “enhanced details” option in Lightroom and that fixed the issue with the silhouetted limbs and twigs, but it created another problem in the water as shown here with the square blocks around the small white caps.

For some reason the Enhanced Details option really messed up this time!

I was a bit deflated. I printed a few more images and called it good. It was time to make a decision. Did I have enough confidence that I could overcome whatever challenges I would face in the field with my various subjects. Or would I always be second guessing myself when out shooting, wondering if I would be presented with another unexpected challenge with a new subject?

The verdict

Ultimately, my decision has come down to one thing. Though I can argue some complexity to try and prove my point in my thinking, I still prefer to simplify it down to one thing. That is limitations.

I love the limitations such a camera and lens choice forced me into. My creativity and the sense of seeing in a new way exploded. It was a very positive experience for me.

I love the smaller form factor. The lighter weight. And my shoulders love it too.

I love how people on the street see me as more approachable with a smaller camera. And officials don’t see me as a “threat” anymore either. All positive changes for me for sure!

However, with the sand image doing what it did, and the silhouette image not working easily for me, these became hang ups on this one idea of limitations that I couldn’t accept. I’m not interested in being out there on a shoot and saying to myself, “oh, I can’t shoot this since I know the camera won’t do good with this subject or lighting.” That’s a limitation I decided I can’t live with. I know I could get used to the camera’s quirks, but it seemed that there are simply some subjects that are too much of a challenge to deal with and those are the things I don’t want to be thinking about in the field.

I need a camera that I can have confidence in, that it will perform well in every situation that I find myself in. Unfortunately, with the limited time I had with this camera I found two distinct images that I can’t live with. They just don’t work regardless of which processor I use and I didn’t have the time to find solutions that would work for me.

As I’ve said before on the podcast and other places, I big on user experience when making a decision like this. And my experience in shooting was great. But it became one of doubt and second guessing when I realized that I would potentially come across subjects that I would not be able to shoot confidently. And that would affect my shooting experience too. Certainly I could learn what works and what doesn’t but limiting the subjects I’m able to successfully shoot is not a limitation I can live with. So I sent it back.

The future

It’s possible that Adobe will get their act together and learn how to better process Fujifilm images. But if the Fujifilm generated JPG of that sand dune looks nothing like sand, then what hope do I really have for such a subject in the future? (By the way, Luminar did pretty good in processing that image, though it still wasn’t great, it was better.)

Sand detail processed in Luminar 3. “Straight out of camera” as it were. Certainly a much better starting point.

And if Adobe and others can better process the images of the subjects I want to shoot I’ll give Fujifilm another try. With their Enhanced Details option Adobe is doing some good work. But there’s lots more to do on that front.

I will continue shooting my Canon 5D4. I may even upgrade to the R, or wait until R2 comes out. (Please call it R2D2!)

Sigma has teased the Foveon sensor full-frame camera as well. And with the announcement of the new fp just recently, I’m excited to see what they’ll do with the Foveon. I do want a smaller camera. I do want to have a lighter load when I go to India this December. (hopefully anyway!) And maybe I’ll just get a separate camera for my “all-around” shooting. I’d rather not do that, I really like the idea of having a much smaller package when I go anywhere. For now, I shall sit back and see what the manufacturers will deliver and I’ll continue making great images with my Canon. Maybe I’ll just get a new lens for it and ditch one of my zooms.

So what did I learn?

I learned several things. One thing is that many people LOVE their Fujifilm cameras. That’s for sure. But as it pertains to my photography and my experience with photography, I learned that one part of the process may be awesome, or a drudgery, whatever, if you can’t successfully make good images then something is amiss. For me I had a two main subjects that I couldn’t get past. I started to have doubts that there’d be more and if I had those doubts the shooting experience would suffer. I didn’t want to take away from the shooting experience in that way so, with the return window fast approaching I decided to send it back.

Technical and creative quality are important traits in a good photograph. They support each other and when it comes to the experience and the creative process, if one suffers the other will likely suffer too.

Postscript

You might be thinking I didn’t give the X-T3 a fair shake due to my limited experience with other processors. I tried them, I have really come to like Capture One for sure, there’s so much there to love. And I even said “I’m not married to Lightroom” in one of my conversations on the podcast. However, I do like Lightroom, mostly, and Adobe is the only company that is adequately spearheading a mobile editing solution. On1 has an iPad version but it doesn’t use Microsoft OneDrive for data transfer, they use Google Drive or Dropbox. I have 1TB with OneDrive so I can’t really consider that as a mobile editing solution. Capture One doesn’t have a mobile raw processor so I’m left with Lightroom if I want integration with my current workflow. I’ve stated before that I consider the entire process when making my decision, from beginning to end. It actually hurts my shooting experience right now because I have challenges in post-production that I’m not able or willing to overcome when I shoot the X-T3. But I believe this situation is temporary. Many other manufacturers are continuing to develop smaller and lighter cameras and some are adopting some classic styling which is nice. So I will just be patient for a little bit longer. But if any manufacturer is reading this (I’m looking at you Canon, and maybe Sigma) and they were to create a full-frame classically styled body that was small and they focused on the user experience of shooting rather than focusing on so many pieces of tech that doesn’t mean anything I’d buy one the moment it was available for sale. And who knows, maybe Fujifilm will release a pro-level body with a standard Bayer sensor in the near future. If they do I’m pretty sure I’d give it another go. I’ll also look at other processors and see how they handle these files. But for now, I sent it back, very much wishing I didn’t feel I had to.