Welcome to my Blog. I will discuss my thoughts from time to time on things like travel, cameras and equipment, post processing - all those things we need to know as photographers. Stop by and have a read, you may even like to press the 'Home' button and have a look at some of my pictures.
As you would have read on my last two blogs, I had recently sold off all of my Nikon gear over the last year or so and replaced everything with Fuji equipment. I have extensively used my 18-135 lens and the marvellous little 35mm f2. The 18-55 I never liked (not sharp or very useful wide open at the 18 or 55 end), so that was sold recently on ebay. However, the 55-200 kind of sat there in no-man’s land and never really got used. I did a commercial shoot last year where I had to shoot over 25 models for our local TAFE (Technical and Further Education). The girls were graduating from their Makeup and Beauty Course, and I was asked to photograph the models for their portfolios. Of course the 55-200 was the perfect choice for that occasion. The photos looked great and everybody was very pleased with the results.
After that - I kind of popped the lens back into the camera cupboard and forgot about it. I had thought long and hard about the lenses I would take on the month trip to Myanmar at Christmas, but because the 55-200 lens was not sealed, it did not even get on the short list. I ended up specifically purchasing the 18-135 because of the weather sealing. I had been to Myanmar on two prior occasions and I remembered how unbelievably dusty and dirty it can be over there (especially Mandalay and Hsipaw). I just took the 18-135 and the 35mm f2 – and they did their jobs well. I never really hankered or wished for anything different whilst I was over there in Myanmar. As it turned out (you can read in my blog on the trip to Myanmar), I ended up falling into Inlay Lake with all of my camera gear attached. The only thing that got ruined was the X-T1 because it had no lens or body cap on at the time. However, the 18-135 and the 35mm F2 and my X-T2 were and are still fine. Just as well I opted for the sealed lenses!
One of the models photographed last year using the XF55-200 Fuji lens.
However, after being back home now for well over a month, and having had time to process a lot of my pictures, I am beginning to evaluate things a little bit differently. My wife and I are planning our next trip now for later this year – we think it will be China. I am thinking a lot about how I could improve on the lenses that I took and what I could do to make my images even more powerful! The 18-135 really is a marvellous lens. I have spent countless hours now on Lightroom gazing at images taken with it from my recent months trip to Myanmar. From these hours of gazing and evaluating, here is my conclusion. Before I start nothing I say is a criticism of this lens - it really is a great lens for what it is – but we can’t ask too much from it. From wide angle up to about 80-100 (150mm equivalent), it is really very sharp wide open and quite useable. The thing that swings in its favour is the great image stabilizing. Many of the images I took would not have been possible without image stabilizing. However, after that focal length and right out to its max of 135mm (200mm equivalent), it is really quite soft and disappointing.
For me this is the kicker. I did a run down on the focal lengths of all the useable shots (so far), from my trip. It turned out that 85% of them were all under 80 mm (120mm equivalent). It was only that last 15% of shots taken at around 135mm (200 equivalent), that were not very good because of the softness issues of this lens. So we have a marvellous little lens for most situations, but I am really unable to use it for the really longer shots. What do I do now? Remembering that I had shoved the 55-200 in the cupboard because it was not a WR lens, therefore not considered for the dusty Myanmar trip, I whacked it on one of my X-T2’s and headed off to the beach with my wife. She is very photogenic, but gets quite bored with all of my “carry-on” about photography. She is not interested in photography in any way at all. However, with some sweet talking I managed to get her to pose as my model for the day (she is pretty and also comes free – ha ha), so I was able to take some meaningful shots with the 55-200 on the X-T2 so I could test out my theory.
A black and white photo from the same studio shoot using the Fuji XF 55-200 (it is actually an ideal studio lens).
When I got a chance to have a look at the images on L/R and process some of them, I was amazed at the sharpness of the 55-200, and the beautiful colour rendering – seems better than the 18-135. It is blistering sharp (wide open), right out to about 180mm (270mm equivalent). It is only the last bit that it loses some of its punch. You will see there is a photo of my wife taken at 181mm and it is still very sharp. There is another taken at full focal length (300mm equivalent), and you can just see some softness creeping in. This is marvellous news because I shot with Nikon for over 30yrs and always used an 80-200 or a 70-200mm lens. I never needed anything longer, so I am sure on the 55-200 I will be able to keep all of my shots under the 270mm to maintain maximum sharpness.
In the midst of all my pontificating over my lens setup and fine-tuning it for the upcoming trip, I purchased last week the 16-55 XF 2.8 lens. This is a giant honking lens, but after all of my years of shooting heavy Nikon gear, it is still actually quite light on the X-T2 and infinitely useable. However, the sad thing is I am unable to test it - to throw the results into the mix - to report about it on this blog. I have the lens, but my Pro1 Hoya 77mm filter has not arrived from ‘fleabay’ yet, so I am unable to take the lens out and use it (I never use a lens without a protective filter up front). I am assuming it will be very sharp wide open – hopefully much sharper than the 18-135 – up to 55mm.
A photo of my wife on the XF 55-200 wide open, at 180mm (270 equivalent).
Here is what I am hoping will be able to happen. In normal shooting situations and for my travel trips to Asia, I am hoping to have the 16-55 glued on to one of my X-T2’s and the 55-200 glued onto the other. Though the 16-55 has no stabilization, I am envisaging this to not be a problem. I used the 35mm F2 lens extensively in Myanmar and never had a problem with camera shake or wished that it had stabilization. For the 55mm end, if stabilization is needed, then of course I can pull out the 55-200 and use the 55 end for stabilization. I am hoping the 16-55 will be just as sharp at 35mm as my 35mm F2 lens. I only lose one stop (F2-F2.8), so if this is the case then this small lens may have become obsolete and will end up with the 18-55 on ‘fleabay’.
I will definitely not ever sell the 18-135mm, it is still a marvellous little lens. If the 16-55 had WR, and the 55-200 was sealed, then it would probably go. However, for times when it is just too dusty to take out the 55-200, then that 18-135 will be used. This coming weekend I am shooting our local Motocross Championship round. We all know what dust is around at a motocross, so I will not be taking the 55-200. I hope my filter will he here by then for the 16-55, and I will have the 18-135 on the other camera for longer shots.
When the filter arrives and I can use my 16-55, I will do another full test with it and compare it to the 18-135, 35mm F2 and the 55-100. By everything I have read and heard it should stack up really well. However, I am extremely surprised at just how sharp the 55-200 is. I had the Nikon 80-200 IFED 2.8 lens, then later the new 70-200 AFSg F4 lens. These were both extremely sharp lenses and just brilliant wide open. I used them for years and still have many marvellous images shot on both of those lenses. After comparing results, I can honestly say that my 55-200 is just as sharp as these wide open. At the longer end (say 200 mm equivalent) it is just over F4 – so really loses nothing in speed to the F4 Nikon lens. Even though the image stabilization was good my on Nikon F4 lens, I think OIS on the Fuji is even better.
Another photo of my wife with the same lens but at max length (300 equivalent) - you can see a little softness creeping in.
These are really great times to be in photography. Though it can be a little frustrating at times because we all want that one perfect lens (my 16-55 to have OIS and go up to 100mm), I really enjoy the experimenting and evaluating of my lenses to find what works best for me. It really doesn’t cost too much - I always get back about 80% of what I paid for a lens from ‘fleabay’. The bit that I lose I look at it as a ‘rental‘ for having the opportunity and ability to test the lens and compare them. I am sure in the next few weeks I will work out exactly what my lens choice will be and keep the 3 or 4 lenses that will take my photography into the future. I have a feeling at this stage it will be the 16-55 the 55-200 and the 18-135. Though the little 35mm F2 lens is wonderful, if the 16-55 proves just as sharp at 35mm, then the F2 lens will be sold off and sacrificed on ‘fleabay’. I hate lenses sitting around and only getting used once a year or something. I would rather them go to a good home and I can put that extra money toward our travels. Stay tuned for the next installment. Please chime in and comment too – I would love to hear from others with the same lenses or having a similar re-shuffle to me.
Monks playing 'Chinlone', early morning, Hsipaw, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 18-135)
As I sit reflecting on my just completed photographic expedition, it’s been quite an amazing experience having spent a month photographing the wonders of Myanmar. I think for me the huge difference has been (compared to when I was there last five years ago – or especially 12 years ago), everybody now has a device in their hand. For weal or woe change is coming quickly to Myanmar. The changes are obvious as people rush to catch up to the rest of the world. It’s a shock to see everybody with a device in their hand – in a country where the average wage is only $2-$5 per day (sim cards and devices must be very cheap there). I preferred it to how it was on my last two visits but nobody can blame them for wanting to catch up with the new millennium. However, for now it’s still a very special place. I am not sure how long that will last, but at least for now I leave with some very special memories and 6 times 64gig SD cards filled with the evidence of those experiences.
I have travelled Asia now extensively for over a decade shooting street and environmental portraits. Even having been to Cambodia over 12 times, and countless times in Vietnam and other places, I can still say that Myanmar is the most special in all of Asia. I think it’s the combination of the lovely friendly people, the gorgeous little kids running around with the Thanaka paste on their faces, the men spitting their disgusting beatle-nut everywhere, and the gorgeous light – oh that light. It seems that every corner one walks around or every step one takes, another photo opportunity presents itself. Where I live in Australia is like a moonscape (photographically speaking), compared with the photographic opportunities in Burma – no wonder my cameras stay locked in their cupboard for most of the year!
Do your own thing
I had planned this trip over 2 years ago and made sure that I did all I could to maximize my opportunities here. With my wife’s holidays at her new job she was unable to come for a month, so I travelled alone. Though I missed her I think it was a blessing. My photographic holidays are really no holiday at all – they are boot-camp on steroids – especially for somebody like my darling who cares not a tittle for photography .
Unless one is as focused on photography as I am I would have driven them nuts banging around in the hotel at 5am every day – horrors, aren’t holidays supposed to be for sleeping in? In the month there I never had one sleep-in. I really needed it after a year of teaching Western Brat teenagers, but how can you sleep in when so much photographic potential is waiting outside your hotel door. I was up every morning by 5 or 5:30, and I’d hit the streets in the dark. You have to maximize those magic moments at dawn. I’d shoot till around 9-10 then back to my hotel to eat and charge batteries. After lunch I’d head out again and shoot until dark. As one famous photographer penned “… you aint gonna bag any magic shots laying on your back in the hotel room”.
No Tour Guides Please!
I always keep well away from the tourist destinations - those shots have all been done ten thousand times before. You must get way out to catch the real pictures that the tourists miss. I never hire a local guide or waste money on tour groups or package deals. I always hire a motorbike from my hotel. Don’t hire from down the road, because if something goes wrong the hire companies can be ruthless. However, the hotel is more likely to look after you. They want a good rating when you fill out your Booking.com survey – so they are not going to screw you thousands of dollars to buy a new bike if it got stolen (yes I’ve heard these horror stories from other travellers – their passport was held so they had no option).
I never worry about getting lost. Take the card from the hotel and get the girl at the desk to write down in the local language where you want to go. I just head out for the day and stop at villages or places that are not on the tourist route. I can tell by the reactions from the locals on this trip that I was a rare commodity in that region. The look from the kids was kind of like “look dad, the Martian has arrived”. However, stick around until they get used to you a bit, then they will get back to the flow of whatever they were doing – then you will get your magic shot. When it comes time to head home at the end of the day, I just stop and show folk my destination that is written down in their language – they just point in the given direction. I drive a bit more then show somebody else. I have always returned home to my hotel and have never been lost. This works in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and everywhere else I travel.
Believe it or not you actually get better shots being out as a stranger (without a tour guide), in places where they have never seen a Foreigner. On the odd occasion over the years that I have taken a local as a tour guide, it has always backfired on me. You can be communicated with through your guide and you can be told not to go there or not do this or that – then you miss your valuable shot. When I go alone I just smile and point to the camera, and permission is usually always provided. If you have to negotiate through an interpreter it will work against you.
I usually never pay money for my photos. Though Steve McCurry is my hero, you can tell that a lot of his shots are posed and set up by the ‘fixers’ that he speaks so often about. Over the years I have only ever paid the odd bit of money here or there if I think I have taken too much of somebody’s time. I refuse to set up any of my shots – my whole modus operandi when I travel is to shoot the spontaneity of life. I could easily pay a ‘fixer’ to get some local Monk boys and pose them in front of the temple twilight with 12 lit candles, holding their little umbrellas – but that is not life as it really happens. I always rely on serendipity to let me to be at the right place at the right moment to snag that magic shot.
It was a bit of a pain to lug around, but I took over a huge bag of gifts this trip for the children. I bought lots of little good quality model cars for the boys (all sealed up in an individual box), and hair bows and ribbons for the girls, bags of natural lollies (none of that sugar crap with artificial colour), and various other things. The kids are always so delighted when you spontaneously pull something from your bag of tricks and hand it to them. The adults are delighted too. These people are so lovely and gracious, and the smallest thing (because they have so little), is always accepted with the greatest of enthusiasm.
'Dignity in the face of adversity' - I photographed this beautiful young mum, destitute, living on the edge of a dirty highway - yet she still had a peace and dignity about her that belied her surroundings. Streets of Yangon, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 18-135)
Pigeon Poo and Feral dogs
Just as a warning, one of the most annoying things is the ubiquitous feral dogs that seem to plague Myanmar. With obviously no way of stopping the breeding, the place is riddled with half starved, diseased, mangy looking mongrels – everywhere. I can’t stand dogs at the best of times, so for me this was a bit of a pain. Several times I counted up to 15 dogs in a group, wandering around making a nuisance of themselves. Some of them were very territorial so I spent a large amount of time – most days – whacking at dogs nipping at my heels. I was never bitten and I’m not scared of dogs, but just be prepared to always be looking behind to see what is snapping at your heels. The other perennial nuisance is the feral pigeons.
For some strange reason they are encouraged (especially in Yangon). They have feeding stations everywhere, where the locals buy a bowl of grain and feed the pigeons on the street. There are literally tens of thousands of the brutes everywhere. They poo on you from above and make it really smelly under their roosting spots. This was an unusual sight for me and took a while to get used to. In Australia – or at least the town where I live – we call them ‘rats of the air’ and shoot and exterminate them whenever we can. They foul water tanks, bring disease and especially at the school where I teach, make a real mess around the children’s sitting areas.
However, this is not a complaint. I wasn’t there to change the way they do things, and in a funny way the pigeons and dogs kind of added to the chaos of the place. I just say this to be aware if you go there you will be greeted by lots of pigeons and dogs.
Hauling the load, young woman carrying heavy containers, Irrawaddy River bank, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T1 and XF 35mm F2)
We are inundated on the news with lots of woeful things about the changes in Myanmar. About the “emerging economy”, “long time civil unrest”, “brutal military regime”, “..democratic change”, “..cruelty to the Muslim minority Rohongya ..”etc. I don’t know enough about the facts to comment too much on these things. However, after spending many months in this country over a period of 12 years, I can say I have never felt more safe in a country. My wife being Vietnamese – we spend many weeks of the year in her country. I love Vietnam and I even own my own motorbike and keep it at her dad’s house. I always head off into the ‘blue yonder’ to get my photos, each time we go there. However, I am always very nervous about leaving my bike in isolated areas whilst photographing in Vietnam. I even had a guy attempt to stone me in Vietnam when I wandered in an illegal gambling den. I don’t always feel that safe in some of the isolated places that I go to. The same in Cambodia and Laos etc – I’m always advised not to leave the motorbike unattended.
However, I never got such a feeling in Myanmar. I hired motorbikes extensively throughout this month’s trip and left them at every imaginable isolated destination – unlocked. I wandered the streets of Yangon and Mandalay late into the night and in dark alleys. I would NEVER do this in my so-called privileged country of Australia. I feel very unsafe in the town where I live from drug addicts, junkies, the unemployed, robbers and local thugs. No such deal in Myanmar. The old joke there is if you see somebody running after you in a dark alley – it is to hand back the wallet that you just dropped!
I would have photographed hundreds and hundreds of people on this trip. I think I got about maybe 3 or 4 ”no photo” – the rest were met with smiles and laughter. It has gotten to the stage in my country that I only ever bring out my cameras onto the street on very special occasions. I have been yelled at, sworn at, threatened and accused on many occasions. It was such a wonderful experience to photograph such beautiful people in such a beautiful country. I felt so safe and never once was I ever threatened or taken advantage of. Take if from me as one who lives in the ‘advantaged West’, this is a marvelous thing and I hope it lasts.
'Red Bulls..t' Sad to see they sell this rubbish even in Myanmar. I guess that's the price they pay for 'coming of age'. Yangon Circular Train, Yangon, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji XT-1 and XF 35mm F2)
The important part – how did Mr Fuji stack up?
I won’t ‘flog a dead horse’ here because I wrote a blog especially to deal with the new purchase last year into the Fuji system. Check out the blog on my website – it’s called ‘Fuji X-T2/X-T1 – Recce in Bali’. My wife and I went there for a week in November last year. I trialed my two new cameras and tested everything in preparation for this trip to Burma. I can tell you I was very nervous, after shooting with Nikon for over 30yrs - I felt very ‘underpowered’ with my two tiny little Fuji cameras and just two lenses. However, you will read on there that the trip was very successful and it was with increased confidence I headed off to my month in Myanmar with the Fuji X-T2/1 and the XF 18-135 and the 35mm F2 lens – that was it.
I can now categorically say, after shooting over 13 thousand images on this trip, that I definitely have the right two lenses for my shooting needs and style. If Fujifilm opened up their coffers to me for an hour and offered me to go in and select any two lenses from their range – I would stagger out clutching the 18-135 and the 35mm f2. These lenses were brilliant – absolutely brilliant. Dust sealed, water-proof (oh yes – more on this shortly), the 35mm – brilliantly sharp with gorgeous rendering, and the 135 – such a magic all-round lens. Oh boy – did I say I love this lens?
I had the 135 ‘glued’ on the T2 and the 35mm stayed on the T1 most of the time. When I needed wide, tele, or very slow shutter speeds (brilliant stabilization), I used the 135mm. For everything else – especially my close up shots of people – I used the gorgeous 35mm lens – always shot wide open on f2. Believe me after lugging around the amounts of gear over the years that would make a Sherpa weary, it is so liberating to have two small cameras with two small lenses. No fiddle fluffing around, no decisions on what lens to take or what to change to, no changing in the field with dust coming into the camera – this is the way it should be.
I wrote about this on my Bali blog – but I have the two lenses mentioned and the 55-200 and the 18-55. As mentioned on that blog (and now I’m even more convinced), that the 18-135 and the 35mm f2, can stand proud compared to the other two lenses. My 55-200 is sharper at the longer end than the 135, but it is not weather sealed and has lots of play at the lens mount (wobbles and clonks sideways when I zoom), I hate this and it feels very junkie and does not reek of quality like the other two lenses. The 18-55 is definitely not as sharp wide open at 55mm as the 18-135, and is even more lacking wide open. In fact it is outstanding at just how much sharper and better the 18-135 is all around when compared to the baby sister. I think baby sister was hiding behind the door when the quality stakes were being dished out! I am afraid baby sister is destined to hit ‘fleabay’ in the not too distant future.
Hauling Cement bags, late evening, banks of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 18-155)
A ‘Dumping’ in Inle Lake
I can now say (unfortunately), that I have the final word and the last say on the weather sealing properties of these new cameras and lenses. Nobody can argue the toss with me or try to say this or that about Fuji’s weather sealing properties – I know the real deal – categorically so. There was some guy who recently wrote a thread on ‘that forum’, complaining how he got a sprinkle of dust on his T2 in the Grand Canyon or something. Upon returning he sprinkled some water from his drink bottle over the top of the camera – and the thing ended up fried and into Fuji for extensive repairs. Well, I wasn’t there so I can’t comment on that story, but it certainly does not inspire confidence in one regarding the weather sealing properties of our new cameras. Well, not until I came onto the scene anyway!!
I had booked the boat very early next morning for my sunrise shots on Inle lake. To cut a long story short, in the very dim dark twilight (whilst supposed to be boarding my little boat), I slipped off the end of the jetty and disappeared under the water (yes baby – we are talking total immersion). As I re-surfaced the poor hapless boatman, grabbed me by the scruff and hauled me onto the jetty – before I went down the second time, perhaps never to be seen again. I had my gear in two bags around my waist. They were the two smaller bags in the ThinkTank system. The Hubba Hiney and the next one down - a bit smaller. I quickly took them off and unzipped both bags. The cameras were dripping wet. The X-T1 was ruined and will be up for an insurance replacement – but that was my fault because I had lost the body cap so the T1 was sitting flat and pointing up at the bottom of my bag – of course the water and mud just went straight into the lens opening.
However, and here is the marvel – the X-T2 and 18-135 attached – a much different story. Though they were in the wet bag only a matter of perhaps a minute or so, the T2 was sitting on its flat (screen down), with the lens poking up. It of course was actually slopping around in about an inch of water at the bottom of my camera bag. I honestly thought they were ruined. I got back to my hotel like a drowned rat and toweled everything down. I took off the lens and there was water around the lip of the lens mount (body and lens), but the rubber seals had done their job well – not a drop inside. Though water was coming out all over the place around the screen – as I flipped it out – there was not a skerrick of moisture in the battery compartment, SD card department, or the other little door. Water was coming out of the little wheel at the back of the camera – when I blew with my blower brush. There was definitely nothing in the lens because I sat it in the warm sun and if there had been moisture inside, there would have been condensation inside the lens.
Boy and Dog, early morning Hsipaw, Myanmar, 2017 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 18-135)
However, now writing this several weeks later and many thousands of shots later, I can say my T2 and 18-135 are completely normal. I have been watching for the slightest change or glitch, because these were all insured and could be claimed on. I am certain now that the seals all did their job very well and this is a marvelous testament to Fuji engineering. I am not sure about our little friend with the drink bottle and his few splashes of water, but I make no exaggeration when I say the T2 with lens attached got a thorough drowning and was dripping wet all over when I pulled it from the camera bag
Prior to the ‘drowning lessons’, the T2 and 135 did develop a problem that I am not very happy with. For no reason, on any given occasion (when I turn the camera on after its little sleep, turn it on from off, or change back from ‘playback’), the LCD and EVF flash off and on and off and on. It does this crazy little ‘dance’ and can do it up to 10-20 times before it will stop. It was so damned annoying because I would see my shot, touch the button to turn on, and then the crazy little ‘dance’ would start. I would have to stand there like an idiot until it finished before I could take my shot – alas, of course it was well gone by then. I did lots of searching online, asked lots of questions and nobody could help me. I reset the camera several times. I tried shooting for a couple of days with the 35mm f2 lens on there and it was perfect. As soon as I put the 18-135 back on the T2, the crazy little ‘dance’ would start again. I am pretty mad that my new camera is doing this. I obviously couldn’t do anything in Myanmar and just kept using it best I could whilst on the trip. Now that I am back in Australia I will have to contact Fuji and try to sort this out. However, this has nothing to do with the drowning in the lake – it was doing this long before I decided to take a pre-dawn swim. Other than this my gear was great and I certainly have no regrets shooting Fuji. They are lovely cameras, well made, inspire one with confidence (well, normally), and the images are delightful.
This may be my last great trip for a while. I missed my wifie too much to travel that long, alone, again. We will go back to Vietnam this year to see her parents, and I’ll get out again on my old motorbike and head for the out-blocks where no Westerners go. I think she then wants to go to Taiwan for a few weeks or something. I’ll be happy to tag along and just make the most of the opportunities that come. However, this was a special trip. I was able to just concentrate on photography for a whole month. Daylight till dark – boot-camp style. Keep checking my website, because though I have a few new shots up now, there are well over 13,000 photos that I have to process and wade through. I love this part – all the hard work is done, all those damned horrible early mornings are over, now time to relax over the next few months and play around on Lightroom with the lovely memories of Myanmar.
Check me out here – philipsuttonphotography.com and on instagram at fineartfoto
A real Cowboy - Gutsy little kid showing the cow who's boss, banks of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2017
Fuji XT2/XT1 - Recce in Bali
A cataclysmic shift
I had a cataclysmic shift in my photographic equipment this year. As many seem to be doing now (after dipping my toes in the waters over the last few years), I bit the bullet and sold my beloved Nikon D3X and lenses, and swapped fully over to Fuji. I won’t bore you all with the minutia of the details - but suffice to say it was a very big emotional and financial endeavor. I have been shooting Nikon for over 30 years now – starting with the Nikon F3 and worked my way up through all the models, ending with the D3X. My wonderful Nikon F4 served me so well for many years of shooting ‘stock’ in the heyday (90’s).
However a few miles under the belt and a few creaky bones later, I was finding it increasingly difficult to lug my huge D3X and Nikkor 70-200 around in the tropical heat of Asia. My wife and I live in a small gold-mining town in the Western Australian desert. It is the most boring forsaken place on the face of God’s earth. However, with stable paying jobs and other reasons we choose to live here at the moment. However, because there is nothing to photograph here, my cameras sit locked in their little cupboard most of the year. Fortunately travel to Asia from Perth airport (not counting the 8 hour drive to get there), is cheap and not many hours flight. We go to Asia a lot and that is where I love to photograph.
Cutting to the chase – having sold all my gear this year and switching over completely to Fuji, I was very keen to fire all my new gear in ‘anger’. I have shot a few race days here (horse racing carnival) and a few other things, but I never consider my gear fully tested until it has done the rigors of the heat and dust and grime in Asia. I always hire a motorbike and head off by myself. The banging around on dusty roads on motorbikes is all part of the test my cameras must endure. I have a 4 week trip booked next month, to go back to Myanmar for an extensive trip. I was a bit anxious to head off there with my new acquisitions without having them properly tested first.
Suddenly I had a bright idea - it was my wife’s birthday in November so I told her I would take her to Bali for a week. She loved the idea, so we headed off mid-November on our new quest. My wife is Vietnamese, and we have been to Vietnam many times. I have been to Cambodia 13 times now over the years, and not counting Laos, Thailand, and many other countries – Bali was a totally new experience for us both.
It really is the easiest way to taste Asia for people who don’t want to get too far out of their comfort zones. The people are the most placid, lovely generous people in all of Asia – by far. We had no confrontations over bills and other things like we often get in the rest of Asia. The traffic if very calm and peaceful and I don’t feel like I am ‘running the gauntlet’ like I feel each time I get on my motorbike in Vietnam. The photographic opportunities are marvelous and the place is very cheap to travel in compared to the rest of Asia. Myanmar is very expensive so I am expecting a hefty bill there this Xmas. However, Myanmar is the most awesome photographic experience in all of Asia and not to be missed.
After trying and testing lenses and reading everything I could, I decided on the Fuji XF 55-200 and the XF 18-55. Having tested them on my new X-T1 and X-T2 around home and any local happenings – these were my conclusions. To me (and only my opinion – you are welcome to disagree) the 55-200 is an extremely sharp and wonderful lens. Particularly up close and to the mid-zoom range it is very sharp wide open. It is actually a fairly fast lens and reasonably light considering it is basically an equivalent to a 70-200 (and beyond), in the 35mm arena. I was a little disappointed with the 18-55. It is reasonable up close, but I shoot a lot around the 55mm mark (80-90 portrait) and it is disappointing at that focal length wide open. However they both have great image stabilization.
The big disappointment
The one major factor that started to dawn on me as I got closer to going to Myanmar was the fact that these lenses are not sealed. It really started to get to me as I am very particular with my equipment. The places I go to and particularly Mandalay, are the filthiest places one could imagine. I will be there in January and that is the beginning of the dry season. With the smoke from the burning and the dust from the many unsealed roads, visibility gets down to a few hundred meters sometimes. I have to wear an industrial particle mask whilst on my motorbike just so I can breath. However, it is the dust and filth that creates the amazing light that one can only find in Myanmar. The thought of sucking all of this into my camera each time I zoomed, was not comforting.
I started reading a lot about the 18-135 mm lens. I loved the fact that it is sealed. There was no way I wanted a lens that was as slow as 5.6, but I didn’t have much choice. No way I wanted to lug that 1kg 50-140 monstrosity around. That being the case I could have just kept the Nikon gear. I bit the bullet and purchased the Fuji XF 18-135. I already had the 35 f2 that I had hardly ever used. With that being also sealed – it was an easy choice to choose the two lenses which were going to Bali – the precursor to my trip to Myanmar. I ‘glued’ the 18-135 onto the T2 and the 35mm onto the T1, and with these in tow we headed off to Bali.
Right from the outset I loved the feel of my new equipment. The T1 with the battery grip and 35mm lens is just magic to carry around. The 18-135 endeared itself to me very quickly with its ease of use, lovely quality feel and small size. The more I used it the more I thought this could be the answer for my dust problem in Myanmar. I have two small bags from the ‘Thinktank’ system. They live on the belt that comes with that system. I carry them around my waist. When I’m ready to shoot, the T1 goes around my neck on a strap. It is so light I could carry it all day. The T2 with the bigger lens is a bit heavier so it goes over my shoulder and dangles upside down on my ‘Black Rapid’. Oh man – what a perfect system. I can walk all day with this gear deployed for action, or tucked away in their bags around my waist. Boy oh Boy – when I think of that heavy Nikon with the big 70-200 in its ‘Thinktank’ holster dangling from one side of my waist all day long. It twisted my back and gave me pain and it was such a nuisance because it hung very low – and on the motorbike it used to bang and hit things. The size and weight and feel of the Fuji gear has revolutionized the way I shoot and has given me such fresh enthusiasm and enlightenment for my photographic career.
‘A picture tells a thousand words’
I won’t bore you with all of the details about where we went and what I shot. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. It was a marvelous experience using the two Fujis. The autofocus on the 18-135 never let me down and was so snappy and fast. I even used that very silly, piddley little flash that comes with both cameras. I stuck it on and used it for fill flash on many occasions and it was wonderful. The gear felt so solid and reeked of quality. I even used them in some light rain showers, near the ocean with salt spay splattering everywhere. Each night I would clean them down in the hotel and they never missed a beat.
When I travel by myself (Myanmar), I always take the laptop and download my pictures in the hotel at night. It was my wife’s birthday and I had to spend quality time with her. I didn’t want to encroach on that by fiddling with pictures at night. For the first time I took a handful of memory cards and no laptop. I could only see the pictures on the back of my screen and I knew I would have to wait until I returned to Australia to really find out how things went. Would the pictures shot from my favourite destination (Asia) come even close to the magic I used to get from my D3x? When we finally got back and my images popped up on my big 27” Mac screen – I was blown away. Oh boy – Fuji magic. I also thought I may be disappointed with the older sensor from the T1, but I think it stands up admirably to its newer sibling. To me, the images from the T1 still have that gorgeous look and there is still plenty of room there to pull up the shadows and crop. Perhaps that was because I only used the magic 35mm f2 on that camera. With all the dozens of Nikkor lenses I have used over the years, I can honestly say that lens is right up there with the very best and sharpest from Nikon.
The Big Question – how did the 18-135 perform?
I can say with certainty (because I have taken many thousands of shots now to compare), that at all focal lengths – wide open – my 18-135 is noticeably sharper than my 18-55. This is marvelous news. The majority of my shooting is wide open wide angle (27mm equivalent) up to around portrait length (90mm equivalent). This is where the 18-135 really shines. It is still sharp wide open up to about 135mm (equivalent), but beyond that – right out to 200 mm (equivalent) it is not as sharp as the 55-200. This is a little bit disappointing. However, just like everything else in life like relationships, colleagues that we are forced to work with, the way we look - and our cameras – everything is a bit of a trade off. We must decide what we can accept and what we can’t. We filter the good and bad bits and hopefully are happy with what is left – what we can live with. This is the 18-135mm. I don’t shoot all that often out to its full telephoto length, so I can live with it not being as sharp there. However, where it really counts – where I will use it the most – it is beautiful. Happily it has rendered my 18-55 obsolete – the 18-135, being so much better, I really have no reason to use the smaller lens. However, the 55-200 is much sharper than the 18-135, so I will explain a bit further on where I will be using that lens.
The Big Bad News (The kicker)!
It’s like the old good news bad news jokes. The bad news is usually so terrible that the good news pails into insignificance. Not so in this case, but there is one major minus I have inherited with this new Fuji system – compared to my Nikons, and I’m having trouble living with it. The major lack of ability to isolate the subject from the background, has changed the way my images look. I was well aware of this like everybody else. We all know that full-frame isolates the subject better and has less depth of field at an equivalent focal length than does an APS-C sensor. However, I didn’t realize to what extent. With the 18-135 being a fairly slow lens – even shot wide open – I am usually around f4-f5.6. At this aperture and the common focal lengths that I am using, I am not getting the beautiful soft blurred backgrounds that I am used to with my Nikons. It is hard to imagine but even at only 50mm (the 35mm lens), I am getting more blur in those backgrounds with that lens at f2 than the bigger lens shot at around 135mm etc but on f5.6. This is the only disappointment with my new system and I have no answers on how to fix it!
In the studio
Two days after arriving back from Bali I had a studio booked to shoot over 25 models. Our local TAFE (Technical and Further Education Centre) has a Hairstyle and Beauty section. The girls sitting their course have their annual assessment at this time of the year. Each student has to provide three models and do a ‘beauty’, ‘bridal’ and third choice makeup on them. Then they are shipped off to the hairstylist. I was then asked to photograph each model – which will go on the student’s portfolio. Of course I had each girl sign a model release, so I can use their photos at my discretion. I was really hoping to have tried out the T2 in the studio before testing it on a professional paid shoot, but I said yes with confidence. I could have used the T1, but some of the girls wanted B&W, and I was keen to use the new Acros simulation. I certainly was not disappointed.
Of course no dust issues here so the 55-200 was perfect. I shot it at around 100-120 mm equivalent and around F9. As you can see from the samples the shots are beautifully sharp. Consequently, my 18-55 will be sold off and I will be keeping the 35mm and 18-135 for travel and use the 55-200 for studio and other stuff locally.
I just found the T2 a real joy to work with in the studio. I had so many models to shoot, it took from 9am till 5pm, with barely a break. I took around 600 photos and used less than three batteries. The lights in the studio had optical slaves on them, so (yes you guessed it), I triggered then with that pissy little geeky Fuji flash that comes with the cameras. I placed it on ‘commander’ mode and it worked perfectly. I love it that they take no batteries – you only have to use one set for camera and flash – well done Fuji. The camera never got hot at any time or missed a beat.
A Few Niggles
There are a few niggles that no firmware update in the world is going to fix. When I did the studio shoot (and outside as well), the wretched aperture wheel on the 55-200 kept getting bumped. It doesn’t matter outside so much because I always shoot automatic on ‘aperture priority’ – if it is bumped then it may effect the depth of field, but the camera will still meter correctly. However, in the studio, because the camera is on manual – and I metered to the chosen aperture – when it is bumped, then of course it makes a difference. I was aware of this but of course when you have to talk to the models and direct them, things can happen without one knowing. I would suddenly notice it and adjust – but boy it was so frustrating. I noticed now that I am post processing all of the photos in Lightroom, some are slightly out because of this. That is why I love using the 35mm because it has a proper aperture ring with lovely clicks – it has never been bumped once. Unfortunately the lens I will be using the most has that silly wobbly ring like the 55-200 (18-135).
My other bugbear (and this annoys me 10 times more than the first one) is the silly diopter switch on the T2 moves sooo easily. I shoot with glasses so I need that thing cranked way the hang up there just so I can see properly. It can be up to 5-10 times a day I have to stop and adjust the wretched thing – because everything has become blurry again. In fact the one on the T2 is worse than the one of the T1 – Fuji actually went backwards on this!!@#!! As I said, no amount of firmware updates can fix this. Looks like I am stuck with this silly thing for a very long time. The one on the D3X was an engineering marvel. One had to flick it out with the fingernail and then adjust the diopter, then with a click it would return back in and lock. With years of using that camera it never had to be altered. ARE YOU LISTENING FUJI?
In spite of my few niggles I mentioned on here, I am really stoked swapping over to Fuji. Not that my photography was stagnant before or I was lacking inspiration, but my whole photographic experience has reached new vistas. The small size of the cameras, their ease to travel with, their utterly gorgeous files, and the consistent updates from Fuji to make them even better - really makes for a marvelous all round experience. Even though I doubted at the beginning, I now have no doubts whatsoever that I did the right thing swapping over to this new system. The trip to Bali was a fantastic experience and when I see those new files on my website, it tells me that there will be many more to follow from the wonders of Myanmar.
If you wish, check out more of my shots here - philipsuttonphotography.com or on instagram at fineartfoto
I see a lot of talk these days about which camera to use. I see guys turning themselves inside out on forums, discussing and arguing the minutiae of this camera versus that one. Others buy and sell at the whim and vagaries of the digital market (which changes models almost as much as we change our underwear), and they wonder why they are nearly broke and their photography has not improved.
The above photo is one of my favourites and was taken with my current camera - my Nikon D3X. This is a marvelous high pixel camera that I like so much, and the results from it are so outstanding sometimes, it nearly blows my socks off. Some say to never shoot it above ISO 400, but as you can see in this photo, which was taken at ISO 1600, the results are still very pleasing.
Here's another photo to illustrate a point.
This I think is one of my all time favourite photos. Not just for the look of it, but how I got it and the marvelous day I had exploring on my motorbike the wonderful sights of Sagaing, near Mandalay, Myanmar. I stumbled across a Monastery for nuns or lady Monks. They kindly showed me around and invited me upstairs to look around. While my guide was trying to communicate with me in broken English, I noticed one of the ladies moving toward the window to join her friend. As she approached I sensed something was going to happen, so I grabbed my Fuji X100, lifted it to my eye, and pressed the shutter - the rest is history.
My point is this. The Nikon D3X will blow the little Fuji out of the water, when it comes to resolution, colour fidelity, dynamic range, that 'hidden' factor of a beautiful image that words can't explain. However - in this case - does any of that matter. The fact was that the little Fuji was right there around my neck, it was so quick to grab it, lift it up and hit the shutter - all in the blink of an eye. By the time I had reached for the Black Rapid, found my D3X dangling, and got it ready, the shot would have been missed. More than this though. If I had to choose the camera to take the perfect image with - the best resolution, the best dynamic range, colour rendition etc, of course I would choose the D3X over the Fuji X100. However, at the end of the day when that magic image is on your wall, winning the photo contest, or bracing your website - does it really matter which camera it was taken on.
I have always been a bit of a gear nut as well, fixating on this or that model as the best, buying and selling until my wallet was fatigued, but my photos never improved. Now I don't worry about that, I have two cameras which are really different, but both serve me well, and I just use them to harvest the images that best represent my style, passion and what I stand for. Some of the nicest photos on my website, those that have had nice comments and people enjoy, invariably have been taken on my little Fuji.
I suggest just use what you have at hand. Get out and use that camera to take pictures that surprise and delight, not worrying about its resolution or what other people think of it, or is it the latest model? My hero in photography is Steve Mccurry. I look at his stuff every single day to get more inspiration and to see what he is up to next. If I had to be honest, I am even a bit jealous of his lifestyle. However, one thing I notice in every interview or whatever way he is asked - he cares little for this model or that, or which is the current camera of the month. He obviously has certain technical requirements in a camera, but after that is met, he cares not about models or this one or that. In fact he won't be drawn into a discussion on which camera is best or focus attention on what he is using at the moment. His whole MO is about his images. That's all he cares - his images do the talking, not the camera.
Get out there guys and take that magic picture - using whatever camera you have.
Tell me what you think?