Fujifilm cameras are sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Leica. The retro design of some Fuji cameras reminiscent of the famous German camera brand, indeed, but their prices are far from it. Both brands, too, are very popular among street and reportage photographers.
Although I usually shoot with the Nikon Z9, its bulk did not seem to be a good match when I was invited to photograph behind the scenes at the Liberec Zoo. A smaller Nikon camera like the Zf would have worked well, or even a DX camera like the Zfc, but I decided to take the opportunity to branch out and shoot with a Fujifilm kit instead.
Fuji is the only camera company right now that is putting the proper thought and attention into APS-C cameras, and especially APS-C lenses. Most of the big companies are focused on full-frame, with their crop sensors being little more than an afterthought. As a full-frame shooter myself, I cannot say I’m opposed to this decision from Nikon and the others, but there’s a time and a place where smaller sensors shine, including my backstage tour of the Liberec Zoo.
So, I packed along the Fujifilm X-H2s and a pair of “reportage” lenses with focal lengths of 16mm and 23mm, both with a maximum aperture of f/1.4. It’s equivalent to the classic full-frame focal lengths of 24mm and 35mm. I was especially curious about the latter, as the 35mm is my favorite full-frame focal length for documentary work. Here’s how my experience went.
Fujifilm in Action
This wasn’t quite my first time shooting with the X-H2s. I recently had tried it out for bird photography in my efforts to test a wider range of camera brands for you, our readers. From that experience, I learned a few things: it has fast and reliable autofocus, a sensor that’s not afraid of high ISO, good image stabilization, and intuitive handling even for users of other camera brands (not something that I felt of the X-T5, which I also tried out).
Although documentary photography may seem like a very different discipline from wildlife photography, I didn’t have to change much in the camera’s settings. As usual, I worked in manual mode with auto ISO all the time (upper limit was ISO 12,800). My autofocus was in AF-C mode as usual (I rarely use AF-S, since I use the back button AF technique). I changed the autofocus subject detection from bird mode to human eye, and I slowed down the continuous shooting from 15 FPS to 5 FPS.
That’s it. It was time to start photographing a hoof-trimming procedure at the zoo.
More than the camera, I was interested in the pair of 16mm and 23mm f/1.4 lenses. Would they be sharp enough to shoot with the aperture wide open? Could they achieve a shallow depth of field to focus the viewer’s attention on the main subject? Would they have pleasant bokeh? I was particularly curious about the second and third questions, as I had never tried such lenses on APS-C cameras before.
To give you a more straightforward impression, I left all the photos in this article completely uncropped. In the days of 35mm film, I would have left a perforated frame around the print, as some of the classic practitioners used to do. I also did not make any local adjustments of brightness, contrast, or sharpness to the photographs.
The only edits I made were as follows: Batch pre-processing in DxO PureRaw, automatic level adjustment in Capture One, and batch conversion to black and white in DxO Silver Efex (Fujifilm Neopan 400 film simulation).
Fujifilm as a Reportage Tool?
That’s the question. For starters, the X-H2s camera was well-suited to the task, which wasn’t surprising to me – I had just tested it for more demanding wildlife photos beforehand, and it proved its capabilities. So, my interest in this case was mainly on the lenses. How did they hold up?
From my point of view, the lenses did not disappoint. Even wide open, their sharpness is absolutely sufficient, so the aperture can be seen primarily as a creative tool to achieve the desired depth of field, not the sharpness.
And to what extent can they achieve paper-thin depth of field and smooth bokeh? That depends on several factors, of course, but let’s focus on focal length and aperture.
The 16mm lens, even with the aperture open at f/1.4, has a fairly large depth of field. But this proved to be a very pleasant choice for documentary work. The backgrounds were not excessively blurry unless I focused very closely. However, they still were out of focus to a small degree, which resulted in a pleasing three-dimensional feel.
The 23mm lens was on my camera most of the time. After all, it is not a good idea to change lenses frequently in an environment where there is a cloud of dust from hoof grinding.
This lens, even with a small sensor, can provide a shallow depth of field and beautiful, smooth bokeh. The f/1.4 aperture blurred the background quite effectively. It was equivalent to the blur you would get on a full-frame lens at 35mm and approximately f/2. I often found myself stopping down a bit more in order not to blur the background too much.
At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Fujifilm is sometimes called a poor man’s Leica. I’ll follow that up with the observation that, luckily, this comparison is mostly about price. In fact, the image quality of Fujifilm cameras and lenses is very high despite the small APS-C sensor. The build quality is very reassuring. And whether I can imagine a Fujifilm camera as a reportage tool? The answer is definitely yes.
Even though I’m a Nikon shooter and won’t be trading in my Z9 any time soon, I have definitely grown to appreciate the small form factor of these APS-C cameras. Certainly I don’t think of small camera sensors as something to look down upon. Over the coming weeks, I’ll continue my testing of this Fuji equipment as well as some Micro Four Thirds gear. I hope you stay tuned and enjoy.