Fuji X-T1

Macedonia with the Fuji X System (Picture Heavy Post)

I've been meaning to write this blog post since I came back from Macedonia last year, but life got in the way.  The other reason for the delay was that I worked on a documentary project whilst I was there and I wanted to complete that body of work before posting any of the Macedonian images. The project I worked on will hopefully be ready for viewing in a month or so, but in the meantime I thought I'd present a selection of images that don't fit in with the project but that I liked. I have included them in this post along with some information on travelling and photography in Macedonia with the Fuji X cameras.

I don't like writing too much about gear, but the experience of travelling with the Fuji X system is great. I remember when using Nikon that my travel kit used to weigh around 10kg. It was cumbersome and wasn't exactly subtle. Now my travel kit fits in a small bag and weighs around 2kg at most.  At the time of this trip my kit was the Fuji X-T1, Fuji X-E2, Fuji X-100s, Fuji 18-55mm, Fuji 55-200mm and Fuji 35mm f2. I ended up using the X-T1 and 18-55 combo for most of the trip.  The 18-55mm kit lens is super sharp and well worth keeping in your bag.  It's sharp enough to be a main workhorse lens, with only the construction letting it down a little. 

Sian and I didn't know much about Macedonia before travelling. We chose it as a destination because the flights were cheap and it was somewhere we hadn't been before. The country is in the Balkan region and borders Greece, Albania and Slovakia. Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia and still has plenty of communist influences, however as it makes a push for full membership of the EU it is increasingly looking to Greece for inspiration. There is some dispute with its neighbour, as Greece does not recognise the name "Macedonia". The name comes from an Ancient Greek region that geographically may not have been where current Macedonia sits. History is also disputed as Macedonia have claimed Alexander the Great as one of their heroes. He came from the ancient region of Macedonia. The formal name for the country is The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, I will be referring to it as Macedonia for simplicity. The clashes of influences makes for an interesting mix of architecture and culture, especially in the capital, Skopje. 

The public transport in Macedonia is ok but limited as it basically centres around Skopje and the lake resort of Ohrid. There were parts of the country that we were hoping to visit that were a bit difficult on public transport so we decided to hire a car. Driving in Macedonia is really easy and the roads are wide. Some of the mountain roads were a little tight, but most of the time you could fit two cars through. Although you do miss things whilst concentrating on driving, it was really nice to be able to pull off the road and stop any place we saw something interesting. 

 Sian waiting patiently in the car whilst I photograph satellite dishes.

Lake Ohrid

Despite the name, The lake and town of Ohrid is a really beautiful and relaxing place to be. Most flights from the UK fly into Ohrid as it is the main holiday destination in the region. The lake itself is one of the world's deepest and oldest lakes and when looking out it feels more like an ocean. Its a lovely place to relax and take in some of the culture of the region. Apparently in the summer it can get incredibly busy, but in early May it was pleasant and not too hot. The town itself is not huge and has its fair share of usual tourist shops and cafes, but with a bit of exploration you can uncover some lovely areas. For street photography it will probably keep you busy for a day or so. There are plenty of trips around the lake and you can even take a ferry into Albania. We didn't do that on this trip but I am hoping to go back. 

SKOPJE

After three days enjoying the Lake we collected our car and drove to the capital, Skopje. We took the scenic route through one of the mountain ranges and stopped at a few places along the way. I was a bit concerned about driving through the mountains but it was very easy. We stopped at the St. John the Forerunner Bigorski Monastery in the Mavrovo National Park.  It was a beautiful setting although the light was a bit rubbish for pictures. It was quiet and tranquil, again I was thankful for my Fuji gear that allowed me to photograph quietly in this situation. 

St. John the Forerunner Bigorski Monastery

On arriving in Skopje we promptly got lost. The road of our Airbnb had a similar name to a road 2 miles away and we spent ages on the wrong road trying to find the flat. In the end we stopped and asked directions from some people looking at us curiously. Luckily for us they spoke good English and helped us contact the guy at the Airbnb to find out where the flat was located. They offered to drive us to the location, so we set off in convoy and when we arrived they helped us with introductions. We were touched by their kindness.

Throughout this trip it became apparent that the Macedonian people are very welcoming and friendly. Most will stop and help you if needed.  At one point, in the latter stages of the trip, our car became stuck in a low ditch. Luckily the first person to drive past stopped to help. He spoke excellent English and we tried to move the car with no luck. In the end it took 8 of us, a tractor and a lorry to move the car (surprisingly there was no long term damage). All in all about twenty people stopped to help and offer support. My only regret was that I didn't capture the moment on camera. 

The entire city of Skopje appears to be in the process of being renovated. Many of the soviet style buildings, especially in the centre, are in the process of being replaced with more ornate ones that are Greek in style. Lots of faux marble pillars and multiple statues, all recently erected. It makes for an interesting back drop.

Just before we arrived in Skopje, there had been protests over Government spending. The protestors had thrown paint at the newly installed monuments to protest the expense. The action was effective at bringing attention to the protestor's concerns and the paint-splattered statues added another dimension to the city, even for people unfamiliar with the city's politics. No protests took place whilst we were there, although we did notice the police presence at times. 

Skopje is surrounded by mountains. Mt. Vodno overlooks the city and has a large cross on the top which lights up at night. You can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain for a closer look at the cross and great views over the city and the surrounding landscape. It is quite an interesting structure and we spent a couple of hours wandering the top of the mountain. Strangely there were also few bedraggled cows up there. 

After Skopje we made our way back to Ohrid via the winery at Popova Kula (well worth the cost, we stayed the night here) and a stay at Villa Dihovo near Bitola. I would recommend Villa Dihovo as base to explore Bitola and the surrounding mountains. Its a nice little lodge which operates a pay what you feel policy. The only thing that has set prices is the wine (made at their own winery). All the food is homegrown and organic. It was quite the experience and worth an excursion. You get welcomed in by the owners and really made to feel at home. 

When we first arrived there, they were having a family day and a group of musicians were during the rounds from house to house in  the village, which of course I had to capture. 

My experience of photographing in Macedonia was a pleasant one. I have heard that in some rural parts people are suspicious of photography as some believe it steals the soul. I did not experience any issues. Shooting with the Fuji system helped as it is pretty unassuming and not as threatening as a full DSLR kit.  I also think I capture more intimate moments with the Fuji because I always have it with me, where as with a DSLR I may have been tempted to leave it at the hotel on some occasions.

I would recommend Macedonia to anyone, it is a beautiful country with a diverse landscape and enough interesting places to visit. The people can be a bit cold to begin with, but are helpful and welcoming ones the ice has been broken. English is not widely spoken outside of Skopje and Ohrid but that is to be expected and it is easy enough to get by. For me the best thing about Macedonia was that there were not huge amounts of tourists. We quite often found ourselves the only people in a museum or on a mountainside on a nice sunny day. It felt like an easily accessible adventure. 

Please get in touch to ask any questions or share your stories in the comments. 

More images

Finally an obligatory selfie in a wing mirror.

Ona Bag review - The Brixton

I recently swapped my 13" Macbook Pro (MBP) for the same sized Macbook Air (MBA). I really liked the MBP, it was solid and powerful, but that made it quite heavy and a little bulky.  I tried the MBA and found that it was powerful enough for my needs ( no editing 4K video here) and was nearly half the weight of the MBP.  Whenever I took the MBP on assignment or just when travelling, I nearly always carried it in a separate case, as I wanted to carry my camera in a small bag. Adding the weight to my camera gear made it a bit heavy to carry around all day in one bag. 

So armed with the MBA I was on the look out for a new bag. One that could carry my basic fuji kit and the MBA comfortably.  I had a very strict idea of what I was looking for. It needed to be something that I could use everyday and in various scenarios. It needed to look smart for visiting clients, but then fit with the more casual side of things.  The biggest problem with most the bags I looked at was that they were too big for the size of my camera gear, which would put me off using it if I wasn't carrying the MPA.  I also wanted something low profile and slimline, which again was not easy to find.  I really like Think Tank bags and already own a retrospective 30, which I rate. The MPA doesn't quite fit in the bag, which was a shame. The nearest sized retrospective with a laptop compartment is the 60.  I already found the 30 a bit cumbersome in some uses, so I discounted the 60 quite quickly. 

I had heard about the bag range from ONA a little while back.  Browsing their website I found that the bags were exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.  They are not really stocked in shops over here, being an american brand.  Luckily I knew a photographer who had bought an ONA Union Street.  Upon seeing the bag I was convinced. 

There were two models that I was looking at, the Union Street and the Brixton. They are both very similar, but the Union can hold a 15" laptop where as the the Brixton only a 13". I was on the verge of going for the slightly bigger Union Street, as you never know, but decided to give the Brixton a try instead.  

The bag arrived from fotosense in timely fashion. It comes beautifully packaged (its nice to see a brand putting in the effort).  I decided on the Smoke, despite my heart being set on the Ranger Tan colour.  The Tan looks nicer on the union street, they use a darker leather on the Brixton which does't quite look the same.  The bag is made of a waxed canvas with leather trimmings. 

The bag looks amazingly stylish, even more so once you have scuffed the canvas up a bit. 

The leather trims are beautiful and a fine quality leather. Despite appearances the bag is fastened by two brass push clips, which gives easy access. 

The strap is a strange seatbelt type material with a shoulder pad that is leather on one side and padded on the other, nicely coated with the same coloured canvas as the bag (nice touch). The strap is comfortable, even when fully loaded. 

The bag offers enough protection for everyday use, something this streamlined will never offer masses of protection, but I would probably feel comfortable dumping it on the ground if I wanted to.  The padding inside the bag is, again, beautifully crafted. Its a nice thick padding with a very soft felt covering, makes getting your gear out a pleasure. 

The Brixton has a leather grab handle at the back and a pocket with a magnetic fastener. The grab handle is a bit pointless in my opinion, in that it doesn't really offer much of a carrying solution.  It is only there quickly grab the bag before putting it on your shoulder. The pocket has enough space to put a tablet or a note book. 

 Modelled by yours truly!

The bag takes all the gear I need for a day out.  In the main compartment I can fit my MBA, Fuji X-T1, Fuji X100s, Fuji 56mm f1.4 and the Fuji 28mm f2. There are two front pockets which can hold batteries and memory cards.  

CONCLUSION

All bags are different and this is certainly not for everyone or for every occasion.  The price tag alone sees to that.  Coming at £250 its a pricy option (the Union Street is around £270 from fotosense). For me it has become my number one goto bag, so for that the price is worth it.  The fact that it is damn stylish is a bonus.  These bags are beautifully crafted, and designed in such away that the more they are used the better they look.  If design and appearance is important and you are willing to pay extra for the quality then this may be the bag for you.  I have no doubt this bag will still be going long after i've need for it.  If you are just after something to protect your gear and not too concerned on the looks, there are certainly cheaper options.  

If you are feeling extra rich and don't dig the canvas, check out the amazingly beautiful all leather versions of the Brixton.  Imagine Indiana Jones with cameras and you may come close to how cool they are. 

Thats all for today, thanks for reading.  Leave any questions in the comments below. 

p.s. check out the fotosense website for ONA products in the UK. 

 

Fuji X-T1 Review: Fuji X system starts getting serious

Compact system, Mirror less, cameras have come a long way in the last few years, taking on the world of DSLR's.  Their integration into enthusiast and pro level use has been slow, with very few pros committing to replacing their DSLR gear.  The Fuji X system, following on from the Olympus OMD, tried to change that.  Fuji introduced the X-pro 1 and X-E1 back in 2012, providing an interchangeable lens system in a similar mould to the X100 (fixed lens camera). These cameras were aiming at the higher end of the market (especially the X-pro 1), and offered a slightly more professional looking package than the equivalent Micro four thirds kits.I adopted the fuji system last summer after using an Olympus OMD kit for just over a year.  I have been hooked on the size and weight of mirror less cameras since I bought my first panasonic GX1 a couple of years ago. The image quality in the most part was excellent and I have no regrets about selling all my pro Nikon kit. There are some functions I initially missed, but I learned to adapt the way I worked.  When fuji came out with the X-pro 1, especially once all the glitches were ironed out, it offered the best of both worlds in terms of image quality and portability.  The images from the Fuji cameras easily surpass what my Nikon D3 produced, even at High ISOs.  The Fuji X system was far from perfect though.  The X-Pro 1 was initially very slow to focus, coming from both the Olympus and Nikon, this was a bit of a shock and although I'm not one for shooting sports or particularly fast moving subjects, it was a bit annoying.  The lenses too tended to do too much hunting for my liking and had a habit of occasionally going through their whole focussing range for no reason, even if the subject had not moved.  It wasn't too much of an issue, but I probably found myself taking a few extra images to compensate.

One thing Fuji are very good at is sorting out issues using firmware. The camera and lens update that arrived in September last year basically changed the whole handling of the X-Pro 1.  Somehow it was three times more responsive and the focusing was improved to such an extent it felt like a different camera, still falling someway behind the Olympus in speed and accuracy.

The last few months have seen Fuji bring out a few new cameras and lenses, starting off with the X100s last year.  This camera, although looking exactly the same as the original X100, was completely overhauled on the inside. Its an absolute pleasure to use (maybe I will write a belated review) and all the quirks of the original have been rectified. Fuji then brought out the X-E2 to rave reviews, but still there was no replacement to X-Pro1.  Then fuji released the X-T1.  It seemed to slip a little under the radar and at first I was not quite sure where it was supposed to sit in the Fuji line up.  Was it an X-Pro 1 replacement? Was it an enthusiast camera? After reading some the preview reports coming out, I knew I needed to get my hands one.

STYLING 

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The styling of the X-T1 is completely different from previous X cameras as they have all had a range finder-esq shape, with the viewfinder off to one side. For the X-T1 Fuji have gone for a more familiar SLR shape, but in keeping with Fujis vintage look, the camera resembles a Nikon FM camera (take note Nikon, this is what the DF should have been).  It has the usual dials on the top plate, with an added ISO dial.  It features a nice hand grip too. The X-T1 is also weather sealed which was something missing from all the other X system cameras.

HANDLING

The X-T1 has carried on the tradition of the X system by employing a mixture of dials, scroll wheels and buttons.  Basic operation is controlled by 4 dials.  The Shutter speed dial, Aperture ring, ISO dial and exposure compensation dial.

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The mode of the camera is set by adjusting the dials.  Both the shutter dial and Aperture ring have "A" settings. Setting both to "A" puts the camera into Auto mode, whilst setting the aperture and leaving the shutter on "A" puts it into Aperture priority and visa versa. This can take a bit of getting used to, but does feel natural after a while.  Alternatively the front and back scroll wheels can be used to add a traditional DSLR handling.

The Shutter speed dial has a locking button which engages when it is set to "A". This makes it difficult to change from "A" with the camera to your eye,  just a small gripe and to be honest the lock needs to be there. The exposure compensation dial is vastly improved.  On previous X cameras the exposure comp dial was easily moved, which helped when in use, but also meant that it could be easily moved when hanging on your shoulder. On the X100s for example I have to remember to check every time I take it out of a bag or pocket and has led to a few over/under exposed shots in its time.  The dial on the X-T1 has a lot more resistance, but is still easy to operate when the camera is to the eye.

The camera still uses the "Quick" menu that was introduced with the X-Pro1 which makes accessing the most popular setting easy.  There are also a plethora of customisable button which is a nice touch.

There are a couple of things that don't work quite as well. The X-T1 is the first X camera to use an ISO dial, situated to the left of the viewfinder.  In theory, I have no issue with this and it adds to the classic styling of the camera, but this is only way to control the ISO. On previous X cameras the ISO was adjusted via the "Quick" menu, which was not totally ideal, as it was a two step process. The dial adds quicker access to the ISO, but it comes fitted with a lock, similar to the shutter speed dial.  Where that dial only locks on "A" the ISO dial locks on every turn, unless the button is held down.  This makes it incredibly difficult to quickly change ISO when the camera is to the eye.  Its not a massive deal to me as I generally have the ISO set to Auto, or to the lowest setting, but for somebody who likes to change ISO frequently might find it quite an issue.  Another niggle I have with the ISO dial is that it also includes the drive switch underneath, this dial has a little handle at the front of the camera.  The dial includes different burst modes, Panorama mode and, rather annoyingly, art filter mode.  I unwittingly did a whole test shoot in "toy camera" mode the other day, believing there was something wrong as every image had this strange vignette and was a Jpeg.   I had caught the switch while changing the ISO setting, If you have chubby fingers like me it is quite easily done. I now have to remember to check this when I change ISO, not ideal. I would quite like the option to change ISO by a scroll wheel or fn button.

Another major handling gripe for me is the autofocus selection point.  This is something I use most of the time as I generally have the camera set to single auto focus point.  There is no way of setting the autofocus point without pressing a button to access the selector, although not using much more time, it is just inconvenient.  There is a four way selector on the back of the camera is used to select the points once the button has been pressed, so it seem a bit poor form for it not be customisable to allow direct access to the autofocus points. The selector pad is set up to include White balance, Macro mode, film simulation mode and the Autofocus point selection.  Three of those I would not use generally (or at all).  they are also easily accessed via the quick menu.  Maybe this can be fixed with a firmware update in the future.

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EVF

This was one area I was a bit reluctant because a major draw to the X system, especially the higher end models, was there Optical/EVF hybrid viewfinders. They really are a pleasure to use.  I was a bit wary about going back to just using an EVF.  I have to admit though the EVF is amazing.  Its massive and Bright.  Its like have a wide screen HD TV in there.  Its beautiful and very useful.  Fuji have made full use of the size, even allowing twin images in manual focus mode so you can check focus and view composition.  I really do recommend trying it if you have any concerns because it is stunning.

AUTOFOCUS 

One area that has always been a bit of an issue for Fuji in the past has always been the autofocus system, it  has always been a bit slow and unpredictable. The X-Pro1 needed 3 or 4 firmware updates before it become a useful tool, but still lagged behind most of its rivals.  The introduction of the X100s showed that Fuji were making vast improvements.  The X-E2 landed 2 months ago and featured a massively improved system.  The X-t1 arrives with added Phase detection hybrid autofocus system and it works very well indeed.  In ideal conditions it is apparently the fastest autofocusing mirror less camera on the market, which means, in real terms, is that it is incredibly quick and accurate.  Even with continuous focusing it performs really well, which is a shock for a Fuji camera. Combine this with the 8fps burst rate and you might actually have a Fuji camera that can be used for sports and wildlife.  Its not something I use much, but there are some great examples over on Dan Bailey's blog.

IMAGE QUALITY

Fuji X-T1, 18mm F2

Image quality has always been the X system strong point and the X-T1 does not disappoint. The X-Trans sensor produces excellent images and has done since the X-Pro1.  There is not much to say about it as the X-T1 produces the same excellent results.  Teamed up with the excellent lenses the images speak for themselves.  The ISO performance is really very good.  I would happily use images shot at ISO6400.  They do drop away a bit after that, but I have seen some nice images shot at ISO12,800 so it is quite impressive. Fuji have always delivered beautiful colours and the in camera jpeg rendering is beautiful.  I shoot a lot of Jpegs with my X100s and the X-T1 produces brilliant results.  The Raw files offer a lot of information and fantastic dynamic range, support is still very limited (even a month after its release) with only Camera Raw opening the RAF files in Photoshop, still no Lightroom support or anything from Capture One which is really disappointing.

* Update* Eventually both Lightroom and Capture One support files from the X-T1.  Lightroom has really improved working with the X-Trans sensor and is certainly an able performer for quick edits and I use it to edit my street photography.  To get the most out of the RAW files, Capture One is still the better option.  I use Capture One for any Landscape or portrait work, where detail is paramount. 

Fuji X-T1, 18mm F2

Fuji X-T1, Fuji 56mm F1.2

Conclusion

The Fuji X-T1 is quite a camera, it is fast, responsive, quick to focus and that EVF is stunning.  The image quality is the typical, high standard, Fuji offering.  The images from the X-T1 are possibly the best I have seen from a non-full frame camera, same goes for the ISO performance.  Image quality is certainly better than what my Nikon D3 produced.  People get quite aggressive when comparing image quality, ridiculously comparing cameras 3 or 4 times the cost and laying that down as a marker.  Is the quality better than Nikon D4 or Phase One medium format? I would say probably not, however it does stand up to the best full-frame cameras from a couple of years ago and thats good enough for me.  The camera is compact, but not too small, I have quite large hands and I can hold it comfortably and it all feels natural.  Is this the so called "DSLR Killer"? Depends on who you are and what you shoot.  I would say that for some people the DSLR died a couple of years ago.  I know a number of people who committed to mirror less systems a long time ago, both amateurs and pros. I, myself, swapped about 2 years ago.  For some applications DSLRs still have the upper hand, sports and wildlife are probably still easier with a DSLR.  In some areas of advertising and commercial photography the need for larger file output may still exist, somewhere where a Full-frame DSLR or medium format camera might be better.  One things for sure, with the XT-1 Fuji have a camera which will have all, but the very top pro cameras looking over their shoulder.  I know I don't miss carrying around over 10kg of kit.  I enjoy having all my kit in a small shoulder bag, whilst still producing top quality results.

If you have any questions regarding the X-T1 or the Fuji system please get in touch.