For some of you who don’t know, I support my photography projects by shooting weddings. It’s not the most glamorous of work, but it allows me to use my camera while getting paid a modest wage without having to place myself in a war zone, a studio, or on a sports field. So for my schedule and obligations, wedding photography has given me both the flexibility and freedom that some other photography fields would not. Yet still, as a “street photographer,” getting paid to use my camera sometimes feels like a bit of an alien concept, even after 50+ weddings in the last two years.
As a “solo practitioner” wedding photographer with normal clients that have medium budgets and guests of about 150, I am ninety-five percent of the time shooting weddings by myself. Certainly I could hire a second-shooter for a couple hundred bucks, but I’ve found that when you pay a nominal rate to a second-shooter, you often get a nominal product, which in the end doesn’t help either the bottom line or my workload. There are other photographers who have an entirely different approach to the business. But this is what has worked for me, and the following review about the Fuji XT1 as a wedding photography camera also comes with related caveats. This is a user review of the Fuji XT1 after shooting 5 weddings as a primary camera and 2 weddings as a backup. What may or may not have worked for me doesn’t mean that it may or may not work for you. My style and what I look for when composing is going to be different than yours. Please keep this in mind, as well as the fact that the review is primarily directed toward similar “solo practitioner” wedding photographers.
When I started shooting weddings a couple of years ago, I used two Nikon D700s. One was equipped with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the other with a Nikon 135mm f/2 DC. I also had a SB-700 that I kept on the 24-70mm camera or off-camera with a radio trigger. I did not use the battery grip, because it made the camera way too big and I did not need the extra continuous drive speed.
Without question, the D700s were working cameras, and nothing but working cameras: weddings and portrait sessions. I could manhandle them and they were fine with that. I never worried that they would break. I dropped mine in a creek, on a sidewalk, crashed it into countless doors and tables, and it just kept going. By the end of two years, I had amassed over 150,000 actuations on each camera. When I turn the camera’s “on” switch, it turned on without question or hesitation. When working a wedding, I didn’t feel that I had to turn it off to save battery. They felt great in hand and were dependable. I knew that when I pressed the shutter half-way (no, I don’t back button focus), my subject was 9.9 times out of 10 going to be in focus almost at that instant, even in low light. Even though I carried ten batteries in a bag, I rarely, if ever, went through more than two total batteries across both cameras.
Put another way, the camera got out of the way.
That was until it didn’t.
I’m not a small guy, but I’m not Arnold either. Carrying two D700s, or more particularly, running around with two D700s for 8-12+ hours is killer. By the end of the night, which can be anywhere between 12 and 2 a.m., I was lacquered, and my back, shoulders, and neck would be sore for at least a couple of days.
The camera’s shutter was also loud, so during ceremonies, particularly at Jewish Temples (which have much different acoustics than churches) I felt very conscious, sometimes overly conscious.
My shoulders and trap muscles started to rebel, and I needed to make a change to a lighter camera system. After surveying the various options, along with finding something within the budget of having sold or about to sell two D700s and a 24-70mm f/2.8, I began using a Fuji XT1 with a 23mm f/1.4 and a 14mm f/2.8. Then I eventually replaced the second D700 with a second Fuji XT1 and 56mm f/1.2. I still used and use the 135mm f/2 DC on the Fuji XT1, but obviously in manual focus. Each Fuji XT1 is equipped with the battery grip, and I have kept the same flash set up, that is, the SB-700.
Here are the reasons why I switched to the Fuji XT1 from the D700s:
1) Weight and Size: When you are on your feet for 8-12+ hours, the weight and size of your cameras become significant issues. Do you know how hard it is to maneuver through a crowded reception or a dance floor with two big cameras slung around both shoulders? There’s no real “uncrass” way of saying it other than that it sucks really, really bad. And, when shooting in a documentary style — trying to capture a story in images by assembling unposed moments — lugging around two heavy cameras, even with amazing AF capabilities, crimped on that approach and caused me to lose the type of intimate shots that I wanted.
With the Fuji XT1, I can walk around looking more like a guest than “the wedding photographer guy,” because I don’t even need to carry a bag. I keep the Fuji XT1 with either the 14mm or 23mm around my neck (I put the other lens in a pocket), and the second XT1 and 56mm around my shoulder. I keep extra (read: a lot) batteries in my pocket. I always wear a dark suit jacket and dark blue tie, and the cameras are not as noticeable. It’s so much easier to maneuver around tight spaces without having to say “sorry, sorry” or “excuse me, that’s my lens, really,” because my cameras are no longer poking people in strange places, nor do I worry about smashing my lens into a table or someone’s head as the camera swings to and fro like a wrecking ball.
2) Shutter Sound: The Fuji XT1 is quiet. The mechanical shutter, in my opinion, sounds quieter than the electronic shutter option, which has more of a high pitched “snick.” Either way, the shutter is whisper quiet and pleasant, and this makes a huge difference when shooting at churches and temples, as well as taking the getting ready shots, when the bride is often in a vulnerable state. Knowing that my camera is not going to draw attention to itself allows me to get either closer or to take more shots of a scene before being noticed (that is, before people’s conduct begin to change because they are aware of the camera).
3) The EVF: I didn’t think I’d ever like an EVF. But for work purposes, I have to admit that I love this EVF. It’s big and the “what you see is what you get” goes far in dialing in exposure and settings more quickly. But more importantly, it makes things so much easier to manually focus, particularly when the lights go down. That to me was the main selling point. For instance, when the best man is giving his speech and the lights are low, I don’t have to worry whether the right part of the face is going to be in focus. The EVF is so clear that I don’t even need to rely on focus peaking. I prefer the prism option like my Nikon FM.
4) The Dials: I don’t know why more camera companies haven’t done more with this. In less than a second, I can see all my settings by turning the camera slightly up, from aperture and shutter speed, to exposure compensation and ISO. I don’t have to dig through menus. I don’t even have to put my eye to the EVF. It keeps things simple and makes me feel like I’m in control, particularly during the fast pace of a wedding, where often nothing is as scheduled or in control. When I’m in control of my camera, the stress levels go down and I can focus on preparing for and anticipating the shot as opposed to worrying about what my camera is doing, such as, “I hope my exposure compensation isn’t at -3,” or “What the hell is my ISO?” or “What is my shutter speed again?”
5) The Lenses: I have not tried Fuji’s pro zoom lenses (24-70 and 70-200 equivalents) and it’s unlikely that I will at this stage. They seem a little too big for my liking, do not have a manual focus clutch with a DOF scale, and therefore don’t conform with the form factor I’m after. I’m getting great results with the 14mm and 23mm on the wide/normal end, and have the experience to know when I’m going to need each. The 56mm is wonderful for my AF telephoto, giving me good low light performance, and as noted, manually focusing the Nikon 135mm f/2 DC is a breeze. To be sure, I do not use the telephoto lenses for fast moving subjects other than when the bride and groom walk or run down the aisle. Most of the fast moving subjects are taken care of with the 14mm and 23mm, where I can zone focus. I use the telephotos when I can’t physically get to the other side of the room or when I’m taking more posed portraits. I also keep in the backup bag the 35mm f/1.4, which depending on the venue, I may use during a cocktail hour our when I need a little bit of distance but not too much distance that a 56mm f/1.2 would require.
6) ISO performance: While it would be great to shoot at ISO 50,000 or some insane number with an A7s, I frankly don’t see the need for how I shoot. Plus the form factor for the lenses I would need for a wedding doesn’t fit what I’m after, and the Sony menus are just a disaster to deal with. In any event, I shoot the Fuji XT1s at a max of ISO 6400, and once in a blue moon go up to 12,800 in a pinch. The images work just fine at 6400, and I don’t even blink when I have to go up to that ISO. To be sure, I make 12 x 12 or 12 x 13 books for all my clients, so at the sizes I’m printing, the issues with banding or digital noise aren’t exacerbated as they would be if I was enlarging them to 20 x 30 or larger. If I have to shoot past ISO 6400, then I have a flash for that, and that will usually happen during certain situations at the reception. However, ISO 6400 covers the majority of the wedding day. The times I bring the camera to that setting are usually at the ceremony where the lighting is very low, sometimes during the getting ready shots, and then when the reception and dancing start, I bring the ISO down where necessary so that I can utilize flash.
7) JPEGS: Jared Polin from Fro Knows Photo will likely explode when I say that I shoot JPEG. To begin, you have to keep in mind that for me, when I was shooting RAW with Nikon, for every hour I shot, there was at least an hour or more of editing taking place afterword. Sure, maybe I could get a faster computer and a faster operating system, or hire someone else to do it, but I don’t have the budget for that and I want to retain full creative control. But, more importantly, the Fuji JPEGs are solid enough that I don’t need a faster computer or a faster operating system. I shoot in either manual or shutter priority, and I’m very cognizant that I have to dial my exposure in correctly, as I won’t have the same leeway as I would with RAW. But I had the same approach when shooting RAW, so there’s really no difference for me. Sure, I have to pay even more mind with backlit situations or mixed lighting, but the shadow recovery or white balance adjustments for the JPEGs are good enough. And if I have to spend too much time changing an image, whether its RAW or JPEG, it means the image was screwed up already. I move on to the next one. You will not see me ever getting an adjustment brush or utilizing masking layers. Frankly, I have neither the patience or the skill.
But when comparing my workflow with RAW and Fuji JPEGS my workload has literally been cut in half or more. I rarely have to futz around in Photoshop. I can do all my edits in the now defunct Aperture, which gives me all the control I need for curve adjustments, contrast adjustments, and shadow adjustments. More importantly, I’m not skimping on quality either. I’m getting better results with the JPEGS (in the sense that I’m getting images that look like the ones I had in my head when I took them) and I’m delivering edited and color corrected images to my clients within days, as opposed to a week or more. Back when I was shooting Nikon, do you know how it felt to come home with sore shoulders and back and 2000 images at 2am on Saturday night, knowing that you have to shoot another wedding the following weekend? Now I come home without pain and with energy, because I know I won’t have to sit in front of my computer for days cursing at it.
8) Flash: I still don’t fully understand why people are knocking Fuji’s flash system. That said, I don’t use their products, and shoot manually with the Nikon SB-700, both on the camera and via radio trigger. Sure, it isn’t TTL, but I never shot with TTL even when I had TTL with the Nikon. No, I’m not some flash guru like The Strobist or Zack Arias, but that’s precisely the point: using one flash and one camera isn’t rocket science. And, mind you, I’m not shooting in the studio or with more than 1 flash. As noted earlier, because all the controls are readily accessible and viewable, shooting manual flash is a breeze. I can check the ambient exposure and easily dial it in 1 stop under, which is my usual method for achieving the kind of look I’m after.
Now it isn’t all a bed of roses. If there’s one thing you learn as a working photographer, there isn’t such thing as a perfect camera. You will always have to make a compromise somewhere, and the question is not only whether there’s a workaround, but whether you can live with the workaround.
Here are the things that, from time to time, make me question whether moving to Fuji XT1 for weddings was the right decision:
1) Autofocus: Autofocus is good with high performance mode on. I have always used single point AF. I haven’t tried the new AF toys that Fuji will be unveiling soon. But as it stands now, the difference between autofocus with the Fuji XT1 and the Nikon D700 is like the difference between a Toyota Prius and a Corvette. At least for me, the difference is that clear and wide. They both get you where you’re going. But the AF on the Fuji XT1 is not instantaneous in the same instantaneous way as the D700. Yes, that is a rather oblique statement, but you just have to have shot both to know where I’m coming from. It relates more to the general term of responsiveness, which I’ll talk about later, but it seems like I can literally feel the Fuji XT1’s shutter button’s message running down to the shutter and telling it to open. The difference is often a split second, but that can sometimes be the difference between a deliverable shot and a trashed one. When you do enough weddings, you begin to know and recognize the moments that can’t be missed, so you can ready the camera in advance. But sometimes I ask myself why I have to do this, when sometimes I’m trying to just get myself ready in advance, much less the camera. Further, there are times during the wedding that I find myself swearing/praying/chanting, “Please, no red box, please no red box, please no red box.”
For instance, when I shot with the Nikon, I could use AF in the dark (without AF illumination) when shooting fast moving dancing scenes or other dark sitiuations. 99.9 percent of the time, the shot was in focus. It may not have been the best composition, but the fact of the matter is that you can’t fix an unfocused shot, no matter how well composed it is. For dancing shots, even with AF illumination, I found that the Fuji XT1 just couldn’t hang. There was enough of a delay to miss the shots. In that regard, I zone focus with the 14mm or the 23mm, and that works perfectly, for all dance and moving shots. (That is the other reason I do not use the Fuji zoom lenses, as those lenses do not have the manual focus clutch DOF scale to zone focus). It’s a workaround but do keep that in mind if you’re not comfortable with that kind of shooting. I shoot like this 95 percent of the time when shooting street, so it’s second nature.
To put it simply, the camera’s AF is good in good light (in contrast, a D700 is excellent in good light). But in dim or dark light, this camera isn’t your DSLR. The Fuji reminds me of a child taking the subway by himself. It can be done, and it has been done, but it always seems like a minor miracle when it happens. And there’s a lot of breath holding.
The AF is a really big one, because weddings are just full of situations with dim light and dark light. I’m waiting to see how the firmware, if at all, changes the equation. And to be clear, I don’t require a camera that needs to shoot sports. I do, however, as a wedding photographer, need a camera that hits focus 95 percent of the time very, very quickly. The Fuji XT1, in my experience, hits focus about 90 percent of the time sometimes very quickly.
2) Responsiveness: The Fuji XT1 is responsive, particularly when you compare it with the X100 and X100s (I have not tried the X100T) and the XPRO1. But when compared to the D700 and other Nikon DSLRs (D610, D750, D3, and D4), the XT1 is not nearly as responsive. I don’t think it’s a scientific measurement, but more of a feeling when handling and comparing the XT1 with the DSLR. So again you might have a different sense than me. For instance, sometimes when I turn the camera on, it doesn’t turn on right away. Or when it goes to sleep, it takes a few seconds to wake up. Or, when I’m in MF mode, there is a slight shutter lag, particularly if I don’t smash the shutter down all the way, which to this day confuses me to no end. These are things for me that make the camera annoying and quirky (the word ‘quirky’ seems synonymous for Fuji cameras . . . why oh why???), and makes me seriously question whether the XT1 is really a professional wedding tool or almost a professional wedding tool masquerading as a professional wedding tool.
3) Battery Life: What battery life? I carry in my bag thirty batteries so I don’t have to worry. I’m not exaggerating. I think they are rated for 300 plus shots but to me the Fuji batteries are kind of like cooking a baked potato. When is it done? Put it in the oven at 400 degrees and who the hell knows. I’ll have full bars then all of a sudden I have 1 bar. There’s no rhyme or reason and no warning and worse no planning. When the red comes on, you better have the battery in your hand or the other battery full in reserve. Fortunately the batteries are easy to switch out, and I am always carrying them. I have the battery grips, and those are not only for handling but for battery life. It’s not a huge problem, because I’m not in the Amazon somewhere without any access to electricity. But know that to be responsible at a wedding, you have to carry extra batteries if you’re shooting 8-12+ hours at a time, knowing that without an assistant, you might not have quick access to an outlet. Keep that in mind when you’re budgeting for this camera.
Can the Fuji XT1 replace the DSLR workhorse?
In the end, the Fuji XT1 could be a game changer for the DSLR toting wedding photographer. It provides many of the tools that I’m looking for, from size and weight to great lens selection and image quality. But one of the main problems are both it’s AF speed and responsiveness, particularly when compared to a DSLR. I’ve been able to workaround the speed and accuracy limitations of the AF, mostly by disabling the AF and putting it into MF. I’ve also been able to workaround the responsiveness issues with the camera as a whole (again when compared to a DSLR). But these two main issues, along with the battery life, are really pulling at my strings, and it’s something I don’t want to have to workaround. Sure, if I’m shooting street, portraits, or landscapes, the issues I described aren’t deal breakers. But when you’re shooting a fast paced wedding on your own, you want to know that the AF is not simply going to perform, but kick major ass.
If you shoot weddings with the Fuji XT1, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.