Way back in the 1990s, Ken Burns’ groundbreaking documentary series ‘The Civil War’ first alerted me to how effective using still images in movies can be. Burns had studied under several notable photographers including Elaine Mayes and Jerome Liebling – two of my favourite social documentary photographers – and he was inspired to make the series by the photographs of Matthew Brady.
There is another stills photography connection to The Civil War. Huger Foote, the son of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, is a wonderful fine art photographer in his own right and was mentored by fellow Memphis citizen Willam Eggleston. Eggleston is a filmmaker and photographer whom some say is “widely credited with increasing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium”. He and his generation of color photographers have shaped so much of how we see the world in color and render it in movies and stills.
Apologies for the history lesson! I learned photography at long distance from photographers in the United States while I was living in one of the most isolated parts of Australia as a child. ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’ and photo books by Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and others showed me the richness of everyday life available to all so long as you kept your eyes open to everything and always carried a camera at the ready.
Using the Fujifilm XT-1
Always carrying a camera is a habit I continue to this day. At the moment the stills camera I am using is an XT-1 (Buy at B&H) on loan from Fujifilm Australia. It came with two excellent lenses – a Fujinon XF10-24mm f4 R OIS (Buy at Amazon) and a Fujinon XF56mm f1.2 R (Buy at Amazon). My choice of lenses was influenced by those I used when I was a professional photographer toting Leica M-series rangefinder cameras, Linhofs and other 4″x5″ sheet film cameras, and a range of 120 film format cameras including Hasselblads, Rolleiflexes, and various Mamiya and Fujifilm models.
I have never been a lens aficionada owning one of every focal length under the sun. Picking up a Leica rangefinder camera equipped with a 35mm lens for the first time was a revelation. That combination gave me 90% of the images I had been seeing for years in the world and in my mind’s eye but had been unable to depict well enough with other cameras and lenses. A 28mm, 50mm and 90mm lens took care of the other 10% with the 28mm lens being used the most. My lens choice in the other film formats was similarly limited – a wide for cityscapes, environmental portraits and documentary, and a longer lens for head and shoulders and big close-ups.
The much written-about bokeh of Fujifilm’s 56mm lens tipped the balance to that lens rather than the also impressive XF35mm f1.4 R. Age and and aching back persuaded me to opt for the XF10-24mm f4 R OIS on the wide side. I try to keep the hardware I am hauling down to the bare minimum. Two well-chosen lenses and one delightfully lightweight camera body – or two of them at most – is about my limit.
Before the XT-1 the only other modern digital Fujifilm camera I have used with long-term serious intent is the X100 which I love and adore to this day. Its focussing is slow and its operation speed isn’t super fast either but it is the non-Leica camera that most reminds me of what I loved so much about my Leica M-series rangefinders. They provided a wide-vision window on the world easily allowing me to graphically relate near to far with speed and precision.
Day 1 – Suburban Cityscapes
Today I took the Fujifilm XT-1 and 10-24mm lens out for a walk around the streets surrounding my home. The XT-1 is intriguing. Neither a rangefinder camera nor rangefinder-like. it has the form factor of a DSLR due to the squared-off hump on its top but it is mirrorless, equipped with a fast-refreshing electronic viewfinder (EVF). Its EVF is fast enough and fine enough to suit the immobile subjects I photographed on the first day of borrowing it.
Documentary photographs and documentary movies are interlinked beyond the fine example of Ken Burns and his work. A project of mine in the research and planning stage is about some idealistic architects and project home builders in this neck of the woods, working title “Ideals for Living”. Their smaller-scale houses are scattered about in between the big Georgian-style mansions and their smaller, more affordable imitations.
At the moment I am compiling a set of photographs of these project homes and their more mainstream alternatives for use in treatments, websites, preview movies and the documentary itself. Another project, a series of documentaries on notable creative people, relies on a sense of place and how that shapes the way my subjects think and see, and I have been making cityscape photographs for that too.
I found XT-1 a pleasure to use – fast, responsive and so light in weight. The Fujinon 10-24mm lens is perfect for this type of fast but careful photography. I found myself walking up to a house, visualising how best to depict it while nearing it, choosing a focal length on the zoom ring, raising the camera when at just the right spot, hitting the shutter and the photograph was made almost as quickly as its visualisation had formed in my mind.
When shooting stills for movies I like to set the camera to shoot a raw file alongside a 16:9 fine quality JPEG in case I need to quickly email the smaller files off to collaborators. Fujifilm’s in-camera JPEG conversion is renowned for its quality. The JPEGs are often good enough to use in their own right. I inevitably opt to process raw files if I have time though as I find there is always something extra to be found inside digital negatives, often something delightfully unexpected.
For me, raw processing is all about graphically simulating the emotions I felt in a time and place, or about a person. I prefer doing as much of that as I can in the raw processor rather than Photoshop. My first choice for processing Canon raw files has been DxO Optics Pro (Buy at B&H) for some years now. When I became enamoured of Fujifilm’s Finepix X100 camera I was pleased that DxO supported it too.
I have had to look for a new raw processing workflow to use with the XT-1’s files however. DxO Optics Pro is built around debayering conventional photographic sensors and not the X-Trans CMOS sensor technology used in subsequent X-series Fujifilm cameras. I have come to love what DxO brings to the picture when using it for documentary projects often shot in available light or more often available darkness. Getting the best out of X-Trans sensor raw files is a little more complicated than opening them up directly in DxO Optics Pro.
DxO’s other products are excellent. I rely on DxO FilmPack for its rather accurate simulation of analog film presets and DxO Viewpoint for its ability to correct perspective in a way that reminds me of the view cameras I used for so many years.
Recent versions of Bridge, Photoshop and Lightroom support Fujifilm’s recent cameras and lenses and add the ability to simulate the camera’s JPEG conversion presets through the Camera Calibration panel. When working on the images in this article I often picked Pro Neg. Std, Pro Neg. Hi or Astia/Soft. On sunnier days I tend to select Velvia/Vivid or Provia/Standard. A bit of slider work in the Basic panel, a slight bend or two in Tone Curve, some sharpening and it is done.
In older versions of Camera Raw I would use it make blander TIFF files for further processing in Photoshop. Apply Convert for Smart Filters, correct perspective in DxO Viewpoint, choose and modify a film preset in DxO FilmPack then resize and export to JPEG or flattened TIFF for use in Final Cut Pro X.
I was happy with today’s effort but can’t help but wonder what DxO Optics Pro might have done could it embrace Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. There are other raw processing products out there that I have yet to try out seriously – Capture One, Iridient, Lightroom, Silkypix and more. They may bring other qualities to the party.
I am continuing to experiment with workflows and raw processors in the hope of finding the combination that will give me the emotions I seek but in the least number of steps. I am, essentially, lazy when it comes to time in front of the computer. I would much rather be in front of my subjects making photographs than processing them. I don't miss those long days in the darkroom at all!
Day 2 – Adobe Create Now & Sydney Street Scenes
By the second day of using the XT-1 I had become so accustomed it that it started to feel like an extension of my eyes and hands. Plenty of excellent in-depth reviews have been written about this latest of Fujifilm’s X-series cameras so I won’t go into all the fine details. I must admit my experience with other Fujifilm cameras certainly helped as there are enduring family resemblances in size, overall shape, the buttons and the user interface (UI).
My other Fujifilm cameras do not have X-Trans sensors but even so the raw files and the way the cameras render them as JPEGs – I tend to shoot raw files and fine JPEGs at the same time – is very similar.
Now that Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom support Fujifilm cameras’ film simulations, I am considering dropping in-camera JPEGs altogether for projects not demanding near-instant transmission of finished images. The simulations I obtained so far have been good enough to forgo in-camera JPEGs and save space on my SD cards.
For many of the photographs I made on both days, it was enough to choose a film simulation in Camera Raw based on how I had visualised the final photograph just before triggering the shutter. Sometimes it was Velvia, sometimes Astia, and less often Pro Neg. Std or Pro Neg. Hi. It is terrific to have that choice in Camera Raw now.
When sometimes adding DxO Optics Pro into the workflow after Camera Raw, I often chose one of three Provia variants – Fuji Provia 100F, 400F or 400X. After my beloved Kodachrome disappeared from the scene I swapped over to using Fuji color transparency films exclusively though stayed with Kodak monochrome films when black and white was required. Now digital gives me so much to choose from – I am spoilt for choice.
The Adobe Create Now event was an opportunity to put the XT-1 and the two lenses to the test in available darkness and all three passed with flying colours. For the first time I ventured into higher ISOs than 1600, often shooting at 3200 ISO. I often shot with the 56mm lens wide open at f1.2 and the 10-24mm f4 lens wide open at f4 or just under. I could have been even more adventurous given the wide-angle zoom’s Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and the X-Trans sensor’s high ISO capability but did not want to push it too far this early in the game.
The clarity and refresh speed of the XT-1’s remarkably innovative EVF were a pleasure especially when using the camera in the dull, overcast light that predominated outdoors throughout the two days. It was only in rare bright sunlight that I found myself wishing for an optical viewfinder (OVF) like the ones in my other two Fujifilm cameras. Those OVFs handle the long dynamic range of bright-lit scenes so well. My ideal future Fujifilm cameras would have dual viewfinders combining the best of the XT-1’s EVF with the best, or better, than the X-Pro1’s OVF.
Other annoyances were minor and may well be fixed in a future version of the XT-1. They include the lack of a lock on the drive modes ring – it slipped off-choice several times in intense situations. I enjoyed the ISO and shutter speed dial locks and especially the ability to easily see and choose ISO via the big ISO dial even when in darkness. The tilting rear LCD was a bonus in situations when I needed to hold the camera low. All photographs were landscape format and shot to be cropped 16:9 so the LCD’s horizontal-only tilt was not a problem.
I was very pleased with the camera and the two lenses for the types of subjects available on both days. I can imagine relying on a kit of two Fujifilm XT1 1s equipped with the Fujinon 56mm f1.2 and 10-24mm f4 lenses for the sort of documentary work I earned a decent living at for so many years during the analog era.
The hardware and software combinations I used over these two days gave me good photographs made under sometimes challenging conditions and were a delight in use. Better yet I ended up with several sets of rather filmic-looking images that will mesh well with video footage to come and reproduce nicely in development documents too. Overall a very rewarding stills-for-documentaries photographic experience.
I recommend the XT-1 and these two lenses very highly indeed and look forward to trying out more Fujifilm and Fujinon X-series lenses and X-Trans-equipped cameras. I look forward to the day when Fujifilm will improve its X-series cameras’ moviemaking features too. Imagine shooting HD footage with Provia, Velvia or one of the other film simulations applied!
(photo credit: all photos from Karin Gottschalk)