Three Months with Fujifilm X-T3

Almost 20 years have passed since Fujifilm released the 4700z, a camera which replaced the brick-like Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 I’d been using up to that point. The Fuji’s diminutive size and vivid colour reproduction was to have a lasting impression on me, as was the “revolutionary” interpolation of 2.4 CCD megapixels to produce a 4.3 megapixel image. Not having to carry around bags full of blank floppy disks also made a welcome change.

Product image of Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless camera
X-T3: a Modern Classic

Now it’s 2019 and I’ve made what feels like a similar leap forward with the purchase of an X-T3, Fujifilm’s latest mirrorless body together with some 18-55mm glass that’s so good I’m not going to use the slur ‘kit lens’ hereafter. Why go back to a DX sensor? I’ve thought about it long and hard, and decided that no matter how small and light you make a high end full-frame camera, when you add a fast lens you’re back to the kind of bulk that’s caused me to leave my Nikon DSLR behind on too many trips. And, having seen the latest evolution of my go-to travel camera, the Olympus E-M5, I’ve decided that I want more than it’s micro four thirds sensor can deliver. So why not start on my third interchangeable lens system with a return to Fujifilm?

First Impressions

The biggest selling point as soon as I laid eyes on the X-T3 was the number of dedicated manual controls – it’s simply covered in dials and buttons! OK, technically the E-M5 has more customisable hardware buttons, but you have to map them to do what you want, and then remember what that was. I never spent so little time in menus until I bought this Fuji, literally everything I need to adjust between shots is right there on the camera body, and because it’s a dedicated control you can see what it’s set to, even before you turn the camera on.

No Mode Dial

A pleasant consequence of having physical control over just about everything is that you don’t need a typical PSAM mode dial. Each of the critical controls has an ‘A(uto)’ setting, so when you leave aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all in ‘A’ you’re effectively in Program Auto. Turn lens ring away from ‘A’ and you’re in Aperture Priority mode, or turn the shutter speed dial and you’re in Shutter Priority mode. Fiddle with both and you’re fully Manual. It takes no time at all to get your head around working like this, and when you do you wonder why other manufacturers don’t follow suit – it’s just so much more intuitive! Even the ISO setting is adjusted via a dedicated wheel on the top-plate, though that too has an Auto setting if you feel so inclined.

Image showing detail of X-T3 camera top plate
Spin those wheels!

The X-Trans Sensor

This is one thing I wasn’t prepared for at all, and, to be brutally honest, the jury’s still out there as to whether or not it’s a good thing. Most cameras employ an imaging sensor based on a Bayer array, which means that photodiodes cover the CCD in an even, repeating pattern, usually 2×2. On an X-Trans sensor the diodes are scattered in an irregular repeating pattern across a 9×9 square in order to mimic the analogue way in which film or photo paper is made, at least on a microscopic level. This poses a challenge when you work with Fujifilm’s RAF files, because your processing software can’t use traditional algorithms to sharpen the detail in files from an X-Trans sensor in the same way as it can with a Bayer sensor – in fact Lightroom makes a right pig’s ear of it if you use the standard Develop sliders.

But all is not lost. If you’re willing to adapt your workflow and / or throw more money at software there are several third party solutions, Capture One for Fujifilm. Or you can stay in Lightroom and use the relatively new Enhance Details function. It does a good job of using AI to sharpen up RAF files where required, but it’s very processor-intensive and locks up my ageing MacBook Pro for a couple of minutes each time, spitting out huge DNG files at the end.

At first I was a bit disheartened with the whole RAF scenario, but that’s faded to acceptable levels since I started doing something unexpected: I’m shooting more JPG. The camera does an excellent job of producing crisp, vibrant images from that X-Trans sensor, and with so much manual control at your fingertips it’s easy to set the camera up for the kind of picture you want to take, previewing everything in realtime through an excellent 3.69m dot optical viewfinder or on the flip updown LCD.  If I’m feeling insecure about this approach I shoot RAW+JPG, and have configured the twin SD cards to store JPG on one and RAW on the other. JPGs then go into Lightroom for culling and minor work, RAW gets dumped on an uncatalogued folder on my NAS, just in case I need them later. I’ve only felt the need to delve into that bucket a handful of times, which to me says a lot about this camera’s ability to take the pictures I want there and then, as opposed to providing me with the most flexible files to work on later. Which it can also do, via Enhance Details and DNG.

It’s a Velvia kind of day

Finally, there’s the matter of film simulations. Fujifilm have a long and rich history in manufacturing camera film, and much of this has been baked into the X-T3 in the form of several gorgeous tonal profiles.

Together with the level of manual control on this camera, the film simulations have changed the way that I look at and capture the world when I take photos. 

That’s no mean boast, but it’s true, and – cliché alert – it’s made photography fun again. Before the X-T3 I would try to get the best picture I could, where ‘best’ meant a collection of absolutes; critical sharpness, dynamic range, minimise blown shadows or highlights. More often than not, I’d resort to dragging the tripod along, and thrown in a good amount of exposure bracketing just in case. I’d always shoot raw. And then, in post-production, I’d invariably merge the brackets, put back the highlights and blacks, add in the saturation and vibrancy that I carefully controlled at capture.

I can still work that way with the X-T3, but now I find my self more and more looking at the world from the perspective of a film user, and getting as much processing as I can in-camera. An overcast day in the city? Dial in 800 ISO, select Acros + R and just run with it, JPG only, no guilt or regrets. A bright, sunny day? Embrace those highlights and shadows, give the photos some mood with Classic Chrome. Sure, all of that’s also possible when shooting RAW, but when you pretend that you’ve loaded a roll of expensive film it forces you to justify that expense and work with the medium, a bit like working with a prime lens instead of a telephoto. It’s hard to explain, and maybe I’m not doing a very good job, but right now I’m enjoying this approach a great deal.

And the Glass?

It’s often been said that Fuji make no bad lenses, and the 18-55mm bundled with the X-T3 is testament. It’s capable of f2.8 at the wide end, shrinking to f4 at the long end, and remains very sharp across the whole image from f5 onwards. And you know what? I think it may be all I need. Of course there’s temptation to get a couple of fast primes as well, but if I want this to be a light outfit suited to travel photography then I can’t see the point in taking extra lenses along, or spending time swapping / wondering if I have the right one for any given scene / cleaning the sensor following too much in-field indecision. I can always up the ISO via the dedicated dial, and most of those film simulations look great with a bit of grain. The only thing that’s missing here is great bokeh, but so far that’s not been an issue. No, the 18-55 will do just fine for now.

Compared to …

Nikon D800E full-frame DSLR

Comparing any mirrorless camera to a DSLR is like comparing apples and pears, simply because a mirrorless camera will show you the shot before you press the button, and a chimp like me will need fewer attempts to get the picture he needs. Yes, the images from a FF will be better on a technical level, but you can carry that ethos up to medium format and beyond, so where do you stop – after a second mortgage and a team of Sherpas? I’m keeping the D800E as I’m sure it’ll come in handy for some things, like sports and aurora, but the days of a DSLR being a casual carry-around are long gone. For me a DX sensor means acceptable quality and portability, whereas full frame comes with more than one type of premium.

Olympus E-M5 Micro Four Thirds

Tough choice. The little Olly has been a solid workhorse for many years now, gamely accompanying me on most of my travels and capturing some very memorable moments. It’s a tad smaller than the X-T3 and it’s 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens is a cracker, as is the in-body image stabilisation, but one aspect of the E-M5 has been a constant thorn in my side side day one: lack of USB charging. That might sound petty, but dragging along a separate charger and international power converter almost doubles the size of a system whose main selling point is portability. For this reason alone I’d eagerly awaited the new version of the E-M5, the mk III, which has USB charging … but is no longer made of magnesium, switching to cheap feeling plastic with a fanfare of “saving weight”.  Meh. It’s tempting to stick with this format and get some re-use out of my MFT lenses, but a DX sensor gathers significantly more light without increasing the body (or lens) dimensions much beyond MFT, so in theory portability shouldn’t suffer. Although, having said that, I’ve just shelled out £50 for an external USB charger and two spare batteries – go figure.

In Conclusion

To break out a threadbare cliche: the best camera is the one you’ve got with you, and, for reasons based firmly on physics, that’s not going to be a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless: too bulky, too heavy, too inconspicuous. Sticking to the same reasoning, for may years my best camera was a micro four-thirds Olympus, because it was eminently more portable than full-frame and produced better images than a compact, while still satisfying this geek’s penchant for retro styling and many external controls. But times have moved on, and if I’m going to judge a camera purely on balance of image quality versus portability, then my iPhone 11 Pro Max blows everything else out of the water. But it lacks the engagement and satisfaction of a proper camera.

On paper at least, the Fujifilm X-T3 should be a winner. Image quality is only a little behind full-frame, portability only a little behind MFT. And yet it’s so much more than the sum of those parts – it’s fun to use, and, because of that, has made me want to take more photos. I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with it for around six weeks now, and want to share some images taken at home in the Isle of Man, in Lanzarote, Seville, and Chamonix. These aren’t the best pictures in the world, but each one captures the mood of the moment, and sometimes that’s more important. No regrets.