Fuji X-Pro 2 : Are Mirrorless Cameras Better Yet?
Are mirrorless cameras better than dSLRs yet? That’s been my question for the past few years ever since I reviewed the Fujifilm X-Pro1. It was clear that mirrorless cameras were the future even then, and that the companies involved were improving them faster than the traditional dSLR manufacturers.
But at the time, I thought that there weren’t better yet, and bought another Nikon. I wanted to see what the current mirrorless cameras were like. And from the 100,000+ views on the video I also put together on YouTube, it seems that interest in mirrorless cameras is pretty strong.
So this is about helping you decide whether mirrorless cameras can replace your dSLR, and to validate your choice if that last sentence isn’t applicable.
Fujifilm kindly lent me their excellent X-Pro2 camera with the 23mm, 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2 lenses. I teamed up with world-travelling photographer Richard Hadley for the review and tried several of his Fuji lenses including the 35mm f1.4 too. Therefore, this review will also address the lenses available for the dSLR/ mirrorless systems; and which I preferred and recommend between the esteemed 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2 lenses.
The X-Pro 2 Viewfinder
The immediate difference between dSLRs and mirrorless cameras is, surprise surprise, the flappy mirror. The X-Pro 2 actually has a dual viewfinder with an evf and also an optical viewfinder that looks similar to a rangefinder. The latter wasn’t so useful with the longer lenses I was using so I didn’t use it much.
The benefit of the dSLR mirror and pentaprism viewfinder is that you’re literally looking through the lens. So of course there’s no lag and the colours are limited only by the glass and your eyes; and there’s no battery drain either.
These differences used to be enough to disqualify mirrorless cameras for everyday use. But when I looked through the X-Pro 2 camera’s electronic viewfinder (evf), I immediately saw that things had changed.
There was so little lag that I couldn’t notice any, and the colours were bright and clear. Where previous evfs has been dark and noisy in low light with blocked shadows, the X-Pro 2 was actually better than looking through my Nikon’s optical viewfinder.
And in good light, it was arguably better. Because you can see the images as they will actually look, which makes black and white photography a lot easier. You can also see the pictures you’ve taken clearly without having to find shade so you can actually see the screen.
Manual Focussing and Lens Treasures
All of this talk about the viewfinder has brought back fond memories of manual focus with the Fuji Xpro2. Let me be clear that I usually hate focussing manually, mainly because even with the dioptre adjusted, I don’t find the viewfinders on most dSLRs good enough to achieve critically sharp focus at f1.2-f1.8.
But this changed with the Fuji camera. Focus peaking, which accentuates micro contrast (using a high pass filter I think), makes manual focus much easier. And that without sacrificing the brightness that focussing screens built for manual focus have to. Fujifilm also offers a full range of customisable options for this focus peaking, including colours and threshold. It’s also possible to zoom in with the optical viewfinder to be really accurate with your focus. This alone is a major reason to switch systems.
Except that I didn’t really like the manual focus on the new Fujifilm lenses. Certainly it’s well dampened and the metal machined focussing ring, particularly of the marvellous 90mm f2 lens, is a tactile pleasure.
But lack of a hard stop at infinity focus and, even with no discernible lag, the nagging thought that the focus was electronic ‘fly-by-wire’, plus plenty of experience with some beautiful truly manual lenses like the Hasselblad 80mm made the experience more practical than pleasure.
Thankfully, mirrorless cameras have a delightful capability; the lack of a mirror means that the amusingly named flanged distance between the sensor and the rear element can be modified with an adaptor to mount pretty much any lens.
It’s tricky to overestimate how amazing this is. There is a huge wealth of lenses available that you can use on mirrorless cameras. The Metabones adaptor also allows you to increase the apparent maximum aperture of some lenses too. Because the sensor is a cropped frame APSc with a conversion factor of about 1.5x, you will enjoy the center sweet spot of the lens and not see the possibly blurrier, darker corners like you would on a full frame mirrorless cameras.
The Fuji lenses are lovely and I really thought highly of their compact design and image rendering so they will probably be your go-to lenses for the X-series cameras. But I highly recommend finding a few classic lenses from other manufacturers to compliment your setup. The feel of a proper manual focus lens combined with the excellent focus peaking with the Fuji evf is a great experience in practice.
The cropped frame APSc sensor means that the lenses can be smaller than their equivalent full frame lenses. The 56mm f1.2 is about the same as an 85mm lens, which is traditionally an excellent focal length for portraiture, but its depth of field is about the same as an 85mm f1.8.
The 90mm is longer still on the X-Pro 2; it’s equivalent to a 135mm lens on full frame. Again this is a lovely focal length for portraiture, and especially for headshots.
Neither lens will give you quite the same extreme blurry backgrounds as you would expect on full frame. In practice this doesn’t matter much because using a lens wide open can means blurry noses and too shallow a depth of field to please the clients, who are less interested in bokeh than the average photographer.
Yes, it’s possible to get a shallower depth of field by stitching several pictures together like Ryan Brenizer, but it’s definitely more of a hassle, and for that Danny Diamond blurry background look, a larger sensor is definitely preferred.
The lenses though are really incredible. Obviously the light gathering capability was very useful and the slightly deeper depth of field was good. The bokeh was excellent, and actually Fuji has bought out another version of this lens called the 56mm f1.2 APD that includes an extra element to vignette the aperture and further improve the quality of the bokeh albeit at the cost of a little light gathering ability and a higher price. I’ve only tested it briefly so I can’t say which is better.
The 56mm f1.2 lens is definitely the more versatile option compared with the 90mm f2. Neither lens is stabilised nor do Fuji yet offer stabilisation in-body like some other manufacturers. This means that the maximum aperture and the shorter focal length make a big difference to the pictures you’re able to take in lower light conditions.
But despite the logical reasons, I preferred the Fuji 90mm f2 lens. It’s truly an excellent optic that would cost a lot more from a different brand. It’s sharp wide open, is excellent by f2.8 and has beautiful micro-contrast that really shows that Fujifilm really knows how to design beautiful lenses for photographers. The colour is slightly warm too compared to a colder Zeiss which I preferred for skin tones.
The 90mm f2 is also the better built of the two lenses. Both are metal with plastic lens hoods, and the metal machining of the grips are a welcome change from the Nikon and Sigma rubber grips that have swollen and fallen off after years of intensive use. I liked the stiffer aperture dial on the 90mm f2 lens compared to the looser 56mm aperture dial which, while it can be changed with one finger more easily, also can be nudged in fast use.
The 90mm f2 lens is also weather sealed so it would make an ideal match with the X-T2 camera for rainy street, sports or landscape photography. The auto-focus of the 90mm is slightly faster too. The 56mm f1.2 is definitely a great lens, but the 90mm f2 is a true classic.
I’m happy that I borrowed the 90mm f2 lens because it wouldn’t limit the image quality produced by the sensor. I’d assume it is one of the sharpest lenses for the Fuji X-series with effectively no distortion and excellent sharpness.
The X-Pro 2 and XT2 have an updated 24mp X-Trans sensor that improves on the 16mp sensor used in the X-Pro 1 and XT1 (and lots of other X-series bodies).
The sensor is APSc with a 1.5x crop factor. In practice this means that the X-Pro 2 isn’t quite as good in low light although its still very good, and the image quality can’t quite compare to a full frame camera.
The excellent Fuji lenses, and the famous Fuji colours do make a dent in the difference but it’s tricky to cheat physics. Having several distinct ‘looks’ to choose from was excellent though and actually I was happy with how the jpegs looked straight out of the camera, especially with Acros for monochrome and Pro-Neg Standard for colour.
That I felt comfortable forgoing post processing was a major plus for the camera, because for a job where absolute image quality is required, hiring a Phase One or a Hasselblad would be on the cards anyway, and not feeling compelled to edit ‘normal’ photos certainly made the photography a lot more enjoyable.
The Feel of the Camera
The X-Pro 2 is smaller than the equivalent dSLR, and combined with the smaller lenses it makes an excellent kit for travel and street photography. The Nikon pro dSLRs feel faster in the hand with their big buttons but the X-Pro 2 was surprisingly very good.
One thing I didn’t like was the ISO sensitivity dial. It is a good example of form over function. Yes, it definitely looks good, and follows the classic look of the beautiful range finder cameras that the X-Pro series take their design cues from.
But changing ISO on a film camera was a per-film affair. Whereas ramping the ISO up and down is standard practice with digital cameras, especially with the great high ISO performance of the X-Pro’s 24mp sensor. So changing ISO was a two handed irritation that would definitely push me towards the Fuji XT2. Auto-ISO was easy though.
For street photography I really enjoyed the X-Pro2 though. The auto-focus is so much better than the X-Pro1 and I also really enjoyed using manual focus with the focus-peaking too. The 23mm lens was tiny so the camera was unobtrusive in use. The optical viewfinder was also useful with this wider focal length because I could see around the frame like a rangefinder which helped my composition. Having no viewfinder blackout was a particular benefit. Silent shooting with the X-Pro 2 is an absolute God-send for street photography.
The exposure controls for shutter speed and aperture were much better than the ISO sensitivity. I love the design of the X-Pro cameras which I’ll admit actually improves how I feel when I’m photographing because they feel more classic, but the controls are also quick to use as well.
This ‘feeling’ of the camera is often overlooked because it’s personal and subjective. It’s not an easy thing to put across in a specs sheet. But I did notice that I enjoyed photographing more, especially street and documentary, with the X-Pro 2. It’s difficult to say exactly why but if you can test drive the camera, I’d recommend doing so.