Honoured, humbled, frightened and excited: 2 months with the X-Pro 2

When a while back, Fujifilm offered me the opportunity to test a pre-production sample of the upcoming X-Pro 2, I felt honoured, humbled, frightened and excited all at the same time.

Honoured, because I was one of a limited number of photographers worldwide to receive an early sample. Humbled, because the list of the others included big name photographers that I regard very highly, such as Damien Lovegrove, David Hobby and Zack Arias, to name but a few. Compared to these guys, I'm just a grown-up kid with too many cameras, too many lenses and waaaay to many flashes. I felt like taking a shower with the highschool football team. When I had just been out in the freezing cold...

You know the old joke ‘How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb?

Frightened because I had a tight deadline to give Fujifilm four images, preferably from different shoots. Four images that would be looked at, pixel-peeped, scrutinized by the whole world. Four images of which Fujifilm would choose one to display during the Fujifilm X Series Five Year Anniversary Exhibition in Tokyo. You know how photographers can be ruthless for each other’s work. I couldn’t help but think of the old joke: "How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer is: "Eleven: one to actually fix the bulb and ten to comment afterwards about how that one guy could have done it better."

Charleroi, one of Belgium's old industrial cities. I scouted this cool location without ever leaving my house, thanks to Google Maps and Google Street View. The actual hike up the hill made me appreciate a lightweight camera system like the X-Series even more. Hills definitely look lower from Google Earth than they do when you're standing in front of them! My original plan was to do a Long Exposure here, but the wind was so strong I could not keep the camera steady enough.

Charleroi, one of Belgium's old industrial cities. I scouted this cool location without ever leaving my house, thanks to Google Maps and Google Street View. The actual hike up the hill made me appreciate a lightweight camera system like the X-Series even more. Hills definitely look lower from Google Earth than they do when you're standing in front of them! My original plan was to do a Long Exposure here, but the wind was so strong I could not keep the camera steady enough.

Excited

But I also felt excited: I had been slaving away at my new Lightroom book for months (the Dutch version is available now and the English version is in layout) and I hadn’t really been photographing a lot. This opportunity and the deadline it included gave me a much needed kick in the butt. So I rustled up some models, fired up Google Maps and Google Street View to scout some cool locations, charged the battery of my Jinbei flash, dusted off my Formatt Hitech ND’s and my B+W Vari ND's (Dutch link, English link) and planned a couple of shoots.

Shooting JPEG (and actually liking it)

It was freezing cold but model Stéphanie was a real champ. Shot with one of my favourite lenses: the 10-24 mm. I used the Jinbei HD600 II and the Phottix Luna Folding Softbox. In very contrasty, backlit situations like these, it's good to have an Optical Viewfinder, too. Especially the X100T-like one, where you can still have a small EVF inserted in the bottom right corner to help you with your composition. The X-Pro 2 also has a 1/3rd stop faster sync speed than the X-T1, which comes in very handy when you're trying to overpower the sun in bright daylight.

It was freezing cold but model Stéphanie was a real champ. Shot with one of my favourite lenses: the 10-24 mm. I used the Jinbei HD600 II and the Phottix Luna Folding Softbox. In very contrasty, backlit situations like these, it's good to have an Optical Viewfinder, too. Especially the X100T-like one, where you can still have a small EVF inserted in the bottom right corner to help you with your composition. The X-Pro 2 also has a 1/3rd stop faster sync speed than the X-T1, which comes in very handy when you're trying to overpower the sun in bright daylight.

The camera being a pre-production sample, the camera’s firmware was also still beta, so there were a couple of limitations. First of all, the ‘Preview Exposure and White Balance in Manual Mode’ feature was not working on my sample. It’s a feature I rely on heavily when using flash, because it lets me easily set the desired ambient exposure. However, my model will generally be too dark in this mode, so once I’ve determined how dark or bright I want the background to be, I will switch this mode off.

I use the ‘Preview Exposure and White Balance in Manual Mode’ so much that I’ve assigned a function button to it.

I’ve even dedicated one of the function buttons to it. To assign a function to a function button, press and hold it for a couple of seconds and then choose the desired function from the list that appears. When off, the EVF goes to a normal brightness level so you can choose your composition and your focus point more easily. Being able to switch between both views and having a live histogram is one of the key advantages of mirrorless cameras. Needless to say, the feature will work as expected on shipping X-Pro 2’s.

Another thing that slightly worried me was the fact that there was no RAW support yet. In fact, there still isn’t (as is always the case with new cameras). As a Lightroom user, author and trainer, I eat RAW files for breakfast. Although I love the quality of Fuji’s out-of-camera JPEG files (they’re probably the best in the whole camera industry), I prefer to shoot at least RAW + JPEG for the added postprocessing leeway that RAW files give me. Partly, that’s for creative reasons, as I like to edit my images quite elaborately but partly it’s also to cover up for the underexposure mistakes I sometimes make while shooting. When you know your way around Lightroom, you run the risk of becoming a sloppy photographer because you know the tricks to cover your ass after the shoot.  

Just like David DuChemin, I firmly believe in Vision-Driven Postprocessing. I always try to maximise the mood in my images to make them convey what I felt at capture time. As you can see from the behind-the-scenes shot, this image was actually taken during the day, but I thought the loneliness I felt from shooting from the top level of a parking lot, would be better expressed by a "dusky" postprocessing. I used one of my Colorific Colour Grading presets.

Just like David DuChemin, I firmly believe in Vision-Driven Postprocessing. I always try to maximise the mood in my images to make them convey what I felt at capture time. As you can see from the behind-the-scenes shot, this image was actually taken during the day, but I thought the loneliness I felt from shooting from the top level of a parking lot, would be better expressed by a "dusky" postprocessing. I used one of my Colorific Colour Grading presets.

Old X-Pro 1 shoots new X-Pro 2 :-) This is what the scene really looked like. The dusky atmosphere was added in post. I was surprised to see that even a JPEG could survive this much postproduction, so that's very promising for the RAW files!

Old X-Pro 1 shoots new X-Pro 2 :-) This is what the scene really looked like. The dusky atmosphere was added in post. I was surprised to see that even a JPEG could survive this much postproduction, so that's very promising for the RAW files!

For that reason, I chose to shoot with the Standard Profile, rather than with Classic Chrome which I normally prefer: that film simulation blocks the shadows and without the fallback option of a raw file, I preferred to keep my options open. The X-Pro 2 also has a new Black & White film simulation and a new grain feature, but I did not test that for the same reason.

In this blog post, I will list my top 10 favourite features of this incredible new camera. To conclude this post, I was amazed with the quality of the JPEG files and the flexibility they still offered in terms of further processing. It almost made me wish Fuji would offer an option to save images as 16 bit TIFFs: you would get the benefit of near-raw like editing options along with the beautiful out-of-camera film simulations.

So, these were the four images I submitted to Fujifilm. I’m as curious as you to know which one they picked for the 5 Year X anniversary exhibition. I hope they picked at least one. And even if they haven't, I still had a hell of a time shooting! For me, the X-Pro 2 is already a fantastic camera: it made me get up from my couch and go shoot. Isn't that what all good cameras should do?

This location, an abandoned cooling tower, had been on my to-do list for quite some time. But writing books, magazine articles, creating Lightroom presets and changing the occasional diaper kept coming in the way. The X-Pro 2 deadline was the necessary kick in the butt to finally load up my F-Stop Loka UL backpack and go explore. And that's probably what I like most about Fujifilm cameras: they inspire me to just go out and shoot, experiment, learn from my mistakes and shoot some more.

This location, an abandoned cooling tower, had been on my to-do list for quite some time. But writing books, magazine articles, creating Lightroom presets and changing the occasional diaper kept coming in the way. The X-Pro 2 deadline was the necessary kick in the butt to finally load up my F-Stop Loka UL backpack and go explore. And that's probably what I like most about Fujifilm cameras: they inspire me to just go out and shoot, experiment, learn from my mistakes and shoot some more.

My trusted F-Stop Loka UL backpack and me at the foot of the hill overlooking Charleroi.

My trusted F-Stop Loka UL backpack and me at the foot of the hill overlooking Charleroi.

My favourite new camera with my favourite old lens: the 10-24. I think I make about half of my shots with that lens. In fact, three of the four images on this page were shot with it.

My favourite new camera with my favourite old lens: the 10-24. I think I make about half of my shots with that lens. In fact, three of the four images on this page were shot with it.

All images in this blog post are JPEG images coming from a pre-production X-Pro 2. They were processed in Adobe Lightroom with my Colorific Lightroom presets. A big thanks to Serge from www.fotografieblog.be for the behind-the-scenes shots (made with an X-Pro 1).

 

5 Reasons the RoboSHOOT X flash triggers for Fuji are a game changer

In a week or so, Fujifilm will be celebrating their fifth anniversary of the X-system. I know very few camera companies that have created such a fantastic camera eco-system in such a short time. My switch from a fullframe DSLR was a gradual one: I started with the X-Pro 1 in 2012. It was the appeal of having a lightweight, unobtrusive camera for my travels that won me over. Or, as my colleague and Fujifilm X-Photographer Matt Brandon says, 'I came for the size, i stayed for the quality'.

Yet, it took some adjusting: I love two things: flash and wide angle and neither were very developed at the start of the X-series: the widest lens was an 18 mm (27 mm in fullframe terms) and being used to 16 or even 14 mm on my fullframe DSLRs, 27 mm felt like I was looking through a telescope. However, in four years, Fujifilm have developed a lens line-up that is very complete, at least for my needs. If I were a Nikon or Canon crop DSLR shooter, I guess I'd be very jealous of the available lenses. There's everything from super wide angle over fast zooms and primes to telephoto. And rumour has it that the long-awaited 100-400 mm super telephoto will also be announced in the coming weeks. My favorite lenses currently are the 10-24 f/4 and the 56 f/1.2, although recently I've been very impressed with the sharpness of the 16-55, too! In fact so much that I only use the already excellent 10-24 in the 10-16 range and then I switch it out for the 16-55. 

I came for the Size, I stayed for the Quality
— Matt Brandon

Flash photography on the X-system

But I digress. I wanted to talk about flash: it's no secret that flash is the probably the least developed part of the Fujifilm X-series. That's not completely by lack of want from Fujifilm's part. Apparently, Fujifilm were going to develop a wireless TTL system in collaboration with German manufacturer Metz but that plan either got tanked or at least postponed due to the latter's bad financial situation. Luckily, things are improving. For example, the X-Pro 2 is rumoured to have a sync speed of 1/250th instead of 1/180th of a second on the X-T1. That makes any flash about 30 percent more powerful (at least when working at the sync speed). 

Fujifilm and TTL flash

So, it's not like you can't do flash with a Fuji. There are just less TTL whistles and HSS bells :-) All of the X-series cameras have a hotshoe and there are a couple of TTL flashes available, such as the EF-42 or my personal favourite: the Nissin i40, a review of which will follow shortly. The EF-42 might be the most powerful one, the i40 is the most fun to use and also the most balanced in terms of size and weight, at least when you want to use it on-camera. These flashes will work both in manual and in TTL, but the latter only on-camera.

If you want to use off-camera flash, up to now you are limited to using manual flashes and triggers. For manual use, I recommend the Godox V850 and the FT16s trigger, reviewed here or the Cactus RF60 and V6 trigger. If I need more power, for example when I want to overpower the sun in sunny India in the middle of the day, I turn to my big bazooka: the Jinbei HD600 II, a review of which you can read here.

A holiday snapshot: with kids never sitting still, TTL is a handy feature to have. In this case, I used the Lastolite Trifold collapsible umbrella. It folds down so small you have no excuse not to have one in your camera bag.

A holiday snapshot: with kids never sitting still, TTL is a handy feature to have. In this case, I used the Lastolite Trifold collapsible umbrella. It folds down so small you have no excuse not to have one in your camera bag.

All these off-camera flash options work well but they are manual-only. Although I have no problem working in manual (and sometimes even prefer it), there are times when having TTL remote control of my flash would be great. Especially for those instances where you have to work fast and/or when your subject is moving around in the frame, like my 2.5 year old son likes to do. Manual flash is a pain when the flash-to-subject distance changes a lot, because of that damn inverse square law. I can safely say that my toddler is responsible for my renewed interest in off-camera TTL flash photography!  When I'm on holidays and I want to take a family snap (I always have the Nissin i40 with me), TTL is great to have because my mind does not have to think as hard. After all, it's on holidays, too!

TTL with a cable

Up to now, there was only one workaround to do off-camera TTL flash with a Fuji camera and that was to use - oddly enough - a Canon flash sync cable. Yes, a cable! How very hipster retro :-) For example in this shoot of Dutch supermodel Rosalinde Kirkstra, I used a 10 meter Phottix OC-E3 flash cable. The downside of this is that it's not exactly practical, but it works. If the prospect of cloning out 10 meter of flash cable from some of your shots does not particularly entice you, please read on!

At 1/1000th of a second, the tiny Nissin i40 becomes as powerful as a couple of regular speedlights. In this case I used a 10 meter Phottix OC-E3 TTL cable, but wireless triggering is so much handier. The modifier I used for this shoot is the fantastic SMDV 70 cm Speedbox. 

At 1/1000th of a second, the tiny Nissin i40 becomes as powerful as a couple of regular speedlights. In this case I used a 10 meter Phottix OC-E3 TTL cable, but wireless triggering is so much handier. The modifier I used for this shoot is the fantastic SMDV 70 cm Speedbox

RoboSHOOT to the rescue

Then I heard about a new company, Serene Automation, that were developing TTL flash triggers for Fujifilm cameras. I contacted them and they were kind enough to send me a (pre-production) review sample of their top-of-the-line triggers: the RX-20 receiver and the MX-20 trigger. And they work like a charm. Below I've listed five reasons why, if you're even remotely interested in using flash on your Fujifilm X-cameras, you should seriously consider these triggers.

The MX-20 Trigger Unit

The MX-20 Trigger Unit

The RX-20 Receiver Unit

The RX-20 Receiver Unit

 

1 RoboSHOOT triggers allow TTL flash off camera, straight out of the box

This shot of Frannie and Brecht was made with the tiny but very capable Nissin i40 for Fujifilm and the SMDV 70 cm Speedbox. And of course the RoboSHOOT RX-20 and MX-20. I set one of the custom function buttons on the X100T to Flash Exposure Compensation. I also used Fuji's wide angle converter.

This shot of Frannie and Brecht was made with the tiny but very capable Nissin i40 for Fujifilm and the SMDV 70 cm Speedbox. And of course the RoboSHOOT RX-20 and MX-20. I set one of the custom function buttons on the X100T to Flash Exposure Compensation. I also used Fuji's wide angle converter.

For many people, this reason alone should be enough to order a set. You attach the receiver to a Fujifilm compatible flash like the EF-42 or the i40 and put the trigger on your camera, enable the flash on the camera and you're good to go. If it does not work, it's generally because you've either set your camera to Silent Mode, or you're in one of the settings that disables the flash hotshoe. This happens for example when you're in Continuous shooting mode. Fujifilm has already said they would come out with a firmware that allows flashes (and therefore also triggers) on the hotshoe to fire while shooting in Continuous mode. In fact, the recent 4.20 X-T1 firmware update was supposed to install that but it got withdrawn because of a bug. I also recommend that when 'installing' the trigger, you make sure the little safety pin on the trigger aligns nicely with the corresponding hole in the hotshoe, before you tighten the wheel on the trigger.

The SMDV Speedbox 70 is one of my favourite modifiers for use with small flashes. It has a nice quality of light and it sets up and folds down in seconds. I got mine from the friendly people at www.foto-morgen.de. It's a German website but they sprechen English too :-)

The SMDV Speedbox 70 is one of my favourite modifiers for use with small flashes. It has a nice quality of light and it sets up and folds down in seconds. I got mine from the friendly people at www.foto-morgen.de. It's a German website but they sprechen English too :-)

Contrary to the cable solution I described above, which limits you to only using one off-camera flash, the RoboSHOOT X-system lets you work with multiple flashes off-camera. There's four different groups you can assing flashes to, you just need an equal number of receivers. A smartphone App (iOS and Android), then lets you set TTL flash compensation (more on that later).

Most of the time, I only use one remote flash, though. In those instances, I find it easier and faster to change the flash exposure compensation on the camera. Here's a quick tip: you can either set the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) as one of the items in your Quick menu or, faster still, you can assign a function button to FEC: to do so, simply press and hold the function button of your choice for a couple of seconds and then choose FEC from the list of available options. It works like a charm.

2 The MX-20/RX-20 combo does TTL with Nikon compatible flashes

Let me say that again: this system allows you to use (specific) Nikon flashes with your Fujifilm cameras. Off camera. In TTL! I don't know how John (founder of Serene Automation) pulled this one off, but he did! This is great news for 2 reasons: first of all, quite a number of Fujifilm users either have switched from Nikon or they use Fuji gear in addition to their Nikon cameras. In both cases, chances are that they have already lying an SB-900 around.

This shot of lovely Stéphanie was lit at 1/2000th of a second at f/7.1 with a single Nikon SB-900 speedlight! I again used the SMDV 70 cm Speedbox, which I not only love for its lighting characteristics but also because it's a breeze to set up and take down.

This shot of lovely Stéphanie was lit at 1/2000th of a second at f/7.1 with a single Nikon SB-900 speedlight! I again used the SMDV 70 cm Speedbox, which I not only love for its lighting characteristics but also because it's a breeze to set up and take down.

Below is the current compatibility table. As more people will use these triggers with different kinds of third-party flashes, the list will probably grow. For example, I have successfully tried the triggers with Phottix' excellent Mitros+ for Nikon. Others have reported them to work with the Metz 52 AF-1 and the Yongnuo 568 EX.

Compatibility table of Fujifilm and Nikon flashes. I've personally tested the Nissin i40 and the Nikon SB-900.

Compatibility table of Fujifilm and Nikon flashes. I've personally tested the Nissin i40 and the Nikon SB-900.

But there's a second reason why this is such a big deal. Even when you don't have Nikon flashes lying around, you might actually consider picking one up or buying a used one because, as great as the Nissin i40 is, it's nowhere near as powerful as an SB-900 or an SB-910. Especially when you're working outside or with a diffuser, you'll quickly reach the limits of the i40. Unless... you're using it on the X100T, which brings me seamlessly to the next advantage:

3 The triggers support the high sync speed of the X100T

One current disadvantage of the Fujifilm flash system is that there is no High Speed Sync (HSS): you're stuck, both on- and off-camera, to whatever sync speed your camera has. In the case of the X-T1, that's only 1/180th of a second. As HSS support is a combination of camera, flash and trigger, I currently cannot say whether the Roboshoot triggers will support High Speed Sync if/when it comes out. But having gotten to know the CEO a little, I would not be surprised. However, Fujifilm have a bit of an odd one out with the X100T: this camera uses a leaf shutter which allows for a 'regular' sync speed of up to 1/2000th of a second. In fact, this sync speed is so fast that you can freeze motion or overpower the sun with a simple speedlight. At those sync speeds, the trigger sometimes becomes the limiting factor as some triggers' electronics simply aren't fast enough to take advantage of that high sync speed. The Roboshoot triggers are: I have succesfully used them on my X100T with shutter speeds of up to 1/2000th of a second. At these shutter speeds, the tiny i40 can almost overpower daylight and a Nikon SB900 becomes as powerful as the four times heavier Jinbei. The RoboSHOOT triggers are designed to work with all Fujfilm X cameras. They have been tested with the X-T1, X-Pro 1 and X100T. Personally, I use them the most with my X100T as you can see from the EXIF info in the images. I'm also looking forward to trying them out with a more powerful TTL flash like the Godox Witstro II. I'll report back on that as soon as I can.

4 Manual and TTL multi-flash control from a dedicated App

Using a free Android and iOS App, you have full control over up to four groups. You can set Flash Exposure Compensation and mix and match manual and TTL groups.

Using a free Android and iOS App, you have full control over up to four groups. You can set Flash Exposure Compensation and mix and match manual and TTL groups.

As you can see from the pictures, the MX-20 does not have power controls on the unit itself. Instead, when you want to use a flash in Manual mode or want to work with more than one flash in TTL and change relative FEC, you can use the free RoboSHOOT X App. This App lets you do the following:

  • turn groups on or off without having to use the actual buttons on the receivers
  • mix and match TTL and Manual control
  • set relative FEC compensation (e.g. Group 1 +1 FEC, Group 2 -2 FEC)
  • set FEC lock
  • set manual power levels, from 1/1 all the way down to 1/512!

The App can do a lot more that I haven't tested, but it's really complete without being complex. Still, while having smartphone control over your flashes is great in a studio, for outdoor work, I would still prefer to be able to control power levels, FEC and groups from the transmitter itself. I would really like to see Serene Automation develop a clip-on group controller much like Pocketwizard did with the AC-3 zone controller, so the phone can stay in my pocket during the shoot. In fact, I already pitched the idea.

This image of Stéphanie was shot at 1/2000th of a second, a feature made possible by the X100T's leaf shutter and the RoboSHOOT triggers. Not all radio triggers support these high sync speeds. If you have an X100T and you like flash, the RoboSHOOT triggers are a no-brainer! I used a Nikon SB-900 and a Nissin i40. Main light was shot through the SMDV 70 Speedbox.

This image of Stéphanie was shot at 1/2000th of a second, a feature made possible by the X100T's leaf shutter and the RoboSHOOT triggers. Not all radio triggers support these high sync speeds. If you have an X100T and you like flash, the RoboSHOOT triggers are a no-brainer! I used a Nikon SB-900 and a Nissin i40. Main light was shot through the SMDV 70 Speedbox.

5 Other advanced features

If these features alone weren't enough to startle your interest, there's a couple of advanced features that I did not even use or try because I simply did not need them: you can use TTL lock, create up to four profiles that you can call up by pushing a button on the transmitter, specify delays and so on. The profiles can store advanced things like flash zoom setting, allowing you some extra pop from your flash by zooming it remotely. Wedding photographers will also appreciate the fact that there's a TTL passthrough hotshoe on the MX-20 trigger unit so you can put an on-camera fill flash on top of the trigger. It's actually even more than a simple passthrough, as it is also part of the group system that can be controlled from the App. Like I said... advanced features :-)

Conclusion

Although Serene Automation also produce a more basic trigger-receiver combo (the MX-15 / RX-15) I would recommend getting the more powerful and versatile MX-20 / RX-20 combo. The product page on the website gives you more info on the differences and specifications of the units. If you're only interested in manual off-camera flash, the MX-20 and RX-20 flash triggers are probably overcomplete and there are simpler and cheaper options available like the ones mentioned above. However, if you want to be able to use TTL off camera and/or if you have an X100T and/or if you still have some Nikon SB-900's or SB910's lying around, then these triggers are almost a must-buy.

At $380 for a set, they aren't cheap, but bear in mind that flash photography on Fujifilm is somewhat of a niche market and most importantly, they're currently your only option anyway. So considering the fact that Serene Automation basically has a monopoly right now on this kind of trigger and considering the relatively small market, the R&D that must have gone into it and the advanced features, I think they're actually reasonably priced.

You can order them directly from Serene Automation. If you live in Belgium or Holland (or elesewhere in Europe) and want to avoid potential hassle with customs and VAT, you'll be pleased to know there's an importer for the Benelux, VDH Photo. They will be able to tell you which camera shops will retail these units.

What I liked

  • They're the first (and only) TTL off-camera flash triggers that currently exist for Fujifilm cameras
  • Let you use selected Nikon and Nikon-compatible flashes in TTL with your Fujifilm camera
  • Advanced feature set (MX-20/RX-20)
  • Free iOS and Android App
  • Super fast sync speed (ideal for X100T users)
  • Support for rear/second curtain sync (haven't tried it myself but I know a lot of people want this)
  • Continuous shooting (introduced in the faulty and now revoked 4.20 X-T1 update) will be supported once Fuji re-releases the updated firmware.

What could be improved

  • Manual power control of individual flashes or groups of flashes and FEC of groups of flashes only via App. A hardware option would be great
  • Price (but in fairness, these are Serene Automation's top of the line triggers. The RX-15/MX-15 bundle is about 30 percent cheaper). The RX-15 does not let you use Nikon speedlights in TTL and the MX-15 does not work with the App.


Like the look of these images? Flash is a (big) part of it, but there's also the toning and styling that is done in postproduction: all images were postprocessed using my Lightroom Colorific Presets pack. You can learn more about these presets here.

If you're new to off-camera flash, my Making Light and Making Light 2 eBooks might come in handy.