I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures, but one of the reasons that kept me from considering a “serious” camera with interchangeable lenses was the size and weight. Full-frame cameras like my mother’s Nikon D800 are hefty devices that make their presence known, and I had always associated great image quality with these bigger bodies that I simply wasn’t willing to carry around.
Then mirrorless cameras entered the scene a few years ago, promising to still deliver great image quality, but in a smaller, lighter package. This was the icebreaker for me, and led me to buy my first interchangeable lens camera, the Sony A6000. It was small enough that I could tuck it into the messenger bags and backpacks I already owned. I marvelled at the shallow depth of field I could achieve with fast prime lenses, and how light and small these lenses could be compared to the DSLR lenses my parents owned.
However, after shooting 2000 RAW files over two weeks in Japan earlier this year, I started to feel like the joy of taking photos was being smothered by a sense of mandatory post-processing. The Sony is great for sharp, contrast-y pictures, but I found it hard to get different looks out of the camera without extra processing time. I enjoy tweaking shots in Lightroom, but I don’t want to feel like I have to do it. I’ve had a few friends who have dropped out of photography because of the time, commitment, and hard drive space required to manage thousands of RAW files. I started to look into how I could spend more time shooting, and a little less time editing.
Luckily, this was around the same time I started listening to the Candid podcast. In Episode 2, Marius Masalar espoused the qualities of Fuji cameras and their film simulations. I was already peripherally aware of Fuji because my cousin had been using an X-E2 to great effect on Instagram, but the Candid episode was really what got the ball rolling for me.
The X-Pro 2 In Hand
This won’t come as a big surprise given the type of bags I’ve reviewed on Tools & Toys so far, but I love using products where build quality and finish are top of mind. As great and compact as the Sony A6000 is, it can also be a little creaky and feel more like a toy in the hand. The X-Pro 2 feels like you’re holding a machine, and its magnesium body feels very solid and ready for real adventure. The camera’s weather sealing also means I can use it in the rain and cold, as long as I match it with a weather-resistant lens (which is in the plans, down the line).
The body is actually quite light on its own, but when paired with a very fast lens like the XF 23mm f/1.4, there’s a considerable sense of heft in the hand. I could leave the A6000 dangling from my hand as I walked around town, but the X-Pro 2 requires that I hold it more securely, or have it fastened on a strap. Buying a Lensmate Thumb Grip has helped, but ideally I’d like more purchase along the front of the camera for my fingers. Fuji’s own metal grip for the X-Pro 2 provides this, but it’s monstrously expensive at $130, and also makes the whole camera larger because it mounts to the tripod slot.
The buttons and main dials all feel premium, with the exception of the rear command dial, which can feel a little sticky when I press it (possibly due to weather sealing). The controls are laid out to allow almost full one-handed control. This means that my right hand alone can change shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, and dictate focus with the focus lever above the directional pad. This has really come in handy for long exposure night shots at the cottage, where it’s so dark that I can’t even see what the number on the dials say. But the placement of the hardware controls is distinctive enough that I can blindly switch the controls, and verify the settings in the viewfinder.
The dual-purpose shutter and ISO dial is an interesting design compromise. You can turn the main dial to change shutter speed, or you can pull the dial upwards and twist, which changes the inner ISO dial. Many people see this as a nod to retro film cameras, but according to the X-Pro 2’s designer, it’s mainly a space-saving decision that they tried to implement in a delightful way (in lieu of adding an extra dial).
It’s nothing special hardware-wise, but I also love the Q button along the right side of the camera. I make use of it dozens of times a day for changing film simulations, activating eye auto-focus, and switching between the mechanical and electronic shutter.
One of the advantages of a mirrorless camera is the quieter shutter sound. Instead of the double thwack of a mirror slap in a DSLR, there’s just one click. The shutter sound on the X-Pro 2 is crisp, but it won’t echo around a room.
However, the X-Pro 2 also has an electronic shutter for absolute discretion, or shooting wide open at 1/32,000s in broad daylight (which has saved me money on filter purchases, so far). The shutter settings are also thoughtfully designed: you can set mechanical, electronic, or mechanical + electronic. The way the latter works is that the X-Pro 2 uses the mechanical shutter up to 1/8000s, and switches to the electronic shutter for anything faster than that.
The biggest reason to pick up the X-Pro 2, and the reason it’s one of Fuji’s flagship products, is the hybrid viewfinder. This viewfinder is situated on the top-left corner of the camera, and just as in the Fuji X-100T, offers three viewing modes: an optical viewfinder (OVF), an OVF with a pop-up screen (Hybrid OVF), and an electronic viewfinder (EVF).
The allure of the OVF is how it lets me see outside of the current frame. Most mirrorless cameras can only show you exactly what the attached lens can see, but the OVF on the X-Pro 2 is a pane of glass that provides a wider field of view than most lenses in the X-Mount system. In other words, what you see through the OVF is usually more than what will be captured by the sensor. This helps me frame my pictures with a greater sense of context, and even helps me wait for new subjects to enter or leave my frame.
The X-Pro 2 tries to account for the amount of parallax caused by the focal length of the lens and the OVF’s field of view, though it does take practice to judge where your focus and final frame will fall. But I enjoy photography particularly because of how it requires me to take on different perspectives, and this optical viewfinder is a fun and challenging new experience.
In his excellent Leica Q review, Craig Mod talked about about how “the very definition of a photograph is to add edges to the world”. That idea really struck me, and it encapsulates how it feels to use the OVF on the X-Pro 2. I can look through this little window and, with a click of the shutter, draw lines around the parts I find most captivating. Of course, using the OVF does have its drawbacks. Adding edges to the world is a lovely notion up until about 55mm, but once you go past that, you’ll barely see what it is you’re drawing lines around.
This is why the hybrid OVF mode helps. With a flick of the front lever, a small electronic viewfinder pops up in the corner of the OVF, which helps a lot with verifying focus. This pop-up EVF can display focus peaking, and also magnify the frame.
I’d say that I use the Hybrid and plain OVF about 30% of the time. The rest of the time is spent using the EVF, which is also activated with a flick of the front lever (just under the shutter dial). Due to early reviews, I was a little worried about how well I’d be able to view the EVF with my glasses on, but after little fiddling with the diopter, it was a non-issue.
The advantages of the EVF are the usual: live view with exposure and film simulations, as well as great focus peaking while using manual focus. The latter is something that I’ve been practising a lot more on the Fuji system, especially for low-light shooting.
Low Light Performance
The Sony A6000 tended to effectively max out at ISO 1600 for low-light color photographs. I could stretch to ISO 3200 or 6400 if I shifted things to black and white, but 6400 felt like I was really pushing the envelope. I’d heard plenty of good things about Fuji’s low-light performance from other reviews, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was due to taking RAWs and processing them until they looked good. One of the things I was most curious about was how JPEGs would look at ISO 6400 and 12,800.
I have plenty of favorite shots at ISO 6400, as I’ve set that to be the upper tier of my auto-ISO settings when I have my 23mm f/1.4 lens mounted. This Velvia shot of my friend Phil still shows really lovely, vibrant colors:
I don’t have as many shots at ISO 12,800 because I simply didn’t need to shoot that high with XF 23mm. But with my recent acquisition of the XF 18-55mm (which maxes out at f/4 on the long end), I’ve started to experiment with high ISO shots. I reduced highlights in this Acros night shot, but otherwise it’s untouched and shows the kind of detail that’s retained at ISO 12,800:
The most appealing factor of Fuji cameras is their built-in film simulations. These strike a happy medium between the over-blown color profiles on Sony cameras, and the more tasteful filters in my favorite smartphone apps, like Darkroom. They’re wonderfully fun to use, and you can customize them a little more with profiles that change the sliders for grain, shadows, highlights, and sharpness.
What I love about this is that I can do 90% of my Fuji shooting with JPEGs alone, and be very happy with the results. The 24 Megapixel JPEGs that come out are pretty large at 12–20 MB, but they usually only require minor touch-ups for exposure and shadow boosts. These simulations are liberating because I spend more time shooting, and less time with post-processing — which was one of the major reasons I picked up this camera to begin with.
But because the X-Pro 2 can hold two SD cards, I can have my cake and eat it too. I use one card solely for JPEGs and the other for the RAW files. These RAWs can be re-processed on the camera, so that I can re-interpret a file with the Acros film simulation and generate an entirely new JPEG. Or I can take the RAW files and re-process them in Lightroom, using Adobe’s best take on Fuji film simulations.
Most of the shots sprinkled throughout this review are JPEGs with slight tweaks to exposure, contrast, and shadow. It was a bit of a pain to hunt down which picture used which simulation because that metadata isn’t in EXIF, but rather in a section of the JPEGs called Maker’s Notes, which I needed a special Metadata Viewer Lightroom plugin to find. I know there are merits to each of the film sims, but the ones I’ve been drawn to most are:
- Provia, the standard Fuji color profile
- Acros, for grainy, lower contrast black and white
- Pro-Neg Hi, for warm and high contrast portraits
- Classic Chrome, a desaturated high contrast look
These are the ones I’ve learned to use over the past five months, but I’m excited to learn more what situations will make the other four film simulations — Astia, Velvia, Pro-Neg Standard, and Monochrome — shine. There is actually a ninth film simulation, Sepia, but I have never wanted to use it.
Previous Fuji cameras have included many of these film sims, but the X-Pro 2 brings something new to the table with the way it can dynamically add grain to different portions of a shot. This is something that Lightroom can’t do when re-processing the RAW files; it has to be done on the X-Pro 2 itself. It took me a little while to warm to the look, and I don’t use it on every film sim, but I love how it adds extra texture to Pro-Neg Hi and Acros shots. This camera is making me appreciate that a clean image can still have little artefacts — and that those artefacts can add a lot of character.
You won’t pick up an X-Pro 2 for video, but if you own one, there’s a lot of promise here. The video goes up to 60 frames per second at 1920×1080, with a bit-rate of around 36 Mbps. The kicker is that film simulations also work in video, which means you can take dramatic Acros video, or rich and colorful Velvia video, without having to do any color correction in post-production.
What’s more, the Fuji .mp4 files are compatible with my iOS devices and the SD Card Adapter, so I can take a few videos and review them minutes later on my iPad Pro. As awesome as the video out of the A6000 is, I always need to return to a MacBook Pro to review anything.
The X-Pro 2 is apparently technically capable of doing 4K video, but I don’t really care about that at the moment. I think 4K is gorgeous, but I don’t want to deal with having to store those extreme file sizes on my iOS devices or MacBook Pro. What I want from the camera is a higher bit-rate for recording, so the videos come out a little sharper. They can look a little soft in review, even when I’ve ensured that the lens was focused to be tack sharp.
I also really want better focus controls while in video mode. I don’t necessarily need the new AF-C controls on the X-T2, which Fuji warns may not make it to the firmware 2.0 update for the X-Pro 2. What I’d like is the ability to switch the focus point using the focus lever, just like I can when I’m shooting a photograph. The video focusing options at present simply aren’t very clear, but I’ve sussed out that it really depends on the autofocus settings, which are set on the front of the camera.
If you have the camera set to manual, then you’re free to focus the video manually — but without the benefits of any focus assist controls: no focus magnification or focus peaking, which are the two tools I find most useful for MF.
If the X-Pro 2 is set to AF-C (autofocus continuous), then it will continually try to focus on any object in the center of the screen. Zone or wide focus settings don’t seem to apply during video, and there’s no option to move the focus area around. The saving grace for AF-C video is that it works with face detection, if you have that turned on.
There’s a lot of promise in the X-Pro 2’s video because the film sims look so good in motion, but the focus controls and the bit-rate need to improve to really be usable. It’s strange and inconsistent that some of the X-Pro 2’s best controls just disappear the moment you start recording video.
It was actually for features like video that I had considered waiting for the DSLR-like Fuji X-T2, since it has useful extras like a large EVF and a tilting screen. But when I visited Henry’s to compare the current X-T1 body and the X-Pro 2, the difference was night and day to me. There’s something about the lines of this rangefinder-style camera that captures my imagination. I like that my X-Pro 2 has such a different silhouette from the majority of other high-end cameras. I also think it helps me blend into the background more as a result, since most people just see it as an older film camera, and don’t equate it with being expensive like a DSLR.
The irony is that the X-Pro 2 is expensive at $1700, but that’s actually to be expected since it’s one of Fuji’s twin flagship devices (the other being the X-T2). In comparison, I paid around $600 for my A6000 when I bought it. Is there an $1100 difference between the two? For my money, yes. There’s a big difference in build quality, and although the A6000 still takes the cake in terms of video, I love everything else about the Fuji so much more.
For the kind of shooting experience I’m looking for, the X-Pro 2 was really the only game in town. Thank goodness then that it’s a wonderful camera to use, and a joy to pick up everyday.