BY ROBERT FALCONER
We’ve heard it ad infinitum over the past few years: This new mirrorless model from XYZ has the fastest autofocusing in the world**.
It was always important to read the fine print denoted by those asterixes at the end of the sentence, however, because it usually included so many caveats that by the time you were done reading them, it sounded as though your camera could only be used under ideal conditions, lest the AF perform like a snail sliding down a river of molasses. “**Fastest autofocus of any APS-C mirrorless camera in single point mode, under ideal weather conditions, when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars, etc, etc…” — you get the point.
Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that those days of asterixes may be over. Fuji’s new X-T2 camera — particularly when paired with the VPB-XT2 Vertical Power Booster Grip — actually delivers the goods when it comes to fast AF and excellent AF-C tracking.
Is it D5 and D500 level good? No, not quite. Those cameras use Nikon's new Multi-CAM 20K focusing module which offers the most advanced autofocus the industry has yet seen. But the X-T2/VPB-XT2 combo is D7200 or 7DII level good. Which also means D3s good. And that’s damn impressive for any mirrorless camera in 2016, and a quantum leap forward for Fujifilm. Understand that when I say a quantum leap, I'm talking about a system that catapults Fuji straight to the top of the mirrorless pyramid for AF performance, usurping the hitherto previous champ, the Sony A6300 (largely due to the X-T2's programmable continuous tracking modes — modes which will be familiar to users of the Canon 5D series and 1Dx cameras).
It's also now good enough for many — arguably most— types of photography, including sports, wildlife, and general action. Even your child running around in the yard or your dog darting about on the beach shouldn't be much of a problem anymore.
The X-Pro2’s AF was undeniably an improvement over all previous Fuji X-Series cameras, though hardly earth-shattering, as I discussed in my early overview here. (Note: a firmware update this fall will bring the X-T2's new enhanced core focusing algorithms to the X-Pro2, minus custom tracking programmability or the reduced EVF blackout and high speed capabilities of the VPB-XT2.)
With the X-T2, we’re finally getting a mirrorless camera that not only possesses excellent point-to-point single AF, but that can track as well as today's prosumer DSLRs. That's big news. The last functionally relevant limitation of the mirrorless design appears to have been largely eradicated.
So what does this all mean in practice? Read on...
First, allow me to state up front that the X-T2 model I was using is a pre-production version, and does not yet have final firmware onboard (though I’m told it’s close). The hardware, on the other hand, appears to be final.
You can see in the images directly below the menus I used (please ignore the dial selections on the top; the drive mode was actually set to CH for high speed burst, giving me a camera default rate of 8.0fps; and the Boost mode was selected on the VPB-XT2).
Observe that my settings were as follows: AF/MF SETTING (Page 1/2) > AF-C CUSTOM SETTINGS > SET 2 IGNORE OBSTACLES & CONTINUE TO TRACK SUBJECT.
I selected AF-C Mode 2, because where I was standing there were flagpoles and speakers, and heads frequently bobbing into the frame, and I wanted to make certain that the camera stayed with all aircraft as they moved through the sky. It’s hard enough to keep them situated in your frame using the Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens — the only lens I used for the aerial shots — when it’s racked out to 400mm (an equivalent of 600mm in full frame parlance).
With the VPB-XT2 attached and set to Boost, there was no blacking out in the viewfinder, even as the AF system continued to track the aircraft. The real limitation here was myself; as I just mentioned, panning with the aircraft at such a long focal length requires steady hands and experience. The camera, however, hardly missed a beat. I used wide tracking when the subject filled a third of the frame or more, and zone tracking when the subject represented about a quarter or less of the frame. All in all, it seemed to work very well, and I would estimate that the camera nailed pretty close to 90% of the images I shot. Were my own skills at keeping the aircraft in the frame better, I would say the hit rate would have gone up.
Using a focal length of 200mm (in FF terms) or less, I would say the X-T2 would have few misses.
Given the circumstances, and the fact that this is pre-production firmware, I’d also say there’s good reason to celebrate here.
Any caveats? One. When the light falls, and the sky turns from a shade of deep cobalt blue to something resembling a muddy indigo right before darkness, the tracking becomes much less precise, and in several cases just won’t find focus. But this would happen to most of the aforementioned DSLRs in a similar situation as well. Bottom line: if there’s some decent light on your subject, the X-T2 should be able to keep up with it.
As to the rest of the X-T2, I’ll merely add that it feels like more of a “piece” in the hand. It’s minutely bigger and heavier than its predecessor, but also feels better constructed, with well damped and precise feeling controls that are more positive ergonomically. When adding the VPB-XT2 grip — which you’ll want to do to unlock the camera’s full potential — the X-T2 feels for all the world like a solid 1970s SLR with a power winder attached. Whether or not you like that (assuming you even remember it!) is a matter of personal preference. I like it.
My only ergonomic beef with the rig is that I would like to see Fuji give the VPB-XT2 a larger and more substantial front grip, to aid in handholding with bigger glass. It’s a big step up from the X-T1, but doesn’t go quite far enough, IMHO. Also, the joystick (Fuji calls it the focus lever) would be better positioned if it sat where the Q button is, and the second one on the VPB-XT2 should be positioned about a centimeter further to the right for optimal handling when operating the camera in portrait orientation.
These two niggles aside, the camera feels good in the hand and is a joy to shoot with.
I won’t delve into the sensor, processor, and expected image quality here, as I covered that in my X-Pro2 overview. Suffice to say that if you liked the files you were getting from the X-Pro2, you’ll be happy with the X-T2, as they share the identical sensor and processor. It’s a known quantity that provides the very best of what today’s state-of-the-art APS-C sensors are capable of — which, frankly, is quite a lot. If you want to review the specs, you'll find them on Fujifilm's official global page.
What the X-T2, coupled with the VPB-XT2, provide, is a shooting experience that is livelier, faster, and near identical to what a prosumer DSLR camera provides ... with all the benefits of mirrorless technology, minus many of the (heretofore) frustrating downsides.
A big thank you to the good folks at Fujifilm Canada for providing me with this rig for testing.