Is The X Series Really Good Enough For Fast Action Pro Sports Work?

· 20.January.2020

Despite being a Fuji convert since the first X100 professional photographer Steve Thomas is far from convinced that he can fully rely on the X system for fast action.

The number of times that my Fujifilm system cameras have let me down at critical moments really doesn’t bare thinking about. Yes, this may well be going against the grain and “Love” part in the title of this page, and I’m sure that there are plenty of dedicated Fuji fans out there that wouldn’t have a word said against these tiny boxes of image making tricks. However, this is my opinion, which is based on my own experience.

X-T2 + XF55-200mm f/3.5-4.8

I’ve earned my living from taking pictures and writing for almost 30-years now, from a time when Fuji was my leading slide film stock. Cycling has always been my lead, followed by adventure travel and other outdoor action sports, and my work appears in magazines, newspapers and on websites the world over. My cameras are put through the mix, and I do need them to respond and perform flawlessly at the press of a button. If they don’t, I screw up, which not only impacts that particular shoot, it can severely tarnish my reputation and impact on further work, which I cannot afford to happen.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L

My transition form Canon to Fujifilm got off to a frustrating start with the original X100. I had high hopes of the camera for my on bike travel work, and as much as it produced decent images, it was pretty damn awful and unreliable, and the X-E1 I followed up with was not much improved. Even so, I’d struck up a hopeful romance with the system, with the hope part being that it would evolve into a much lighter and more portable system for travelling with. Potentially it could maybe even come to replace the Canon DSLR’s and monster lenses I used for races and shoots where speed and getting it right in a split second were vital.

X-E1 + XF18-55mm f/2.8-4

The X-T1 did speed things up some, and I have to admit that I bought the camera more on lust than trust; after all, it was a beautiful piece of kit. I moved on to he X-T2 after some time, still without investing in bigger and faster 50-140mm or 100-400mm lenses. I really could not justify the financial gamble (they cost more than the Canon equivalents that I already own) involved in following yet more hopes that this would improve the speed of use and focussing of the system. Plus, purchasing huge lenses really goes against my original ethos when buying into the smaller X system, which I often carry on a bike and always travel with.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L

Yes, I know that the X-T3 should be faster, and the X-T2 was faster than the X-T1; yet when it comes to autofocus performance, speed of reaction, reliability, and of course workflow in editing the 2000 or so daily RAW images that can come from a major bike race, well, the Fuji’s are still (in my opinion) light years behind Canon DSLR’s.

X-T1 + XF18-55mm f/2.8-4

Of course there are many loyal Fujifilm X Photographers out there who will tell you that the Fuji autofocus and performance is the best on the market, which is great marketing by Fuji. And, of course, there are countless YouTubers out there who will also follow the chain mail like party line of just about anything that will get them views is wonderful. However, this just does not align with my own experiences of using the X system.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L

Due to un-repairable attacks of fungus (a problem with tropical and humid climates) I have lost 2 of my Canon DSLR’s in recent years, which has forced me even more to rely on the Fuji’s in action situations. Yes, in most cases I can get through well enough – although I’m always quite nervous about putting my trust into cameras that have all been at least once sent back (for a month at a time usually as they simply locked out) to Fuji for repair, some multiple times with lock out issues – I never had such issued with Canon, and problems I’ve had have been fixed within hours, or days at the most and in locations all over the world when travelling.

They X cameras have come back working again (for a while), but with no explanation as to what was wrong with them in the first place. Hence if there is critical fast action involved I almost always have a Canon DSLR and Canon long lens with me – as well as the Fuji system for slower work (which I could get the same results from using the Canon or others). This does defeat the purpose of miniaturising my kit, at least in race scenarios, although for walk around it’s justified.

X-T1 + XF10-24mm f/4

The Fuji’s are not cameras that you can simply grasp and capture an impromptu image with in a spit second, which some get drawn into romanticising over rather than seeing it as a flaw. Then of course there is “kaizen”, or rather firmware updates. Sure they do fix certain issues or add new features, although maybe these things should have been right and working when the camera was released. I guess it just depends on how it’s spun and how you choose to see things.

From my side I can still overlook most of these issues, because, despite all of this I do really love my X system – warts and all. I just think they could and should be so much better in certain departments, especially with autofocus, which is my main gripe.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L

If you pick up a Canon or Nikon DSLR and try to grab servo or follow focus and then compare this to a Fuji you’ll notice that there is a huge difference. Even my 10-year old Canon 7D makes the X-T2 look like a carthorse in comparison.

I know that there are those who say the autofocus fine, or even great; however, when you have 200 pro cyclists heading straight at you and weaving all over the road at 80kph there is no room for error or messing with settings or work arounds. You have to nail that decisive finish line shot, and the rest of the action that may or may not come within those final 100-meters of a bike race. If you don’t – well, that’s game over, even if the finishing shot is not very interesting it is the most sold and used image by a long way.

Subjects moving from side to side are not so tough to snare, in fact you hardly need continuous focus or even auto focus for this. If the subjects remain within a certain plain of focal distance then pre-focusing and back button switching of focus works well enough. This is what I have learned to rely on with the Fuji’s, and have adapted to side on limited distance head on shooting, which really isn’t enough.

The true test of autofocus capability comes when you have multiple (or even single) fast or erratic moving subjects coming towards you, especially if the light is low light or there are distractions like foliage or other obstacles between you and the target that you need to lock onto (I have tried various dedicated CAF modes). All cameras will struggle in such scenarios, but compared to even older model Canon’s (using mid range lenses, comparable to the Fuji’s I use) there is a huge difference in lock and hit rate, which does not go in favour of the Fuji’s.

Fortunately (in some ways) most of my work is now feature led rather than based around having to capture high-level finish line and other critical action shots. By using pre-focus and back button focus and by avoiding fast moving head on shots I do get through okay, although in all honesty it should not have to be that way. You’d be hard pushed to see many non-Canon or Nikon shooters on a race finish line, and there are reasons for this.

X-T1 + XF18-55mm f/2.8-4

My Fuji’s will not be ending up on eBay any time soon, as I do also share much of the affinity that most Fuji owners do with their cameras – although it’s certainly not undying blind love.

With some important races ahead this spring I’m already feeling somewhat nervous at using the Fuji’s, as I always am. As much as I’m tempted to chase the Fuji dream down the X-T3 (or the next greatest version) and faster Fuji lens road, as I don’t need this speed quite as often as I did a few years ago I know that there is a much safer race day option in a second hand Canon body and in utilising my existing proven EF lenses. I always work with 2-3 cameras so the X-T2 (and X-T1) will also be sure to find a spot in my bag, only not for those fast and head on long shots.

Should you be hoping to capture similar fast action shots then do be sure to personally test whatever options you can before making a costly investment, whichever system that may be in.