Old Habits Die Hard – Birding with the XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6

· 20.January.2021

In my first article for the Fujilove community I waxed lyrical about how I had found Fuji and it had changed my approach to photography, so much so that I was moving on from taking pictures of birds and landscapes and was now determined to engage with people in new and exciting ways.

Whilst this is true… it turns out that old habits die hard and in spite of myself and my road to Damascus moment I found the XF100-400 attached to my now trusty X-T3 determined to see if I could get the type of shots I had enjoyed capturing so much with the Canon 7D Mark II and the EF100-400 Mark II; I wasn’t disappointed. I’d always had a nagging doubt that I had somehow traded down in the nature/highspeed bird domain and I needed, for my own sake, to answer the question; can the Fuji system cut it with birds?

To try the lens out I chose the gannet colony in Muriwai, Auckland. This is a beautiful location on Auckland’s famed West coast beaches about an hour from the city, where amongst some stark and jutting cliffs over 1,200 nesting pairs of birds congregate annually to nest. Beyond those nesting on the mainland two exposed islands rise from the ocean to provide additional areas away from human interference. The whole place is a true assault on the senses with the stench of gannet droppings filling your nose and their squawking calls filling your ears. When the boarders open up and non-residents are welcome again into New Zealand it is a nature photographers dream. In a word – spectacular.

The volume of birds and fledging chicks meant I would have plenty of opportunity for shots and the fast pace of the gannets would also challenge the lens and newly updated autofocus system on the X-T3. I had been there many times with my old gear and had always come away with lots of interesting and dynamic shots of the birdlife. It was a blustery evening in Auckland with a southerly gusting up to 35mph but the gannets didn’t seem perturbed and so I set about my business firing shots and seeing what the new combo could do.

For the best direct comparison, I initially tried to mirror my past experiences on the Canon and so initially gave myself a few arbitrary restraints. Firstly, the images I took were all handheld and I knew I would be relying on the OIS of the lens to help me out. I also decided in advance that I would do without the ‘sports finder mode’ on the X-T3. I know the extra 1.25x crop would have brough me a little closer, but 600mm would be plenty close enough and I wanted to treat the X-T3’s EVF as if it was a OVF and really see if it could keep up.

The first thing I noticed was how supremely light weight this gear. In comparison to the FF lens the Fuji offering was effortless. Consequently, I was able to react far quicker when acquiring my shot and didn’t feel tired or fatigued after nearly two hours shooting. Although, in the furious wind, the lens was often buffeted and shifted in my grip. Perhaps this would have been less profound with a previous lens. As a large handed man, I was also worried that the relatively small grip of the X-T3 and the size of the lens would feel unbalanced, but it was ok and felt stable. I guess this would be even better with the X-T4 with its larger battery. As I rattled off frame after frame, I was increasingly immersed in my shooting unburdened by the weight of the lens. Equally the EVF, in boost mode, was working more than adequately for tracking and framing shots.

There was really only one element that I found quite challenging. Muriwai is a great place to capture birds in flight, but I found that the AF tracking was less ‘sticky’ than I have been used to, even after the most recent kaizen firmware update for the X-T3. This made for many missed shots where a moving bird was blurred as focus had jumped to the contrasty ocean background. Of course, this is to be totally expected as I was working the lens hard, but it was a source of some frustration. But on reflection probably not much more than the frustration I felt when shooting my old system.

After a while though I realised though was that I was limited by my own constraints and wasn’t using the X-T3 to its full capability. So, I binned the arbitrary rules that I had imposed and unleashed the camera. On came the electronic shutter and the sports mode and it became a bird capturing machine. I was able to anticipate movement into the frame and follow the gannet whilst firing with no blackout. It was revelatory! Further to this the f5.6 at the 400mm long end was more than enough separation for more sedentary and still shots. I was able to make decisions in camera that I would never have been able to do before.

So, what did I learn from this? It seems to me, as a relative newcomer to Fuji, that in some ways the system is pigeonholed as a documentarian and portraiture photographers dream but often overlooked in nature and sports. I think this is unfair. Once I realised that direct comparisons are essentially a waste of time and that I should use all the tools available to me; the X-T3 and XF100-400mm combo was more than adequate. I was reminded time and time again what inspired me to make the switch. In fact, it had some distinct advantages, weight, framing anticipation, no black out shooting and total camera immersion to list just a few.

In essence; of course, I haven’t traded down. I am now even more invested in the Fuji ecosystem knowing that not only can it do all the things I was doing in the past, in a more involving and lightweight way, but that it continues to inspire me to make new and more exciting photography choices every time I pick up the camera. You would be hard pressed to ask for more than that.

To see more of my ongoing Birds of Aotearoa project please follow this link.

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