On Assignment in the Peruvian Amazon with the Fujifilm X-T2

I spent the entire last year on assignment photographing all 59 of the U.S. national parks with the Fujifilm X-T1. Photographing every single day in these beautiful parks over the course of the year, I shot over 275K photos (including time-lapse sequences). I beat the heck out of that camera, as well as the XF lenses, and after a full year it’s safe to say that I know the strengths and weaknesses of the Fujifilm system.

Now that the year is over and the new Fujifilm X-T2 has been released, I was excited to get my hands on it to see how it stacks up to the X-T1, in image quality, design, and function. A recent assignment in the Peruvian Amazon for Nat Geo proved a perfect opportunity to test this new camera.

The mighty Amazon River in Peru.

Before I begin, a few notes.

First, this is not going to be a technical review. Pixel peepers have unlimited resources to view and learn about the minute details of this camera. Instead, I am going to give you my straight up impressions as a working professional travel and adventure photographer. Think real world shooting situations rather than technical specifications.

Second, I was provided this test camera by Fujifilm, and have been a Fujifilm X-Photographer for three or four years now. Fujifilm has always been very clear that they only want the truth from me, even if it is a bad review, and I have always promised to provide exactly that. I choose to shoot Fujifilm not because I get to test camera gear, but because the cameras most closely align with the way I like to shoot, and the image-quality-per-ounce-of-camera-weight is simply the best. In other words, for such a small and compact package, their cameras deliver top notch results, which is important to me when I am backpacking or in the backcountry. If that ever changes, I will switch brands. But for now, I am unabashedly a devout Fujifilm photographer, and make no bones about my allegiance. However, I still promise an honest review. This isn’t so much intended for those who are looking to switch from one of the Canikon brands, but more a comparison of the upgrades from the X-T1 and how they made a difference in how I photograph.

A three-toed sloth with a baby look back from high up in the tree.

Lastly, the Amazon is a tough place to shoot. The wildlife is usually far away, oftentimes very high up in trees, and always with strong lighting variances. Animals aren’t dumb either….when it is 95 degrees out midday they are asleep in the trees, so it is imperative to be out very early in the morning when they are first waking up and most active. This means that I was often shooting far away subjects in low-light conditions. Not an easy thing for any camera, and a good test for this new X-T2. Just for reference, while photographing wildlife I was almost always shooting the XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens. For walking around local villages I was usually shooting the XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Lens or the XF 23mm f/1.4 R Lens.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s begin.

First Impressions

Taking the X-T2 out of the box was like seeing an old friend again. One of the things that initially attracted me to Fujifilm is the retro style of the cameras, and the X-T2 continues that cool, stylish, yet ultra-customizable and functional design.

AF Joystick and Button Customization

One of my favorite upgrade from the X-T1 is the new AF joystick. I had previously set the four-way pad on the X-T1 to AF select. This was not ideal, as those pads are not the easiest to feel when you are in the moment of shooting. The joystick is easy to find, and frees up the four-way pad for other customization. Brilliant.

For me, coming from the X-T1 where I had already set a lot of button customization, it was not a big learning curve. But I imagine the extreme level of button customization would take a bit of getting used to for first time Fujifilm shooters. However, once your hands commit to memory the different buttons and dials, it is a very comfortable and efficient way of photographing.

Articulating LCD

I never thought I would be so excited about something like this, but I find myself less and less wanting to lay down in the dirt to get the photo. That’s just the truth. The dual hinge LCD easily allows me to not only shoot landscape at ground level, but now portrait as well. I can think of so many times where this would have come in handy before and I didn’t have the ability. Laying down at the edge of a body of water, shooting in portrait mode and trying to squeeze as much reflection out of the scene as possible is just a real pain in the backside. This dual hinge LCD alleviates that issue.

24MP X-Trans Sensor

The 24MP X-Trans CMOS III sensor and Fujifilm’s latest image processor (X-Processor Pro) combine for a huge upgrade over the 16MP X-T1. Files are big, crisp, and beautiful. 24MP is a great file size….big enough to print but small enough to store and manipulate in post processing. I do have a medium format digital camera, and shoot it from time to time, but I truthfully don’t need anything more than 24Mp in the work I do. 16Mp was a bit too small for professional use, but 24MP is right in the wheelhouse. 

AF system

A Squirrel Monkey forages for the day's meal.

The AF system has also been greatly improved upon since the X-T1 and had 325 total focus points (169 of which are phase-detect). This was probably one of the biggest gripes of X-T1 users, and Fujifilm has made a huge improvement to AF with the X-T2, especially in continuous mode. Once the camera locks onto the moving subject, it stays locked on about 98% of the time. It’s quite impressive. I will say that it sometimes still takes an extra half second or so for that initial lock-on, especially with fast moving subjects. But when it is locked on, it is deadly accurate. They’ve also added the ability to dial in AF based on local shooting conditions (much like Canon DSLR’s). If you know what you are going to be shooting (birds flying, athletes running, etc.) then this is a great feature. Because my subjects varied so much, I chose to go with a moderate setting that allowed for a variety of scenes, and was very impressed with the results.

Dual SD Card Slots

This is one of the improvements that puts the X-T2 in the professional camera body realm. Data security is one of the most important things a professional photographer needs to stay on top of. I use the second memory card as a backup of my original raw files, and it provides a peace of mind that is essential to today’s photography professionals.

Exposure Compensation

I’m also psyched to see that they’ve added a “C” position for the exposure comp, which extends the range of the EV from ±3EV to ±5EV. This was handy when shooting high up into the trees with dark canopies back dropped with bright sun behind (high variances in scene lighting), and exposing for the subject. I needed that extra latitude more than a few times.

Toggle Buttons

Fujifilm seems to have taken photographer’s feedback on small improvements as well. For example, the new toggle lock button on the ISO and shutter speed dials solves the problem of accidentally knocking them to an unwanted setting. I am rough with my cameras, often throwing them in backpacks, laying them at the bottom of boats, and in the dirt. These dials on the X-T1 got accidently turned more often than I liked. Not a huge deal, but big enough for me to notice.

4K Video

Hard to find, and even harder to photograph, are these tiny Pygmy Marmoset's.

I am not a video shooter, as I don’t think you can do both stills and video well while on assignment. If my assignment is for stills, I’ll shoot only stills and focus my entire attention on that. But I do relish the ability to grab video from time to time, and I recognize that 4K has been the standard now. So the ability to shoot 4K video right from the X-T2 is fantastic. And from what I can tell, it looks really impressive.

Battery Grip (VPB-XT2)

I really love the addition of the battery grip as well. Not only does it hold one more battery than the X-T1 battery grip (for a total of three batteries) but it also adds a power boost mode that significantly improves AF speed, burst speed (14 frames/second!), extends 4K recording time, and reduces shutter lag. I was consistently shooting 1000 or so images a day while on assignment, using power boost mode most of the time, and I still had lots of juice left on the batteries. I could probably have gone three days shooting this way. I will say that I have a habit of turning off the camera when I am not shooting, and I save a lot of battery time that way. If you leave your camera on all the time then this will be significantly reduced. But once again, these added benefits put this camera more into the professional realm than the prosumer area.

USB Charging

I travel a lot and am always struggling with charging batteries while in the field. It might seem silly, but having USB charging capability is a godsend to someone like me. This means that I can take an external battery pack into a 5 or 6 day backpacking trip and make it through without having to carry 10 extra batteries. Or, in an extreme case where I have my laptop but no ability to plug in a cord, I can charge the batteries from my laptop. I can think of a thousand scenarios where having the extra ability to charge the batteries via USB would come in handy.

Welcome to the jungle.

Room for improvement?

There’s always room for improvement. And while the X-T2 ticks all the boxes for me, I can still see a few areas where I’d like to see changes.

For one, I found it difficult to lock onto a subject in low light while the subject (or I) was moving. This happened quite frequently in the very early morning hours, when the forests of the Amazon were dark and the birds quick to take flight as we approached in a skiff. I had to be extra careful to take the time for the initial lock-on autofocus, because if I couldn’t lock-on from the get-go, I was only able to lock on while the motion was happening about half the time. In fairness, I think this is particularly evident in low-light situations (like a dark forest canopy) while using a long telephoto lens like the XF 100-400mm. The X-T2 has come a long way with AF, but in low light situations with long telephoto lenses I think there is still some room for AF improvement. One thing that I love about Fujifilm is that they are always upgrading and improving the firmware, so I expect this to be fixed in the coming months.

I also found myself hitting the buttons on the battery grip, changing dials, more than I would like. I think this was partly my fault, as I hadn’t locked off the dials on the battery grip, but perhaps the ergonomics don’t fit my hands as well.

Lastly, although it is not necessary, I would like to see a touch screen display. Perhaps it’s just because I am used to being able to manipulate images on screens with my fingers (too much iPhone usage), but for the next iteration I’d like to see a touch screen display.

Conclusion

As a professional travel and adventure photographer, I (and my clients) hold a high standard for the gear I use in the field. The X-T2 is the camera that most closely fits my style of shooting and the demands I ask of a camera. Lightweight, weather sealed, fantastic image quality, customizable setup, beautiful design….this camera has it all. The upgrades of the AF joystick, the articulating LCD screen, the 24MP sensor, dual memory card slots, and improved Autofocus really bring the APS-C camera into the realm of the professional photographer. If this camera can handle the difficult lighting situations in the Peruvian Amazon, then it can handle pretty much any shooting situation. The X-T2 will be my go-to camera body for a long time to come.

Hasta la Vista, amigo.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Jonathan Irish is a professional outdoor, adventure, and travel photographer based in Washington, DC and represented by National Geographic Creative. He specializes in shooting active/adventure lifestyles, landscapes, and cultures abroad. Clients worldwide, including National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, BBC, CNN, and many others, have published his work. Jonathan is a proud FujiFilm X-Series photographer.

Follow Jonathan as he shares his National Parks series on Instagram

 

New Partnership Announcement: American Samoa

American Samoa National Park. (Image credit: NPS.gov)

2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii is the United States Territory and National Park of American Samoa, with rainforest, beaches, and protected coral reefs located on three separate islands. We are very excited to partner with American Samoa Tourism as we travel to the national park located farthest from the North American mainland where the precious tropical land sprawls out into the sea. 

New Partnership Announcement: Go Hawaii!

Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. (Image credit: NPS.gov)

HVCB-20464_The Hawaiian Islands Bamboo Logo v1

The Hawaiian Islands are home to immaculate beaches, one-of-a-kind Pacific island culture, and two of our nation's most spectacular national parks. On the island of Maui is Haleakala, the site of an ancient volcano and endangered Hawaiian geese. On the Big Island, Hawai'i reside two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. 

We've both spent significant time in Hawaii and are thrilled to go back there to document both parks in depth. In that spirit, we are very happy to announce a partnership with GoHawaii as we explore again the 50th state, a true island paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Aloha!

New Galleries, New Pages, New Press

Hello all! We've been going hard and have a bunch of miscellaneous project news to share. 

New Galleries:

Black & White: Select photos from the project with a black and white treatment.

Highways & Byways: This is the Greatest American Road Trip after all. Photos of roads to and in America's national parks. 

Outtakes: Candid, behind-the-scene photos taken with the Apple iPhone 6S  

 

Press: 

NBC Channel 9 News, Colorado: One Year Journey: Photographer Traveling to All U.S. National Parks (TV News Segment & Article) 

National Parks Conservation Association The Great American Road Trip (article)

Malen Dyer Photographer Jonathan Irish on Capturing the National Parks, Life in the Outdoors (photography feature)

Smithsonian Magazine Beautiful Photos from America's Six Least-Visited National Parks (photography feature)

Travel Writers Network U.S. National Park Service Centennial (article feed)

 

Articles:

Rendezvous with the Pendleton Airstream

Some press opportunities popped up during April that brought us to New York City, which turned out to be a perfect opportunity to pick up a Pendleton Limited Edition National Parks Airstream and drive it to Acadia National Park in Maine. We had seen these beautiful units while at Airstream Headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio earlier this year and we were thrilled to have a chance to live in one, if even for only one week.

At the Classic Car Club on Pier 76 in Manhattan is where we first stepped foot inside of the Pendleton. What a beauty. With classic park interior details of distressed wood, beautiful Pendleton blankets that are a work of art in their own right, maps adorning the interior as wallpaper, and a modernized shout from our youth—Coyote Butte Lucky Bear—we realized for a moment that as beautiful as the exterior of the Airstream is, it's what's on the inside that counts. 

A 1966 vintage Airstream retrofitted as an office at the Classic Car Club in Manhattan. And some car porn: vintage Vipers, McLaren's and other fine works of automotive beauty on Pier 76.

A 1966 vintage Airstream retrofitted as an office at the Classic Car Club in Manhattan. And some car porn: vintage Vipers, McLaren's and other fine works of automotive beauty on Pier 76.

The rendezvous point at the Car Club was special too—and not just because of our close proximity to vintage McLaren's and Vipers—but because we got to see what is undoubtedly one of the coolest Airstream refurbishments out there: a vintage 1966 Airstream retrofitted as an office for the club owners, and a matching restored 1966 Ford truck that toes it along (though we got the feeling that the duo is mostly stationary.)

Our tow-vehicle for the week, a Ford F-150 Limited Edition, had all of the muscle needed to tow the 27-foot travel trailer along with some bells and whistles that were equally impressive… automatic high-beams, we love you.   

A special thanks Airstream and the Ford Motor Company for giving us a traveling experience of a lifetime while on the road in Maine.

New Partnership Announcement: Visit Colorado

For different reasons, Colorado is near and dear to both of our hearts... and it is one of the greatest outdoor playgrounds in our country and world. We are honored to partner with Visit Colorado, and to explore the varied personalities of the four parks that reside there—Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and of course, Rocky Mountain National Park. We can think of no better way to spend the Centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service than in the Centennial State itself!

New Partnership Announcement: TravelNevada

There's a whole lot of Nevada to explore beyond Vegas and Tahoe! We've been excited to head to Nevada since the beginning of this project, and when we learned that it one of the most mountainous states in the U.S., we were even more so. In that spirit, we are really happy to be able to partner with TravelNevada as we venture into Death Valley and Great Basin National Parks!!

 

(Photo credit: TravelNevada

New Partnership Announcement: South Dakota Tourism

We are very happy to announce South Dakota Tourism as one of our partners! South Dakota is home to two National Parks: Badlands and Wind Cave. As a child, Jonathan visited South Dakota with his family and he has wanted to return to photograph it as an adult for some time; it is also the home state of Stefanie's beloved paternal grandmother. We are very exited to explore and capture what is called the land of infinite variety during the National Parks Centennial celebration (and also the 75th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore!)

 

Photo credit: South Dakota Tourism

New Partnership Announcement: Visit Montana

We are excited to announce Visit Montana as a new partner on the Greatest American Road Trip! Montana is the gateway to two of our most beloved National Parks: Glacier, dubbed "the Crown of the Continent" and Yellowstone, America's first national park. We'll be spending a good deal of time in big sky country, exploring both of the parks by paddle, on horseback, fireside while we camp, and along the trails with our cameras in hand. 

 

 

 

New Partnership Announcement: Opal

I know it seems as though we are gallivanting through the parks, taking pretty pictures and enjoying every minute of our adventure without a care in the world—and we are doing all of those things, make no mistake. However, behind the scenes, there is a lot of creating, processing, and production going on. If you are into multimedia/content development, communications strategy, and the business side of what we're doing this year you'll probably be interested in this, so stay with me...

To break it down for those who are just now following this project—we didn't just quit our jobs to travel, but to collaborate on a creative project. Within that project, we didn’t want to just visit every national park, we also wanted to challenge ourselves to create substantial content in each of them. 59 parks in 52 weeks, told in stories, photographs, video, 360 video (in production), timelapse video, shareable graphics, illustrations (also in production), and social media posts. 

That's a whole lot of content to create and manage while averaging one park every six days, driving to all of them in an Airstream trailer (named Wally), and spending full days of exploration in the field. As such, it's vital that we use the best tools we know of to manage our content. 

Here is a snapshot of just some of the development tools we are using to create content:

Apple computers, iPhone 6S, Fujifilm cameras, GoPro (or many, many GoPros); iPad Pro/Apple Pencil; Squarespace, Dreamhost...

And just some of the applications we are using to process the content: 

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop; Schedugram; SocialOomph, Instagram (@Jonathan_Irish /@iStefPayne); Facebook (/59in52); in-car wifi (Vinli); gobs of data storage (LaCie); inspiration; our brains...

But what about the production and organization of our stories? Having content and the means to edit and deploy it is nothing without a strategy for releasing it. You know how it goes, sometimes you need to lay everything out on the bed before it goes into your suitcase. The same goes for a story. For this I lined up the best virtual storytelling suitcase that I've ever used—which I counted on nearly every single day at NASA to help tell the story of human spaceflight—it's called Opal, and here's how it works: 

Create story arc – this is the top level Story. Ours is to visit all 59 of the U.S. National Parks during the centennial anniversary this year. 

Plan content strategy – these are the ‘Moments’ within the Story. This encapsulates what we do in each of these parks, the moments that make up the whole of the experience. 

Tag stories/moments – tagging enables filtering so that we can search/find/see content with ease. This feature is excellent for use in out-briefs, presentations, and sharing content with others... not to mention helping us quickly find what we are looking for.  

Collaborate – there are several areas within the platform where Jon and I (i.e. teams) can discuss creative, storyboard ideas, add notes, consider corrections, etc. We live in a small vessel and are basically together 24/7, so we don't use the collaboration tools as much as a larger team would. However, in a professional setting, this is key so I'm including it here.  

Manage assets – this is the area where all of the pretty pictures live, as well as attachments and other forms of creative that are assigned to moments. Asset library editing tools allow us to assign information to each piece of content. I think of it as content meta.  

Those are just the basics. There are many other features that we aren't applying due to the fast pace of this project, such as content approvals, in-platform correspondence, email alerts, custom content channels... it's no wonder that big brands such as Levi, Nike, Nestle, Starbucks, REI, and many others to use this application for planning all of that content that we Like every day on the web and social media. As for us, we are grateful to be able to partner with Opal to help us produce, plan, storyboard, and remember this project and amazing year in our lives.

For more info, head to the official website: http://workwithopal.com/ 

This is a screenshot of our Asset Library, where we assign what we think of as content metadata. 

This is a screenshot of our Asset Library, where we assign what we think of as content metadata.