It’s been a long time since I photographed a public event and yesterday’s Lantern Parade, led by drumming troupe Spark! and organised by the Guernsey Arts Commission would be my first using Fujifilm’s X-T2. Would Fuji’s flagship mirrorless camera, and more importantly I, cope with the pressure?
Eight years ago as a photographer for the Guernsey Press I’d be hitting all of these events, shooting what I could before rushing off to the next assignment. Now without a client, I took the bus in to St Peter Port with no reason other than to do what I used to do best.
Scouting the parade’s route beforehand to find a couple of ideal locations that would give me both a good view and a quick exit to the next, I arrived at the top of Smith Street to find ex-press colleague Ady Miller. It was a good spot and a nice opportunity for a long overdue catch up.
We heard the procession before we saw it, soon followed by the telling glow of LED lighting emerging from the top of Anne’s Place. As they drew near, I double checked my settings; aperture wide open at f/2.8, shutter speed at about 1/160 and a new feature for me; auto ISO. I had no idea how bright Spark! or the lanterns would be so I put my trust in the X-T2’s well-documented ability in low light, setting it to the maximum range. The fading evening light was giving an ambient reading at ISO 12800 – a figure that was unbelievable, actually impossible 8 years ago. This was going to be a serious test.
Spark! were putting on a great show, energetically leading the parade with wild but precise drumming and brightly illuminated from head-to-toe with programmed LED lighting that changed colour and intensity continuously. Smoke machines were placed at strategic locations to add to the atmosphere, the total effect looked stunning as the drummers set the pace in their unique style that was a mixture of pure fun and a touch of intimidation – these guys are seriously good entertainers. Although most of my exposure was fixed, these were typically challenging conditions for the camera in terms of metering and focus.
A little disappointed by the ratio of people to lanterns following behind, I got the jump on the parade and rushed down Smith Street to capture them from a different location. This is where the crowds were and I was surprised at the sheer number of photographers now present on the island. A couple of snaps on the hill were marred by too many spectators but my spot at the top of Pier Steps was still free and I was able to get a clear view as the troupe passed me heading down the high street.
I had no time to check the images I’d taken so far, it was either working or it wasn’t but I had a feeling the camera was nailing it and the X-T2’s superb electronic viewfinder was suggesting that autofocus in zone-mode was doing well. I wouldn’t know for sure until later. The old techniques seemingly haven’t left me and I was in a perfect position to make a clear exit down the steps and run (or at least walk fast) to the Albert pier where the parade culminated.
I placed myself at the entrance to the pier where they would march past, unfortunately the town backdrop was largely clad in scaffolding and by this point, the photography mob had grown into an impenetrable wall. Still I was able to find a few gaps my moving in front, running backward, dropping, shooting, run, drop, shoot and so-on. Exposed to the full-force of the wind, the smoke and lasers struggled to create the atmosphere that they might in better weather and the lack of lanterns were clearly evident in the throng of perhaps a couple of thousand people. I dropped back onto the harbour wall and waited for any opportunities to present themselves with a longer lens as Spark! performed amongst the crowd.
It was a long, cold windswept walk home, still unsure how I and the camera had handled the situation, but upon a quick browse of my images, it was clear that the Fuji X-T2 had coped with the difficult conditions well. Upon closer examination I would find out just how well.
Straight out of the camera, the renowned Fujifilm colours popped beautifully. With my old Canon gear, colour saturation had to be carefully coaxed out of the raw file. Not Fuji – they slap you around the face with it. I didn’t have to add saturation of vibrance to any of my my images, in fact, I had to tone it down in a few instances. The camera had nailed focus and exposure perfectly in almost every shot – given the tough conditions and constantly changing light, this was quite amazing. I almost felt as if I was cheating because there really was little I need to do in post – only minor exposure corrections and a little creative cropping. In fact, I was tempted not to bother and just go with the near-perfect straight-out-of-camera jpg files with their stunning ‘Provia’ colours. I would have, however the unpredictable and ever-changing colours of the performers required white-balancing. It wasn’t that the camera got it wrong, but almost any white-balance setting would suit these photographs so I tweaked it to my own preference. The only thing left was to resize and apply a small amount of output sharpening – even this wasn’t entirely necessary, it’s just something I prefer to do.
So how did I, and the camera do? I’ll let you be the ultimate judge of that. The Fuji X-T2 performed flawlessly. It’s metering was near-perfect with only a single frame that was slightly overexposed, but it was still good enough to display here. Autofocus was incredibly fast and on-point in almost every shot and there was never a time where I couldn’t shoot because it was hunting. The jpegs are beautiful, but I was shocked at what little work I needed to do on the raw files – they come out of the camera already incredibly sharp and saturated. Another interesting point is that I was able to save the images on this page with a jpg quality of just ‘7’ with almost no visible loss of detail. Looking at the data, on average the camera was choosing an ISO of around 4000 but check out the shot of Spark! at the bottom of the page – this was captured at a huge ISO 12800, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use this image in print – it’s really that good. Yes, you could pixel-peep and see a fair amount of grain in the shadows, but given a perfect exposure, it doesn’t get in the way and detail in the main subject remains superb. This came as a shock. Back in my Press days, the Canon gear had a top ISO of 6400 but using it was a massive gamble and for emergencies only. ISO was workable up to 3200 as news-print is very forgiving, but even then distracting grain was present across the entire image. Now I’m using a mirrorless camera with more than twice the sensitivity and producing files that I wouldn’t hesitate to print full-page in a magazine. That’s a win for Fuji, modern technology and it opens up a whole new world of creative possibilities for the photographer.
Although I’ve been out of the game for some time, I found the old habits came back to me instinctively. I’d chosen my locations well and kept ahead of the action. Technically, perhaps the one mistake I made was to not look at my ISO while shooting. Had I done so, I could have ramped up the shutter-speed and captured the action even sharper, safe in the knowledge that the camera had my back with its awesome ISO performance. My framing was slightly off at times which comes as a result of a lack of practice, it wouldn’t take long for my reactions to return to the speed and accuracy of my heyday. I enjoyed myself, it was great being a photographer again and lovely to see some of the people I used to work with again.