Fuji X-T1 Review -- Field Test Part II

When the sun goes down...

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 05/15/2014

Neon signs like these, a fast-disappearing part of Hong Kong's heritage, are hard to capture in a photo. They're extremely vivid, and clip very easily.

As you'll have seen in the first part of my Field Test, I was having plenty of fun shooting with the Fuji X-T1 in the daytime. (Missed it? Catch up here.) But how would this deliciously retro body handle itself in more difficult conditions? I wanted to get a feel for it both in lower light, and with Hong Kong's famous city lights.

My first introduction to low-light shooting with the X-T1, though, was something of an accident. Shortly before my trip, a sizeable Vietnamese cargo ship called the Sunrise Orient was wrecked on the island of Cheung Chau after its crew, fearing an imminent capsizing, abandoned ship with the engines still running. It struck me as a pretty unusual photo opportunity, and I set off in search of the wreck with an idea of what I wanted to shoot, but with no knowledge of precisely where the unmanned ship had eventually beached itself.

My intention was to get close to its bow, and shoot a bunch of low-to-the-ground, wide-angle exposures to emphasize the ship's size. Each would be tripod-mounted, shot at low sensitivity and with a narrow aperture to get a longer exposure time, and then I'd stack them to blur out the waves even more. (I didn't see it until after my return from Hong Kong, but this awesome shot by local photographer Joe Chen is very close to what I'd been planning.)

I knew the Sunrise Orient was stranded somewhere on the eastern coast of Cheung Chau, and at three in the afternoon, chose to start my search from what seemed a promising location on the southeast corner of the island that seemed (from a look at Google Earth) to match the shape of the bay as I'd seen it in others' photos of the wreck. As it turned out, I'd chosen the wrong end of the island though, and by the time I first spotted the wreck three hours later -- with the help of a friendly local photographer who guessed what I was searching for and set me on my way -- I was already down to the dying minutes of the day.

Worse still, I had only my partially-charged cellphone's LED flashlight to guide me home on an unlit, rough and unfamiliar trail, having not been expecting to be out til sunset, let alone after it. After twenty minutes more walking, I realized that there was no chance of my even arriving at the wreck before dark, and diverted to a different path that would at least get me within a quarter mile. And finally, 15 minutes after sunset, I set up my tripod at a small pagoda near Coral Beach (Tung Wan Tsai), with darkness quickly falling. I had time for just two attempts at the long exposure shot I was hoping for, and from a lot farther away than I'd intended, as well. (Thankfully, I had Fuji's 55-200mm zoom with me, or it'd have been an entirely lost cause.)

Initially, I'd planned to shoot the Sunrise Orient shipwreck toward the bow at wide angle, and low to the ground. Sadly, I didn't find it in time to get there before dark, and had to settle for a telephoto shot from the rear. The long exposure that blurs out the waves isn't so noticeable or dramatic from this angle. I've corrected the brightness post-capture; the original shot is in the gallery.

Eyeballing the exposure at around 30 seconds and f/22, I was at least in the ballpark, but had failed to account for how quickly the light was disappearing. Before correction, the shot appears rather underexposed. My second attempt was a 45-second exposure at the same aperture, but within the space of just one minute, the light had dimmed enough that it was even darker despite the much longer exposure. And that was it -- my time was up, and if I didn't leave immediately I wasn't going to be able to find my way safely back to civilization.

The original shot is in the gallery, and above is one corrected simply with a click of the Auto Contrast control in Photoshop, bringing it back to the look of daytime. Even if it's not remotely what I was going for -- the blurred sea doesn't really work from this angle, and the ship's framing isn't very dramatic -- I think it's still a neat shot. But oh, what could have been, had I gotten there earlier or brought a flashlight -- as did one of the photographers who didn't get lost, visible in the background of my shot near the wreck.

By the time I got back to the ferry pier, it was completely dark. I rather liked the juxtaposition of a huge, gas-guzzling ferry against Cheung Chau's many eco-friendly bicycles in the foreground, and grabbed another shot, which you can see in the gallery. It was taken in very difficult lighting, though -- a predominantly white ship, and lots of white / silver on the bicycles in the foreground too, but with each under totally different light sources. Ricoh's Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance would probably have come in handy here, as Fuji's auto white balance left the bikes extremely warm. (Although saying that, I actually fiddled with the original raw file in Lightroom to improve the white balance on the bikes without changing that of the ship, and found myself preferring the original shot anyway, so perhaps the camera's choice was for the best.)

Difficult lighting, but I think the X-T1, with its 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens mounted, handled it pretty well.

Eager to rest my legs after what had proven to be a rather difficult and strenuous day, I headed for supper and my hotel. I grabbed one last shot that I rather liked on the way, again in very difficult conditions. Love it or hate it, the rather divisive 1881 Heritage mall in Tsim Sha Tsui -- which couples a restored, historic Marine Police headquarters with a faux-historic shopping mall -- is undeniably photogenic. It's also permanently packed with photographers and a mass of tourists grabbing photo opportunities in the courtyard. As I walked past, a display with gigantic, fake flowers as its centerpiece was attracting quite some attention. Despite all sorts of light sources, many of them glaring right at the lens, the X-T1 did a pretty good job braced against a handy pillar, and set to ISO 1250.

In real life, the colors of these incense coils in Yau Ma Tei's Tin Hau Temple are quite a bit more vivid. A quick tweak in Photoshop brings them right back to life, though.

The following day, I visited the Tin Hau Temple in Yau Ma Tei, which is devoted to the goddess Ma Zou, protector of fisherman. Although doing my best to remain quiet and respectful, I took quite a few pictures there. I particularly loved this shot of incense coils burning in the ceiling, even if they're much more vivid in real life than the shot makes them seem. A bump of vibrance and saturation restores their color. The lighting isn't actually as low as it seems -- quite a bit of sunlight filters into the temple, so the camera needed only a 1/160 second exposure at f/5.6 and ISO 200.

It wasn't until a couple of nights later that I got back to some real night shooting, this time at the harbor front before the nightly Symphony of Lights laser show. I wanted to get a nice panorama of the harbor, and so I spent a while playing with the Fuji T1's built-in pano function.

As you'll see below, I managed to get a panorama I'm pretty happy with, although I prefer it after tweaking to combat the haze a bit. (Of course, the haze isn't the camera's fault; you'll see the untouched original in the gallery.)

It did take quite a bit of work to get this result, though, for two reasons. Firstly, since the panorama length is predetermined -- you can opt for a shorter or longer panorama, but can't simply sweep and then let go of the shutter button at your chosen length -- it's hard to tell where to start off, to end the panorama right where you want. Secondly, the X-T1 struggles badly with motion or change in exposure during a panorama. The signs blinking on and off on the opposite side of the harbor caused sudden changes in brightness between frames, and the boats passing in the foreground turned into a mess of jumbled slices.

After a bunch of attempts, though, I managed the panorama shown below:

I still cut off the building at right, but I'm otherwise very happy with this panorama. This shot has been tweaked to reduce the haze in the sky; see the original in the gallery.

I also got what's probably my favorite single shot of the whole trip, a tighter-framed shot of Central district from the Bank of China to The Center. I actually shot this scene as a set of three fairly closely-bracketed exposures, but later decided to merge them into a single shot using Unified Color's HDR Expose 3. I fiddled with the controls for a little while to get a bold, contrasty look which brought down the haze a bit, while leaving a trace of the ridge line behind the skyscrapers.

This shot -- actually a stack of three separate frames, all of which are in the gallery -- will be going up on my wall. The vibrance of downtown Central is captured very nicely by the Fuji X-T1.

As an added bonus, it also salvaged the lights which extended only part-way up the Bank of China building -- "the zig-zag skyscraper", as my five year old son calls it -- as it had been only partially-illuminated in the best-exposed single frame of the trio.I've printed this shot out and hung it over my desk as a reminder of home.

I rounded out my night's shooting with a couple of the fast-vanishing neon signs with which Hong Kong was once so very closely associated. (Sadly, they're becoming something of a rarity these days.) These are so vivid and strongly-saturated that they can present quite a challenge to photograph. They're just plain fun to shoot, though -- I was like a kid, playing with exposure and fiddling with zoom during exposures as I wandered around snapping photos. I was very pleased with the results I achieved with the X-T1 -- enough so that I've proudly added a couple of my shots to M+ Museum's online compendium of Hong Kong neon signs.

Now this was fun to shoot. I set the camera up for a two-second exposure, aimed at the sign, tripped the shutter while holding the camera as still as I could for a second, then zoomed all the way out. It resembles a one-point perspective drawing; I needed quite a few attempts to achieve the result I wanted.

Done with night shooting for the time being, I returned to 1881 Heritage for some more photos in the daytime a couple of days later, after a brief stop by an idyllic urban park right near my hotel. (As a one-time local, I stayed in Mong Kok, away from the main tourist areas in an area that retains more of the charm of the Hong Kong I grew up with.) You'll see these and more in the gallery.

Through it all, I continued to appreciate traveling light with X-T1. My DSLR kit would've had me in serious pain by this point, as I hardly stopped walking the whole trip.

This idyllic park near my hotel was well worth stopping by. The X-T1 recorded it faithfully, and with lots of detail. Can you find the turtles hiding in the foreground?

And when I was done, I headed back to the harbor for what promised to be a lovely sunset -- and didn't disappoint. You can already can see the warmth enveloping the harbor in the shot below, and shortly afterward, it turned into the most beautiful display of gradually-shifting colors across the whole sky.

The Fuji X-T1's white balance system nicely held onto the warmth of this late golden hour shot.

Only a pano could do it justice, and boy, did it ever. Again, it took a few tries to get the panorama to start and end just where I wanted, but once I managed that, I was very happy with the result. Using the camera's built-in Wi-Fi, I shared this shot immediately on Facebook for friends and family to see, and not surprisingly, it got plenty of comments and kudos.

In-camera Wi-Fi is very nice to have for that reason -- had I not shared it immediately, I'd probably have forgotten to share it at all. I was mildly frustrated, though, to discover that Facebook's Android app resizes panoramas to postage-stamp size on upload, so my friends missed out on most of the detail.

Another nice in-camera pano from the Fuji X-T1 captured the last gasp of sunset very well. I shared this shot with friends and family by Wi-Fi right away. Here, I've tweaked curves and saturation in Photoshop; see the original shot in the gallery.

One last night shot on the way home really impressed me. After walking down the waterfront along the Avenue of Stars -- a tourist attraction not unlike the Hollywood Walk of Fame that's a Who's Who of the Hong Kong movie industry -- I walked past the side of the egg-shaped Space Museum, and my eye was caught by the historic Peninsula Hotel, brightly-lit in front of me.

This 2.4-second exposure is nice and sharp, despite being shot without a tripod. The secret? A somewhat-flimsy temporary railing, and the 18-55mm lens' image stabilization system. Nice!

I wanted to capture it along with the motion of the buses whizzing past in front, but I hadn't planned to be out so late, so I'd left my tripod back at the hotel. I braced the camera against the only convenient object -- a slightly wobbly temporary railing -- and the 18-55mm lens' image stabilization system did the rest. Believe it or not, it netted me a nice, sharp shot after only a few attempts, despite a 2.4 second exposure!

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and so to did my trip back home to Hong Kong. After a last couple of shots of early-morning sunlight, one of which you'll see in the gallery -- I rather liked the warmth of the sun against the buildings, and the bright, bat-shaped pawn shop sign in the foreground -- it was time to head to the airport.

The X-T1 was compact enough that I kept it out around my neck while lugging my carry-on bags around the airport, and that scored me two more photo opportunities that I'd otherwise have missed.

The first was a replica 1910 Farman biplane, hanging from the ceiling in the departure hall. The original it was based upon was the first aircraft ever to fly in Hong Kong, and this replica flew from the then-new Hong Kong International Airport in 1997, less than a year before its official opening.

I got quite a few shots of the Farman from various angles, and you can see my favorite in the gallery. The X-T1 picked up lots of detail in the wood grain, showing just how flimsy this craft really was. It must have taken a very brave soul to pilot it!

The other photo opportunity turned out to be my last shot of the trip -- my Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 777, waiting for me to board. I shot it through thick, tinted glass, but you wouldn't know it to look at it.

Shot through a thick, tinted plate glass window, but you wouldn't know it. There's plenty of detail, and color is good as well. And now, my flight awaits. For my final report, I'll be back home in Knoxville, TN!


Editor's Picks