I recently took some photos at my children's school sports day. I wasn't happy with the result. Too many shots were out of focus. I'll admit the main problem was technique and lens choice. I used too long a lens and was poor at keeping the focus points over the subject I wished to capture. I was also stood at an angle that wasn't conducive to getting great shots. The latter was highlighted by the much better shots I got when the sporting events gave me a better angle to work with.
But where's this going? Well yesterday's announcement of the Fujifilm X-T21 and its dramatically improved autofocus system made me wonder how much of the issue was my camera. How much of the problems I faced at sports day were technique and position and how many were because the camera is not up to the job. After all we're often told that mirrorless cameras just can't do sports. I don't believe this last point. Yes if I was shooting only sport I would use a DSLR, but for the kind of small-scale action shooting I occasionally do I believe that mirrorless cameras are good enough. That left me with two options to pursue in improving my hit rate; those being my own technique and the camera settings.
Yesterday evening my boys were playing football in the garden and I decided to experiment with camera settings and attempt to improve my action shooting technique. I put the 55-200mm down and instead reached for the 18-55mm. In the small space of our garden this immediately made a different. Even at the longer focal lengths I could keep the boys filling enough of the viewfinder without losing them. The second thing I discovered was a better way of using the camera settings. Since firmware version 4.0 the X-T1 has enjoyed a more advanced autofocus system to that which the camera originally shipped with.
There are now three autofocus modes - single point, zone and wide/tracking. What complicates matters is that in reality there are more than three modes as each of these changes function depending on whether the photographer is in single shot or continuous focus mode, and whether the shooting rate mode is set to single, continuous low or continuous high. Take for example shooting in continuous low - which fires off something like three shots per second. In single autofocus mode there's a blackout between each shots. But in continuous focus mode the camera switches into high gear and you can see what's happening between shots. For now I want to focus (sorry) on the various ways the camera works in continuous focus mode as this is the one users are most likely to engage for sports or action.
Fujifilm suggests using the single point focus mode when tracking simple subjects moving towards or away from the camera. Zone autofocus gives a choice of three increasingly large zonal areas to track a target. I used this with great success at Yeovilton Air Day last year. From tracking subjects against simple backgrounds it really works very well and the experience between shooting the air show with the X-T1 and previous DSLR experience was minimal. Zone doesn't work so well with cluttered backgrounds and wasn't much help to me at the sports day. It definitely works brilliant in some situations and if I could have moved my viewing position might have been my go to mode for sports day, but not this day.
Both single point and zone focus modes behave in similar ways when you change the shooting rate. The low setting allows you to use all the focus points across the frame. The high speed setting prefers the user to make use of the nine phase detect focus points in the centre of the frame. This all seems predictable and easy to understand. Where I think there can be confusion is the third focs mode called wide/tracking. Just the name is confusing. Is it wide? Is it tracking? What's it actually doing. My experimentation leads me to believe it's doing really different stuff depending on other settings. It might have been better for Fujifilm to separate the functions into wide and tracking modes.
In single frame shooting the user isn't given a focus frame to choose from - instead wide/tracking chooses a high contrast subject to focus on. It doesn't matter whether you're in single shot, continuous low or continuous high frame rate modes the functionality is the same. In effect this is the "wide" autofocus mode, in that the camera will choose a focus point across the whole frame. Introduce continuous autofocus though and this is where matters change. Now we're in tracking mode. The screen now shows a square focus point. In single shot mode the user can move this point. Point the square at your target and half press the shutter - the camera will now attempt to track this target across the whole frame. Whether it's the camera or the subject moving the camera will attempt to follow the subject. The X-T1 isn't brilliant at this, but it will try.
So far so good. In the hullabaloo surrounding the launch of Firmware Version 4.0 this is the mode that attracted the least attention. The promotional material showed cameras on tripods tracking slowly moving trains. Big deal, zone and single point focus are where the action shooting's at, amiright? But on a whim I started playing around with wide/tracking yesterday evening while my boys played football. And it was something of a revelation. So let's return to wide/tracking in continuous focus mode. So far we've just tried single shot. What happens when we move to the 3ps continuous low mode? Functionality is pretty much the same. You can place the focus point anywhere and the camera will attempt to track the target with a shutter half press and then shoot three frames per second on a full press. This wasn't the ideal mode for our garden sports - especially due to the close distance and therefore quickly changes angles of my subjects.
So then I switched the camera to continuous high (8fps)2 mode. And this is where the choirs of angles comes in. Because this absolutely nailed it. I've been doing some online research this morning and lots of people seem to think if you engage 8fps shooting in wide/tracking mode the camera just falls back to zone focus mode. I really don't think this is true at all. While the camera does then limit the user to the nine faster phase detect focus points this isn't the zone focus mode, it is still the wide/tracking mode. Fujifilm confirms this in its own online FAQ where it states:
Q.When shooting mode is set to Wide/Tracking mode and CH(high-speed burst), the AF range becomes narrower. A. It is to realize AF speed following the approx. 8 frames/sec by narrowing the area of the Phase Detection AF.
So in wide/tracking mode, with continuous focus at 8fps the Fujifilm X-T1 will attempt to track. And I found using this setting revelatory yesterday evening. If I put the centre square on my focus target before half pressing the shutter the camera tried very hard to keep that target in focus. I was surprised how well this worked. The camera ignored complex leafy backgrounds much better than regular zone mode. The camera would reacquire my target if they moved out of the central PDAF zone for a few moments. The camera would ignore foreground objects that came into shot. Suddenly I was getting loads of keepers. So then I switched back to the 55-200mm lens to see if I got the same benefit. In the tight confines of the garden this lens is a little too long. But I still found that wide/tracking, C-AF, CH worked really well. So there we go. And awful lot of waffle to get to my main point - which is this:
FOR ACTION/SPORTS SHOTS WITH DIFFICULT BACKGROUNDS AND FOREGROUNDS THE FUJIFILM X-T1 REALLY WILL TRACK TARGETS WELL WHEN SET TO WIDE/TRACKING, C-AF, CH. SO THERE.
I don't need a Fujifilm X-T2 after all.3
1A Camera I will readily admit lusting sinfully after, but can't really afford.
2As most X-T1 users know 8fps is a maximum, the camera rarely reaches this consistently in zone or wide mode.
3This is of course complete bullshit, I lust after the Fujifilm X-T2 with every fibre of my being.