I recently had the chance to take the Fuji X-Pro 1 with me on a workshop I was co-leading up above the arctic circle in the far north of Norway. I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to see how the camera performed in extreme conditions. I also had with me a newly delivered 23mm f1.4 Fuji lens to try out too. The images in this article were all made on the trip and all but the aurora shot are jpegs straight or virtually straight from the camera. If you followed my trip reports from the expedition you will have seen most of these images before (sorry!), but the aurora image with the 23mm lens is new, as are one or two of the others.
The idea of testing the lens here was to see how it performed shooting the “Northern Lights”, the Aurora Borealis, if we had a chance to see it. In theory the fast f1.4 aperture would make it ideal but I was also interested to test the sharpness of the lens and also to get a feel for its width, which although 23mm works out at about 35mm as a full-frame DSLR equivalent.
My main concern before setting off with the camera was battery performance in the extreme cold. I have found with the X-Pro 1, as many others have, that battery life is much poorer than I am used to with my DSLR. Of course, the battery is physically much smaller and the camera is fitted with a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) which must use quite a bit of power, so there are reasons behind this.
My frustrations with battery life are compounded by the fact of how difficult it is to change batteries quickly. I have the extended grip fitted to the camera which I find helps me with handling the camera and this has to be removed for every battery change. But, when shooting landscapes I also have to fit a quick release plate for my tripod and this requires a screwdriver (or coin) to remove it and this is also required to change the battery. The way I work I can easily go through four or more batteries in a days shooting and so this stripping down of the camera every time gets very tiresome. You can imagine how much I was looking forward to the drop off in battery performance in the minus 10 to minus 20 degree temperatures we were expecting.
So, how did the batteries perform? Surprisingly, quite well. In fact, I can’t say I noticed a deterioration over what I am used to. True, when shooting in such cold you tend not to shoot for extended periods, however the camera is cold, even in the bag. But I didn’t have to do more battery changes than normal. For that I was thankful.
How did the camera perform? There were a couple of issues. Bear in mind that at times I was using it at minus 20 degrees and often at well below freezing. The first issue I discovered almost straight away was the Fn button on the top of the camera which is programmable to whatever function you choose (I have it set to allow me to quickly change ISO) became “sticky”. To be honest, as it happened straight away I thought at first I had perhaps damaged the camera during the flight as the body had been in my pocket (with no lens attached). However, when the camera warmed up again later in the hotel the button returned to normal action. The next day, back in the cold, the stickiness returned. I found kit still worked but I had to press it carefully and be patient with it.
This button issue later extended to the AF button on the rear of the camera which allows you to select focus points for the auto focus system. In this case it went beyond sticky and refused to work, but again returned to life on warming up in the hotel.
Apart from these two issues the camera performed flawlessly in the extreme conditions we worked in and produced some images I am very happy with.
What I would say, however, is, that I found myself (contrary to what I have been doing here in the UK since buying the Fuji) reaching for my Canon 5D mk3 first. The Fuji has been my camera of choice since I bought it second hand a couple of months ago and I absolutely love it. But after a couple of days I realised I was favouring the Canon unconsciously over it, whereas since buying the Fuji I had not used the Canon at all except for a commissioned shoot which required it. I analysed why this was and realised that the Canon was much easier to use in the cold. I was wearing a pair of thin Merino wool inner gloves and with the Canon I could keep these on and operate the camera easily. However, the Fuji buttons required I take the gloves off due to the size and positioning of the buttons.
I also found the physical size of the Canon easier with gloves. So it was nothing to do with image quality, but rather the practicalities of usability in the arctic weather. I was also conscious of the button stickiness. The Canon had zero issues. It is a testament to the build quality that it shrugged off minus 20 easily. To give you an idea of what these temperatures are like to work in, my camera bag (and I) were getting frosted up at minus 20. Oh, and I didn’t change a battery in the Canon for the whole trip.
So, conclusions on the bodies. If I go to the arctic again the Fuji will stay at home (although it grieves me to say it). It is not ideal for these conditions. If it was my only camera it can handle it, but it is starting to show stress. I would, next time, take the 5Dmk 3 and and mk2 body as my spare body. However, on trips to warmer locations abroad, the Canon will be staying at home and My Fuji will be my travel camera and if my wife, Liz, will let me, her XE-2 body will be my spare body).
Now, thoughts on that 23mm lens. If you have used the 35mm lens you will know how wonderful it is. So you might be wondering if the 23mm is as good? Is it worth adding to your lens stable? Well, my in my opinion, you should. I have only used it a little but I am already blown away by it. It is as sharp, if not sharper. Wide open it is extraordinary. The bokeh is soft and dreamy. On the body of the X-Pro 1 the camera is nicely balanced in the hand (I use the body with the added grip). I am on the train going to London as I type this and I have the lens with me. If time allows I am going to put it through its paces on some street photography – a genre it is made for. I’ll post some images if they are up to scratch.
I used it for some aurora images in Norway. For shooting the aurora you have the lens wide open and focused on infinity. I could have done with a wider lens, in reality, to get more of the landscape in the shot. We were in a forest miles from any light pollution and this means total darkness so composing the image is very tricky. More width gives you latitude to crop away the edges if they are a bit messy. But it is not the fault of the lens that it wasn’t wide enough for what I wanted. The wide aperture gave me great speed, so at ISO1600 I was able to make these images at 10 to 20 seconds which is ideal for aurora images of this type. Had we had a more extreme display I think my shutter speed would have been down to a couple of seconds which would have captured the ‘curtain’ effect had we seen it. Even wide open, with the difficulty of focusing on infinity in absolute darkness I was able to get sharp images with surprising depth of field. The X-Pro 1 performs really well at high ISO’s. I pushed some images to ISO3200 and these do show some noise, but nothing that my Nik noise reduction plugin can’t reduce for me.
So, there we have it. A brief run down on the Fuji X-Pro 1 in the Arctic. It survived, but had a couple of issues. Its not ideal for these extreme conditions, but it held its own and I am delighted with the images it gave me. (all the images here were shot on it). As I am blessed with being able to have two camera systems, the Fuji and the Canon, I have the luxury of choice so if ever I get the chance to return it will be without the Fuji. But if I was a sole Fuji user, I would happily take it knowing I would come home with a great set of images.