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I’ve already written about why I changed to Fujifilm from Canon and now I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the suitability of Fujifilm cameras (and mirrorless cameras in general) for portrait photography.
Before I used my Fujifilm X-T1 I had a few doubts about using it to take portraits. For example, how accurate is the autofocus when using prime lenses at wide apertures like f1.2? How good is the electronic viewfinder? If you end up missing moments because of slow autofocus or viewfinder lag then the camera isn’t really a good tool for portraits.
I read plenty of reviews before I bought the camera, paying attention to these points. I also tested the camera in the shop. As a result I was reasonably satisfied the camera would do what I wanted by the time I completed the purchase. But the only way to know for sure is to use it on a proper shoot.
Above: Portrait taken with Fujifilm X-T1 camera and Fujinon 56mm f1.2 lens. I used an aperture of f1.2 for this portrait. It gives you an idea of the shallow depth of field you can create with this lens.
Fuji portrait lenses
There are three lenses that I like to use with my X-T1 for portraits.
Fujinon 56mm f1.2 lens. This is a short telephoto lens with a similar field of view to the 85mm lens that I used so much on my full-frame Canon digital SLR.
Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens. A good lens for street photography or for taking portraits inside in limited space.
Fujinon 18mm f2 lens. Good for environmental portraiture where the model’s surroundings are an important part of the portrait, and for street photography.
All three are prime lenses. The first two have wide maximum apertures ideal for creating portraits with bokeh. They all come with lens hoods supplied, an important detail as lens hoods are an essential but often expensive accessory.
I’ve also used a Helios 58mm f2 lens, a Russian made manual focus prime lens that fits to the camera using a M42 screw mount adapter.
Above: A portrait taken indoors with the Fujinon 56mm lens. The model is lit by window light.
Using Fujifilm cameras for portraits
Here are my thoughts about using the X-T1 for portraits.
The vertical grip is essential for working with the camera in the portrait orientation. The grip makes holding the camera vertically much easier. If you’re thinking about buying a camera for portraiture, then buying one with a vertical grip is an excellent idea. If you're looking at the Fujifilm range specifically, then that means you'll need an X-T2 or an X-T1 as these are the only Fujifilm cameras with vertical grips.
The camera is much smaller than a digital SLR, even with the vertical grip attached. It’s also much lighter and I can use it comfortably with a wrist strap. It’s never felt too heavy or too big.
The 56mm f1.2 Fujinon lens is a great portrait lens. There isn’t much difference in depth of field between this lens at f1.2 and my 85mm at f1.8 on a full-frame camera. It’s nice that this lens has a shorter minimum focusing distance than my old Canon 85mm lens, as I can get closer to the model with it.
Above:The Fujinon 56mm lens is ideal for taking portraits (left) and for capturing fine details (right).
The autofocus of the Fujifilm X-T1 is fast and precise. It had no problem focusing accurately at f1.2 in low light. I like being able to rely on the accuracy of the focus without having to worry about whether the lens is focusing where it’s supposed to. There is no need for autofocus micro-adjustment on mirrorless cameras – a great advantage over digital SLRs especially when using them with prime lenses.
The 49 autofocus points provide a lot of freedom when it comes to composition. It’s easy to switch points and focus accurately on the model’s eyes no matter how the photo is composed. For portraiture, the more autofocus points your camera has the better. If you have a digital SLR you need more cross-type autofocus points. These are the only ones you can rely on to focus accurately when using apertures wider than f2.8.
The Film Simulation modes bring a level of depth and beauty to the photos that's missing from other digital cameras. Fujifilm’s equivalent of Canon’s Picture Styles and Nikon’s Picture Controls are better thought out than the other manufacturer’s camera profiles. They are also available in Lightroom so you can use them when developing Raw files.
The quality of the electronic viewfinder is superb. It’s bigger than any digital SLR viewfinder (including full-frame professional cameras). The image is bright even in low light and there’s virtually no lag.
The electronic viewfinder helps with composition. Optical viewfinders display a three-dimensional view and you have to learn how that translates into two dimensions. Electronic viewfinders show you a two-dimensional view, helping you visualize the final result.
The electronic viewfinder displays the scene in monochrome when you set Film Simulation to black and white. It helps you see tonal contrast, line and other compositional elements without being distracted by color. Shoot in Raw, and you still capture a full color file that you can process any way you want.
The optional live histogram helps you get exposure right before you take a photo. It’s quicker than checking the histogram afterwards.
The small form factor of the X-T1 plus the quiet shutter create a different dynamic than a larger camera when shooting portraits. The model seems more relaxed – even experienced models have told me they feel tense and under pressure when the photographer uses a big lens. This applies to formal shoots, but even more so to street and travel photography where people take less notice of a small mirrorless camera than they do of a large digital SLR.
The camera accepts many older lenses via mount adapters. It's ideal for experimenting with older optics that you can buy inexpensively from eBay and similar websites. The electronic viewfinder allows focus peaking and even has a dual screen mode that shows a magnified section of the scene next to the main image to help you focus accurately.
Above:I used the Helios 58mm f2 lens to create this portrait. This manual focus lens is noted for its swirly bokeh effect, which you can see in the background.
Above: One of the benefits of electronic viewfinders is that you can customize the display. You can set the Fujifilm X-T1 to show a dual display with manual focus lenses. The inset shows an enlargement of the area under the active autofocus point to help you see whether you have focused accurately.
I’m delighted with the performance of the Fujifilm X-T1 camera for portraiture. Does it have any disadvantages? Of course – no camera is perfect – but not many. My main gripe is poor battery life. But that’s not a practical consideration when I use the vertical grip (which has room for an additional battery).
The X-T1 gives me a freedom that my EOS 5D Mark II didn’t. I can carry the camera around for longer without getting tired. I have the freedom to compose my portraits how I want thanks to the 49 point autofocus array. The excellent high ISO performance also gives me another type of freedom – the ability to shoot in low light.
The truth is that I feel liberated. My Fujifilm camera has freed me from the restrictions imposed by the size and weight of my digital SLR.
Above: A portrait of a street performer in Cadiz taken with the Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens.
Above: I made this portrait with the Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens. There wasn't enough space to step back and use the 56mm lens.
Above: Environmental portrait made with Fujinon 18mm f2 lens. This portrait tells a story about the relationship between the background (a gypsy caravan built by the model) and the model herself. A wide-angle lens is useful for capturing the scene.
Above: Food vendor in the muslim quarter of Xi'an, China. The Fujinon 18mm lens is very good for street photography.
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