After almost 40 years, an historic Greek racecar event returned to the calendar. Organized by the racing club ELLADA, this hillclimb took place last weekend (23-24 of April) and gathered more than 100 participants, in several categories.
I was particularly excited to see racing cars, like the ones I used to have on posters on my room as a kid. Escorts, Alfas, old BMWs and other historic cars shared the demanding route with more modern racers. Drivers and mechanics enthusiasm was high and shared with a whole lot of spectators, taking advantage of the excellent weather to watch the race. Some of these people walked two or three kilometers to find a spot with good visibility and prospect for thrilling spectacle. Organizers did a fine job with the race, and I really hope, in one year time, I will once again wake up at 6 a.m. to pack up my gear for the mountain.
My gear: A long telephoto zoom is the bread and butter of motorsport photographers. In this occasion, I couldn't get my hands on the new 100-400mm, but, on hindsight, this lens would be rather long in most cases in this shooting. Instead, Fujifilm Hellas kindly provided an XF 1.4X TC teleconverter, which I attached to the XF 50-140mm f/2.8 zoom. At this point, many special thanks to Fujifilm Hellas and especially Vaggelis Psathas for making this possible.
We have to point out that the 50-140mm takes some getting used to, while on the X-Pro2. The camera doesn't have the most comfortable grip imaginable, and the optional Fuji grip doesn't do much in this case. I will eventually adapt a larger grip with Arca plates for these cases, like I did with the X-E2, when it becomes available.
The good news is that the 50-140mm works superbly with the X-Pro2; it focuses very fast and accurately and the zoom and aperture rings are smooth like velvet. The lens is a real workhorse; no second thoughts about it. To put things in perspective (and, remember, this is a highly subjective evaluation), this is probably not a lens you fall in love with, such as the 23mm, 56mm or 90mm are for some people. Instead, it will be like your lifelong buddy; always having your back and possibly willing to take a bullet for you, should it come to that. And, at some point, you come to appreciate the huge amount of work you do with it, without even realizing it.
The 1.4X TC integrates seamlessly and works flawlessly with the zoom; please remember to update the firmware on the lens for them to work together. Optically, the TC steals nothing of the zoom's sharpness, rendering and AF speed remains intact. You only get a one stop penalty; so the 50-140mm becomes (effectively) a 70-200mm f/4 lens (which translates to 105-300mm in 36X24 format FoV terms). The only curious, but probably explainable thing I noticed was that, in long-time use, the point around the contacts with the lens, gets noticeably warm, although one would not call it "hot" or uncomfortable.
Let's now talk about the X-Pro2 performance in this challenging scenario. Although I had previously tested the camera a little with moving subjects, I admit I was a little nervous. My anxieties were put to rest as soon as the first racecar came roaring uphill to our location. For X-T1 users, things are simple: take the current X-T1 performance and push it up about a level or two. I used continuous AF for the whole thing, plus wide/tracking mode and high speed burst.
The X-Pro2 proved great at following targets: I would say an 80% success rate is easily achievable, or even more if one has the skills and nerve to pick and constantly change the framing with confidence. This rate is true even with aggressively panning to catch the action. Below you can see an example of several consecutive frames, and draw your own conclusions on hit rate.
I should mention that I noticed receding targets to be sometimes more challenging. Sometimes, when a car gets away and turns at the same time, clever positioning of the tracking area should be applied for better results.
Are there occasions where the AF is fooled? Sure there are: sometimes foliage, bushes, safety ribbons, and other such objects, [RANT]not to mention overenthusiastic spectators, blissfully ignorant of photographers and overconfident in the ability of their crappy smartphones to catch racecars in motion [/RANT] can all fool the AF if you are not careful. A hint in this case is this: be calm. Recompose slightly and trust the AF system to work its magic again, then frame correctly and shoot. Most of the time it's temporary anxiety that destroys the shot.
The X-Pro2 has an improved buffer; I suppose it's 30+ frames while using RAW only, upon which point the camera slows down (although still shooting and storing pictures). I (stupidly) shot RAW+JPEG which ate up my SD cards, and was useless eventually, since I used the JPEGs only. But shooting like on the test sequence with the Veloce, above, is not the way to go to maximize speed.
Speaking of proper shooting technique: think of fighter pilots. These are badass people that you don't want to mess with, and they are also high caliber professionals. When a fighter pilot is on Fox 3 (guns only), he puts the piper on the target, and lights it up with short, deliberate bursts. Regardless of the result, he realigns his aim and gets another short, controlled shot.
The fighter pilot protocol, guaranties you always have an almost empty buffer (because of the ultra fast processor in the X-Pro2), although the files are huge, even with a slower, older card. If, instead, you opt to shoot like a "spray and pray" moron, jamming the shutter and shooting like there is no tomorrow, you end up with loads and loads of stupid pictures and will have only yourself to blame when your last SD card gets filled up and your last battery gives up the spirit.
Speaking of batteries: the X-Pro2 chews on them like nobodys business. This is a source of frustration, in a fast paced shooting: definitely have a few at hand and on easy reach, at all times. A main issue is that, although the battery meter is more accurate now, this is true only for original batteries. Aftermarket batteries just die out when empty, and this happens almost without warning. I managed to empty four batteries, two originals and two aftermarket, in the course of this shooting. This included more than 1400 clicks, all in fast burst mode, and some chimping now and then. Naturally, I never turned off the camera, except to change batteries or cards. Also, since cars launch at the rate of one every one, or half, minute, you can understand the camera never got to sleep mode. Come to think about it, this was not an altogether bad performance overall, although worse than the older X-cameras. The trouble is, the X-Pro2 can't take a battery grip, which would offer at least some confidence. Just be ultra watchful on the battery meter and optimally use original batteries for critical tasks.
A final thing I'd like to mention is that of the OVF, with a telephoto lens and action. Mathieu, from Mirrorlessons.com, published an interesting article on using the OVF with the 100-400mm and birds in flight. I tried this with (the much larger!) cars, and, indeed, it works quite well. The main advantage being, that you are able to see the subject entering your frame and can act accordingly. This is much like the fighter-pilot paradigm I mentioned above. Also, of course, no blackouts whatsoever. The main concept is, being confident in the AF, because you can't really see the focus points very well (especially in bright sunlight). But I'd encourage everyone to try this: it's a very valid option.
In closing this review, I'd like to emphasize that all my comments on the camera/lens/converter combo are related to the specific scenario, in other words, racecars. I don't shoot birds, either literally or figuratively, and I'd suppose other rules and disciplines apply. My experience with this type of shooting and the X-Pro2 (which will continue soon, since the Acropolis Rally comes to Greece in a couple of weeks), justifies previous assumptions I made about mirrorless performance with moving subjects: a faster processor is one critical element, better software routines is another. The X-Pro2 has both over previous X-cameras, thus achieving improved performance. Which raises high hopes for the X-T2, for all those that hope to, once and for all, replace their DSLR, for action shooting.
Here is a small gallery from the race, which I hope you enjoy. I used Velvia film simulation (because, why not, and racecars look hot in larger than life colors). Photos are OOC JPEGs, with minor adjustments for exposure, a bit of extra sharpening in some cases, and usually cropping (which you can do rather aggressively having the luxury of 50% more megapixels in the X-Pro2).
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