Putting the Fuji X70 to the Test in Denali National Park
Why bring a camera designed for street photography to a one-road wilderness? Because it gets the job done.
Grizzly bears, moose, caribou roaming the tundra. These stirring images from Denali National Park consistently grace the pages of nature and photography magazines. And I couldn’t wait to take it all in during a recent scouting trip for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic travel programs. But did I honestly think that I would come away with the same images as the pros? Not a chance. So, instead of reaching for the perfect shot, I reached in my pocket and shot with the same compact street camera that I shoot with in Philadelphia and New York City: the Fujifilm X70.
Here’s what I found:
1. When you are out all day, lugging a heavy DSLR like my Nikon D750 can take its toll. The Fujifilm X70 fit easily into any jacket pocket and even in the side pockets of my hiking pants. Having it tucked away at times also made me feel more open to the surrounding environment, which is why you travel all that way. (Tip: you might want to get a screen protector to keep that beautiful LCD view screen scratch free.)
1. Dials Rule: The Fujifilm X70 is designed for quick adjustments. The top dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation as well as the front aperture dial and lens ring keep every adjustment I would ever want to make right there on the body. No fiddling with a menu screen while the world passes you by.
2. With 10+ hour travel days and the view screen on for every shot, I was nervous about battery life. However, the battery lasted all day with juice to spare. The manual says "300 shots" on a full charge, which is accurate, maybe even on the low side. Still, best to have a spare nearby.
3. The 3" tilting touchscreen is awesome. I know that this was a test of a street camera in the wild and that its main competitor is the Ricoh GRII, but the articulating screen let me easily compose ground shots of the tundra or go high above tourist’s heads to get a clean shot—seeing what I was capturing the entire time. I used the touch screen only to set focus points. (And I didn't miss the optical viewfinder.)
4. AUTO mode is fairly fast and accurate at identifying the necessary scene mode. However, if wanting to go that set-it-and-forget-it route, I preferred setting the Aperture and Shutter speed to AUTO and using the easy to reach exposure compensation dial when I needed an override.
5. Sharpness: It's not big glass quality but this 18mm lens (28mm equivalent) is pretty darn close! Especially impressive for a camera in the $700 range.
6. Close Ups: I’ve been the guy changing his lens while a bear snatches up a salmon more times than I care to admit. 14-24, then 70-200, then 85mm macro. It’s tiring, at times embarrassing, and my sensors were quickly becoming dust magnets. Being able to shoot the distant landscape one second and a close up of lichen-covered boulders from 10cm away the next is hugely valuable when hiking.
7. Lag: The start up time on the Fujifilm X70 is tops. So you're up and running by the time you point at your subject. However, those used to DSLRs will notice the focus lag with this camera. It's far better than most other point and shoots that I've used, but still worth pointing out. The X70's 8 frames per second ensures that when you are focused, you won't miss the shot.
The (Somewhat) Bad News:
Most impactful photography is about getting close to your subject and stretching the frame. Well, with such a wide lens you have to get REALLY close. No grizzly shots with this camera! There is a 35mm and 50mm digital crop but I don't want to switch between them in the middle of shooting. So the bad news is what you already knew, a fixed wide-angle lens is limiting.
Also, post photo-taking, I didn't realize that my Lightroom 5 wouldn't handle the .RAF files. What gives? I downloaded the .DNG converter and am making due, but it's an extra step in a process that already cuts into your schedule.
The Big Picture
Above all, I loved that the fixed wide angle of the Fuji X70 forced me to see beyond a silhouetted animal or the snowy updraft of a single mountain peak. I saw the scope of Denali in each shot. And I was really pleased at how it handled. The low light performance, discrete size, sharpness--all the features I praise it for in the street came through in the wild as well. Also, as you can see by these shots, I love the monochrome and monochrome w/ red filter straight out of the camera.
Full disclosure, I didn't leave my Nikon D750 at home. I took it out when I needed some reach or really wanted to get the absolute highest quality shot I could. But the X70 was so fun to use and much more disarming when shooting people. My fellow travelers stiffened when faced with the D750, but would remain their smiling, adventure loving selves in front of the X70.
In fact, at Wonder Lake and Eilson Visitor Center, I went around with the Fuji and took photos of people. Most didn't even notice, and they are my favorite shots from the entire trip.
What I Want From the Next-Gen Fuji X70
The snow-capped mountain range kicks off some serious light. To shoot them, I used my D750 and added an ND filter to take those highlights down. The Fuji rendered beautifully, but sometimes I needed to hold back the sky a little more. A built in ND filter in future models would be killer. And, please, a Wi-Fi app that is fluid and does not cut out.
However, none of these tiny wishlist items should keep you from picking up the X70. It's my favorite camera for the city and, now, the wilderness too.