Wild west shoot out

Armed with a loaded XT1 cycling photographer Steve Thomas shoots it out against the big guns in the wild west of the Colorado Rockies.

Shooting headlong into the early morning sun, keeping the element of surprise by bucking the odds; it’s always been the way I like to do things, maybe I should call it my style.

Ever since I was a kid there had been a fascination with the wild west, something about the lonesome cowboy life had always appealed to me, yet when you live on the opposite side of the world and somewhere around a century too late I guess it’s kind of hard to live out those spaghetti western dreams of a long since passed childhood.

Horses were never really my thing either, so before even hitting my teens I hit the open road in my own way, on two wheels. Back then I would never have figured that I’d make my life out of it – cycling that is.

It’s a long and bumpy old road of a story, which has led me to pedal and then shoot my way all around the world for the past 35 years or so – around 25 of those as a writer and photographer who specialises in cycling and garnishes things with adventure travel editorial.

This time around I was in Colorado, after being invited along on a test run for a major weeklong cyclo sportive event that will happen for real in 2017. The Haute Route is the name of this event, in this case the Haute Route Rockies; a seven-day semi-competitive ride that traverses the high mountain passes and famous dirt roads of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

In the good old days of film and fitness I used to ride everything that I shot and wrote about – along with a 10-15kg backpack of gear on my back, which is something I would find it hard to contemplate attempting these days. That said, I do still ride a fair amount of things with a smaller mirrorless kit on my back; all be it at a more sedate pace.

Keeping my kit as small and functional as possible has always been essential. When I travel I have a bagged bike weighing in at around 18kg, a minimal amount of cycling and regular kit, and my carry on bag – which is all cameras, computer, had drives and essentials. With a 23kg average weight limit for airlines that’s pretty lean.

Go back a few years and that pack would weigh in at around 15kg, and contain 2 x Canon pro DSLR’s, 1 x 70-200mm, 1 x 17-40mm, 1 x 24-105mm, 1 x 50mm, 1 x fisheye, 1 x 580 flash, a compact camera, MacBook Pro, and all the associated accessories; a true beast of burden.

On this last trip I’d cut my carry on load to my now familiar et up of; 1x Fuji XT1, 1 x XE1, I x 18-55mm, 1 x 10-24mm, 1 x 55-200mm, 1 x 18mm, 1 x Nissin i140 flash, 1 x Sony RX100, an 11 inch MacBook Air, 2 hard drives and accessories – around half the bulk and weight of a few years back.

As with so many Fuji converts my transformation started with the original X100, which I still own. My hope had been to find a quality system which was reliable enough for travel, could be carried easily on my bike, and that could be used remotely to shoot the self action pics that are essential for much of my work. Sadly, as much as I loved the camera, it simply was not there; it was frustratingly slow, cumbersome and uncooperative.

At that Point I all but gave up on the portable picture pipe dream, but when the XE1 came around I decided to give Fuji another last-gap trial. Having had reliability issues with the X100 I didn’t dare rely fully on it for my work, and ran it on 2 major trips alongside a Canon 5D3, and found myself shooting 90% of the material I used with the Fuji, which although it was still a frustrating little bundle, had well and truly got my attention.

Despite similar reliability issues with the XE1 I stuck with the Fuji prophecy. I came across one of the first XT1’s in a shop in Malaysia, and but the Fuji bullet again, in the hope that evolution may have improved things. To an extent it did, although that same camera is currently with Fuji having some severe restoration work done.

There’s no doubting that I have fallen for my Fuji X system, although overall, as a working photographer – who relies on his cameras to perform without fail, I still cannot trust the system 100%, and know that when it does fail that it could mean a month without the camera (Fuji service is painfully slow) – which simply never happened in a lifetime of using Canon.

Fuji have indeed done a great job with their marketing – and created a cult like following through their X Photographers, who all seem to preach from the same hymn sheet to near bland perfection. I do get the feeling that some products are over-hyped and released at a beta stage, and then tweaked with firmware updates – as was the X100.

Either way, I have committed pretty much to the X system, and will be in line for an XT2 when they become available, more from a size and convenience stand than anything else. There is no doubting that they are great performers, even if you do have to know how to treat them in order to get the best results.

During the Colorado trip I was shooting “behind“ the official photographer and a videographer, who had very different backgrounds to myself, and who saw things in a totally different way, hence it was incredibly frustrating at times – for all of us.

I always prefer to work alone and with flexibility. In this case we were mostly shooting from a moving car, with me hanging out of the rear side window, which got more than a little precarious on occasions; especially when offroad.

So, there I was with my half-pint-sized Fuji in a gunfight with a couple of pro Canon’s. There was no question; I knew that I could hold my own, but I also had a totally different workaround to consider, especially when I had virtually no input in when, where and what we did. 

I’m used to such situations, and the end results produced were a stark contrast in styles and thinking more than anything else. I would often find myself looking and shooting in the complete opposite direction to the others, by instinct and not in defiance.

Around 75% of what I shot that week was on the XT1 (the XE1 is for backup) with the “kit” 18-55mm lens, which in my opinion is amazing lens, and one of the most under rated in the Fuji range. The wide angle 10-24mm came out on occasion, and would usually be my weapon of “half” choice; but my companions were not as comfortable in getting up as close as I normally like to work, hence it was passed over somewhat.

Reaching long was something of an issue – the 55-200mm lens is a nice and well-proportioned piece of kit, but at the long end (300mm equivalent) it really does struggle to focus especially in high contrast situations, and camera shake is also more of an issue than it should.

This does greatly restrict its use for action, and means that I miss a fair amount of stuff that I would not miss with a Canon. Sure, I could consider the 50-140mm option, but that really does fly in the face of my own personal ethos and reasoning with the Fuji system.

With moving targets Fuji is still a long way off on tracking/continuums focus ability (with all lenses). I nearly always use manual focus in these situations – especially if the target is coming towards me, which limits your options. Moving across the screen does, in reality not require continual focus, so is rarely and issue - I find it better to stick to single or manual focus in this situation.

Overall I was shooting around 700 images each day – that’s half in RAF format and half as medium jpeg – just so that I can send them via Wi-Fi to my phone (RAF files don’t seem to transfer). I’m not a huge fan of social media, but getting an Instagram pic out in real time from the car is a great thing. I have actually used this method for filing bike race reports from cars in the past, although the images do lose their file names and metadata in transfer – which caused one editor to try and pay me less as he assumed I was using iPhone pics, ahem.

The small nature of the Fuji’s is key for me when travelling, and despite various X Photographers claiming this as a plus in a professional sense, my experience is the opposite in many situations; all be that through slight ignorance. The bigger the camera the more seriously you are taken – especially in a scrum at a bike race finish, or when you’re trying to score a ride slot on a race motorbike. Results or not – you are not taken so seriously as the guy with a long lens, which is reason enough for me to keep my rarely used Canon gear for occasions where size does matter.

It’s also often the case that people will ask the guy with the big lens for images, and pass you over because of your small camera. I have lost a lot of potential sales because of using mirrorless in situations when non-photographers make business calls based on pre-conceptions.

There’s little doubt that the Fuji X system is a great, and in situations such as this it is totally workable, or rather “work-aroundable”.  There have been many times that I’ve missed crucial shots because of the cameras going into sleep mode or simply failing to respond fast enough, but I’ve always managed to work around that – not perfect, but a decent enough balance when it comes to the pay off.

Battery life clearly is abysmal, files sizes are huge, and the RAF files do take a whole lot more work than Canon CR2 files – but for me Fuji is not the future – it is the present, and it’s good enough, and can only get better.

The trip to Colorado was frustrating at times; mostly because I was not flying solo, and not because of the camera. By working around the restrictions of the situation and by playing to the many colourful plusses of the Fuji things worked out well, not fantastic – but then again I’m never satisfied, which I guess is a good thing!