Fujifilm XT-2 review [and why you should get a grip]

Shot with the Fujifilm XT-2 somewhere near Pemberton, B.C.

This is my first camera review and, admittedly, I’ve struggled with it. I’d like it to be fair. Balanced. Engaging would be good, too. Let’s start with the backstory. I was headed to British Columbia to do some backcountry skiing with friends. I’m the sort who tends to shoot more while on the road and thought the trip would make for a perfect camera test. The XT-2 had just come out and a friend at Vistek had a contact at Fujifilm. The timing was perfect and he urged me to reach out. Sure enough, days later I’m unboxing a loaner and, with more than a little guilt, swapping my beloved XT-1 from my luggage.

It’s about here, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit to being a Fuji fanboy. When the X Series launched I was first in line for the x100. I got the x100s, too. I had been using the 5D MIII for work and have schlepped many a dSLR on vacation. The X cameras were a revelation for me and when the XT-1 landed I embraced it with open arms. With it I’ve shot an ad campaign (including a billboard) and carried it on all my trips for work or pleasure because it is just that: A pleasure to use. It even looks cool hanging off your shoulder. Sure, the XT-1 has its faults but, at least for me, it lived up to its billing as an SLR-killer. Needless to say, I was keen to get my hands on the XT-2 but the bar was set high. All this time I’ve been singing Fujifilm’s virtues so what if the new flagship model sucked? [Spoiler: It doesn’t.]

There’s already been a tonne written about the XT-2’s tech specs [here’s a couple I read from CameraLabs, The Verge and Fstoppers] so I don’t feel I’ve got much to add to that conversation. What I can offer is my real world experience using the XT-2 in some demanding conditions. I’ll touch on the big upgrades then move on to the bit I’m most excited about [Hint: it’s the battery grip.]

XT-2 > XT-1

Here are the differences, starting with the physical stuff. It’s got dual card slots, a brilliant thumb-operated AF joystick (that’s also a button) and an extra flippy rear view screen that now tilts out in portrait mode (or to the left in landscape) as well as up and down. The thumb and forefinger shutter/aperture controls (i.e. command dials) are buttons now, too. It’s also a touch bigger overall but not in a way I found noticeable. The ISO and shutter speed dials lock with the press of a button now, too, which I like.

It’s also beefed up its shutter speed and tops out at 1/8000 [compared to the XT-1’s top speed of 1/4000.] The ISO has been upped to a see-in-the-dark 12,800 [way higher than the XT-1’s 6,400] and that’s not all. The folks at Fujifilm continue to honour their heritage with the addition of another film simulation, ACROS BW, as well as a general film grain feature I found to be totally fun [see shot at the bottom.]

In addition to the Q button familiar to X shooters, there’s a new My Menu feature that lets you add the functions you’re likely to change more frequently to a personalized screen.

It also does 4K video [but frankly I don’t care… To find out why, read to the end.]

And then, there’s the 24 MP X-Trans III APS-C sensor. The XT-1 is a solid performer with a 16 MP chip but this new one is really quite dazzling, especially at long exposures. *If you’d like to pixel creep, the straight-out-of camera Fine JPG of that star shot up top is here on 500px, complete with specs.]

It’s right about here that I should mention this is the same sensor that is in the X Pro2 and the much more consumer-friendly (cheaper) XT20. So why pay twice as much for the XT-2? Well, the build, for one. The Deuce is fully weather sealed and comes with all those new features mentioned above. The XT20 doesn’t. Fuji puts a premium on those mostly physical features and therein lies the rub. It’s the feel. It was the compact heft of the XT-1 that sold me on it the moment I picked it up. It’s the same for the XT-2. Not to take anything away from the XT20. It is most likely the best pound-for-pound bargain going in cameras today. But, that said, I know which I’d have.

My work station at home. That blue bit of cordelette served as my camera strap while testing the XT-2.

We awoke to a fresh layer of snow so when the clouds broke around noon it was scramble time to get a few frames off before it socked in again.

Get a grip

Fuji calls it the Vertical Power Booster (VPB) Grip and it does just that: Boosts the camera’s performance and makes vertical (portrait) orientation shooting a pleasure. I put the grip on immediately after unboxing and didn’t take it off except to do an extremely unscientific weight test. [it’s supposed to be 50 grams heavier than the XT-1 but, in my hands, I couldn’t feel much of a difference.]

Unlike other grips on other cameras, Fuji’s VPB on the XT-2 felt rock solid. The design is surprisingly seamless and, in my hands at least, it felt more like a part of the body than an add-on. There was zero wiggle. Put another way, it felt like it belonged.

The camera (and grip) being loaners I did my darndest to use them as much as possible and, after three weeks of daily use, the body alone felt a touch too small. Too light. This is an odd thing to say since it was the XT-1’s compactness that drew me away from dSLRs in the first place but, after using the grip on the XT-2, I honestly don’t think I’d ever take it off. It just felt too good. [NOTE: I have big-ish dude hands.]

I also found that using the camera in portrait mode really freed up my photography. The lack of buttons to fiddle with on the grip kept my attention where it should be: On the subject. Having only the shutter, command dials and (another) AF stick within reach was supremely liberating in a less-is-more kind of way.

Performance-wise the grip felt more like a necessity than an add-on. Not that the XT-2 is slow without it, not by a long shot, but with the VPB attached there are noticeable improvements in focus speed and greatly reduced lag times. When I shot with the grip removed it was almost as if the camera got sad. Like telling your new ultra-smart android friend to dumb itself down so as to be more approachable at dinner parties. Why not let the thing sing to it’s full potential?

The XT-2’s 24MP sensor sure can handle colours and colourful characters!

This is where Boost Mode ties in.

You’ll want it engaged to fully tap into the VPB’s full potential and the Fuji folks have made it easy to do so with a nice low-profile thumb switch (no need to go into the menu = win.) Now you can blast away at 11 or 14 fps in Continuous High mode (up from 8 fps in normal mode) so long as you’ve got cards that can handle it. Boost Mode does draw more power so I tended to toggle it off when I didn’t think I needed it. Perhaps this was unnecessary but years of heavy XT-1 use have me trained to conserve battery at all costs.

Those familiar with battery anxiety (XT-1 shooters, I’m talking to you) might just want to budget for the grip right off the bat. The VPB hugely extends your range and for that alone I’d say it might just be worth it. With it you can pack thrice the juice (2 batteries in the grip, 1 in the body) and a neat little metre in the viewfinder keeps you abreast of your power usage.

Fuji says you get 1000 actuations per charge from the grip alone (i.e. 2 batteries) and I don’t doubt it. Again, my test was far from scientific but after three days of shooting in the snow, including several CH bursts at 11fps and leisurely rear screen review sessions without any recharging, I still had a third of a battery left when we got back to civilization.

And, speaking of charging, the VPB lets you plug into a wall socket. No need to take the batteries out, ever. Its also nice to save a little space in the luggage when travelling. I hate clutter, especially while on the road, so bundling up a couple cords feels less bulky than packing the speed charger. I left mine in the box.

Oh, and then there’s video. The grip prevents overheating to such an extent that your 4K record time goes from 10 minutes to a half hour. It’s also got a built-in headphone jack that complements the body’s mic input. These features lead me to believe that, if you’re planning on using the XT-2 as a video-first kind of deal, then you really want the grip. I have other things to say about video, too, so if you’re keen on those thoughts I’ve put them down at the end of this post.

Ever-changing light at about 2300 metres elevation.

Brass tacks time

My test was done on a loaner and Fuji threw in the grip gratis. So, would I buy one? It costs about $400 (on sale) in Canada plus you’re going to want at least two more batteries to put in it so, all in, you’re looking at $600 plus tax. That’s a bunch but here’s how how I see it. If you’re a working professional looking to use the XT-2 as your workhorse then yes, you’re probably going to need to suck it up and get the grip. The rest of us should hit Amazon for a couple spare batteries and use Boost Mode sparingly.

My parting thoughts

The XT-2 is a reminder that the folks at Fuji are listening. They didn’t go nuts on the redesign. There aren’t a whack of new (un-necessary) buttons. XT-1 shooters will find it immediately familiar, and better, than its predecessor in every way I can think of. As for the grip, it felt vital and, especially for portraits — which I’m shooting a lot of these days — it really opened things up for me. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Do I want it? Yes and that desire springs from a very Fuji kind of place: The way it feels. I think it’s that tactile simplicity that is really at the core of what makes X Series cameras so appealing for me. Using the XT-2 with the grip, especially in portrait mode, made me feel good and brought the camera up to its full, glorious potential.

Pulling off the climbing skins before the fun part.

A few more thoughts on video

For me, the XT-2 isn’t a video camera, even though it clearly is highly capable. Here’s how I back that up: The XT-2 is, IMHO, the pinnacle of the X Series line in that it packs all the things XT-1 shooters wished for into a new but familiar body. Its that body we all fell in love with. The one that feels best in your hands. Everything is where you want it to be. There is nothing superfluous. However, if you’re planning on doing some serious video shooting, right away you’re looking at add-ons and the first will be the battery grip. So what’s the big deal? Didn’t I just spend about 1000 words extolling the grip’s virtues? Yes, but then you’re also going to need an external mic. Then, how about a gimbal for those cool tracking shots? Then you need a cage and don’t forget the tripod and slider… and you can see where I’m going with this. Video shooting with SLR-shaped cameras has just never felt right to me. I know the 5D MII and III were game changing. I’ve shot lots of video with both of them. I have never shot a video on my XT-1. That just isn’t what I got the camera for. Should the XT-2 bother with video? Sure. It may even draw a segment of the camera-buying population away from Sony and those great SLR-shaped video cameras they make. Frankly, I don’t know. My beef with ‘serious’ video work on the XT-2 is this: All those peripherals you need just cover up the camera’s nice curves.

Why does a camera have to do everything, anyway? Granted, I think the baked-in film simulations look cool in video (another new feature,) I just can’t see myself using the camera in that way. But, more power to you if you want to flip the video on to catch your kid’s first steps or to exercise your inner Roger Deakins at your daughter’s wedding (don’t do that, BTW.) Me, I’m sticking with stills.

With that in mind, here’s my hope for the future… and I’m looking at the XT-2’s big sister, the GFX, as a step in the right direction. Perhaps Fuji’s new medium format system will start the trend back to cameras that do one thing really Goddam well and that’s it, no video needed.

And a parting shot of Sean, the handsomest man in the mountains. [BTW this was taken with ‘medium’ grain but obviously the stud factor was set to max.]

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