How To Shoot Sports With A Fuji X-E2 and X-T1

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Panning in AF-C mode to track and capture this fast moving speed demon.

Although moving to a mirrorless camera from a DSLR has improved just about everything about my photography, it hasn’t been without it’s challenges. The inconvenience of moving to a new platform aside, the biggest complaint about mirrorless systems in general is that of the auto focus system, namely, shooting fast action subjects and sports. It seems that the latest mirrorless cameras just can’t keep up with even the older generation of DSLRs when it comes to acquiring and tracking moving subjects, and to a certain extent this is an accurate statement, but with a few tweaks of your settings and some small changes in your sports shooting, you can achieve some pretty good results.

I would like to provide just a little background on the autofocus systems that adorn the Fuji X-E2 and X-T1 cameras so you will understand the issues and how to work around them. The primary autofocus mechanism of mirrorless cameras (and some DSLR’s in Live View mode) is Contrast Detection Autofocus, or CDAF for short. It works by detecting the delta in contrast for a given focus point. It will start by focusing the lens one direction until the sensor detects the contrast at the focus point has stopped increasing and begins to decrease. At this point it reverses direction until the increase of contrast starts to diminish again and the process repeats itself until it reaches maximum contrast, which is the point of sharpest focus. All things being equal, CDAF is the most accurate method of focusing a lens, but the downside is that it takes some time for the lens to go back and forth until the sensor is happy with the contrast.

The primary autofocus system used by DSLR’s is Phase Detection Autofocus, a system where the light from each side of the lens is received by two or more sensors that detect the difference in focus and can very quickly calculate how much focusing is required to get it in the ball park of acceptable focus. In terms of accuracy, it’s not up to CDAF standards, but it’s dang fast. This is really a gross oversimplification of the two systems, but it’s enough background for this article. See the autofocus article on Wikipedia if you want a deeper understanding of the dirty details.

The Fuji’s, like most other cameras available today offer two types of autofocus modes, AF-S, or single shot mode where it locks on to its selected focus point and stops. And AF-C (AI Servo for you Canon folks out there) or Continuous autofocus mode which is just another way of saying that it is constantly trying to focus on which ever focus point is selected. It never stops, so as the subject moves, it keeps readjusting the focus of the lens to follow it.

OK, enough with the techie nonsense…

My first foray into the mirrorless world was with a Fuji X-E1 which used CDAF exclusively. As much as I loved my X-E1, trying to photograph a rambunctious little 4 year old girl with it was a little like trying to get sharp pictures of Bigfoot. I really had some serious frustration with the camera’s autofocus system and ordered a Fuji X-E2 since it was rumored to have a much improved AF system since it leverage both CDAF and PDAF. Indeed it was heads and shoulders over the X-E1 in the AF arena, but still wasn’t on par with my old Canon DSLR.

Wanting to squeeze every last once of autofocus out of my camera I started digging around the internet and reading some of the popular photo forums for information on ways to get the most out of X-E2’s potential. Once I had a pretty good idea of what features and settings were available I started experimenting with fast moving objects to see what worked and what didn’t. Here’s what I found to be the best settings to mimic the sports shooting experience of my old DSLR.

The first thing you need to do is to check your firmware! Fuji is fantastic about adding new features to their cameras and back porting them to older models. As of this writing, the X-E2’s current firmware is 2.00 which updated the unit’s Electronic View Finder, or EVF, to the same performance as the newer X-T1. If you haven’t done this yet, head over to Fuji’s X-Series Firmware website and grab the latest firmware for you camera, and don’t forget about your lenses. They need to be upgraded, too. In fact, some of the latest lens updates enable PDAF for that particular model, so don’t overlook them.

Now for the settings…

The following settings are for the X-E2, but most of the mirrorless cameras out there have similar features that can be set as well so refer to your manual for how to do it.

Use the 9 center focus points.

To enable PDAF on the Fuji’s APS-C sensor, from my understanding, they added PDAF “pixels” to the sensor itself. That’s probably an oversimplification of it, but in the spirit if what we want to accomplish, that’s all we’ll need to know.  These areas are located at the 9 center focus points so you have to select one of those focus points to take advantage of PDAF and enable the predictive focusing capability. And while we’re talking about focus points, be sure to set the size of the focus point appropriately. In this context, I make it considerably larger than what I use when shooting portraits and I’m trying to lock in on retina of my subject.

Enable Continuous Autofocus Mode

I’m sure you’ve noticed the little dial on the front of your camera next to the lens that lets you select the autofocus modes. Set it to “C” which is the AF-C mode that enables it to keep trying to focus on whichever focus point has been selected.

Enable Burst Mode

If you hit the Drive button you will find the different drive modes that are available. Be sure you switch this from the default Still Image mode to the Burst mode. Note that there are two options in Burst mode, Low and High. This is one area where the X-E2 and the X-T1 differ (at the moment at least). PDAF/focus tracking is only available on the Low setting on the X-E2, so be sure to use the L option.

Disable Face Detection

Although Face Detection was introduced on the X-E2 and certainly has its place, you’ll want to ensure it’s disabled for this context. You won’t like the delay or the fact that you can’t control the focus point which may put it on a place where PDAF is not an option.

Enable Pre-Autofocus

The Pre-AF setting gives the camera a little head start on focusing and should be turned on. One thing I should mention with a lot of these settings is that they do tax the battery. You’ll find this setting under the shooting menu #4. Turn Pre-AF on. There is certainly a tradeoff between performance and battery life. My suggestion is to grab an extra batter or two and throw them in your pocket so you get the best of both worlds.

Power Management Options

While we’re on the subject of power savings there are a couple of other things we should touch on. Be sure that Silent Mode (set-up menu #1) is off. Under the set-up menu #2 you’ll find the Power Management option. You’ll want to go in there and turn the High Performance setting to On.

Screen Setup Options

There are a couple of options that I use most of the time that I simply adore, but not when I am shooting sports. Under the Set-Up menu #1 you’ll find an option called Screen Set-Up. Here there are a couple of things you’ll want to change. First enter the Image Display sub-menu and turn it off. This is the cool display feature that will show you the picture you just took which in most cases you’ll want to see, but not when shooting in burst mode. Turning this off gives the EVF that DSLR feel where you push down the shutter release button and there is a quick blink and you’re looking at the subject again. Again, disabling this feature is a must for shooting action. While in the Screen Set-Up menu be sure to turn the Preview Exposure In Manual Mode off. You’ll typically want to have it as bright as it’ll go so you can react to the action. I’m not sure if I’d do much shooting in manual mode, as I’m typically in one of the priority modes for sports, but it’s worth mentioning.

Other Considerations

I almost always shoot in the RAW format but in burst modes you can overrun your camera’s buffer and you’ll be locked out from shooting until it can write out your pictures to the SD card and free up more space in the buffer for more pictures. If you want to maximize the amount of pictures you can take in burst mode, you’ll probably want to turn off RAW and only shoot JPGs for now.

One cool feature I wasn’t aware of until recently was the effect of mashing the shutter release button. What do I mean? I mean not pushing the two stage shutter release button half way down to get exposure and a hard focus then pushing the rest of the way down to get the shutter to trip. The camera is smart enough to detect a sense of urgency when you quickly mash down the shutter release and not stop on the first stage along the way. From what I can tell, as soon as you have a focus lock on a subject it trips the shutter immediately.

Behavior Modification

One last thing I’ll mention on the subject is that you can modify how you shoot active subjects. There are a couple techniques you can borrow from the other shooting world (boom, not click) that have helped me capture more images with a little forethought, namely Tracking and Ambushing.

Tracking, also referred to as panning, is where you follow the subject like a turret and snap the picture at the decisive moment. I do consider tracking to be different than panning, not sure if it’s correct, because when I’m panning I’m typically using a different aperture and shutter speed since I want to give a sense of speed by blurring the background. Ya, I know, semantics.

The second method I use, ambushing, is where I’ll focus on the place where I know the subject will be and wait until it’s just about where I want it in the image and snap the shutter, being sure not to shake the camera in the process.

So in closing let me just say that if you’re expecting your X-E2 to have the high performance predictive autofocusing that you’ll find in a high end Canon DSLR you’re going to be disappointed. But understanding how the autofocus system works and taking full advantage of its capabilities will probably get you closer than you imagined you could. With a little practice I think you’ll be surprised how well it can work.

Here is an example where I stood off to the side and behind with a 55-200 lens and shot Ben Stoeger, the current national USPSA Production champion, exploding down the stage. Using the techniques above I was able to capture him all the way down the course. The two pictures below are the first and last images of the burst, and all of the pictures taken are in sharp focus and were tracked perfectly.

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