The Australian interior is rugged and unforgiving, with clumps of spiky Spinifex and gnarled trees holding together dry, red gravel. In the bush, or the “outback”, flies (and fires) are abundant and days are mostly spent thinking about water in some form or another – for drinking, swimming, or just washing off the dust. Of course, now most people see Australia’s Red Centre from an air-conditioned vehicle, with not much distance between internet access points and places to recharge camera batteries. However there are still places of true wilderness and unspoiled landscapes out there, which present new challenges for a city-based photographer.
Fujifilm X100, 1/4000 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 1000.
On a two week camping and exploring holiday we had to travel light. I took two cameras – the Fujifilm X100 for landscapes, low light shots and portraits, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 with a 100-300mm lens for wildlife and details shots. The X100 sported a new wide-angle converter (WCL-X100). For most of the trip I carried the two cameras dangling by my side on a BlackRapid strap, with two couplings. That looked awkward but it worked well, as it allowed me to bring one camera up to my eye while the other one hung from the strap. On long hikes with a pack on my back, the BlackRapid strap was always comfortable and convenient, so I wouldn’t hesitate to use the same configuration again. The day-pack, a Lowpro Photo Hatchback 22L Aw, was also a great discovery. I was able to carry water and snacks, a Pelican memory card case, filter wallet, extra lenses, spare batteries, a flash and flash-sync cable, and sometimes a Joby Gorilla-pod (which I seldom used). There was also plenty of room for maps, suncream, and other essentials in the same pack. I recommend that bag very highly. I had a carbon fibre tripod back at the campsite, which I used along with a cable release for low light and night-time photography. As a form of guilty pleasure I also had a Pentax 645N medium format film camera for another leg of the trip when we had a hotel room to use as a base.
Fujifilm X100, 1/28 sec @ f/8 (-0.67ev), ISO 200
On a previous rough trip, I took the Panasonic Lumix GH2 and a more basic Lumix G10, which was a great combination as they were both light and I could swap lenses between the bodies as necessary. Given the arguably superior image quality of the X100 however, I was keen to use it as the primary landscape and portrait camera and rely on the GH2 for the bread-and–butter shots of strange birds and distant animals. I captured some beautiful images with the X100, but it also let me down in some respects, which I’ll outline below. On the other hand, aside from sometime being unable to lock focus at the 300mm end of the zoom, the Lumix GH2 never failed me. Here’s an image of a mob of wild camels taken with the GH2.
Panasonic Lumix DCH-GH2, 100-300mm lens, 1/400 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 160
Here are the main gripes I had using the Fujifilm X100:
Handling – while I love using the X100 in city streets where its diminutive size and discrete styling gives it an advantage over a large DSLR, for serious, majestic landscapes, I would have been happier using a camera with more bulk. It’s very subjective, but for some reason a heavy, bulky camera lends itself to more considered landscape work than a camera with the point-and-shoot styling of the X100. I readily acknowledge that despite wishing I had my bulky Nikon D300s with me at shot-time, I would have seriously suffered carrying it on the long walks in the hot desert. I think if I had a D700 or D600, I would have made the effort ‘though.
Close-ups – when travelling, I like to photograph small details as much as the wide horizons. The X100 has a widely acknowledged flaw when it comes to taking close-up shots, and I find the manual focus / AFL button work-around is a hit and miss process. Several times I held the camera alongside some desert flowers or insects, madly pressing the AFL button, only resulting in blurry frames. I know the X100 can take great macro-shots, but for those never-to-be-repeated moments, its close-up capabilities are simply not reliable enough for me. I achieved better results standing back from the subject and using the zoom on the Lumix 100-300mm lens. Here’s an example of a missed close-up taken with the x100 using manual focus and the AFL button.
Attempted close-up. Fijufilm X100, 1/80 sec @ f/5.6 (-0.33ev), ISO 200, manual focus.
Menu system – I won’t belabour this point as criticism of the X100 menu arrangement is a tired subject. But the ridiculous Auto-ISO control in the X100’s menu configuration really tests the patience, especially when it’s desert-hot and there’s sweat pouring down your face. I also had the auto-sleep time set too short, which meant I had to constantly wake the camera whenever I needed to use it. The reason for that was my paranoia about the short battery life, although I had spares and never actually had a problem with power.
Colour film simulation presets – As the outback colours are stunning, I was looking forward to using jpegs taken with the camera’s colour film presets (Velvia, Astia and Provia, but seeing the results on my iMac, I thought the jpegs were pretty flat and lifeless. Fortunately I took raw + jpeg, and I think I’ve achieved better results with the raw files, but no-doubt that’s another subjective view. This was a disappointing revelation, as I’ve been very impressed with the monochrome film simulation presets in the X100, and have also had great results with Astia presets for city-based shots. Maybe the light is just different once you leave the city.
Here’s a jpeg straight from the camera alongside the post-processed raw file (both with borders added). The jpeg film simulation mode was probably set to Astia. Overall, I prefer the post-processed raw image, but clearly it’s a matter of taste. The dog in the photo below is a pet dingo we came across on the highway between Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayres Rock).
Unprocessed jpeg. Fujifilm X100, 1/1300 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 200.
Post-processed RAW file. Fujifilm X100, 1/1300 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 200.
And here’s where the X100 excelled:
Weight – see under handling above. Weight is why you’d take this camera into the Australian outback.
Dynamic range – While I found the jpegs out of the camera to be somewhat disappointing, I‘ve been pleasantly surprised at how much detail I’ve been able to pull out of the raw files. Much of my shooting had to occur on day-time walks and outings when the light was at its worst. So many of the photos have required a fair bit of post-processing. The X100 raw files form a good base for further processing work.
Panoramas – the X100 has an excellent sweep-panorama mode, which produced superb results on most occasions. I could easily print impressive panoramas of the Australian landscape straight out of the camera. I recommend holding the camera in portrait mode to capture more detail in the foreground and sky during the panorama sweep. If I could go back, I’d take two panoramas – a high and a low – and then stitch them in Photoshop to make a huge pano. Having said that, the wide angle converter allowed me to get a pretty wide panoramic image.
Fujifilm X100, WCL-X100 wide angle converter, 1/170 sec @ f/8 (-0.33ev), ISO 200, panoramic mode.
Wide-angle – the WCL-X100 converter usefully broadens the angle of view from the standard 35mm equivalent to a usable 28mm equivalent. Optically the quality of the converter is great, and the fact that no light is lost makes it a no-brainer as an accessory. Despite having to remember to turn the wide angle mode on and off in the camera menu, attaching and removing the wide-angle converter is simple and fast, with one notable exception, which proved costly. I don’t usually bother attaching UV filters to my lenses, as I almost always have a shade attached to the front and have never had an issue with scratched glass. However due to the dust and general roughness that I knew I’d encounter on this trip, I bought a 49mm B&W UV filter and a filter converter for the X100, and dutifully had it attached to the fixed lens for most of the trip. But that meant it had to be removed from the fixed lens whenever I wanted to attach the wide-angle converter, and I should have put a filter on the front of the wide-angle lens itself. Anyway, I didn’t and for the first time ever, I dropped the camera – face down in the gravel – onto the front of the wide-angle converter. The front element scratched badly and become the subject of an insurance claim (I recommend domestic travel insurance). I was lucky it was the accessory that scratched, and not the camera’s fixed lens, but I’m now somewhat of a convert to the it’s-better-to-scratch-a-filter-than-a-lens church of righteous preaching.
Auto exposure mode – I’m a bit of an snob when it comes to setting the camera to auto exposure, preferring aperture priority or manual exposure. However before this trip I read a great blog post somewhere which emphasised that the image is more important than how you got it, so set the camera to auto exposure and enjoy the shooting. On the X100 auto exposure is set by simply moving both the aperture ring and the shutter speed dial to “A”. As this trip was more about having a great experience with my family than the photography, I set the X100 to auto now and then and was pleased with the results. At the same time I usually had the auto-ISO limit set to something like ISO 800, although that was seldom needed in the harsh Australian light.
Fujifilm X100, 1/600 sec @ f/3.6, ISO 800, spot metering
Fujifilm x100, 1/125sec @ f/8 (-0.33ev), ISO 1000, Panoramic mode
I knew I would produce one or more photo books after this trip and I have already ordered one through Adoramapix which I’m waiting anxiously to receive. For that reason I strived to create a consistent visual style for each image, which made for a fairly boring time in post-processing but which resulted in a look that I was happy with. After cropping and levelling, the basic post processing consisted of a bit of shadow or highlight recovery in Aperture or Photoshop CS6, some tonal contrast addition in Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4, Viveza for localised work, back to Color Efex Pro for Darken/Lighten Centre, Skylight or Brilliance/Warmth filter adjustments. Then back to Photoshop for a little final dodging and burning, and finally sharpening using the High Pass method. Overall, saturation was kept to a minimum as the red Australian dirt provided more than enough colour without needing to enhance it greatly. For some photos, such as the road sign shown at the beginning of this post, I applied a Soft Focus or Glamour Glow filter in Colour Efex Pro 4 to give the subject a little more life.
I’ll never do it justice, so I won’t try to summarise the beauty of Central Australia. For a city boy like me being literally in the middle of nowhere is a rare opportunity. Being immersed in desert silence with the only sound my walking boots kicking the gravel, is too easily forgotten. Being in a land walked on mostly unchanged by Aborigines over 40,000 years ago is beyond comprehension. Being there with a camera is a privilege.