Switching to Fuji

After eleven years using Canon DSLRs for my photography, I have swapped to a Fuji mirrorless system. It literally was a swap too – I walked into my local camera shop with a bag of Canon kit and walked out with my new Fuji X-T2 and 18-55mm lens!

The main reason behind the change is that in the last few years my lifestyle and priorities have changed and a heavy DSLR camera doesn’t fit in with my life in 2018. I’m not going out on photography adventures with my Dad anymore, Jen and I aren’t travelling as much as we were and my motorsport photography days are long gone! The Canon Eos 5D which I bought as a “temporary stop gap camera” in 2010, just wasn’t being used. It was too heavy/bulky to carry around. Especially when I am on a bike or out with Owen, and other than working and sleeping that is all I seem to do these days!

On the rare occasions I was using my camera I was only taking the camera and 24-105mm lens with me, to keep both kit and faffing to a minimum. On checking my Lightroom catalogue I had only taken one picture in 2018 with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I had been looking a a more advanced compact camera to replace my Canon S90, but my long term plan had been to get a new full frame Canon DSLR. However, given the amount of use I couldn’t justify it. Then I started to notice a lot of my photographer friends moving to mirrorless systems. With both Canon and Nikon announcing new mirrorless ranges recently the tide seemed to be turning towards mirrorless, so I decided to ignore my misgivings about electronic viewfinders and do some investigation…

Sony seemed to be the popular choice; I liked the idea of full frame sensors, and had heard a lot of good things about image quality. Then I checked the price – way out of my league! The Canon Eos M series was more reasonably priced, but I got the impression that they were aimed at amateurs, especially the range of lenses, probably too much of a step down from my 5D and L series lenses. Whilst looking I came across the Fuji X-T2 and thought it looked good, compact and well built, but too expensive, especially for a cropped sensor camera. However the seed had been sown. My search then brought me to the Fuji X-T20 – the X-T2’s baby brother, and its cousin, the X-A3. They were more in my price range and shared the same sensor/auto focus system as the X-T2, but crucially were within budget! I read a lot of reviews and convinced myself that Fuji with manual control dials on top of the camera and well built lenses was the mirrorless system for me.

Then it dawned on me – we were off on holiday in a few weeks time, a week in Croyde would be the perfect opportunity to get to know a new camera system! I sent details of my current kit to a dealer to see if the numbers would work – fortunately they did! Now all I had to do was decide which Fuji camera to buy, I preferred the layout of the X-T20 but the features of the X-A3. The only way to make a decision was to get to a camera shop to try them out. Whilst waiting for an opportunity to visit a camera shop, Fuji announced the X-T3. It looked perfect, except it was way too expensive for me, and in any case wouldn’t have been available before my holiday. However, it did mean Fuji reduced the price of the X-T2, just about bringing it into my budget! I now had three cameras to decide between. The main attraction of the X-T2 was the better build, including weather sealing and even simpler controls than the smaller X-T20. The downside was that I would only be able to afford one lens initially. By the time I got to the camera shop I had pretty much decided on the X-T2, deep down I knew that I if went for the cheaper model, I would either end up wanting to upgrade or breaking it whilst out on my bike. Therefore buying the more expensive X-T2 was actually the cheaper option. The camera just felt “right” in my hands, I didn’t need to try the X-T20, I was taking the X-T2 home!

As is usually the way with these things, I didn’t get to use it over the weekend, I certainly didn’t want to risk taking it to the Peak District with me. Especially as I haven’t got any protection for it – all my existing camera bags are set up for full frame DSLRs, so the little Fuji is just rattling around it them. Other than a few test shots at home, my first proper go with it was taking some headshots at work – no pressure then! After eleven years using Canon DSLRs I can change anything on them instinctively, and whilst the Fuji controls are intuitive, I struggled a bit. The zoom ring being the opposite way round to Canon, is going to take some getting used to. However, the electronic viewfinder was awesome, I could see what the photo was going to look like before I took it and the shooting information was all there too. I really don’t know why I was so against them previously!

Since then, I have been tweaking the settings to my liking and practicing on my tame(ish) model – Owen! Jon Caz’s guide was a particularly helpful starting point for settings, as there is a lot more to configure than on my old cameras and to be honest I am still getting used to them. We took Owen to get his haircut in Rugby, so I knew we would be going to the GEC recreation ground after – Owen loves the sandpit and mechanical diggers there! With Owen entertained, I was able to concentrate on taking some photos of him and trying out different settings. I particularly liked the one at the top of the post because of the expression on his face. Jen even used the camera to get some good pictures of Owen and I playing on the mechanical diggers, she noted how much lighter the Fuji is than my old set up.

I had read about people having issues processing Fuji files in Lightroom, this was a concern for me as moving away from Lightroom would be a much bigger change for me than changing camera system. My friend Graham sent some raw files from his X-T2 for me to try in Lightroom, I was able to get results I was happy with. However it has highlighted that I need to revisit some of the new features in Lightroom, especially the “Profile” section of the Develop Module, but also the sharpening controls. I had the same experience with the photos of Owen, I’ve been able to get photos I like, but possibly not as good as they could be.

The main thing though is that switching systems has got me interested in photography again! Instead of finding excuses to leave the camera at home, I’m finding reasons to take it with me!

Ladybower Loop

For some time now I have been wanting to ride the trails around Ladybower Reservoir in the Peak District, so as one of my goals for 2018 was to ride more natural terrain I decided to make it happen! Two weeks previously I had been planning to head to either the Peak District or the Elan Valley, but the weather was rubbish. I ended up riding at home, smashing the derailleur on a trail I’ve ridden hundreds of times. With a fixed bike and slightly better weather, I was finally able to head up the M1 to Ladybower.

My plan had been to follow the “Ladybower Best Bits” ride on Trailforks. However, a last minute check in my “Good Mountain Biking Guide” threw up a slightly shorter option, with only two major climbs, rather than four. As seems to be usual, I was running late, so opted for the shorter loop. Not really knowing the area, I started from Fairholmes Visitor Centre, as per the book, it was £5 to park and added an extra ten minutes to the drive – next time I’ll park by the Ladybower Inn.

After riding along the shoreline, with a stop to adjust my newly fitted derailleur, the climbing started. At first on a steep stone slab path, to the barn in the photo above, that had me off the bike pushing, then on some equally steep rocky paths. I pushed the bike for over half of the climb. The next section of trail, to Whinstone Lee Tor, was flatter, but really rocky, it was a fun challenge picking a line through the rocks without losing too much momentum.

At Whinstone Lee Tor I chatted with a group of local riders, who explained the different routes down to Ladybower Inn. Declining their offer to lead me down the most technical trail, I stuck to my original plan and took the easier route, via Cutthroat Bridge. It was a wide, rocky trail with just enough gradient to carry speed, but not so much that I was going super fast. Perfect for practicing picking lines through rock gardens. Towards the bottom of the trail there were some large drainage ditches which were fun to ride over.

Before the trail dropped to the road, I hooked a right, riding along another flat, but bumpy, trail parallel to the road. The trail then dropped through a fairly technical rock garden, finishing at a gate. To give an indication of how big the rocks were; they were the perfect size to sit on an eat my “PBJ” sandwich. After the gate it was a fast rocky decent to the Ladybower Inn – it actually felt a lot like the terrain I had been riding with BasqueMTB earlier in the year, minus the van to drive me back up to the top. This descent is the only time I’ve been able to smell my brakes at the bottom of a trail!

This would have been the decision point between the longer route with an extra climb/descent, or the shorter route, skirting around the reservoir. However, as I’d already chosen the shorter route, I pushed my bike across the dam and followed the shoreline. I was expecting this section to be easy, however there were more gradients than I expected. It felt a lot longer too, so I was relieved to finally pop out into the A57, aka the Snake Pass, for a short road section.

Ladybower is “Y” shaped, I’d ridden down one side, round the bottom and up the other side, now I had to cross the ridge between the two top bits! The climb was mostly paved, so terrain-wise it was easier than the first climb, but still bloody steep! I eventually got to the top, with a bit of pushing and a few stops to munch on an energy bar. From the top I had the option to turn south, back towards the Snake Pass. The trail looked fun, but I couldn’t face the climb back up again. Instead, I turned north, back towards the car along a double track section which turned into a descent known as “the screaming mile“. This trail was just at the right level for me, just a little bit more technical than I am comfortable with, but not so much so that I couldn’t ride it safely. The trail was a bit damp, with wet rocks and even a bit of mud, but there was just enough grip to still feel like I was in control. I was buzzing when I got to the bottom of the trail, with a mud splattered smile for the gentle ride along the reservoir back to the car.

Riding in the Peak District is different to riding at a trail centre – a lot harder, but ultimately more rewarding. The rocky trails add an extra dimension to the riding, needing to pick a line well in advance, going both up and down. I would really love to do the longer route, but I think I will need to work on both my fitness and bike skills first to get the most out of it.

Hardtail v1.2

After clocking over 5,000km on my Vitus Nucleus hardtail, I decided it was time to treat it to some upgrades. The original Suntour fork was a weak point in the spec, and was past its best. So when I spotted a great deal on the same Fox 34 fork as I have fitted to my Orange Four I had to buy them. They weren’t a straight swap onto the bike, meaning I had to replace the front wheel. I had planned to upgrade the wheels on my Four, then fit the old front wheel onto the hardtail. However, I spotted a stupidly cheap front wheel online, so ordered that. Although it meant I didn’t get the nice new wheels on my main bike, the total cost was a fraction of what I would have spent. I already knew the new forks would be good, due to my experience with them on the Four, but what I hadn’t expected was how much lighter they are than my old forks. I tried to pop a manual (rolling along on the back wheel only) and the front end came up so easily that I almost went over the back of the bike.

You may be wondering why a new fork and front wheel are v1.2 and what happened to v1.1… Shortly after getting back from honeymoon, and three quarters of the way through my 2,015km in 2015, the original low end 3×9 drivetrain was pretty worn out. As it was clear that mountain biking wasn’t just a passing phase I decided to upgrade to an XT 1×10 set up – not quite top of the range, but still high end. At the same time, fed up with repeated punctures, I fitted the “Protection” version of the Continental X King tyres and set them up tubeless. These upgrades cost roughly the same amount as the whole bike had the previous year, however they totally transformed it. The drivetrain was significantly smoother, the bike lighter and crucially, more reliable. I had three years with the bike in this v1.1 configuration. Riding it on local trails, at trail centres, pumptracks, training rides and the odd commute, the bike felt much better that the sum of its parts.

Since fitting the new fork I had done a few local shakedown rides, but with my Four out of action, after I smashed the rear mech on a log last week, I used the hardtail for my big Sunday ride. I decided to do my Kenilworth loop, a mixture of single track and bike paths, to Kenilworth and back. Before I stopped working on Fridays, this was my regular extended commute. I hadn’t ridden it for a while, so thought it would be a good test of the new fork. Even just rolling down the lane behind the garage the bike felt amazing, it seemed to carry speed better than the full suspension bike. I expect this is down to the faster rolling tyres, but the lack of suspension won’t have hurt. Normally on this route I ride straight through the middle of Park Wood, but this time I decided to add in a full loop, to test the bike on the downhill sections. It felt good, really good. Checking Strava when I got home, I’d got my second best time ever! When I got to Kenilworth I did a lap of my old Friday interval session – up Coventry Road, down the Common bridleway and back up the Greenway, taking it easy on the flat bits in between. I shocked myself by how easily I got up the hill on Coventry Road. I still remember struggling up it a few years ago, but now I was even able to climb it fairly quickly and I don’t think that was to do with the bike!

I was really enjoying riding the hardtail, until I got to a bit of trail, that I’ve only ever ridden on my Orange. It isn’t a frequently used section of trail, and was quite bumpy – not something I’d ever noticed on my full suspension bike. I don’t know if I was tired, after pushing on earlier in the ride, or if it was the bumpy trail, but I just couldn’t get any flow. In contrast to the rest of the ride I felt so slow. I see this as a challenge for next time I ride that trail on the hardtail. Later in the ride, I managed to equal my personal record on the “Milk Bar Trail”, a fun little trail in Earlsdon that I’ve ridden almost 100 times according to Strava. I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased with my time, especially as the trail has got harder since setting my best time, or if I should be annoyed that I set the time on my old hardtail, rather than my “good bike”.

Whilst I really enjoyed my ride on the hardtail, there are still a few bits that I need to sort out:

  1. Brakes – The original Tektro brakes aren’t great. It could be that they need a good service, but they are much harder to work on than the Shimano brakes on my Four. I expect that when I see a good deal on some Shimano brakes I’ll upgrade.
  2. Lack of dropper post – Going from the Four to the hardtail I don’t miss the rear suspension, but I do really miss the dropper post! Being able to get the seat out of the way makes it easier to move your weight around the bike for better control over technical terrain. It also makes it easier to get on and off the bike. On the Four I just press a button on the handlebar to change the seat height, or the hardtail I have to physically swap seats/seat posts depending on the sort of riding I’ll be doing. Unfortunately this isn’t something I can upgrade easily.
  3. Fit – The biggest problem with the hardtail is that the frame isn’t quite long enough. Even with a layback seat post (which is one of the reasons I can’t fit a dropper post), I feel like I’m sitting over the back of the saddle. This won’t be an easy fix, fortunately most of the parts on the bike will transfer over to a new frame.

Realistically I’ll have at least this winter to ride v1.2 of my hardtail, before building v2.0. I will be making sure I take it out on the trails, rather than just using it for more mundane rides, because with the new forks it is such a fun ride!