Who Needs A Real Camera…?

So this week I purchased the newly released iPhone 11 Pro. I bought an iPhone XR about a year ago, together with Moment telephoto and wide angle supplementary lenses, and although I thought the quality of images from this combo was great, it was always a bit of a ‘faff’ to take a lens out of my bag or pocket and fix it in place. Also, the special phone case that was needed to fit the lenses did make for a rather bulky setup. Consequence was that I didn’t really end up using them that much.

I was excited, to say the least, at the announcement of the new iPhone 11Pro with its 3 built in cameras – wide, super-wide and telephoto, and further improved processing capabilities.

iPhone (portrait mode)

With a holiday imminent, I decided to take the plunge and grab one as I saw they were available direct from Apple if I moved quickly. So, £1400 lighter for a 256gb version and Apple Care, I had it all set up in a couple of hours and good to go.

First impressions? – amazing! The wide lens is about the same focal length as the single lens on my iPhone XR, ie about 26mm (35mm equivalent) which is pretty wide anyway, the super wide is a staggering 13mm equivalent, while the tele lens is a useful 52mm, great for portraits. The super wide has to be seen to be believed – it’s not just the ability to get much more into landscape shots, it’s about being able to get so much more in the frame where space is tight. There’s a whole lot more I won’t go into in detail here, such as the ability to automatically apply perspective control to fix converging verticals – suffice it to say the imaging and processing rivals a ‘serious’ camera and dedicated computer…

iPhone (tele lens) – verticals corrected

So what are the images like? – in a word ‘fantastic’…! OK, from a tiny sensor and lens combo you are never going to get definition and clarity to match a dedicated APS-C or Full Frame camera, so mega size prints are out of the question. But let’s face it, how many of us non-professionals use our photos on anything larger than an iPhone or iPad screen anyway? What impresses particularly is how close the output matches what you thought you saw when you took the photo – whereas my Sony camera often needs images tweaking to get back to ‘as it appeared at the time’ the iPhone seems to hit it bang on, straight off!

iPhone (super-wide lens) – cropped slightly

So where does this leave my ‘real’ cameras? – the SonyA7iii with its zoom and prime lenses, and my quite recently bought Fujifilm X100F? The Sony is smaller than good old fashioned DSLRs, but still quite chunky when fitted with its 24-105mm lens, and the whole kit needs a decent sized rucksack to carry it all. I find I go out with it less and less these days just due to the weight – my back is no longer up to trekking around the countryside with camera and lenses, filters and tripod!

The X100F is pretty small by comparison (but still a whole lot bigger than an iPhone) and has no interchangeable lens facility. I bought it as an ‘everyday’ carry around camera, thinking it would offer quality close to the Sony, but in a compact form. As you would expect, with its much bigger sensor it’s much better than any smartphone, and I’ve achieved very acceptable 30″x20″ prints from the earlier X100T version. BUT, it’s definitely not pocket sized, so not quite sure what it’s place is going to be – if I want absolute quality, and can cope with the weight etc, or want maybe a proper telephoto lens, I’ll use the Sony; if I’m prepared to sacrifice quality for sheer convenience, then it’s the iPhone… The X100F is an expensive piece of gear to hold on to if I’m not going to use it…

iPhone (tele lens)

Guess I’ll see how it goes – if, as I suspect, the Sony kit proves in the next year or so to be just too big and bulky to take out, then I may just give up on having a system camera altogether, or get something a bit smaller like a Sony A6xxx series outfit which would save maybe 40% of the weight without too much loss of image quality or functionality.

For now I guess I’ll concentrate on learning how to get the best out of my shiny new iPhone and then decide!

A Tale Of Two Bodies…

I’ve really enjoyed using my Sony A7iii camera and lenses for the year or so I’ve owned them, except for one  (not so small) issue – the weight of it all.  OK, if I am just using one of the smaller prime lenses, like the 35mm f2.8 or 55mm f1.8, it’s just fine, but when I’m fully tooled up to go and take landscape photos, complete with 24-105mm, 16-35mm, 100mm filter kit, and tripod and ‘L’ plate, all in my backpack, the whole thing weighs a ton – well, actually about 12 kg.

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Porthleven Harbour – A6300

As I get older, that really does start to be a problem, especially if I have to walk any distance, or climb any hills to get to where I want to shoot… In truth, it’s limiting my enjoyment of my hobby.

So it seemed natural to see if there was a lighter weight option, even if it was only for these outdoor treks. (I sold my last camera, a very competent Olympus OMD kit, because it didn’t really deliver the landscape image quality I was looking for, and knew the full frame Sony was going to be bigger and heavier, but guess I underestimated it…) So what to do? Rather than get something completely different, I figured the smaller Sony A6000 series camera might do the trick – same lens mount, so I could (with reservations) swap lenses, and the body would act as a useful backup should the A7 fail.

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Valerian – A6300

The latest A6400 body looked very nice, with excellent AF, and menus and features very similar to the A7iii, but the best price I found was a fairly substantial £800+ for the body only. What I did drop on though was the previous model – the A6300, still a very competent camera, but with the latest Sony cashback and some odd price matching going on, this came in at just £455 net, including the kit 16-50mm pancake lens – not bad at all.

Next thing to get was lenses and filters… The Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens would give me the same field of view as the 24-105mm on the A7iii, and the 10-18mm near enough the same field of view as the 16-35mm f4 on the A7iii, but physically very much smaller and lighter of course. I picked up very tidy used copies of both for decent prices, and then a Nisi M75 filter holder and a couple of grad/ND filters, again much smaller than my usual 100mm kit, and fine for these smaller lenses. With my smaller Manfrotto Befree tripod, and a smaller rucksack I already had, the whole lot came in at barely 6kg, just half the weight of the equivalent A7iii kit…  Good so far!

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Porthleven – A6300

Our trip to Cornwall was a great opportunity to try it all out, and I took both kits with me for comparison. I have to say that for ‘walking around’ the A6300 and the 16-70mm lens was a revelation – definitely manageable, although big enough to still need some kind of bag to carry it around in.  The shots from it were all good – lets face it, handheld shots aren’t really much of a test of absolute image quality, and any modern camera is capable of that.  But it was nevertheless still a ‘proper’ camera to carry around, and certainly overkill for ‘holiday snaps’ – I love using my iPhone for that.

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Hepworth Sculpture – A6300

But later on, I decided to try some ‘serious’ photography – sunsets, and some wider shots around Porthleven harbour and Kynance Cove. What was immediately clear was that the  daytime shots with lots of detail in were simply not as sharp or contrasty as I expected, especially towards the edge of the frame – ‘OK’, but not the superb quality which  I was used to with the A7iii. And then the evening shots… Hmmm – very noticeably lower dynamic range on the RAW files, and any significant amount of post processing to lighten shadows would see them break up somewhat, with lots of ‘noise’ in the darker areas.  Much harder files to process and ultimately not as good as the A7iii (to be expected, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so great.) Even the shots using grad filters to balance exposure weren’t perfect, whereas with the A7iii I could often get away without bothering to use filters, just tweaking everything needed in Lightroom.

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Lizard Point Lighthouse – A6300

So that rather put me off, and I reverted to using the A7iii for the rest of our trip. I took several panorama shots, and also some HDR merged sunset shots with the A7iii, and was very comfortable all round with it, accepting that the heavier weight was worth it for the quality.  When I got home I did some comparison sharpness shots at various apertures on both the smaller ‘E’ series lenses and the ‘FE’ full frame lenses and I was shocked at just how much better the full frame lenses are – even in the centre of the frame the 16-70mm wasn’t as sharp as the edges of the 24-105mm, and the contrast was lower too.  To be fair, the 24-105mm is a hard act to follow – it is excellent, and only a little less sharp than the primes at some settings. A similar story with the 10-18mm too – not as crisp as the 16-35mm f4, with some obvious smearing at the edges and corners. I did look at the possibility of prime lenses for the A6300, but there isn’t really a lot to choose from.

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Porthleven Sunset – A7iii (merged in LR)

Now I guess that for most folks, the A6300 and it’s lenses would be fine, but with my obsession for image quality, it just wasn’t going to cut it, so both lenses have gone back…  I still have the A6300 itself and the kit lens just now, and may well keep that for when I want something better that my phone, but don’t want to go out fully ‘tooled up’.  I think it was a steal at the price. I’ll probably keep the M75 filter kit too – if I choose to use the prime lenses I’ve got (24mm f2.8 Samyang, 35mm f2.8, 55mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8) on the A7iii, it will work fine with those and I can get a body, a couple of primes and the filters all in a shoulder bag.

So after all that, I’m back to where I was a few weeks ago – I reckon I will just have to put up with the extra weight of the A7iii and it’s lenses, and maybe not try to climb so many hills!

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Porthleven – 11 shot merged panorama – A7iii

 

An Afternoon In London…

Our 45th wedding anniversary celebrations included a weekend in London, staying in the rather swish Mondrian Hotel. It’s a pretty cool hotel, with great rooms, good restaurant and it’s own nightclub, but for me it’s killer attraction is a location on the South Bank next to Blackfriars Bridge.

You step straight out of the hotel to the riverside, and it’s just a short walk to the Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, Globe Theatre and Borough Market. You can see St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and iconic buildings like The Shard and the ‘Walkie Talkie’ Building. There are any number of talented street artists performing – always something to see.

It wasn’t at all a photo trip, as you can imagine, but I did manage a few quick photos with my trusty iPhone – I say trusty, but I’m still getting to learn all the features that this new model has. Most photos were taken using the Moment Camera app so I could capture in RAW, and I am currently processing them in Lightroom Mobile, with final tweaks like borders in Snapseed.

These photos were all taken during our afternoon walk on a cloudy but dry afternoon.

Do You Need A ‘Proper’ Camera?

FullSizeRender (1)I absolutely love my Sony A7iii camera. It’s a fabulous camera to use, and with it’s full frame 24Mpx sensor, unrivalled dynamic range, and superb Zeiss and Sony lenses, it’s capable of the highest quality images.  The downside though is that it’s a fair amount of kit to carry around, and needs to be used carefully to get the best out of it. Fine for a dedicated photo ‘expedition’ but overkill for casual photography – definitely not something to carry around all the time.

Enter my new iPhone XR – every iteration of mobile phones has a better camera built in, and the latest iPhones are no exception. A 12 Mpx camera is standard, and amazing processing power means that photos can be subsequently edited to alter the depth of field – something that defies the usual laws of photography. But how good is the camera for ‘everyday’ photos? – those situations where you wouldn’t realistically be carrying a ‘serious’ camera and lenses.

FullSizeRenderToday gave me the opportunity to check that out – a bright and cold start, with lots of great colours in the sky, and pretty much wall to wall sunshine for the rest of the day.  Photo #1 was taken very early, and just a few yards from home, while photo #2 was taken an hour or so later when the sun was fully up. The rest of the photos were taken late morning – looking across at a local wood, and then near the local canal.  All photos were taken in RAW format, using the Moment Camera App, and then processed in Snapseed on the phone to convert to mono or enhance the colour etc, and to add the border and frames.

Snapseed (1)A phone-camera is never going to be a match for a dedicated camera with a much larger sensor and inter-changeable lenses, especially for nature or sport photography, or in adverse lighting conditions, but for ‘casual’ shooting the results are pretty amazing.  I’m confident that with my new phone I can take photos that I wouldn’t otherwise get, just because I wouldn’t have a bigger or better camera with me. I have a wide angle adapter lens on order which will help with landscape and architectural shots, and I may also get a telephoto adapter too – ideal for portraits.

Judge for yourself whether you think these are ‘worthwhile’ photos – I’m certainly happy with them.

 

No Tripod Allowed

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London Eye – Fuji 50-140mm

A combination of illness and family commitments means my Fuji cameras haven’t seen much action over the last month or two, but a couple of weeks ago I was booked on a Light and Land ‘Impressions of London’ workshop with Valda Bailey (Twitter – @tanyards) and Doug Chinnery (Twitter – @dougchinnery) and really didn’t want to miss it. Although I have been taking photos for over 50 years, and feel pretty confident with landscape and urban subjects, I’ve sensed my photography was in something of a rut lately and wanted to try a different approach. So off I headed to London, slightly intimidated by the joining instructions that stated that tripods were not allowed and would be ‘thrown in the Thames’! The reason for this became obvious fairly quickly – this workshop was all about experiencing different techniques like Intentional Camera Movement (ICM), Multiple Exposures and Zoom Pulling, and without the ‘straightjacket’ of a tripod, and the front-to-back sharpness that most photographers are programmed to produce, there would be ample opportunity for creativity and abstract impression. And, boy, was it a different experience!

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Tate Modern Café – iPhone 6

From the outset, it was clear this was going to be a great day; the weather was kind – mainly sunny with cloudy intervals; the location was great – the South Bank near Tate Modern; Doug and Valda were great tutors, and it was a small but enthusiastic group, keen to learn new techniques. After our initial briefing, where it became obvious that my Fuji X-T1 would have some shortcomings (more on this in a moment) we all worked individually to try and capture images that broke all the conventional rules, but still worked.The instructions were clear – experiment, take lots of photos, look for unusual angles, textures, colours and combinations.  Try to build up images from different elements that complimented one-another in some way.  Overlay patterns and abstracts on defocussed main images, and think about how images could then be further worked on via post-processing.

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Trees, South Bank – Fuji 16-55mm

So the start point for me was multiple exposure images and this is where the limitations of Fuji cameras compared to Canon and Nikon DSLRs became apparent.  Some of the Canon cameras can take up to 9 shots to create a single image.  Not only that, but each is created as a RAW file, the individual shots making up the image can be saved individually, and there are multiple modes for blending the images together (like the layer blend modes in Photoshop). The Fuji cameras (X-T1 and XT10 anyway) are much more simplistic – only 2 exposures, a single ‘general’ blend mode, and the only image saved is a JPG of the multiple exposure itself – no original files to go back and have another go with at home… Although this was clearly limiting on the day, I did nevertheless manage several multiple exposure images I was pleased with. Maybe more sophisticated multiple exposure options could feature in a future Fuji firmware upgrade?

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Millennium Bridge – Fuji 16-55mm

Next was Zoom Pulling – twisting the zoom ring during a shot. I found that exposures around 1-3 seconds worked best for this technique – too short an exposure meant there was little effect, while too long an exposure meant all detail was lost.  This is a pretty well known and often over used technique, so to my mind needs to be used with care. First time I think I’ve used it though, and some interesting results, especially with quite bold subjects.

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South Bank Apartments – Fuji 50-140mm

Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) is exactly that – moving the camera side to side, up and down, backwards and forwards, or twisting it, all during the exposure.  This can create weird and wonderful shapes, with these images used alone, or as part of a multiple exposure final image. One interesting thing I found was when using my 50-140mm lens with the image stabilisation switched on. During exposures of 2-3 seconds, providing the camera was not moving too quickly the IS would ‘lock on’ several times during the shot, giving the appearance of a multiple exposure – quite a pleasing result in some cases.

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Golden Jubilee Bridge – Fuji 50-140mm

These techniques (and Valda is a master) are becoming popular, as evidenced by the fact that this month’s UK photo press are carrying a couple of articles about it, so its definitely here to stay.  We were of course mainly shooting architecture and urban views, but I can see it would work equally well with landscapes, nature and even macro. What is rather good is that you don’t need to carry a complete bag of gear (as I did!) to capture these images – a mid range zoom lens is sufficient, and no real need for the highest resolution sensor either. I did find that switching filters to get the correct long exposures during changeable light was tricky – I think a variable ND filter would probably be quite helpful here.

So, I have several hundred images from the day – a few of which I am happy with as they stand, and a good number that can be worked on, either individually or combined in Photoshop.  I can’t wait to get out and try these techniques again – its not often you learn something new after 50 years of doing pretty much the same thing!

Thanks to Doug and Valda (and Light & Light for their great organisation) for a super day out, and a new creative angle for me to further explore!

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South Bank – Fuji 35mm f2

At last, a Fujifilm Trouser-Pocket Camera…

To quote an old saying – ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’. For most of us the camera we usually carry around is the one in our smartphone, and to be fair, they are pretty good these days. But for us self-styled photographers, the tiny sensor and limited functions in smartphones just don’t cut the mustard.  We want a sensor that will support at least a high quality A3 size print, a superb quality wide aperture lens, RAW file capability for editing, and of course high ISO sensitivity without image noise that looks like marbles. And a few other features would be nice too… No smartphone offers all this – the tiny sensor and limited space for processor chips just makes that a no-no.

Sure, there are plenty of compact cameras that offer the larger file sizes and options, but find one that has the required image quality, and is still genuinely pocketable? No – either the image quality isn’t there, or they are just too big to slip in a trouser pocket… so they get left at home. There are so many occasions when I wished I had a decent camera with me instead of it being on a shelf at home.  For me, the closest to this elusive beast is the Ricoh GR Digital (actually, in days gone by, I had a GR film camera and that was truly special) but I was put off buying a GR because of their reputation for dust ingress – no point in having a super-pocketable camera if you have to keep it in a bulky case all the time to protect it is there?  I had a Fujifilm X100T camera for a while, but  it was just a little too big to be properly pocketable, so again, it frequently stayed home.

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The new Fujifilm X70

So yesterday,  Sarah from Cambrian Photography loaned me the newly launched Fujifilm X70 camera to try for a few hours while we wandered around Liverpool on our Fujiholics Photo Walk. The camera has been described in the photo press as a ‘cut-down’ version of the X100T, and it definitely has Fuji genes – it does indeed show a marked similarity to the X100T, but in a smaller form factor and without the viewfinder.  All the other Fuji X-series hallmark features are still there though – the superb APS-C sized sensor that powers the X-T1 and X-T10, combined leaf and electronic shutter, processing engine and AF from the excellent X-T10, a newly developed 18mm f2 lens, and Fuji’s excellent build quality. It feels like a Fuji camera. Ah, and did I forget to mention, that LCD screen on the back can flip right round to 180° AND is a touch screen – not only can you adjust the AF target point using the touch screen, but you can fire the shutter too – very handy. This isn’t a detailed review of the camera and all its features so I won’t bore you with the whole specification – here is the link to the Fuji website.

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Cool but still retro – a black X70

I have to say my first reaction when I handled the X70 was a little muted – it wasn’t quite as small as I had imagined it was going to be, and the first few times I shot with it, I raised it to eye level before realising it didn’t have a viewfinder – just the LCD screen on the back. Not sure how my less than perfect eyesight was going to manage that (there is an optional optical viewfinder that fits in the accessory shoe, but I didn’t fancy that). It definitely fits in jeans or jacket pocket though… But, it felt good in the hand, all the controls and menus felt familiar, the AF is quick, very quick, and like all Fuji cameras, when it does find focus, it is deadly accurate. Even reviewing my first few shots on the screen, I could see they were going to be sharp.

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Happy chappy!

The Photo Walk in Liverpool was all about street photography, capturing those little cameos of people and the city but without drawing attention to yourself, and I found I was increasingly reaching for the X70 rather than the X-T10/35mm combo I had with me. I could reach into my pocket, switching the camera on at the same time, and be ready to shoot immediately. I found I took quite a few shots from waist level, using the flip screen, and that too worked well.  For some shots the 18mm lens of the X70 was a little wide, but mostly I preferred it to shooting with a longer lens, and with 16Mp, there is the option of cropping and still getting a great image. (The camera has a ‘crop’ image option, but I didn’t try that on the day..) Another feature I loved was the electronic shutter – switch to that and turn the other camera sounds off, and its completely silent – great for close-up candids.

Of the 60 or so shots I took during the day, there wasn’t one where the exposure was significantly wrong, and the 3-4 shots that weren’t sharp were down to subject movement  or me ‘snatching’ as I took the photo. All the images (I didn’t even change the base settings on the camera, so all were colour JPEGs) were bright and crisp and useable straight from camera. The lens is definitely very sharp, and there is no obvious vignetting or quality fall off at the edges. With that lens, sensor and processing engine, any images are clearly going to be of comparable quality to those from an X-T1, X100T or X-T10 so no compromises there. Handling of the camera is great, and while the lack of a viewfinder may be a problem for some, the flip/tilt LCD screen is a very useful feature. The field of view of the 18mm lens is incredibly useful, and the ability to focus as close as 10cm is great too.

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Girls out on the town

So during the day, the camera grew on me, and I went from ‘nice, but not for me’ to ‘when can I have one’. The launch price of £549 is pretty much to be expected for the quality and features on offer, but I would expect some softening of the street price over the next few months. Expect to see it at maybe £475 to £499 by the end of this year, at which its a definite purchase for me. Don’t forget to carry a spare battery though – the battery in mine was flat after a day’s shooting.

Here are some more images from the day (and BTW, I’d definitely recommend trying one of the Fujiholics Photo Walks – great fun, great company, and FREE – and you don’t have to use a Fuji camera either, although you’ll probably end up buying one afterwards!)

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Fuji X-Pro2 – Start of a new Generation

When the Fujifilm X-Pro1 was launched back in 2012, mirrorless cameras came of age. A combination of robust build, compact size and a revolutionary hybrid viewfinder all combined with some excellent quality lenses to provide the first real alternative to the DSLRs favoured by professional and serious amateur photographers.

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Pre-production X-Pro2 (thanks Matt!)

In the four years since launch, the X-Pro1 has had its firmware updated a number of times to improve its AF speed and add new features. But for over a year now, Fuji aficionados have been anticipating a major update to a camera which has recently started to look somewhat dated, and which has had its performance surpassed by newer Fuji offerings and by competitors.

The specification and features of the expected new model were well leaked, so it was no surprise to learn that the X-Pro2 has a new 24Mpx sensor, massively faster AF performance, and twin SD card slots. The revolutionary hybrid viewfinder from the X-Pro1 has been further improved, and the camera now boasts weather sealing with over 60 seals. Amongst other new features are a brand new film simulation, up to +/-5ev exposure compensation for HDR fans, and a brand new processing engine that improves performance around. All these new and improved features add up to a camera that is truly unique, AND can match anything that any DSLR can do.

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Photo – Fujifilm Corporation

Thanks to Matt Hart (www.lighttraveler.co.uk), I was able to briefly try a pre-production sample on the very day the long awaited  X-Pro2 was announced. While this camera didn’t have final firmware etc, it was truly impressive.  Paired with the new 35mm f2 lens, even in very poor light the AF performance was both fast and accurate. The new viewfinder was simply amazing – clear and bright in either optical or electronic mode, and the omission from the earlier model of diopter adjustment has been rectified – there is now a handy little knob, just like the X-T1 and X-T10 cameras. Fastest ‘regular’ shutter speed is now 1/8000th second, and there is also the option of a purely electronic shutter up to 1/32000 second. There is a certain ‘heft’ to the camera – it feels solid and reassuring in the hand, just like the X-Pro1 did, and this will please pro photographers who expect their cameras to take real punishment.

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X-Pro2 showing larger LCD and control layout

I for one am looking forward to getting my hands on a full production model of this exciting new camera! I can’t see how I will be able to resist buying one…

Inevitably, the talk now is of an upgrade to the X-T1 model – while its a brilliant camera in pretty much every regard, landscape photographers would certainly appreciate a step-up to a 24Mpx sensor, let alone some of the other features from the X-Pro2. Will this happen too in 2016? Exciting times…