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 Today’s Sunday Feature is by High Sierra Workshop’s Founder & Director of Workshop Operations, Michael A. Mariant:

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[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignright” lightbox=”yes” width=”300″ height=”199″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2003.03.16_Firewalking1_16.jpg” ]It was mid-2002 when I made the jump to digital SLR, jumping from my trusty Nikon F3HP to the Nikon D100 for what was to be a 3-month travel assignment — a good testing grounds for what digital could offer at a time when slide film still reigned supreme — working for the first time with the Semester at Sea study-abroad program, documenting a ship full of college students as we circumnavigated the globe, stopping in dozen countries for intensive cultural immersion.

While I had brought the usual kit set of lens with me (16-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm), it was the 50mm f1.4 that I tended to go to the most often. While it was not only the sharpest lens in my bag, it was also the most revealing when it came to image quality. In the portrait image at right, shot at a firewalking festival in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, the imperfections of the D100 sensor (I cringe now when I blow up those files) tended to be overlooked as “acceptable” simply because of the instant gratification: I could see the image right away!

I had brought my Nikon F3HP with me as well, and shot several roles of Kodak Pan-X (a long-discontinued B&W film) and Fuji Velvia slide film with it, simply as a “back-up” to the digital experience. The images from the slides were, of course, vastly superior to the noisy and small files off the D100.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”aligncenter” lightbox=”yes” width=”980″ height=”614″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2003.03.19_IndiaSteamTrain_01.jpg” ] A scan of a Pan-X negative, shot with the Nikon F3HP and the Nikon 50mm/1.4 in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, March 2003.

While I processed the Pan-X film a bit contrasty, with some bump in paper grade for some more contrast, even those photos were rivaling the D100 when it came to image quality. On the small computer screen, the D100 files looked fine. But when you looked at them at 100% … the cringe-factor was pretty bad.

Fast-forward over a decade and we no longer have discussions about whether the image quality of the digital sensor is as good as film. Heck, conversations about film are few and far between. Today’s conversations are about “pixel peepers” comparing the different camera sensors, as to which camera yields the better results.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignright” width=”300″ height=”300″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Fuji-X-E1.jpg” ]But new to the camera race are the compact mirrorless cameras, which offer a full-feature set, good lenses and remarkably high-quality sensors. From the Panasonic GH series to the Sony NEX to the Olypus Pen … the models and features are endless today.

The camera that carries most of the discussion is the Fuji X-Trans sensor-based cameras, including the Fuji X-Pro 1 and the Fuji X-E1 (seen at right). Unique to these cameras are the non-Bayer traditional sensor array, which simply is a different order of red, green and blue pixels.

The traditional Bayer array, found in nearly all DSLR cameras, include an anti-alias filter (which blurs the image, reducing quality) to reduce the moire factor that is a side effect of these filters. And the results are stunning.

The Fuji X-Trans sensor, in the X-Pro 1 and the X-E1, uses a different array that results in a much higher-quality image — and without an anti-alias filter.

[imageeffect type=”none” align=”alignleft” lightbox=”yes” width=”300″ height=”450″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Pisa_Italy.jpg” ]I’ve been using the Fuji X-Pro 1 for well over a year now, using it once again on a 3-month assignment with Semester at Sea during the end of last year, and I am always stunned by the quality of the images straight out of the camera.

But one of the original problems with the camera was the lack of RAW support through Photoshop and other image-editing software options. Even with the issue of no RAW-support, the JPEG files straight out of the camera were still stunning.

Now, the options for post-production RAW editing are numerous, including Photoshop Creative Cloud (CC), providing full raw editing support for the X-Trans sensor files.

Important Tip: Even though for the past year there was no support for the RAW file, I was still shooting both a RAW file and JPEG photo every time. Now, I have tens of thousands of RAW images from the past year that I have been able to go back and work with, even more improving the quality of the images from this impressive sensor.

While I was originally using Pixelmator to edit my RAW files, I have now switched to Photoshop CC. But a specific piece of software exclusive for RAW editing that has received a great deal of chatter recently in regards to pulling the most information out of the Fuji X-Trans RAW files is Iridient Digital.

The Mac-only software features support for nearly all digital camera RAW files, with remarkable coding that really pulls the most information out of the RAW data.

Support for the Fuji X-Trans only came about on June 25 with version 2.1.1, but it has created quite a stir with how much quality resides in the Fuji RAW file … especially when compared to the current reigning king of image quality: the Nikon D800E.

David Hughes, over at SoundImagePlus, did some extensive, in-depth comparison processing testing between the Fuji X-E1 RAW files and the Nikon D800E, and his response is quite telling:

[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”left”]I’m not saying that upsized Fuji X-E1 or Leica X Vario upsized files are as good as native D800E files, they are not, but they are pretty damn close. Close enough in fact to suggest that I would be better off selling the Nikons and concentrating on the Fuji X system…[/blockquote]

David elaborated: “Well, as I said, I’m not saying that a Fuji X file, even upsized in Iridient Developer is the equal of a Nikon D800E file, particularly when the Nikon file is processed from raw. But a carefully processed and upsized Fuji X-E1 file is pretty close to an out of camera Nikon D800E jpg.

I did this test making sure that I didn’t do a close-up which generally makes anything look good and I made sure that both images were processed using standard default settings. Settings were – ISO 200 for the Fuji, ISO 100 for the Nikon, 18mm for the Fuji and 28mm for the Nikon, both at f/8, tripod mounted, auto white balance. The X-E1 preset used in Iridient Developer and the standard jpg. default setting for the Nikon.

The Fuji file was upsized to the same size of the Nikon in Iridient Developer and not Photoshop for the purposes of this test. Both of course could be processed better (or worse!) with some tweaking and by using the Nikon raw file. To my eyes the Nikon is still sharper and nicer looking but then this is a huge blowup and for reproduction purposes, and importantly as far as I’m concerned, for being accepted by picture libraries, there is virtually nothing in it. With some careful processing and post-processing I could probably get the two even closer, but this will show just what the X-Trans sensor is capable of once its files are processed in a software package that attempts to do them justice.

I should of course make it clear that I have no particular agenda here, and the test is primarily for me to see if a Fuji X camera can ‘replace’ the Nikon D800E for my purposes. I must repeat again I’m not saying the Fuji is even the equal of the Nikon in terms of image quality at this size, it isn’t, but its probably close enough for virtually any commercial use, as far as I’m concerned and this test encourages me to try some other combinations out to see just what I can achieve.

 [imageeffect type=”none” align=”aligncenter” lightbox=”yes” width=”889″ height=”1600″ alt=”” url=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/FujiNikonComparison.jpg” ] Image courtesy/Copyright © 2013 SoundImagePlus

How about a high-ISO breakdown of the Fuji RAW file through Iridient Developer? David did that, with his results HERE. David also provided details for his Iridient Developer workflow HERE.

For me, I’ve been a fan of my Fuji X-Pro 1 camera since the day I first picked it up. Will I go back to DSLR? Well, I still own and shoot with a Canon 7D, but mostly just for video work. I seriously doubt I will buy a DSLR camera again, as I am tending to believe that the DSLR format is dying a slow death. My next purchase, to replace the Canon 7D, will probably be the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

Granted, I would then have a Fuji lens system (the Fujinon glass is amazing!) and a micro-four-thirds lens system for the cinema camera. But then again, who knows what next year will bring. Look how far we have come in just the past 10 years!

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[imageeffect align=”alignleft” width=”50″ height=”50″ alt=”” url=”wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Bio_Mug_MichaelMariant.jpg” titleoverlay=”no”]Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, including Yosemite in Winter, Yosemite in Spring, Death Valley, Time Lapse Photography, Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley, and the highly-acclaimed and immensely popular Ultimate Travel Photography Workshop.