Fujifilm’s introduction of the X-Pro3 has continued their trend of quirky design choices, but has also raised the question of whether bucking the trend is actually making for a better experience for photographers.
When I refer to “being different”, I’m talking about a number of design and spec choices that Fujifilm has made in the past couple of years that haven’t followed industry trends. Sitting behind Canon, Nikon, and Sony in market share has given Fujifilm both the incentive and opportunity to be more adventurous, but I wanted to take a look at which of these choices have had a positive impact.
When Fuji first introduced their X series of digital cameras, the X100 was very unique. A prime lens, compact camera with an APS-C sized sensor, all wrapped up in a retro-styled body wasn’t a common sight. Even now, there are only a few similar products on the market, like Sony’s RX1 and Ricoh’s GR. Beyond just the technical differences, the entire retro-inspired design language was new.
Along with the new design, Fuji’s X series has emphasized a different way of composing and adjusting settings. Their introduction of a hybrid viewfinder, which offered the choice between an optical viewfinder and EVF, typifies the unique approach to body design. Subsequent products, like the X-T line, have come closer to a more traditional DSLR style, but have still retained Fuji’s dial-driven control scheme.
The X-Pro line has always been one of their most retro-inspired, essentially taking the rangefinder form factor into the digital age. The X-Pro3, the inspiration behind this article, seems to have taken the fond love for the past into “restraining order” territory. The best example is the X-Pro3’s rear screen. In the normal configuration, the rear LCD is actually a stamp-sized E Ink screen, measuring only about an inch across and only capable of displaying exposure settings or film simulation modes (Fuji’s term for JPEG styles).
Bafflingly, at a time of high-resolution, ever larger displays, Fuji has hidden a major interface and tool away from photographers. Now, the camera still has a regular three-inch touchscreen, but since it’s on the interior of a flip-out panel, it requires photographers to flip it out every time they want to use it, lest it dangle below the rest of the camera. Even if you’re against “chimping” every shot, this will get in the way of making changes to settings; the X-Pro3 still has Fuji’s characteristic amount of buttons and dials, but not enough for every setting available. Interestingly, the promo video tries to avoid showing this mechanism in use, apart from a quick glimpse or two.
Overall, I think the different form factors and control schemes are great. The X-Pro3 is sure to make a number of photographers very happy, but is definitely a polarizing move. If a photographer loves that style of control, Fujifilm is making the perfect camera for them. Others, like users of the X-Pro2, are in for quite a surprise when they pick up the next generation of their camera. Some other manufacturers have followed the retro suit, such as Nikon’s classically styled Df, but none have had the same commitment to the design that Fuji has had.
Staying the Course
That theme of commitment to their initial path is a mixed blessing. While some of the results, like their introduction of new features to years-old cameras via “kaizen” firmware updates are laudable, others seem to be borne of stubbornness.
First, a positive note has to be made about their firmware efforts. The introduction of new features to old cameras, particularly at no cost, is a great initiative. It’s a smart choice, since these features are in development for new cameras anyway, providing both goodwill and a good return on R&D.
For a company that has continued to improve their cameras, some things have remained the same, even if they should be changed. One of the most prominent examples, even if it is of slight impact, is their commitment to their unique take on the camera sensor. While almost every other sensor uses a typical Bayer array with RGB photosites in a 2-by-2 array, Fuji’s X-Trans sensor relies on a 6-by-6 pattern.
Fujifilm claims this design minimizes moire (false color artifacts in fine patterns) and improves resolution. While testing those claims is beyond the scope of the article, it’s also important to acknowledge that the X-Trans sensor could have some benefits, before looking at the downsides.
Among the criticisms leveled at the sensor are a potential to have purple flare in backlit conditions, wormy artifacts in green areas using certain raw processors, and overall issues with post-processing in common tools. All of these issues can be related back to the choice of filter array. The math to turn raw data into an image is different for every camera, but using an entirely unique sensor setup seems to have only exacerbated the difficulty. As more X-Trans sensors have hit the market, support has improved somewhat, but they will continue to be “special.”
In my eyes, the entire debate can be summed up as “not much demonstrable benefit, with some downsides.” I find it telling that Fujifilm isn’t using this array on their higher-end medium format cameras. While this may be due to the costs involved in these lower-volume sensors, it still adds weight to the argument that this sensor choice isn’t providing much benefit.
One final point in Fuji’s favor has been their commitment to the X’s ecosystem. A number of updates in both hardware and software across the line have kept things fresh, while their lens lineup has continued to expand. Buying into their lineup brings the promise of strong support, assuming you’re looking for an APS-C or MF camera, as their lineup deliberately skips over full frame.
No manufacturer is perfect, and taking a critical look at any of their product lines could yield a similar article. I also want to say that Fuji's willingness to experiment is a great benefit not only for their users, but all photographers, as successful features propagate across product lines.
I think things can go too far, however, and the X-Pro3 shows a number of design choices that aren’t putting the photographer first. While things haven’t risen to Hasselblad Lunar or Leica M-10D levels, Fujifilm might need to consider whether hiding screens and hobbling their sensors is really the best call.
Other tech companies have found themselves in the same position, challenged to innovate even in the face of criticism for their innovation. Unlike Apple’s shift to USB-C, I don’t think this is a case where the market just hasn’t caught on yet, since I bet most photographers like a functional rear display. Do you think you could work around an inconvenient rear display?