Is Fuji’s Choice to 'Be Different' Good for Photographers?

Is Fuji’s Choice to 'Be Different' Good for Photographers?

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.

The Body

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).

While E ink is cool, I'm not sure the 2006-era rear screen look is the "retro" styling that Fuji was going for.

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. 

The typical CFA is shown on the left, while Fuji's X-Trans implementation is on the right.

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.

Conclusion

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?

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54 Comments

Matt Williams's picture

I mean, I don't see how it's bad for anyone.

I do agree that they should dump X-trans at this point. There might have been an advantage in the lower-resolution days with regards to moire, but I don't know what it offers these days - and I think their Bayer cameras have better latitude in the shadows and nicer color (mainly in the blues). It's less of an issue now than it used to be, though, for sure.

Alex Coleman's picture

The Xtrans issue has gotten better (it was one of my biggest complaints with my XT1), but I'm not sure why they've stuck with it at all.

Matt Williams's picture

Yeah, the demosaicing issue has improved especially for Adobe, but I honestly think their bayer sensors have nicer tonality - XF10 being my point of reference for the APS-C cameras.

And I also simply don't see a single benefit from X-Trans.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Quirks and funk is fun kit to have but not kit I can use for work.
Been there, tried them all, sold them.

Ever noticed the majority of Fujifilm images are 'arty'? B/W, add grain and blur and label it art?
You can only get so far with that.

Alex Coleman's picture

Fuji themselves really emphasize the film styles, which I think is curious - do they see that many people shooting JPEG?

Daris Fox's picture

Why restrict yourself? You can shoot both, as I do and if I want a quick shot to give to a client I print the JPG there and then. It's also sometimes useful for street photography in breaking ice.

Alex Coleman's picture

No need to restrict yourself, but building an entire additional display just for JPEG picture controls (which is effectively what the small rear LCD is) seems wasteful.

Juan Garcia's picture

Do you actually believe there was no R&D to come to that conclusion. Spending all that time to develop and include in this build. Just a camera design of bad choices?

One of my pet peeves is how much of the Q Menu and custom memory functionality is useful *only* to JPG shooters. I get that Fuji bodies have a special appeal to folks who want finished images right out of camera (and certainly the X-Pro3 advances this ability over earlier bodies) but why artificially restrict functionality to just those users? Let us move any function we want to the Q Menu or My Menu or the custom memories. Don't try and dictate what is important to us, Fuji.

blessing x's picture

I applaud asking the question, but this article is a very weak argument for concluding “the X-Pro3 shows a number of design choices that aren’t putting the photographer first.”

Alex Coleman's picture

Body elements like the less-usable rear LCD, sensor choice (Xtrans), and even the rangefinder viewfinder are all suboptimal choices for actually shooting with. While some of these are just quirks of Fuji's X or Xpro specifically, they all point to a camera that is placing an increasing emphasis on looking a certain way, rather than performing the best it can.

I don't know why they don't do it with a Panasonic gh style flippy screen - you can have either face forward at any given time and bam - problem solved

Alex Coleman's picture

There were a number of ways to get the same effect without gimping usability - even just a little button or software button that activates "Film Mode", where the rear LCD displays the choice of film simulation.

Sean Gibson's picture

That's not the only reason for the film screen. It's meant to be a rugged camera for street or documentary photographers that you can toss around without worrying about cracking a screen.

Juan Garcia's picture

Conversely, if it did have a flip screen. There are photographer that can also say "I don't know why they don't do it with a Leica/Film Rangefinder and not have a screen - you can just remove it and bam - problem solved" Fortunately there are other series of cameras like that.

For some reason, flippy vs. tilt screen is practically a religion at camera companies. Look at the rather convoluted tilt screens on the X-T3 and even the X-H1, which by all rights, being a video specialist, could have done just dandy with a flippy screen. And yet the put one on the X-T100... what's that all about?

I've had a flippy screen on my equally rangefinder-styled Olympus Pen F for years without it being a problem. But they could have kept things even simpler. A flippy hinge on the exact same X-Pro3 screen would have allowed the open screen to fold flat, like my X-Pro1 and Pen F, or vanish, like the Pen F, without removing any of the capabilities we get with the simple hinge. But that extra (and sure, also weird) articulation ... would have lead to even more complaints?

The tiny opposite-side screen is ePaper, so it's got the advantage of only using power when it changes. For the purpose of showing settings, it does make some sense over using an LCD for that.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I'd jump all-in on Fuji if they ditched the X-Trans array. Their bodies are exactly what I'm looking for in terms of design, handling, and performance having tested out their products a few times. But I've encountered my fair share of worms and performance issues with the files, and I find "use a different raw processer" or "use this external plugin" to be unsatisfactory answers. An X-T3B (Bayer) is my dream camera at this point.

Alex Coleman's picture

It's well past time to switch over. I've not seen Xtrans do anything special, but have seen and heard issues with it.

The X-Trans array is an inconvenience in that you have to learn how to work with Lr differently to avoid worms but it's nothing more than that. It's not like worms are unavoidable in RAF files.

Mark Wyatt's picture

All I know is that I love my XT-2. It feels and shoots like a film camera with all the benefits of a digital.

Alex Coleman's picture

That's great. Definitely seems like that's the feel Fuji is aiming for.

Michael Comeau's picture

The last thing the world needs is just another good camera.

While I don't shoot Fuji, I like that they push the envelope and try new things.

Alex Coleman's picture

Experimenting is great, it just seems that some of these experiments haven't panned out, despite Fuji pressing on with them.

Daris Fox's picture

Aye, this article reminds me of the fetishistic need for conformity within society. If you're different then you got to be punished/ridiculed.

Alex Coleman's picture

Not at all. It's great they've tried new things. Some, like classic styling and more numerous physical controls are good, while the Xtrans layout is just arbitrarily different without much benefit.

In general, I agree. I like the fact that Fuji has so many bodies targeting different niches. Just look at the X-A7 followed by the X-Pro3. That said, in the case of the X-Pro3's rear LCD, Fuji could have used a different design that accomplished the same thing without alienating half of their existing X-Pro customer base.

I do wonder just how many of the folks complaining about the X-Pro3 really shoot with an X-Pro today? Or just as relevant, how many complainers have actually tried it out.

Mike Gillin's picture

The X-Pro3 is different. Is this bad for photographers? No. Unless you are paid or sponsored by Fuji, no one is really forced to use this camera. Everyone has a choice to pick what they like.

Alex Coleman's picture

Not forced to, but seeing as this makes significant changes to usability, it isn't great for Xpro2 shooters who want to upgrade. Also, if you're interested in shooting Fuji, this camera is probably a turnoff because of the sacrifices required.

Mike Gillin's picture

I would agree for an X-Pro shooter looking at this as an upgrade, there may be turnoff. However, for anyone interested in shooting Fuji, I would disagree. There are other cameras that Fuji makes that are more well suited for a large audience.

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