By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Fujifilm was often termed the Kodak of Japan. However, Fujifilm is still with us and prospering in the high-end market, while Kodak filed bankruptcy in 2012 and sold off its patent and brand-name rights to little-known startups.
There were many similarities between Kodak and Fujifilm but one crucial difference. Both Kodak and Fujifilm were huge photographic film companies with excellent technology and brand names known worldwide for their excellent professional and consumer products. At the turn of the millennium, a mere 14 years ago, both Kodak and Fujifilm were among the most financially successful and prestigious companies in their respective countries.
The crucial difference, though, was that Kodak failed to evolve and adapt to digital photography. Even as Kodak proclaimed that it accepted the market’s digital realities, the company clung to its comfortable old ways. When Kodak finally tried to change, it was too late. Kodak squandered a huge cash flow, decades of leading-edge technology and customer good will by cheapening its digital camera product line just as cellphone camera functions displaced inexpensive compact consumer cameras.
Like many organizations that failed to evolve, Kodak died an embarrassing, lingering death. Digital photography supplanted Kodak’s lucrative, film-based photography business, just as Kodak’s first film products superseded less-convenient methods a century earlier. Kodak covered its eyes and hoped that the future would simply go away, which it didn’t.
Ironically, Kodak literally invented digital photography in the late 1970s and had a huge technological head start on the competition. Kodak held crucial digital imaging patents. It manufactured the digital imaging sensors found in NASA satellites and in some of the world’s most prestigious cameras, including those made by Leica and Hasselblad.
Fujifilm successfully made the transition to digital photography by its early acceptance of compact-system cameras. In the process, Fujifilm evolved its brand recognition from making inexpensive, me-too consumer cameras to selling highly regarded and profitable professional-grade gear.
Fujifilm’s first foray into the CSC market was the X100, shown in Illustration 1. The X100 was overpriced, did not have interchangeable lenses and appeared to have been designed 50 or 60 years earlier. The market loved it, especially professionals needing a compact backup camera with high image quality and a good eye-level viewfinder. Soon, the X100’s retro design appeared everywhere. Successor X100 models are still marketed for a cool $1,299.
Shortly afterward, Fujifilm introduced its first prograde CSC product line, the X-Pro1, and a few bright prime lenses. The rather bulky X-Pro1 included an innovative hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder, externally resembled a classic Leica film camera, and presumably competed for Leica’s well-heeled buyers. The X-Pro1 remains on the market, selling for a more-reasonable $899 body-only price, but it’s something of a dinosaur.
Fujifilm found its most successful design with the X-E series, which combined a more compact camera body with some excellent lenses, a very good eye-level electronic viewfinder and an unusual but highly effective “X-trans” sensor. Now used in Fujifilm’s newer CSC cameras, the 16-megapixel “X-trans” APS-C sensor alters the typical arrangement of color-sensitive sensor pixels, resulting in lower noise and better low-light performance. Cameras using X-trans sensors are finally fully supported by Adobe software.
The effective upper sensitivity of Fujifilm’s current X-trans sensor is ISO 6400, about one stop better than competing APS-C and Micro Four-Thirds sensors. That somewhat better low-light capability can be handy in some infrequent situations, but it’s not decisive when choosing a camera system.
Neither Fujifilm cameras nor the company’s excellent single-magnification prime lenses include image-stabilization hardware, although Fujifilm’s zoom lenses do. Unstabilized camera-lens combinations can’t be hand-held at slow shutter speeds without risking camera shake and blurring, forcing the use of faster shutter speeds and, hence, either higher, noisier ISO sensitivities, or wider but less-sharp lens apertures.
CSC cameras using somewhat smaller Sony Micro Four-Thirds sensors are not very usable above ISO 3200. However, the highly effective five-axis stabilization hardware found in top-end Olympus cameras allows hand-held use of any attached lens at much slower shutter speeds, and, hence, at lower ISO settings where noise is low and image quality high. Effective image stabilization is typically more useful than better low-light sensitivity in most situations.
Illustration 2 shows the relative size of Fujifilm’s two most popular CSC cameras, the dSLR-styled, weather-sealed X-T1 ($1,299 body-only, $1,699 with very good, stabilized 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens) and the rangefinder-styled X-E2 ($1,199 body with the same kit zoom lens). Both have built-in, eye-level electronic viewfinders, and both use the same X-mount lenses and X-trans sensor. The X-T1 is currently the “hotter” product, but the X-E2 is probably the better buy.
The E-P5 is fitted with Olympus’ newest, most compact kit lens, the 14- to 42-mm EZ electric zoom lens. The larger APS-C sensors used by Fujifilm require bulkier zoom lenses.
Three older Fujifilm X-series cameras remain on the market, the X-E1, a bargain at $699 including the 18- to 55-mm zoom lens, and entry-level models X-A1 ($499 with kit lens) and X-M1 ($599 with kit lens). The latter two cameras come with a plastic-based, 16- to 50-mm kit zoom lens, a decent stabilized lens that’s understandably not as good as the brighter, more-expensive 18- to 55-mm lens.
Unlike Sony, Fujifilm diligently expanded the lenses available for the X-series CSC cameras, a major advantage for Fujifilm. Because Fujifilm cameras use an intermediate APS-C size sensor, you’ll need to multiply a lens’ focal length by 1.5 to get the traditional 35-mm equivalent focal-length magnification.
Among Fujifilm prime lenses, the 14-mm, 23-mm, 35-mm, 56-mm and 60-mm macro lenses are exceptionally sharp at midrange apertures between f/5.6 and f/8. These lenses range between $600 and $1,000 — costly but reasonable values for high-end optics. Fujifilm’s 18-mm and 27-mm lenses cost less, in the $400 to $600 range, but aren’t quite as sharp overall.
The company’s more expensive 18- to 55-mm, weather-sealed 18- to 135-mm, 10- to 24-mm and 55- to 200-mm zoom lenses all show very good sharpness and optical quality, though not quite as sharp as the prime lenses. Fujifilm’s 16- to 50-mm and 50- to 230-mm zooms are consumer-grade lenses and priced lower.
Among third-party lens makers, the same Zeiss 12-mm, 32-mm and 50-mm Touit lenses made for Sony’s APS-C product lines are also available for Fujifilm’s X-mount cameras, as are many manual focus Samyang/Rokinon/Bower lenses made by Samyang in Korea.
All of these lenses perform very similarly on both Sony and Fujifilm’s APS-C camera lines. The Samyang lenses offer good optical quality at a low price point, but do not include either autofocus or easy auto-exposure, which may deter some.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.