Every other quarter, we hold our breath in anticipation of the next hot new model from market leaders such as Nikon and Canon. More megapixel, more focusing points, more noise reduction – in other words, more of the same thing. DSLRs have gotten higher in resolution and faster in focusing through the years, with better high-ISO noise control to match, but they are essentially reinventing the wheel over and over again. Just like how cars are getting better and better with every generation, with more powerful engines and more efficient fuel management, stiffer chassis and more electronic driving aids.
That’s a good thing, but it’s still a car with four wheels. In truth, reading every press release for a new DSLR is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.
But isn’t every brand doing the same thing? Improving on the same tried and tested formula with every generation? It’s easy to be blinded by the bells and whistles of the brands with the most powerful marketing budgets, and we tune out the other brands along the sideline that have been innovating in their own ways. And for the past three decades, nobody in my opinion has been more active in pushing the envelope of innovation than Fujifilm.
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If you had only taken up photography in the past five years, you’d probably only remember Fujifilm for the X100 compact camera and X-Pro 1 interchangeable lens compact camera. These are but the latest examples of the innovative and entrepreneurial mindset of the leadership at Fujifilm. The company has been instrumental in keeping the passion alive for niche photography and introducing very interesting products for photographers where photography means something more than just DSLRs and M4/3 cameras…
In a world dominated by digital cameras, in particular digital SLRs and fixed lens small sensors compacts, Fujifilm had been remarkably successful in addressing the niche market and turning in commercial successes even in the face of evident failures. How was it that Fujifilm could transform and adapt itself to a digital world when Kodak floundered and failed? How was it possible that a company could continue to introduce new film-based cameras (some of which are medium format) when they were considered as dead as dodos? Why is Fuji doing so well in instant film photography when Polaroid had bitten the dust long ago?
The answer perhaps lies in the words of the late Steve Jobs - thinking differently.
The game-changing Fuji X100
Unlike many of the camera companies, Fujifilm was never really big in the marketing department. Most of their energy seemed to be focused in understanding the photographers’ mindset and in research and development. Kodak lost a big lawsuit against Polaroid in instant film technology, and they were unable to leverage on their film R&D to expand their portfolio. In contrast, Fujifilm had a trade-agreement in exchanging Polaroid’s instant film technology with Fuji’s magnetic media technology (they made floppy disks), and Fuji managed to use their knowledge of collagen found in their film making R&D to successfully spin off collagen-based anti-aging cosmetic line called Astalift!
Let’s look at some of the key innovative products introduced by Fujifilm in the last three decades:
Fuji medium format rangefinders (1967 onwards)
Back in the 40s to the 70s, many manufacturers offered medium format rangefinders, but they died out with the popularity of SLR cameras. Not only did Fuji obstinately continue manufacturing medium format rangefinders, they offered an amazingly complete range of sizes, from 6x4.5 to 6x9 formats! They were not the last word in build quality, but they delivered spades of optical quality and are still sought after by film photographers today
Fuji GX680 (1989)
Most people would wince at the size of a Mamiya RZ67, until they witness the existence of a hulking medium format camera called the Fuji GX680. The Fuji weighs 4.5kg even with the lightest lens, making the RZ with lens look like a featherweight at 2.4kg. The monster medium format is amazing versatile, being able to shoot in 6x8, 6x7, 6x6, or 645 formats. Its claim to fame must be the Fuji GX680’s ability to handle tilt, rise/fall, swing and shift from the front standard!
Fuji Velvia 50 (1990)
When you needed punchy colours and high resolution, there is only one name in the game – Kodachrome. But the venerable Kodak film had to be specially processed, which leads to long turn-around time. Along came Fuji Velvia in 1990, and that completely changed the game. Using the standard E6 slide processing, you could get amazing Technicolor and astounding grain/details like never before. Photographers, especially landscape shooters, migrated in hordes to the new King of Saturation & Details.
Fuji TX/XPAN (1998)
Many manufacturers have difficulty maintaining image quality at the edge of a 35mm image circle, so it was a shock when Fuji announced the Fuji TX panoramic camera which covered an image circle double that of a 35mm frame! The same camera was marketed outside Japan as the Hasselblad XPAN, and received critical acclaim for its incredible optical performance, and its audacious attempt to create a 35mm panoramic camera in rangefinder format. No other competitors today have even matched this feat.
Fuji SuperCCD sensor (since 2000)
Along with Fovean, Fuji looked at sensor design differently from other manufacturers. Instead of using the Bayer pattern traditionally, Fuji engineers angled the Bayer pattern at 45 degrees to increase the horizontal and vertical resolution up to 1.4x with the SuperCCD design. Although this “increase” in resolution is debatable and the success of the SuperCCD sensor has not been spectacular, the courage of Fuji to swim against the current in offering new and proprietary CCD technology can possibly swing sensor development in a new direction in the future.
Medium format film camera in 2009? That's insanity!
Fuji GF670 (2008)
When Canon and Nikon were busy launching their EOS 50D and D300 in 2008, Fuji executives were rolling out a medium format folding rangefinder. In the face of plunging film sales, this seemingly insane exploit was the result of collaboration with niche manufacturer Cosina/Voigtländer, who shares the same zest as Fuji in introducing amazing film-based products. The good sales results and positive reaction of photographers gave the pair enough courage to introduce a wide-angle version in another act of madness in 2010 – the Fuji GF670W.
Fuji FinePix X100 (2010)
Both Sigma and Leica had attempted incorporating APS-C sized sensors in a compact camera, but the cameras were not well received due to high prices, buggy interface, poor handling and various issues. Fuji stunned the market with the FinePix X100 – a premium APS-C sensor compact with retro-styling and traditional dials for aperture and shutter speed controls. The X100’s party trick is its unique hybrid viewfinder that combines a conventional optical viewfinder with a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, and even offering advanced digital overlay over its optical viewfinder, making the X100 a truly innovative and groundbreaking camera.
Fuji X-Pro 1 (2012)
Emboldened by the success of the Fuji X100, Fuji launched an interchangeable lens digital compact system based on the X100. An all-new camera system with a brand new mount and lenses, the Fuji X-Pro1 replicates the winning formula of analogue control dials and retro styling. The X-Pro 1 is launched with a set of 3 autofocus prime lenses offering 28mm, 50mm and 90mm equivalents, with Fuji promising more lenses along the way. It retains the innovative optical/electronic 'hybrid' viewfinder from the X100, and along with its APS-C sized sensor, makes the X-Pro 1 a very compelling argument against other M4/3 cameras and even Leica’s digital M system.
I’d say it’s time to give a Lifetime Achievement Award for Fujifilm.