7.08.2016

Thoughts about the two, new Fuji Cameras: The XT-2 and the X Pro-2. And some personal history...

©Kirk Tuck. Not a Fuji Photograph.

I'll start this blog out by saying that I was very early adopter of Fuji's digital cameras having purchased the DS-300 all the way back in 1998. That camera was configured like a bigger, consumer point-and-shoot camera and it NO rear screen, just a small, monochrome screen on top for changing settings. 

The camera was aimed at the professional market and it delivered 1.3 million pixels (1280X1000) from its 2/3rd inch, CCD sensor. The fixed lens was a zoom with a 35-105mm range (equivalent) and the camera wrote its files to a huge, 16 megabyte PC card. You could use an RCA plug to attach a television if you want to quickly review your shots. That would be an SD television....

The camera came complete with an RX-232C interface but if you really wanted to speed up file transfers, etc. you could buy a "grip" attachment that would give you a full sized SCSI connector. All viewing was done through a smallish optical viewfinder. There was no way to preview your shots, something we take for granted now some 18 years later...

Were we able to do "professional" work with this camera? Well, as I write this I recall a job we did for Motorola a week or two after getting the camera. We took our lighting gear and the new camera and a small television set (with which to review our images) and we headed to the Renaissance Hotel in north Austin. We set up an impromptu studio in the grand and glorious lobby (so fresh back then) and took portraits of arriving attendees for one of Motorola's big, Horizon customer events. Out of the 1200 or so attendees we probably made portraits of 300 of them during the day. Some people declined and some got tired of waiting in line. It didn't matter.

The goal of the giant portrait shoot was to provide content for another part of the show. The event company was constructing towers of rotating 12x12 inch boxes that would constitute a bordering line along each side of the walk-in path to the main event of the show. Each "tower" consisted of a pole about ten feet tall with cubes (like pieces of meat on a shish kabob skewer) from about four feet high up to the top. The cubes could rotate freely and people could spin them around to see all four sides as they walked along the red carpet and into the grand ballroom for the start of the first session.

Every side of each cube (but not the tops or bottoms) was covered with a photo that was borderless and sized to fit the cube face exactly. The display consisted of about 250 cube faces and the production company estimated that we'd need to print 125 edited images X 2 (on set for each side of the aisle. We would need to edit down, process and print 250 images on 13 by 19 inch paper, trim them to size, and deliver them by 5 am (overnight) to make the deadline of having the prints installed and ready to go at 9am the next morning for the opening of the show. 

At the time that was a lot of prints to push through an ink jet print workflow. 

We shot images until 4pm and then fought the traffic back to the studio where we had set up two workstations with an Epson wide carriage printer attached to each. We had also stocked in 300 sheets of heavy, matte surface, 13 by 19 inkjet paper and hundreds and hundreds of dollars of ink cartridges. 

My assistant and I got straight to work color correcting and enhancing the files and then pushing them through a program called "Genuine Fractals" to enlarge them to 12 inches on the short side. The color correction step was critical as the camera DID NOT have raw files and the color science of the early cameras was not as advanced as it is today. The files enlarged pretty well and we made our deadline. The images were rotating on their sticks in the morning. We filled a large trash can with reject prints and the edges of the keepers that had been cropped off. The clients were ecstatic and we were well paid.

My next experience with Fuji digital cameras was with the S2 camera which used the first in a long line of non-standard, Fuji sensors. It was basically a six megapixel camera (based on a Nikon N80 film camera) that had an interpolation scheme that yielded a (faux) 12 megapixel file and more dynamic range. The files worked well and looked good but the body was a bit of a melange and used two different battery types that were famous for alternating their untimely expirations. The most elegant of the Fuji clan of "professional" camera were the S5 cameras which finally used a single battery, did not corrupt CF cards with anywhere near the frequency of previous bodies, and which had the same, basic, good looking files. These cameras were the mainstream,  preferred portrait cameras for many. 

For the most part my experiences with the later Fuji cameras were very positive. I have fond memories of shooting golf courses and trash dumps while leaning out of helicopters with my Fujis. They were good imaging tools for the early days of digital imaging. You could have a career with several of them and a box of Nikon lenses. 

Which brings us up to about three years ago and the launch of the X Pro-1. As a long, long time Leica shooter I loved the idea of the X-Pro-1. It seemed that people in Fuji marketing and Fuji product design had conspired to create a camera that spoke to the hearts of M Leica users. I was enthralled and, when the call came, I rushed to my local dealer to try out the new camera and a few of the cool new lenses that were just surfacing. 

The first disappointment was when I pulled the camera to my eye, saw the blurry viewfinder and starting looking around to find a diopter adjustment. Which did not exist. Oh, you could (theoretically) order a screw on diopter and wait for it to arrive but that's never a good option. I tried to overlook this set back and pushed on to try to find things to love about the camera. But the focusing was as mushy as the uncorrected viewfinder. And the camera shut down a couple of times while I played with it. I handed it back to the clerk and resolved to press on with the (many) cameras I already had in inventory.

I resisted the siren song of the mirrorless Fuji cameras even though a number of my friends raved about the quality of the lenses and people like Zack Arias gushed endlessly about the Xt-1. A representative from Fuji's cinema division came into town and arranged a meeting with me when the XT-1 was just hitting the market. We had coffee and he put the camera in my hands to play with for a while but I was unconvinced. While the camera felt great in my hands the interface was a bit strange and the lower resolution, compared to the cameras I was currently shooting, felt like a step backwards for me, even though I knew it was purely and emotional response.

More great lenses came on to the market and from time to time I would look at the primes wistfully, all the while trying to grapple with the AF mysteries of my Nikon D810 as well as the recalls of my Nikon D750s.

When the Fuji X-Pro-2 came out I had just sold off the Nikons and moved to Sony full frame and APS-C cameras (along with the quite virtuous RX10 cameras) and I was resistant to even touching the new Fuji for feat that it would induce post cognitive dissonance, and that my faithful readers would finally draw the line at what could only appear as a blatantly promiscuous un-faithfulness in my camera  buying adventures. And I get tired of being labeled a fanboy of more than one camera system in any one fiscal year.

But I did go to Precision Camera in Austin, Texas and hold one in my very own hands. Fuji got so much right and so little wrong with the X-pro-2. I was shocked at how improved this camera was over its predecessor. The 35mm f2.0 and the 35mm f1.4 are both purported to be amazingly good 50mm equivalent lenses and the lens range overall is continuing to expand. While I am happy with the Sony A7x cameras in my current inventory I'm not sure I would have made the same call if the Fuji had been on the market at the same time ---- my upgrade may have gone in a different direction.

Now, for the past 36 hours, the photo press has been hemorrhaging information and photographs of the new XT-2 and I must admit that it's a gorgeous camera body. It has just enough nostalgic reference to remind me of the cameras that were on the market when I first got interested in the sublime art of photography. I've been reading the specs on site after site and I see so much that I might really like and take advantage of. Things like the film looks and the physical control interfaces. I was miffed when I first learned that the new camera had 4K video but no headphone jack until I learned that, like the Olympus OMD EM-5.2, the headphone jack is incorporated in a battery grip. That worked well when I shot the Olympus cameras in video so I can't argue with the logic of doing the same in the Fuji. After all, if you shoot video professionally the addition of an extra power source is a zero brain decision.

To say it straight out, if I had nary a camera in the house and I had about $10,000 cash banging around in my pocket, and I had a Texas sized hankering for a new camera system instead of a used car or a bottle of good wine, like a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, France, I'm of the mindset today that I would probably piece together an all prime lens system that revolves around the X-pro-2. It's an irrational choice because I am involved in video projects and the XT-2 has more advanced video features and the potential to have really good color in the files. But it's the body style of the X-pro-2 that interests me the most. The camera's style is a charming nod to the old rangefinder cameras while harboring really solid imaging capabilities. 

Alas, for the near term I don't think Fuji will be able to wrest the money from my hands and seal any sort of deal. While the lure of sexy product design is tempting I've had too many occasions to actually use the massive imaging power of the Sony A7R2 and it would take a lot of convincing from some camp to make me give that up. I've also shot commercially successful video with the A7x bodies, the a6300 body and the two RX10 cameras and while the Fuji might take really great images I have to remind myself that my business doesn't really exist in that fantasy universe of perfect prime lenses. I might imagine myself marching into a job with a single, faux rangefinder body and three exquisite single focal length lenses but a quick think back to my last 50 jobs quickly shows me how important my various Sony zooms are and how little use I get from most of my prime lenses, in the real world where I work.  I do get good use from my 85-135 range but more and more I reach for the 70-200mm f4.0 Sony zoom just because it's so easy to get exact framing, get everything wicked sharp, have enhanced I.S. and be able to fall back on eye detect AF. 

The Fuji cameras would be my throw back fantasy cameras while my Sonys are everyday working cameras. At least that's my point of view today. But you know that around here camera choices can turn on a dime. If only the A7R2 wasn't so damn good!!!

I will say that the Fuji cameras are going to be mean competition for Nikon and Canon when a whole new generation of buyers goes camera shopping and they arrive without all the baggage and preconceptions of what my generation thinks "pro" cameras should be... Almost makes me think that in five years the real competition will be Fuji versus Sony with Canon hanging on in third place. Weirder things have happened, just ask Kodak.