9.10.2016

Fuji versus Nikon. It's not a contest of performance or image quality but one of aesthetics and brand positioning.


On the one hand we have the venerable maker of traditional DSLRs in the form of Nikon. Their once rectangular and hard cornered bodies converted like the conversion of automobile designs; from the sleek lines of the 1960's to the boring and aesthetically non-starting, rounded, aerodynamic shapes of the 1980's and beyond. Think: Mid-1980's Ford Taurus.

On the other hand one of the flagship representatives (and current pop star) of the mirrorless world, the Fuji XT-2. A clear design reference to the early days of mirrored cameras, visually, but endowed with a technological change that seems to be resonating more and more with aficionados and purists in the photographic world. The XT-2 reminds me so much of the generic SLRs of the 1970's; like the Rollei SLRs and even the Konicas.

But they are apt examples of the two factions currently warring against each other for the affections and $$$ of today's camera consumers. It's an interesting point in the history of camera design and marketing.

I watched this Summer as Nikon launched one camera that none of us will buy and a few other models that many traditionalists will consider. The first camera is the D5. It does one thing well and one thing only. It focuses quickly. Not necessarily with pinpoint accuracy, out of the box, but there is a built in app that automatically calibrates Nikon lenses to enable them to achieve focus. Seems a bit sad that a multi-thousand dollar camera and multi-thousand dollar lenses from the same company are unable to focus as accurately as their own grandfather lenses from previous decades, but there you have it.

No doubt that the $6500 Nikon D5 is nicely finished and is probably built to a withstand lots of wear and tear. I am sure the shutter is tested for a high number of actuations. But in all other regards it's a body that doesn't buy you better levels of image quality than you might be able to achieve with any number of camera bodies at half, a quarter or even 20% of its selling price. Who is this camera aimed at? For all practical purposes it is aimed only at sports and action photographers. There are better sensors for the fans of ultimate image quality = even within Nikon's own line. The resolution is a bit light for studio and landscape photographers and the weight is a quick impediment to dedicated street photographers and documentarians.

The technical attribute that makes this camera a non-starter for me is it's antiquated viewing system. Yes, I am certain that its optical, pentaprism finder is unequalled in clarity and transparency. I am sure it is a joy to use to look at the world in as close a condition as our human eyes see the world. But to my mind a camera finder needs to do more. The age of optical finders is dimming and being replaced by electronic viewfinders, and we seem to have hit the tipping point in the acceptance of that realization for a large plurality of serious photographers; professionals included.

I doubt Nikon anticipates selling very many of these cameras. The Olympics are over and more normal photographic life goes on. Too heavy for anything but a work camera and too limited for the kind of work that most of us end up doing. For $6500 the most thrilling thing this camera does, in my book, is to get some 3,800 exposures per battery charge. That may become its claim to fame as it slips into the stream of history.

The Fuji XT2 is, in some ways, the antithesis of the D5. At $1,600 it's near the high end of the price range for APS-C mirrorless cameras but nearer the middle/bottom of the range if you are also considering APS-C DSLRs like the Nikon D500 or the 7Dmk2 from Canon. The XT2 is not engineered to withstand infinite abuse. The frame rates with full AF are not as fast as the big Nikon but, in fact, for the average shooter the Fuji XT-2 brings a lot more to the party.

Being a traditional DSLR camera with an optical finder the D5 will definitely take a back seat when it comes to shooting video. No zebras, no focus magnification, no EVF imaging, and no in-body image stabilization. Wanna use it for video in bright light? Get a big Loupe for the rear screen or get an external monitor. But you probably won't bother since there are much better video solutions out there offering 4K video and all the video niceties for half the price and less. Just Google the Sony A7rii or the A7sii. Or even an RX10iii....

The Fuji XT-2 is the first Fuji still camera that jumps into video feet first. It features image magnification until you start recording. While you are recording video you still have access to focus peaking. The one thing that is twingy is the idea that you must buy the battery grip in order to be able to monitor sound via headphones. A minor gripe since the body and battery grips together are still far less than half the price of the D5.

The Fuji XT-2 seems to check all the right boxes for people who are moving to APS-C, EVF-enabled cameras. The range of lenses is expanding and each of the lenses introduced so far is well regarded. There are a number of fast primes which is like catnip to the older generation of shooters. The EVF moves the camera into the future along with the full range of Sony mirror-free cameras. This allows for continuous live view and all the digital trimmings such as film emulations that you can see as you shoot and zebras, as well as focus peaking (which is very, very practical when shooting with manual lenses).

The black and white and color film emulations resonate with a generation immersed in Instagram filters. The sensor in the camera is said to be wonderful in terms of color and tonality. It feels good in many people's hands and doesn't quickly become burdensome.

But what Fuji has done is to position the brand correctly for a contemporary market whereas Nikon is still branding their cameras to appeal to a newspaper procurement department from 1995. Every time I hear about how brilliantly tough and resilient the Nikon pro bodies are I remember watching journalists from the last century rushing around the sidelines of sporting events with three big, motor drive Nikons around their necks and over their shoulders. One body always had the cool, wide angle lens on the front; one had the short zoom and the third had the long zoom. As the photojournalists ran the cameras bang, bang, banged together with a disturbing cadence. You could watch little parts of the camera bodies fall off as the photographers allowed them to slam into each other like those little metal balls on swings that people used to buy for their desktops....There were five or six one inch metal balls at hung in a row from a little wooden frame and if you pulled up one ball, released it and let it slam into the row of balls the energy would transfer to the ball at the opposite end and it would bounce up. That's what the photojournalists' cameras spent their lives doing. So, of course, they had to be built to take the abuse.

But the abuse was usually a side effect of the cameras not being owned by the staff photographers but by the newspapers or the magazine they worked for. If one broke they could ask for, and receive, a replacement at no cost to the themselves.

With the exception of people working spot news, and pros working high dollar sporting events (one tenth of one percent of working photographers), this "trio camera necklace" of destruction is not the working modality of most present day photographers, be they pros or serious amateurs. Most of us are using one camera at a time or using them in a less frenetic fashion when we do use multiple cameras. We care for them better because we own the cameras and we own the responsibility for their potential demise.

Fuji seems to understand that the market has changed and the branding of cameras has changed. The emphasis is no longer prioritized in this descending order, a la Nikon: 1. Indestructibility 2. super fast focus acquisition 3. dedication to optical view finders 4. Giant, grippable surfaces 5. Image quality 6. Filter and film emulation enhancements 7. Usable 4K video. 

Most of us understand that indestructibility is relatively meaningless when most of us will upgrade to demonstrably better imaging cameras in two to three years. The toll for bullet proof build quality is insanely high given that most (non-sport shooting) professionals and serious amateurs are never going to get near the MTBF of their camera's shutters before the camera is a fondly remembered relic relegated to Ebay.

Most of us require a higher degree of accuracy in our focus than raw speed of acquisition. An ever growing number of us are adamant that we want the feedback and information provided by great EVFs and that we're never going back to what are becoming vestigial optical viewfinders.

We've mostly voted with our wallets against bigger, heavier cameras because the entire cohort of people buying serious, single intention cameras are aging and not willing to over-burden their shoulders and lower backs in the service of camera portage.

The bottom line is that Nikon is still marketing the machine. The specs. The robustness of materials while paying passing lip service to the idea of creativity, pleasant design and ultimate usability. This emphasis on horsepower or clock speed is lost on consumers who have come to expect their technical toys to operate with transparency. Nikon has bypassed the narrative of art and the "magic" of the sensor to keep addressing the concerns of a previous generation: the ability to pound on nails with the camera and not have the camera fail. Thick sheet metal in the new world of bluetooth interconnection. (An analogy for both cars and cameras). This is sad given their ancient history of telling photographer success stories in their marketing...

Fuji is not selling their new camera on the basis of its alloy frame (that's now considered a standard feature for entry to a certain market) nor are they focusing on the life cycle of the camera or its ability to withstand careless battering. No, they are looking at much more urbane and urban audiences and aiming their branding toward the things a new generation is more interested in: How beautiful is the rendering of the X-tran sensor? (implication: it has magic power to make your images more beautiful than other cameras used under similar situations). The size and design of the body is less intrusive and burdensome, as are many of the lenses. It's a camera that one could carry with them throughout a walk in a city without the size and weight becoming an unnecessary burden or something that's big enough to attract unwanted attention.

Nikon is selling a tool while Fuji is selling a companion. A good looking a affable companion.
Stripped down to their essence the cameras do basically the same thing. They use modified Sony sensors to make photographs with the aid of their own branded lenses. But the nut of it is how we've been manipulated to perceive the difference between the whole Nikon line and the smaller Fuji line of X cameras. Again, one is a tool for production while the other is an (affordable) near Luxe item that infers from its design and positioning that it is for people more interested in true art than just rote documentation. A Mini Cooper versus a Ford Edge.

One can easily see that Fuji is attempting to nestle into a space not unlike Leica's; almost handmade machines but at a lower price point. A status symbol in the manner of automatic watches in a world of quartz watches with batteries.

Branding is so much more powerful that actual feature sets or modalities of use. We assess our purchases not in a quantitative fashion but a qualitative fashion that employs subjective measures of the relative value of design versus function.

The reality is that a good photographer can take good photographs with either camera. One line will enjoy increasing success while the other line will show declining success. The momentum toward mirrorless cameras, and cameras of smaller size, has less to do with consumer comparisons between the cameras than the power of blogger, reviewer, magazine etc. prejudices to push consumer preferences in one direction or the other.

Right now there is one company that is clearly winning the branding and marketing wars and that is Fuji. Most of us have never pitted a similar Fuji lens and a Nikon or Canon lens of similar price and spec against one another and so we cannot seriously state that one is better than the other (other than anecdotally). But the mythology of the marketplace as created by iterative marketing and opinion maker propaganda has us salivating about the idea of owning the prime, Fuji lenses; even though they have a limited track record in the market. And far fewer user samples at full size are available.

The same is true in the video market when it comes to differences in Sony A7Sii cameras and offering from all the other makers. The untested consensus is that the Sony is the one to beat, even though some cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and the more expensive Sony A7Rii best the A7ii in some important technical video parameters.

At this point most of the differences between the two categories (mirror-free and traditional DSLR) of cameras boil down to whether or not one wants an EVF versus an OVF and then, whose branding messages you ultimately decide fit your personality or your self-image.

Since this is inarguably the case I would state that Nikon needs to change the hell out of their marketing and branding to make their cameras magical companions instead of cold tools while prospective Fuji buyers should re-apprise their lust for the XT-2 and re-direct said avarice toward the X-Pro-2 which more clearly fits the brand driven desire for elegant design and "best friend" status.

Of all the cameras in the market today I am most drawn to the design aesthetics of the Fuji X-Pro-2. So much so that I don't care if its video is crap or its battery only last for 15 minutes, it's a beautifully done camera. I may be relatively immune though to their particular branding since the joy I feel when handling one fades quickly and my longer term affinity/relationship with the mirror-free cameras from Sony reasserts itself.

At this point in the current cycle of higher end cameras we've begun to attain imaging equivalence across brands and are now engaged solely in a war of creating product personalities through the magic of advertising and paid testimonials. The reliance on increasingly irrelevant pro "thumbs up" in the service of Nikon is becoming downright embarrassing while the understated "we're like Leica only cheaper and sexier" seems to be working out well for Fuji. Sony just hums along selling cameras because they work well and have exotic feature sets that make people happy and productive.... at least that's what their marketing insinuates to me.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to disagree with those who believe that the success of single intention cameras (those unencumbered by phones) is in making them more and more connected. I beta tested the "ultimate" connected camera in the form of the Samsung Galaxy NX in 2013. You could connect with wi-fi or cell network. Or bluetooth. Or morse code. It ran full on Android Jelly Bean. In every instance the parts dedicated to connection ruined the intimate attachment of the user to the camera and killed its embrace. Get a life. Meet friends for coffee and show them your photos.

Match your camera to your imaging needs, and the way you enjoy working, not necessarily by what rare ingredients were used in its construction or how well the lines of the camera complement your outfits and ancillary wardrobe.

Sexiest camera in my studio today? Probably the little a6300. It's just cute.

OT: The irony of ordering the "Big Breakfast" at McDonalds while browsing through a copy of Food And Wine Magazine.

Elvis Behind Bars.

I woke up early this morning. I beat my alarm clock. I was feeling a bit sore in my left hip because I'd done something kind of zany on Thurs. Instead of going to regular swim practice I headed to the pool in the off hours and kicked 2,000 yards straight through with a kick board. I'm here to tell you that I, at least, have less resilience and ability to recover from over-training than I did when I was twenty years younger...

Anyway, I got up and did yoga stretches for half an hour before swim practice today. We hit the water at 7:30 am and pounded through a bunch of yards, many of which included sets of 200 yard I.M. swims. By the time I exited the pool and showered I was exhausted and starving. Really hungry. Stomach rumbling hungry. Usually I'll go home and have some cardboard tasting, healthy cereal and fruit but today I succumbed to advertising and weakness. 

There is a McDonalds about halfway between the pool and my house. It's a very upscale McDonalds that has been redesigned and is actually a visually pleasant place to hang out in. There is public wi-fi and it's pretty fast. I saw the signs in the window for their "Big Breakfast" and my stomach demanded that we stop and check it out. I surrendered to impulse and agreed. 

It was quiet in the restaurant. There were no other customers at the counter. I ordered the Big Breakfast. It includes: an ample serving of freshly prepared, scrambled eggs, a hash brown assemblage, a pork sausage patty, and a biscuit. I also ordered (without any trepidation) a small coffee. It was ready in the blink of an eye and I took my prize off to a comfortable booth to dig in. 

I hate eating in restaurants alone unless I have something to read. My choice of reading materials in the car today was meager. My choice was a book about the mechanics of swimming; which I had read six times before, a book on chaos theory, and a recent copy of Food and Wine Magazine. I went with the magazine. As I sat in my booth eating a complete meal that cost something like $4.80 I had the thought that I was immersed in several layers of irony. One: that one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the southern United States is host to a much maligned fast foot chain outpost. And that it has weathered the decades while many other tonier restaurants have vanished from the zip code. Two: That a much ridiculed chain would have such nice and comfortable interior appointments. Much more comfortable than the confusing and harsh redo of our neighborhood Starbucks. Three: That I would care enough about food to subscribe to several magazines on the subject and be reading an article about Michelin starred restaurants while dining in the most egalitarian restaurant I can imagine. Delicious irony. But the post workout body wants what it wants....

My review? The coffee tasted less bitter and burned than the usual Starbucks cup. It was actually very good. The eggs were fresh and well prepared. The sausage was inoffensive. I felt guilty eating the hash brown potato patty as it is so fried (but the crunchy texture is certainly satisfying), but the standout was the smallish biscuit. It was as perfect as any biscuit I have tasted.

My only memory of the magazine was of the advertisements for cruises. The photographs in most of the ads were very overproduced and odd flights of visual fantasy.

I took a camera along in the car. It was the Sony A7ii. It stayed in the car.