Fujifilm's Professional APS-C Camera.
Now effectively sidelined by its early reviews.
There is a tendency among camera makers now to emulate the questionable habits of (software) operating system makers, app designers and other kinds of electronics manufacturers. That tendency is to create a product and get it to market while it is only 80-90% completed and then to depend on a long and sometimes complex series of software/firmware fixes to bring the product up to its true potential.
A case in point, from my vantage point as a late adopter, is the Fujifilm XH-1 which I find to be an exhilarating camera with many commendable features and beautiful looking files. But apparently the XH-1s that I am handling are almost a completely different camera than the ones that came into the market nearly a year ago.
The first generation of firmware in this camera disappointed a lot of people and led early reviewers of the camera to steer people to make other choices.
I can overlook any of the negative responses Fujifilm got from potential buyers when it came to the overall size of the XH-1; its heft and girth. Many see the only reason for mirrorless camera's existence to be that they are the "small size and weight" option in interchangeable lens photography. That's never been my perspective here at the blog and I'll always welcome size as a compromise if it means a camera is easier/more comfortable to hold, if it means the engineers needed the extra space in which to lovingly place features like near perfect in-body image stabilization, if it means that the camera is more robust and better able to wick away heat from mission critical components.
Things that are harder to overlook in newly launched cameras are features and specifications that don't delivery what they promise. While Fuji flogged their marketing hard to make the XH-1 into an acceptable answer to hybrid shooters who craved good video they fell short by having the initial camera limited to 6, 10, or 15 minutes of continuous 4K shooting (apparently the single battery got too hot under the various loads). They failed to initially deliver image stabilization that was artifact free when panning in video (although this has also plagued many competing cameras as well) which led to many reviewers posting YouTube videos with jerky stops and starts in video files, weird corner motion distortions when panning, and other symptoms of I.S. distress.
Another misstep was the decision by Fuji to only supply a headphone jack for videographers using the XH1 if they also purchased a $325 battery grip (which, in its defense, eventually led to the camera being able to provide 29.99 minutes of continuous video, finally) which drove the price of the new camera + grip to about $2225 and put the product firmly into the pricing arena of full frame cameras; which the public seems to steadfastly believe are superior to any smaller sensor camera.....
There was more. The camera had some early glitches that caused unexpected shutdowns that could only be remedied by removing the battery or batteries. In order to take advantage of the in body image stabilization the existing lenses required a seemingly unending series of their own firmware updates which could only be done on a body which also had the latest firmware.
Is it any wonder that, confronted with so many black marks against a camera so widely and breathlessly awaited, the bulk of buyers read or watched the painful reviews and chose to take a different path to hybrid happiness?
I'll confess that I didn't keep up with anything related to Fuji cameras since selling my last S5 in 2007 or 2008. They just fell off the radar for me. I did take a cursory look at the Pro-1 when it first came out but things like the lack of an adjustable diopter steered me away in short order.
Over the last few years friends and blog readers would mention the cameras or lenses to me and I would nod and move on to the next thought with no stickiness for the Fuji brand. It was only in late October or early November of last year that I started paying attention as so many of my friends seemed enthralled by the Fuji XT3. I became interested and, impulsively, traded one of my Nikon cameras for a new XT3 and a lens I'd heard much good press about; the 18-55mm f2.8 - f4.0 "kit" lens.
At this point I'd read nothing about the XH1 and was thoroughly convinced that I'd always be shooting hybrid or video projects with the cheap videographer's "industry standard" Panasonic GH5 or GH5S. Cameras that had never let me down. Since I wasn't in the market and don't review cameras I don't use for a living the Fuji flagship still stayed off my radar....
The XT3 was a nice introduction to the system and I liked shooting it for portraits. I found a few great video projects people had done and posted to the web also using the XT3 as a 4K cinema camera and I started experimenting with mine as well. I liked the video (don't like the pixie sized HDMI port, wish it had an audio interface....) and I started using my camera as an alternative to my Panasonic cameras for casual, personal projects.
So, it was probably just a month ago that I was out at Precision-Camera.com buying something droll, like seamless background paper, when I came across a tricked out Fuji XH-1, with a battery grip with its two extra batteries, sitting in the used case, looking brand new and priced at something like $899 for the entire package (three batteries+body+grip+chargers). I'd read a few things about the whole Fuji product line after buying the XT3 and I'd read the sale brochure online. I had my sales guy pull the camera out of the case and I played with it for all of five minutes before actually writing out a paper check to purchase the item. (Always fun to proffer a traditional check as most electronics stores actually no longer accept them).
Since buying my first XH-1 I've been doing a deep dive into that camera to try and figure out exactly what Fuji was trying to do with the creation of that camera and to understand more about some of the features that didn't get the right kind of press but which might lead an eccentric camera buyer/user like me to appreciate it a bit more.
While I wasn't really paying attention at launch time there are several mechanical attributes that appeal to people like me who can be hard on cameras and who demand reliability. First is the strengthening of the actual lens mount to make it more reliable and more resistant to deviating from true plano-parallelism with the sensor imaging plane. The mount is sturdier and the anchor screws longer, wider and stronger. This attention to mechanical engineering carries through to the body itself with an alloy substructure that is 25% thicker and has more cross supports than any other camera in the line up. The body cladding is also thicker and more resistant to damage. Even the paint is a harder and more abrasion resistant type than on the other cameras in the mix. This is probably one reason why the camera is only available in black....
The shutter was reworked, in conjunction with the image stabilization system, to have a much higher MTBF and the body's interior was re-engineered (by comparison with the smaller XT bodies) to have much greater heat dissipation capability. All of these things add up to a camera that is more physically robust, can operate with lower internal thermal stresses, and which has operational abilities that the other Fuji cameras do not. The only issue that seemed to cause the camera's first introductions to stumble were unfinished software/firmware. I'm assuming Fuji was giving the market credit for more patience in their roll out of improvements than they really deserved.
Having not emphasized the engineering of the XH1 and having over-emphasized the video nature of the camera, it was an additional blow to their ability to market the XH-1 at a premium price when they were also marketing their brand new XT3 which boasted a "better" sensor and a deeper collection of 4K video features. That camera also came with the magic specs, such as BSI Sensor, more megapixels, faster processors, etc. All things that divided and confused the potential market for the camera that should have been the flagship model of the system and Fuji's first truly professional APS-C camera.
With the acquisition of that first, used, Fuji XH-1 camera my Fujicron lenses (23, 35 and 50mm f2.0s) camera into their own with the addition of the image stabilization. In short order Fuji launched their firmware 2.0 which fixed so many of the initial problems with the early launch version of the camera. The I.S. got better and steadier. The video (with battery grip) was good to go for up to nearly 30 minutes at a go. The shutdowns were eradicated. Essentially, what users got was a brand new camera.
When I experienced the camera with the revised firmware I was very happy with both it's imaging capabilities but also with its video quality and most importantly (for me) the handling. The viewfinder is superb and the grip makes the camera pretty wonderful. The boost mode on the grip also delivers a performance bump that can be most welcome to power users.
After I started really using and appreciating the camera I mulled over the idea of getting a second one for the shoots I do at the theater. The XH-1 is a far better camera than the XT3 for shooting live theater in one regard; the mechanical shutter of the XH-1 is far, far quieter. I can hear it now; a host of people who don't shoot theater rushing to tell me that I should "just shoot with the electronic shutter you moron." But, of course, these are people who don't shoot modern theater and don't know that of which they speak. Most of the theaters that I work in these days use high powered LEDs that, unlike the LEDs designed for film production, have high flicker rates with cameras using electronic shutters. Think Venetian blinds across the whole stage.....
In some productions using the mechanical shutter is a must and the XH-1 has the quietest shutter I have ever experienced. It makes the sound of a Leica M3 rangefinder shutter sound like a drunk man banging metal trash cans lids together in a resonating alleyway....or something like that.
The XT3 shutter is more than twice as loud.
All of this is to say that buried under all that thick metal there is much more to the XH-1 than there was even six months ago. And more to come based on the frequency of the firmware updates. And that leads us to the psychotic pricing strategy I've been encountering.
When I first started to look at getting a second XH-1 for theater work the price on B&H and Amazon, for a body only package, was $1999. The price of the battery grip (sans batteries) was $329. The batteries were $60 each. I stopped looking. For a while. Then, a few weeks later I looked again and B&H and Amazon both were selling the whole grip kit (body, grip and extra batteries) brand new with USA warranties for a
whopping $1299. Roughly a thousand dollars off the recent price. I was certain it was a mistake but I went ahead and ordered one from B&H because I'd already decided that this was the body I wanted for theater work. When the transaction went through and the camera got delivered I was thrilled. It was, of course, as advertised: brand new and beautiful
I put the two cameras through their paces at the theater, at an event and in several long portrait shoots and came away thinking that this may be the best work camera I've used since the film days. The files are big and detailed, with all the resolution I need. The video is great and, when body and lens both have I.S. and work together the camera moves are jitter free. After using the two cameras for nearly a month I took the plunge and upgraded my lens inventory. Now I have the two lenses I think I'll get the most mileage out of for theatrical work; the 16-55mm f2.8 and the 50-140mm f2.8. I've also added lenses that I know I'll get a lot of use out of in pursuing portraiture, the 60mm f2.4 macro and the 90mm f2.0.
And all of this brings me to my question. How can we review cameras that grow and evolve over time as people improve and roll out new "brain tissue" for the camera bodies? The XH-1 is now nothing like the camera that debuted a year ago. Not even close. The new camera is stable, has great I.S., has wonderful image quality and no propensity to shut down at crunch time. But is there any method that would allow people to access constantly updated reviews? I don't know of any. I think at this point that Fuji understands two different things: First, they know they've built perhaps the best and most solid APS-C professional imaging tool ever put on the market of digital cameras. And second, they know that their too early launch and subsequent ineffectual marketing efforts to rehabilitate the camera's image with the buying public was too little too late.
So here we are, finally, with the product that most of us have clamored for in the past (if we are in the Fuji camp). It's finally working as it should; as it was promised, and yet, it will fail utterly because the reviews that will always come up first on Google will be the earliest ones when people were stumbling through errors and promises not yet met. There is also the misguided marketing that, in this product range, forgot to emphasize the professional build and finish to the product which were huge positives that could have been leveraged to sustain a marketing momentum while coding in the product evolved.
This could be the product I wanted but would never have found without happenstance and my own curiosity. Some marketer at some agency in the USA was too intent on the consumer features and not nearly invested enough in selling the actual engineering. The mechanicals. The stronger mount, the better body armor. In the end the consumer misses out because they miss out on another choice. One that might have been superior to the ones that made it through the popular feature filter. Sad, to me, that somewhere in the marketing mix panoramic HDR was more appetizing that rock solid camera stability and resilience.
I know many of you question my sanity but I hope I'm able to buy one more before either the price goes back up or Fuji pulls the camera off the market to cauterize the bleeding. We can only hope that they hire some smarter marketing people when they get ready to launch the XH-2. I'll be sitting right here waiting for their calls.... The saddest outcome would be for Fuji to stop aspiring toward making professional cameras.
Read the latest reviews for the cameras you are considering. Go to the camera maker's site and look at the firmware history for ALL the cameras you are considering. See if the "issues" you read about in the initial review from a year ago have all been handled over the ensuing year with better firmware. You might find a diamond that was "in the rough" but which is now very well polished and ready to impress.