FUJIFILM FINDS NICHE WITH OLD-STYLE CAMERAS THAT MASK A HIGH-TECH CORE
c.2013 New York Times News Service
TOKYO — Like many professional photographers, Irwin Wong, who shoots pictures for Japanese magazines, relies on digital single-lens reflex cameras for the bulk of his work — “bulk” being the operative word.
“It’s a beastly camera to carry around,” Wong said of his Nikon D800, which weighs 2.2 pounds, and a whole lot more when used in combination with a selection of interchangeable lenses. “You can’t replace a DSLR for work. But it’s just not that much fun.”
To lighten his load, and to inject a bit of levity into his photography, Wong this year bought a new camera, the Fujifilm X-E1, to supplement his Nikon. He liked that one so much that he added another Fujifilm model, the X100S.
He is not the only member of the unofficial Fujifilm fan club. Over the last decade, as rival Eastman Kodak was descending toward bankruptcy — it recently emerged from Chapter 11 proceedings — Fujifilm was transforming itself from a maker of 35-millimeter film into a provider of digital imaging technologies.
These include a new line of digital cameras, the X series, that blend Fujifilm’s digital technology with retro aesthetics reminiscent of cameras from 60 or 70 years ago. At a time when sales of other cameras are slumping, the X series is selling briskly.
“Fujifilm once looked a lot like Kodak,” said Christopher Chute, an analyst at the International Data Corp. in Boston. “Based on some different decisions, they have gone in very different directions.”
Fujifilm still makes film, but it now accounts for less than 1 percent of the company’s sales. The entire imaging solutions division, which includes the company’s cameras, generates a mere 13 percent of revenue. Most revenue comes from businesses like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and office machines, in which Fujifilm has a partnership with Xerox.
Like other camera makers, Fujifilm has seen sales of low-end cameras suffer from the rise of the smartphone, which has put a basic point-and-shoot into every owner’s pocket. Even sales of more expensive DSLRs, a business dominated by Nikon and Canon, have started to weaken this year. Analysts say a maturing of DSLR technology, which makes upgrades less essential, may be to blame.
The Camera and Imaging Products Association, a trade group whose members include Fujifilm, Nikon, Canon and other Japanese camera makers, says overall shipments of digital cameras plunged 39 percent in volume, and 26 percent in value, from January through September.
Camera makers have tried various things to stem the slide. Some have equipped cameras with smartphone-style features, including Wi-Fi and mobile operating systems like Android, so people can share photos more easily. Sony recently introduced a new kind of camera that clips onto a smartphone.
The X series is a different response. These cameras fit into a category called mirrorless, which has been a relative bright spot for the industry. Shipments of “nonreflex interchangeable lens” cameras, which include some of the Fujifilm X-series devices and other mirrorless cameras, declined only 13 percent in volume and 5 percent in value from January through September, the trade association said.
Fujifilm said in its most recent quarterly earnings announcement that sales of “such high-end models as the X series proceeded smoothly.” The company says it has sold more than 700,000 X-series cameras since the first model, the X100, was introduced in 2011.
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The name refers to the fact that these cameras do away with the internal mirror that, in reflex cameras, allows the user to compose through the lens while the shutter is closed. With mirrorless cameras, the photographer composes with the LCD screen or a separate viewfinder.
The concept is not entirely new. The venerable Leica rangefinder, which predates the SLR, is technically a mirrorless camera. But compact, digital mirrorless cameras are a more recent innovation. Along with Fujifilm, brands like Olympus, Sony and Nikon have also added mirrorless models to their lineups over the last few years.
Mirrorless cameras are considerably more expensive than point-and-shoot devices and even cost more than some DSLRs, though substantially less than professional models like the $3,000 Nikon D800. The Fujifilm X-E2, a recently introduced upgrade to the X-E1, costs about $1,000. As with the Nikon, that is for the body alone; lenses are extra.
Mirrorless cameras often have sensors that are as big as those in entry-level DSLRs and much larger than those in point-and-shoots, providing superior image quality. But they are considerably smaller and lighter than DSLRs. The X-E1, for example, tips the scales at a mere 12 ounces. The lenses, too, are more compact.
Along with professionals, so-called prosumers — or consumers who spend hundreds of dollars a year, or more, on camera gear — are giving mirrorless cameras a long look. While most mirrorless cameras are more popular in Asia than in Europe or the United States, analysts say, the Fujifilm X series seems to have attracted a global following.
“Someone who is looking at that kind of camera isn’t going to be satisfied with a smartphone,” said Jordan Selburn, an analyst at IHS iSuppli in Santa Clara, Calif. “Some of those people are not going to be happy lugging around a DSLR and a lot of glass, either.”
While many mirrorless cameras simply look like smaller substitutes for DSLRs, Fujifilm took a different approach in the X series. With boxy, rectangular bodies and straight, cylindrical lenses, they resemble classic Leicas.
“Because of our heritage in film, picture quality was important, but picture quality is difficult to explain, so we needed something else,” said Hiroshi Kawahara, a marketing manager in the Fujifilm camera division.
Instead of the array of buttons and software menus that have proliferated on many digital cameras, the X series uses simple dials to control functions like the aperture and shutter speed. As with DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras, the functions can also be set automatically.
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Masazumi Imai, the chief designer of the X series, explained at Fujifilm’s headquarters here that the company interviewed professional photographers about their preferences on everything from the pebbled plastic that covers parts of the cameras to the color of the paint on the bodies. Almost a dozen different shades of silver were considered.
The goal was to give the cameras a certain gravitas, so professionals would give them a try.
“When we were little, when we went into our father’s room or our grandfather’s room, there was an important-looking camera on the shelf, and we were told not to touch it because it was valuable,” Imai said. “We wanted to create that kind of look and feel.”