On Assignment: Mum for Fuji
One of the cool things about Fuji is they are constantly asking photographers how to make their cameras better. And then listening. I've been using a pre-production X-Pro 2 since October. One of the photos I did for them (the only one where I used flash, actually) is the miniature chrysanthemum seen above.
Up for a quick game of Guess the Light? Then take a moment before reading on. And I'll give you this much: it's done with a single speedlight.
How to Make a Camera
At Fuji, they bring photogs into the design process, hashing it out back and forth right across the table from the engineers. I first saw physical prototypes of the X-Pro 2 early on, working with a group of photographers from the US and Canada.
I wasn't paid; not even travel expenses. This is something you consider to be an honor: the chance to help ensure a flagship camera is the best it can possibly be from the standpoint of the people who will be using it. What more could you ask of a camera company as a photographer, right?
And while we are for obvious reasons not allowed to go into specifics of the decision process, I can tell you that it was ... a spirited discussion. Photographers are passionate about the priorities in a pro-level camera. And engineers, God bless them, rather insist on obeying the laws and limitations of physics and cost structures.
It was a full day of intense discussion. Photographers vs. engineers, photographers vs. other photographers, etc.
You want [this]? Then that will necessitate [this]. And it will eliminate the possibility for [this]. In a nutshell, it's about a hundred "which child do you save from the burning building" questions.
Suffice to say, every time you drop a snarky comment in below a new camera review ("Why didn't they just do [this]?) you can be sure they thought of it, and it was weighed against other priorities and came up wanting.
As someone representing the photographer side of the equation, I can honestly say that I respect the hell out of the length and difficulty of that decision making process. And given the access, you probably would, too.
That said, here are my takeaways from the results of the design process for the X-Pro 2. Listed below are several hits, a pick 'em and a miss—from my perspective. The gratifying flipside to a (personal) miss is that I now know how hard they considered it, and why they went the other way. So I respect the process and the result.
• Chip resolution. I'm not a Megapixels War kinda guy. To be honest, 16MP is my sweet spot. 24MP—6,000 dots across—feels luxurious. Think less necessity, more safety net. But it is nice to have. I don't need more, though. And I nodded right along as I heard a Fuji VP say at the X-Pro 2 launch that they would not chase megapixels to the Nth degree. Don't give me more pixels. Give me better pixels.
• Speed. Everything is much faster. The process just feels beefier, like a hi-fi speaker effortlessly reproducing low tones in a way that makes you realize there is a reserve tank somewhere in there.
• Focus point joystick. LOVE this. Thank you. A physical joystick nub for the focus point. This is something the engineers came up with absent our input. So sweet.
Eye to viewfinder, you can instantly and effortlessly move the focus point wherever you want with your right thumb as you shoot. (And yeah, the X-Pro 2 has face and eye detection. But I still love that intuitive physical control.)
• Ergonomics. Here's an example: All mid-body back of camera buttons have shifted to the right of the display screen. Faster to use now, no-look/instant once you learn the locations by heart.
You can adjust everything available via back-of-the-camera without removing your eye from the viewfinder. Obvious in retrospect, but we did not see this coming, either.
• Acros. It's a new B&W film sim. Fuji continues to put more and more of their film DNA (80+ years of film manufacturing) into their cameras. No one else can do this. And this continuity between film and digital is the reason many Fuji photographers just say "eff it" and shoot JPEGs. They're gorgeous.
As for Acros, picture it as a progression of the already-good B&W files that Fuji cameras have been spitting out since 2012. It's just what you'd do to your B&W photo in Photoshop—an "S" curve in the middle. So you get creamy highs and lows, with more contrast through the midtones. Preach.
A Pick 'Em
• Battery. This was one of the most spirited discussions. We weren't throwing chairs or anything, but it was close. Here's the dilemma: Faster, more power-hungry processor. Do you give it a bigger gas tank, or go you continue to allow the battery continuity across Fuji's ILC line that so many of us appreciate.
I was honestly 50:50 on this. Pros and cons. I would have been happy/sad whichever way they went. In the end they went with a smaller gas tank that makes multi-Fuji cameras use more convenient, but at the expense of capacity. And to be fair, gas can now be had super-cheap. So you only need one battery reserve kit for your X-T1, X-E2, X-Pro 1 (and -2) etc. But yeah, I still get it. Both ways.
• Eye Relief. And to clarify, this is a miss for me, personally. It is the only caveat I would give to someone considering an X-Pro 2, and it applies only to eyeglass wearers. (Like moi, natch.)
The viewfinder is tight with glasses. Yes, it has a variable diopter (dial-in kind) and that in iteslf is a big progression from the X-Pro 1. Usable with glasses, yes. But a tight squeeze. And worse, in Tokyo I saw on public display the (rejected) prototype X-Pro 2 that included a physical lens-dialing diotper that would have given me sharpness and eye relief.
I crumpled into a ball on the floor. (Why...)
We strongly considered it, explained a nearby engineer. But it was too easy to change the (physical lens-dialing) diopter inadvertantly as you pulled the camera out of your bag. So we went internal.
Oh. (sniffle... snot...) Okay.
So, a miss for me—and a caveat for you, if you wear glasses. But I understand. Mostly.
So I shot a variety of things for Fuji over the course of a month in the fall, only one of which was actually lit. And that, with just one speedlight.
The idea was to show off the chip a little (tones, detail, etc.) I figured a macro of one of Susan's miniature mums would fit the the bill. These things are only an inch across (if that) and yet have so many layers.
Because the flower was so small, the one speedlight could really come from everywhere if I pushed it through a ring light. Think "giant circular harness of continuous ring softbox," but from the perspective of an ant.
Oddly, I still have the setup set up (heh) in the corner of my basement. Here is the still-rotting corpse of Susan's mum, exactly as shot:
I used a Ray Flash, which mounted easier for this than any of the other myriad of ring adapters I have socked away. You shoot through the hole in the ring, obviously. X-Pro 2, 35/2 lens (at f/16 for depth of field) and an extension tube.
The white printer paper background (we spare no expense) is underexposed because it is a couple inches further away than the head of the flower from the light. Little differences are a big deal when the light is very close.
So because of the scale of the set, one speedlight is doing a lot—and coming from vastly different angles relative to the different parts of the subject. Very full and 3-D.
(Pixel peepers can click through to a full-res here if you like. And here is a more traditional shot that probably shows off the chip a little better.)
Not a Review
So there you go. If not a review, then at least a little glance inside the process that I hope will help you to understand more of the moving parts involved in creating a camera. I'm grateful to be even a small part of the process. It is a responsibility I take very seriously.
If you are interested in taking the plunge, the X-Pro 2 is shipping now.
Next, in On Assignment: A Leaf and a Dish
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