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The X-Factor: How the Fujifilm X-Series Changed a Company and an Industry

There’s a good chance you’re sick of reading about Fujifilm this week. But with the fever-pitch buzz surrounding the release of the X-T1, it’s not often that we consider the business behind these popular cameras.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the unique history of the Fujifilm X-Series, and the ways in which it reinvigorated both the company that created it and the camera industry as a whole.

The story starts back in 2010. Fujifilm, a company with a long history of dealing in high-quality film and development products, has seen consistently growing sales in its electronic imaging products and has restored profitability to its digital camera business after structural reforms.

However, its imaging division is still being dragged down by declining film sales and has experienced operating losses in the tens of billions of yen almost every year since 2005 according to their annual financial reports. On top of that, other than its aging S5 DSLR, first released in early 2007, Fuji doesn’t have much to offer the serious photographer. Its lineup is made up mostly of amateur-level compacts and super-zooms, as well as the interesting side note of the FinePix Real 3D W3, a two-lens digital 3D still and video camera.

That changed in September of 2010 when Fuji revealed the FinePix X100, the inaugural model of the X-series. Though it was far from perfect, the X100 is a true classic, the sort of camera you’ll see taking up two-page spreads in coffee-table books fifty years from now.

Its rangefinder form factor allowed Fuji to stick an APS-C sensor in a compact body while still leaving room for their innovative hybrid viewfinder. Its retro-styling, which has since been imitated by just about every camera manufacturer, was truly unique at the time, as was its uber-sharp fixed 23mm f/2 Fujinon lens.

To continue to gush about the X100 would be a waste of time, if only because its praises have been sung by writers and photographers far and wide. Some, like Francois Nel, completely replaced their DSLRs with this little camera. Photographer Gary Cruz even made an X100 Birthday Cake.

More important, to this line of thought anyway, these things sold. With a capital S, or perhaps a capital $ . Demand quickly outstripped supply, and wait lists for the X100 grew steadily longer. People were buying them for double their retail price-point of $ 1200 on eBay well into 2011, and they would still be hard to come by for many months more.

By March of 2011, the success of the X-series had made a strong impression on the Fujifilm leadership. Their digital camera business witnessed record unit-sales over the previous year by more than ten million units, and its revenues helped to bring the entire imaging division out of the red for the first time in half a decade. Hoping to expand on this success, Fuji committed to exploring more high-end offerings in their 2011 annual report:

Looking forward, the Company will work diligently to boost sales of such mid- and high-end models as the FinePix F550EXR and the FinePix X100. At the same time, Fujifilm will launch new products that showcase the Company’s Fujinon Lens, sensor, image processing and other technological capabilities.

In September of 2011, Fujifilm released the second member of the X-Series, the more modest, amateur-minded FujiX10 with a conventional 2/3-inch sensor and a 28-112mm f/2-2.8 lens. While certainly not as revolutionary as the X100, this offering bore the pleasing retro-styling of its cousin, and promised that there was to be an X-series rather than just a single product or product line.

It was followed a month later by the announcement of the X-S1 superzoom, which coincided with the promise of the imminent launch of a Fujifilm interchangeable lens system. This would be the X-Pro1.

While Fuji was quickly building up its X-series, other product lines were starting to shrink. In the same month the X10 was announced, they made public the elimination of several popular films from their production lines. The following year, they increased prices for their films across the board, ceased all production of APS film (although that was hardly a surprise development), and reduced the size of their famous Velvia film lineup. Not long after that, Fujifilm’s cinema film products were also sent to pasture.

That probably doesn’t sound too shocking. A photography company placing emphasis on digital cameras while curtailing photo-chemical processes in 2012, Gasp!

But the combination of a flowering digital lineup and shrinking demand for film created a rapid shift in Fujifilm’s revenue distribution in a very short period of time. Consider: in 2010, electronic imaging products represented only 30% of their imaging division’s revenue, while just two years later that number had increased to 37%. For comparison, in 2008 electronic imaging products represented 28% of Fujifilm’s imaging division. That means Fujifilm’s digital business was outpacing their film and film processing business between 2010 and 2012 at a rate more than three times faster than during the two previous years.

To put that another way, the X-Series, as Fujifilm’s flagship digital line, was helping to rapidly reshape a company that had been holding on to the film age for longer than just about any other.

The X-Series continued to grow, with the introduction of models including the X-E1 (a smaller alternative to the X-Pro1) the run-of-the mill compact XF1, the beginner’s mirrorless X-A1 and X-M1. Fuji has also released sequels to the X100, X10 and X-E1: the X100s, X20 and X-E2. Then, of course, there’s the X-T1 that’s been burning up the headlines this week.

Millions of blogging hours have been spent hyping up and reviewing these cameras, and Fujifilm has certainly been convinced that they’ve found a ticket to continued success. Even though they reported a drop in revenues for digital cameras over the last fiscal year, caused by declining demand for compacts they say, they also promised that they intend to throw even more emphasis on the X-Series, and especially on interchangeable lens systems, when they reported to shareholders last March.

The X-Series led Fujifilm to prominence in the top-tier camera market, but it also left a lasting impact on the larger photography industry. On top of the retro-styling and hybrid viewfinder mentioned earlier, the X-Series introduced the Fujfilm X-Trans sensor through the X-Pro1, which tackles image moire without the need for an anti-aliasing filter and purportedly produces sharper images.

These are features that were adapted, sometimes in different forms, by other companies shortly afterwards. It’s not hard, for example, to see aesthetic similarities between the stylings of the Pentax MX-1 and the FinePix X100. Meanwhile, Fujifilm’s efforts to get around the necessity of a sharpness-killing anti-aliasing filter represent some of the first in mainstream production cameras, and were followed by similar efforts from Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. In a similar fashion, Sony and Nikon both seem to be working on their own Hybrid Viewfinder.

It’s relatively easy to find photographers talking about how an X-series camera revolutionized their photography. Christopher Jue wrote on the subject just the other day. By this point, the clamor for these cameras has become a little monotonous. But that’s exactly why other camera manufacturers have clearly come to conclude that Fuji got some things right: their quirky retro cameras achieved critical and commercial success.

That success changed the conversation. Back in 2010, the megapixel wars were still in full force, compact cameras looked to be doomed entirely, and it was still very unclear whether or not Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens systems would prove to be anything more than a fad.

In the middle of this, Fuji offered a compact, non-DSLR premium camera with a fixed-length lens and an unconventional user experience. It held a price tag well over similarly featured DSLRs, and promised a measly twelve megapixels. That was a pretty big step outside convention, and its runaway popularity proved that companies could appeal to skilled photographers without needing to fit in to the black-DSLR-with-lots-of-pixels-and-lenses-and-super-high-ISO-levels mold.

Even though it seems clear in hindsight that Fuji was filling a pretty big gap in the market, the X100 was still a huge gamble in 2010. It was a camera that focused more on the user experience, solid glass, and styling than on flashier technological specs, and it worked.

Good or bad, that’s a spirit mirrored in many recent high-profile releases, like the Nikon Df, the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and the Lumix GX7. Whether Fuji’s cameras directly inspired those products, or simply tested the waters for them, it’s a safe bet that the camera industry would look a lot more boring today if not for the arrival of Fuji’s X-cellent, X-otic, X-Series.

Image credits: Photos from Fujifilm UK, Fujifilm-X, and Revenue Graph from Fujifilm Holdings

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