The Future of Fujifilm Lenses: Use the Leica Model

· 2.June.2015

I’ve been following the camera industry long enough to see patterns in business models or trends that many manufacturers follow over time. It’s no different than any other major industry like cars or televisions. The one thing they all have in common is price-point: what product can sell at what price based on the competition and within their own product range. This will include what features to add or remove at each level so as to make the top level the most expensive but also the most desirable.

Every brand does it, and it’s the best way to satisfy the needs of different customers. However, instead of adding value, features are often removed to drop the price-point, and this is also true in photography. For instance, many brands remove features or reduce the speed or power of a feature (FPS, AF speed, etc.) to the lower price-point products just to make the top-of-the-line product seem faster, stronger, better. I don’t like this business model. Go ahead and use a different sensor, use a lower powered chip or processor, a lower resolution screen, use different materials… do something that adds value to the lower priced product (the right price for what you get) but also make the top price point worth the extra expense with unique features and capabilities.

I’ll talk about the Fujifilm X series camera bodies in a future article, but for now let’s talk about the X series lenses. What makes the Fujifilm lenses so desirable is the focus on primes and quality zooms. For example the standard XF18-55mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens is too good to be a standard kit zoom. Seriously. Have you tried any of the Sony mirrorless kit lenses, or Canon’s? Yes Fujifilm makes the XC series lenses, but I’ll ignore those for now. I understand why they make them but I don’t think brands should make disposable lenses. Instead, design a good quality prime as the standard kit lens like most manufacturers did in the 70’s and 80’s with the 50mm lens (why not sell the XF27mm f/2.8 as a entry point kit lens?).

The reason why many photographers (pros included) have migrated to the Fujifilm X system is because of the range of lenses that Fujifilm has made available, and we appreciate Fuji’s lens roadmap that let us know what’s coming up. I was worried Fujifilm would put too much attention on zoom lenses (all the WR lenses were zooms only until recently), but they have consistently produced solid primes from the start. As they do come out with more primes, I hope Fujifilm doesn’t use the ‘maximum aperture only’ feature that other major brands use when it comes to creating lens choices. What do I mean by this? Almost every brand markets the maximum aperture as the only selling feature of an expensive lens, and now the smartphone market is using the same ploy. That’s just silly. Make a lens f/1.4 and call it ‘Pro’ while making another lens f/2.8 and plasticky isn’t a great way to create a diverse lens range within an eco-system.

Let’s look at the recently announced XF16mm f/1.4 R WR lens as an example. Many industry insiders knew Fujifilm was working on a 16mm prime (35mm equivalent of a 24mm lens, which is a pretty important standard wide focal length), but we didn’t know what price point they were going to target. If it came out as an f/2 or f/2.8 maximum aperture, the lens would be built cheaper, more like the XF18mm f/2’s build quality. It also would not have the pull-back manual focus feature that exists on the XF14mm and XF23mm. However, when it was announced as an f/1.4 and WR lens, we knew it was going to be a ‘premium lens’. Do I have a problem with this? No way! The lens is priced well ($1000 USD) and it performs and feels like a premium lens should. I still have it on loan and really enjoy shooting with it as it balances well on the X-T1 body. In fact, I would recommend anyone who likes shooting wide to decide between the XF14mm or XF16mm and forego the XF10-24mm zoom for the sake of size, weight, as well as speed.

The debate Fujifilm had with the XF16mm lens was choosing between making a premium lens or a more budget friendly one (or deciding on ‘price point’). This is where Leica comes into the picture. For all the foibles that Leica has made with their M series bodies and X series point and shoots, they’ve rarely messed up when it comes to their lenses. In fact, their price-point model when it comes to their lens lineup hasn’t changed much in over 50 years. For those who aren’t acquainted with Leica’s M series lenses, this is basically how it works.

For the most popular focal lengths Leica makes 4, 5 or even more different versions of the same focal length. Even the 75mm lens has 4 different versions. Let’s look at the 50mm focal length as a good example of lens options. Leica currently sells the 50mm Noctilux (f/0.95), 50mm Summilux (f/1.4), 50mm Summicron (f/2), 50mm Summarit (f/2.4). They also sell APO versions, plus both black and silver and other special editions from time to time. Total, Leica sells 10 different 50mm lenses in their current line-up, and 8 different 35mm lenses. Two focal lengths, 18 different lenses!! To put that in perspective, Fujifilm has 10 prime lenses and a total of 16 XF lenses including both primes and zooms.

Not every brand can pull off 10 different versions of a single focal length, but I think Fujifilm is the only other major camera brand that can come close. Many Leica shooters own multiple versions of the same focal length, and it isn’t just about the maximum aperture. The size, the weight, even the rendering, contrast and sharpness of each lens is unique. For me, I’m partial to the Summicrons. Fujifilm X series photographers would have the same discernment and commitment to their Fujinon X series lenses and would buy more than one version of the same focal length if options were available.

What Leica has done is genius, and I would hope that Fujifilm is considering a similar model for the future of their prime lenses. With the upcoming XF35mm f/2 R WR lens, it appears Fujifilm is on the right track. Let’s re-examine the Leica lens model:

  • make a clear name to a series or a family of lenses (Summilux, Summicron, Noctilux). Likewise, Fujifilm should at least designate certain lenses professional either by colour code or come up with an actual name (how about Fujinon X-Pro or FXP). Even specific features like the pull-back focus ring or APD technology should be part of a family of lenses with a distinct name or category.
  • don’t skimp on build quality for the slower aperture lenses (a Summarit feels just as well-built as a Noctilux). Just because a lens is f/2 versus f/1.4 doesn’t automatically mean it should be a non-premium lens or built more plasticky. Let’s wait and see what the new XF35mm f/2 lens will be in terms of build and image quality (suppose to be ASPH design lens so IQ should be very good).
  • make multiple lens choices for the popular focal lengths. 18mm, 23mm and 35mm should have at least one more option (again, we are seeing it with the upcoming XF35mm f/2). I’m confident Fujifilm could handle 3 versions of the 35mm.
  • make special edition lenses with added features (to Fujifilm’s credit they did so with the new XF56mm APD lens, which I reviewed and I loved, and again with the upcoming 35mm lens with WR) which adds value as well as character to a lens or lens lineup

Leica has had much success with this model for creating a very diverse lens line-up, even though the focal range of their rangefinder lenses are quite limited compared to Fujifilm (Leica has no true zoom lenses in their M-mount lenses). So using Leica’s model, let’s create an imaginary lens lineup for the 35mm focal length for Fujifilm:

  • XF35mm f/1.2 FXP (Fujinon X Professional series)
  • XF35mm f/1.4 FXP-WR (pro and weather resistant series)
  • XF35mm f/2 T (standard series which can still include features like ASPH, Nano-GI, EBC lens design)
  • XF35mm f/2.8 C (compact ‘pancake’ but not ‘cheap build quality’ series. Include marked aperture ring please!)

Fujifilm could even come out with some limited edition models:

  • XF35mm f/1.2 FXP APD
  • XF35mm f/1.4 Chrome Ltd Ed
  • XF35mm f/2 M Classic (fully mechanical manual focus only)

My guess is that many Fujifilm customers would own at least two 35mm lenses if the options were there, and others would consider one if there was a lens option that fits their needs or budgets. For now the upcoming 35mm f/2 R WR ASPH lens will probably be a replacement lens for many who already own the current 35mm f/1.4 R lens, since the new version has the added feature of being weather-sealed. In the future, I hope to see the current XF35mm f/1.4 replaced with one that has the pull-back focus ring and WR and sold as a premium ‘pro’ lens. Either way, it’s good that there’s at least a second option for the most popular prime lens focal length.

Let’s go back to the recently released XF16mm lens. What if Fujifilm came out with an XF16mm f/2 (Summicron-like), non WR and no pull-back focus ring version in the future? This would be a great option for many who may not want the speed or the WR feature. It would be more compact in size (without the pull-back ring), lighter in weight, smaller filter diameter, but they should still retain the marked aperture ring and keep the build quality high. The same could be said for the current XF23mm f/1.4 lens, having an f/2 option with WR and no pull-back focus ring. Whatever Fujifilm decides, create a consistent feature-set for a family of lenses (WR, pull-back ring, pro, etc.) so that each category has a unique identity and not just a specific price-point.

The future looks bright for the X series lenses with the addition of the first WR prime lenses (XF16mm, XF90mm) and the upcoming XF35mm f/2. With the upcoming X-Pro 2 and Fujifilm’s promise that the hybrid viewfinder will remain on their flagship body, they are committed to making more prime lenses within the range (and limits) of an optical viewfinder system. Let’s hope this also means more lens options within a given focal length, and not having the maximum aperture as the one and only featured option. Speaking of rangefinder-styled bodies, will there be an X-E3 following soon after the X-Pro 2? That’s for another article…