Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fujifilm Finds Niche With Old-Style Cameras That Mask a High-Tech Core

“It’s a beastly camera to carry around,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Corporation 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.

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.

Joshua Hunt contributed reporting.

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