The year was 2013, and I was sweating through my short-sleeved button-down shirts in six-lane Vietnamese scooter traffic; wandering through labyrinthine alleys near my small apartment in Ho Chi Minh City. Everywhere I went, I carried a Nikon D300s at my hip. I was a hobbyist then, as I am now: an enthusiastic documentarian of the pretty and odd and curious things I encountered. The Nikon was a serious camera, younger sibling of the powerful D3s and 5Ds that hung around the necks of most pros. Like its contemporaries, it was a podgy device, a highly functional yet dorkish contrivance of silicone and metal and plastic and glass; chunky, magnesium-alloy robed in texture rubber, full of soft angles and stumpy protrusions. If I had not already been impossibly conspicuous in the overgrown, cracked metropolis of Ho Chi Minh — a lanky oval-eyed foreigner in an ocean of petite Vietnamese — that large dark metal wort stuck to my hip bone would have revealed me in any crowd.
The Nikon D300s, years before, had been a carefully considered purchase. It was robust, and capable, muscular, weather-sealed. A camera one could trust in just about any environment. I had considered other cameras, but never smaller ones — at the time, especially in the pro-sumer world, it was still assumed that the most monstrous photographic contraptions with the most megapixels jammed into the fattest possible sensor photosites would capture the best images. I admired the Canon 5D MK III, the camera of choice that most sports, adventure, and landscape photographers I idolized shot on, but I loved my D300s for it for its durability, its speed, its go-on-forever-ness.
So I dutifully lugged my camera along, everywhere I went. Through cities, up mountains, down mountains, across lakes. From snow-covered alpine forests to pristine beaches to immense volcanic craters. I packed light yet travelled heavy, thanks to the ever-present piles of gear that accompanied me. I became an expert in packing-minimalism, capable of subsisting for days on the few items I could jam into the top of a small twenty-litre backpack overflowing with camera, lenses, tripod, and other accoutrements. Clothing, food, and anything else deemed non-essential was often left behind. It was a peculiar way to travel, but I was, more or less, happy with the compromises.
This changed on one particularly humid, cloudless afternoon. I was sitting indoors, awash in the life-sustaining airstream of my AC unit, surfing the internet for the answer to some errant photographic riddle, when I came across an advertisement for a camera called the X-T1, produced by Fujifilm.
It was a fully manual, pro-oriented, detached-lens mirrorless camera. One with ultra-fast focus speeds, weather-sealing, a 16 mega-pixel CMOS X-TRANS sensor, phase-detection, and a continuous shooting mode capable of a highly respectable 8 frames per second. It was, according to the ad, a second-to-none, never-before-seen technological breakthrough — an uber-powerful photo capturing machine backed by nearly a century of research.
As a card-carrying digital creative, I remain eternally susceptible to such technical gobbledygook. Marketing nonsense like “advanced infrared X Series mirrorless interface” and “2.36 million dot OLED display” captures my attention, despite my carefully cultivated skepticism.
Yet, it wasn’t the feature erotica that beguiled me, nor even the siren-song of a more modern technical excellence (my D300S was a seven-year-old by this point, geezerly by the standards of most technology). What captured my attention was the camera’s form: it was an aesthetic rebellion, a high-tech amalgam of analog and digital; beautiful, unlike any DSLR I had seen. It was rectangular and sleek, its surfaces flat, its edges hard and its lines clean. It stood apart, roguishly, from the rounded, formless blobs of most digital camera bodies. In fact, it looked more like a 35mm film camera from the seventies — a Nikon EL2 or an Olympus OM10 — than a DSLR: its exterior was adorned with single-function mechanical controls, its all-metal lenses were punctuated by beautiful aperture rings, but its provenance was obviously digital. It was impossible to miss the myriad slots, ports, and jacks for various electronic dongles, or the articulating glass screen that occupied the majority of the camera’s rear.
It seemed, in those first moments of wonder and the many others that came afterward, that this magnificent device was impossible. It was not really a DSLR. It was a Japanese photo machine from the future, dressed up in a nostalgia-inducing analog suit and tie. It was a true post-DSLR.
Actually, it was not a DSLR at all — it was “mirrorless”, a class of camera that, ironically, substitutes electronics for the rather large mirrors and pentaprisms that occupy the guts of DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras had existed for some time at that point, but had demanded significant trade-offs for their smaller form-factors, like lower light sensitivity, poor auto-focus, and awkward view-finding. More importantly, however, they had never been taken seriously by the larger professional photography community that I took my queues from. This was obviously no longer the case, if the advertisements were to be believed, and the sample images agreed.
The fact that this striking, diminutive object could supposedly out-shoot my hulking Nikon gorilla held a special sort of spell over me. After years spent hauling around that large metal appendage, I imagined myself trudging down sand-dunes and through jungles, up mountains and across glaciers, with this weightless image-making wonder at my hip and nary a care in the world. I imagined the incredible images I would shoot with it — covers for the likes of Nat Geo and Smithsonian. I was no longer tethered to reality. I would become a famous photographer, a poster-boy for Fujifilm. This camera, all evidence to the contrary, would catapult me into the annals of history.
Back at Fujifilm headquarters, the marketing team whooped and high-fived each-other. I was hooked.
So it was that the X-T1 entered my universe like a meteor landing in the middle of Manhattan. Overnight, it seemed to be the topic of discussion on every blog, on the lips of every pro that I followed. I saw advertisements for it everywhere I went. Suddenly, I began spotting tiny Fujifilm cameras in bags, slung across shoulders, mounted on tripods. I noticed the yellow logo on buildings, lens caps, and printers. Like a parasite eating me from the inside, Fuji-fever began to consume my brain.
Of course, I already had a great camera, and for most purposes it suited me just fine. Until the untimely entrance of the X-T1 into my life, I was perfectly happy to trade beauty, convenience, size, and sleekness for power and durability. There simply was no other option, until of course, there was.
More out of financial necessity than of any real sense of self-awareness or discipline, I refrained from acting immediately on my desires. When the camera came out I waited, patiently and painfully, for the price to drop just enough that I could justify its expense. I was still funnelling most extra funds into my travels at this point, and the considerable cost of a new-fangled, just-released digital camera was beyond my limited means. So I lugged my Nikon around with me, feeling its weight grow heavier by the day.
When I finally made the purchase on a fateful October afternoon, I was back in Canada. The leaves had mostly migrated to the ground and the skies outside my window were pregnant with winter, but I was wholly unaware — as I carefully unfolded the cardboard packaging and pulled out the camera for the first time I realized I was holding my breath. I turned it on, took a test picture: an award-winning shot of my windowsill. The X-T1, at that moment, was everything I had imagined: sleek, small, substantive. It looked — and felt — powerful. It effused beauty and perfection in a way that is only possible when desire has been pent-up so enormously that it imbues reality with its soft glow. Finally, I had the camera that I had been waiting for.
I spent the following weeks with the camera hanging around my neck, walking around Vancouver like a foreign tourist, taking mundane shots of anything and everything I came across. I was caught up in a happy daze, which spiked every time the shutter clicked.
But the honeymoon ended, rather abruptly. Although my enthusiasm hadn’t waned, we started quarrelling, my Fuji and I. The thing ate batteries like a diabetic eating cream puffs. And there were little engineering quirks that irked me — no locks on the mechanical dials, for example, meant that even the smallest nudge could alter the shutter speed, ISO, or EV settings. I was constantly pulling the camera out of my bag with just enough time to turn it on and snap a photo, only to miss the shot because I had to fiddle with settings. The power switch, which was easily toggled too, would flip on in my bag, rendering the battery drained upon first use. Despite having a micro-USB port, the camera was inexplicably unable to charge via USB — meaning I was constantly fumbling with the battery compartment, a doubly problematic endeavour given the compartment’s proximity to the tripod mounting hole. If the camera was screwed into a tripod mounting-plate, the battery door was inaccessible, rendering the poor device useless when, inevitably and often, the batteries died.
Yet, I remained loyal – I had no other choice, having poured such impossible yearning into my Fuji. Besides, when the X-T1 wasn’t driving me to hysterics it was a force to be reckoned with; capable of producing gorgeous and technically brilliant images, a pleasure to operate, and light and compact enough to throw in a backpack without a second thought. The colour reproduction was near-perfect, the film simulations were gorgeous, and the feel of the camera in-hand never got old. With the exposure dialled and a fresh battery, it felt timeless, infinitely powerful, possessing of a quality that might endure forever.
Sadly, endure it did not. The issues plagued me, and eventually my patience ran out. As with so many shifts, there was no one moment that precipitated, rather, there were a million little ones. My X-T1, once so impenetrable, began to die a slow death of lost pins and screws. The battery life continued to suffer, and I switched, foolishly to a strap that attached to its tripod mount, turning each battery swap into an enormous ordeal requiring a hex key and no small amount of foul language. Then, while hiking the Howe Sound Crest one day, I dropped the camera and lost one of the pins that held the LCD backing in place. Suddenly, sending it away for an expensive repair felt absurd. The X-T4 had been released weeks prior, and suddenly my 6-year-old camera, with its delaminating rubber grip and missing pin, felt ancient.
Isn’t it funny how your perception of something can change in a single instant? There I was, standing on a windy mountain ridge at sunset, searching for my lost pin in the dimly lit ferns, and in a flash, my X-T1 went from beloved to broken; from good-enough to not enough. The moment was so profound, there might have been fireworks. Somebody might have offered a eulogy. But instead I just stood there, fuming quietly. I returned from that trip and relegated the camera to an office drawer. I bought a lightly used XT-3 the following week.
Footnotes and Credits
- Feature image courtesy of Fujifilm Corp