We're used to iterative developments in camera lines? Nikon's D800, D810, and D850 all provided incremental improvements. So what is unusual about the latest incarnation of Fuji's X-E lineup, the X-E4?
The continued success of Fuji's X-Series seems to have been subsumed into the announcements and hype surrounding their latest medium format developments, and particularly the GFX100S. However, these are selling in relatively modest numbers and it is the X-Series where units are shifting for Fuji. The X-Pro3 heads the offering, but it is the more consumer-focused X-T variants that have been successful. It's therefore easy to forget that the X-Series was launched almost exactly 10 years ago with the X100, the fixed focal length street camera of choice for many photographers. The X-Series interchangeable lens (ILC) models didn't arrive until the X-Pro1 in 2012, however, what were the next two X-Series ILCs that were subsequently developed? That would be the X-E1 (2012) and — perhaps surprisingly — the X-M1 (2013). It would take until 2014 for the X-T1 to arrive. The X-E1 started the popularity for low budget X-Series ILCs and was well-received when it arrived. The X-E1 was styled on the X-Pro1, although with a purely EVF. The X-M1 (and its Bayer brother the X-A1) was essentially styled on the X100, but with a tiltable screen and Wi-Fi although no viewfinder.
It's worth pausing at this point to consider Fuji's development choices: it began with the fixed lens X100, then released the high-end retro X-Pro1. This was its twin strategy for initial rapid product development, before needing to flesh out a new line of lenses. These were then followed up by ILC budget versions of each of these two designs. Whilst I've lumped the X-A1 and X-M1 together, they were experiments by Fuji on how to position marketing and development. The X-M1 remarkably had the same sensor as the X-Pro1 and X-Series firsts in the form of the screen and WiFi. Image quality was definitely king which made differentiating it in the marketplace from the X-E1 more difficult. The X-A1 won out and the range is still in active development leaving the orphaned X-M1 as a great little travel/street camera.
Since that time, Fuji went on to build out the highly successful X-T variants which made sense, although the differentiation between the X-T20 and X-E3 was starting to look a little thin. They appeared to be competing for the same market segment and that raised the question of what would happen to the X-E4. Fstoppers Jason Parnell-Brookes even wondered if the X-E4 was dead in the water. However last month's announcement of the X-E4 put paid to that rumor, and whilst it was hailed as the smallest X-mount camera (12.1 x 7.3 x 3.3 cm), that is by a hair's breadth from the X-M1 (11.7 x 6.7 x 3.9 cm) simply because they are both styled on the X100. Yes, Fuji has returned to the svelte form factor of a street-styled ILC.
That leaves two nagging questions: should this really be named the X-M2 and does it complete with the entry-level X-A7? In terms of being designated the X-E4 that is probably the correct way to think of it because it retains much of the technical specifications of a mid-range (rather than entry-level) camera — including the EVF — and in this sense perhaps it is the true heir to the X-E line.
And does it compete with the X-A7? Well, the X-A7 has been discontinued at B&H after a fairly short shelf life and it remains to be seen whether there will be an X-A8. Entry-level cameras, although more specifically compacts, are having a tough time of it so maybe it is good for Fuji to pull the X-A7 from its lineup. That said, these models are intended as a stepping stone for amateurs into a manufacturer's product space.
It's fascinating to watch Fuji come full circle in its product development and produce the X-E4 as arguably what the successor to the X-M1 should have been all those years ago. I have a soft spot for the X-M1 and it is still my go-to choice when I need a small ILC, although the X-Trans sensor is starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to the competition. Is the X-E4 the right step forward for Fuji?