What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them, if they chose to stay on course: Sigma, with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm, with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.

They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.

The megapixel game isn’t everything, and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area.

Sure, some people pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images,to 12 or 14 megapixels, and they would still have the quality you need, but in my book, 5 megapixels was still 5 megapixels, even if you could multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.

Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?

Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s still only 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game, or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is still not enough, but the AF is still only 5-point, and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.

Another tell-tale sign is that B&H Photo is out of stock on it, and I don’t think it’s because it sold too fast. About the only thing the SD15 manages to do well, given the demands of today’s marketplace, is to look pretty.

When you look on Flickr, no one is using the SD15. That should tell you something right there. And SD14 usage waned over time, as was expected, although the quality of the images posted with the camera is still remarkable.

In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s DSLR offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their tiny little niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light, and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).

I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What in the world have you been doing these last few years? You dropped the ball. You didn’t stay on course. You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you failed to develop it properly while others have taken their inferior Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. It should record HD video. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same little sensor I saw more than three years ago, dressed up in a relatively new camera body.

In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of that time.

It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.

Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:

“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”

In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.

People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now, when you look on Flickr, you see that people are using it, and the quality of the images they post is quite nice.

So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website, and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).

That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and close ranges.

What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.

When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.

Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR, which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer, even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.

Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design aped Nikon’s body design. And the camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?

I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.

I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.

Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.

I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.

I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. They went wrong in their strategy, and I don’t know why they aren’t taking steps to redress. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses, and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.


15 thoughts on “What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

  1. Maybe after almost two years it’s time for an update of this article? Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and Sigma SD-1. Sometimes these companies wake up from hibernation, to what heights could be interesting to review.

    Like

  2. I am no where close in writing ability to the fine literary comments above.

    I simply wanted to add that I owned a Fuji S2 and a number of their point and shoot units. My direct competition on the S2 was my Nikon D70s. The Nikon was newer and shiny and faster and boasted all the newest features.
    I grabbed the venerable old SLOW Fuji S2 almost every time I left the house. Simply put the pictures right out of the camera were AMAZING and required NO further adjuster other than a crop. I could never match the amazing quality of the Fuji S2 pictures with my Nikon D70s. Please keep in mind I used the same lenses on both camera’s and all pictures were reviewed on the same iMac.
    I could adjust the Nikon all day long to try to match the Fuji but I could just grab the Fuji and shoot, no adjusting needed, out of camera was perfect every time.

    I have since sold all of that gear and upgraded to a Nikon D7000. I still miss the jpg’s out of the Fuji and am actively looking for a Fuji S5. I don’t think I will be satisfied till I own a Fuji DSLR again.

    I did contact Fuji in 2010 and they had no comment about their DSLR line. I even offered to pre-buy a camera if they could give me any information about one. NO luck! They directed me to their website and to their higher end point and shoot units.

    I only hope Fuji produces a DSLR again in the future.

    Like

  3. As a long time Fuji user (fuji S1, S2, S3 and S5) I am disappointed to see that Fuji have apparently backed out of the DSLR market. Whilst Canon and Nikon have gone with the “flood the market with numerous models” line, Fuji were only releasing a new DSLR every 2 – 3 years, a clever marketing tactic as I saw it because it meant that people were more eager to grab the newer model, especially if they were already Fuji customers.

    The Fuji S1 was based on the Nikon F60 and S2 and S3 based on the Nikon F80 body. I think that this was a big risk on Fuji’s part and its intention was to try and woo already existing Nikon customers over to Fuji. In fact I know many Nikon loyalists who have one or two Fuji’s in their arsenal.

    The problem with using Nikon bodies was that Fuji were dependent on Nikon to actually allow them to use their bodies. To move over to a whole new Fuji body/lens platform now with the release of any (wishful thinking) new Fuji DSLR, would, in my view, be disastrous as they would essentially be forcing everyone, including Fuji loyalists such as myself with all the Nikon glass I own, to suddenly take up a whole new body and lens format.

    Fuji’s decision to side with Nikon’s format may well have been a bad decision and may well have even contributed to Fuji’s decision to pull out of the DSLR market (if they have indeed done that).

    I disagree with the need for more megapixels and the need for HD video on DSLRs, this is getting into the Mobile Phone area where we are being presented with phone, wireless, bluetooth, phone, video and numerous other features in one device. We don’t need these features on our cameras. Lets keep cameras for what they’re intended for, taking pictures. The technology already exists for video, they’re called video cameras. Lets not start combining two products into one and call it a marketable product for people that have been using cameras for decades and making a living from it. SLR cameras were around for decades with the features that made DSLRs an easy transition. Lets not ruin that by cramming other products into the one product and calling it a DSLR, because it won’t be.

    Megapixels, Fuji had it right with their way of thinking, “quality of information, not quantity” I think too much emphasis is being placed on quantity over quality, although nowadays, and with the progression of technology, Quantity and Quality are almost in line with each other.

    all in all, it is a sad day indeed to see the DSLR market becoming smaller, whilst the inflood of DSLRs by the “Big Two” essentially flood out the market that Fuji and Sigma may well have once fitted into.

    I think for Fuji and Sigma to make any real dent in the DSLR market, they would need to introduce a feature that nobody has yet seen, and by that I’m not referring to video or High MP, maybe some new emphasis on image quality that as yet we have not entered. Fuji and sigma certainly have the know how to do something in this area.

    Like

  4. I can’t speak for Sigma, but here’s my insight on Fujifilm. They dropped the ball on DSLR photography from day one – day one being the watershed moment that was the release of the Canon Digital Rebel. Prior to the Rebel launch, the DSLR marketplace was a niche market. Price was prohibitive to the general consumer (The S2Pro body sold for $3000 CAD in 2003). The Digital Rebel’s release made DSLR photography an affordable option for the masses.

    The S2/S3/S5Pro series of SLR was developed for a niche market. They were going after the photographer that appreciated a wider dynamic range. I know of many a wedding photographer that swore by that series of camera based on skin tone captures alone. Good luck marketing extended dynamic range to the average consumer though. Unfortunately, Fujifilm never seemed to recognize that the DSLR marketplace was about to take on mass appeal with the general public and they had little success in promoting the DSLR in terms of what set it apart from the competition. By the time Fujifilm did realize that the entry level DSLR was being heavily embraced by Joe Blow it was too little too late. Things like FPS, LCD size, MP count were the new criteria in DSLR marketing.

    The other crucial mistake on Fujifilm’s part was the partnership with Nikon. They were incorporating Nikon glass/body aspects with the hopes that the Nikon film body user base would appreciate the Fujfilm’s CCD chip refinement/differences. It never happened. DSLR consumers tend to be fiercely loyal to their brands. Nikon grabbed onto the entry level price point DSLR market in the wake of the Canon Digital Rebel onslaught and the Nikon film camera buff followed in turn. Without their own lens lineup, Fujfilm was left with no legacy base to grasp some market share. By the time the S5Pro was released it was a case of too little too late. The competition was now offering a full DSLR lineup with distinguished price points/feature sets. At that point, Fujifilm effectively threw their hands up in the air and called it a day.

    For the record, I love Fujifilm point and shoots. I’m of the opinion that Fuji’s sensor technology is some of the best in the business. Nikon on the other hand, not so much. They’ve done absolutely nothing innovative in the point and shoot market for years now. Nikon seemingly produces their point and shoot lineup for the sole purpose of promoting the Nikon brand name. Interesting story – I was meeting with a Nikon rep a couple of years ago and we were discussing the new Nikon point and shoot lineup. Upon asking him what was new and exciting in the lineup at that time, his response was one word – “colours”. I thought he was joking at first but he proceeded to show me a table full of colourful camera models – and nothing else.

    Like

  5. I have heard of Pentax’s struggle, and Canon and Nikon’s main rivals are all looking at ways to find niche DSLR markets and otherwise put out products which offer something a bit different to the big two, rather than compete head on. Except perhaps, to a degree, Sony….

    I actually just bought the Fuji HS10. And a fine camera it is too, I’m very happy with it. Some of the more negative or luke warm reviewers don’t seem to get who the camera is aimed at if you ask me. I’m not going to create poster sized prints. Just want decent images for a PC monitor.

    So perhaps this is where Fuji went. Rather than take on Nikon and Canon in an arena they dominate, take them on in other segments where their name carries less kudos. I find it hard to believe many Thomas Hawks etc would swap brands now.

    You could also ask an inverse question. Where’s Nikon going in the compact market. I know they still have a heavy and, sales wise, successful presence. But little innovation* is coming out of them. When I first got into digital photography, Nikon’s were producing kick ass cameras. I bought a 3.3mp Coolpix 880 which was best in class. They also had those awesome swivel lens camera…990 I think. And then I bought a Coolpix 8700 which was again class leading.

    They’ve adopted a middle of the pack status since then in my opinion.

    Like your new blog design by the way. I’d been planning to adopt this theme for a while before I finally got round to it.

    *There is the projector camera they recently released I suppose. But is that innovation or gimmick?

    Like

    1. I’m glad you like the HS10, Gary. I’m rooting for Fuji. I really like their camera body designs, and I had high hopes for their sensors. I looked at some of the photos you took with your camera, and I’m quite surprised at the quality. I expected more noise and pixellation from the smallish sensor and the long lens, but it seems to be doing just fine. That’s great.

      As for Nikon in the compact market, I haven’t had much experience. I did use a couple of Nikon point-and-shoot cameras in recent years, but not a lot. I liked their picture quality, but I wasn’t about to switch from a DSLR. Haven’t heard of the projector camera, but it doesn’t sound good to me. A projector generates an incredible amount of heat inside it, enough to cook a camera’s sensor, so I don’t know what they did to make it work. I may look into it, but off the bat, it’s not something that interests me.

      I like this theme for my blog because it’s wide enough to post 640px images. Most of the WP.com themes are so annoyingly narrow…

      Like

      1. It was the extra width to display photos a little larger that got me. Actually, at first it put me off….what if I didn’t like the theme after a month or two and had set all my embedded Flickr photos at 640 pixels – they’d get the sides chopped off. Then I realized you can just set them at 100%…..

        Like

        1. Gary, tell me more about setting the width at 100% — where do you set it? Have you tried changing themes and choosing one with a smaller column width, just to see if the photos still display correctly?

          Like

        2. I’m referring to the embed code Flickr provides when you click on ‘Share this’ then ‘Grab the HTML’ on a Flickr photo. It gives you a code with width built it. I’ve always set the width at 600 pixels (with the old blog theme I had) and deleted the ‘height’ bit of code. I still delete the height code, but now insert ‘100%’ in the width setting. And yep, I tested it by swapping wider themes for narrow themes, and back, and it displays perfect every time.

          Here’s what I mean, with code cut off the start and end….

          ***tp://farm5.static.flickr.com/4117/4762544676_9899cd4531.jpg” width=”100%” alt=”Ups and Downs***

          Like

          1. I see, thanks! I was hoping it would be something in the WP settings that would automatically size the photos to 100% of the post column width. I’ll wait for WordPress to implement it. 🙂

            Like

  6. An interesting article.I would say that Sigma and Fuji couldn’t
    justify the R&D costs to stay in the highly competitive DSLR game.
    Sony,Panasonic and Samsung had NO film cameras but look
    at their electronics background,R &D and corperate muscle they have.
    Suspect that even Pentax are really having a struggle.

    Like

    1. I could see Sigma having to struggle somewhat to increase the resolution and low noise performance of its sensor, but Fuji was already there. They were already running with the pack, so to speak, and in some aspects, they were better. They only had to increase bump up the resolution of their sensor to 16 or 18 megapixels, and look at ways to record video with their DSLRs, but they dropped out of the game.

      Perhaps Pentax is struggling, but I like their product offerings. I considered switching to Pentax, but was already heavily invested in Canon gear. I like their newer DSLRs, and I LOVE their medium-format DSLR which is (currently) only available in Japan. They seem to be doing fine.

      Like

Comments are closed.