Fujifilm X-E4 and the Paradox of Minimalism

A third-century AD book about the lives of philosophers contains this anecdote about Socrates: “And often when he beheld the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’”

Clearly I’m no Socrates, but contemplating the many buttons, dials and sub-menus on digital cameras, I often feel the way he felt. How many things I can do without! Indeed, how many things I’d be better off without!

I’ve used a Nikon DSLR for the last ten years, but in December last year, I bought a Fujifilm X-E4 – a mirrorless digital camera with interchangeable lenses and an APS-C sensor. This article, however, is not about the much-debated topic of DSLR versus mirrorless (a debate which we’ve weighed in upon here). Nor is it a proper camera review (we already did that, too).

Instead, I’d like to reflect on minimalism and its paradoxes, using the Fujifilm X-E4 as a jumping-off point. And since this is a website about photography, not philosophy or aesthetics, I’ll link those ideas back to cameras. You might even learn a bit about the Fujifilm X-E4 along the way. All I’m saying is that this is not necessarily a conventional review.

Paradox 1: Less is more

A paradox – a statement which seems contradictory but expresses a possible truth – lies at the very heart of minimalism. “Less is more” is the mantra of minimalists everywhere, practically a definition. It sounds so catchy and contemporary – an Instagram caption par excellence. But in fact, it’s much older than that. “Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged,” says the protagonist of Robert Browning’s 1855 poem, Andrea del Sarto.

Fast-forward to 2021, and Fujifilm launched the X-E4 with the tagline “Make more with less.” Is that marketing guff, or do they really mean it? Less of what? And can we really do more with it? To answer these questions, first we need to understand what the X-E series is all about.

When it comes to models and series, Fuji haven’t exactly embraced the less-is-more philosophy. There is an almost overwhelming array of X-series cameras. If you want to get to grips with it all, this 2018 F-Stoppers article is still the best overview I’ve come across (it’s outdated, so you’ll need to supplement it with some independent research on the models which have been released or discontinued since then).

For present purposes, suffice to say that Fujifilm’s X-series cameras fall into two main camps: SLR-style (e.g. X-T5, X-H2) and rangefinder-style (e.g. X-E4, X-Pro3 and the fixed-lens X-100 series). The SLR-style cameras have a “hump,” and a centrally-positioned electronic viewfinder (EVF). The rangefinder-style cameras have a flat top, and the finder (as seen from behind) is offset to the left.

Of the bodies with the famous Fuji X-Trans sensor, the X-E models are typically the cheapest. As such, they lack various other features found on higher-end cameras. Let’s compare it with the Fujifilm X-Pro3 – another interchangeable-lens, rangefinder-style camera, and the latest of its line. The X-Pro3 boasts weather-sealing, dual card slot and a hybrid optical/digital viewfinder, all of which are missing in the X-E4.

But for my money, the X-E4 was a better choice. I can make do with one card slot, and I rarely shoot in rain or snow. The hybrid viewfinder is a marvel of technology; I still remember trying it for the first time in a London camera store, ten years ago, and it blew my mind. But in practice, I can get by without it. In fact, I’m arguably better off without it, because it’s one less choice to make when I’m out taking pictures. I use the EVF and occasionally the LCD, with no temptation to switch to the optical finder.

The upside? For me, a huge draw of the Fujifilm X-E4 was the size and weight. The X-E4 is smaller than an X-Pro3, and almost 30% lighter – a mere 315g without battery and cards. For a camera which is so capable – it has the same sensor and processor as the X-Pro3, and therefore the same image quality – the X-E4 is ridiculously small and light.

I dislike carrying gear, but the X-E4 with a small prime lens is no burden at all. When going for a night out with friends, or a bike ride along the canal, or simply popping out to buy groceries, I’ll often sling the camera on my shoulder. Call me lazy, but with a bigger camera, this is something I’m much less likely to do. In this respect, less really is more.

There’s also the price. For the cost of an X-Pro3, I could buy an X-E4 and two Fuji lenses. By settling for less when it comes to features, I had more choice in the lens department.

And finally, because I’m shallow, there’s looks. The X-Pro3 is a pretty camera too, but I prefer the X-E4’s cleaner, pared-down aesthetic. I realise this is a big claim, but I find the Fujifilm X-E4 is the prettiest interchangeable-lens digital camera ever made.

So let’s revisit the two questions I asked of the Fujifilm X-E4’s tagline, “Make more with less.”

Less of what? Less features (compared to, say, the X-Pro3). But also less size, weight and cost.

And with that, can we really do more? Well, that depends on your preferences and style of photography. For me, the answer is yes. Socrates approves, and Andrea del Sarto nods along.

Paradox 2: Excessive minimalism

Minimalism is about avoiding excess, so the idea of “excessive minimalism” feels somewhat paradoxical. But anything can be taken to an extreme, including minimalism.

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a temple of mid-century minimalism, has been described as “more like an architectural manifesto than a place you could rightly call home.” In summer it was too hot, in winter “almost insufferably cold.” When minimalism becomes an end in itself, we risk sacrificing usability, comfort and basic human pleasures. “All things in moderation,” as the saying goes, “including moderation.” Likewise, the “Less is more” mantra might be applied to minimalism itself – a caution against minimalism run amok.

Was Fuji guilty of this with the X-E4? Many reviewers seem to think so. “Basically, we’re wondering whether Fujifilm went a little too minimalist on the X-E4,” wrote DPReview.

Fujilove found the X-E4 to be “minimalistic and industrial” but “also less ergonomic and functional.”

Ken Rockwell, bless his heart, was particularly scathing. “I can’t find anything redeeming about this camera compared to other Fujifilm cameras. (…) It’s like buying a car that takes away the steering wheel.”

These reactions are not altogether surprising. The Fujifilm X-E4 (2021) replaced the X-E3 (2017). In the process, Fuji did something very unusual – almost unheard of – for a modern camera company: they released a new model that reduced rather than added.

“Budget models” are nothing new. The Leica M2 of 1957 was effectively a down-specced Leica M3. The Fuji X-E series itself is positioned as a simpler but more wallet-friendly alternative to the X-Pro.

But the X-E4 is different – it’s a direct replacement for the X-E3, and only slightly cheaper, yet, Fuji removed the following:

  • rear dial
  • focus select dial
  • view mode button
  • auto switch (replaced with P on the shutter speed dial)
  • AFL button (merged with the AEL button)
  • EF-X8 pop-up flash
  • front grip
  • rear thumb grip

What was Fuji thinking? Who would choose the X-E4 over the X-E3? Why did I choose it?

First, I should say that the “missing features” list does not tell the whole story. Fuji taketh away, but they also giveth – in this case, a tilting LCD to replace the X-E3’s fixed screen, a 26.1MP sensor (the X-E3 had 24MP), a newer processor, faster autofocus and burst mode, and additional JPEG options.

Most of these additions make little difference to me, and regarding some, such as more megapixels and faster burst mode, I couldn’t care less. But I do love a tilting screen (a fully articulated screen, like on the Fujifilm X-T5, would be even better, but I’ll settle). In fact, a big reason why I didn’t opt for one the earlier X-E models is because they all had fixed screens.

What about the omissions? For my purposes, they improve the camera. But before I elaborate on that, I want to make two quick points about online reviews.

First, as Mike Johnston wrote in a post about another Fuji camera, it seems to be human nature to “improve” products by adding more features, expense, size and weight. From the scare-quotes around “improve” it’s clear that Mike doesn’t buy into the “more is better” philosophy. But for a lot of consumers and reviewers, “more is better” is almost a default assumption. So, a new iteration that does not add but strips away seems like a regression, a folly, an affront to capitalist logic. A paradox, if you will.

Second, most online reviews are written or recorded quickly, after a couple of weeks (or even days) of use. This makes it especially easy to lapse into snap judgments. No rear dial? Must be a bad thing. No front grip? I just can’t even.

But when you use a camera over a longer period, the logic of its design slowly becomes apparent. I’ve had my Fujifilm X-E4 for over three months now – not that long, but longer, I’m sure, than some reviewers had. (To be fair, I have the luxury of not being reliant on ad revenue and having to constantly feed the YouTube algorithm – and in James, I have a very patient editor.) Anyhow, in those three months I’ve used the camera extensively – a couple of paid shoots (dance photography, see below), portrait sessions, on holiday and around town.

For me, the missing buttons and dials don’t make it any less convenient to use. Key to this is the fact that although there are fewer controls on the Fujifilm X-E4, they are intelligently designed and highly customisable.

For example, I mapped my AFL/AEL button to focus mode, so I don’t miss the physical focus select dial. Nor do I miss the view mode button, because the eye-sensor detects when I bring the camera up to my eye and automatically switches from LCD to EVF, and vice versa when I move it away (there is a menu option to override the eye-sensor if we want to use the EVF exclusively).

If there’s enough interest, I can write a more detailed article about how I set up my Fujifilm X-E4. But in short, after a few days spent exploring, customising and refining various controls, I can access the most-used features very quickly – more quickly than I can on my Nikon DSLR which I’ve been using for over ten years, and which has many more buttons and dials.

With fewer controls, my fingers can find them more easily and instinctively. This frees me up to concentrate on more important aspects of picture-taking, such as composition and timing. And it makes the camera look cleaner, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Of course, there are limits. A camera with just one button would be more minimalist still – but that really would be taking things too far (more on this in Paradox 4). The key is to strike the right balance, and with the X-E4, at least for my style of photography, Fuji has nailed it.

Paradox 3: It takes a lot to be minimalist

In a New York Times article, Kyle Chayka wrote, “It takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet.” Henry David Thoreau, an apostle of the simple life, spent two years living in a cabin beside Walden pond. In reality, as Kathryn Schulz pointed out, Thoreau’s life was not as ascetic or self-sufficient as it sounds. The cabin was a twenty-minute stroll from his family home; his mother and sister paid him weekly visits and brought him food.

Or, to pick an example from the world of tech, Apple relentlessly eliminates ports from their devices; their minimalist look belies the fact that they often need to be supplemented with an array of dongles, adapters and other accessories.

Similarly, the light-weight, diminutive size, and clean lines of the Fujifilm X-E4 come at a cost. Take the front and rear grips, for example, which the X-E3 had but the X-E4 does not. Personally, I like this change. I mostly use small prime lenses, and on balance, I prefer the size and weight savings – not to mention the cleaner look – that result from doing away with grips. But I do think that grips make a camera easier to hold, especially with bigger lenses, or if you have large hands. In that case, you would need to buy an accessory grip or thumb-rest, possibly both.

The same goes for the flash. The Fujifilm XE-2 had a built-in pop-up flash. The XE-3 did away with the built-in flash but included a detachable pop-up (the cute EF-X8). The XE-4 has no flash at all.

Again, the no-flash configuration suits me best. But as with grips, an external flash is yet another attachment. If you regularly use on-camera flash, a built-in flash like on the X-E2 would be a better, and arguably more minimalist choice. The X-E4 works for me because I don’t use flash that much, and when I do, I prefer to use one of my Godox flashes, as in the photos below.

Paradox 4: Minimalism versus simplicity

Minimal is not the same as simple. In fact, as design goals, the two can be in conflict.

Don Norman differentiates between perceived simplicity and operational simplicity. He gives the example of a TV remote with very few buttons. Such a remote may look simple and minimal (perceived simplicity), but if it requires complicated sequences of button pushes to get the desired result, operational simplicity is compromised.

In theory, wouldn’t we all love a simple camera. A camera with few controls, easy to master, which has exactly the features we need and nothing more. That’s the dream.

The reality is we all have different ideas on what those essential features are. Some want to blaze away at 20 frames per second, while others are happy to take one carefully-considered photo at a time. Some want auto-focus which can detect and track a bird in flight, while others like to use manual focus only. What are camera manufacturers to do? There are three basic strategies.

The first is the maximalist approach. Throw simplicity out of the window, pack the camera with as many features as possible, then pile on the buttons, dials and D-pads. You want features? I’ll give you features. You want custom buttons? Here, have half a dozen. Oh and a custom dial too, for good measure.

The second approach is the polar opposite. Toy cameras or Fuji Instax are extremely simple, but you compromise on quality and creative control.

What if you want simple but high-quality? The digital Leica M11 has no autofocus, no video, no EVF, no image-stabilisation. The Leica M-A is even simpler – a 35mm camera with no electronics whatsoever, not even a light-meter. The purity of conception is appealing in theory, but in practice, there are few photographers who would choose such a simple camera for daily use, and fewer still who can afford it.

So, these are cameras designed for a niche, exclusive clientele, and that’s reflected in the price tag. The M11 will set you back almost 9,000 US Dollars, body only. Which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon – an interior designer telling his client, “Of course, we can do spare and minimalist, but not on your budget.”

The third strategy is a compromise, and that’s what the Fujifilm X-E4 tries to achieve.

Architect Robert Venturi’s gentle manifesto argued for “the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.” In Living with Complexity, Don Norman says people always ask him, “Why is our technology so complex?” His answer: because life is complex. Good design, he says, “can help tame the complexity, not by making things less complex – for the complexity is required – but by managing the complexity.”

And that, precisely, is what Fujifilm does exceptionally well. The X-E4’s list of features can rival any modern digital camera; the manual runs to over 300 pages, which is not minimalist by any stretch. Nevertheless, its interface remains deceptively simple. With few buttons and dials, the camera scores high in the perceived simplicity stakes. At the same time, especially if you take the time to customise and familiarise yourself with the settings, it is operationally simple too.

As Ariel Diaz puts it, “Truly elegant solutions are the result of fighting through complexity.” The Fujifilm X-E4, in my book, is a truly elegant solution.

Paradox 5: Minimalism is a privilege

Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher, was a minimalist to end all minimalists. Some say he had only three worldly possessions, and one of them was a cup. One day he saw a child drinking with cupped hands, whereupon he threw away his cup saying, “That child has beaten me in simplicity.”

Once when Plato threw a banquet, Diogenes trampled on his rich carpets, proclaiming, “Thus do I trample on the empty pride of Plato.” To which Plato rejoined, “With quite as much pride yourself, O Diogenes.” Which goes to show that minimalists have been annoying the rest of humanity since at least the 4th century BC.

Why are minimalists so annoying? Diogenes’ behaviour offers some clues. The assumption that minimalism is a moral virtue, and that its adherents are somehow superior. That they know better than the rest. The condescension and general lack of self-awareness. All of which applies to many modern-day minimalists too.

At least Diogenes was frugal; in that respect, he undoubtedly walked the talk. But minimal doesn’t always equate to frugal; indeed, it’s sometimes the opposite. Kim Kadarshian’s family home, which she described as a “minimalist monastery” is a 60 million dollar mansion. Which reminds me of another New Yorker cartoon: “Only the rich can afford this much nothing.”

As Jenn Sutherland-Miller argues, minimalism – at least as practised by many minimalist bloggers and influencers – is a privilege. The buy-it-for-life movement is all very well, but not everyone can afford high-quality, durable products (the Vimes boots theory applies). Jia Tolentino reminds us that “poverty and trauma can make frivolous possessions seem like a lifeline rather than a burden.”

So while we admire a Scandinavian birch table or a Leica M-A – or even, for that matter, the much cheaper Fujifilm X-E4 – it’s worth remembering that these are luxuries which millions of people simply can’t afford. In fact, as a result of purchasing the Fujifilm X-E4, I now have two digital cameras instead of one, which is not very minimalist of me.

That said, minimalism has its merits. It offers an alternative, perhaps even a panacea, to rampant consumerism and its attendant environmental, social and psychological impacts. Granted, a camera is a commodity too. But if I’m going to use a camera, my preference is for one which is simple, well-designed and intuitive. It keeps me light on my feet, and more engaged with my surroundings.

Robert Venturi turned the less-is-more slogan on its head, asserting that “more is not less.” Photography is an art, and we all have our own way of engaging with it. For some, that might involve studio lights, backdrops and reflectors. For others, big lenses and tripods for astrophotography or wildlife. These are all valid approaches (more is not less). But my personal ideal was summed up by Marc Riboud, who made the iconic photo of a painter on the Eiffel Tower.

The year was 1953. Riboud was walking the streets of Paris on his first visit to the capital, with just his Leica, a 50mm lens and a single roll of film. He noticed the painters high above, climbed up the tower, and made several pictures, among which is that unforgettable image of Zazou dancing with his paintbrush. “I think photographers should behave like him,” said Riboud. “He was free and carried little equipment.”

Final thoughts

If you want to know more about the Fujifilm X-E4, Clayton D’Arnault wrote a great article about it. But on the off chance that your appetite for reading about this camera is still not quenched, I have a question.

I mentioned before that the Fujifilm X-E4 is cleverly designed and highly customisable. This is one of my favourite things about the camera, and I’m thinking about an article describing how I set it up – or rather, about how I am setting it up, because it’s an ongoing process of constant tweaking. So, would you be interested in such an article? Is there something in particular you’d like to read about? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do.

Given the topic – minimalism – it’s ironic that this is one of the longest photography articles I’ve written. The core ideas, however, are simple and few. Minimalism, in cameras or anything else, is inherently neither good nor bad. I personally find it appealing, but it’s not for everyone. For some, less is more, while for others, less is a bore.

Having said that, featuritis is real. If you want a relatively simple but high-quality camera (and are unable or unwilling to pay Leica prices), your options are limited. Camera manufacturers tend to cater to maximalists, and as you can see from the reviews I quoted earlier, making a camera simpler – as opposed to adding more features and controls – is bound to meet with pushback. Fuji deserves credit for their clarity and conviction, and for going against the flow. I hope the Fujifilm X-E4 is not the last of its line, and I’m curious to see what the X-E5 will be like.

Minimalism is also subjective. The Fujifilm X-E4 may be too minimal for some, and for others, not minimal enough. Ultimately, it comes down to your individual preferences and priorities. What do you need, and what can you do without? Graphic designer Milton Glaser said, “Less is not necessarily more (…) Just enough is more.” For me, the Fujifilm X-E4 is just enough.

(The sample photos in this article were shot with the Fujifilm X-E4 and four lenses: Samyang 12mm f/2 (manual focus), and the Fujinon 18mm f/2, 50mm f/2 and 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7. The gear photos were shot with a Nikon D5200. For more of my work, feel free to check out my website and Instagram.)

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