Photo: Dan Bracaglia

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been an unpredictable year, so it seems appropriate that my gear of the year is a camera I wouldn’t have predicted a few months ago: the Fujifilm X-Pro3.

But first, a bit of context.

Some of my earliest photography was done with a hand-me-down rangefinder camera, a Kodak Retina IIc. I loved the experience of shooting it and still remember exactly how it felt in my hands. I even remember how it smelled, no doubt the result of the grease used to lubricate gears, something you don’t get from digital cameras today.

However, as much as I love rangefinders, I’ve never had a natural knack for focusing them. I can do it, but it's not my superpower. To this day, I have tremendous respect for photographers who can quickly and accurately focus a rangefinder.

Mt. Jefferson in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. Velvia film profile, processed in-camera.

ISO 160 | 1/250 sec | F2.0 | XF 18mm F2 R

That's a roundabout way of explaining why I mostly shot with SLRs for so many years and never lusted after a Leica.

This is where Fujifilm comes into the story, but maybe not in the way you’d expect. You see, I was never so much a fan of the X-Pro series, which always seemed big and chunky, but rather of the fixed-lens X100. I didn’t need one, but from the day I first used an X100 in person, I wanted one. Badly. It was sexy, compact, and provided a shooting experience similar to a rangefinder, but with autofocus. Eventually, I broke down and bought the X100T, and it remains my most-used camera to this day.

With that in mind, I suppose it seems odd that I picked the X-Pro3 as my gear of the year instead of the X100V, so I should probably get around to explaining that.

Pre-pandemic family gatherings. Acros film profile, processed in-camera.

ISO 5000 | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | XF 23mm F2 R WR

It turns out the thing that made me enjoy the X-Pro3 most was the exact thing I expected to dislike about it: the inverted rear screen, which is undoubtedly the most polarizing feature of the camera. Unlike most cameras, the X-Pro3’s screen folds inward and remains hidden until deliberately folded out. There's an extra step required to access menus or, more importantly, to chimp images.

I trained myself years ago not to 'chimp' images on the back of a camera when doing work for clients; I didn’t think it conveyed professionalism or confidence. When shooting for fun, however, I’m like most people. I like to see my photos right away. Because instant gratification.

With the X-Pro3, I shoot differently. Nothing actually prevents me from flipping open the screen to look at my images, but a glance at the back of the camera reminds me that that’s not what this camera is about. The thought of flipping open that screen feels like cheating, so I don’t.

Cowboy country. Astia film profile, processed in-camera.

ISO 320 | 1/170 sec | F6.4 | XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS

It’s a subtle shift in mindset, but one that I’m really enjoying. I find myself having more of those zen moments where it’s just me, the camera and my subject. By removing the temptation even to look, I’m spending more time taking in what’s around me, looking through the viewfinder, and just enjoying the journey. I can look at the photos later.

I’m starting to fully realize how the presence of a screen impacts the way I shoot a digital camera, and I’m beginning to appreciate why someone might spring for a model like the Leica M10-D, which has no screen at all.

The only area where I feel let down by the X-Pro3 is its hybrid optical viewfinder, which is a core part of the camera's experience. Viewfinders on previous X-Pro models had a magnifier that would engage depending on the attached lens's focal length, allowing the user to view frame lines for a pretty wide variety of lenses.

Home on the range. Astia film profile, processed in Adobe Lightroom.

ISO 160 | 1/2000 sec | F2.8 | XF 23mm F2 R WR

That’s missing on the X-Pro3. You can’t see frame lines for lenses wider than 23mm (equivalent to 35mm), which I notice when shooting Fujifilm’s 18mm F2, though fortunately, that lens's field of view pretty closely matches the viewfinder itself. The EVF is very usable, and I’ll switch over to it at times, but it takes away some of the magic.

Many people pigeon-hole the X-Pro3 as a camera for street photography only, which is unfortunate because it’s really quite versatile. I’m definitely not a street photographer, yet to my delight, I found it to be an incredibly satisfying camera.

A lot of unexpected things happened this year, and not all of them were bad. I got to know my family better, even over FaceTime, I spent more time with my pets, and I caught up on projects that have languished for years. I also discovered a camera that brings me joy and reminds me of why I started taking pictures in the first place. That feels like a pretty good way to start 2021.