Interview – Fujifilm: “We are not just a camera company, we are an imaging company”
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Interview – Fujifilm: “We are not just a camera company, we are an imaging company”

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Staff of Fujifilm’s Optical Device & Electronic Imaging Products Division, pictured (clockwise from top left): Jun Watanabe, Product Planning Manager, Makoto Oishi, Product Planning Manager, Masato ‘Mark’ Yamamoto, General Manager and Shinichiro ‘Shin’ Udono, Senior Manager.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to make international travel impossible (or at least inadvisable) we’re beginning 2021 with a series of interviews conducted remotely. This week, we sat down (virtually) with senior executives of Fujifilm, to learn more about the development of the new GFX 100S, plans for future lenses and what kind of a company they want Fujifilm to be.

What customer did you have in mind for the GFX 100S?

[Makoto Oishi] The [original] GFX 100 is our flagship camera for professional photographers, because it has the integrated battery grip and twin batteries, and accessories like the tilting EVF. But we wanted the GFX 100S to appeal to a wider range of users. So not only professionals, but also advanced amateurs, who are used to 35mm and full-frame SLRs.

The GFX 100S is your second medium format camera with IBIS. How were you able to reduce the size and weight of that mechanism?

[Shinichiro Udono] When we started planning the original GFX 100, we decided from the beginning that it would have that form factor, with the vertical grip. So we had room [inside the camera], and we decided that durability would be a priority. With the 100S, from the beginning we decided that it should be almost the same size as a full-frame camera. That was our target, so then we redesigned all of the internal components – not just the IBIS unit – and we optimized the internal layout of those components

[M.O.] The layout of the internal components is very important. So for example in the GFX 100S we could put the battery in the grip. That’s a critical point in the design. The width of the shutter was [also] a key component, to keep the camera small. And also the new [smaller] battery. In the two years since we developed the original GFX 100, of course new technologies have been developed, but the differences aren’t actually that big.

Aside from the components and the internal layout, are there any construction or build quality differences between the GFX 100 and the new GFX 100S?

[M.O.] Both cameras meet and surpass our quality assurance standards, of course, but the GFX 100 was designed for ultimate ruggedness. The GFX 100 has an inner chassis, for example, for strength. So it’s better able to withstand external shock.

Why did you decide not to offer a vertical grip option for the GFX 100S?

[M.O.] Because we have the GFX 100 [already].

The new GFX 100S offers a lot of the same functionality as the flagship GFX 100S, but without that model’s extreme ruggedness (or vertical controls).

What was the most important, or most consistent feedback you received from owners of the original GFX 100?

[M.O.] All of them loved the image quality, and thought the resolution was amazing. And the new sensor gave better performance, for example for face detection. But a lot of users wanted a smaller, lighter body, and a lower price. Those were the main demands, so we developed the GFX 100S for a wider base of customers, especially DSLR users who needed easier operation. That’s why we included a mode dial on the GFX 100S.

Will IBIS become standard in future across the GFX range?

[M.O.] That will depend on body size and design [constraints] of course, but yes, especially for 100MP imaging, I think IBIS is required in order to maintain image quality.

Where are the gaps in the GF lens lineup, and what are your priorities for expanding the lineup in future?

[M.O.] Our GF lenses currently cover from 23mm to 350mm (the GF 250mm with a 1.4X TC) which is a good focal length range. But we’re continuing to develop some of the ‘missing’ focal lengths, and lenses with unique features.

[S.U.] We’ve received a lot of requests for wider prime lenses, and also tilt/shift lenses. And a wide [angle] zoom lens. Those are typical kinds of requests we’re getting from our GF customers.

[M.O.] Many of our GF users like to shoot landscapes, and they like to use wider focal lengths. We also have a lot of architecture photographers, and they’re requesting tilt/shift lenses. We’re studying [these requests].

Which of those types of lenses is your biggest priority?

[M.O.] We [still] have to discuss that!

Shinichiro ‘Shin’ Udono, Senior Manager of Fujifilm’s Optical Device & Electronic Imaging Products Division.

What are your priorities for new lenses in the APS-C X-series line?

[S.U.] In terms of focal lengths, we’re missing super telephoto. The maximum focal length now is 400mm. So we’re missing 500mm, 600mm [etc.]. And because we started the system almost ten years ago, the first generation lenses have slow autofocus, and don’t have weather-resistance. We need to refresh those designs.

The X100V was released almost exactly a year ago – how has it performed in the market?

[M.O.] I think you want a GFX 100V! [Editor’s note: I definitely do]. Sales of the X100V are almost at the same volume as the previous model, even despite the situation with COVID-19. We think that there’s been an increase in demand for lifestyle-type shooting, from people staying at home.

What kind of response have you had from X-T4 customers?

[Jun Watanabe] Generally speaking, the X-T4 has been a success in the market, not only in terms of image quality but also new features like in-body stabilization, the new battery and the more powerful shutter. The video performance has also been well accepted as a good balance between performance and price. We’ve also made good progress with autofocus performance, face and eye detection, and tracking. But some sports photographers have requested greater autofocus performance.

How are you planning to improve autofocus performance?

[J.W.] We will keep on improving performance, and some improvements will come through firmware, and some through hardware. Face and eye detection works well, even when people are wearing glasses, and masks. But we have to improve things like tracking in distance.

[S.U.] The speed of the autofocus mechanisms is acceptable, but we recognize that some details are missing in the AF algorithm, in tracking. When you’re tracking a subject and something comes between the camera and subject, sometimes you might lose focus. So we have to improve the algorithm, and we’re working on that. Also some of our lenses are ten years old, and they slow down autofocus.

Sometimes it’s a matter of photographer preference. Some people love a system that moves very quickly onto a new subject, but some photographers prefer a system that sticks to the original subject. We really need to have more discussions with photographers, and offer them some options. If possible we’ll make improvements via firmware.

The multipurpose X-T4 offers a well-developed set of video features, but executives have hinted that there may be room in Fujifilm’s lineup in future for a dedicated video model.

The X-T4 is quite a powerful video camera, but a lot of the people buying it will probably be mostly shooting stills. Is it possible to satisfy both needs in one product, or is there an opportunity for a dedicated video camera in the X-series range?

[S.U.] The X-T4 reaches a high level of image quality already for video shooting. But thinking of video shooters versus stills photographers, the form factor requirements are different. The X-T4 is designed more for stills shooting. For example the screen. Videographers really like fully-articulating LCD screens, but some stills photographers don’t. If we really wanted to chase videographers, we’d need to think about a different form factor.

We’re always studying [solutions like this] but we have to think about things like market size, the number of users, things like that. But we have received such requests from videographers who are currently using the X-T4.

[J.W.] The X-T4 is one possible answer [though], because of things like the totally independent stills and movie menus, and the articulating LCD.

Now that sensor technology has developed so much, is Fujifilm interested in developing computational imaging features in future cameras?

[S.U.] That is not an easy question to answer! In terms of technology, if the sensor speed and processing speed are both very fast, then you can do a lot of things. We’re always thinking about the next generation, even four or five years ahead. So in future, probably, those kinds of features will be technically possible. But how to integrate that kind of technology into our camera system is a harder question. We really have to think about what our customers want, and what will benefit them.

We are very interested though, and we’re always researching. Our Photo Imaging Division creates Instax cameras, and maybe [computational photography] technology could be applied to a more consumer-level system [like that].

As pixel counts get higher, is there still a benefit to X-Trans?

[M.O.] Even with higher resolutions, X-Trans still works better. Thanks to this technology, our cameras don’t have moiré or false color. It’s very effective. But it does depend on the kind of sensor. For example our medium format 100MP sensor resolves 99% of subjects, so there’s no moiré or false color, so no need for X-Trans. That’s why GFX doesn’t have X-Trans but our X-series, with 26MP, still needs it.

Masato ‘Mark’ Yamamoto, a 35-year veteran of Fujifilm, holds the position of General Manager of the company’s Optical Device & Electronic Imaging Products Division.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your product planning and general strategy?

[Masato Yamamoto] In general, the business impact caused by COVID was fairly temporary. Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, obviously we didn’t know what was going to happen, but the impact was less than we expected. However, at the same time, the pandemic created a shift in customer behavior. We saw less demand for products under $1,000, but greater demand for our high-end and GFX cameras.

This trend has accelerated [during the pandemic]. So we’ve applied ourselves to monitoring these trends and listening to feedback from our customers, and we’re confident that our strategy is working. We’re focused on the high end, and we’ll continue listening to those customers.

Did you have to make any changes to your planning or strategy?

[M.Y.] Not really, but with people being at home, for example, we have seen demands for better movie [features]. Online communication is becoming more popular, so we have to consider these kinds of demands in addition to our existing strategy. Maybe we will make some tweaks, some [small] changes of direction, but we’re confident that we can continue with our existing strategy in the future.

What is the biggest challenge facing Fujifilm as a camera manufacturer in 2021?

[M.Y.] Well, not only in 2021! Development is always very challenging. We’ve discussed image stabilization technology, but also design, making our interfaces more easy to use. Developing things like that and making breakthroughs, and innovating, it’s always challenging. But at the same time it’s an opportunity to change the world.

Our biggest point of differentiation is color reproduction, thanks to our film simulations. So on the marketing side, one of the biggest challenges is how to let customers know about how Fujifilm’s image quality is different to our competitors. And also explaining the benefits of [larger formats] to them. But with the GFX 100S, by providing a compact camera with good features, and easy to use design at a lower price-point, we think it’ll open a door to a lot of customers. We’ve already had a lot of pre-orders. It’s a good sign. People are appreciating the benefits of this larger format, and it’s really opening up the market for many users. Full-frame is not the only format.

The X100V was launched at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to Fujifilm executives has sold well – partly thanks to an increase of interest in home-based ‘lifestyle’ photography by photographers unable to travel.

In the long term, do you want your GFX and GF camera and lens system to be competitive with full-frame products, on price?

[M.Y.] We’re always thinking about how to give customers more opportunities to experience our products. So price is one of the factors, but not the only one. There’s also features, size, ease of use. All of those things together give us new opportunities to meet new customers.

[S.U.] Price is very, very important, but it’s not the top priority in the GFX system. Of course we recognize that if we matched our prices to full-frame, probably the demand for our products would be greater. But to achieve high quality we need things like a more accurate IBIS unit, bigger shutter and bigger sensors. These things all cost more [than they would for full-frame]. So in order to maintain quality in our GFX line, the price needs to be probably a little higher than full-frame, but in order to stimulate demand in the market, we do try to minimize that gap. That’s our strategy.

Yamamoto-san, you’ve been in your new role at Fujifilm for relatively little time – how are you hoping to imprint your vision on the camera division?

[M.Y.] The camera division is a very important part of Fujifilm. Photography and imaging is our core business, and it’s where the power of our brand comes from. We think a lot about how to expand the world of photography to everybody. We are committed to continuing this work, and making sure that our camera business continues to flourish and be successful. This is our responsibility.

Imaging is a very powerful medium, and I’m proud to know that our cameras and our imaging systems have been used to immortalize some of the most powerful moments in history. We want to continue to make digital cameras and imaging systems that inspire photographers to create images that tell and share many stories. We are not just a camera company, we are an imaging company. My vision is to help to pull all of those efforts, and put all of those assets together to enable us to show our value to all kinds of users from professionals to amateurs.

And there are opportunities. For example people who have started taking photographs on their smartphones, and are shooting in every moment, they understand the value and the power of photographs and sharing moments. We need to make more effort to share our products and our solutions [with those people].

How do you intend to attract those kinds of new customers?

[M.Y.] We have many things. We’ve always provided attractive products in our X-series, like our recent X-S10. It’s very compact, very powerful and easy to use, and for people who started shooting with a smartphone, it’s small, easy to use, and it’s a very good step-up product. We also have the Instax system, which has been a big hit, we reached annual sales of 10 million cameras in 2018, so that’s a big base of potential Fujifilm fans who might buy our X-series cameras. Our overall promotional strategy is to reach everyone – including those younger customers.

Editor’s note: Barnaby Britton

This was my first conversation with Mr. Yamamoto, a 30+ year veteran of Fujifilm, who has only been in his current position for a few months. He joins a well-established team of engineers and executives, and has taken over the management of two (arguably three, if the X100-series is to be considered separately) equally well-established product lines. The company’s latest medium-format camera, the GFX 100S, puts large-sensor imaging within reach of many enthusiasts, at an MSRP comparable to that of pro DSLRs. On paper, the GFX 100S is a more compelling product in many ways even than the flagship GFX 100, but it is interesting to hear from Mr. Oishi exactly where the internal differences lie. In short: If you want the ultimate in durability, save up for a GFX 100. For everything else, the GFX 100S will likely be a better option (unless you need a vertical grip!)

Fujifilm’s identity as a modern digital camera manufacturer was formed roughly a decade ago with the original X100. Since then, the company has launched two mirrorless interchangeable lens mounts, and developed a range of lenses for both APS-C and medium-format. Mr. Yamamoto clearly sees Fujifilm holistically as an ‘imaging’ company rather than just a camera maker, and of course he’s right that no other company in the industry has the same depth of experience in imaging, going right back to the days when Fujifilm was one of the leading names in film. This isn’t just the standard senior executive’s expression of pride in his company’s legacy: Fujifilm’s color science (most obviously manifested in its film simulation profiles) is a major selling point of the company’s products in today’s market.

Fujifilm has been developing digital cameras since the 80s, but the X mount isn’t even yet in its teens. It’s almost comic, therefore, to hear Fujifilm executives referring to any of its current line of XF products as ‘old’. However, the fact that – as Mr Udono admits – first-generation XF lenses are now holding back the autofocus performance of its current flagship cameras, demonstrates how far Fujifilm has come in that time.

There is still room for improvement, though. Alongside the strong hint that updated version of those original XF primes are coming was a clear commitment from Fujifilm executives to improve autofocus performance in the flagship X-T4 via firmware, with hardware improvements being considered in the future. Mr. Udono also hinted at longer lenses coming for XF in future, which in combination with improvements to AF might help consolidate the company’s reputation with sports and action photographers.

As for videographers, reading between the lines of responses to our questions in this interview, it seems as if a dedicated video camera using the XF mount is at least being considered, alongside the multipurpose X-T4. It’s interesting to consider exactly what a camera of this type might look like, since as Mr. Udono says, the form factor requirements may be different.

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