We recently returned from the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan. When we were there we sat down with executives from most of the major camera and lens manufacturers to get their insights and opinions on the challenges facing their companies and the market as a whole. One of them was Toshihisa Iida, Senior Manager Sales & Marketing at Fujifilm's Optical Device & Electronic Imaging products division. 

Toshihisa Iida, Senior Manager Sales & Marketing, Optical Device & Electronic Imaging products division, Fujifilm. Pictured at the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan. 

Last time we spoke you told us that you were very aware of the need for higher resolution in the X-series lineup. Has anything changed since then?

We still have the same objective, and our R&D team is working very hard to meet this demand. We will go to a higher megapixel [sensor] at some point. It’s on the way.

If you do increase the pixel count, does that make using the X-Trans filter array less important?

No - X-Trans is still very important to maximize resolution. We think that our 16MP X-Trans sensor delivers a higher effective resolution than conventional Bayer 16MP sensors so if we do go to higher pixel counts we expect the same thing. 

How do you see the X-series evolving in the next 2-3 years?

In many ways. There are many things we have to do. Of course we need to increase resolution. We’ve designed lenses which are capable of coping with higher resolution sensors, so our lenses are currently waiting for higher resolution sensors and processors. And of course focusing is a challenge - we need a faster focusing system. And also movie quality. This is one of the criticisms of the X-series and we need to solve this issue.

How will you solve the problem of poor movie quality? The amount of moiré seems to be an issue specific to X-Trans. 

The sensor needs to be upgraded. High-speed readout is the key. 

Do you think Fujifilm will ever be a major player in video? Do you think you’d ever make a camera like the Sony Alpha a7S, for example?

Not in the near future. We’re still focused on still photography as our primary target. But outside of cameras we’re currently one of the biggest suppliers of lenses for cinematography. 

You’ve just announced the X-A2, but do you see the X-series now primarily as a high-end system?

More high-end than low-end, certainly, but we can’t ignore customer demand. Even high-end customers sometimes need another body, another lighter body and we listen to what they want. So we want to compete at both the low and high-end but of course our main focus is high-end.

Fujifilm's X-A2 is the entry-level model in the X-series, aimed at first-time buyers and photographers on a budget. Unlike its more expensive X-series siblings, the sensor in the X-A2 features a conventional bayer-pattern array, rather than the company's proprietary X-Trans design. 

The X-A2 uses a conventional Bayer-pattern filter array, but it’s basically the same sensor as that used in your X-Trans models, is that correct?

Basically yes - it’s the same sensor.

Is that purely for reasons of cost? Or are you aiming that sensor at lower-end consumers for other reasons?

Of course cost is important but overall the resolution of that Bayer sensor, its signal to noise ratio and autofocus performance are probably ideal for this type of camera. Most of the customers are pretty happy. 

But it’s less expensive for you?

Yes, sure. 

Looking ahead to the cameras that will replace the X-T1 at the top of the X-series lineup, what is the biggest thing you want to improve?

The key challenge is how to improve autofocus. 

At CP+ Fujifilm showed us prototypes of several new lenses including a very attractive 35mm F2, which the company claims should offer significantly faster autofocus performance compared to the older 35mm F1.4, which had a lot of glass to move.

What competitive cameras do you use as your benchmark for performance?

Digital SLRs. Mid-range and high-end DSLRs like Canon’s EOS 7D Mark II, for example. Canon did a good job with that camera. And as we move into the telephoto lens area for wildlife photography and so on, those customers definitely need a better autofocus system. Just introducing a telephoto zoom is not a solution. Focus accuracy and speed has to be there. 

Right now you use both contrast and on-sensor phase-detection autofocus. Do you think eventually you’ll be able to use solely on-sensor phase-detection technology?

Eventually yes, that would be ideal. But that’s still a long way off. On-sensor phase-detection pixels stop working in low light, and if you add more of them that can start to affect overall image quality, so it’s always a tradeoff. 

If you had to guess, how many years will it be before the DSLR has no technical advantages over mirrorless?

Thinking about the current advantages of DSLRs there’s focusing speed, lens lineup, overall responsiveness… I’d say maybe two or three years time.

The X-T1 has been on sale for a year now. Do you get the sense that it’s mostly being bought by existing X-series camera owners?

No, I think we’ve definitely captured a new customer base. We have a showroom in Tokyo, and we see a lot of customers coming in with DSLR gear wanting to change systems. We’ve definitely captured new customers.

Announced at CP+ 2014, The X-T1 is Fujifilm's flagship X-series mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, and a runner-up in our 2014 readers' choice awards

What is the main feedback you’ve received on the X-T1 from your customers?

Three positive things - firstly it sits within a good lens lineup. When we introduced the X-T1 we also introduced the 56mm F1.2 and 10-24mm, which convinced customers about the system. Also good color, and finally portability. Those three factors are top of the list. Plus of course the viewfinder. More critically, customers want us to improve operation, in terms of button layout and so on, autofocus performance and movie image quality. 

If you could go back to the beginning of the X-system, knowing everything that’s happened in the industry since then, is there anything you’d do differently?

I would say that more than 90% of what we did was correct. Starting at the high-end and designing our own new lens mount, with a short flange-back distance. I think our lens roadmap was correct, but I think we could have done better at autofocus. That’s the one thing I think. But we’re catching up.

One thing that Fujifilm used to be known for in the days of film was relatively compact, medium format cameras. Do you think there’s an opportunity for you in medium format digital?

Our R&D department are continuing their research, and we’re not ignoring opportunities in large format. At the moment we’re focusing on APS-C because we’re heavily committed to the lens roadmap, and there a lot of things we need to do, such as develop higher-resolution APS-C sensors and more powerful processors, and that’s a major project. But in the future I continue to say that we don’t deny there are opportunities in medium format. A lot of customers want us to challenge in that space.

In theory, the X-Trans sensor should be well-suited to native monochrome capture. The only company we’ve seen really doing this is Leica. Do you think there’s an opportunity there for Fujifilm? Is there room for a camera like that?

Technically of course it’s possible but it depends on the demand, and such a camera would probably match perfectly to some of our core customers. And we’re promoting black and white capture via our film simulation modes. So I think a monochrome model might represent a sales opportunity for Fujifilm.

Would you buy one if you made one?

I am a big fan of monochrome photography. My background is film cameras. When I was 13 years old my father gave me my first film SLR and I used monochrome film. I cut the film myself in the darkroom at my high school. I have a lot of nostalgia for film, so yes - if the camera was affordable I would buy it. 

We’ve talked about this in the past, but in 2015 how much does Fujifilm’s legacy in film influence the design of your digital cameras? 

It’s a big influence. At our R&D center we have a lot of former film engineers working on our film simulation modes. Those engineers who know most about film are the final stamp on those modes for quality assurance. They’re a big influence on modes like Classic Chrome for instance. The knowledge that we employ when designing the color response of our cameras comes from film. 

So do you use actual colorimetric science and measurements in the development of film modes, or is it just subjective?

Both.

How do you feel about the camera market as a whole, now that more companies have started to develop high-end mirrorless cameras? Are you still frustrated that the two biggest camera manufacturers are still sticking with DSLRs?

No, I’m less concerned now. There are a lot of good mirrorless cameras out there now so the perception of customers towards mirrorless cameras is changing. And mirrorless cameras are finally taking off in the west. This is great news for the industry. Last year we saw more than 40% growth in this product segment in terms of value and that’s good for the whole industry. 

Are there any particular competitive cameras in the market that you really admire?

One of the most interesting cameras in the past six months or so was the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Historically Canon keeps its high-speed cameras at the top-end, in their professional cameras, but with the 7D II they’ve moved those features down into APS-C. So they see an opportunity in that format. The focusing system is really good.

Olympus is also doing a good job with the OM-D lineup, and their lenses are very good. In terms of movies, the Sony Alpha a7S. And for focusing, the Sony a6000 is impressive. The wild-card of course is Samsung’s NX1. It’s very bold and the focus system is very interesting. 


Editor's note:

As usual, Mr Iida is open and honest about his company's challenges, opportunities and about the competition from other manufacturers. Probably the most important takeaway from this interview is that Fujifilm is clearly very intent on improving the X-series in three main ways.

Firstly, resolution. Mr Iida stated multiple times that Fujifilm intends to increase the pixel count of the sensors in its mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (and by extension the X100-series too). He is right that the 16MP X-Trans sensors in the X-T1, X100T and X-E2 punch above their weight in terms of effective resolution compared to conventional bayer-pattern designs, but the latest 24MP sensors from Sony, not to mention the 28MP sensor in Samsung's NX1 have set a high bar for APS-C. 

Secondly, it's clear that Fujifilm is very aware that its current X-Trans sensors aren't competitive when it comes to video capture. As the X-series gains traction with a wider customer base this is likely to become more of a problem for the company. Reading between the lines, we'd expect this to be improved - if not totally fixed - in whatever future high-resolution sensor Fujifilm is working on. Mr Iida is insistent that the problem is not intrinsically related to the X-Trans filter array, but assuming that Fujifilm sticks with this sensor design (as seems likely) we'll have to wait and see about that. 

Thirdly, it looks like Fujifilm is very serious about improving AF performance. As Mr Iida told us, 'just introducing a telephoto zoom is not a solution'. Professional-level users expect DSLR-like autofocus, and it's encouraging to see that Fujifilm is aspiring to match cameras like Canon's EOS 7D Mark II in this regard.