We recently returned from the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan, where we sat down with Kazunobu Saiki - General Manager of the Marketing Communication Department, in the Global Marketing Division of Ricoh Imaging. We spoke to Mr Saiki about Ricoh's forthcoming full-frame DSLR, the success of the 645Z and about his desire to improve AF performance in Pentax's DSLRs and lenses.

Kazunobu Saiki - General Manager of the Marketing Communication Department, in the Global Marketing Division of Ricoh Imaging. Pictured at CP+ 2015.

Let's start with the upcoming full-frame camera that you've announced. Is there anything more you can tell us on-record about the product?

The announcement includes only three details. Firstly, it will have a 35mm format full-frame sensor. Secondly, it can be used with our full assortment of interchangeable lenses with a crop [factor]. Thirdly, the product launch will be within the year 2015.  

One of the technologies that Ricoh was showing (although not in working form) at CP+ is a method of achieving full-color capture without interpolation, using a sensor-shift technique. By shifting the sensor in single-pixel increments, full-color capture is possible at each pixel site. This would likely only be suited to studio environments, and would not increase pixel count, but could be hugely attractive to some photographers.

Is this the 'something extra built-in' to the forthcoming full-frame DSLR? We suspect so.

To be frank, we cannot disclose any more information. We've had a lot of enquiries after revealing the mockup, and the majority of people are saying that it looks small, but some are saying that it looks a little big. This might imply that there's something extra built-in. We haven't mentioned anything. Needless to say, our Pentax users know our DNA - they know what the core elements of Pentax technology are. We believe that this new product will meet the expectations of our loyal users. 

What sort of users are you targeting with this camera? 

We are targeting our loyal customers. That's one of the reasons why we've clearly said that the camera will have a crop function. In the digital area many of our lenses have been optimized for APS-C imaging sensors, which is why when we announced the full-frame camera we wanted to ensure that our existing customers can use their [APS-C] lenses. 

How long have you been working on this upcoming camera?

About two years ago one of our top engineers confirmed that Pentax was studying development of full-frame. We had actually started this work earlier - about three years ago.  

This comes thirteen years after Pentax first announced a full-frame camera. Obviously Pentax as part of Ricoh Imaging is a different company now, but why has it taken so long to try again?

In that camera we were trying to use a full-frame sensor provided by Phillips, but we couldn't get it to deliver the required picture quality. That was thirteen years ago. Then our competitors started to deliver full-frame DSLRs, targeted at high-end users.

But within Pentax, we target that demographic with medium-format. With the 645D. That's why we gave more priority to digital medium format. Both the 645D and 645Z have been accepted by high-end amateurs and professionals. Now time has moved on, and companies like Canon are aiming full-frame at customers upgrading from APS-C. So that's why we wanted to get into the market [now].

Ricoh is being very cagey about its forthcoming full-frame DSLR, saying only that the new camera will offer a crop mode to maintain compatibility with lenses designed for APS-C, and that it will be released at some point later this year. 

Are you worried that it's a bit too late?

We don't think so. Ok, well we know that some of our valuable customers have already changed systems. So in that sense we're late for them, and we're sorry. But at the same time we believe that we have good loyal customers who are still waiting, and because of our new technologies we think we can attract customers from other systems too. 

Do you see your camera being useful for any particular shooting situations? Landscape, nature, studio…? 

Landscape is of course a traditional area for Pentax. So we do expect these users. But after the launch of the K-3, a lot of customers who shoot fast-moving subjects started to use the Pentax system. So in our full-frame camera we want to support both of these [types of users]. But as a brand, we see a lot of value to nature and landscape photographers. 

When we tested the K-3 we found that often the autofocus speed was limited by the speed of the lenses used. Is that something you're working on improving?

Yes. As your tests suggest, some of our lenses cannot keep up with the cameras for AF tracking to a certain extent. But we have just announced two new lenses in our lineup - a 150-450mm and a 70-200mm. These cover a full-frame imaging circle and they incorporate DC motors which will help with AF tracking speed. So we have a solution in our new interchangeable lenses. 

The other limitation we found was that the K-3's AF points are quite central to the frame. Is that something you're also working on improving?

That is one of the topics that our engineers are seriously considering. From a full-frame point of view, having AF points wider is better. But at the same time, users of our existing interchangeable lenses, which are optimized for APS-C, if the AF array is wider, AF accuracy might be traded off. 

This image (supplied by Ricoh) shows the Pentax K-3's AF system. As you can see, the AF coverage is relatively small, and the camera's cross-type AF sensors are limited to the central area of the frame. 

Which demographic is more important to you right now - beginners or enthusiasts and pros?

We have two DSLR lines. We call them the 'core' line and 'innovation' line. The core line is represented by the K-3. Good cameras which can be active in the field. These ones target high amateurs. We also have the K-S1 and K-S2, which are categorized as being part of the 'innovation' line.

They have all the Pentax DNA, like weatherproofing and so on but they have a new user interface. We want to get a wider range of customers with these cameras. We don't say 'beginners' but we want to attract people who are stepping up maybe from smartphones and want to get better pictures. 

What is the main challenge of attracting these new users?

It's very difficult. One important thing is compactness, also toughness, and we follow trends, like the trends for selfies. On the K-S2 for example with the screen folded out towards you the WiFi button can act as a shutter button. Also WiFi with NFC to satisfy smartphone users. So in these ways we're trying to make our target audience broader. 

The K-S2 sits above the K-S1 in Ricoh's 'innovation' DSLR line, and offers a flip-out LCD screen, 'selfie' shutter trigger option and built-in WiFi with NFC. 

The Pentax K-mount is very deep, comparatively. Is there room for a large sensor mirrorless camera in your lineup? 

Mirrorless has an advantage in terms of compactness, but a mirrorless K-mount camera could not use existing lenses. The mount could be the same but the lens designs should be different. So that's not good for existing Pentax users. That's one point. The other thing is heat. Because the sensor is always on, it generates heat. So with current technology we believe the time is not right for us to make a large sensor mirrorless camera. 

Who is mainly buying the 645Z? Has its success surprised you?

Yes. From launching the 645Z until now, our capacity has not been able to keep up with demand. It was a really nice surprise. Of course for studio and landscape photography a lot of professional photographers have really taken to the product. In some countries, like the USA and China, wedding photographers have become the next audience to target, too because they want the highest quality.

The Pentax 645Z has proven very popular with enthusiasts and professional photographers, thanks to its excellent image quality and relatively affordable price compared to most medium-format digital platforms. 

A big surprise is that we have two stores in Tokyo, which are galleries, and also repair shops. We sell our products there too, but at full price - with no discounts. And surprisingly, every week, someone comes in with a lot of cash to buy the 645Z. These customers are enthusiastic photographers, and they're wealthy. They want to buy something different. In some countries - yesterday I spoke to our marketing guys in India for example  - they're selling numbers that they never expected, and some of the demand comes from professionals, but some comes from people who want to look like professionals. It used to be full-frame [that they wanted] but now they want medium format. 

What kind of lenses do you want to focus on, in the 645 system?

The roadmap for 2015 and later has already been announced - we're going to release a wide zoom, and a telephoto zoom. And we'll continue to develop the lenses, because we're selling more of them than we expected, too. 

How has the experience of developing and marketing the 645Z influenced the process of creating the forthcoming full-frame DSLR? 

After the launch of the 645Z, because of the widened user base, we did a lot of studies, especially on the needs of studio photographers, who are one of the main users of that camera. So all of our experience marketing the 645Z has been beneficial for marketing the full-frame product as well. One of the biggest themes after a long study of 645Z users is 'picture quality first'.

What do you think is the next major innovation in imaging technology?

When we observe our customers, most of the change is not at the time of shooting but at the point of image review. One of our answers is the Theta - challenging the concept of what it means to view an image. The way that images are viewed and shared has changed a lot.

Editor's note:

We had hoped that Mr Saiki would open up a little about his company's planned full-frame DSLR in our meeting at CP+ but it was not to be. Beyond some vague hints about technologies being displayed at the show (full-color capture via multiple pixel-shifted exposures being the most interesting) he gave away nothing that we didn't already know. And that's not much. Our guess is that the new camera will feature a 24MP or (more likely) a 36MP Sony sensor, possibly minus an AA filter (assuming Ricoh can introduce its sensor-shift AA filter simulation). His hint at 'something extra built-in' most likely refers to some sort of sensor-shifting.

Beyond that - and the existence of an APS-C crop shooting mode - we're just speculating. But it's always good to hear a company representative stressing 'image quality first' over features for features' sake. 

Of some interest too is who the camera is for. Mr Saiki was frank about the fact that this camera is aimed mainly at Pentax loyalists, while expressing regret about the fact that many have already invested in other full-frame systems from rival manufacturers. It's possible that Ricoh is also anticipating interest from Pentax users who bought into the brand via the popular 645Z. A lower-cost full-frame DSLR with a sensor approaching the same resolution as the 645Z that can accept 645 lenses (via an adapter, and with a crop factor) might well prove appealing to a certain constituency of these users.

As far as the rest of Ricoh's DSLR line is concerned, Mr Saiki had some welcome words of reassurance for K-series loyalists. The autofocus performance of the new 70-200mm and 150-400mm zooms does seem very impressive (albeit from our limited hands-on time at the show) and it's clear that the company is listening to its users in this respect. It's also good to see a shift away from the company's somewhat unreliable SWD AF motors and towards DC motors in these new zooms. 

As far as mirrorless is concerned, the future is unclear. Mr Saiki's description of the technical challenges of mirrorless don't quite ring true. The fact is that if Ricoh wants to make a large-sensor mirrorless interchangeable lens camera it probably needs to start from scratch with a new lensmount. The K-mount is just too deep to really be suitable, as anyone who ever shot with the bulky K-01 will appreciate. Mr Saiki is too careful to say it, but we suspect that right now, Ricoh is simply prioritising the development of its existing lensmounts ahead of expensively creating new ones.

Note: This interview contained a mixture of on and off-record disclosures. As such, both questions and responses have been edited for clarity and readability where necessary.