Interview: Fujifilm talks GFX, X100F and getting serious about video
|Makoto Oishi, Billy Luong and Yuji Igarashi from Fujifilm|
Following the launch of the GFX 50S, the X100F and the X-T20, we spoke to Fujifilm executives about their models, their ambitions and what we might be able to expect in the future in terms of medium format, the XE range and video.
We spoke to Makoto Oishi, manager of Fujifilm’s Sales and Marketing Group, Optical Device and Electronic Imaging Products division, Yuji Igarashi, general manager of Fujifilm's Electronic Imaging Division, and Billy Luong, Manager for the Technical Marketing and Product Specialist Group. They answered our burning questions as best they could: Will the GFX series gain phase detection AF? Will it ever have a fixed lens model? How is the X-E series faring?
GFX 50S: who is it for, and what's next?
As you’d expect, we started by discussing the GFX 50S and who it’s for. ‘Fashion, commercial and landscape photographers are the main targets,’ says Oishi. ‘And especially when it comes to landscape, it’s not just professional photographers, but also amateur photographers.’
‘The tonality and dynamic range also mean it’ll appeal to wedding photographers,’ adds Luong. 'And architecture,' says Oishi: 'But you can see from the weather sealing that we want landscape and outdoor photographers to feel confident using this camera.’
Consequently, these users groups will direct which lenses the company creates for the system. ‘We’ve already announced our first six lenses but we’re thinking about what comes next,’ says Oishi: ‘We have some ideas but haven’t decided yet. For example maybe a wide-angle zoom for landscape photographers or maybe something like a 200 or 250mm and so on. We want more feedback from users about what to make next.’
Image quality and autofocus
In the early days of the X-mount system, the company said it had chosen to prioritize image quality even if it that meant using a design with slightly slower focus. This compromise wasn’t necessary with the GFX, Oishi says: ‘The first priority must be image quality, of course. After our experience with the X-series we’ve developed a series of technologies in lens design as well as autofocus motors.'
|The GFX 50S is designed to be relatively small and swap easily from being a studio camera to a field camera. The 50mm-equivalent 63mm F2.8 lens focuses pretty quickly despite the absence of phase-detection elements or a linear motor to drive focus.|
'Some of the first [GF] lenses have linear motors, whereas the 63mm has a different motor, more like the one used in the 23mm F2. The autofocus speed is already very good: we haven’t had any complaints. Instead we’ve had some users surprised by how fast the contrast-detection system is.'
This doesn’t mean the GFX series will never have phase detection, though. ‘This is our first development of this sensor,’ says Oishi: ‘we’d have needed more time to develop on-sensor phase detection. The image quality of medium format is our first priority. From a technical point of view, maybe in the future we might incorporate phase-detection pixels. On the other hand, we’re already developed advanced CDAF algorithms.’ There’s no image quality cost to using phase detection, he says.
This need for optimal image quality got us wondering: which is more difficult to design, an F1.4 lens for APS-C or an F2.8 lens with the IQ expectations but less dense sensor of medium format? ‘The fundamental design doesn’t change,’ says Oishi: ‘things like the availability of an appropriate autofocus motor to deal with bigger, heavier lenses in medium format always adds problems. They’re both difficult, both to design and manufacture.’
‘The medium format lens is physically bigger which seems like it should be easier to manufacture but you have to pay just as much attention to how sensitively each element is aligned. I’d say they’re both difficult. Differently difficult.’
‘One thing to remember is that we’re designing all our GF lenses to work with 100 megapixels, so there’s just as much of a challenge of resolution.’
‘As the sensor becomes bigger, that means chromatic aberration becomes bigger: it’s proportional to the size. In GFX we’ve minimized aberrations optically and the used digital compensation only to refine the final result, and it depends on lens.’
|Makoto Oishi shows-off the GFX 50S's 44x33mm sensor|
As with the X series, Fujifilm has decided not to use in-body image stabilization. ‘Some of the lenses we’ve already announced have OIS built in,’ Oishi points out: ‘but basically our image circle is perfect for the 44 x 33mm sensor size.’
The undeniable appeal of the X100 series
The discussion then turned to the X100 series and its role in the company’s lineup, now that a 23mm F2 lens is available for the X-mount system.
‘Of course using the 23mm F2 on one of our X-mount cameras, you get the same sensor, the same processor, but they’re two different things,’ says Oishi. ‘The X100 lens and sensor are optimized to work together, [whereas] on the ILCs, the sensor has to work with every lens. This means the X100’s image quality can be very good but the lens remains small. The 23mm F2 [XF] lens is also good, the size is a bit bigger but the autofocus can be a bit faster. Then, of course, the X100 series has the optical viewfinder.’
‘The X100 also has a leaf shutter and built-in ND filter, which make a big difference,’ says Luong: ‘The faster sync speed is an important difference for anyone using flash. Then there’s the silent operation.'
But the appeal is about the format, as much as the specs, suggests Oishi: ‘The X100 series presents a great opportunity: the body size means it works as a second camera for anyone: not just Fujifilm users. If they fall in love with your system then maybe they’ll consider your cameras in future.’
Luong concurs: ‘It’s an iconic shape, it has a distinctive style. Some customers are at the point where they’re done with interchangeable lens camera, they just want the one focal length.’
|'The X100 series continues to perform well. In the US, each generation has sold better than the last,' says Yuji Igarashi.|
So who is the X100 series customer? ‘Normally 30% of buyers are people who already use an X100 series camera. But we’re always attracting new customers, too,’ says Oishi.
‘We look at how we retain our customers,’ says Luong: ‘the X100 is often photographers’ first foray into the Fujifilm system. The size, the weight, the image quality. A good proportion of our customers are saying the X100 brought back their passion for photography. That type of person is very much part of the equation.’
Could these same benefits be applied to medium format, we asked. ‘Of course it could be an idea for medium format,’ says Oishi: ‘it depends on demand and the market. The GFX 50S is one style: the ‘S’ means 'SLR-style.' Another way to do it would be a rangefinder style camera. Maybe an ‘R’ could be a rangefinder: we’re always considering other options and possibilities.’
‘If mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is too big as a rangefinder style, a fixed lens camera could be smaller, like the GF670.’
X-T20: putting X-T2 image quality in a smaller body
The SLR-style has wide appeal, Luong explains: ‘The SLR style targets a wider audience. We find pro and enthusiast photographers gravitate towards the SLR-style camera. Back to the GFX camera, that’s why we went with the SLR style.’
What does this tell us about the X-T20 target customer, then?
‘There will be a lot of X-T2 and X-T1 users wanting a second body,’ says Luong. ‘Then, of course, there’ll be people wanting X-T2 image quality in a more compact body. It could be a step up from the X-A series or a step over from an entry-level DSLR to a mirrorless type camera.’
‘We wanted to expand the range of users with the X-T10,’ says Oishi. ‘The X-T20 has more capability than ever before, in autofocus, for instance. For casual users, AF speed is important, especially compared with other cameras, such as DSLRs.’
However, the X-T20 doesn’t offer the increasingly popular ‘touchpad’ function to control the AF point with the camera to your eye. Mr Oishi explains why: ‘It’s possible. We know some people have difficulty with their nose operating the focus. We think our eight-way joystick is better in many circumstances but we’ll listen to feedback about a camera like the X-T20.’
|The FujiFilm X-T20 offers X-T20 image quality in a smaller body. Despite having a touchscreen, it can't offer touchpad AF control. For now...|
This makes us wonder how the company decides which models feature touchscreens and which don’t. ‘It’s a question of the customer response,’ Oishi says. ‘The X100 has an optical viewfinder so it doesn’t make sense to put a touchscreen behind that. Maybe the joystick is better. With the X70, though, it’s a much smaller camera and you have to use the screen so it made sense to control with the screen.’
‘On the X-T20, we were trying to keep the camera small, so there wasn’t room for a joystick. So it depends on the product. It’s not about whether it’s seen as professional or not: the GFX has one.’
‘Product design for each model is focused on certain priorities,’ explains Luong: ‘X100 is about design. Even making it a couple of millimeters thicker to incorporate a touchscreen or tilt screen would make a big difference. It could change the design completely.'
‘We always think about the real target user’s priorities,’ says Oishi. ‘What does the target user want to use?’
Don't count the X-E series out
The release of three SLR-style cameras in a row (X-T2, X-T20 and GFX 50S) doesn’t mean the company is abandoning the rangefinder style, though. ‘XE is an important series for us,’ Oishi says: ‘There are so many XE1, 2 and 2S users in the world. We are always thinking about the next model, whether that’s XT, XE or X-Pro. Obviously we can’t confirm anything at this point but we are aware there are many requests for this type of camera.’
With the X-series lineup looking increasingly mature, both in terms of lenses and bodies, what unmet needs remain?
‘Video is a big growth area for us,’ acknowledges Luong: ‘Our latest cameras such as the X-Pro2 and X-T2 show there’s a lot we’ve learned.’
|The Fujifilm X-T2 is a significantly more capable video camera than we were expecting.|
And there’s an audience for video, he says: ‘If you look at who’s producing material, there’s a generation of YouTube content providers. People are increasingly watching content on their computers, on YouTube, rather than traditional TV.’
‘In Japan the developers worked very closely with production studios. A lot of their feedback shaped the outcome of the X-T2’s video quality and the way it operates.’
‘Features like Film Simulation, taking them from stills to video they found really useful but things such as bitrate, file format and compression, that came from us listening to feedback.’
There are challenges, though, says Oishi: ‘Movie AF is very difficult: it depends on the subject. Sometimes you want it to be quick, other times you want it to be slower and smooth.’
‘Whether it’s an algorithm that recognizes a tap on the screen should be a smooth focus pull, or potentially a custom setting, we’re very serious about getting it right,’ says Luong.
Does this mean we could expect an even more video-centric camera, given that all the X-series lenses are essentially in the Super 35 format?
‘We already have cinema lenses that are Super 35,’ Luong reminds us. ‘We’re continuing to develop video features, so we’ll continue to investigate.’
‘There’s a market there,’ Luong says.
Listening to customer feedback
Since the idea of user feedback had come up so often in the discussion, we ended by asking what the company’s process was for collecting feedback.
‘Our X Photographers: professionals who use the camera day in, day out, that’s the first line of feedback,’ says Luong: ‘It’s quite a large group. With the GFX we had something like 50 photographers around the world using pre-production cameras.’
‘We also monitor the comments on our YouTube channel and I personally scour through DPReview and try to work out which things are a must and which are ‘would be nice’.’
‘We don’t systematically seek feedback from our existing users,’ says Igarashi: ‘but we try to listen to everyone and evaluate those opinions.’
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