Going Pro: We interview Fujifilm execs in Tokyo
Last week, Fujifilm announced several new products including two major new cameras - the X-Pro2 and X70. DPReview was at the launch event in Tokyo where we made time to sit down with two senior Fujifilm executives - Mr. Toru Takahashi and Toshihisa Iida. As well as the new cameras, we also spoke about Fujifilm's long-term ambitions, which cameras sell best in which countries and Samsung's apparent exit from the camera market.
The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
The X-Pro2 clearly replaces the X-Pro1 but is it the new flagship? Or does it sit alongside the X-T1?
Toru Takahashi (TT): We have two flagships. The X-T1 and the X-Pro2. [Even after] the launch of the X-T1 the X-Pro1 still had a function. We have two different kinds of photographers to cater for.
Can you explain more about these different kinds of photographers as you see them?
TT: When we started the X-series with the X100 we were aiming at street photographers. And the X-Pro1 and now the X-Pro2 are extensions [of that concept]. The X-T1 is for those photographers who like to photograph sports, nature and wildlife. What they like to shoot is different, so we need to provide for two different kinds of photographers.
It has been four years since the X-Pro1 was announced - did you always intend to replace it with the X-Pro2?
TT: Of course. The X-Pro1 was our first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. We knew it wasn’t perfect. And we’re always pursuing the perfect camera, so we always knew we’d have to improve on the X-Pro1. And now the time has come.
So why did it take so long?
TT: It’s not easy to improve this kind of camera! That’s one reason. The biggest element is the processor. The speed [of the X-Pro2] is much faster, in every respect. So that’s one reason it’s taken so long.
|Fujifilm's X-Pro2 brings several updates compared to the original X-Pro1, including an improved hybrid viewfinder, better autofocus and significantly increased resolution.|
Can you tell me approximately how long it took to create the X-Pro2 from the original design concept?
Toshihisa Iida (TI): Since we produced the original X-Pro1 we got a lot of feedback from photographers, and we tried to improve it with various firmware upgrades. After receiving all that feedback we started designing [what became] the X-Pro2. Also we asked for feedback on operability. For example, it’s a small change but all the buttons on the back of the X-Pro1 are on the right side of the LCD, not the left side. This research took one year or so, and then we decided ‘OK this will be the right product’. Of course at the same time we were developing the sensor and the processor. So maybe two years, in total.
Mr. Takahashi - you mentioned in your presentation at the press conference that Fujifilm is not interested in becoming involved in a ‘pointless technical race’. What did you mean by that?
TT: We think that the most important thing is overall image quality. So for example just increasing [pixel count] won’t make a better picture. We [also] need better high ISO image quality. It’s always a tradeoff, and to find the optimal point is very difficult. That’s the reason we why we picked the APS-C image format. A 35mm full-frame sensor is bigger, but it’s difficult to handle and will make the camera bigger. So we’re trying to pursue the optimal [combination of qualities] for photographers.
A lot of photographers still regard full-frame as a better format - do you think in the future that Fujifilm will create a full-frame camera?
TT: First of all, I think you need to understand their thinking. Because of 35mm film, they’re convinced that sensors should be [this format]. But it’s not true. Now, you can shoot detailed images [on the X-Pro2] at ISO 3200. In the film age, the maximum ISO was 400-800. So things are changing, and innovations have occurred but [some photographers’] mentality has not changed. I think we can offer the best picture quality by using the APS-C format.
TI: If we could create a camera of this [X-T1 / X-Pro2] kind of size with a larger format sensor, that would be good, but the lens is analog technology so a bigger format means a bigger size, and weight.
Is there anything that Fujifilm will never compromise on?
TT: As I mentioned before, picture quality. And because we picked the APS-C format, also size and operability.
Historically I know it has been a little more difficult in America to sell cameras which are smaller. There seems to have been a feeling that bigger cameras are more professional. Is this still true, or is this changing?
TT: I think that kind of mentality is gone. Remember at the beginning of the home video age, people had huge cameras for shooting their family occasions, but that was ten, twenty years ago. The mentality has changed - even though [Americans] still have big cars!
TI: I think that the American consumer is very smart. I respect them a lot. Their number one priority I think is actually performance, not size and weight. Asian consumers care more about [smaller] size but for Americans the quality and performance are the priorities. So if big cameras offer much better results, they’ll pick them. But when small camera systems [achieve parity] they’ll start to buy into smaller systems.
|Fujifilm's X-A2 is a budget X-series model aimed at beginners and compact camera upgraders. Although it has not sold well in the USA, we're told that thousands are sold every month in Thailand, where they are popular with young female photographers.|
I learned yesterday that the X-A2 is very successful in some countries - specifically Thailand. Can you give me some idea of how your sales differ globally, from country to country?
TI: At the professional level - so cameras like the X-Pro1, X-T1 and hopefully the X-Pro2 as well - we can sell them across the world. They’re very popular in Japan, Germany and in the USA. But cameras like the X-A2, while they haven’t done as well in the USA, they’re popular in Asian countries.
Young women are buying these cameras, and the primary reason they like them is for their rendition of skin tones. Mirrorless sales are now double compared to DSLRs [in these countries] and we’ve captured a large market share. The latest market data from Thailand for example shows that Fujifilm is number one in terms of value within the total interchangeable lens system.
What are the essential ingredients of the Fujifilm X-series?
TT: Product design is a key point of differentiation. We do this by ourselves. So sensor design, although we don’t make the sensors by ourselves. We design our processors, but of course we do not manufacturer them so we require other companies. But [whether we manufacturer a component or not] we stick to designs that we’ve come up with [in house]. So [the sensor in the X-Pro2] is a good example. This is a 24MP sensor that can produce something like 30-36MP equivalent resolution. Design is our strength I think. And lenses. We have very strong lens design capabilities. Lenses, we have our own technologies, we make lenses by ourselves.
I was pleased to see that apparently, video quality in the X-Pro2 has been improved. Is this a consequence simply of the higher resolution sensor and a difference in sampling, or has the processing been improved?
TT: It’s due to processing.
TI: It’s also due to the sensor readout speed. Because of the copper circuitry the sensor reads out very quickly and the camera’s sensor is powerful enough to process all of this information.
Previous generations of X-Trans had a lot of moiré - what was the cause of that?
TT: It was because of the X-Trans filter pattern. They bayer-pattern is very simple, but we chose X-Trans, which is complicated. And I won’t say that video quality was the number two priority, but the number one priority was still imaging. So we needed to focus on movie image quality, and now thanks to the faster sensor and faster processor [in the X-Pro2] even with the complicated filter pattern we’re able to improve the quality of the video a lot.
In the past you’ve primarily focused on the needs of stills photographers - are you moving into trying to appeal to video shooters too?
TI: Also we have a lot of customers who use Fujinon cine lenses and they’ve made specific requests for these lenses to be useful on our X-series cameras. They want one set of lenses for everything. So we’re listening to feedback from these customers and from our X photographers.
TT: And as you know, still imaging and video are merging anyway...
In your opinion, what is the perfect sensor resolution for all purposes?
TT: We should separate commercial photographers [in this discussion]. I think we can satisfy [most] photographers with the APS-C format, but commercial photography is different. Excluding commercial usage I think 24MP is good enough and more than this I think would require a larger sensor format than APS-C.
TI: The megapixel race means much less in [cameras like the X-series]. Output quality is everything. So at the moment we think that 24MP is maybe not the maximum resolution, but certainly the best. Considering lens resolution, it is the best resolution for APS-C. If we increased to 28 or 30MP there would be more disadvantages than advantages. Of course technology changes and I can’t predict the future, but at the moment 24MP is the best.
The only manufacturer to go above 24MP in the APS-C format is Samsung, which has recently apparently retreated from the mirrorless camera market. How do you react to that?
TT: I am not surprised. I think that their cameras are mechanically good, but something is missing. Heart, or emotion. That’s just my personal opinion.
TI: Samsung’s processing engines are so powerful, as in the NX1. But a camera is more than just a processor. It’s a lens, sensor, processor, ergonomics and operability and also [customer] service and everything.
|The slimline X70 boasts a 16MP APS-C sensor and a fixed 28mm equivalent F2.8 lens.|
A lot of the X70’s features are taken from the X100T. Do you anticipate the customer base being different for the X70 versus the X100T?
TT: I like both cameras very much. But for me, the X70 is the perfect camera to carry around, and if someone asked me to pick up either camera I’d pick up the X70. It’s more flexible for picture-taking. It is 28mm, and [although] F2.8 is a little dark, it is bright enough. For me, 28mm [is perfect] and it’s smaller than the X100T. Someone who already owns an X100 might buy an X70.
TI: I had a discussion with one photographer who specifically said that he was going to buy the X70 in addition to his X100T. Two cameras, both small cameras, one with a 35mm lens and one with a 28mm. More flexibility.
TT: This is just my personal opinion but 24mm would be even better, but we couldn’t make [the X70] this size if it had a 24mm lens.
Something we’re interested in at DPReview is the emergence of virtual reality imaging. Is this something Fujfilm is looking into?
TT: For the moment we want to work on the basics. Products like GoPro are popular, but the cameras are nothing special. We like to provide our customers with something special and unique so for now, that area is not an are we’re [interested in] pursuing.
What kind of company will Fujifilm’s camera division be in five years’ time?
TT: We’d like to be at least in the top three companies in the camera business by market share.
And how will you achieve that?
TT: As you know, mirrorless cameras have many advantages over DSLRs. That is a fundamental fact. So we pursue this approach, while the other two manufacturers [Canon and Nikon] stay with DSLR. But I don’t think they will stay there forever!
So you think that Canon and Nikon will be forced to move into mirrorless?
TT: They will. For sure. But the question is just how soon.
And the other company of course is Sony…
TT: Sony has a big advantage, they make their own sensors. That is a very big advantage for them, but they are weak in lenses.
TI: And they are weakened by having so many formats. APS-C, full-frame, [across both] DSLR and mirrorless. So their lens division must be under a lot of pressure!
Where are the remaining gaps in the X-series lens lineup?
TT: Customers are requesting more compact lenses. Our 35mm F2 is one example. So we may need to supplement this lens [with others of this kind].
TI: And also photographers are challenging us to make more telephoto primes. And astrophotographers want fisheyes, and also [we have requests] for tilting lenses. So although the volume [of those products] might not be as big, photographers are asking us.
|Fujifilm's new 100-400mm telezoom, pictured under assembly in Fujifilm's factory in Sendai, northern Japan.|
We talk a lot about digital imaging, but Instax is still very popular. Why is that, in your opinion?
TT: Instax is being used by the younger generation. They have never seen prints! So a print popping out the side of a camera is a [novelty] for them. And physical pictures. Exchanging pictures has become a new mode of communication.
Do you think film in general will have a resurgence?
TT: No, I don’t think so. The infrastructure [is no longer in place]. We have to continue to supply film and maintain our labs for another 10-20 years, maybe but I don’t think we can change the [downward] trend.
You mentioned in your presentation that demand for film peaked in 2000. Can you give me a current idea of how that compares to demand today?
TT: We sell less than 1% of that amount now. Across all formats. But we have to supply film to photo enthusiasts. They demand it of us, so we do.
Editor's note: Barnaby Britton
I've spoken to Mr. Iida many times over the past few years, both in interviews and privately. As always, he was candid and thoughtful when I spoke to him in Tokyo most recently. I have not met Mr. Takahashi before, but he impressed me with his candor, humor and obvious enthusiasm for photography. A keen amateur photographer before taking on his current role, Mr. Takahashi is very obviously someone with a clear idea of what makes Fujifilm unique, and a vision for how the company will develop in the future.
It was clear during our conversation that both Mr. Iida and Mr. Takahashi are proud of and pleased with the X-Pro2, and for good reason. As the successor to the original X-series interchangeable lens model it is perhaps the purest expression yet of the original concept behind the system. Fujifilm has yet to convince us that it can truly cater to the modern sports or wildlife photographer (the X-T1 is certainly no slouch but its autofocus system cannot compete with the likes of Nikon's 3D tracking and as Fujifilm admits, the X-series lacks much in the way of serious long glass) but the X-Pro2 is an easier camera to get right and its appeal is obvious. It's not too big, it's not too small, its viewfinder is excellent and let's be honest - it looks great. In short, it has precisely the same appeal as the original X-Pro1 and X100 but improves upon those models with significantly more resolution, better ergonomics (I love the AF joystick) and - after the passage of four years - a much more mature lens lineup.
And of course, better video. Although we haven't yet tested the X-Pro2's video mode in any depth, it certainly seems that the worst of the issues that afflicted previous X-Trans models are gone. Fujifilm's focus is still primarily on stills shooters but we're optimistic that the X-Pro2 is at least usable for video, if not entirely optimized for it. I get the feeling that the poor quality video of previous models in the X-series was something of an embarrassment for Fujifilm and it's good to see the company making an effort to improve this feature. Part of the reason for this improvement is processing, and part of it might also be the increased resolution of the new sensor and a change in how the data is sampled to create a video signal. Regardless, both the new sensor and upgraded processor are good news for stills photographers, too. With significantly more resolution than the previous generation this new 24MP sensor is a big step up for the X-series and our first impressions of image quality are very positive.
I agree with Mr. Iida when he says that for now, pixel counts much beyond 24MP are of limited usefulness on APS-C format sensors, and I very much doubt that Fujifilm will ever create a full-frame camera built around the 35mm film format. However, I would not rule out a move into medium format. Fujifilm has a long history of creating cameras and lenses built around medium format film (and, it is rumored, also around medium format sensors) and with the X-series reaching maturity, I would not be at all surprised if Fujifilm unveiled a new medium format digital system at some point. And don't forget: 2016 is a Photokina year...
Speculation aside, it is interesting to note that it was me, not Mr. Iida nor Mr. Takahashi that brought up Sony. Mr. Takahashi told me that he wanted Fujifilm to be in the top three camera manufacturers, but it was obvious that he was imagining Canon and Nikon to be the other two brands in that trio. Perhaps he was thinking in terms of competition in the APS-C space (representatives from more than one manufacturer have suggested to me privately that they doubt whether Sony is serious about sub full-frame formats in the long term) or maybe - to Mr. Iida's point - he thinks that Sony will flounder as a consequence of supporting too many systems.
My personal opinion is that Sony will be fine, and will continue to concentrate on the full-frame space alongside Canon and Nikon, but that Fujifilm will side-step them all by focusing on APS-C and (in the longer term) medium format platforms. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
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