Toshihisa Iida, Fujifilm's General Manager of the Sales and Marketing Group, pictured at Photokina 2016.

Fujifilm chose last month's Photokina tradeshow as the venue to launch its new flagship mirrorless camera, the medium-format GFX 50S. At the show, we sat down with Toshihisa Iida, Fujifilm's General Manager of the Sales and Marketing Group and Toru Takahashi, Director, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fujifilm's Optical Device & Electronic Imaging Products Divisonto talk about the 50S, and why Fujifilm chose to skip full-frame.

Please note that the following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and flow. Our questions are in bold. 

Why did Fujifilm decide to move straight from APS-C to medium-format?

Soon after we introduced the X-Pro 1 many people started asking when we would be introducing full-frame mirrorless. We said at the time we were 100% committed to the APS-C format. We thought this was the best format from the point of view of image quality, and size and portability. We started with [only] three lenses, so we needed to focus on one format, to accelerate the lens lineup. As the years went by we started thinking maybe we could start looking at a bigger format, because we had a good lens lineup, and the technologies [in our APS-C line] were maturing.

Our next move was to decide what format we should move to. And soon after Mr Takahashi came into our division we made a decision. The difference between APS-C and full-frame is too marginal, so there was no point. So we decided to go for a bigger sensor format, to show a clear differentiation from APS-C.

APS-C is more speed, more portability – that’s our X Series. And our medium-format is for ultimate image quality. But still, you know – they have the same DNA. Design, operability, color management and so on. APS-C and medium-format can co-exist and complement each other.

The new Fujifilm GFX 50S offers a 50MP medium-format sensor in an impressively small, lightweight body. 

What did your X Series users tell you that they wanted from a larger-format camera?

Firstly, some said that with the X Series they could cover around 70% of their requirements. But they needed a bigger format, for example for outdoor billboards. And sometimes they needed to crop. So they required higher resolution. The other thing is we asked about usability. Our X Series is quite unique in terms of its user interface. Because our new camera is more geared to commercial applications, we asked whether the same dials were necessary. We had a lot of conversations about this with professional photographers. The conclusion was they all asked us to keep the dial operation.

The sensor at the heart of the GFX 50S looks very familiar. Is it the same sensor that we’ve seen in other medium-format digital cameras?

First, this is a brand-new mount. Based on our experience with the X Series, we wanted to make the flange-back distance smaller, to allow the lenses to be made more compact. The challenge is how to get the light hit the sensor evenly - in the center and also at the corners. In order to achieve that we customized the microlenses. The microlenses on this sensor are optimized for the short flange-back distance of the new mount, to ensure good corner illumination. Also we optimized the silicon process. We spent a lot of time and resources on this kind of customization.

What was the logic behind not including an X-Trans filter array in this system?

The sensor format is large enough that even without X-Trans, the image quality is very good. X-Trans is good, but it’s a complex filter array. Sometimes Bayer is more straightforward, and it makes Raw processing easier.

Did you include video in the 50S just because you could, or because your customers wanted it?

It’s not 4K, of course, it’s HD. But we know that more and more photographers are shooting video and we like to offer a unique proposition. Shallow depth of field, because of the bigger format – it will be interesting to see what kind of videos [photographers capture].

What are the challenges of introducing 4K video?

Many cameras can record 4K video, but the question is what kind of 4K video. The challenges for every manufacturer are power and heat. And there are two ways minimize their impact. One way is to make the camera bigger. The second way is to make the video file smaller, by recording video from a cropped area of the frame.

We think that it’s important to pursue the ultimate in quality, so on the X-T2 for example we tried to minimize the crop factor. Some manufacturers are offering crops of 1.5 X or 1.7X. This doesn’t help photographers at all. This is a new challenge for digital cameras that integrate stills and video features.

Do you have any figures for dynamic range of this sensor, compared to APS-C?

We do, but we’re still fine-tuning.

Some of the F2 and F2.8 lenses you’ve announced will give similar depth of field to F1.4 lenses on full-frame. At that point, what advantage is there to medium-format imaging?

By the numbers, depth of field might be similar, but we think that the actual images look different. And it’s not just about depth of field. There’s wider dynamic range, and greater resolution and so on. Overall there’s a lot of benefit from using a medium-format sensor.

The GFX lens lineup will feature three lenses when the 50S hits the market in spring, with six optics in the initial roadmap. 

And presumably a larger sensor doesn’t stress the resolution of the lenses as much as a similar resolution would on APS-C?

Correct. We designed these new lenses to be future-proof. The potential resolution of these new lenses is much higher than 50MP. Our benchmark is 4700 line pairs. So the lenses can resolve at least 100MP.

How do you see the mirrorless and DSLR markets evolving within the next 2-3 years?

Probably, in 2 years time, the size of the mirrorless market will exceed the market for DSLRs, globally. Already in some asian countries the mirrorless market is bigger than DSLR.

With the launch of the EOS M5, do you think it’s a good thing that Canon is finally taking mirrorless seriously?

We always welcome competition. Because the more competition, the faster the market will realize that mirrorless is the future.

Have you seen a change in the the kinds of people who are buying mirrorless cameras?

It depends on which category. When we introduced the X-Pro1, we were attracting photographers who were more likely to be street photographers. With the X-T1, and lenses like the 10-24mm zoom we started to capture landscape photographers. And the 56mm F1.2 was attractive to portrait photographers. If you look at our X-A series, its a lot of young female photographers, who buy the camera as a companion to their smartphones. So different categories attract different kinds of photographers with different requirements.

One thing we’ve noticed is that at the end of the day, all photographers are looking for the best image quality and color reproduction.

The selfie-friendly Fujifilm X-A lineup is apparently very popular with female customers, particularly in Asia.

Do you expect that the majority of people who will buy a GFX 50S will be existing X Series users?

That’s a difficult question. In our experience, in our showroom in Tokyo, the ratio of new customers to existing Fujifilm users who came in to look at the X-T2 for example was around 2:1. The ratio of new customers was much higher. And I expect that the same will be true of the GFX 50S.

How important is smart device integration in your product development?

It’s very, very important. The smartphone is not the enemy, it’s a complement to a camera. And how to enable connectivity between a smart device and our cameras is very important. We will focus on making it faster, smoother. Especially in Asian countries, girls are buying our cameras to take selfies, and straight afterwards they’re sending it to their friends from their phones.

Do you have a medium-format market share target in mind for the GFX 50S?

It’s difficult to say, because we’re really targeting high-resolution 35mm DSLRs with this product. The current medium-format space is full of cameras that are too expensive, too heavy and too bulky. The current medium-format market is small. People are buying 35mm full-frame cameras [instead]. So maybe our solution will revitalize the category.

Speaking of which, one of the most active new market segments is VR imaging. Are you looking that market?

I think that VR is mainly for industrial purposes. It can be applied to the consumer market but it’s very niche. So if we’re talking about consumer imaging, I don’t think that 360 cameras have a big audience.

Editor's note:

Fujifilm has been heavily hinting that a medium-format mirrorless camera was in the works for some time, and it's a relief to finally be able to see – and touch – an actual product. In my opinion, Fujifilm's decision to side-step (or rather leap-frog) the full-frame camera market makes a lot of sense. It's much easier for the company to differentiate (and capture a larger portion of the latent interest) when it's not competing against the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony in an increasingly crowded field. The GFX 50S will almost certainly offer superior image quality to any of the current crop of full-frame cameras, and critically speaking, it will of course be streets ahead of the company's X Series, which is optimized for speed and versatility.

Fujifilm's decision to ditch X-Trans in the 50S is interesting, but not surprising. It is undoubtedly true that the benefits of X-Trans are proportionally greater on the smaller APS-C format than they would be on a medium-format sensor, and I suspect that the additional cost and complexity of using this proprietary array in the GFX 50S might also have been a factor. In addition, Fujifilm is well aware of the criticism leveled against it from some professionals that the X-Trans array makes file handling more difficult, thanks to limited support from third-party Raw converters. And Fujifilm will need the file handling process to be as smooth as possible if it wants to appeal to studio photographers with an established workflow. 

The fact that Fujifilm apparently has no particular medium-format market share in mind for the 50S is very revealing. For now at least, it seems the company won't measure the success of this camera by how many sales it steals away from Pentax, Hasselblad, Phase One and their ilk. What Fujifilm wants is for someone considering buying a Canon EOS 5DSR or a Sony a7R II or a Nikon D810 to buy a GFX 50S instead. Especially if that person is a commercial or landscape photographer who just wants the pixels. As such, at 'well under $10,000' with a 63mm prime lens, the 50S is priced to compete against these top-flight 35mm-style cameras.

Meanwhile, well-heeled X Series photographers (and of course the many professionals who have adopted the X Series over the past few years alongside full-frame gear from other brands) now have a true flagship camera to aspire to. A camera which is capable of higher resolution and better image quality, from a brand that they trust. And unlike traditional medium-format cameras, it doesn't weigh a ton and it doesn't cost the earth. I can't wait to see what it can do.