“We wouldn’t be here without the X100”: Yuji Igarashi on where Fujifilm goes next: Digital Photography Review

Fujifilm’s Jun Watanabe and Yuji Igarashi, speaking to us, following the X100 VI’s launch. Photo: Richard Butler

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the X100,” says Fujifilm’s Yuji Igarashi, “If that failed, we would have been in a very difficult position.”

Igarashi, Divisional Manager of Fujifilm’s Professional Imaging Group was speaking to us just before the launch of the X100VI. He and his colleague, Product Planning Manager Jun Watanabe discussed the importance of the X100 series in establishing the Fujifilm brand as it’s now recognized. They also spoke about the future of the industry, the role AI has to play and perhaps even hinted at the possibility of a video-centered camera.

“That was the first camera when we stepped up from selling point-and-shoot, entry-level compact cameras,” Igarashi remembers: “Smartphones were becoming popular and demand for point-and-shoot cameras was declining so fast.”

“But we were determined to continue and to grow in this industry, so we thought very hard, how can we change our business model. This was our first attempt to do that, using the APS-C-sized sensor. X100 was a huge success, which gave us confidence.”

What happens next?

Nearly fifteen years later and it feels like the industry is facing up to another existential threat, as the quality of computational photography and the always with you, always connected convenience of smartphones along with the arrival of AI image generation threaten even high-end cameras. But Igarashi sees room for growth, still.

“It’s the younger generation that will drive photography,” he says: “People who are photo literate, who use their smartphones all the time, those people have a huge potential”

And he believes there’s still room for dedicated cameras, alongside smartphones. “Taking images with your smartphone is great, it’s fun, and you can share those images instantly, but many people don’t know there’s more to it. So if you take time to take pictures or even print your photos you get to learn more about photography and then photography passion will grow.”

But to do this, the camera has to offer something distinctive, he suggests. “We have to think about where the differences are between smartphones and cameras. What is the difference between these two, and what makes them [want to] use a camera.”

What can a dedicated camera offer?

Yuji Igarashi – Divisional Manager of Fujifilm’s Professional Imaging Division

Watanabe puts forward some suggestions: “Smartphone connectivity is, of course, the most important thing. And the joy of operability of the camera is an important factor”

“The operability and image quality,” Igarashi agrees. “and the quality of the product,” says Watanabe.

That ease of sharing is improving, suggests Igarashi: “Most people feel you have to transfer the image. Frame.io, camera-to-cloud has been a game-changer in that sense, but I think we can make it even more seamless in future.”

“When people think it’s one ecosystem, that’s when I think people who use smartphones will feel that a camera is part of their photography life.”

The role of AI

Chatting about smartphones led, perhaps inevitably, to discussions about computational photography and the role AI will play in the coming years.

“I think AI technology has been the trend, in both a good and bad sense,” says Igarashi: “It’s helped us improve our subject detection, and make huge improvements in the autofocus, so it can help us enhance our gear a lot. But there are also concerns about what’s a real photographic image, about who created that image, et cetera. So it’s good and bad and I think as an industry we’re still trying to work that out.”

But he thinks the role AI will play in dedicated cameras will be different from those in smartphones.

“For smartphones, in most cases, it would support you automatically. It gives you probably the best-looking picture for a lot of people, but less personality,” says Igarashi: “cameras like to assist you to be more creative. How can the AI support you to be more creative, to do what you imagined? So it won’t be like smartphone AI.”

But, he says, “I think the biggest impact of AI technology probably has yet to come.”

Room for improvement

One area AI might continue to provide benefits is autofocus, says Watanabe: “We think there is some room for improvement. For example, in group sports such as football or basketball it is not possible for the camera to precisely follow the athlete that the photographer wants to follow.”

Also, despite the arrival of AF tracking in the recent GFX 100 II and X100 VI, he also highlights video AF as an area still developing: “The demands of video autofocus are different than for stills photographers. For video the focus has to change smoothly or to change at the speed the creator wants. So there is much room for improvement,” he says.

Balancing stills and video

Jun Watanabe – Product Development manager for Fujifilm’s X Series

The idea of new video AF features making their X-series debut in the stills-focused X100 VI prompted us to ask about the company’s thinking about stills and video, and how they’re offered in different products.

“It depends on our product lineup,” says Igarashi: “For example, the X100 VI, we’d never have a flip-out screen in this camera. We’re still enhancing the video capabilities but making sure it’s still a photography-centric camera. Then, for example, our hybrid range is totally different: we try to accommodate both as well as possible. And then we would probably have products that are more video-centric. So we try to look at the customers on a case-by-case basis: how and what they want to use it for. I think it’s impossible to have everything [in one camera].”

For this, he says, they listen to customer feedback. “We get feedback on video capability from the X-H side and more requests on the stills side from X-T. So we’re learning a lot and we’re thinking more about the cameras depending on the situation, which camera should be used, how? So it’s been very helpful for us, having different ranges, T and H. I don’t think they’re getting closer but maybe not much further apart. It’s about trying to figure out the right balance.”

In discussing the challenges of improving video, Watanabe made a similar point: “In terms of design for a stills and video hybrid, we achieved a successful level. But for a more video-orientated camera we can create another kind of form-factor for easy-to-use, easy-to-handle for video recording. I think we can create another type of design.”

The future of X-Pro

For all these apparent hints at a more video-centric model, Igarashi ended the interview by raising the subject of one of the company’s most photo-focused models: the rangefinder style X-Pro series. “That’s an important category for us. We started with the rangefinder-style X100, then we introduced the rangefinder-style interchangeable [model], the X-Pro,” he reminds us. “That’s a line we’re determined to continue.”

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