Earlier this month we attended the launch of the Fujifilm X100V in London, where we had the opportunity to sit down with two senior figures within the company: Chief Designer Maszumi Imai and Senior Manager Shinichiro Udono.
In a conversation primarily focused on the X100-Series, we discussed the evolution of the X100 line and the challenges of updating a ‘signature’ model.
Note: This interview is broadly split into two parts: The first part is a strategy-focused conversation with Mr. Udono about the development of the X100V in the context of the continuing evolution of the X100 line. The second part is a discussion with Mr. Imai about the design process of the X100V and previous models in the line, and more broadly, his background and influences as a designer.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
How important is the X100 line to Fujifilm?
(S.U.) It was where we started. It was our first high-end camera. In 2010-11 our main camera business was in small-sensor compacts. The X100 established the concept of dial-controlled operation, which is found now across the X-Series. We have the same concept across the X-T1, X-Pro 1, and so on.
So the X100 established the Fujifilm shooting style, and then we extended this concept to the entire X-Series.
So when you’re discussing a new X100, are you more careful about changes to this model because it’s so important?
(S.U.) We’re always careful to maintain the camera concept, the style, and the size. But we also really want to provide the latest technology to our customers. Quicker autofocus, better resolution, better image quality, color reproduction and so on. That’s very important. So while we don’t want to change the camera’s style – how it looks – we’re always thinking about how we can deliver the best performance, and the best functions to our customers.
|The X100V is unmistakably a member of the X100 line, but several subtle changes have been made to its physical design and ergonomics.|
How have sales of the different X100 models compared over the past few years?
(S.U.) The sales of each generation were fairly similar, however the latest model X100F had the most success. With that in mind and with the new features, I expect the X100V to sell more than the previous four models.
What were your biggest priorities when planning the development of the X100V?
(S.U.) The first and most important point is the hybrid viewfinder. Next, the lens, the single focal length. We knew we had to keep that concept. And then we considered what sensor and processor we should put inside the camera. So we start with the concept, and with the basic form factor, and then we think about what goes inside.
What was the number one request from X100F customers?
(S.U.) Weather resistance. And also image stabilization. After we launched the X-T3, a lot of customers [also] wanted the latest sensor and processor.
We thought it would break the basic concept of the X100V. So we didn’t pursue stabilization in this model
The X100V does not offer image stabilization – why not?
(S.U.) Simply, size. There are two ways we could add stabilization – one is optically, in the lens, and the other is IBIS. We made some rough studies of both possibilities, but in both cases the camera would have become bigger. We thought it would break the basic concept of the X100V. So we didn’t pursue stabilization in this model.
How long does it typically take to develop a new X100 model?
(S.U.) Well with the X100V we redesigned the lens, so it took around two years. A little longer than normal. If we only made changes to the body, it would have been a shorter process.
Where do you see most sales of the X100 line, globally?
(S.U.) With the first generation, Japan was the biggest market. Later on, the USA became the biggest. Because it’s not an interchangeable lens model, it can reach a wider market of photo enthusiasts. There’s a big market in the US for photo enthusiasts, especially people who know about the history of film cameras. Those customers really like the X100 line.
How will the X100-series evolve in future?
(S.U.) In terms of technology, maybe we can add image stabilization, if we can develop it. But in the longer term, I don’t think we’ll change the style. We’ll probably keep this style and design even for another ten years. But we may have totally different technology, which I don’t know about at the moment. Different style sensor, or Ai technology. We’ll keep adding new technology into the X100 line but we’ll keep the basic design concept.
If you did add IBIS to the X100, would it require a totally new mechanism?
(S.U.) Probably, yes. We’d have to develop it from scratch. We’d need a very small IBIS unit.
Do you tend to find that these cameras are most popular with a certain age-group, or demographic?
(S.U.) The biggest audience is slightly older people, who remember film cameras. But we also see a lot of young people, especially in Japan, buying X100 models. It’s a fashionable camera. Those people take pictures, of course, but they also like the design.
We felt that a more classic design would be a good fit for our new brand
What was the original idea behind the X100?
(M.I.) In 2009, we started to consider how to make our next high-end digital camera. At that time we only made FinePix small-sensor compacts at that time. Other companies had their own interchangeable lens cameras, but we didn’t. So we were a challenger in that space – we could have done anything. But we wanted to create our own brand.
We designed a lot of concepts for cameras, which were a completely different shape to the original X100. For example we had a square concept, and a vertical style one, and one that was designed for the perfect grip – things like that. And then we decided that we were inspired by classic-styled cameras. We felt that a more classic design would be a good fit for our new brand. So at that time I started designing around the concept of purity – a classic camera design.
|The film-era Fujifilm Klasse is cited as one of the design inspirations for the X100 line. Photo by David Narbecki, from an article originally posted on 35mmc.com. Used with permission.|
(S.U.) Some background to why we reached for the classic style design, when Fujifilm made film cameras we made cameras which shared a similar shooting style to the X100. Cameras like the TX-series, the Klasse, and so on. They offered a similar shooting experience. In our digital camera division there were several people who came from the film camera division. We asked ourselves ‘what would be the best camera for the Fujifilm brand?’ At that time there were many good cameras from other brands, but we wanted to show what it meant to be a Fujfilm camera.
(M.I.) The first-generation X100 was created according to a set of tenets: The best quality, a good user experience, and styling that would tell photographers at a glance that this was a serious camera. That was a big reason why we chose this kind of classic style.
From the very beginning of the design process was about two years. We started the X100 project in 2009 and launched in 2011.
|The innovative ‘hybrid’ viewfinder introduced in the original X100 was created about halfway through the development process of the camera itself. The X100 was originally envisaged as having a simple optical finder.|
Was there any particular model or style of camera that you were particularly inspired by?
(M.I.) During the design planning process, around halfway through the project, our engineering team invented the hybrid viewfinder. So we decided that we should go with a rangefinder-style camera, not DSLR-style. Originally the X100 was intended to just have an optical viewfinder.
We looked at most of the legendary film-era cameras for inspiration. The Leica M3, of course, and others, including our own designs. The X100 was a homage to traditional film cameras.
What was your background as a designer, before you joined Fujifilm?
(M.I.) I worked at Minolta, in Osaka. At that time the main market was film cameras. When I was a student, my professor told me that camera design was one of the most difficult branches of industrial design. So he said if you go to a camera company, you’ll acquire the most useful skills. So I decided to go to Minolta.
What are your biggest design influences outside of photography?
(M.I.) Vehicles. Especially cars, but also airplanes. When I was a child, supercars were very popular in Japan. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, those were our dream cars. Airplanes like the F4 Phantom, the F15, and the F14 too. Very popular and stylish airplanes.
When I was five years old, my dad took to me to the cinema for the first time, to see Star Wars. So cars, planes and science fiction were a big influence.
We’ve talked about the physical engineering challenges of putting stabilization into the X100, and last year we saw some of the early modular GFX concepts – how often do engineering considerations restrict your vision as a designer?
(M.I.) Taking the X100 first, I know the basic size and the basic [details of] construction. First of all, we make an actual-size image-mockup. Sometimes these mockups can lead us to make the camera better. For example if I [deliberately] make a mockup thinner, maybe people will react well to it, and then we’d realize we should aim for this kind of size [in future]. Inspiration, and first impressions are very important when we make a product.
We take are two different approaches to design at Fujifilm. One is just the daily work of knowing ‘OK, we need to make a new X100’, where we consider all the technical limitations, and the R&D side will prepare some rough designs, [based on] of the lens, battery, the LCD, things like that. And these decide the final size of the camera.
That’s the standard approach. But once a year we also conduct a study where we think about the future without considering the current technical limitations. Like a vision exercise. And we create more visionary image mockups. And in a few years, some elements of those image-mockups might end up in final cameras.
You were the lead designer on the X100, and after that you supervised the teams working on the S, the T and the F, and now you’re lead designer again on the V. Was this because the V is considered to be particularly important, to you or the brand?
(M.I.) Both, actually. The X100F had a great reputation, so it was hard to think about what we could add, to make something new. That was a big concern. With a ‘signature’ model like this it’s hard to make a successor, so I was appointed as the designer of the next model.
This is the fifth generation, and as I’ve already explained we have these tenets about the X100-series. Nine years have passed, the world has changed, and the X100 brand is familiar in the market, and has grown in reputation. So we decided we could change more in the fifth generation, in terms of concept and design. It’s still based on the X100 core concept, but this time I had freedom to explore more possibilities.
How do you balance the concept of simplicity against demands for more control and customization?
(M.I.) It’s very difficult to find a way to do that. We see a lot of comments from people who prefer the simplicity [of the original X100]. At the beginning of this project I made a mockup which looked almost the same as the original X100. I also made a mockup that looked almost the same as the production model of the X100V, which gained everyone’s approval. In the end we were able to make something that satisfied all of our goals.
|The original X100 featured a simple twin-dial interface and limited number of external controls. Subsequent X100-Series cameras have become more complex, but immensely more powerful.|
If you didn’t have any engineering or technical restraints, or any need to be true to the designs of previous models – if you could do whatever you wanted – what kind of camera would you make?
(M.I.) Right now I want to make the simplest, purest camera. Simple, and sharp in style. The X-Series cameras are based on classic styling, but I think that this kind of classic style, if it were to meet with an extremely modern style, we could create something new. I want to try. Simple, sharp, but solid design.
Could a future X100 camera have a simpler interface?
(M.I.) Maybe. But ‘simple’ doesn’t necessarily mean fewer dials or buttons.
Sometimes I think about musical instruments, versus using software like Garage Band […] It’s the same thing with shooting using a camera
Being intuitive in operation for photographers is the most important thing. A smartphone doesn’t have any buttons or dials, but it’s not necessarily the most intuitive interface for shooting photos. So we need to keep a balance.
When the original X100 was being planned, smartphone photography was in its infancy. How has the development of the smartphone, and changing customer behavior that resulted, influenced how you design cameras?
(M.I.) Maybe in the future we’ll invent brain-controlled cameras! But I wouldn’t want that. This (indicating the interface of the X100V) is the best way to shoot, to create an expression of creativity through photography. And this style of camera is completely different from a smartphone. Sometimes I think about musical instruments, versus using software like Garage Band. I like using Garage Band, but it’s completely different to playing an instrument. Playing something by hand is fun, and comfortable. It’s the same thing with shooting using a camera.
We always look at new technologies, like Ai, and we carefully choose the best way [to implement them]. We could create a haptic touch interface for buttons and dials and things like that, but it wouldn’t be a good fit for the X-series. That’s why we keep the buttons and dials, and the classic style.
Do you have any particular designers or artists that inspire you?
(M.I.) There are a lot of very good designers in the world, and a lot of them have inspired me. Every kind of industry has its masterpieces. It’s difficult to choose one, but I’d like to choose [industrial designer and Blade Runner concept artist] Syd Mead, who passed away recently.
Editor’s note: Barnaby Britton
The launch of the X100V in London recently provided a good opportunity to have an unusually tightly focused conversation with two of the figures most responsible for its development. Mr. Udono and Mr. Imai are key members of the team that has shepherded the X-Series (and later the GF line) from an idea, ten years ago, to the broad lineup of products that are available today.
From previous conversations with Fujifilm executives, we knew that of all the products in the company’s lineup, the X100 line is the one over which the most care is taken to update only the right things, and only in the right way. The X100 line is sometimes referred to by Fujifilm representatives as a ‘signature’ product line and for good reason: as Mr. Udono says, the X100 was ‘where we started’.
This small, quirky, retro-styled camera was a hit with enthusiast photographers almost from the word go, and subsequent generations have been embraced by photographers of all types, and all ages, all over the world. The X100F has proven the most popular iteration of all, which of course means that it was always going to be among the hardest to replace.
The X100 could have been launched (and was apparently originally planned to have been launched) with a simple fixed optical finder
Mr. Imai has been working at Fujifilm for a long time, and before that Minolta. As lead designer on the original X100, he has had a key role in the evolution of the X100 line and took full control over the design of the X100V. It was interesting to speak to him about the process of the original X100’s development, from mockups to a final product.
I didn’t know, for example, that the creation of the signature ‘hybrid’ viewfinder only happened around halfway through the development process of the camera. The X100 could have been launched (and was apparently originally planned to have been launched) with a simple fixed optical finder. Would it still have been a hit? I’m not sure. It’s certainly hard to imagine an X100 without the option for a hybrid finder, but I know a lot of X100-series owners claim that they rarely or never engage the EVF.
The message that came out of my conversation with Mr. Udono and Mr. Imai most clearly is that when it comes to the development of the X100 line, it’s almost more important for photographers to understand what Fujifilm can’t or won’t change than what they will. A lot of X100 fans want some kind of stabilization for example, but the simple fact is that adding it would be impossible without the dimensions of the camera changing.
With the current state of Fujifilm’s technology, Mr. Udono claims that adding an IBIS unit into the camera body would increase the body size, while an optical stabilization system would force (another) redesign of the lens and would inevitably also add bulk. The X100V is slightly larger than the X100F, but only very slightly (which is impressive, considering that it has a tilting screen – another long-standing request from some customers). Notably, the X100V can still use the same hood and filter adapter – and even the same converter lenses – that were released for the original X100.
As a fan of the series, with a drawer full of caps and adapters that I’ve picked up over the years, I personally appreciate this commitment to what Mr. Udono calls the key ‘tenets’ (Mr. Imai also referred to a design ‘law’) of the X100, as laid down almost a decade ago.
I always enjoy talking to artists and designers, partly because of my own background, but mostly because I’m always interested in what – and who – they cite as influences. Mr. Imai was no exception. During our conversation he mentioned such diverse influences as Star Wars and the F4 Phantom, but I shouldn’t have been surprised that as his main inspiration he cited the late Syd Mead.
A lot has happened since the original X100 was launched, and despite looking similar, the X100V is a different beast
Mead was a famed futurist, known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, among many others. He is credited for visualizing what George Lucas described as the ‘used future’. This was a concept which arguably evolved into (or at least informed) the emergent retrofuturism of the late 1970s and 1980s, wherein nostalgic styling is melded with modern technology. In the world of digital photography, it’s hard to think of a better example of this aesthetic than the X100.
That being said, a lot has happened since the original X100 was launched, and despite looking similar, the X100V is a different beast. More versatile, sure, and definitely more powerful. But with a total of seven dials, an articulating screen, and the need to support serious video capture, it’s an altogether more complicated, less streamlined camera than its early ancestors. Mr. Imai admits as much, and it was interesting to hear him speak about his ‘dream’ camera: one that melds classic styling with modern simplicity. How this dream ends up being manifested in Fujifilm’s future camera lineup remains to be seen, but it’s something to look forward to.