Fujifilm interview: Phase detect AF definitely coming to X line


posted Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 5:54 PM EDT

Fujifilm's Kayce Baker. Image copyright© 2012, Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.Continuing our series of in-depth interviews from this year's combined CES / PMA tradeshow, Imaging Resource publisher Dave Etchells, senior editor Shawn Barnett, and features editor Arthur Etchells were joined by Kayce M. Baker, Director of Marketing in the Electronic Imaging Division of Fujifilm North America Corp.

Clearly, the big news was Fujifilm's brand-new X-Pro1 compact system camera, and the first three X-mount lenses which accompany the X-Pro1, and as you'd expect, much of the discussion revolves around the system, what it means for Fujifilm and its customers, and what it brings to the table versus the established mirrorless competition. The discussion also covers Fuji's other recent enthusiast cameras--the X100 and X10--as well as on some of Fuji's behind-the-scenes tech.

Arthur Etchells: To kick off, obviously the Fujifilm X-Pro1 is your first compact system camera, so the available lens and lens roadmap is now a big question. Can you speak to what direction you’ll be taking, be it more primes, telephoto zooms, macro, etc.?

Kayce Baker: In the next three years, we’re going to have nine lenses for the camera. The message should be that we’re very committed to the category; we’re very committed to this system. At launch we’ll have three lenses. In equivalent focal lengths, you’re looking at a 27mm, a 53mm, and a 90mm. I like to call it a 28, a 50, and a 90. The 90 has a macro on it, which is where that capability starts out.

Fujifilm's Kayce Baker. Image copyright© 2012, Imaging Resource. All rights reserved. Click for a bigger picture!Around the latter half of 2012, we’re looking at a 14mm, equivalent to a 20 – my personal favorite. And we have some zooms as well. We have some more prime lenses coming, as well as zoom lenses, in 2013.

AE: How fast are we talking for the 20mm?

KB: From what I saw, it’s going to be f/1.4. So I’m absolutely jonesing for that one. (laughs) But again, that’s not confirmed. I saw it on the road map as 1.4. If it ends up being f/2.0, hey, you know something, that’s pretty awesome too. Anywhere between f/2.0 and f/1.4, I’m a happy camper.

AE: Speaking personally as a photographer, relative to that road map, are there any lenses or zoom capabilities you would like to see on there? Obviously, Fuji may not plan out that far, but where would you want to see the category going?

KB: We started out in a pretty solid spot with prime lenses available out of the gate. As a photographer I love prime lenses. Another area where we’re very strong out of the gate is the quality level of these lenses and the ability to be able to make fast lenses. So both of these factors make me very happy. 27mm is a good starting point. 50mm is obviously a standard lens. And, of course, 90 gives you more of a portrait lens, so that’s also very nice – including the macro, which gives you another option.

In the future, as I said, they are doing a 20mm, so I’m happy there. Where would I like them to go? A shift lens, of course, that would be nice. The 100mm with a macro would be kind of nice too. But I really do enjoy prime lenses.

The rest of our brand, especially the X brand, for instance the X100 – the reality is our entire road map is about quality, period. From the X100 on, it’s always been about image quality, construction quality and performance quality. So taking that as the basis, that’s really where we’re going with it. We have other cameras that talk to those who are looking for built-in, super zoom capability. That’s fine, but we want to really focus on making sure that these lenses are optimized for the sensor that we have in the cameras, optimized for whatever camera body they go onto, and that’s really our focus.

Dave Etchells: One thing that’s really interesting, too, is that most of the Japanese manufacturers saw the the compact system camera market as primarily step-up cameras from point-and-shoots. So their thinking was that it would be more the novice that would purchase these cameras. Fuji has taken a completely different approach and come in on the enthusiast/professional level. How did that come about and what was the thinking that led you to enter that part of the market rather than the step-up market?

Fujifilm's Kayce Baker. Image copyright© 2012, Imaging Resource. All rights reserved. Click for a bigger picture!KB: Well, it really started with X100. For the development of the X100, we went out to photographers and asked them what they were looking for in a camera. What they kept coming back with was this: after a while, carrying these DSLRs around – and again, I’ve shot just about all of them – gets heavier and heavier. And at some point it’s just like, ‘Wow. What do I take with me on vacation? I’ve got a shoot to do cross-country – what do I take with me?’ And I think it got to a point where, as a photographer, you have a job and then you have yourself. You like taking pictures, otherwise you wouldn’t be a photographer. So you’re going out on the street, you’re going off to your mom’s, you’re going off to wherever, and you want to grab a camera in case you get that really amazing shot. You don’t want to end up saying, ‘Oh, I really could have used that shot for something else if only I had a bigger sensor, if only I had a better camera, if only I had a better lens.’ So that’s where the X100 came from. It came from the fact that professional photographers wanted something to carry around on their own time.

DE: So Fuji really decided to pursue the professional photographers from the very start, rather than saying, ‘We’re going to go after another segment of the consumer market.’

KB: Exactly. The DSLR market is what it is, and it does take up a huge portion of the category. There’s no doubt about it. But there is that middle section, where you have – as you mentioned – the step-up area. And the mirrorless, the Micro Four Thirds and so on, they’ve targeted that very well. They keep sizing it down. They’re making it more miniature. And then, of course, you end up with these big huge lenses on there with these little tiny bodies. And that's just kind of funky. So we just went after the professionals, the enthusiasts, the people who like shooting, who like photography. That’s why we stayed with the retro dials. That’s why we stayed with something that makes you feel like you’re actually shooting a camera as opposed to a little box with a big lens on it.

Shawn Barnett: Since you mentioned that you're a photographer, what do you shoot with mostly – what do you normally do your work with? And do you see yourself moving to this system more as it evolves?

KB: Well, it’s kind of funny you should mention that. I don’t think I’m unique in this, but I’m just going to put it out there. I may be generalizing. Most of my photographer friends, and myself included, we shoot with just about everything. I have so many cameras, you just wouldn’t believe it. I shoot film, medium format, digital, panoramic, Holgas. I mean, I’ve got cameras for days.

For me, it does come down to figuring out if you’re traveling – I went on a recent trip and I had to figure out how many cameras can I take with me? I had a weight limit on the plane. And so I got yelled at. Well, you have to figure out which camera you’re going to take. So having something that I know is going to give me the quality I’m looking for is important. When I get back, I download it and see, ‘Okay, this I can work with. I can make the photos I’m looking for. I can do what I need to do with it.’ So, depending on the situation, I think that this type of camera, really lends itself to that situation. Something like this makes it easy to have two cameras. Let’s say they want to have the big SLR here, because they need that 300mm lens. But then they could have an X Pro 1 and just pocket it, and they can bring it out real quick and grab the shot and not have to worry changing their lens.

DE: The Fujifilm X-Pro1's sensor has been touted as being something really special. What can you tell us about the technology in that and how that’s going to help image quality.

KB: As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the primary things about this camera and actually quite impressive. They wanted to take the APS-C to the level of a full frame. And as you guys know, full frame, APS-C, pricing is a variable here. So in order to do that, we did go back onto our silver halide history and our rich history in the way that we’ve done film, and realized that, of course, in silver halide photography, there are no moire patterns; there is no false color. It’s a whole different, organic sort of thing, with varying size of silver halide crystals – random, basically. The reason that the low pass filter exists on most Bayer arrays is because [they're prone to producing] moire patterns, or false color. And that low pass filter is actually a pretty sizable piece of glass. In order to get the resolution we need, we needed to get rid of the low pass filter, because once you put the low pass filter in front the sensor, you have decreased resolution. In order to get rid of it, though, we had to figure out how to randomize the pixels. So instead of going with a standard Bayer array, we just redesigned the array and we made it a 6 by 6. So now, it's actually a 36-pixel array as opposed to a four-pixel array, and every single line, either vertical or horizontal, has at least one of each of the color pixels in it (an R, G or B), reducing false color as well. As far as our comparisons are going, it's equal in resolution to a full-frame sensor, and signal to noise is equal to a full-frame sensor, too.

DE: Are they doing anything with the sensor at the pixel level to increase sensitivity or light-gathering efficiency?

KB: Well, as it turns out, the light gathering efficiency is improved by the redesigned X-mount, because of the fact that the low pass filter has been removed so they could seat the lenses as close as possible. Each lens has a different register, so if you look inside the actual seating, you see there are several different steps. If you look at most mirrorless cameras, it's just a square; there's no seating. The X Pro 1 actually has several different seats for different lens types so that the rear lenses element sits as close as possible to the sensor for very short back focus. [Ed. note: The "seating" she's talking about here apparently refers to the concentric recesses in the camera body immediately behind the lens flange.]

DE: And are the lenses themselves designed to be telecentric so that they have the light exiting the lenses is perpendicular to the array?

KB: Yes, sir; yes, they do. That's part of the reason for the short back focus. Part of the reason for the design for the X mount is to make sure it goes in that way, including the different data transfers. For instance, they've changed the electrical contact pins a bit as far as the data transfer that comes through, so you're able to get modulation transfer function information, aberrations and so on. When that information comes through from the lens, anything that's shot in raw or even in jpeg, it's corrected for.

DE: So there's more communications from the lens to the camera about what the lens's characteristics are?

KB: Exactly.

AE: The lenses characteristics and it's aberration?

KB: Exactly. So it's not just the focus. It's not just the --

AE: Because you're able to transmit that chromatic aberration information, you can choose to optimize those areas of the lens that are more difficult to correct. Are there any good examples of that?

KB: Well, to that point, on the inside of this thing it actually has a focal length setting, so you are actually able to adjust in minute, millimeter by millimeter, details in case you wanted to make any kind of adjustment of whatever lens to your specifications.

DE: So there's a menu there that lets you then adjust for whatever the correction is?

KB: Yeah, you could set it to input focal length, so you're able to change whatever lens you want.

DE: I'm interested in the lenses too. In the X100, we felt that the lens was good and that it produced very sharp images but it had a ton of flare on it. It looked like the coatings really weren't up to snuff somehow. If there was a light source anywhere in the frame, you'd get a lot of flare off it. I'm wondering if you've done anything with coating technology on the X1 lenses?

KB: Yes, it's EBC coating on the lenses, so that's there. They've got ED glass, and there are aspherical elements in there. As far as that coating, as I said, it's EBC -- well, Super EBC, so it's as good as Fujinon is going to get. As far as the flare is concerned, that was also part of back focus situation.

DE: Right, it was real close.

KB: Right.

DE: So it was too close? Is that the explanation; that it was too close to the sensor? The thing that we saw was this repeating reflection that came off the lens and got bigger and bigger by stages. It seemed like it was reflecting back and forth between the lens and the sensor.

KB: Right. And there's other things that go along with that. For instance, we've changed the aperture blades. So for instance, for the X100, as you know, is a leaf shutter. And with a leaf shutter, there's no focal plane. For these lenses, they've changed the actual aperture blades, so they're molded. Normal aperture blades have squared-off edges. These have actually been sliced so that there's no reflection that comes off of them; it's completely different.

DE: Oh, so there's not a vertical stamped edge on the aperture blades that light could reflect off of; it's actually more of a knife edge?

KB: Correct.

AE: One of the questions we got on Twitter is that a couple of people with X10's were wondering about intentional resolution for -- I'm not sure if you're familiar with WDS [White Disc Syndrome], like, the orbs problem?

KB: Yeah, to be honest with you -- and this is straight up -- I never saw the orbs. I don't actively shoot into, something like that (looks up at the intense overhead lights), because... Ow, that hurts right now. I've got orbs in my eyes just from looking at that. But I did hear about it. I saw it on dpreview, and a couple of other places. Yeah, that's part of the sensor. It's part of the way it's built. To have any answers about whether or not it's being fixed --

AE: So that's going to be a mechanical thing rather than a potential firmware kind of fix?

KB: Absolutely, yeah. And the reality is that it has been brought up and they are looking into it to see what could be done.

AE: Sometimes it's just optical and there's only so much you can correct.

KB: Yeah. It's a smaller sensor, too, so it's a different size. I mean, that's all the explanation I could even dream up at this point. But I definitely don't shoot up into the light.

DE: There's been a fair bit of buzz about organic sensor technology. There's a Fuji patent that people discovered. What's up with that?

KB: That's so funny. <grins>

DE: That's not in this camera, obviously.

KB: The organic sensor has nothing to do with our imaging technology. It has to do more with the industrial side of our business.

DE: Oh, really? That's interesting.

KB: Yes. We do have a lot of R&D that goes on in the industrial side and that's where those patents were initiated.

DE: So the organic sensor technology is aimed at industrial vision systems or X-ray imaging or something of that sort?

KB: I don't know the specifics of where we are with that, but I do know that it is R&D on the industrial side. Whether or not someplace in the distant future it ends up somewhere on the photo side, then great.

AE: So, I don't know how much you follow the other news, but can you give me a quick take on the G1 X announcement, impressions on that versus the X-Pro1?

KB: Well, the G1 X is a little bit more like the X10.

AE: It's like an X10 with a much larger sensor.

KB: Right. Again, to that point, it's in  a different classification of cameras. And like I said, I'm a photographer so I have a whole bunch of different cameras. I own every Fuji camera known to man, practically. So I do keep track of different stuff like that, and I think it's definitely more of an advanced point and shoot camera. The soccer mom area that's getting into a higher level model. I would say that it's in the Nikon J1 or V1 area. And I'd say also in the G series range (we were thinking it was going to be the G13). Also the Lumix [LX5]; I'd put that into that category as well. It's not an interchangeable lens system. It's not like the M9; it's not in that category.

DE: It seems like the distinction -- relative to other mirrorless systems too -- is that the X Pro 1 is really aimed at being a professional tool. It's a substitute for an SLR, with no excuses, as opposed to being something that's just a pocket camera.

KB: Yeah, and we're calling it a premium interchangeable lens camera, or lens system. We can interchange either one, camera or system. It's not a simple mirrorless camera, because we don't want to be categorized and lumped into that same area, because we've made advancements in the APS-C sensor that are different from everybody else’s. And on top of that, we've gone to great lengths to make sure that the X mount and the lenses fit in a certain way that takes the image quality above and beyond what is considered mirrorless. So we definitely want to stay in a different stratosphere. Look, we're not Leica; it's not going to cost you $15,000 to walk out the door with one of these things – but at the same time we have a premium model here that's going to give you premium results.

DE: What about the hybrid on-sensor phase-detect autofocus was in the F300EXR? We haven't really heard about that in new models. Has that technology gone away or is that going to continue to be propagated? Do you know about that?

KB: I know just a little bit about it. I know that in this particular camera, we still have contrast on the focus system. And as far as a comparison between the X100 and this one, this is definitely a nice upgrade as far as speed and --

DE: Faster?

KB: Oh, way faster. And, of course, the lens is an f/1.4, so that also helps a lot, right? But in addition to that, we have had some conversations over the fact that there is going to be -- we are going to talk about phase focus.

DE: In this product line in the future?

KB: In this product line in the future, absolutely.

DE: That's the end of our questions; thanks for taking the time away from your busy booth!

KB: No problem!