The beginning of 2016 marks 5 years since Fujifilm first launched the Fuji X100 camera. Since then they have dramatically expanded their product line to bring us new cameras, new firmware upgrades for our existing cameras, new lenses, and new accessories.
Fuji fans tend to be a loyal bunch, and one thing you will often hear from them is that “Fuji listens”. In my experience this is definitely true. Fuji maintains a strong presence on social media, they attend the major trade shows, they have developed a roster of talented brand representatives called the Official Fuji X Photographers, and perhaps most importantly they have a dedicated group of product specialists called The Fuji Guys. This serves to provide a conduit from Fujifilm directly to the end user of their products.
As a reviewer and user of Fuji X cameras for my personal and commercial work I have come to know some of the fine people at Fujifilm Canada, and I am lucky enough to live in the same city as one of The Fuji Guys, a gentleman named Gord Webster. With the recent 5 Years of Fuji X Celebration that was just held in Japan, and with the launch of several new products including the much anticipated Fuji X-Pro2, I thought it was a great time to sit down with Gord and talk about his background, his personal philosophy towards photography, and of course all things Fuji.
I hope you enjoy it…
Thank you for being part of this interview series Gord. Can you start by talking a little about your personal journey with photography?
My journey with photography started somewhere around age 6 or 7 when my dad gave me my first camera. He worked in the camera department of one of the local department stores, back in the heyday of the sixties and seventies when the department stores were recognized as an “all in one” store. I can remember back when I was 8 or 10 reading a few of the old Kodak books on photography that explained how things worked, i.e. the relationship between shutter speed and aperture. This was back in the film days of course, when you had to pre-plan your shots because you only had a finite number of frames on a roll of film. I think that this helped form my philosophy of doing as much as you can before you push the shutter button. There was very little post processing back then, unless you did your own work in the darkroom.
Over the years I worked in a few different camera stores here in Metro Vancouver, including Kerrisdale Cameras and Lens and Shutter. I didn’t work in sales, instead spending my time in the warehouses, on logistics, and in head offices. I think because I wasn’t in a sales position talking about photography everyday that it probably helped keep my love of photography simmering.
In 1989 I had my first gallery exhibit of prints, shot on 120 film that I printed myself at 16” x 20” and framed. In those days I was shooting a lot of landscapes, cityscapes, abstracts, and macros on a Pentax 645 medium format camera. I also shot a few weddings, but quickly found that they were not for me. Photography was always my stress free hobby, and weddings certainly didn’t fit into that description.
How did that lead to you working for Fuji?
I was working at Kerrisdale Cameras at the time, and got lured away to work for Fuji on the order desk in 1987. This was back when Fujifilm Canada had an office in Vancouver that had upwards of 30 people working in it between the technicians, sales people, etc. At that time Fuji sold a lot of photographic film, motion picture film, and audio and video cassettes for the broadcast industry.
You have worked for Fuji for quite some time, and now serve as one of the Official Fuji Guys. What changes have you seen in Fujifilm over the years?
The changes I have seen in Fuji over the years are really reflective of the photography industry as a whole. Back in the mid nineties everyone was using film, and of course almost every shot you took you got back as a print. The digital era has dramatically changed this of course because most people no longer carry a device that is just a camera, and very few people print now either. A large segment of the general public now use smart phones and tablets as their primary imaging device, and perhaps more importantly as their primary sharing device rather than printing.
The sales of film peaked in the early 2000s, and at that time people were printing 99% of the images they captured. I would say it is now the exact opposite, where we are seeing less than 1% of all images captured being printed. That really turned Fuji on its ear as far as the business model was concerned.
Fujifilm’s imaging business is now less than 15% of their overall business. It’s important to remember that everywhere in the world outside of North America it is actually Fujifilm / Xerox, and document solutions play a very large part of Fuji’s overall business. Fuji is also still heavily involved in printing, but course this is too is changing as more and more things move online.
Having said that, at the recent 5 Years of Fuji X Celebration Fujifilm President Shigehiro Nakajima said that:
“At the heart of our company is, and always will be, photography. This is why X series is so important to us.”
So even though imaging makes up a small part of Fujifilm’s overall portfolio, photography and the imaging business are still very much at the heart of what we do.
To me there have been two significant shifts in the industry in the last decade. One, as we have discussed, was the shift to digital and the decline in film sales. The second, which is still ongoing, is the advent of smart phone cameras and the subsequent decline in the sale of point and shoot cameras. That is a change that must have dramatically affected Fujifilm’s direction.
Before the Fuji X100 came along in 2011 that had many people wondering what the future of Fuji had in store for it. The compact camera market was already in decline, and Fujifilm did not have a DSLR camera to compete in the higher end market. Going back many years Nikon and Fujifilm had a collaboration where Nikon built the bodies, and Fuji built the sensors. When that relationship ended Fuji moved away from the high end market to concentrate on the compact camera market, which then took a hit when smart phone cameras became prevalent.
Since the Fuji X100 came along there has of course been a significant uptake again in Fujifilm’s market position. In Shigetaka Komori’s (Chairman and CEO, Fujifilm Holdings Corporation) book, Innovating Out of Crisis, he talks about how Fujifilm foresaw this industry change, and how they were able to shift the production and direction of Fujifilm corporately to adjust to a changing market.
Was the X100 a “weather balloon”, or was it a purposeful shift to move Fujifilm’s camera line in a specific direction?
That’s a great question. It is my understanding that it was more of a weather balloon, with initial sale expectations being modest. Then it took off, and we went “hang on, we’re on to something here”… which led to the expansion of the X lineup.
Can you talk a little about the evolution of the Fuji Guys, and what your current role entails?
The “Fuji Guys” were started in Canada around 2010, by a gentleman named Greg Poole who at the time was, and still is our Vice President of Photo Imaging. Greg saw YouTube as a vehicle to explain things about our cameras to existing users, and he and Billy Luong started creating videos that detailed the cameras currently in Fuji’s lineup, as well as other photography related topics. Through this Greg and Billy became known as The Fuji Guys, and became the face of Fujifilm North America.
Over the years the program has evolved, and The Fuji Guys has become its own brand. Now Fujifilm in other countries, who are also engaged on social media, have started to rebrand their trainers and corporate spokespeople as Fuji Guys too. There are fairly regular meetings now with the worldwide Fuji Guys group, to collaborate on projects and distribute the workload.
My day to day duties are centered around being the Fujifilm product specialist for Western Canada. Fuji has a separate sales force that deals with the independent and corporate photo stores, but often those stores are looking for an in store experience too. At these stores, as well as various other trade shows and events, we will often have a Fuji Guy there to provide product expertise.
Day to day I also work with our social media. We are active in many areas, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. One of my tasks is to monitor and respond to the questions asked on videos posted on The Fuji Guys YouTube channel. Some of these questions are easily answered, while with others I collaborate with the other Fuji Guys, our staff at the factory in Japan, etc. I also help collate the feedback people provide to us via Fuji’s social media and forward it along to the factory for consideration. These interactions and the feedback play a large role in the evolution of the Fuji X series.
As the West Coast Fuji Guy, how much time do you spend on the road?
A lot. I travel often to Calgary and Edmonton, and somewhat less frequently to Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg. Of course locally here in BC I go to the Okanagan and to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
You were recently in Japan for the 5 Years of Fuji X Celebration. As a long time Fuji employee what did that celebration mean to you?
That was an incredible honor for me. It was my first time traveling abroad for Fujifilm, and it really cemented in my mind how much Fujifilm cares about its employees. It provided an opportunity for me to share my experiences with my peers from around the world, and it was incredibly humbling to be there with the 500 other guests from around the world who were invited (executives, Fuji X Photographers, special guests, etc).
Fujifilm Tokyo’s staff took phenomenal care of us throughout the trip. The tour of the factory in Sendai, where some of our products are made, was a once in a lifetime experience for me. It was just amazing to see the amount of intricate detail that goes into the design and construction of our lenses, for example. Everything is hand built, with incredible attention to detail. I remember standing behind the employees building these lenses in a group of 30-40 people. We were all taking pictures, and the employees were so focused on their tasks that they took no mind of us. No one looked over his or her shoulders. It was an experience that I will remember for a long time.
Without a doubt the star of the show at the celebration was the new X-Pro2. I have been working with a review copy for a week or two now, and think it is a fabulous evolution of the series. What do you think about the current state of mirrorless camera technology, both in areas of excellence and where there is still room for growth?
Mirrorless cameras have evolved dramatically over the last few years, and they are very much a viable option now for those seeking a professional or semi-professional camera. Their compact size also makes them advantageous to DSLR cameras in some ways.
Some of the advances that have occurred in mirrorless technology recently include the refresh rates for the electronic viewfinders, which have come leaps and bounds. The autofocus systems we use have improved significantly over the last few years also. We are always working to improve this of course.
In regard to areas for improvement I would say battery life is an area that can be improved. Mirrorless cameras drain batteries much quicker than their DLSR brethren, because their sensor is always on. There needs to be an evolution in this area. Bigger batteries are not a feasible option, as one of the primary goals in designing mirrorless cameras is size.
Fuji has an incredibly loyal fan base. What do you think it is that attracts people to the Fuiji X system and builds such strong brand loyalty?
That is something that Toru Takahashi, one of Fuji’s managers, talked about at the 5 Years of Fuji X Celebration. He said that cameras should be intuitive, that a camera is an extension of the photographer and not just a tool or a device.
Many cameras over the years had become very feature centric. Fujifilm wanted to go back to that somewhat “old school” thinking of having the aperture ring on the lens, and a real shutter speed dial as opposed to a command wheel that can be programmed. It reminds me of a vintage philosophy. Going back to 35mm film photography there was a reason why the aperture ring was on the lens, why the shutter speed dial was on the camera, why the shutter button was on the right hand side. It had developed over time to become an intuitive system.
Some camera manufacturers over the years have tried to radically reform that design. Some ideas have worked, some not so much. Fuji’s philosophy is to make their cameras intuitive to use, but still continue to innovate for the lovers of photography.
I’ve often felt that the classic film cameras had evolved over time to a state where they were ergonomically spot on… that the engineers had built the perfect mousetrap. I think a lot of that engineering was lost when the digital market exploded. Fuji’s current designs remind me of those days.
Yes. We have that classic exterior and ergonomic design, but with all of today’s cutting edge technology inside the camera. Things like our jpeg algorithms, where you can develop the picture in camera and have it come out looking exactly the way you want before you click the shutter.
Taking a page back into Fuji’s history it is important to remember that Fuji and Kodak provided the original image sensors for cameras. Fuji places great value on image processing, so that the camera produces the best image possible right out of the camera.
Many of our Fuji photographers now shoot RAW plus jpeg, but tell us they don’t do anything with the RAW files anymore because they are happy with the jpegs the camera produces. This frees up much of their post processing time, and lets them focus more on the joy of photography.
Getting back to the brand loyalty aspect, Fuji has been very generous over the years in regard to free firmware upgrades. Many people have said to me that they feel like when they talk to Fuji it is a two way conversation, and that Fuji is listening. How actively does Fuji listen to its user base?
You would be surprised how much engagement there is with Fuji’s end users. There are many different ways people can reach out to us, either via social media or face to face at the various trade shows and functions we are physically at. I have had people come up to me several times and say “hey, can I give you a suggestion for the engineers back in Japan?” and the answer is yes, of course, that is one of the reasons why we are here.
That information does make its way back to our engineers, who often incorporate it into firmware upgrades or future products. And let’s face it, developing firmware upgrades for multiple products is not an easy or cheap thing to do.
Fuji has built a network of talented photographers, the Official Fuji X Photographers. It is through the works of these photographers that many people, including myself, first discovered the Fuji brand. What can you tell us about the origins of the Official Fuji X Photographer group, and how they work with Fuji?
The X photographers evolved shortly after the X100 was introduced. We identified the fact that we needed to have a group of professional photographers who could extoll the virtues of the X cameras to the photography community.
Over the years, as the X series has grown, so has the line up of Fuji X photographers. Each subsidiary of Fujifilm has their own guidelines for working with and selecting their Official Fuji X photographers. Fujifilm Canada feels very blessed and honoured to be working with our group of talented photographers. The Canadian Fuji X photographers are a very diverse group, featuring portrait and fashion photographers, street photographers, etc. They are a lot fun to work with, and the relationship is very collaborative.
Focusing on your personal work, who do you draw your inspiration from? Do you have any favourite artists that you find yourself drawn to?
I draw my inspiration from everyday experiences and everyday life. When I am out and about I always have a camera with me, and shoot whatever draws my eye. I don’t find myself inspired by specific photographers, but definitely by specific photographs.
I would call myself a purest when it comes to photography. I want to make all of my decisions before I click the shutter, and find that a lot of the work I see out there today is over processed for my tastes. I want to be a photographer when I am being a photographer, which is a bit of an old school film approach. When I think about photography I’d rather push the shutter button than push the mouse button, and I definitely don’t want to push all the buttons I have just because I can.
I think this brings us back to Fujifilm’s philosophy when it comes to photography: Let’s get the image perfect in camera. I use the film simulations, but I use them in camera. Fuji’s RAW conversions are fabulous, and if you take a little bit of time the jpegs that come out of the camera are basically done.
I know you have some time off coming up, and I’m sure you’ll be shooting. When you take time to shoot for your own work what gear do you use, and what do you enjoy photographing?
Great question. Because I have the entire line of Fuji’s products at my disposal I have become a little bit fragmented, and I hadn’t ever really picked up a “go to” camera. A little over two years ago my old Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro got stolen, and I replaced it with a Fuji X-E2 as my personal camera. This has become my “go to” camera, especially now that I have firmware V4.0 installed on it. I basically have a brand new camera again, even though it’s over 2 years old.
With that I use the Fujinon 18-55mm “kit lens”, which is a pretty phenomenal lens. I also have the Fujinon 10-24mm and the 55-200mm lenses. Those are my 3 main lenses, and they nicely cover a decent range. I’m not so much a prime shooter, but I did recently buy the 35mm f/2 and I’m working with that lens now also.
Now, having said that, when I leave next week for Hawaii I will simple be taking a Fuji X30. It’s very small, it’s easy to carry, and it has a decent zoom. This is a perfect camera for me when I am traveling, because the photos I take will be for personal use. There is also something to be said for traveling light with just a small camera, and the battery life on the X30 is fabulous.
When I am out shooting I would say that I love the spontaneity of things. My eye might be attracted to a strange colour combination, to juxtaposition, to something abstract, to a beautiful vista, and I love capturing it right in camera. It is an organic process for me.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview Gord. Do you have any final thoughts or comments?
First off I’d like to say thank you for the opportunity to sit down and talk photography. The last 5 years have been a wonderful experience for me, and it has been an exciting challenge to keep up with the explosive growth of the Fuji X series and the love that people have for these cameras.
I think that we are finally getting back to just being able to say “here’s a camera, go take photos”. We are talking about photography again much more than the tools, and I am really enjoying that. Thank you.
I’d like to say thanks to Gord for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. Like everyone I have worked with at Fuji Canada, Gord goes out of his way to be helpful and responsive and it is always appreciated!