This morning I was greeted by Facebook with the header image of this blog post. It was taken exactly four years ago during my first visit to Tokyo. A visit that I still talk about, a trip that has opened my eyes and was the start of some amazing friendships. These memories sparked me to write something about how I experienced Fujifilm's strategy to constantly improve their products.
The land of the rising sun had always intrigued me but I never got to visit it before I received a call from Fujifilm asking me if I wanted to fly to Tokyo to meet them together with a couple of other photographers. They were sorry that there was no budget to pay us, but they would take care of the trip if we were willing to talk to them about how we saw the future of the then still rather new Fujifilm X-system. It took me exactly 0.2 seconds to say yes.
I didn't fully understand what I signed myself up for. There were some e-mails back and forth but culture differences, language barriers, crappy google translations and generally not knowing each other made the communication a bit enigmatic to say the least. So I read some online articles about Japanese etiquette, packed a couple of cameras and got on a long night flight without any sleep (imagine a 1m96 / 6ft5 giant in a tiny economy class seat and you know why I hate long flights).
When I arrived in my hotel, my mind was set on a long siesta but in the lobby I ran into two of the other invited Western photographers who convinced me to go out on the streets instead of going into my bed. The next day we were invited to Fujifilm headquarters were we had to give a presentation.
At this point I was still not very sure what we were doing there. To be brutally honest, I suspected that it would be mostly a public relations exercise. I've seen it before: a brand pampers some people with influence in their industry to get some good press. But although some publicity is always a bonus, it turned out that they actually wanted to listen to what we had to say in order to make their system better.
I knew I was going to be in good company: David Hobby, the man who learned his people to flash, Zack Arias who showed the industry that you can also be brutally honest and Kevin Mullins, who brought journalism back into wedding photo journalism. I must admit that I hadn't heard of Kevin until a couple of days before the trip but I had exchanged some e-mails with Zack and I had met David before. Although I didn't remember how attractive David is ...
I wasn't sure where I fitted in with these photography heroes but I was told we were all chosen because we were professionals who's work they liked and were known to give honest feedback.
That first day in Fuji HQ, we each gave a talk to the press about how and why we used the system in our work. These talks are still on YouTube, so if you have a couple of hours ...
We first played around a bit with binoculars and medical equipment but then we got to work.
We got to meet a number of the people who actually develop and make our cameras and saw a bunch of passionate people.
We also sat down with the engineers and designers to talk about possible improvements and future equipment. I was very surprised about the openness of the Fuji people. Without signing a single document or even having to verbally promise not to share any secrets we saw early prototypes of what would eventually become the X-T1 and the X70. We talked for hours about everything from menu structure, to button layout, sensors, film simulation. We also talked about lens design and we basically got to decide which next 5 lenses Fuji would make.
Looking back, we saw a lot of our suggestions being implemented. Some of them appeared in firmware updates only shortly after our trip, others found their way in new cameras and lenses. Just last year, Fujifilm brought their medium format camera on the market. I can vividly remember that we talked half-jokingly about a medium format mirrorless camera with a standard prime for under 10.000 dollars and now I shoot most of my work with it.
Initially the communication was challenging. The rigid Japanese corporate culture is a long way away from how a bunch of crazy Western creatives operate. But mutual respect, an honest interest in each other and a lot of crazy late nights made it work.
Only four years later the Fuji system has matured and Fujifilm has become an important player on the market for all kinds of photographers. Things have gotten a lot bigger, procedures have been installed and priorities have to be made. But Fuji is still listening to their users, probably more than ever. I don't like everything Fuji does and I never held back my opinions even when they're not positive. And the amazing thing is that Fuji has always encouraged me to do exactly that. I know this post was a bit of a trip down memory lane but it's often good to look back in order to appreciate what you have.
By the way, I had a lot of fun looking through the 900+ images I made in Tokyo. I'll share some later this week.