On October 19th this year, I was able to tour the Fujifilm Taiwa Factory in the Miyagi Prefecture north of Sendai, Japan. This factory is where the GFX cameras and lenses, as well as the X100 and X-Pro line of cameras and lenses, are manufactured.
Having worked closely with Fujifilm since 2019, it was a huge honor to go see the factory where the incredible GFX line of medium format cameras is manufactured. In talking with the camera designers, they impressed upon me years ago just how challenging it is to mass produce a camera like the GFX100, 100S and now the 100 II. With my physics background, I had some idea of the challenges, but touring the factory showed those challenges quite clearly.
Of course, we were limited in what they wanted to show us and even more so in what we were allowed to photograph, which is completely understandable. Hence, all of the images you will see here in the blog post are images that we were allowed to take–and I made sure to ask before taking any images where it wasn’t clear so that I didn’t show anything they didn’t want out there in the World.
The Taiwa factory is about three hours north of Tokyo and 45 minutes north of Sendai. It took a two-plus hour bullet train ride and a 45-minute drive to get to the factory, so visiting is not an off-the-cuff endeavor. I went to the factory along with three other Fujifilm employees (one from the USA and two from Australia) and also with Toshiya, Taiji, and Tomo from the Fujifilm design team.
Upon our arrival, the top managers and engineers at the factory greeted us at the front door in true Japanese style bowing as we entered and greeting us warmly. In the lobby, the first thing I saw was one of my images printed fairly large, hanging in a glass case next to display cases with various Fujifilm cameras and lenses (shown below).
The image was one of the ones I created for the launch of the GFX100 back in 2019. Apparently, this has been hanging there since 2019, when the print was first shown in Tokyo at the 2019 Fujikina event. Needless to say, this was a pretty amazing way to start the tour and a true honor to see one of my images hanging there in the entrance lobby.
We had a quick introduction and lunch just after our arrival. At some point during lunch, I asked Toshiya if he could thank the managers and engineers for having my image out in the lobby. They immediately looked at me and were shocked that the photographer of that image was here with them, as they had not known I was connected to that image.
They seemed truly amazed that I would come to visit the factory, and later on (as shown at the end of this blog post), we took photos together in front of the print. They even asked for an autograph to put up with the print. I don’t say this to brag, I am just trying to convey how amazing it was to see my own image in print and how amazing it is to have a great working relationship with Fujifilm.
After lunch, we went into the factory alongside the engineers, and they showed us both the facility that produces lenses and camera bodies. First up, we walked by the machine that etches the serial number on lenses and cameras (shown above).
After that, we went to the clean room and suited up in Tyvek suits and masks to enter the clean room. Shown below, you can see me and some of the other Fujifilm folks in our white clean room suits. Having worked in a clean room environment in physics, this was a blast from the past.
In the first clean room, we looked at the production of the new Tilt-Shift lenses for the GFX system. They were building the new 30mm f/5.6 TS lenses, and we got to see how that process worked. This is a new and very exciting lens for many in the GFX system, and it is obviously a very complex build. Below is a layout of all the lens pieces on a display.
We weren’t allowed to photograph anything else in this facility save for our group discussion (below the TS lens outlay). But suffice it to say that we were shown just how difficult and time-consuming it is to fine-tune the optics in this new Tilt-Shift lens. I can see why it costs $3,999 USD, and honestly, I am amazed it is that cheap considering how complex it is to manufacture. I hope to get the 30mm Tilt-Shift lens at some point. Stay tuned for that.
Above is an image of Toshiya explaining to us the process of aligning lens elements and how difficult that can be. As you would imagine, each step in building complex lenses like this is very specialized. Seeing the lens manufacturing facility really gave me insight into just how hard it is to design and build the phenomenal lenses that Fujifilm manufactures. Though I can’t discuss some of the stuff we saw here on the blog, what really surprised me was just how much time it takes to really calibrate and hand-tune the lenses before they can be boxed up and shipped out.
After touring the lens facility, we went back over to the camera production building where they were building the GFX100 II camera bodies. As shown at the top of this blog post and below, the internals of any digital camera, especially with a camera like the GFX100 II, are extremely complex. At one point, we walked by a placard showing sensor defects and the images were created using a very high-power electron microscope.
I recognized the images right away for what they were and asked about them since this was pretty similar to what I worked on in my physics work back in the ’90s, but with an STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscope) which electronically images individual atoms on the surface of a chip. That placard was showing just how hard it is to create flawless image sensors with perfectly flat surfaces.
As we walked the camera production facility, we saw the build process of the new GFX100 II camera bodies in various stages. At one point, the internals were being built up and were fully exposed (as shown below). And then, just a little farther down the line, we could see how they were mounted into the camera body itself–as can be seen in the image at the top of this post.
As with the lenses, what really surprises me is that we don’t have to pay much, much more for these incredibly complex cameras. The tolerances are so small, and the details are so critical to actually making a digital camera work–even just thinking of the physical build of the camera body, not to mention the computing side of things.
It is absolutely amazing we can have a medium format digital camera for less than $10,000 USD these days. The Fujifilm engineers conveyed a few of the challenges in building cameras with huge sensors to us–and talked about how things like shimming the sensor at the factory so it is parallel to the lens mount is even more critical and difficult on the larger sensor than on smaller sensors.
After finishing up on the camera line, the engineers thought it would be fun to let us try our hand at some non-critical tasks. In this case, they allowed us to try putting the rubber cladding on the outside of a few GFX100 II bodies.
I started with the easier side opposite the grip (as shown below) and did a pretty solid job applying the adhesive and then the rubber grip to the camera. But, when I tried to do the grip side, I started out ok but then my alignment of the rubber material was a bit off. As shown below, we watched a true professional apply the rubber grip, and her work was flawless and took maybe one-fifth the amount of time when we tried.
As I said earlier, at the end of the tour, we created some images of the engineers and managers with my image up front in the lobby after our tour. We also organized a group photo of all of us to commemorate the occasion.
In that image, you can see the specialized shoes they had for us to wear in the facility. Since most of the facility is a giant clean room, it is critical to keep out dust and debris. None of us want that in our camera. Hence, the precautions and the reason for the clean room environment.
I have to say a huge thank you to Fujifilm, the staff at the Taiwa factory and the Fujifilm product design team that accompanied us for taking a full day away from their normal work to show us the factory and give us a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to create these amazing cameras.
It is a true honor to work with Fujifilm and to have these incredible tools that let me live a creative lifestyle with my work. Without all of their incredible effort and know-how, I would not be able to do what I do or create the images you see here and on my website. These cameras are truly my passport to adventure and exploration. All of us in the photo industry stand on the shoulders of the engineers and designers who develop and build the gear we use.
About the author
Michael Clark is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He has risked his life and limbs on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, big-wave surfers, and mountain bikers in remote locations around the world. If you would like to see more of his work, take a look at his website, Behance gallery, and Vimeo, follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and like his Facebook page. This article was also published here and shared with permission.