Quick history lesson. The original Lamborhini motor vehicle wasn’t the supercar you know today. They were tractors. Yes, tractors. Full-fledged farm-going vehicular tools.
Ferruccio Lamborghini always loved cars and owned Ferraris, but he hated the quality of them. Frustrated, he approached Enzo Ferrari and gave him a piece of his mind and told him how to improve his cars. Enzo’s response went something like, “Leave the car making to me, you stick to making tractors.” Batman now drives a Lamborghini Aventador.
Fast forward and cross universes to cameras. The giants such as Hasselblad and Phase One have been untouchable and left alone to rule the medium format world for some time. Sure, there’s Pentax and Leica, but it’s more like buying a Mazda Miata or a 4-door Porsche — it’s not what you think of when sports car or medium format camera comes to mind. But here we are with Fujifilm, originally a film company, pulling a move like Ferruccio Lamborghini; they’re opening the doors to somewhere that’s otherwise been locked for what feels like all of eternity.
Phase One makes amazing medium formats that few ever touch but all hope and dream of. Hasselblad is quite similar but have introduced something that seemed ground-breaking, a mirrorless medium format in the Hasselblad X1D. Now, just like Ferruccio answered to Enzo Ferrari, Fujifilm has brought out the Fujifilm GFX 50S.
Will this be a classic like the Lamborghini Diablo? Or is this a Mazda Miata in disguise? Well, I’ve got the keys and this is what I’ve learned.
Body Design and Ergonomics
I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. When you look at the X-Pro2, you think rangefinder. When you look at the X-T2, you think old film SLR. When I look at this, I don’t think retro medium format camera. It looks like an X-T2 that got a medium format sensor back permanently attached to the back of it. Now to be honest, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. This is a professional camera with professional pricing so function should take priority over form. It just feels like an area that didn’t get the attention that it deserved given Fujifilm’s recent history of creating cameras that are as beautiful to look at as they are to use.
But here’s the thing about the looks of this camera: you completely forget about it the moment you hold it and to take a shot. The grip is extremely comfortable with a generous cutout for your middle finger, and don’t even get me started on how good the thumb grip is on the back of the camera. Fully customizable buttons mean this camera makes logical sense to its owner.
Although it seemed awkward at first, the side loading battery is a really nice touch for those times you’re swapping batteries on a tripod; it doesn’t save a lot of time but it’s welcomed. The C setting on the lens is huge plus too. As much as I love the aperture rings on Fujinon lenses, sometimes there is piece of mind knowing you won’t accidentally twist it.
But on to that EVF. To be honest, this is the feature that blows everyone away when I show them this camera. No one expects it to come off because it looks and functions like an extension of the body rather than an ugly appendage after thought. Can’t say the same for other mirrorless cameras with removable EVFs.
Being able to remove the viewfinder completely, add a tilt adapter, or use it in typical fashion allows the camera to be tailored to any situation for size and comfort. I absolutely love using the tilt adapter set vertically so I can get the camera low to the ground. Of course you could use the tilting LCD but at 1PM in the afternoon on a cloudless sky, using any back LCD to judge exposure or focus is near impossible.
My only issue with the camera’s design? The neck strap mounts. This is the one part of the camera that feels retro and I wish it didn’t. While in theory, having a adapter that quick disconnects the neck strap is a great system, two issues arise. Neck straps get extremely twisted because they’re able to spin freely on its post. Secondly, if you’re using a wrist strap and connect it to one post, it puts a lot of tension on that adapter and it seems like after time the adapter is going to bend.
This sensor is huge, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s important to understand why this larger sensor is so awesome. It’s resolution, dynamic range, and highly subjective but always talked about “medium format look”.
Image quality. Larger sensor, larger pixels, and greater signal-to-noise ratio equals sharper images with far more detail than you could ever want. Take a look at the following image. Then take a look at the image next to it that it was cropped from. It’s one thing to make a high megapixel camera, but it’s another thing to make one that looks good when zoomed in way past 100%.
Dynamic range. Unreal is the only word that comes to mind. Really, it feels like you’re cheating. With this camera you’re able to pull out detail from the darkest shadows with no noise at all. What this means is I’m now able to shoot natural light and forego using a light for fill because there is just so much data in these RAW files. Just take a look below and see what bumping the exposure by 5 stops in Lightroom does.
Medium Format Look. Ask four people what the medium format look is and you’ll get five different answers. In my experience with this camera, my subjects look almost as if they’re standing in front of a fake background. The longer focal length lenses used in medium format compress more of the background into a single plane and my subjects “pop” out of the image in front of that background. Moving from X-Series APS-C cameras this difference feels pretty pronounced. From a Canon full-frame camera, not as much so, but it’s still there.
So in a nutshell, that’s the Fujifilm GFX 50S first impressions. Looks good on paper. Results seem to back it up. But cameras are about more than specs, pixel peeping, and this isn’t the first medium format camera. Over the past two weeks I’ve packed my schedule with a wide variety of scenarios to see how it handles and here’s what I’ve learned and experienced in each scenario.
No, this isn’t a hardcore purist’s landscape photo but I tend to put people in them so you have a sense of size and perspective. The first thing that I felt was the weight of the camera. Similar to my old 5D Mark II, but drastically heavier than their X-Series line means it’s too soon to get rid of those; they still have a place in my backpack. For this hike I used the Peak Design Everyday Backpack 20L which fits a GFX, GF 32-64mm, GF 63mm, vertical grip, EVF + Tilt Adapter, and tripod with lots of extra space.
Unfortunately, the EVF + Tilt Adapter doesn’t fit in this bag while attached to the body. In fact, it didn’t fit in any bag I had at home. The height of the camera increases drastically and the EVF extends back, lengthening the camera body by a good amount. When it came to using the camera I opted to stick with the EVF just because of the sunny conditions that would make seeing the back LCD difficult. I’ve taken shots at this exact spot on many occasions and it takes a lot of adjustments in Lightroom and creative masking in Photoshop to get someone to standout; they easily become lost in the image as the background tends to consume them.
Not with the GFX though, Alicia seemed to stand out from the image more and so did the road to the right of her. The only way I could describe the difference is that the road feels closer than it used to with the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 on an X-Pro2. Aside from that, the dynamic range just saves you time. You don’t need to shoot multiple exposures and blend them with luminosity masks or use ND filters to blend exposures in camera. I can easily push the shadows slider without the image falling apart, all while maintaining a really natural image.
Due to the lack of phase detection autofocus, this was a little trickier. The GFX really needs a contrasty spot to focus on or it won’t focus at all. However, if face detection works, it locks on confidently, but due to the heavy backlight and lack of contrast it doesn’t always do so. Besides the focus, the greatest strength lies in the shadow recovery. I can easily bump up the shadow slider to + 100 in Lightroom and all of the dark areas come back naturally with no noise introduced. Whereas on a older camera with less dynamic range, it would have shifted the image in an ugly way.
A huge let down to many people was the 1/125th of a second sync speed, everyone said it should’ve been higher, but it hasn’t been an issue for me at all. In fact, I’ve had the opposite problem. Getting the depth of field desired could require shooting at a smaller aperture between f/5.6-f/11. In a dark environment like a forest, that could mean dragging the shutter along at 1/30th-1/50th of a second if you’re trying to maintain base ISO for greatest dynamic range. That translates to this camera needing to sit atop a tripod more often than not when shooting with lighting.
But in this camera’s defense, I’ve been able to handhold a few of those shots and get amazingly sharp images without image stabilization. The above shot was taken in a shady baseball dugout on a bright sunny day and the shutter speed was 1/100th of a second with no ND filters used. Of course if she was out in the sun, the sync speed would be an issue but that’s what ND filters are for. With HSS in the near future and global shutters on the somewhat distant horizon, lenses that lack leaf shutters aren’t that big of a deal.
Focus is so important when you’re blowing up these images large and the face detection does that so well. Similarly to the X-Pro2, I put complete faith into the face and eye detection and it nails it every time. If for some reason I can’t use it, the 425 focus points are amazing as well. I’d rather place the AF exactly where I need it rather than focusing and recomposing. Sure, it’s a lot of focus points and using the joystick on the back can be slow, but that’s where the touch screen becomes oh so handy.
I found that taking my face away from the viewfinder and tapping where I want to focus was quicker than using the joystick and slowly moving across the viewfinder to get the right AF point. However, one issue has carried over from the X-Series bodies. When my subject is just a little wider than the AF point, more often than not, the camera will focus on the background instead of my subject. Zooming in and checking focus is easy with the EVF but it’s one thing I wish I wouldn’t have to worry about.
Do You Drop Used Corolla Cash for this Camera?
I need to print large, I need more dynamic range, I have a ton of old medium format lenses to adapt, I just sold my Mom’s Prius without her knowing and I need to burn this cash before she realizes it’s missing. All valid reasons to buy a GFX 50S. Reasons you shouldn’t? I only post on Instagram, I switched to mirrorless because my SLR was causing back and neck problems, I make my living photographing Supercross, I have $200,000 in student loans from grad school.
I know that photography is about the person and not the camera, but with this camera, to a certain degree, it kind of isn’t. The dynamic range is a huge selling point and it changes the way you can shoot entirely. Being able to pull out all of that detail in the shadows with no noise at all is huge. Not only does it speed up the shooting process, it speeds up the post-processing as well. So if you’re someone who sees value in that, which should be every working professional, I would consider jumping ship from whichever brand you’re currently loyal to.
But beside the ease of use and lack of processing required, that medium format look has been a huge gain. I’ve sent some of the photos to the companies I collaborated with for these photos and they’ve asked what I did differently. Exact words were “something special” and “a different type of clarity than you normally produce”. On my end I haven’t done anything different, so if the medium format system does that much for me, I think it’s a way to differentiate yourself from others in a subtle way. You just need to decide if that difference is worth the entry fee.
Is the GFX 50S a Lamborghini?
Undoubtedly yes, it’s a Diablo. Or a Countach. The Fujifilm GFX 50S is the camera that will start to democratize medium format the same way the Canon 5D Mark II democratized film making. Focal plane shutter means you can adapt medium format lenses or full frame lenses and get crazy thing depth of field. Electronic viewfinder, 425 autofocus points, and face detection are all selling points to pull people away from their full frame cameras or their slow medium format DSLR.
Sure, there are some sore spots to some like the sync speed or lack of phase detection autofocus. But at the end of the day when you’re looking at the images on your computer you’ll still tell yourself damn, I just drove a Lamborghini.
About the author: Allan Higa is a Hawaii-based lifestyle and travel photographer. You can find more of his work on his website, or by following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.