The Fujifilm GFX 50S really is a game changer for Fuji. A medium format mirrorless camera, it combines the company’s heritage of classic medium format film cameras like the G690, GS645 and G617 with their retro mirrorless digital X Series. It’s a fascinating combination and it makes sense for a company like Fuji to fuse their decades of experience of medium format film systems with their fantastic mirrorless digital cameras to create a large mirrorless medium format camera system that targets users of professional full frame cameras like the Nikon D810, the Canon 5DR and the Sony A7R2.
It’s squarely aimed at professionals who need to print big, particularly landscape, studio and fashion photographers, and while it’s undoubtedly an expensive camera at €7000 ($6500), along with the Hasselblad X1D and Pentax 645Z it marks the dawning of “affordable” medium format digital cameras.
Like most photographers, I was curious when the camera was announced. I switched from the Nikon D800 to the Fuji X Series system as I was willing to trade off high resolution for a much easier to carry system, a system which I also found incredibly pleasing to use. The release last year of the X-T2 basically gave me everything I wanted from a camera for travelling and landscape photography, so while I was intrigued about the GFX 50S, it also struck me as a camera that resembled the the bigger DSLRs I’d been so happy to move away from.
As I Fuji X Photographer I was invited to the Portugal launch earlier this year, and using the camera in a studio environment I couldn’t help but be impressed by the image quality, so when Fuji offered to lend me the camera for a week I wasn’t about to refuse. Fortunately for me this also coincided with a trip to Italy to research a workshop, which gave me a really good insight into what it would be like to travel and shoot landscapes the GFX.
When Fuji dropped the camera off it was in a huge hardshell briefcase, the kind of thing I’d expect the nuclear football to be carried in, and it was immediately apparent that there was no way I was taking the case with me to Italy. Fuji had given me the 23mm, the 63mm and the 120mm macro lenses, and each one was pretty big. In practical terms I knew I’d need a wider range of focal lengths than that, and as I was planning on shooting video I knew I’d need to take my X-T2 along with the 10-24mm, the 55-200mm and the 18mm f2, which is my go-to video lens. So straight away it was obvious that I couldn’t take all the GFX lenses, and I quickly ruled out the 63mm and 120mm as I didn’t think I’d use either of them that much. This left the 23mm, which has a FF equivalent of 18mm, and as I knew I’d be doing quite a bit of wide angle this seemed like the lens to pack. I managed to fit all the above gear into a F Stop small ICU Pro, which I then put inside a Dueter ACT 24 litre backpack, which was pretty heavy, but not uncomfortably so. The GFX body weighs about 800g and the 23mm lens is about the same, which is quite a lot for just one camera and an f4 prime. With my old Nikon D800 the same weight would give me the body anda 17-35mm f2.8 zoom lens, which would be both faster and also cover a wider focal range, so to use this system with a range of lenses for decent focal length coverage would make it pretty bulky.
These were all my first impressions as I was packing my stuff to fly to Italy. I was excited to be able to use the camera, but already feeling that it’s size and weight were going to get on my nerves and after a two hour delay at the airport, then arriving in Rome to find my friends had been delayed by even more so I had to hang around waiting for them, all the time with the camera bag, this feeling only got stronger. However, the first time I took it out to shoot I soon began to see a different perspective…
Setting up on the tripod the camera feels like the kind of machine to use slowly. It encourages you to take your time with composition and work slowly. The usual Fuji dials for shutter, ISO and aperture on the lens barrels make working with it incredibly tactile and intuitive, and if you’ve spent any time at all with a Fuji camera you’ll feel right at home with it immediately. However, I did miss not having an exposure compensation dial as this is one of the controls I use a lot in my photography, but shooting landscapes in manual feels “right” with this camera anyway. A small LCD screen has replaced this dial and the exposure compensation control is accessed in the same way as on a dSLR, by pressing a button next to the shutter button and rotating the wheel on the back. It quickly became second nature and for this kind of shooting it’s not a problem, but if I were shooting in rapidly changing lighting conditions or shooting handheld travel photography then I think I’d quickly miss the dial. This is a small gripe though as the camera offers an incredibly solid and capable experience in the field. The bulk that had irritated me so much when I was carrying the camera now made the camera feel incredibly secure and reassuring. The camera fits perfectly in the hand with a deep grip on the front and a really good thumb grip on the back, and all the controls fall naturally to the hand. The dials are all really big and feel responsive and the menu system is exactly the same as other X Series cameras. The rear LCD screen is superb and I did most of my composition using it. It tilts in both directions like the X-T2 and using it with the screen folded out so I could look down on it really reminded my of using a Hasselblad medium format camera. Both the LCD and the EVF are big and bright, and I must admit that the first time I had the camera set up overlooking the famous cypress trees outside San Quirico d’Orcia, turning on the camera the image on the LCD looked absolutely gorgeous! It really makes you WANT to take photos, and everything about operating the camera, even the “thunk” when the shutter is tripped, just feels elegant and satisfying.
All of the Fuji film presets are there and all look as fantastic as they do on the other X Series cameras, but one thing that has changed is the Drive functionality. On the X-T2 this is a dial beneath the ISO dial, but the GFX has only the ISO controls here and instead there’s a Drive button on top of the body which activates a menu where you can select single shot, high speed, video, etc.
Another change is that the Review and Delete buttons have been moved from above the left corner of the screen to above the right. I’m not sure why Fuji did this as those buttons were perfectly placed to be able to operate with the thumb of your left hand but this new location makes them impossible to reach with either thumb whilst holding the camera as they are in the centre of the large camera body. On a tripod this doesn’t really matter as you’re not holding the camera and it’s no problem to operate them with your finger, however when shooting handheld and reviewing shots it feels very unnatural as you hold the camera with your right hand, and with your left you have to kind of reach over the viewfinder and down onto the ledge above the screen where the buttons are located with your index or middle fingers. It’s undeniably awkward with such a large camera, but it’s pretty clear that Fuji didn’t design this camera to be used as a street camera or for run-and-gun shooting. I tried doing a little street shooting around Montalcino; it’s not a discrete camera and the focus isn’t particularly quick, but really it’s churlish to criticise a camera for not doing well at something that it’s clearly not designed for. This is a camera designed for slow photography, for studio work or landscapes on a tripod, and at that it absolutely excels. It’s a pleasure to shoot with, the operation and controls are all superbly well thought out and the overall user experience is incredibly positive.
What about the image quality though? Well I never travel with my laptop, so while the images looked great on the back of the LCD I had to wait until I was back in Portugal to see them properly. Fuji RAW files’ compatibility with Lightroom is one of those issues that has been well documented, but certainly since the X-T2 came out I’ve found Lightroom handles the images perfectly well. With the GFX the files look fantastic with no sign at all of any digital artefacts zoomed in to 100%. This could be because the sensor in the GFX is Bayer rather than X Trans, but whatever the reason Lightroom has no problems at all with rendering the files.
The first thing you want to do with files like this is zoom in to see what 51 megapixels medium format looks like, and it really is incredible! At 100% there is absolutely no sign of artefacts or jagged edges, the detail completely holds up and the images are so incredibly clean and well defined.
The dynamic range was also something I was interested in seeing. The shot below was taken at sunset in conditions where I would normally have either used filters or multiple exposures to capture the whole dynamic range from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows. The GFX captured the whole range in pretty much one shot. There are a obviously a few lost highlights in the centre of the sun but everywhere else across the image is fine. There’s plenty of detail in the shadows, even the backs of the trees which I would expect to be completely black silhouettes, and not a trace of noise anywhere in the image. Once again, the detail rendered is incredible.
The capacity to pull, not only detail, but incredibly clean contrasty detail, out of the shadows is very impressive. The image below was taken in Riomaggiore, one of the Cinque Terre villages and once again I was shooting straight into the sun. This is an exposure I took to capture the highlight detail in the sky, resulting in the village and landscape infront of me being severely underexposed. Here’s the original image.
Just pulling out the shadows in Lightroom brings about a huge change and the detail there is once again incredible. Looking at the detail on the rocks with at least 2 stops of exposure pulled out there is no sign of noise and the resolution is fantastic. The colour is also superb, and the overall detail resolved is pretty breath-taking. Notice you can make out the trees on the distant horizon in the second 200% crop.
I also wanted to see how the camera dealt with higher ISOs. On one evening we were still out shooting long after the sun had set and I tried a few landscapes at ISO1000, something that I would never normally do. I also underexposed the shadows to see how much detail I could pull out later. In the original image below there is again no noise at all in the highlights, and even when pulling out 2 stops of light from the underexposed shadows the image still stands up very well. There is certainly noise when seen at 100%, but it has the appearance of film grain, and there is still in incredible amount of detail, good contrast and plenty of colour. I probably wouldn’t print this image one meter wide, but it would certainly be fine for magazine dimensions.
When I arrived back in Portugal, I decided to give the GF 120mm f4 Macro lens a go. I hadn’t taken it with me to Italy, but as I had a morning before I gave the camera back to Fujifilm Portugal I thought I’d try it out on some of the plants in my garden. Now, I’m by no means a macro photographer, in fact this is probably the first time I’d ever used a macro lens but I was curious to see how much detail the camera could pull out so I set the camera up on the tripod and pointed it at some plants. The rear viewfinder was once again superb for this kind of work, and switching to manual focus the “split screen” focus assist made it relatively easy to get a sharp image. The files themselves have a wonderful amount of detail in them, and the out of focus bokeh is both smooth and completely lacking in any noise.
I only had the camera for a week before returning it to Fuji but it was enough time to be seriously impressed by it. Like the cameras in the X System that I’ve grown accustomed to, it has a soul and there’s a tactile joy in using it. It’s a big, heavy system compared with cameras like the X-T2 and X-T20, but on the other hand it’s a medium format system that’s about the same size and not much heavier than a pro-dSLR system. It’s not designed as a travel or street photography camera, it’s designed for slow photography on a tripod, and at that it absolutely excels! There’s a limited choice of lenses available at the moment, and nothing to compare with Nikon and Canons f1.4 or f1.8 lenses, but it’s a brand new system and those will certainly come. Indeed it’s fascinating to see where Fuji take this system now they’ve stepped into the medium format market. Not so long ago a medium format digital camera like a Hasselblad H5 would come in at over $20000 but this new raft of much more affordable MF cameras from Fuji, Pentax and Hasselblad are challenging the dominance of full frame Nikon and Canon cameras with professional shooters. Of course, it’s still an expensive camera, but then again not much than a decade ago when I started digital photography the 16 megapixel Canon 1DS Mk2 was the highest resolution full frame around and was the first digital camera that seriously started to convert landscape photographers from film to digital, and it cost a thousand dollars more than the GFX does today! So the price is relative and in many ways represents fantastic value for what you’re getting, although unless you shoot editorial or billboards for a living it’s certainly going to make you think about whether you can justify owning one. It does however represent a turning point for Fuji and watching this system grow is going to be interesting over the next couple of years.
So Fuji have done a wonderful job of blending the X Series magic into a medium format system with the GFX 50S. It’s a fantastic camera and I loved using it for the week I had it, but for me I was happy to go back to the smaller, more portable X-T2 which fits my needs perfectly.
You can see a video review of the GFX 50S here, and thanks once again to Fujifilm Portugal for lending me the camera.