The Fujifilm GFX 50r: Pt I-A first look
Ngā Io O Papatūānuku
Fujifilm GFX 50r, GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro
ISO 3200, 1/750s @ f8
Return of the Texas Leica
Fuji have never made dud or boring cameras, as far as I know, and if they have ever made a bad lens, it has remained unnoticed. Their camera-design thinking has also been outside the box. There was the GFX 680, a beast of a studio camera, a cross between a view camera and medium-format SLR, which shot a 6x8cm negative on 120 film, the only camera to do so. Everybody else offered 6×7, 6×6 AND 6.45. Fuji made a 6×4.5 rangefinder as well, with a collapsible lens. Not content with that, they released rangefinders in 6×7 and a 6×9, the Fuji GW690II. The latter was a Dolph Lundgren of a camera, not for the faint-hearted or anyone seeking to do surreptitious street photography. The latter came to be known as the Texas Leica, an M6 with a fixed focal length lens made in Texas.
I had the same feeling when a GFX 50r kit, sent me by Fujifilm New Zealand to test, turned up on the courier last week. This the second Medium format digital released by Fujifilm, who have decided to bypass Full Frame and go directly to medium format, with a 50 MP medium format sensor. I knew I was the first person getting to use it, because I had to set up the menu and attach the large, comfortable neck strap. As I picked it up, I was reminded of my vain attempts to shoot festival documentary photography with the Texas Leica.
The best way to describe the Fujifilm GFX 50r is to think of it as a scaled-up XE-2/3, or a Pro-2 (without the dual viewfinder) on steroids. A lot of steroids.
I have the kit for a couple of weeks, with a brief to shoot my home place of Fiordland, New Zealand, so this is a first look and a reflection on what I have observed so far. Once I send it back, I will have time to reflect on my experience with it and write Part II of the review. The lenses supplied include the 23mm, 32-64 and 120.
Disclaimer: This is not a technical review. If you want to pixel peep or need to know how many screws are in the body, then you should wait a couple of weeks and there will be a flood of those. Stop reading now. I am not really interested in those sorts of details. I am interested in what it is like to work with and, more importantly, what the files are like. Especially that. Especially that. So, this article will be in three Parts:
- The camera
- In Use
- The files.
This is a substantial ( read: huge) camera. While it is 25mm thinner that the GFX50s, it is still BIG. If you have gone mirrorless to pare down weight and bulk, then this camera is going to throw you. 70lb weaklings need not apply. Build quality is substantial and reassuring. It is weather-sealed, so there are no issues about using it in the rain or in stormy weather. All the dials have a firm action. This is a camera built to last.
The viewfinder is located on the left of the camera like a traditional rangefinder Leica. A left-eye shooter might find it a little awkward, although when I tried it (I am a right-eye photographer), the joystick fell easily under my thumb, possibly a result of the size of the camera.
The top deck has no ISO dial as do most X-cameras. This is accessible via the Q-menu, Main menu or by customising one of the FN buttons. There is a traditional (Fuji-traditional) analogue compensation button in the top right corner.
There are two command dials, one built into the body on the upper back, and the other cunningly-concealed in the ring/collar surrounding the shutter button. Without a manual to read (not that I would have!), it took me a little time to find it.
Other than that, the layout is typically Fuji, and any user from an X-mirrorless will acclimatise easily. An hour on the couch, a couple of craft beers and it was all sorted.
It is when you take off the lens cap and begin to work with it, that it begins to dawn on you that you may have graduated from a Toyota Corolla to a Nissan GT-R R35 Godzilla. While a conventional X-series uses an X-Trans APS-C sensor (23.6 mm x 15.6mm), the sensor on the 50r is a conventional Bayer array of 51.4MP, measuring 44 X 33mm. Now 51.4MP is only marginally more than the 47Mp put out by the Sony A7 RIII’s full-frame sensor (24mm x 36mm). Theoretically there shouldn’t be much difference. However, there is. The difference is in the size of the photosites (read: pixels), which have a greater sensor surface area to occupy and can therefore be bigger. The Sony is approximately 4.51 microns vs. 5.31 microns for the GFX50r/s. The real clue comes when you open the files in PhotoShop. Each RAW file decompresses to a whopping 300Mb! Or, put another way, my 64Gb UHS-II cards (The 50r has dual slots) give me a mere *cough* 400 files.
With the batteries charged and cards loaded, I headed out for the day in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand, to see what I could produce.
As mentioned before, this is like a big XE/Pro-2 in your hands. The viewfinder is big, bright and clear. The shutter button requires a slower, more deliberate press, and the joystick on the back panel makes selecting a focus point relatively straightforward. The control buttons fall easily to hand. Note that the focus switching (S/C/M) is located on the back of the camera just to the right of the viewfinder. This is a camera, then, that seems to insist on a more considered approach. Sports and bird photographers need not apply.
Back to the car metaphor. Pretty much anyone can drive a Corolla and have a carefree drive. A GTR Godzilla is a different beast altogether. Anyone who has ever driven one knows that this is a car not to be taken lightly. It can get from A to B frighteningly quickly, but only if you have the skillset to do so. Race cars need skill several orders of magnitude above the ordinary. (Just watch Top Gear’s Richard Hammond trying to drive an F-1 Race car).
Medium Format photography is like this. The bigger the sensor the better your capture technique needs to be. Once you see what the camera can deliver, nothing less will do. The level of detail can be quite astonishing, BUT ONLY IF YOU ARE COMPLETELY ON TOP OF YOUR GAME. The merest slip in handholding, breathing or impulsiveness and the camera will bite you in the files. Having shot with Hasselblad, Phase One and Pentax, I know this only too well. The path to realising this is littered with files which were only slightly off but had lost just enough detail, and the merest trace of shake at 200% magnification to make them unacceptable. The 1/focal length rule does not apply here, particularly with the 32-64 lens, which is not stabilised. I opted for 1/3x focal length, which meant shooting hand held at no lower than 1/320-500s. I opted to shoot Uncompressed RAW. Then I went home.
I realised on my way home that the camera was so new that I might not have a RAW profile in any of the 5 Raw converters I switch between, depending on the purpose of the work. I had no need to worry. Capture One Pro 11 (V 18.104.22.168) recognised them immediately and, surprisingly the download and ingestion went far faster than files from my Fujifilm X-H1, given that each GFX50r RAW file is much larger.
I selected the files I wanted and opened the first (after conversion to a 16-bit TIFF) in PhotoShop CC 2019. And sat there stunned. For. Quite. Some. Time.
Detail is quite astonishing. Every blade of grass, piece of moss or leaf is rendered in extraordinary detail. Fine detail is exquisitely fine.
The dynamic range is amazing. One of my tips is to set the H(ighlight) and S(hadow) in the Q menu to -2, so the viewfinder will see all the DR of which the sensor is capable. Even shots with a long tonal scale held details at both ends. DR is on a par with what I could get from my Nikon D810, if not better.
Editing requires minimal work to tune the files and extract the maximum from them. A simple tweak here and there, without resorting to heavy post-production and sharpening techniques. Everything is already there in the files.
You would expect this from a Phase or Hasselblad, and it holds up with them. However, there is something here that is difficult to quantify, but it is present, nevertheless. There is a 3-dimensionality I have never seen before in a file from any camera I have ever used in the last 30 years, including negatives from a Sinar 4×5. It is hard to tell in the header image for this post, but on-screen (a 27” 4K monitor and in a print (the ultimate test), there is sense of local depth which is breathtaking. Finished pictures have a sense of 3-dimensionality I have never seen before.
Craft has always been at the core of my process. As the Great Man, Ansel Adams, put it,
The way to art is through Craft, and not around it.
For as long as I have been shooting digital (14 years), I have been chasing a near-far aesthetic where I can make A0 works of a quality and level of detail where a viewer can stand back and enjoy the whole image, and then step in close and examine a single blade of grass. Of course, you never master Craft. You only ever refine it.
Now I have a feeling that I have just moved up onto a new plane, and a whole lot closer to the realisation of that aesthetic. The detail is that fine and that exquisite.
Maybe I am finally holding the keys to that GT-R R35.
So who is it for (my thoughts so far):
- Landscape photographers.
- Fine Art photographers who want to channel their inner Gursky.
- Studio photographers who want to create portraits with exquisite and gently-transiting tonalities.
- Fine Art Minimalist Wedding photographers (is that a thing?).
- Street photographers with invisibility cloaks and nerves of steel.
- Travel photographers who want to make a statement and impress their editors (and don’t mind carrying 200TB of portable hard drives).
- Commercial photographers, with demanding clients, who cannot justify spending $100k on an MF kit.
Who it is not for:
- Wedding photographers who shoot >5000 frames per wedding.
- Motorsport photographers.
- Sport photographers.
- Surveillance photographers/private detectives.