[20th February 2020]
The FujiFilm GFX system has been on my radar since its official launch in February 2017.
The idea of a 51.4 megapixel medium-format (ish) was hugely appealing to a landscape photographer but the combination of the price (£6199 at launch) and the small range of lenses was enough to prevent the dream becoming reality anytime soon.
Fast forward three years and a lot has changed. Firstly the GFX 50R came along with an almost identical specification to the 50S but with a smaller ‘rangefinder’ styled body (like a super-size X-E3) and a lower price of £3999. The 102 megapixel GFX 100 (£9999) was next to join the range with a whole host of features, such as in body image stabilisation and autofocus phase detection pixels across the entire sensor, until now only seen on higher-end full frame mirrorless cameras. February 2020 has seen the price of the GFX 100 drop to £9499 but the most significant price reductions have been the GFX 50R to £2999 and the GF50mm f3.5 R LM WR lens that has been slashed from £949 to just £499.
So, having come close to buying the GFX 50S or 50R on more than a couple of occasions, I finally decided the time (and price) was right and grabbed a GFX 50R and a couple of lenses; the GF23mm f4 R LM WR and the GF100-200mm f5.6 R LM OIS WR. My intention was to fill the gap between these lenses with either the GF45-100mm f4 R LM OIS WR or the great value GF50mm f3.5 R LM WR and the forthcoming GF30mm f3.5 R WR.
Initial impressions were very good with all of the camera functions and menus being familiar from my years of using the FujiFilm X series, the lack of a ‘D-pad’ and the buttons on the rear of the camera being rather small were my only slight annoyances. Both of the lenses had a real quality feel with the 100-200 featuring internal focusing and zoom, none of this ‘pleased to see you’ nonsense when zooming.
Once ‘out in the field’ several things became apparent fairly quickly, the main one being the sheer ‘unwieldyness’ of the camera. The GFX 50R body is rather thick and the front grip is very small, I’m sure it handles much better with small lenses such as the GF50mm f3.5 R LM WR, but even mounting the camera on to the tripod was an operation that required great care. It was also clear that even with the wide angle 23mm lens focus stacking/bracketing was essential in order to get front to back sharpness such are the depth of field limitations with a sensor of this size. Some will say ‘just stop down to f/32’, but this will just destroy the image sharpness through diffraction, f/11 seemed to be the sweet spot with the 23mm lens. The camera’s own Focus Bracketing feature was worse than useless (I’ve not found this feature to work reliably on any other camera either) but fortunately the superb distance scale on the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the rear LCD made it very simple to take a number of images at various focus points. I found the easiest method was to use the camera with autofocus and touch the rear LCD to focus at the nearest part of the image I wanted sharp and then switch to manual focus (noting the distance) before taking the first image, then it was simple to take the other images in the sequence at 1.5, 2, 5, 10 metres and finally infinity. Although easy to perform I found this method laborious and slow, even with a fast SD card it still takes time to write these huge RAW files, even more tedious was the merging together of these images in Photoshop.
The native 4:3 medium format aspect ratio also meant that a lot more of the sky would be included in the GFX images compared to the more regular 3:2 ratio found in most DSLR and mirrorless cameras. It was immediately apparent that the GFX Bayer sensor does not deal with highlights anywhere as well as the FujiFilm X-Trans sensors. I’ve not used graduated filters for many years and very rarely have I ever needed to blend multiple images together with an X series camera, with the GFX, as well as the focus stack images I found it essential to shoot separate images of the sky at minus 1, 2 and 3 stops compared to the foreground and then perform the tiresome task of merging these in Lightroom and Photoshop.
I had seen some rather nice landscape astro images online taken with the GFX 50S/50R and the 23mm lens so was keen to try this out for myself. In twilight conditions the results were excellent with very little comatic aberration (coma) and nicely defined stars, again the excellent manual focus scale in the EVF made infinity focusing simple. However, when the sky got properly dark the 23mm f/4 lens simply did not let enough light on to the sensor and raising the ISO above 3200 made no difference, increasing the exposure in Lightroom also resulted in a horrible noisy mess. This surprised me as when I had tested the GFX cameras at the Photography Shows in the past I had found the ISO performance right up to 12800 to be perfectly acceptable. Nasim Mansurov explains here that the GFX 50S/50R have ISO invariance at base ISO but for me night sky photography turned out to be another disappointing GFX experience. I would imagine that the GFX 50R would work very well on a star tracking device where a shutter speed of around 2 minutes could be used with a lower ISO of 800 or 1600.
If you have got this far, you are probably thinking that my dream camera was turning into some sort of nightmare? It got worse when I visited the remains of Duntulm Castle at the northern tip of Skye, a fair wind was blowing and the sheer bulk of the GFX 50R and the 23mm lens was acting like a wind sock, even my heavy duty tripod was in real danger of blowing over on to the rocks. I was very aware that over £5000 of equipment was on the tripod and decided to bail out, there would have been no issue to carry on shooting with any FujiFilm X or full frame mirrorless cameras such as the Nikon Z, Canon R or Sony A7 series. Both the 50S and 50R have a rather hollow feel to the bodies and neither feel really planted on a tripod in the same way that a medium format film camera does. To add to the ‘hollow’ feeling the shutter button doesn’t really feel attached to the 50R camera and gives the impression of a delay in taking the shot, I had noticed this when testing the camera before at shows but presumed this was only on pre-production demo cameras. In contrast the 50S shutter release feels positive and connected to the rest of the camera, in fact all of the buttons on the 50S feel more positive and less ‘spongy’.
Fellow landscape photographer Mark Bauer owns both the GFX 50S and 50R and I had sought his advice on many occasions in the past, the thing he mentioned the most was that “The 50S handling is better on the whole”. Maybe I would have been better off buying the 50S, and really wish I had when Park Cameras had a handful of mint condition ‘refurbs’ for the never to be repeated price of £1997! But the extra bulk of this camera with the ‘add-on’ digital back look to the rear LCD, the flimsy feeling detachable viewfinder that snags every time the camera goes in and out of the bag plus the major issue of changing the battery when using a tripod l-bracket had steered me towards the 50R.
Autofocus is something that has been widely criticised on the 50S/50R but in reality I found it to be perfectly acceptable for a camera of this type, it had no problem in tracking the RAF Typhoon jet making a low pass even tough it was very small in the frame. For landscapes I had no issues at all. A superb feature of FujiFilm cameras is being able to change the size of the focus point by a swift press of the joystick and a quick turn of a control dial, most other cameras require a dip into the menus to select ‘wide’ or ‘normal’.
There are so many features on FujiFilm cameras in general that make them so much better to use than the rest for landscape photography, here are a few GFX specific ones;
Shutter speeds of up to 60 minutes (no need for a remote/cable release and external timer)
Fairly accurate depth of field and distance scale in the EVF and rear LCD
Easy focus point size adjustment
Real dials (NOT GFX 100!), especially shutter speed and exposure compensation
Menu system that is easy to understand and navigate (no ridiculous terminology like ‘audio signals’)
Intuitive intervalometer (not like some of the convoluted systems, Nikon Z 7 springs to mind)
Touch screen focus and shoot
But would I recommended the GFX 50R? In a word no.
Image quality was superb but the famed 3D ‘medium format look’ was only possible with tedious focus stacking, this combined with the other issues meant that the overall experience just did not work for me. The process of trying to make art completely fails when the associated equipment isn’t nice, fun or natural to use. It was a crushing disappointment really, a bit like finally buying a car you had always wanted only to find it was horrible to drive.
FujiFilm have taken a brave step with the ‘almost medium format’/‘super full frame’ GFX cameras but for me a stills only full frame camera that had the best features of the 50S and 50R blended together into a Nikon Z 7/Sony A7RIII sized body with in body image stabilisation (IBIS), a decent sized hand grip, a base ISO of 25 or 32 and around 40-45 megapixels would be ideal.
So the hunt for ‘my ideal camera’ continues………