Machine to Companion: One year with the GFX 50S

Ever since my very first X100, I’ve made distinctions between cameras. Some quickly become a part of me, not just extensions—a threshold most fine tools eventually cross—but something more intimate. Others I consider machines, precise instruments that don’t necessarily pull at my heartstrings but are perfectly suited to the work I need to do. The X-T1 was like that. The X-Pro1 was too...at first. Because sometimes, somewhere along the way, that relationship can change.

I purchased the GFX 50S as a tool. A machine. And over the course of the past year I’ve used it constantly on various jobs, often alongside X series cameras. But just like the X-Pro1 all those years ago...it’s become more than it initially was.

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The pull of medium format

Everything I’ve ever said about the X series remains true to this day. I still love the footprint, the stealth, the psychological impact of these cameras on subjects—either aware or unaware of a shot being taken. I’ll never travel with the GFX 50S and it’ll never become my 1EYE camera. But those files...they’re incredibly hard to dismiss. After all this time I’m still struggling to express the pull they have over me, but it remains impossible to brush off: I get a visceral reaction to the images I shoot with it. If the role of our tools is to inspire, then the goal of this camera has been met, tenfold. No question. The result of course, is that I’ve been willing to compromise on stealth: I’ll now reach for the GFX in situations where I usually would’ve chosen an X-Pro or X100. Which may seem like a serious  shift...until you factor in the beat.

Rhythms

The GFX 50S isn’t slow—especially for a medium-format camera. But it IS slower than its APS-C siblings. It uses contrast detection, for one. The files are also much larger which, regardless of storage prices, is definitely something floating in the back of my mind as I’m shooting; in raw especially. All of this, combined with the camera itself, affects the rhythm somehow. But this is not a negative in my mind. In many ways it brings me back to my early days with the X series, the way the system made me much more aware of each moment, more deliberate in my approach to photography. It’s amazing how much evolution we’ve seen in such a short period of time—how far we’ve come from that X100. But it’s also easy to fall back into that “performance-driven” groove, to forget about slowing down when the cameras don’t force us to do so. Medium-format photography nudges me back into that softer flow. Yes, the footprint is larger...but the intent is familiar. For me, the lineage is clear and very much welcome.

 

Another detail I’ve mentioned in passing a couple of times: the addition of the EVF Tilt-Adapter, which was an important turning point in my relationship with the GFX. This is the small revolving plate that fits between the camera and the —brilliantly designed—removable viewfinder. I first used it on the shoot we did in Toronto for the Lexus+GFX video. Before this I’d only spent a few minutes with it and never while actually working. This small change—being able to look down into the viewfinder for instance—suddenly transformed the camera into a very different tool. Different from my other cameras that is. It gave me a new point of view and ADDED an element to my photography workflow, beyond the bigger sensor. Needless to say it’s stayed glued to the GFX ever since. The only times I remove it is for packing.

Expansion

Ok, enter the rabbit hole. With this camera taking on an ever increasing role in my work, I’ve looked at expanding my visual options. So the initial GF 63mm f2.8 has since been joined by the GF 120mm f/4 Macro, a Pentax 50mm f/1.7 (through a Fotodiox adapter), and recently the superb GF 110mm f/2.

 Family picture

Family picture

The 120 and 110 may seem redundant—they are. I first chose the 120 for its macro abilities on this system which, physics being inescapable, is much less accommodating in terms of minimal focusing distance. And I’m glad I did. It’s both superb and handy. But I now believe the 110 is (so far) the GF line’s magic lens ...much like the 56 f/1.2 or 35 f/1.4 on the X series. Don’t ask me to explain why, I just feel it. Yes, shallow DOF but more importantly character, imprint...something.

What I’m “missing” in this system is a super-wide zoom along the lines of the XF 10-24mm. But I’m using quotation marks because...I do have the XF 10-24mm don’t I? I know. I told you this was a rabbit hole.

 Fun with the electronic shutter...

Fun with the electronic shutter...

Conclusion

A few years ago I spoke of the possibility of a medium-format camera as a companion to the X series—how, in my mind at least, there was a logic to using both systems in tandem. A philosophical kinship if you will. Today I know this to be absolutely true: apart from a size and ergonomic shock when shooting systems side by side (which will be less obvious once the X-H1 arrives), both make sense as a pair. Both complete one another.

Now in some cases, I admit, the GFX 50S has added a layer of uncertainty—I need to think for a second or two before choosing which camera to pick up. But then, every new piece of gear usually has a similar effect, taking away from simplicity. It’s called the paradox of choice and, well...such is life. I consider myself very lucky to even have these choices.

And man, one year in...I don’t regret a single moment.
I've found the soul in the machine.

Under the Highway, Next to the River.

There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.
— Federico Fellini

Shot with the GFX 50S and GF 110mm f/2 R WR. Instant images shot with the Instax Wide 300.


​The Process: Toning for Mood

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Colour is tough. When processing black and white images, contrast and density make up the bulk of our vocabulary; with colour the dictionary explodes. And where a monochrome process will automatically unify a series of photographs without much effort, colour can easily make an awful mess of things. Over saturation, unnatural tones, unwanted colour casts...all these elements—unless intentional and part of the narrative—can diminish the strength of what we’re attempting to communicate.

I tend to believe in a less is more approach but this doesn’t mean we can’t experiment and push boundaries: as always, we just need to build on what already exists in the photograph. Extending as opposed to imposing. Simply put, it’s always about making sense. With this in mind, let’s take a look at colour not as the main focus but as a “mood enhancer”.

We feel colour before we see it. It’s a physical response based on how we decode, based on our environment and the spectrum of the world around us—night and day, summer and winter, hot and cold. Movie posters use this extensively to very quickly communicate a film’s “personality”: if it’s blue/green and slightly desaturated, chances are we won’t be expecting a romantic comedy. At the subconscious level we know what certain colours represent, regardless of cultural differences.

Cornucopia: Curves, Levels, Wheels and Split Toning

Boy that’s a lot of options. When it comes to manipulating colour, there’s no dearth of tools at our disposal these days. And although each requires its own approach, they‘re all based on the same concept: targeting a colour channel along an exposure axis, from shadows to highlights. So let’s first look at the most common and visual one of all: the humble RGB curve. In Adobe parlance this would be the Tone Curve but set to RGB mode, not the default sliders. The great thing about this tool is its ubiquity: most apps offer a version in one shape or another. Which means all of the following tips can be applied regardless of the software we’re using—it’s the fishing rod as opposed to the free bucket of fish. Here’s how it looks in three well-known desktop apps (Lightroom, Capture One and Luminar 2018):

And mobile apps (Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom CC Classic Mobile):

In each case the principle is the same: the top of the curve represents the highlights, the bottom represents the shadows. Points can be added anywhere along the line to manipulate all values in-between by raising or lowering each point. In full RGB mode this will affect contrast because we’re processing all colour channels at once—I’ve previously written about this here if you’re interested. But if we switch to an individual channel—red for instance—then any control point will now affect the amount of this very specific colour...in the shadows, highlights or everything in-between. The curve still represents the same thing but we’re manipulating colour instead of contrast/exposure. Let’s look at example to make this a bit clearer. In the following image I’ve selected the blue channel but there’s no curve applied yet.

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Now, let’s say we wish to affect only the deep shadows in the image. To accomplish this we add two points to our blue channel curve. Why two? Because with the top and bottom points this gives us an equal distribution across the curve. Think of each point as a lock in this case: we’re making sure our curve will remain linear everywhere except in those shadows we’re targeting.

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Right, so let’s raise the lower point and see what happens.

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By raising the blue channel in the lowest portion of the curve, we’ve added a blue tint to the shadows of the image.

Now, from this point on anything is possible: the same principle can be applied to any colour channel and any point on the curve.

If we look at levels in C1 for instance (no such thing in LR), the concept is similar but instead of an infinite number of possible control points we get three main controls across the histogram: shadows, midtones and highlights.

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The difficulty with curves or levels however, is that affecting only a single channel at a time (red, blue or green)—while precise—can sometimes make it awfully hard to achieve a specific overall tone: lower the red and blue gets punched up, raise green and you now have magenta...it’s a whack-a-mole three-way balancing act, with each value immediately impacting the others. It’s often more complex than what we really need. In most cases, I turn to Colour Balance (C1) or Split Toning (LR).

Subtleties

I wrote about colour wheels way back in the Aperture days so switching to Capture One and its Colour Balance tool really felt like coming home. The big difference with wheels, compared to the tools we just discussed, lies in how colour is affected: as a whole as opposed to per channel. So for instance, pushing midtones towards green doesn’t push the green channel—it actually makes midtones green. Period. The mathematics are different. It’s more like applying a tint. Capture One offers three wheels: All, Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. I use this tool enough that I’ve created a tab in my workspace where I can see each individual wheel at a glance.

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With colour wheels we can very quickly add or subtract warmth, tint the shadows or highlights, all individually. Capture One also provides individual sliders for saturation and brightness making it very easy to pinpoint the intended effect. It’s extremely powerful.

Lightroom doesn’t offer anything close. But Split Toning—a tool usually reserved for emulating tinting processes in monochrome—can provide surprising results when looking to simply tweak the mood of a colour image. Try experimenting with very subtle values using the shadow slider (tinted highlights tend to be less natural and more obvious to the eye).

Shaping colour this way, altering or skewing the tones, can be a very effective way of creating visual continuity across a series of pictures. The following essay from May 2017 is a good example of this: tinting was used to intensify the feeling of heat and warmth that was already present in the images but not as obvious out of camera.

 Two versions: processed and unprocessed (note: I used my Soft Classic Chrome in-camera preset + warm white balance as a starting point). 

Two versions: processed and unprocessed (note: I used my Soft Classic Chrome in-camera preset + warm white balance as a starting point). 

 The colour balance settings.

The colour balance settings.

In my March 2018 KAGE essay the approach is similar but the effect is diametrically opposed: less saturation and much colder tones result in a very different mood. Yes, I know lighting and subject are part of it as well...don’t get smart with me guys. You understand the point I’m trying to make here ;)

 Again, colour balance settings. Really subtle but still visible.

Again, colour balance settings. Really subtle but still visible.

Conclusion

I love the power and intensity of black and white images. I love how immuable they are, how timeless. Colour photography will always be a challenge because it moves with the times in a way monochrome never will; probably because the latter is not actually part of our reality—our only frame of reference for monochromatic images is photography itself. As I said, colour is tough. But beyond purely naturalistic renditions, the prize is a second, third and fourth layer to play with.

The trick is in finding the right mix...and convey the proper message.

P.S If you’re interested in continuing the analysis, I touched on several of these points (using a “real-world” situation) in the following post: All the Green We Wanted | A technical Follow-Up

Artefacts I

ARTEFACT (ˈⱭːTꞮˌFÆKT) OR ARTIFACT
N
1.SOMETHING MADE OR GIVEN SHAPE BY MAN, SUCH AS A TOOL OR A WORK OF ART, ESP AN OBJECT OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL INTEREST
2.ANYTHING MAN-MADE, SUCH AS A SPURIOUS EXPERIMENTAL RESULT
3.(BIOLOGY) CYTOLOGY A STRUCTURE SEEN IN TISSUE AFTER DEATH, FIXATION, STAINING, ETC, THAT IS NOT NORMALLY PRESENT IN THE LIVING TISSUE

The sprawling Irving Penn exhibit I saw in Stockholm lives with me still. Namely his simple yet effective skull images: just a few monochromes on a white background. Nothing fancy, no tricks...just the purity of a subject without artifice. Anytime I get mired in complexity, someone or something throws reality back at me—and I remember we don’t need sixteen lights or a huge Hollywood production. We just need the desire to see.

My dad traveled the world on a freighter ship in his youth, back when a boy could escape without so much as a backward glance. From the Arctic circle he brought back a hunter figurine; from Africa, a couple of strange acrobats. Much later, while on a business trip somewhere in Canada, he bought me a necklace carved in caribou teeth. All of these sparked my imagination—the concept of political correctness still lost to a much distant future.

Then there’s the other necklace I found in my mom’s jewelry box one day, the one I wore on stage for years; the creepy baby teeth hidden away, slowly dissolving in the drip of decades. I wanted to see these artefacts again, to record them like Penn’s skulls.
Without makeup.
Without ruse.


Shot with the GFX 50S and GF 120mm f4 LM OIS R WR (Acros film simulation)


Gratuitous & Full Circle

Here we are, on the cusp of yet another Christmas Day—which also means the year is almost over as well. Captain Obvious here, offering invaluable insight to the masses since 2009...you’re quite welcome ;)

I want to say a quick thank you to all those who’ve already purchased the new 1EYE, ROAMING books—I’m very grateful and hope you’ll enjoy the journey. But beyond products: a huge thanks to all of you for being here, period. I’m well aware that this blog can veer into very personal territory at times, content that—while I try and inject knowledge here and there—isn’t necessarily educational. And admittedly, this year was a bit of a transition for me, moving away from difficult times in 2016 (on a personal level) and embracing new realities, new ways of working that impacted the time spent on the blog. I also went from a productivity-fueled Todoist workflow to an absolute repudiation of organization as a whole. Backlash. Now I’m back to a more balanced approach with Things; I might write about this in the New Year, we’ll see. Ideally, I’d like to come back to a more regular publishing schedule—but no, this is not a resolution. Resolutions are where goals go to die. It’s a psychological issue I’m sure.

I didn’t know how to end 2017, what note to strike on this last post. Then yesterday I started messing around in the studio and picked up my dusty old X100—the original one, no bloody S, T or F (I’m paraphrasing a Star Trek TNG reference here in case you’re not as geeky as I am). Anyway, this somehow made sense: shooting the little APS-C camera that started it all with its medium-format grandchild. It’s a bit like coming full circle if you think about it.

Alright, let’s go educational for a bit...if only to contradict what I just said. Here’s a shot of the setup:

That’s a Profoto A1 with Dome Diffuser on the C-stand, modelling light ON (just to check the shadows). The cable is a PC cord, dangling from a Godox X1T-F transmitter that’s currently acting as a manual trigger for the A1 (set to X-Sync). Obviously that’s plugged into the GFX 50S. The Deep Octa in the back isn't active and that's a white book leaning against a tape meter, to act as a bit of fill. Whatever works right?

I’m using the GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR lens (boy that’s a mouthful) with the camera set to 1/125s, f/4 at ISO 100. One last note: the image at the top was processed from a colour JPEG (Classic Chrome) to black and white in Capture One 11. But the ones below are straight out of camera. I don’t do this very often. A few shots in I switched to my Moriyama preset on the GFX—Acros with +3 shadows and +2 highlights—and that was it. When I opened the files in C1 they looked exactly the way I wanted them to. Sure, I could’ve tweaked a few details here and there...but I thought it would be fun (and certainly different for this site) to go straight from camera to blog. 

Is it superficial to end on tech and gear porn? Perhaps. But I’ve always believed there’s a poetry to these machines that’s part of our equation—part of the urge, the madness, this thrust to look and seize and possess the world. It all begins in glass and metal. In these objects that call us to action, through soft lines and whispers.

With this, I’m off for the holidays. Allow me to wish you and your families the very best. Have fun, be safe. Let’s refuel and get ready to rock the other side of this one.
2018 here we come.


Shot with the GFX 50S and GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR