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.

Other Tools: An Inspiration Journal...+1, +2

Boy, the week just flew by. I’m sitting at a table, surrounded by toys and colouring books. I’ve managed to dig myself a hole in the playroom, enough to drop my writing kit in: iPad and iPhone, notebook, a cup of black tea. It’s not my usual working spot but I get to gaze out into our backyard and feel the light streaming in. It’s sunny right now—a rare occurrence these past months. And I can look up at the trees. I like trees.

The blog is more journal than ressource these days, which might be turning some of you off...I don’t know. Maybe not. I’m beginning to believe this might be a transitional year—there are shifts occurring, some deliberate and some at the edge of what I can perceive. I can’t even articulate most of it yet. But this small personal corner of the web I still inhabit, where I’m free to gaze into the void and wax poetic about anything and everything...it can only reflect a world in flux.

I’ve often described photography as a way to make sense of my life but that’s not entirely accurate: it’s the camera at work and at home sure, but it’s also this blog; it’s music, writing, searching...the entire journey from top to bottom. God that sounds cliché. But you know what I mean.

This flux—or whatever it is—has resulted in a very strong compulsion to ingest. Ideas, knowledge, art...as if I suddenly need to feed much more than I need to express. I’m essentially ravenous for outside stimulation in any form. It’s almost vampiric. I briefly touched on this topic about a month ago:

diCorcia but also Crewdson...I’m on a rampage. It’s a new ritual, making a point of searching for images, seeing the work of others—photographers or painters or sculptors. Forcing it as an essential part of my day. Feeding, really. I keep a running screenshot scrapbook in Bear—I started this a long time ago but I’m now trying to add content to it daily. It’s a vicarious stratagem...to get behind someone else’s eyes and understand their impulse. A deconstruction of intent. Ultimately I’m creating a lookbook based on my own personal triggers, without direction or afterthought.

I think a lot of this stems from an impression that I’ve plateaued and must find a path to jump again. Further. Higher. But regardless: about that scrapbook/lookbook...I’ve doubled-down on the concept and thought I’d share the “technical” developments with you guys. It's geeky stuff...but that's always fun right? Or maybe that's just me? Oh well...here goes.

Before Bear I’d been using the Notes app, which had the advantage of providing a grid view of all images. But all images meant...everything in Notes. Not just the curation. So I rarely used it. I switched to Bear due to Notes instabilities in iOS 11 (which are apparently fixed in the latest beta) but mainly because it did a better job at exporting a book-like PDF of the work saved—something I found invaluable in order to actually browse the material and not just accumulate. Recently however, I had to split this curation across several notes: too many images in a single file would crash Bear on iOS during export. So I did. Not the end of the world but it made for more clutter than I would've liked.

And then I realized I’d gotten the metaphor completely wrong: it shouldn’t be notes at all—it should be a journal.

Inspiration Journal

I won’t dive into the benefits of journaling—I’ll leave that to self-help gurus. Let’s just say I do it, until I don’t; until I take it up again. These days it’s part of my daily workflow, in multiple forms. It informs the present but it’s also quite fascinating to read about past struggles or anxieties and realize just how unimportant most of these became. How we always overcome in the end, one way or another. But I digress. The idea of an inspiration journal isn’t at all about writing down “deep-thoughts” or reflecting on life, the universe and everything. It’s basically the same scrapbook I’d been keeping except the tool has changed: I’m using Day One, a bona fide journaling app. This means I get a timeline of the images I save, as opposed to either a flat container or a mess of hundreds and hundreds of notes. I can export to PDF without a hitch, according to date range or tags (if I choose to use them). And I also get the benefit of Day One’s image view—which is much more convenient than the one in Notes and a great way to browse through the collection.

It’ll be interesting to see if there’s an evolution of the curation over time, periods that favour a certain style or colour. At the very least it’ll provide insight into what triggers a reaction, which might be a way to understand my own work. I think we can all benefit from this sort of awareness.

Day One is now subscription-based but the free tier—while limited—should work fine for this sort of scenario (unless you need syncing and more than one journal). Of course there are probably a host of other options out there, I’m just mentioning the tool I’ve chosen. Funny how I’ve owned and used the app for years but never even thought of it for this type of project until a couple of weeks ago. Now it just seems so obvious.

Ok, two additional tidbits for you on this Friday morning...

+1

I gave an interview to the very nice Stephanie Baxter of Fujilove and it’s available right here.

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+2

We managed to pull together and bring a new issue of KAGE Collective online. This time we focused on music, using song lyrics as a starting point for our essays. Check it out at our usual digs here.

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That’s it for now folks.
Hope you all have a wonderful weekend :)

Of Ink and Paper

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I opened the notebook, picked up a Uni-Ball pen and wrote a couple of words: “This is a test to begin anew. Wow...my handwriting really IS terrible. 25/02/18

It’s crazy how little I’ve written as opposed to typed these past 10-15 years. My entire life has been digital for so long that I’d forgotten the feeling of paper, of letting thoughts flow on a physical surface. It’s slow—incredibly slow—but it also allows ideas to breathe differently. And despite all the “searchability” of our devices, the ubiquity of all our content through the ether...it’s still surprisingly clearer to browse through physical pages. I really had forgotten that.

That said, I was busy writing on my iPad when I noticed the light on the table, the shadows being cast by the paraphernalia I’d left there after my morning brainstorm. I grabbed the X100F and took a few shots.

Sent those off to the cloud.
Such irony.

​Alpha & Theta

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I had a girlfriend, many years ago, who swore that I was in fact two very distinct individuals. The first one, she said, was charismatic and self-assured. The second was its almost polar opposite: subdued, unsure of himself, nervous. She could tell which one I was just by looking at me apparently—there were visible, physical changes she said. In my face, in the way I moved. Needless to say it messed with my head a bit. All of us have moments of control followed by doubt, elation that brings confidence...easily squashed by setbacks. But her analysis nonetheless troubled me, mainly because I sensed a certain truth in it: she had identified an internal push and pull that I’d always struggled to keep in check. I still do.

I can only describe this as a set of frequencies or oscillations. When I’m at “my best” it’s a low tremor, like slow waves crashing the shores. The ground feels steady and unalterable. Eternal. The alternative state is a high vibration where everything jitters, where thoughts race by and nothing ever settles long enough to be dealt with. It’s incredibly tiring. Honestly, this is the zone I’ve inhabited most these past several years—and I’m now trying to change this.

When I was younger it used to happen naturally: every time we played a gig I could easily count on at least 4-5 days of inner calm. Call it a byproduct. The other method involved less than savoury hard substances, stuff I’m obviously no longer interested in dabbling with. So I’m trying meditation. I’m using an app that offers guided courses as opposed to trying this on my own—which I know for a fact will NOT work—and it appears to be helping. I do it in the morning if I can, before I begin my day, as a way to ground myself and gain clarity before tackling whatever lies ahead. We’ll see where this leads.

Last weekend we escaped to the countryside. The Japanese apparently have a term to describe “forest bathing”—the simple act of walking through woods and connecting with nature. That’s another way to get there: I always feel a clear lowering of those frequencies anytime I step into the hinterlands. Anytime I escape into vastness and silence. I don’t even need to be alone, I can just breathe it in. This combined with the poetics of space...familiarity, tranquility.  

Maybe Thoreau was right.
Exhale.

Debugging

A few moments ago I deleted Facebook from both my iPhone and iPad. There was no collapse of the upper atmosphere, no seismic shift in the ground beneath me. I was reading the comments section on yet another Trump-related piece of crap and I suddenly saw the spiral, with perfect clarity. I saw time squandered in this daily drip of insanity, in a flux of news always worse, always infuriating in their idiocy. The politics south of our border are unraveling so completely that it’s hard to look elsewhere. Well, it’s hard for me. I’m just built that way. But I know it’s become psychologically damaging and as much as I wish to stay informed, it all needs to stop. I can’t exist in this perpetual, silent scream.

So enough already. Detox. Peace, please. And maybe some sunshine...eventually.

A few images shot throughout the day—as I await delivery of a Pentax K adapter. But that’s for another story.