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.

The Pull of Abstraction

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It can feel like falling into the scene, all of it jumbled and erratic—the movement, the colours, the shapes. The constant change in pace and light, the flow of it. Life as accident and sharp angles, borne of bright and dark rhythms I barely understand.
There’s no time.
No thought.
Just a need and desire to paint it all away.


Shot with The GFX 50S and GF 110mm F/2 R WR


Iceworld


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


Forget the net

Following up on the last post and that desire to see...it now ebbs and flows, constantly. Some days, some weeks even, I won’t even look at a camera unless I have a job to shoot. It’s rare but not as rare as it used to be—it was a damn near impossibility at some point in my life. I still think about photography and frame images in my mind...but I don’t systematically act on it. I’ve been aware of this change for awhile now and it’s somewhat disconcerting—as though I once needed to shout from the rooftops but have now said my piece. Can we be done at some point? Can we gaze upon this world and shrug, content with the work we’ve done? God I hope not. The mere thought of it depresses me.

I was reading a post about pushed Tri-X and as I browsed the images, I thought about the control we now hold in our hands, about simple decisions we can make that disregard the quest for perfection. And I thought about the ease with which we forget about those controls, as we pursue the next shiny new toy. I love the X-Pro2. When I first got this camera I immediately grabbed onto the Acros film simulation, testing it in various scenarios. It’s still a favourite of mine to this day. But I sort of “forgot” how much I loved it on the X-Pro2 at ISO 2000 SPECIFICALLY—for me, this is where the simulation shines, achieving a perfect balance of grain/noise/detail. So I grabbed the camera, turned the ISO dial and switched to my Moriyama pushed Acros preset. To hell with a safety net.

I felt that giddiness, that joy and pulsing wave rushing through me again.
No silly, we’re never done.


Shot with the X-Pro2 and XF 35mm f2 R WR


Fujifilm + Profoto A1: Testing 1-2...

Stockholm was a pretty wonderful whirlwind. I need to thank Photo Life, Profoto Canada and Profoto Global for making it such an unforgettable experience. I’ll be writing more extensively about the Photo Quest adventure in the next issue of the magazine, but I wanted to quickly touch base with you about the big star of that show: the Profoto A1.

I won’t get into details and specs here...all of those can easily be found around the web. I just want to address a couple of points that may interest some of you.

X...for Fuji?

I had the Canon version of the A1 a couple of weeks before leaving for Sweden—to work on the magazine article. I tried everything to make it trigger on my Fuji cameras but nothing would do the trick, apart from using the older universal remote (single pin). I eventually had to make peace with the fact that it simply wasn’t compatible. Fast forward to day one of Photo Quest, when a few of us noticed a menu item in the A1 flash settings labeled X-Sync. At lunchtime we’re sitting around the table and I ask about this to Andres Prieto, marketing manager at Profoto Canada (great guy). He tells us this is a way for the flash to bypass all attempts at TTL communication...at which point my eyes widen. I grab an A1, put it on my X-Pro2, switch on X-Sync: bingo. Let there be on-camera light. 

I’ve since tried this setting on both the Nikon and Canon versions and can confirm that it works with both. There’s no TTL and no HSS in this mode—it's all manual—but until we get the recently announced native Fuji remote, this will do the job just fine.

One of the shoots after lunch...trying X-Sync for the first time. This is an A1 on-camera acting as commander and triggering two A1 strobes on the floor. X-Pro2 and XF 56mm f/1.2 R.

It’s just an expensive speedlight...

No, it’s not. Is it a smaller, camera-mountable flash? Yup. Does it have as much power as some speedlights? Nope. Is it a game changer? Hell yes. Two reasons as far as I’m concerned: refresh rate and the light itself. I met two incredibly talented Canadian photographers on this trip—Lanny Mann and Erika Jensen—who were chosen for one of the promo videos. They said they shot over 7000 frames during a party, on a single battery, without a misfire. That’s seven followed by three zeros. Which is why I don’t shoot weddings. But that number is simply insane.

And then there’s the light: round is not a gimmick. This, combined with the wide-angle beam and included dome diffuser, effectively creates a fall-off that you can play with and feather the way you would a softbox. There’s a heck of a lot of engineering going on, all for the sake of scattering those photons—and it works.

Modeling. Light.

A real light. Not some crazy hold-down-a-button-while-the-flash-goes-into-strobe-mode preview but an actual LED. Trivial? Not in my book. And the kicker is that it’s powerful enough to be used as a light source—complete with zooming (and there's a really cool story behind this). It’s like a bonus.

Franken...

So, this morning I unpacked my own A1 (a gift for all the guests...huge thx) and thought I’d put points #1 and #2 to the test. Weird looking male model but meh... he was available. First, the Franken-setup:

 Don't hit it...seriously, don't.

Don't hit it...seriously, don't.

That’s an A1 on top of a Cactus V5 (a pair of old triggers I dug out), in a plastic holder in a clamp...all on a C-stand. Unwieldy, fragile and definitely not something I’d travel with but, it did the job* (again, all manual). I set the Profoto A1 to X-Sync and, sure enough, everything fired perfectly: one trigger in TX, the other in RX. I used the Dome Diffuser (included), set the A1 camera-left, about two feet away, and angled it slightly above my head to catch the edge of the dome (as opposed to its centre); same thing I’d do with any modifier.

Selfies like these are never easy and I’m not winning any prizes here, but I think the light itself—in terms of structureis rather impressive. Especially when you consider I spent all of 15 minutes on this. Btw that shine on my face is from the crazy 40ºC weather we're struggling with...summer is over right?... Anyway, I won’t be ditching my Deep Octa just yet but this opens up a lot of possibilities...big possibilities that fit in my bag.

More Stockholm in the coming days.
Later :)

*Except now I’m stuck with AAA batteries again. Sigh. Go Profoto/Fuji remote...