GFX 50S | First Impressions

Fuji Guy Francis Bellefeuille strikes a pose... 1/160 sec at f/7.1, ISO 5000 (GF32-64mm f/4.0 LM WR)

 NOTE: I confirm support from Capture One in this post—something that was picked up on a couple of sites. After verification, it appears this is NOT a done deal at all (and has turned into a bit of a saga with a lot of contradictory reports). Apologies for the very unintentional confusion.

I've mentioned my interest in the upcoming GFX 50S camera/system a few times (most recently during my interview on the Hit the Streets with Valerie Jardin podcast). Last week I finally had a chance to spend some quality time with it. Not a review by any means: just quick first impressions (keeping in mind this is still a pre-production unit).

WHY THE GFX?

Short answer: because I've dreamed of owning a medium-format camera for years. Longer version...in 2014 I sat in a New York City space with four other photographers as we were presented with Fujifilm projects in the works: the X-Pro2, X-T2 and a tentative medium-format system. When I say tentative I mean it: the engineers were asking questions, trying to find out what photographers wanted and if the idea was even worth pursuing. They had a few mock-ups that basically looked like smaller variations on existing Phase One or Hasselblad bodies—very square and blocky; eons away from what was revealed at Photokina last Fall. But shortly after the meeting I heard the project was possibly on hold...which really bummed me out. After salivating over the possibilities of a Fuji medium-format system, it was hard to let go and move on. So much so that at some point I came extremely close to pulling the trigger on a used Pentax 645Z. Like, very close.

But why the interest? Why consider a much bulkier kit after extolling the virtues of the X-series, their stealth nature and portability? Two words: different and complementary. Right or wrong, in my mind a medium-format system has always seemed like a logical extension to the X-series' philosophy: a similar deliberate approach, the organic characteristics of the images. Rationalizing G.A.S? Possibly. But it's been an enduring idea.

The key here is that I'm not replacing but adding—and it's a business decision first and foremost. The GFX is the reason I didn't get the X-T2 because for me THIS will become the workhorse camera, replacing how I had used the X-T1 for its battery grip, tilting screen, tethering etc in situations that needed it. Except you know...big ass sensor. No, not as big as Phase or top of the line Hassy but big ass nonetheless. And for my work this is more enticing and a much more important differentiator than the impressive AF tracking advancements found in the X-T2.

LOOKS VS MEGAPIXELS

Image size is good. Megapixels (of this quality) are great. But ultimately it's the look of medium-format sensors that I've always been interested in. Now, let's be clear: there's no magic gear out there. I remember stumbling on cat pictures while researching Phase One cameras a few years back and guess what? They looked like bloody cat pictures. Ultimately it's what we do with our kits that matters. The promise of the GFX is in the control it brings over dynamic range and the precision of the resulting images at much higher resolutions. Yes, sharpness but also a more natural gradation across tones. What I've seen so far looks quite promising.

The pictures above and all others in this post were processed from the GFX 50S Super Fine JPEG files. I can only imagine the control we'll get from raw images once support is added to both Lightroom and Capture Pro One—yes, I've been told it WILL be supported by Phase One. In fact, this may justify an upgrade to the new version, depending on how both apps compare (Adobe is again dropping the ball on LR, with tons of extremely annoying new bugs appearing and lingering since last fall). I could envision Capture One Pro as my dedicated GFX 50S processor...as long as they don't cripple it with a bunch of " function isn't supported for this file format" crap. But I digress.

These web versions don't do justice to the images, but here are 100% crops of those two images:

Sure, individual eyelashes are razor-sharp. But what has me most excited is the overall smoothness of the image. It's very hard to explain but when I compare to similar images shot with previous cameras, there's less edge, more fluidity. And the most immediate effect of this is that my initial reflexes were wrong and I later found myself processing differently, even from the JPEGs. It's now clear I'll be creating very specific presets for this camera when using the same film simulations.

PHYSICAL ASPECTS

Ok, it's bigger...and I'm sure by now you've all seen and read how it compares to full-frame DSLRs, how it's essentially a larger X-T2; it is and feels all the more natural because of it—in fact I'd say the design is even more successful for me at this size. The only missing link is a dedicated exposure compensation dial which has been superseded by what Fuji calls the sub monitor (a customizable always-on display that sits on top of the camera). This was a little jarring at first but a quick trip to the settings mostly fixed the issue: you can access exposure compensation from the rear-dial after either pressing (holding down) or clicking (on/off switch) an assigned button that sits next to the sub monitor. I say mostly fixed because the pre-production firmware version I was working with would reset the button anytime I left shooting mode (such as using playback to review images). In my opinion this is just wrong: unlike AFL-AEL, the function should be locked once it's been set. Otherwise it can quickly break the flow when shooting in shutter or aperture priority in the field.

But I was most impressed by the design of two accessories I had initially written off for my own use: the battery grip and the articulated viewfinder. Because when you combine the two, the GFX 50S transforms into a fully reversible camera—meaning it feels exactly the same whether horizontal or vertical. I wasn't expecting this and only understood it once I held the actual kit in my hands. It also makes shooting at waist level very comfortable.

Another aspect I had mostly written-off: touch. Gimmick right? Weeellll...turns out it's pretty damn natural post-iPhone to review images by tapping, swiping and pinching. Two minutes in and I was sold. Which sucks because I know I'll now be reaching for the screen on my X-Pro2 and X100F. Stupid tech reflexes. I didn't try using the screen for focus selection but I can see it being useful in certain situations.

I really barely scratched the surface with the camera: we had planned on a city shoot but a dead car battery messed it up. Huge thanks to Fuji Guy Francis Bellefeuille for driving over and accepting to model :)

In terms of lenses I'm still undecided between the 63mm f/2.8 and the 32-64mm f/4 zoom. The 120mm macro is stunning but a little too big and heavy for my taste. I am however very impressed by the zoom's performance and leaning towards the wider range it offers. I'd complete it with the 110mm f/2* (which I have a feeling will be a defining lens for this new system) giving me an equivalent range of about 24mm to 85mm when all is said and done. Pretty versatile.

New territories, new frontiers...these are definitely exciting times to be a Fujifilm photographer.
In any format.

*I previously said this lens would be released in May. Turns out it's mid-2017...sorry about the confusion.

String Theory

Let's not look for meaning—there's none to be found. Moments in passing, test shots, oddly painterly scenes glanced through my car window...all a string of inconsequential frames.
Of ten days gone by.

From Leo to Revelation | The Studio Shoot

I finally settle on a simple two light scheme: a strobe in an Elinchrom Deep Octa as the key light, high up camera left, way in front and almost perpendicular to the subject; a speedlight in an Orbis Ring (RIP) as fill, lower and on-axis. I’ve also added a silver reflector camera right to fill in some of the shadows. So yeah...technically a third “light source”.
— From Leo to Revelation | A Journey with the X-Pro2

The Christopher Pratt book started off as a simple prop. I had a vague idea of the type of images I wanted to make and picked it out of my studio bookcase—mostly because it felt like the right size and format for the shot. But that book ended up influencing the mood and palette of the pictures in a way I hadn't expected.

Technically, it's all there in the opening quote: Deep Octa as key on the left, speedlight in an Orbis Ring as on-axis fill, reflector to kick up the shadows on the right. Same setup for all the shots. I used the XF 35mm f/2 for the wide/environmental shots and the XF 56mm f/1.2 for the close-ups.

Study for a studio setup. Window light.

I shot this session while we were still on the initial firmware version which made it a bit of a struggle to stay in the zone: the EVF would flicker wildly after every shot and image preview (something I've come to rely on) didn't work at all. None of that affected image quality however...just my nerves.

The set-up took more time than the shoot itself but I'm quite happy with the results. There's something in these images that I find peaceful. 

Perhaps the tea and incense...;)


SHOT WITH A PRE-PRODUCTION X-PRO2, XF 35MM F/2 R WR and XF 56mm f/1.2 R



More X-Pro2 content

Simulating Sunlight | A New Robert Boyer Pocket Lighting Guide.

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Sunlight.
If our life giving neighbouring star aligns itself just so, at the perfect time of day in ideal weather conditions... Magic happens. It sculpts shadows into intricate works of art, sprinkles our subject with warm fairy dust and elevates the banal into something grandiose. IF, that is, it feels like cooperating. 
The title of Robert Boyer's new ebook in his ongoing Pocket Lighting Guide series is quite clear: Simulating Sunlight I. And it's a fascinating subject.


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The problem with sunlight is its absolute unpredictability: there's nothing less dependable or fleeting than a sunlit scene. It can be gone in seconds or morph into something so different, so quickly, that any plans might completely fall apart. The trick of course is to bring your own speedy lil' sun with you and learn to produce that light on demand, wherever you are; as McNally once famously said: available light is any light that's available. You may not be able to light an entire city or valley, but you can certainly control a small subset of your universe. How much of it will depend on the power you bring to the table but the fundamentals always remain the same.

This release is the first part of what's intended to become a two part guide on this topic. It focuses on the basics, on learning to identify the properties of sunlight in various contexts and on recreating it using very simple setups and minimal gear. Everything in this book is done with a single speedlight and believe me, the depth of what can be achieved is quite impressive. Just goes to show how much you can accomplish once you've mastered the primary concepts.

Robert possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of light and isn't afraid to share. He covers everything from lighting ratios to controlling spill, simulating windows, controlling the edge of shadows, creating patterns... This goes well beyond just learning to aim a gelled speedlight from the right angle. It's an extensive study of all aspects of sunlight, how it wraps, how it bounces around a space and interacts with surrounding obstacles or objects big or small within a scene. It effectively teaches how to achieve an extremely naturalistic look using nothing but strobe lighting, a few handmade props and the proper mindset.

The book is filled with beautiful portraits that illustrate every concept and includes hand-drawn diagrams that help to better understand how each image was achieved. 


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An important aspect of these guides that also deserves mention is what I'd call a No BS policy. Robert clearly lays out the exact post-processing recipes used on his images. There are no local adjustments added to enhance the lighting or further sculpt the scenes; everything is WYSIWYG and all original ratios are preserved as shot. Not something you see every day in this type of guide which is to be commended. None of that "big Octa and you're done".

There are a couple of broken diagram links here and there but an update should be coming eventually and will of course be freely available to those who will have purchased the current version. It certainly doesn't take anything away since all the diagrams can be browsed on their own at the end of the book.

As photographers we should be constant students of light and it can be easy, once you've mastered a couple of tricks, to stop noticing and become complacent. This book had me doing cardboard cutouts and reaching for the camera to mess with ideas before getting to the end. In fact, some of these experiments made their way to a few client shoots recently. Anything this inspiring should be required reading.

The ebook is available here for $4.99. The download includes a large PDF file and a free bonus iBooks version as well. And btw: the previous guide entitled Window Light is just as great if you're interested.

P.S. Full disclosure: Robert is a friend of mine and I was asked for feedback on the project before final release. But if it sucked I wouldn't be writing about it.