"Moving" to Medium Format : Fujifilm GFX-50S

Since the advent of the two affordable Medium Format options in the form of the Fujifilm GFX-50S and the Hasselblad X1D, I've been thinking a lot about about "moving" to Medium Format for product and portrait work. I haven't shot much Medium Format, but the images do have that je ne sais quoi — the more pleasing, organic and natural look, along with the technical advantages that come along with having a larger sensor — greater color depth and dynamic range, more pleasing falloff from in-focus to out-of-focus areas, and the dreamy look of the bokeh.

Medium Format Revolution?

 Photo by Bryan Gateb - www.bgateb.com | photos.bgateb.com | @bgateb

The new mirrorless options have brought Medium Format within reach for enthusiasts and professionals — previously, a sensor of this size (and the advantages that came with it) came at a hefty price. Phase One systems can top out at over $50,000, and Hasselblad's new H6D with the 100MP back hovers around $35,000 once you add a lens. That's an exorbitant amount of money for anyone but the top-end commercial professionals, and even then they're usually rented.

I do recognize there are some "cheaper" options for Medium Format alternatives in the form of the Leica S system, the "consumer-level" Pentax 645Z, and the older 645D. The Leicas were still expensive in my mind, so I hadn't considered them. In the case of the Pentax, I never really thought it was "ready for prime time", so to speak, so admittedly I never gave it a fair shake, even though I have read good things about it overall.

Why Medium Format?

Truthfully, I've gotten lazy creatively — having so many tools, so much technology, and all of the software at my disposal that nearly does everything for me has killed my creativity. It certainly helps efficiency and workflow, but sometimes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Now while that's partly a personal problem, I think that the slow, methodical approach imposed by Medium Format may help. 

Medium Format Digital, in its current state (and Medium Format in general), is nowhere near as fast and robust as today's DSLRs. Looking at specs sheets, they just can't compete in terms of speed, size, and versatility. Keeping that in mind, Medium Format will not be for everybody (and certainly not for the average consumer) anytime soon.

It's in these "restrictions" of Medium Format that I hope to spur some creativity, as, in order to acquire a new system, I will need to sell off a ton of my gear. I've scribbled down a lot of gear I can get rid of in order to fund the switch. I'll be getting rid of my Fuji X-Pro 2 system entirely, some of my Canon glass, and some of my lighting. I'm letting go of everything that's gone unused for a long period of time or used for a specific purpose. Downsizing my kit and switching to one body and one lens (for now) is freeing me from just being able to slap something on my camera or picking something from the kit that does what I want it to do, and going on my way. Working within the confines of a slower system with a single lens (for now) should, in theory, force me to be more creative to achieve the results I want. Again, partly a personal (or some would even call it a first-world) problem as one could easily impose those restrictions on themselves to reignite their creativity, but I don't work like that.

I will still keep my Canon system, as there's currently no substitute for the versatility of a fast, accurate DSLR with a range of lenses and accessories, but I will be limiting my kit to the essentials -- the trio of zooms, the 35L II, and the 100L Macro. I haven't used my Sigma 50mm Art and Sigma 85mm much, so those are gonna go. I'll be able to cover those focal lengths — and most of the applications where I'd normally use them — with the Medium Format.

Which One?

 Photo by Bryan Gateb - www.bgateb.com | photos.bgateb.com | @bgateb

When I started seriously looking into Medium Format Digital, I found that there were quite a few options available for anyone looking to jump into the MF Digital world. While I was aware of Pentax, the 645Z never really entered the equation — I was more interested in the new mirrorless offerings.

I did consider Hasselblad CPO, and they DO have some attractive offerings in the form of rebates and lease options, but after some consideration, I decided against it, and at this point I'm about 90% settled on the idea of the Fujifilm GFX-50S. Here's why:

Price

Even with the attractive lease options, a used CPO Hasselblad H5D-50c and lens still costs quite a bit more than a GFX-50S and your choice of any of the lenses available at launch. Hell, for the price of a CPO H5D-50c and your choice of lens, you could get the GFX-50S and all three of the current lens options available at launch.

A "bare bones" GFX setup will cost $6,500 for the body — directly comparable price-wise, to the current flagship Canon and Nikon pro bodies, The 1DX Mark II and the D5, and at a minimum, $1500 for a lens, in the form of the GF 63mm f/2.8R WR. The initial outlay of cash to acquire a GFX system is a hefty $8,000 USD — but put in perspective, this is still less than the Hasselblad X1D (body only), and even lesser still, than a CPO Haselblad H5D-50c (again, same sensor in these three cameras).

"Newer"

You could make the argument of simply going with an H4D-40, but while you would be about even money-wise with GFX system, you're now paying for something that's (by now) two generations old in tech. Certainly the Hasselblad gear will hold its value much better, though.

While the GFX-50S features the same 43.8 x 32.9 mm 51.4MP CMOS Sony sensor found in similar offerings from Hasselblad and Pentax (which, it should be noted, is smaller than the 53.4 x 40 mm 100MP sensors in the high-end Hasselblad H6D and Phase one 100MP backs), the image processor in each of the cameras is different. Fuji's GFX will use a reported dual-core X-Processor Pro, a presumably "beefed up" version of the image processor present in their current camera lineup, and will ultimately be responsible for the difference in image and color rendition between any cameras that share this Sony sensor. I always loved the "Fuji colors" that have come out of all of the Fuji cameras I've owned, so I expect to feel the same about the images coming out of the GFX.

Technology & Usability

Even though the sensor is now a bit older (and thus, more affordable for the consumer), and has appeared in older cameras, by all accounts it is still turning out excellent images, so image quality is not even a concern for me.

I don't want to cover too many of the technical aspects of the GFX (you can get all of that information in the product brochure here), but I do want to cover some of the things that draw me personally to the GFX over other available alternatives in terms of usability. Surely the technology is there, and the sensor is a proven performer given that it's been in use by different makes and models of cameras in previous years.

From a usability perspective, the familiar exposure control dials such as ISO, shutter, and aperture on the lens that were available on all of my previous Fuji cameras is a big draw — many testers or people who have had hands-on time with the GFX and have prior experience shooting with Fuji cameras have all commented on how familiar the interface felt. Less time spent learning how to manipulate the camera means more shooting and less fumbling while working. That's a good thing.

Another difference that affords the GFX an advantage in being a little later to market is their implementation of the sensor and the system built around it. Fuji has designed, as best they can, a mirrorless DSLR equipped with a medium-format sensor. While medium format systems of old have had a larger form factor to accompany the larger sensor, the elimination of the mirror and use of a focal plane shutter (more on that later) have allowed the Fujifilm to make the GFX no larger or heavier than a full-frame DSLR. For those who are used to carrying a DSLR with them, you'll have an incredible medium format camera with you, without all the bulk or heft in the GFX.

The two-axis adjustable tilt screen available on the GFX is also a VERY welcome addition to the camera. For some reason, camera manufacturers have eschewed from including a tilt screen in their higher end cameras — likely a question of durability — but in the latest cameras, Fuji has acknowledged the importance and practicality of such a feature. With the GFX's screen, it makes composing shots from low or high angles much easier, and you could even use it as a pseudo waist-level finder in some situations. Additionally, the rear display is also touchscreen capable and allows you to swipe through photos, zoom in on your Live View, adjust your "Q" quick menu settings, and tap to select a focus point. The last point of which will be valuable when trying to select one of the GFX's 425 focus points.

The GFX's joystick is also something I've become accustomed to while shooting my X-Pro 2 for the past year. The joystick (focus lever) is incredibly useful for navigating menus and selecting focus points, and something I think every camera should have. It's been insanely useful on my Canon DSLRs for quickly moving my focus point of focus area around the frame, and I'm glad that Fuji has included it on the GFX.

Wi-Fi is another "new" technology that often gets left out of high-end cameras, much like tilt screens, because it's not really a "pro" feature. The GFX-50S has it, and it's nice to know that again, Fuji acknowledges the convenience of such a feature. The Hasselblad has also adapted to the market and includes WiFi in its Medium Format bodies since the H5D. WiFi is incredibly useful for awkward camera placement, remote triggering, or simply transferring photos to your phone for sharing. I had an eye-fi card in my X100s, and now that I have WiFi in my XPro2 and 1DX Mark II (via the WFT-E8a), I don't think I'd want a camera without it.

USB 3.0 for Tethering. Most "affordable" Medium Format backs, up until the very latest from Hasselblad — used FireWire for tethering. Firewire is an older and mostly outdated technology, and because of its specification, it is not possible to convert it to work with USB. Now, this isn't a big issue if you own a newer MacBook / Macbook Pro or another thunderbolt-equipped computer or laptop, but I don't own anything equipped with Thunderbolt. So USB 3.0 is a very welcome universal connector that has the speed (or even greater) than the older FireWire spec. Plus, by many accounts the FireWire tethering in most Medium Format software isn't very stable and often causes dropped connections which requires restarting of the tethering application and reconnecting of the cables quite often, which becomes annoying. USB 3.0 Tethering seems to be more stable in this regard.

Concerns

At first, the focal plane shutter limiting the GFX to an X-sync speed of 1/125 was a concern for me. Since I like to light nearly all of my work, having at least a stop less than I'm used to for controlling ambient exposure when using flash was a bit disheartening, especially since the Hasselblads and Phase Ones are known for their leaf shutter lenses, enabling sync speeds of up to 1/2000th, and 1/800th to 1/1000th in the older cameras (The Pentax 645Z also has an x-sync of 1/125, similar to the GFX). It's not all bad, as the issue can be overcome with ND filters (and more powerful lights). 1/125 isn't that big of a deal in studio, either. However, at that slow of a shutter speed with longer lenses, OIS or a tripod will almost be a necessity to achieve complete sharpness.

There are advantages to the focal plane shutter, however. The shorter flange distance (or "register"), allows a myriad of adapters to be made for nearly any lens mount, so finding legacy lenses, or even current DSLR lenses (likely with some heavy vignetting) will be able to be adapted to the GFX. The adapting of legacy lenses is the most exciting, since many old lenses can be had for cheap, allowing you to adapt them to the GFX as necessary — and there are a ton of old lenses to try. This makes the GFX system very versatile, and possibly cheaper in the end, due to being able to use these older lenses.

Finally...

I started writing this piece weeks before I had some hands-on time with the Fuji GFX-50S (read my first impressions here) — since I've now had some time with different medium format systems, and especially since I was so sure of the GFX before this, my opinions on the camera have changed somewhat, and I'm exploring other options for Medium Format. Look for that post in the near future.

Have you considered Medium Format? How does it fit in with your style or your work? Let me know below! And, as always, if you're thinking about buying some gear, use our Amazon links; it helps us create content that you like to read or helps you out, and it costs you nothing — win/win!