Hands-On With the Fujifilm GFX 50S

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review

Of the dozens of cameras I’ve owned and the hundreds of cameras I’ve tested, there’s a special place in my heart for my first medium-format camera, a Mamiya 645. Like most photographers, I’d gotten my start in the 35mm format (in my case, in the film era), and during art school I’d borrowed several of the lab’s medium-format systems, but it wasn’t until I owned my own medium-format camera that I fell in love with it.

While I’ve liked many of the medium-format digital cameras I’ve shot since then, I haven’t ever fallen in love with one. Perhaps it’s the astronomical price point of high-end medium-format digital systems, perhaps it’s the film-like workflow, but none has captured my heart in the same way.

Fujifilm’s new medium-format mirrorless GFX 50S comes closest to rekindling that feeling of love for the format—a mix of awe at the image quality and love of the process. I’m not equally in love with the GFX 50S, but I’m incredibly smitten, and I can see that this relationship will only grow as the system improves. The camera has flaws and it has limitations, but it also has enormous potential.

The fact that it’s a mirrorless camera is important for three reasons: First, a mirrorless medium-format camera allows Fujifilm—which currently has a successful APS-C camera line but no full-frame cameras—to leapfrog over Sony’s dominance of the full-frame space; second, it gives the GFX 50S a unique selling point to counter the arguments in favor of more traditional systems from Hasselblad and Phase One; third, it creates a competitor to Hasselblad’s new X1D mirrorless camera, while undermining Hasselblad’s H-series efforts. (More on that in a moment.)

From Canisters To Backs

Compared to 35mm film cameras, medium-format cameras are a pain to operate. I remember one shoot in Nevada decades ago where I had to drag around an ice chest to keep my film from blistering in the hot desert sun. On more than one occasion, misplacing the dark slide resulted in me being unable to remove the back and change the film for fear of ruining the roll. Film changes are slow and backs are heavy, and that complicates any shoot.

While medium-format film shooting was slower and more complicated than shooting 35mm, and a roll of 120 film only provided around 15 exposures, the results were largely worth it. The additional resolution of the bigger film size resulted in a deeper, richer image, and the slower pace of the process allows photographers to concentrate on each shot.

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review

The medium-format digital photography market didn’t happen as quickly or as logically as that for DSLRs and compact cameras. The transition started with an effort to couple digital backs to the mechanical camera, and a lack of integration between the two made shooting complex. Subsequent evolutions have refined this connectivity, to the point where the system operates more or less as a seamless unit, but the increased resolution and sophistication of the systems has driven the prices of medium-format systems well above the cost of their film counterparts. It’s not uncommon to have a medium-format system cost about $50,000, without lenses.

Meanwhile, attempts to make an “all-in-one” medium-format camera—that is, a system that integrates the sensor into the body in the same manner, as do digital SLR or mirrorless cameras—have fallen a bit flat. The most notable “success” is the Pentax 645Z, which has a 51.4-megapixel sensor in a body that’s not much larger than an enthusiast-level DSLR.

While I gave the Pentax 645Z good marks in a review testing it against the Hasselblad H6D and the Phase One XF 100MP, it still has some quirks and performance issues, largely a result of the fact that it hasn’t been updated since 2014. Despite a price tag under $7,000 and the Pentax medium-format film legacy, the system hasn’t really made much headway.

Fujifilm’s GFX 50S also capitalizes on a medium-format pedigree, though one that Fujifilm hasn’t always run under its own name. The early digital Hasselblad H1 camera was jointly developed by Fujifilm, with Fujifilm selling it under the GX645AF name. While Hasselblad continued with the H-series cameras, Fujifilm shifted instead to making APS-C bodies.

The Fujifilm X100 and then subsequent X-series bodies were, at the time, the pinnacle of mirrorless camera design, thanks to Fujifilm’s ability to squeeze an APS-C sensor into an incredibly small body. Professional photographers looking to get a mirrorless system with a “large” sensor had only Fujifilm as an offering, and the company’s historically great lenses furthered the value of the X-series system.

Then Sony entered the mirrorless market, and did so with full-frame sensors in bodies around the same size as Fujifilm’s own offerings. The early Sony cameras were crude, but evolutions in the a-series Sony bodies eventually allowed them to dominate the mirrorless market.

Fujifilm’s announcement of a new medium-format mirrorless camera solves the thorny problem of competing against one of the most aggressive companies in the space, by moving again into a new space. Hasselblad’s X1D is the only competitor for the medium-format digital space, and Fujifilm’s more traditional, SLR-like design gives its system some edge there.

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review
The resolution of the medium-format sensor and the sharpness of the lenses make the GFX 50S perfect for product photography.

Sensor Fight

For purists, the 51.4-megapixel Fujifilm GFX 50S, the Pentax 645Z and the Hasselblad X1D are not true medium-format cameras. A frame of medium-format film measured from 6×4.5cm (hence the “645” name) to as wide as 6x9cm. The Phase One IQ3 back has a sensor that’s 53.7×40.4mm. All three of the “all-in-one” medium-format cameras have sensors that measure around 44x33mm while “full frame” (or 35mm) sensors measure 36x25mm.

To make this less confusing, let’s take the area of the various “formats.” A true 645 camera has an area of 24.9cm2, the Phase One IQ3 back has an area of 21.7cm2, the Fujifilm GFX 50S has an area of 14.52cm2, and 35mm “full format” is 8.64cm2.

That makes the area of the Fujifilm GFX 50S sensor closer to that of 35mm film than “true” medium format, only there’s no real name for something that’s bigger than full frame but smaller than “medium format,” so medium format it is!

Some fans of Fujifilm’s APS-C-based cameras have lamented that the sensor in the GFX 50S isn’t the “X-Trans” design found in the X series, though this is largely a moot point. The X-Trans sensor was designed to increase resolution in smaller sensors by eliminating the need for an anti-aliasing filter while reducing moiré. This is less of a concern in a large sensor, and the benefits of X-Trans have long been debated, so the use of a traditional Bayer pattern on the sensor of the GFX 50S isn’t an issue.

The takeaway here is that purchasing a GFX 50S won’t get you the same sensor area as a Phase One or Hasselblad H-series camera, but it will get you a lot larger sensor than that in full-frame systems. The question is, though, is it enough of a difference to warrant investment in a new system?

Design Sensibilities

Without a lens attached, the GFX 50S feels like a slightly oversized DSLR—smaller than something like a Nikon D5 or Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, but taller than something like a Canon EOS 5D or a Nikon D500, yet with a pronounced bump at the LCD screen to accommodate the sensor and the massive battery.

Some of the size of the GFX 50S is due to the environmental sealing—the camera is weather resistant, dust resistant and freeze resistant, as are the three new GF lenses. (More on those lenses in a bit.)

If you’re comfortable with the X-series cameras from Fujifilm, you’ll be right at home with the GFX 50S, as it feels like an X-T2 that has been stretched to house new features. In fact, Fujifilm’s Justin Stailey said on one video interview that the GFX 50S “…really is an X-T2 with a really big sensor in it…The DNA from the rest of the X Series is really embedded in this camera.”

Locking dials on the top of the unit control the shutter speed and ISO, and aperture is controlled via the lens or via the control dials on the camera. The body is veritably covered in function buttons, and the back features both a four-way control pad and a focus selection joystick.

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review

The rear LCD screen is a generous 3.2-inch touch-screen unit with nearly 2.5M dots and the ability to pivot for low shooting, and a three-way mechanism allows it to swing down for overhead shots. I found the display bright enough to use even in bright sunlight, though the EVF is easier to use with harsh lighting conditions.

A top LED screen shows the camera’s exposure settings, which makes it easy to get an idea for the overall shooting setup. I’ve always liked these top-mounted LED panels, and the GFX 50S packs a lot of info into a small space. It also uses white text on a black background, which blends in nicely with the black color scheme of the body.

Since this is a mirrorless camera, there’s no optical viewfinder, and the EVF on the GFX 50S is both one of the camera’s biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. The EVF is removable, connects to the top of the camera at the body’s oversized flash/accessory jack, and provides a hot-shoe connector that functions when the EVF occupies the accessory port. There’s an adapter available that allows the viewfinder to be pivoted for focusing looking down on the camera, though that isn’t included with the body. The detachable, pivoting viewfinder is a great idea and feels more tightly integrated with the system than many accessory viewfinders on compact digital cameras.

The EVF has 100-percent coverage and 0.85x viewfinder magnification, and with 3,690,000 dots and a 60 fps refresh rate, it should provide plenty of detail to evaluate a scene. Oddly, though, I found the performance of the EVF to be hit or miss. I’ve seen the EVF on the GFX 50S referred to as the “highest quality” in mirrorless cameras, but that’s not accurate. The Leica SL display has 4.4 million pixels and appeared smoother to me than that on the GFX 50S.

Often when composing images, even in bright sunlight, the EVF image appeared to be grainy, the way that an EVF image often looks when displaying low-light scenes. It’s possible that the large size of the viewfinder is just exaggerating something that’s always present in an EVF, but the objects in focus tend to “dance” a bit, a phenomenon that many users of EVF experience—as if in-focus objects had a bit of moiré dancing on them. Not everyone notices this, so it may just be sensitivity to the refresh rate of the OLED screen or the background illumination, which pulses at a different rate than the EVF refresh rate.

The EVF also exhibits banding when focusing under many types of LED lighting, which isn’t present on the final image and which isn’t problematic for other mirrorless cameras I have in the office. My hallway “candelabra” LED light bulbs appear fine on the Sony and Olympus cameras in hand right now, for example. As this doesn’t translate to the final image, it’s not a deal breaker, but it reduces the usability of the EVF.

Weather-resistant doors hide dual SD card slots (capable of supporting UHS-II cards), a USB 3.0 connector, microphone and headphone jacks (the GFX 50S can capture video as well as stills), HDMI output and a massive battery compartment.

Controls are generally easy to reach, though there are some odd choices in placement and usability. While the ISO and shutter speed dials lock, the focus mode selector does not, and its position on the top of the LCD screen makes it easy to accidentally bump while also making it relatively hard to reach. I appreciate the accessibility of the switch, though I’m still a fan of Nikon’s design choice of placing that on the front of the camera, so it’s easy to access with the left hand while holding the camera in natural operation. To switch modes on the GFX 50S, one must let go of the camera body and move the hand to the top of the LCD screen.

The other control that feels misplaced to me is the Drive button, located on the top of the camera, ahead of the ISO dial. It’s not in the right place to access with a hand on the grip, so it also requires moving the camera from shooting position to use.

A final design issue is with the choice of using “Hasselblad”-style studs instead of more common loops. The included neck strap clicks onto these studs—or, as I found, does not click onto them. One of the sides of the strap refuses to latch onto the stud, which I found out when the camera strap came off, and the GFX 50S slid off my neck onto the floor with a loud thud and some scratched paint. (Sorry, Fujifilm.)

The Fujifilm GFX 50S is easy to hold and easy to operate. Including battery, the body weighs well under 2 pounds. Even with a lens the GFX 50S feels well balanced, easy to hold and easy to shoot.

For users of the X-series cameras, the menus will be instantly familiar. Fujifilm is often complimented for its menu design, and while it’s not perfect, it’s easy to find most settings. For those who like to dig deep into their camera’s operations, the Fujifilm GFX 50S has a huge array of customization options and can be tweaked in countless ways. This is one of the systems where it’s a good idea to read the manual.

Shutter At The Thought

The Fujifilm GFX 50S has a focal plane shutter instead of a leaf shutter, and this has caused a tremendous amount of debate among camera pundits.

A focal plane shutter is built into the camera and moves across the sensor plane (either vertically or horizontally, depending on the design) and allows for very uniform exposure and very high shutter speeds. A focal plane shutter also (theoretically) allows for smaller lenses, as they don’t need to include a shutter.

A leaf shutter is built into a lens and opens as a series of blades or as a diaphragm, and these open and close to allow light in during an exposure. Leaf shutters allow for higher flash sync speed.

Using a focal plane shutter, the Fujifilm GFX 50S can capture images up to 1/8000th of a second, but it has a flash sync speed of around 1/125th of a second, eliminating the ability to use the camera in a High Speed Sync environment. That means that the camera will be better suited for shooting in a studio (where 1/125th isn’t much of an issue) or shooting with ambient light.

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review
The GFX 50S provides several different aspect ratios, which are crops of the sensor. This one simulates the ratio of Fujifilm X-Pan panorama film cameras.

It’s this slower sync speed that’s lead to the consternation about the focal plane shutter in the Fujifilm GFX 50S, but the concern is mostly unfounded and tied to the current selection of lenses. Fujifilm pointed out at the official press launch that since a leaf shutter is built into a lens, Fujifilm can simply create additional lenses with a leaf shutter, enabling the GFX 50S to work with High Speed Sync. For those needing faster flash sync speeds, the GFX 50S isn’t a good option yet.

The camera features both a mechanical and an electronic shutter, and there are six combinations of the use of these shutter systems, offering a variety of top shutter speeds from 1/4000th (for the mechanical shutter) to 1/6000th for electronic shutter, or electronic plus mechanical shutter.

Autofocus

The GFX 50S has a 117-point contrast-detection AF system. Considering how powerful Fujifilm’s phase-detection system is on its X-series cameras, it’s interesting to see contrast-detection on the GFX 50S, especially when the similarly priced Pentax 645Z is a phase-detection-based camera. I suspect the AF system choice had to do with the price point Fujifilm wanted to hit, and the currently available AF modules for a sensor this size, plus design of the initial lenses. It’s likely that future models of the G-System camears and lenses will address this.

That said, the 117-point AF system is incredibly versatile and accurate, and was fast enough to follow mountain bikers on the slopes of a course in Utah and pick them out as they worked through the tree line of the hillside. The shots in the forest showed the camera’s ability to pick out subjects—vertical trees are a tempting target for an autofocus system with the sharp contrast and defined edges, so ignoring them in favor of a human is a sign of an advanced AF system.

The camera’s face detection also worked like a charm, locking onto subjects with ease. This was particularly helpful when capturing portraits of pilots and crew on the U.S. Navy Blue Angels team and demo pilots of a C-17 Globemaster airlift wing at the New York Air Show, despite the tempting backgrounds of airplane fuselages.

In short, the GFX 50S would probably focus more quickly if it were equipped with a phase-detect autofocus system (and future models likely will get this feature), but the camera focuses with quite a bit of alacrity for a medium-format camera.

The AF points can be grouped into areas, and the joystick on the back of the camera allows for quick focus point selection. The Fujifilm GFX 50S feels as good at selecting focus points as any current DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Lens Collection

One of the drawbacks of this new system is the small selection of lenses available at launch. This is a problem most camera manufacturers face when launching a new camera line, and it’s certainly one with the Fujifilm GFX 50S.

As of press time, there were only five lenses available for the Fujifilm GFX 50S, though the company chose wisely in the focal lengths it provides. There are four prime lenses and one zoom, listed below, along with their equivalent focal length and ƒ-stop in 35mm (full frame) format:

  • GF23mmF4.0 R LM WR — 18mm ƒ/3.2 equivalent
  • GF63mm F2.8 R WR — 50mm ƒ/2.2 equivalent
  • GF110mmF2 R LM WR — 87mm ƒ/1.6 equivalent
  • GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro — 95mm ƒ/3.2 equivalent
  • GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR — 25-51mm ƒ/3.2

There are a few interesting things about this lens lineup. The first is that there are only two lenses with wider apertures than ƒ/4 (ƒ/3.2 equivalent), and those are a 63mm (50mm equivalent) and 110mm (87mm equivalent). That makes sense, since those are the two lenses most likely to be used as portrait lenses.

The rest are a respectable ƒ/ (ƒ/3.2 equivalent) and only a third of a stop slower than the typical ƒ/2.8 lens found on a 35mm camera. There are no lenses that are the equivalent to a super-wide ƒ/1.4 lens—and that’s an issue that I’ll address next with the resolution of the camera.

The current missing spots seem to be in the (35mm equivalent) 24mm, the 35mm and the telephoto range. Fujifilm’s lens roadmap shows that gap in the 35mm length will be resolved in 2017, and a telephoto prime lens will arrive mid-2018. Newcomers to the system will need to ask if that’s enough glass to make a complete system.

Portrait photographers often shoot longer than 100mm (equivalent) for the look of the lens, and with such fast AF and great top shutter speed, this camera could be used for sports and other long-reach work.

We tested the 63mm, the 32-64mm and the 120mm, and they’re all well-built and easy to use. The 63mm is particularly light, and I’ve spent a lot of time walking around with the camera and the 63mm, as it’s a particularly comfortable weight and balance. A 35mm (equivalent) lens would nicely round out this package and allow me to use this camera as a daily go-to camera.

There are also adapters available to connect several different lenses to the GFX 50S, although those obviously won’t have the same system features and functionality as the G-series lenses designed for the GFX 50S.

Fujifilm GFX 50S hands-on review

Look, Tone Sensitivity And Resolution

The compelling theoretical advantage of a medium-format camera is that, all things being equal, the larger size of medium format should allow the camera to have a greater dynamic range and lower noise than a smaller sensor with the same resolution, and should theoretically have greater sharpness due to the optics of lenses.

That means that the GFX 50S should have more dynamic range, lower high-ISO noise and greater sharpness than any full-frame camera with a similar resolution. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

There are some practical issues when it comes to the capabilities of the GFX 50S because, in camera design, all things are not equal, and real-world combinations of modern lens and sensor design eliminate much of the benefit of using the larger sensor found in the GFX 50S.

Without delving too deeply into the science of sensor and lens design, it’s good to understand a bit of background on factors in the imaging process. A sensor is a light-measuring device made up of “photo wells,” depressions in which sit the electronics to measure the light. A larger sensor has larger photo wells, which should increase the dynamic range and reduce electronic “noise” between each photo well.

However, sensor design is complex, and there are ways to increase the sensitivity of a photocell and to tweak the design to increase dynamic range and sensitivity. Sensors like those in the Nikon D810 and the Sony a7R II have incredible dynamic range, and the design of the electronics on the sensor in the a7R II gives that camera excellent high-ISO performance. The design of the sensors in the Nikon and Sony high-resolution cameras negates some of the size advantage of the medium-format sensor.

With a measured 14 stops of dynamic range on the Sony a7R II, the claimed 14-stop dynamic range of the GFX 50S is another draw—essentially, there’s no advantage to the sensor size in terms of dynamic range.

Returning to the G-Series lenses, it’s important to note that most of the glass is ƒ/4, except the 110mm at ƒ/2 and the 63mm at ƒ/2.8. Full-frame systems like those from Nikon, Canon and Sony all have high-end prime lenses at ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/1.4, which best the Fujifilm glass by a stop or more. Much of the additional light gathering of the medium-format sensor is offset by the faster aperture lenses on the full-frame competitors.

Another problematic issue is the resolution of the lenses, and the advances in full-frame lens technology. Medium-format lenses traditionally have higher resolving power, both because of the design of the glass and the larger surface area onto which they have to focus an image. This also has changed with the advent of high-end optics from companies like Sigma (with its Art-series lenses) and Sony (with the G Master lenses.) Sony has claimed that its G Master lenses are able to resolve on sensors up to 100 megapixels.

In my studio tests I took the GFX 50S with the 63mm ƒ/2.8 and the Sony a7R II with the 70-200mm GM lens and set up a scene in front of a tripod with the Sony zoom set to as close to the 63mm crop as possible. I shot a variety of scenes, racking up a full stop at a time from the widest to the smallest, and opened the closest aperture parallels in Photoshop, using the default raw processing for both.

To my eyes, the Sony a7R II produced a slightly sharper image, but the Fujifilm GFX 50S had better color rendition, gradation and saturation. To double-check these results, I created a blind sample of the images without file names and shared them with several photographers, who had the same reaction.

Finally, the current lens selection leaves full-frame systems with a larger variety of high-end portrait lenses designed for incredibly smooth bokeh (background defocus), and so while the background defocus on the G-series lenses is nice, at ƒ/3.2 (equivalent) it’s not going to be as pronounced as on a full-frame camera with an ƒ/1.4 aperture and a bokeh-friendly nine-blade (or more) design.

So, many of the traditional advantages of medium-format systems over full-frame systems is lost or not yet achievable due to the sensor design and lens design of the system. That doesn’t mean that the GFX 50S produces a bad image; in fact, the photos from the camera are detailed and lush and as good as anything in the high-resolution full-frame space, and head and shoulders above the images from most 20-ish megapixel sensors.

Conclusion

Many years ago, Fujifilm disrupted the camera market with the X100, a compact mirrorless camera targeted to the professional, leapfrogging the competition by putting an APS-C sensor in the X100 at a time when the largest sensor in a compact camera was Micro Four Thirds. This groundbreaking camera and the subsequent APS-C X-series set the benchmark for pro mirrorless cameras until competitors caught up.

With the Fujifilm GFX 50S, Fujifilm is again trying to leapfrog the competition. Sony is clearly dominating the full-frame mirrorless market, and going head-to-head in that space would be an incredibly difficult endeavor.

Jumping to the mirrorless medium-format market makes a lot of sense. At the very least, Fujifilm creates a system that’s just as capable as what’s available from Sony without having to compete directly with it.

The Fujifilm GFX 50S is clearly the first in a line of products in the company’s G series, and the company has shown with the X series that it’s willing to go the distance and evolve a system. I have no doubt that the G series will improve through firmware updates to the GFX 50S and through subsequent models. I also have no doubt that the lens inventory will grow and will follow Fujifilm’s tradition of creating high-quality glass.

If you’re a shooter of the X-series cameras and like the feel of your system yet yearn for a larger sensor, the GFX 50S is for you. If you’re currently shooting a DSLR and looking to leave for the mirrorless market, the GFX 50S is a compelling choice.

If you’re a wedding, event or landscape shooter looking to invest in a new system, the purchase decision is more difficult to make. The Sony a7R II, which largely duplicates the resolution and dynamic range of the Fujifilm GFX 50S, is due for a replacement soon and is likely to up the ante in the high-resolution game. As it stands, the a7R II costs around $2,500, and the Fujifilm GFX 50S costs around $7,000. Even if an a7R II replacement ends up costing more than $2,500, you’d still be able to buy an a7R II and its replacement for less than the cost of the Fujifilm body.

As I said at the outset, all the technical details aside, I’m truly enamored with the GFX 50S. There’s something about the feel of it, the operation of it, that really clicks with me. I’d happily shoot the system professionally, as it feels like a tool designed for professionals. Fujifilm has always been strong on the user interface, and the GFX 50S is no different. It’s a beautiful camera, and the first of what I hope is a long run of G-series cameras.

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