I’ve written, talked, and rambled to all and sundry about how my love of photography is borne out its place of the borders of technology and creativity. One can geek out about how a lens controls chromatic aberration when shot wide open, then one can use it to make a beautiful wedding portrait, or a knowing and satirical street photograph. I like my photographs to be proficient technically, but I also want them to be emotive, to move people, and to do this with pathos, rather than an absence of colour fringing.
Sometimes I have to work hard to reign in the gear-head side of my personality. I’m conscious that one can cross into camera bore territory easily if one isn’t careful, sometimes talking about photography replaces actually taking photographs.
Shame of heroes
I’ve recently finished listening to Don McCullin’s Autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour (which I devoured in a few sittings, it’s really very good), as read by Jonathan Keeble. In one section McCullin discussed his indifference to photographic equipment. Throughout the book he makes only passing reference to his gear and he then comes back to his famous quote “I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”
The first time I read that quote I felt ashamed. That sudden punch to the gut that comes from the suggestion that given talent, will, innate compositional understanding, drive, ambition, and skill, one need not consider gear. I wonder if the genuine excitement that gear brings out in me is compensation for a lack of the above.
It was with this fresh in my mind that I went to a FujiFilm event last week and got my hands on a camera I’ve been very excited about. It’s the GFX50R, Fujifilm’s new medium-format rangefinder style camera that I’ve been excited about since the rumours started. The camera shares many of its internals with the GFX50S, including the sensor, autofocus, mount, lenses, and viewfinder.
This means that the ’50R has a 50 megapixel sensor with remarkable dynamic range, great low light performance, and phenomenal optics. This all wrapped up in an all-day package that feels both light and ergonomic.
I’ll admit that I was predisposed to like the ’50R. I already love the ’50S and the ‘R is better, for me, than the ‘S. The smaller package, the rangefinder styling, and it also doesn’t hurt that I have and love one of it’s ancestors, the GW690.
Getting to play with the camera was great, we went out into the area surrounding the studio and had a chance to mooch about, testing the focus and ergonomics, finding inspiration in the industrial surroundings. A couple of us also landed a sneaky invite into a car restorer’s workshop which was a nice chance to test the camera’s reportage capability, and made us late for lunch.
Later in the day we had a shoot set up in the studio. The theme was Peaky Blinders and we had two models and more sexy Profoto lighting gear than you could shake a monopod at.
Being a contrarian, and having used this sensor with studio lights in the past (in the GFX50S), I was less worried about shooting with strobe. I resolved to shoot natural light with higher ISOs and to over and under expose images, I wanted to get a feel for what I would get from a ’50R if I were to use it the way I would use it.
I’m not a Fuji X-System user, and so had to adjust to the button placement, it didn’t take me too long but if you are a seasoned X-System user you’ll be off and shooting in no time. The controls are well placed and thought out, offering everything you need and little that you don’t. The updated touch screen replaces the D-Pad on the ’50S really nicely and helps keep the camera uncluttered.
The lightness, and speed of the GFX50R vanish into the easy enjoyment of shooting the camera. This caused me to forget on more than one occaison that a non-stabilised medium format camera would a) need a smaller aperture to achive an appropriate depth of field, and b) succumb to camera shake more readily than my Canon IS counterparts. It’s a testament to what this camera has acheived in terms of form factor and speed that one can forget one is shooting a digital medium format camera. (No one ever forgot thery were shooting a Pentax 645D, or indeed tried to run and gun with one).
The .RAF files are detailed, even when coming from a 30mp sensor. There is a heft, a zoom depth to 50MP that surprises. I can lop off half of the image and still have a file as large as my starting point with my Canon rigs. Combine that with outstanding optics and you have a wealth of nuanced detail to play with. Highlighs and blacks remain recoverable beyond my expectations making for a robust raw file that goes beyond size for bragging rights and sharpness for for its own sake.
There is noise in the higher ISO stuff but better than I’m used to and also much much smaller in the final image. Between the dynamic range, the clarity, and the depth… In many ways it feels more like working with a thick .tif scan of a negative, or, dare I say it a negative in the darkroom.
I read a story once about Joel Sternfeld that I haven’t been able to locate since. I don’t know how true it was but it has informed my exploration of photography. The story was that Sternfeld had been a good photographer, that he was making images and moving toward something when he began using the 8x10 view camera that changed his work forever. The point I took from the piece was that he became a world class photographer as a result of finding the tool that he needed.
Whether it was a symbiosis of process and result, the use of the large-format camera impacted his shot selection, his subject matter and his process to the point that he transcended his previous work.
McCullin is right, it is a tool for making things, and it shouldn’t be imbued with more power than that, but the search is justified, the excitement is real, one should never settle. You never know when you’re going to find the double-action, oscillating ultrasonic lens with tongue-brush section that becomes an extension of your arm, eye and/or brain and takes you to new places.
As far as the ’50R is concerned, I absolutely want one and on the drive home I found myself puzzling over my situation. The recent announcement of the first EOS RF mount camera from Canon means that I will probably change mount when the time comes to change my 5D mkIV bodies. Will it be to the RF mount, the GFX System or to something else. Will it be soon and with the 45mm f/2.8 or next year when the compact 50mm f/3.5 is due to land?
I already want the 110mm f/2, and the 23mm f/4 and possibly the 63mm f/2.8… I can adapt it to take the lenses from my Hasselblad, and put it onto the back of my Tachihara…
… and calm, it’s just a very sexy and potent toothbrush.
While I’m busy breathing into a paper bag you can pre-order yours here, (that link takes you to the 45mm lens kit, which is the one I would probably have… you can also get it with the 63mm, or body only). Thanks to the Fujifilm team for letting me drool over their lovely new cameras, eat their lunch, and basically touch everything. Below you’ll find a gallery of images from the day –