Fujifilm GFX 50R – Antarctic field test
Until very recently, the realm of digital medium format cameras was one reserved for only fully-fledged professional photographers. Even then, the price tags attached to Hasselblad and Phase One cameras and digital backs meant that sensors even slightly larger than full-frame were ostensibly attainable only by photography’s highest earning echelons (advertising, weddings et al). But with the release of Fujifilm’s GFX 50S in in early 2017, the game was changed.
For the first time in history, a digital medium format camera was at least somewhat in reach of the prosumer. With the GFX 50S having hit the market to a chorus of rave reviews, it was no surprise that the release of Fujifilm’s GFX 50R medium format was highly anticipated. Morphing from a centre viewfinder, DSLR-esque layout to that more akin to a rangefinder, the GFX 50R has shrunken from the 50S in both form factor and price. But has this shedding of weight and slight change to ergonomics made the camera less robust? Or does this new, trimmed-down model continue the ruggedness and mechanical prowess of its sister model? We decided to put this imaging-leviathan to the test in a realm worthy of its prodigious specifications: Antarctica.
For most visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, the southbound voyage begins in the small town of Ushuaia, Argentina. Sitting at the southern end of Patagonia and as the southern-most city on Earth, Ushuaia is enwreathed by the only stretch of the Andes that runs east-west. Spending a few days in town before casting off to head even further south, some hiking trails from town that reach a glacial face via a string of ski resorts looked like a great place to get familiar with the GFX 50R.
Having taken four flights just to reach Ushuaia from Sydney, both the North and South American airlines that I chose to fly with had reminded me of the size and weight of the camera as did the shoulder which I had chosen to fling it over while hiking out of town. But upon attaching a lens to the body for the very first time, every gram of my carry-on seemed justified as I had just enough time to glimpse the sheer size of the sensor that this leviathan houses. The 51.4 megapixel 43.8 x 32.9mm CMOS sensor differs very little from the GFX50S (released in February 2017) and in fact, on paper, the two are almost identical. An X-Processor Pro Image Processor is paired with a 3.2" 2.36m-dot tilting touchscreen LCD and a 117-point contrast-detection AF System is complimented nicely by an extended ISO range of 50-102,400 and 3fps shooting. The video specs have remained the same across the models and without getting too scrupulous on the tech sheets, one of the only real differences in a technological sense, at least, is the addition of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for phone capture and image transfer to a smart device.
But where this camera differentiates itself lies somewhat outside numerical values. As becomes rather evident immediately for users of the GFX50S, the R is dramatically thinner and lighter (though, still quite heavy) and the overall approach to ergonomics is radically different. To note some subtleties: the 50S’s front rotation dial has been moved to the top of the 50R and the focus selector has been relocated to the back – just in reach of the user’s thumb. However, most obvious is the overall change in approach to how this camera should be used – reflecting who it is targeted at. While the 50S’s layout and ergonomics were most certainly tailored toward professional commercial, advertising, and portrait photographers – working in a studio as much as in the field – the 50R is more geared to toward street photographers, travel photographers, and perhaps even photojournalists. With a sort of air of the Mamiya 7 or Mamiya 6 from the good ol’ film days, Fujifilm’s approach here has put much emphasis on the camera’s sheer resolution, but packs it into a much more portable body size – for a medium format camera, at least.
To the ice
After a few days with the 50R, my initial complaints about size and weight were somewhat quelled by the realisation that medium format imaging in many ways is an entirely different realm to that of 35mm. The reduced depth of field and an aspect ratio most would be unfamiliar with since the use of 6x7 or 4x5 film make for a slower approach to shooting that somehow justifies carrying around a camera that dwarfs even the largest of 35mm mirrorless models on the market. But having learned to adapt to the 50R in at least an ergonomic sense, the real test of its ability lay ahead on the ice where the Antarctic continent would most certainly employ its usual trick of conjuring up some of the Earth’s most adverse weather.
While Fujifilm advertises a “weather sealed Magnesium alloy” body in the 50R, despite the bulk of the camera, it somehow felt much less weather resistant than say a Canon DSLR. The aperture dial and focus ring of the 45mm f/2.8 R WR lens which the camera has been supplied with felt somewhat flimsy and far from set my mind at ease when taking to the Zodiacs for our first excursion. While the camera functioned supremely for the majority of a 2-hour sojourn in the Melchior Islands, a good 10 minutes exposed to a brisk wind toward the end of our outing was enough to completely kill the 50R’s NP-T125 lithium-ion battery and while the unit mostly lived up to Fujifilm’s claim of 400 shots per charge, this trick of completely draining when exposed to cold proved a theme across the duration of the trip.
On a similar note, Fujifilm’s almost signature approach ergonomics of a sort of retro-focused styling and ubiquitous use of physical dials across much of its X-range and now the GFX as well definitely made for improved handling in an environment where gloves are mandatory on every outing. As mentioned, the 45mm lens’ aperture and focus rings seemed a little insubstantial, but contrary to this, the camera body’s shutter speed and exposure compensation dials were quite robust. All of this made perfect sense when appealing to those genres one expects that this camera is aimed at, like street shooters and documentary photographers. However, in light of an almost near-perfect ergonomic execution, the omission of a 4-way control pad on the back of the camera was a constant source of frustration. Unlike the 50S which sports nice, tactile control buttons within thumb’s reach, Fujifilm has entirely abandoned this feature on the 50R meaning that when reviewing images or scrolling through menu items one must rely on the touch screen functionality or the minuscule joystick – neither of which were particularly pleasant to use when I would prefer to have my hands wrapped in fleece and Gore-Tex.
The camera’s autofocus system (117-point contrast detection) proved solid and relatively fast for a medium format camera – especially considering the rather frigid temperatures that I exposed it to. However, in conjunction with the above source of interface-frustration, the touch screen AF point selection was almost too sensitive, often being tripped by my nose or face when I went to look through the viewfinder. To Fujifilm’s credit however, this might simply be symptomatic of the fact that they expect users to put their right eye to the eyepiece in a rangefinder-esque usage.
Among all the hype and celebration of this previously inaccessible digital medium format market now being reached by prosumers and even amateurs, some of the discourse surrounding actual image quality and dynamic range of these cameras has been drowned out. Indeed, the usual scrupulous eye that we might collectively cast over the purported dynamic range of a new full-frame Sony product for example has been somewhat dulled when bathing in the light of a medium format camera’s specs on paper. As many tech-focused websites have concluded, while the sheer resolution (51.4 megapixel, need I remind you!) of these large sensors have obviously been enough to whet the appetite of many an advertising photographer, the lens designs available for such cameras presently on the market simply don’t afford the same signal to noise ratios that we have come to expect from the ultra-fast likes of say a Sony Distagon 35mm f/1.4 or even a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 et al.
The GFX 50R performed exceptionally well under almost all lighting conditions that I exposed it to on the Antarctic peninsula and of note should be its ability for shadow recovery. Standing atop the cliffs behind the Argentine base in Paradise Harbour, the resolution rendered of the red buildings and its surrounding glacial faces was astounding. Likewise, the sort of depth to the image afforded by the sensor size when photographing monolithic landscapes from the confines of the ship’s deck made for vistas that would have been very difficult to achieve with a 35mm camera.
In addition to the film reproduction modes built into the 50R – including Fuji’s tried and trusted Astia, Velvia and Provia emulations, the camera’s colour reproduction was to be applauded and in addition the DR modes were particularly impressive when in need of some desperate highlight retention. However, this really only became most useful when shooting JPEG… which seems ludicrous on a AU$7,000 camera.
Despite the beautiful film emulations and the sheer abundance of megapixels that the 50R sports, looking back over the trip and having shot across a spectrum of lighting scenarios from glaring, back-lit icebergs to flash-lit street scenes in Ushuaia, aside from maybe sharpness, no real difference was discernible between the 50R and my Sony A7RIII in terms of overall image quality and dynamic range.
So, at a price point roughly double what one might pay for a Sony full-frame mirrorless, one might beg the question of where all those extra dollars are justified. While the Antarctic’s blistering cold and sweeping landscapes indubitably tested the GFX 50R to its limits in terms of weather sealing, resolution, and dynamic range – leading to impressive, but not particularly startling results, it also revealed what time has repeated about the appeal of medium format to certain genres of photography: it’s about the feeling that these cameras afford. While the huge resolution boost of the more studio-geared GFX50S was surely aimed at commercial photographers and the like, it would seem that Fujifilm have taken the digital medium format model and built on those aspects that made 6 x 7 film such a movement within the documentary, street, and photojournalism journalism disciplines.
For a AU$7,000 camera, one might be wondering where the 4K video button disappeared to, likewise with the internal 5-axis stabilisation and 10fps that we see on models at half this price. The point is that the GFX 50R takes us both back and into an entirely different realm and approach to photography. Medium format is a niche market and so is the still somewhat hefty price tag that adorns it, but Fujifilm must still be applauded for their efforts in putting larger sensor sizes at least vaguely on the radar of prosumer photographers. While sports and wildlife photographers won’t bat an eye at this approach to camera design ethos, the slower more introspective, sub-disciplines of the practice will surely find the GFX 50R a reincarnation of a time when photography itself was less fast-paced and had more attention to detail.
|FUJIFILM GFX 50R
|Number of effective pixels
|51.4 million pixels
|43.8mm x 32.9mm Bayer array with primary color filter
|SD Card (-2G) / SDHC Card (-32G) / SDXC Card (-256G) UHS-I / UHS-II*1
|Number of recorded pixels
L: (4:3) 8256 x 6192 / (3:2) 8256 x 5504 / (16:9)8256 x 4640 / (1:1) 6192 x 6192 (65:24)8256 x 3048 / (5:4) 7744 x 6192 / (7:6) 7232 x 6192
|FUJIFILM G mount
|Standard Output Sensitivity : AUTO1 / AUTO2 / AUTO3 (up to ISO12800) / ISO100-12800 (1/3 step)
Extended output sensitivity : ISO50 / 25600 / 51200 / 102400
|TTL 256-zone metering, Multi / Spot / Average / Center Weighted
|P(Program AE) / A(Aperture Priority AE) / S(Shutter Speed Priority AE) / M(Manual Exposure)
|-5.0EV - +5.0EV, 1/3EV step
(movie recording : -2.0EV - +2.0EV)
|Supported with OIS type lenses
|Focal Plane Shutter
|Approx. 3.0 fps ( JPEG : Endless Lossless compression RAW : 13 Frames Uncompressed RAW : 8 Frames)
|AE Bracketing (2/3/5/7/9 frames) ±1/3EV - ±3EV, 1/3EV step
Film Simulation Bracketing (Any 3 types of film simulation selectable)
Dynamic Range Bracketing (100%, 200%, 400%)
ISO sensitivity Bracketing (±1/3EV, ±2/3EV, ±1EV)
White Balance Bracketing (±1, ±2, ±3)
Focus Bracketing (Interval, Number of shots, 10 step)
|Automatic scene recognition / Custom / Color temperature selection (K) / Preset : Daylight, Shade, Fluorescent light (Daylight), Fluorescent light (Warm White), Fluorescent light (Cool White), Incandescent light, Underwater
|10sec. / 2sec.
|Interval timer shooting
|Yes (Setting : Interval, Number of shots, Starting time)
*When EF-X500 is set
|Yes (Dedicated TTL Flash compatible)
|0.5 inch Approx. 3.69 millions dots OLED Color Viewfinder
Coverage of Viewing Area vs. Capturing Area: Approx. 100%
Eyepoint: Approx. 23mm (from the Rear End of the Camera's Eyepiece)
Diopter Adjustment: -4 - +2m-1
Magnification: 0.77× with 50mm Lens (35mm Equivalent) at infinity and Diopter set to -1.0m-1
Diagonal Angle of View: Approx. 38° (Horizontal Angle of View: Approx. 30°)
Built-In Eye Sensor
|3.2 inch, Aspect Ratio 4:3, Approx. 2,360K-dot Tilt-Type(Two Direction),
Touch Screen Color LCD Monitor (Approx. 100% Coverage)
|[Full HD (1920 x 1080)] 29.97p / 25p / 24p / 23.98p 36Mbps up to Approx. 30min.
[HD (1280 x 720)] 29.97p / 25p / 24p / 23.98p 18Mbps up to Approx. 30min.
|Color, Sharpness, Highlight tone, Shadow tone, Noise reduction, Long exposure NR, Lens Modulation Optimizer, Color space, Pixel mapping, Select custom setting, Edit/Save custom setting, Store AF mode by orientation, Rapid AF, AF point display, Pre-AF, AF Illuminator, Face/Eye detection AF, AF+MF, Focus peak highlight, Focus check, Interlock spot AE & focus area, Instant AF setting (AF-S/AF-C), Depth-of-field scale, Rlease/Focus priority, Touch screen mode, Flicker reduction, Mount adapter setting, 35mm Format Mode, Red eye removal, Movie AF mode, RGB Histogram, Highlight alert, Electronic level, Preview depth of field, AE lock, AF lock, AF-ON, Multiple exposure
|Touch Screen Mode
|Film Simulation mode
|15 modes ( PROVIA / Standard, Velvia / Vivid, ASTIA / Soft, CLASSIC CHROME, PRO Neg.Hi, PRO Neg.Std, Black&White, Black&White+Ye Filter, Black&White+R Filter, Black&White+Gfilter, Sepia, ACROS, ACROS+Ye Filter, ACROS＋R Filter, ACROS＋G Filter )
|STRONG, WEAK, OFF
|Color Chrome Effect
|STRONG, WEAK, OFF
|Dynamic range setting
|AUTO, 100%, 200%, 400%
|Switch slot, RAW conversion, Erase, Erase selected frames, Simultaneous delete(Raw Slot1/JPG Slot2), Crop, Resize, Protect, Image rotate, Red eye removal, Voice memo setting, Copy, Photobook assist, Multi-frame playback (with micro thumbnail), Favorites, RGB histogram, Highlight alert
|Geotagging, Image transfer (Individual image/Selected multiple images), View & Obtain Images, instax Printer Print, Pairing registration, Delete pairing registration, Bluetooth ON/OFF setting, Auto image transfer, Smartphone Sync. Setting
|Exif Print, Date/Time, Time difference, 35 Languages, My menu setting, Sensor cleaning, Battery age, Sound set-up, EVF brightness, EVF color, EVF color adjustment, LCD brightness, LCD color, LCD color adjustment, Image disp, Auto rotate displays, Preview exp./WB in manual mode, Natural live view, Framing guideline, Autorotate PB, Focus scale units, Disp. custom setting, Focus lever setting, Edit/Save Quick menu, Function(Fn) setting, Selector button setting, Command dial setting, S.S. operation, Shutter AF, Shutter AE, Shoot without lens, Shoot without card, Focus ring, AE/AF-Lock mode, Expo. Comp. button setting, Touch screen setting, Lock, Auto power off, Shooting stand by mode, Auto power save, Frame No., Save org image, Edit file name, Card slot setting, Switch slot, Movie file destination, Select Folder and Create Folder, Copyright Info
|NP-T125 Li-ion battery (included)
|160.7mm (W) x 96.5mm (H) x 66.4mm (D) / 6.33in. (W) x 3.80in. (H) x 2.62in. (D)
(Minimum Depth : 46.0mm / 1.81in.)
|Approx. 775g / 27.3oz. (including battery and memory card)
Approx. 690g / 24.3oz. (excluding accessories, battery and memory card)
|-10°C - +40°C (+14°F - +104°F)
|10 - 80% (no condensation)
|Starting up period