Medium format brings with it bulkier and heavier lenses mated to large cameras, but what of medium format with a top-performing lens of the same weight as even diminutive Leica M rangefinder lenses?
Equivalent to a ~40mm f/2.9 in 35mm-format terms, the 12oz = 335gram Fujifilm GF 50/3.5 lacks the lens speed but nails it on weight and yet feels like a well-built substantial thing. Now that is a “carry” proposition you will love and I sure did while using the 50/3.5 for six weeks or so in the field. I found myself always preferring to head out with the 50/3.5 by default, every time, even if I knew I had to do shooting with other lenses because the 50/3.5 is just such a pleasure to work with.
Landscape shooter? You’ll adore its compactness and weight and outstanding performance. Street shooter? Ditto, plus its bokeh is also outstanding. The ultra-compact lens hood makes the 50/3.5 seem even smaller than its 45/2.8 and 63/2.8 siblings.
You might think that the 50/3.5 is a lens destined for the smallest of the Fujifilm medium format cameras, the GFX-50R. Perhaps that’s what Fujifilm had in mind as the ideal match. True enough, but my view is that on The Beast (the Fujifilm GFX100), the 50/3.5 is if anything more appealing because it drops the whole package into the “enjoyment range” in terms of carrying and using it, along with fantastic performance at 100 megapixels. It’s a total package you cannot get any other way in medium format here in 2020.
Choosing a standard lens to go with a medium format system is more important than you might think. A camera that becomes tedious to carry ultimately means it gets used less so it’s not good value. Although going with a zoom is an easy default that checks off the boxes for flexibility, the GF 50/3.5 in my view is by far the best first-lens choice for the Fujifilm medium format system. The mental debate when going on a trip or hike resolves easily with the 50/3.5. Along it goes – maybe leave the heavier stuff behind entirely.
Sometimes we get lucky and a real gem exists that is not only relatively inexpensive, but a star performer at a modest price too.
As to value, it was just crazy, and maybe I was too, I was so impressed with the overall utility and outstanding performance of the GF 50/3.5 that I bought it when it was being promoted at half off – the incredibly low price of $499 (vs. $999) – and I don’t yet own a Fujifilm medium format system! A lens this good and seemingly a flawless sample made me grab it, being confident that a suitable matching camera is in my future at some point.
Versatile focal length
Landscape shooter, street shooter, environmental portraiture: the ideal first lens will handle all these tasks with few drawbacks, and with lens speed and angle of view suitable for a large variety of subjects. The 50/3.5 just nails it on these points.
Taking lens speed, I never found that f/3.5 was a problem for focusing versus f/2.8 on the GFX100 (except at night, when all the GF lenses are problematic), but it did seem appreciably better than the f/4 of the Fujifilm GF 45-100mm f/4 that I also had along. It’s a threshold sort of thing that just worked great. And how often is f/2.8 instead of f/3.5 really a consideration for either focusing or depth of field? I’ll take the ultra-high and ultra-consistent performance and the compactness and weight any time.
The angle of view (focal length) of ~41mm (35mm equiv) is an outstanding all-around choice. For landscape, its slightly wide view matches well with many subjects and a quick 2- or 3-frame panorama/stitch makes a substantially wider image with minimal effort in “post,” and very wide with a few more frames. Shoot in portrait orientation for more vertical coverage and another frame or two for more width. I was impressed with just how versatile its ~41mm focal length (equiv) was for all-around use. Nothing wider or longer would have served quite so well.
If you’re a street shooter or like environmental portraiture, the slightly wide field of view is right in the zone for including appropriate context both indoors and out. And although a zoom like the 32-64mm or 45-100mm is more flexible, the 50/3.5 gets you (well, me at least) moving my feet for a better composition. Plus, the 50/3.5 is less intimidating to subjects and less noticeable to people around you. And your neck and back will thank you all day long.
At only 335 grams / ~12 ounces, the GF 50/3.5 is hardly noticed on Fujifilm medium format cameras. It just sort of disappears into the package.
The lens hood is ultra-compact, adding to the feeling of compactness and light weight. Regrettably the lens hood does not have filter threads, so mounting a filter means unscrewing the lens hood, screwing on the 62mm filter, then screwing the lens hood onto the filter, so be sure to get filters with front threads. I did not observe any additional vignetting while using filters of standard thickness.
The aperture ring is a pleasure to use, and can at times be preferable to electronic control, but I found myself usually controlling aperture via the camera dials. An AF/MF switch right on the lens would have been a nice touch but is lacking.
The Fujifilm GF 50mm f/3.5 is surely the best performer in its range in the GF line in every way. That alone should make it a top choice for many shooters as a must-have.
Dynamic range requires tight control over veiling flare
The Fujifilm GFX100 has performed admirably here, and without long exposure noise reduction (“LENR” in metadata is incorrect). The entire dynamic range of the camera was used, with almost completely black shadows (a huge boost was needed to reveal detail). The 50/3.5 maintains outstanding overall contrast, so it can be used in difficult lighting situations with no concern for contrast-robbing veiling flare, although direct sunlight as non-image-forming light does matter, as it does with all lenses.
Sharpness corner to corner
To really give a lens a challenge, a finely detailed distance scene like Pre-Sunrise Snow on Alabama Hills and Mt Whitney mercilessly reveals sharpness limitations, or the common lens quality control problem of lens symmetry. The GF 50/3.5 passes with flying colours capturing an incredible level of detail on the 100-megapixel sensor.
The GF 50/3.5 offers superb corner-to-corner sharpness with nil field curvature. This makes it eminently suitable for astrophotography even wide open (though stopping down a bit helps to even out illumination over the frame).
Real depth of field
By “real” depth of field, I mean the actual gains in depth of field by stopping down versus the theoretical gains. That difference can be quite large with many lenses, making a laughingstock of already silly depth of field tables, particularly in the outer zones of the frame.
Equally important and related is consistent sharpness corner to corner. In Water Over Boulders, focus stacking would have been problematic (water movement and wind movement of vegetation), so the only choice was to stop down to f/13 for a 30-second exposure. I took half a dozen test shots to establish the focus distance that would deliver the best total near-to-far sharpness where desired, and it succeeded beautifully. That is, it can be very hard to gauge distance in the field, so even if the lens behaviour is well understood, it is wise to shoot a frame and carefully examine where the zone of high sharpness actually lands, particularly when dim light makes it hard to be sure of exact focus distance in magnified Live View.
When all is said and done, did the 50/3.5 deliver sharpness at far right on the tree, and in the corners too? Indeed it did, admirably so.
Panoramas and stitching
Consistent sharpness also means that panoramas stitch beautifully while retaining high sharpness. With consistent sharpness across the frame, there is no sharp frame to confuse the merging process with a not-so-sharp frame for the same subject area. First Sunlight after Bitterly Cold Night is a 2-frame 137-megapixel panorama that worked beautifully with little effort. It’s also an excellent example of how the focal length can in effect become much wider with a simple 2-frame panorama.
The town of Lone Pine, CA is seen in the far distance in the valley below. A cold storm dropped snow on the Alabama Hills, which is quite uncommon in late March.
Efficient focus stacking
Focus stacking is the only method that can deal with depth-of-field challenges (a very few tilt lenses can help in a very few situations). Focus stacking has its own challenges and limits, but nothing else even comes close. Besides wind and changing light and other factors outside your control, what makes focus stacking a headache? Simple: field curvature, lens asymmetry, focus shift, correction for secondary chromatic errors. A lens that strictly controls those issues always delivers superior real (actual) depth of field compared to a lens that does not, a bonus result. There is one exception to this ease of use: at close range the 50/3.5 does have considerable peripheral forward focus shift. However, that is not an issue for focus stacking and does not reduce its performance.
The Fujifilm GF 50/3.5 delivers on all those counts which is why it is a joy to work with for focus stacking. I can shoot the series knowing that the lens will give me corner-to-corner sharpness with near optimal gains in depth of field for each stop of stopping down. And that the focus will land where I intended (no focus shift), that retouching won’t be horribly confusing by trying to visualize a warped zone of sharpness (field curvature) intersecting a 3D scene. Plus, the sample I bought shows perfect lens symmetry. So, although retouching is often time-consuming, the 50/3.5 eliminates ALL the hassle factors that I have learned to loathe in a lens. The 50/3.5 is as ideal a lens for focus stacking as I’ve seen, which is high praise indeed.
The Fujifilm GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR is a gem in the GF lens lineup. It’s the smallest and lightest, least expensive, highest performance lens in its range, and (mostly) free of optical headaches leading to sub-optimal results. It should be at the top of the list for most all Fujifilm medium format shooters.
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