Interview with Steven Friedman

Interview with Steven Friedman

If there was a time to interview a photographer who spends his life photographing the beauty and grace of trees, this is it. Especially during this crisis, Steven Friedman’s stunning imagery and awe-inspiring prints of forests and trees around the world provides much-needed calm and consolation. Steven describes his photographic journey and takes us deep into the fascinating visual world of life-sustaining and majestic trees. We talked with Steven about his carefully crafted compositions, his beginnings, the importance of being among trees and his relentless pursuit of quality in image capture and printing. We also touched on some business aspects of selling prints and Steven’s fascinating plans for his upcoming book.

You can find the entire interview in the March edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Below please find some excerpts from this fascinating interview.

What was your first visual interest as a photographer?

Early on, I was interested in Galen Rowell’s work. The way he captured his images when he was adventure travelling or climbing piqued my interest in getting into remote areas to experience and photograph them. I really enjoyed his book “Mountain Light,” a gift from an aunt of mine. Galen had a great ability to emphasize the story behind his images and describe what made the image possible. As well, I was interested in some of the earlier work of Christopher Burkett. His work is more about the intimate landscape of the forest.

Why trees? When did you decide to focus almost entirely on photographing trees around the world?

If you spend enough time in the forest amongst trees, you really start to appreciate their beauty and their delicate balance of strength and gracefulness. They are just beautiful. I feel better when I’m in the forest. It recharges me and feeds my soul like nothing else. It’s where I want to be. 

I used to photograph the sunrise/sunset type photographs and the typical viewpoints, which are easily recognizable. I never found it very satisfying. To stand where other people have stood is not something that excites me. I want to create one-of-a-kind images. A lot of the photography these days all looks the same.

How does seeing and arranging trees within the frame differ from crafting images of any other subject?

It’s much more difficult to find a resonating composition in the forest than in many other subjects. The forest is random and chaotic. You must find a pattern and rhythm that works for you. I use a framing card cut out for a 1 to 3 panoramic format and the 645 format, so that I can find a spot in the forest where subject, composition and light come together to make an image that resonates with people. 

What’s your favourite tree? And your favourite tree to photograph?

My favourite trees are aspens. In North America I have photographed them from the Yukon to New Mexico. They glow white and have an amazing colour in autumn. I have put 15 autumn seasons into photographing aspen trees. I just love being immersed in an autumn forest. It’s a sensory overload of colour, light and smells. I still have not photographed the trees in winter. I keep a list of ideas of imagery and places that I want to shoot. 

What did photographing trees for so many years teach you about trees—something you didn’t know when you started?

The forest and the ecosystem are much more delicate than I originally thought. Many forests are being affected by disease and decline. It’s really noticeable all over the world. There are numerous images I have taken that do not exist anymore. The trees have died. 

What is the most common misconception people have about trees?

That trees are easy to photograph. This is not the case. I might spend days walking around a forest trying to find one image. I have gone back to a location year after year waiting for the right light and colour to get an image. It’s a lot of work and it takes dedication and vision finding an elegant image from a stand of trees. Elegance is the key to making intimate landscape photographs of trees. 

Where is your favourite location in North America to photograph trees?

The mountains at peak fall colour in both the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains are my favourite places to be. The Appalachians are a younger forest since it has been cut down so many times. I am just starting to feel I am getting quality imagery from this area after seven autumn/spring shoots. The clutter and chaos are over the top. It is fun trying to find that one spot when I get excited, knowing I have something special. 

What’s your advice to those who would like to follow in your footsteps and focus on one subject? 

Follow your heart and your passion. If you do, it will show up in your work. When people stand in front of my prints, they feel a sense of awe. One needs to excite and connect with people so they want to purchase your work and hang it in their homes or offices. The viewer also has a sense that they cannot create the print that I produce. Just trying to find a composition in a forest is a difficult thing; add to that the scale of my work. It blows people away when they stand in front of the prints. 

SELLING PRINTS

You sold an edition of a print for over $200,000. That is a price point almost unheard of in today’s world of photography. Would you mind sharing a snippet about how you got to this point and how you did it?

That was one sale at a time to sell out an edition of 50. It all adds up over time. Numerous prints of this edition were sold corporately at the higher price points. Prints of this image are all over the world. “Zebra Aspens” is the image that has sold at this price level. The rare dramatic striping or markings add drama to the image, and unfortunately represent only a moment in time. The image was taken over 10 years ago. The markings on these trees that were estimated to be around 80 years old at the time are from a disease or canker that attacks trees that are stressed by heat, drought, winter injury, and other diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these trees are now dead. This stand is now a sad compilation of dead, fallen and leaning soldiers. 

I have numerous other images in my collection that approach this price level. 

Why do you think so many photographers struggle with selling prints?

Today, I see many photographers who experience great success selling. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see even a small fraction of that success.

Something that I think is missing with some photographers is a commitment to producing high quality prints. I believe it is integral to completing the photographic process and being able to stand behind your work. 

As well, I believe many photographers shoot the same places and the same subjects so the imagery today all looks the same. You need to be unique and capture images that are from something you find. It comes from inside you not from copying someone’s image you see on Instagram. Take the time to develop your own eye and style of shooting. Your viewer will recognize this uniqueness.

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Photographic ideas while staying at home

Photographic ideas while staying at home

In the last few weeks many of us around the world have been staying at home. Although it may seem that enjoying photography from home is hard, there are many ways we can still work on our beloved craft. We asked some of our contributors about their photographic ideas when stuck at home. We also included some from our FB MediumFormat Group. Enjoy and stay safe! 

Steven Friedman

I would suggest you go back through your catalogue of images and try to organize the imagery in projects or themes. Many of us photograph different locations around the world. I have found there are themes in what I like to photograph. They may include abstracts, reflections, single trees, or large forests, etc. Once you have the images together, you could print the images on 11” x 17” paper and have a local book binder bind the images for you. I did this when I was first starting out. It made me think about what interests me and where I could improve and not get into the routine of framing and choosing similar subjects when out on a shoot. 

My other idea is simply to go on the net, find photographers that you admire and study their images to try and learn why the image works and what you like about them. Study the light, composition and subject. 

https://www.friedmanphoto.com


Take Kayo 

Out of necessity I’ve been doing most of my product photography at home in my garage. I use the floor of my garage as my backdrop because the texture of the cracking paint makes for an interesting background. Since my garage is south facing, I wait for the right time of day to photograph my gear and use a mirror to bounce light back towards my subject. Whatever gear you enjoy (cameras, watches, shoes, pens, etc.) find the best light in your home and have fun trying to photograph it.

http://www.bigheadtaco.com


Vincent Lions

If you are at home with your children, set up a mini home studio and take a beautiful portrait of your kids. It can be a fun thing to do together and it will keep them entertained. Then send the portrait to all your loved ones. Grandparents, aunts and uncles will be absolutely delighted to receive big loving smiles from the youngest ones. More than ever we need to connect to the people we love.

www.vincentlions.com


Holger Nitschke 

The situation forces us to SLOW DOWN and maybe it’s the perfect time to gain some experiences in analogue photography! 

I just purchased another film camera (Rolleiflex 3.5) and now I’m getting experience with the wonderful camera and development of films. My preferred subject is portrait/people/fashion but it’s really fun to gather objects together or take nature shots with the camera.

https://lichtreize.myportfolio.com/


Ewan Dunsmuir

Sort your catalogued files out… Or create a $10 studio with a white sheet, window light, and shoot away! #Happyhometime

https://www.ewandunsmuirimages.com


FROM THE GROUP

Derick Miller

I have started doing at-home assignments in my photography group, since we can’t hold meetings right now. Here is the first one. Select a subject. Find five compelling angles to photograph that one subject (experiment with up, down, left, right, front, back, close, far). Subtle shifts can often make a big difference in how well it comes out. Post your best five.


Rivki Locker

I’m documenting the impact of the virus on our home lives. Here are some photos I took yesterday of my kids making toilet paper! (No, we are not out of toilet paper or close to it, but this was their way of acknowledging the crazy times and filling an hour or two with a fun project. 


Don Parsisson

1. Pretend you’re a detective investigating a crime that took place in your house or apartment. Then take pictures that could be used as evidence by either the prosecution or the defence. 
2. Pick words at random from a dictionary, book or newspaper. Then make photos in your house or apartment that fit the words. 
3. If you live with someone, take turns photographing each other doing the same thing. If you have a way to print them, make a small book with the images on facing pages. For extra credit you could mail or email a copy to someone.


If you are shooting medium format, film or digital, please join our Medium Format Magazine FB Group. This is a fantastic group of passionate professionals and amateurs who exchange imagery and ideas about medium format photography.  

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HOW IT WAS SHOT – Serendipity by Peter Delaney

HOW IT WAS SHOT – Serendipity by Peter Delaney

In every issue of the Medium Format Magazine you will find the monthly section, HOW IT WAS SHOT. This is where we feature one image and the story behind it. In the January 2020 edition, Peter Delaney shares with our readers not one but two images and stories behind them. One of them is a truly stunning photograph from our January cover titled “The Matriarch.” The second image is “Virginia Tree” (below).

Today we would like to share with you the third image from this truly spectacular series. Enjoy!

Serendipity

In my photography, serendipitous moments are few. Sometimes, we see all the elements that will make a great composition but they are out of alignment. It is then that two crucial aspects come into play—patience and Lady Luck.

It was day four of our Masai Mara adventure; my guests were three gentlemen from the Philippines who were passionate wildlife photographers.

We had spent an hour photographing a lion pride. The pride was on the move from the swampy grassland to higher rocky ground where it was drier underfoot. I decided to pre-empt the lions and get to the rocky area before they did, allowing us time to position ourselves and get the right angle to photograph them as they approached.

As our 4×4 began the ascent of the small hill, we climbed slowly over sharp rocks. Luckily the grass was short, and we could navigate without damaging our vehicle. The last thing I wanted was to break down with a pride of twenty lions heading our direction. We climbed higher, rolling back and forth, hanging on to our equipment for dear life. I glanced towards the top of the hill where a lone tree stood proudly against a backdrop of beautiful white cloud. My first thought was to stop our driver Benson to capture this incredible scene. 

But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small herd of five elephants happily grazing and moving slowly along the hilltop. My mind went into overdrive. What if? 

I voiced my thoughts to my guests. I painted a picture of the elephants standing close to the tree, adding that extra element needed to make a great composition. 

My driver and guests all stated the apparent flaw in my vision—the elephants were some distance from the tree. 

I pointed out that they were, albeit slowly, moving in that direction. 

We kept to our original plan of photographing the lions who had now reached the rocks. A male and female were sitting close to each other and that would be our photographic subject while we waited on the slow progress of the elephants heading towards the lone tree. 

Clouds began to roll in from the east; the wind picked up; time was not our side. If the storm reached us, the chance of a flash flood on one of the Masai Mara bridges we had crossed over was high.

Two elephants stopped grazing, lifted their heads, and strolled towards our tree; it was as if they could read my mind and had decided that they would play their vital role to complete my vision. I decided to move our vehicle away from the lions and gamble on the elephants and tree. I advised my guests to change lenses to medium focal length which would help to compress the view and allow enough space for the tree, elephants, cloud and some breathing room if we needed to crop in post edit. 

I pointed out to Benson the best position to park the 4×4—a low angle further down the hill to accentuate our angle of view and have the tree in the middle of our composition; the two elephants were walking side by side towards the tree. We needed some space between the elephants, or the photograph would not work. For the second time I felt the elephants were reading my thoughts. One elephant walked to the left of the tree, the other to the right—an almost a perfect mirror image. I shouted, “Now!” We all pressed our shutters. 

Within a 500th of a second, the synchronicity of the photograph had disappeared. The elephants ambled on. Patience and a little bit of Lady Luck had completed my vision. I glanced at the EVF of my GFX100, holding my breath as I waited for the image to appear. I had managed to get three photographs, but the middle picture was the one that made me smile, as both elephants were equidistant from the tree. Everyone on board was happy with their day’s safari. We headed back to camp looking forward to sharing much-needed refreshments.

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PICTURES OF THE WEST: Driving South

PICTURES OF THE WEST: Driving South

The story was published in the November, 2018 edition of the Medium Format Magazine. You will find the second part “Driving North” by Benjamin Everett in the December, 2018 issue.


Death Valley

There was a dashed line and darkness. The headlights revealed a steep road plummeting through a blur of rock and sage. My main concern was heat. The overhead panel displayed a glowing 94 degrees and it was well past midnight. What would that read at midday?  

Alongside me was a dream collection of Hasselblad gear: the 100 megapixel H6D and four lenses. I’d never shot medium format before and would be getting used to this kit over the next few days in the depths of Death Valley. Thereafter I’d be a free agent, logging nearly 4,000 miles of the American West in search of unique desert landscapes.

Six months before, on a whim, I’d entered the landscape category of the Hasselblad Masters competition, and won. In total, there were over 30,000 entrants across 11 categories. It felt a bit like winning the lottery. As part of the competition, winners were asked to shoot a series of images on Hasselblad equipment of their choice. These images would then be compiled into a beautiful hardcover collectors’ book. The pressure to live up to expectations was high.

Many of my artistic heroes were painters of the West. These wild landscapes lent themselves particularly well to interpretation. There is a fascinating correlation between the line quality found in art and design, and the lines nature tends to draw. For my series of images, I proposed exploring this across a variety of windswept dunes and Badlands. After a thousand miles driving from my home in the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley was the first real stop.

I spend a lot of time on the road. My Dodge Durango is getting close to the 200k mark, and I hope she can go as many more. Some may prefer the spaciousness of a camper van, but there’s something nice about the versatility of an unassuming SUV. The back seats fold completely flat and with a few foam pads, all six feet two of me sleeps blissfully.

Pulling into a quiet corner of the Mesquite Flats parking lot around 2 am, I shook my head while setting the alarm for 4:30. When it went off, just two and a half short hours later, I swung my legs down to the ground, and wondered how awake I was. Everything about the medium format gear was surreal, including its weight. The full kit came to about 40 pounds. I hefted this and took off for the dunes, enjoying cool sand under my bare feet.

Oceans and deserts are remarkably alike, silent and clean. Thoughts are distant like ships on the horizon, you see them a mile off cresting waves they roll towards you. For me, that space is a key to creativity. It’s an expansive emptiness that must exist before the good that fills it. 

You have to go away from the parking lot to a place where there are fewer footprints and pretty soon, none. I set up the tripod and locked down the H6D. It was time to start experimenting with compositions. The camera was friendly. We got along straightaway. The menu is sleek and intuitive, as are the controls. The large kachunk of the shutter was a startling transition from a DSLR, but I see it as symbolic of the effort required to lock in a 100mp file. It’s like the vault door slamming shut on a newly minted gold bar. 

It would be nearly month before I would see that digital gold on the screen, but yes, the files really are that good.

Drifting along, the lack of wind provided a perfect opportunity to experiment with lenses, something I’d appreciate later when the elements were not so kind. Quickly, the 35-90mm f/4-5.6. became a favorite. I’m used to prime lenses on my usual Nikon D810, so this range allowed me to move quickly. In the desert, it’s nice to have the freedom to compose different shots without disturbing the sand. As the sun crested the horizon, I made my way to the top of a large dune. Here, the 300mm f/4.5 shone. Abstract layer combinations lay in all directions. As raking light began to fall across the textured ripples underfoot, I switched to the wide angle of the 24mm f/4.8. The last of the four lenses, the Macro 120mm f/4 II, didn’t get used that day but after discovering its incredible sharpness, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

As the sun rose further, so did the heat. This kicked up wind and wind brought sand and the lens now on the camera stayed on the camera. My initial concerns about temperature were valid. By midday it was 111 degrees. I protected myself and the gear as well as could be expected. But that wind! If I’d only known how it would become a constant issue.

Having wandered far into the dunes, I was low on water and ready to return. The path back was punctuated by stops and starts. The light went flat with a slight heat haze, but the forms were still there, teasing you. Countless times I pulled the tripod from my shoulder saying, “Just one more.”

Arizona Badlands

On the road again, heading further south. There was a day lost to Las Vegas. During an oil change, the attendant showed me a tire gauge. “See this red area indicating danger?” “Sure.” “You’re way past it.” I pictured blowouts and precipitous plunges down canyon walls. “Go ahead with the replacements.”

Then it was over the Hoover dam and onward through Flagstaff. I spent the night on a utility road among sage and volcanic rock. Highway lights twinkled in the distance. 

Arriving at the Petrified Forest National Park, I was shocked to learn the gates close several hours before sunset. Apparently, it’s harsh light or nothing. 

Sitting in the Visitors Center, swirling a bad cup of coffee and concerned about the project, I had a moment of exasperation. Maybe Google has some answers. Pinching maps towards dark patches of crimson and gold, paved gray arteries led to dusty veins, and I’d found a road of new possibilities. 

Upon arrival, there was a slight hesitation. This appeared to be the remains of a Navajo State Park. I steered my new tires around broken bottles, potholes, a lopsided park bench, and the graffiti-covered remains of a derelict restroom. Towards the end of the road, on the horizon, a sliver of red indicated hope. The color grew. A band of white, a band of gold, another band of red – I jumped from the car and ran to the edge. Draped across the horizon was a giant Navajo blanket of rippling color, geometric ridges and geologic patterns. The connection between the indigenous people of the southwest, their art and their land is immediate. Everything is connected. I laughed out loud.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day. There was a desire to turn and say to someone, “Can you believe this!?” but there was not a living soul in sight.

Later that evening, soft golden light exaggerated the beauty of those rolling forms. I walked about, aligning compositions and timing exposures. This was exactly the light and location I’d hoped for, but the wind was becoming a problem and appeared to be getting stronger. Soon I imagined great towering waves of air, cresting and falling in explosive gusts across the entire ridge line. Bracing low, I was thankful for a sturdy tripod and hoped things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately, the wind buffeted the car all night and the sun rose behind racing stripes of grey cloud. It was clearly time to move on. 

Next stop, White Sands National Monument. This would be the first time I’d laid eyes on New Mexico, the legendary home of so many of the early 20th century painters I admired, including Ernest L. Blumenschein, William Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

The wind continued to howl as I headed south through rolling grasslands. Did the car swerve because of wind or distraction? At times, fields of small green juniper trees stretched to the horizon, endless in their arrangements of Zen. I passed perfect window-framed scenes at 70 mph and turned circles in the road to find them again. Did front-seat yoga, twisting to brace the camera against car-seat, steering-wheel and dash-board supports. Selective windows were raised and lowered to minimize wind and dust. When all batteries died, it was a relief. I might actually make it to a hotel in Alamogordo that night.

Lying spread out on the cool sheets of a king-sized bed, I listened to the air conditioner hum while battery lights blinked softly in the darkened room. Inspiration was electric. I’ve always admired these Southwest artists for their creativity and style. After the day’s drive it became apparent that half the gratitude goes to the landscape. It was exciting to feel so at home somewhere new.

White Sands

These are the sexiest of dunes, their smooth curves fast and low. The best experience is to spend a night in the heart of them. I reserved a site with the rangers and by mid-afternoon had hiked in and set up camp. It was a world that existed of two colors: soft white walls under a hard blue distant ceiling. With some time to go before the ideal light, I sat in the shade to meditate. The barely heard sounds of the park became more apparent. The wind was distant and muffled, like some great hourglass slowly pouring itself into the future, each grain heard tumbling in time. And then, the time is now. I’m up and taking pictures. It’s rare that meditation has blurred so directly into the process of photography. There was no destination, just the gradual motion towards a focused observation. No paths retraced, each fresh scene destroyed by moving through it.

The White Sand Dunes are wildly different from the gold ones of Death Valley and not just in color. Sand size and wind patterns create all new shapes to play with. Sweeping arcs rise up western faces to drop down steep walls to the east. Between each dune is an area of dry earth, reptilian scales of hardened soil that reveal sparse vegetation between the cracks. Photography there is often about excluding these low zones. Two compositions predominate: aligning crests of the dunes with a telephoto lens or focusing wide angles on the texture of broad slopes.

The sun dipped lower in the west and glinted off the blowing sand. Again, this wind! Each dune gained an aura of gold. When asked about the weather sealing of the H6D, Hasselblad answered a disconcerting, “None.” I wrapped the sensitive camera tightly in my windbreaker, feeling more clever than necessary by using the hood as a lens cover and battled on, heading west. Ridge after ridge of new and fascinating compositions. I battled stability, battled visibility, and finally gave up as the sun withdrew its final rays. ISO and shutter speed were no match for the gale.

Turning east, darkness had crept up from behind. A moment of disorientation rushed over me. I’d neglected to bring any kind of light. There was no moon, no footprints, and there was no trail. The dunes were a uniform blue turning quickly to a swallowing black. Soon I’d barely make out my feet below me. I fought a rising sense of dread. How could I have been so foolish? I’d read the warnings but passed them off as guidelines for city-dwelling tourists used to road signs and street lights. The wilderness was my home, I don’t get lost. Any judgements passed on others swung back with full self-critical force.

Looking back, this was the halfway point of my trip. Standing there in darkness, I would never be as far from home.

Breathing deeply, I focused on the horizon. To the east, the lights of Alamogordo were fixed stars, my tent was that way too. I found the brightest and set sail. At the top of each dune, this guiding light was visible. Plunging down a blank face, there was nothing, and there was walking forward into nothing. But then the light reappeared and I was on course. Up and down, trust then reassurance. After 45 minutes, I walked straight into a trail marker, and my tent soon after. Sleep was deep and easy. The gravity of my trip had shifted. It’s fascinating to watch a simple compass orientation affect your entire outlook. The fortitude to push south into the unknown became just as strong to go north and home.


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MF REVIEW: Fujinon GF 50mm F3.5 lens.

MF REVIEW: Fujinon GF 50mm F3.5 lens.

Portable, light and the only one you might need. 

Since the introduction of the Fujifilm GFX medium format system, we have seen eight Fujinon lenses designed specifically for the GFX50S, the GFX50R and most recently the GFX100 cameras. What links them all is their superb build and exceptional optical quality. After all, this is medium format, meaning any shortcoming in design or optical quality would be on full display. One of the trade-offs is the size—most GF lenses are large and quite heavy. 

With the introduction of the GFX50R, a rangefinder-style medium format camera, it became apparent there was a need for a smaller, pancake-style lens which would match the relatively portable and travel-friendly design of the GFX50R. This is when the GF50mm F3.5 lens R LM WR came to the fore. 

As an owner of the GF45mm F2.8 and someone who has shot quite extensively with the 63mm F2.8 lens, the question arises as to whether the brand-new GF 50mm F3.5 is worth considering as the only walk-around, everyday lens. 

That is exactly what I tried to find out during the testing process. All conclusions are mine. The lens was kindly provided to us by Fujifilm Canada for a review; no conditions or provisos were attached to it. 

Let’s get to it. 

BUILD AND FIRST IMPRESSION

The first thing that came to mind when I took the GF50 F3.5 lens out of the box was “Wow, this is small.” I’ve had the chance to shoot with every GF lens available and most of them are quite large—that should be no surprise. After all, this is medium format where image quality is everything. With this proviso, compromising on the quality of the glass just to make it smaller wouldn’t make any sense. 

Even in comparison to the GF63mm F2.8 lens, the GF50mm F2.8 is quite small. It weighs only 335gm(11.8 oz). The build quality doesn’t differ from the rest of the lineup. I tried to look hard to see where Fujifilm might have saved money but I couldn’t find it or at least it is not apparent. 

It is still an all-metal lens with a pleasant high-quality rubber grip and a dedicated aperture ring as are all the other lenses in the line-up. As seen in the other offerings, you can put the lens in the “A” or “C” modes with the latter allowing for a command dial on the body to control your aperture.  

The good news is that the lens’ front filter thread size is 62mm, the same as the GF45mm or GF63mm lenses. Another interesting feature of the lens is its unique metal arching lens hood; you will find two different size caps inside the box to bring back your childhood Lego memories. When using the lens with the hood it looks as if it had no hood at all. I quite like it. 

Last, the GF50mm F3.5 is weather resistant, which means I can attach the lens to any weather-resistant body and I don’t have to worry about rain. Hello Vancouver! Hello the R-A-I-N Project! 

For those who need specifics here they are: 

  • 9 elements in 6 groups
  • Angle of view: 57.4°
  • Max. aperture: ƒ/3.5
  • Min. aperture: ƒ/32   
  • Focus range (from the sensor surface): 0.55m 
  • Max. magnification: 0.1x 
  • External dimensions: Diameter x Length (Distance from camera lens mount flange):  φ84mm x 48mm
  • Weight (approx.) (excluding the lens cap, lens hood and hood cap): 335gm

FOCAL LENGTH 

Although we started with the lens’ physical qualities, its field of view is a much more rivetting story. 

The GF45mm F2.8 is 36mm full frame equivalent and the GF63mm F2.8 is 50mm —both classic viewpoints. Having said that, the brand-new GF50mm F3.5 gives us the 40mm focal length, just between the GF63 and GF45. What an interesting field of view! 

Once again, despite its unusual number, the 50mm focal length (40mm in FF) worked well when framing this scene. The 45mm would be too wide and the 63mm too tight. Strange indeed, but the more I used the GF50mm, the more I found how useful and versatile this lens is. It took me a while to figure out the exact framing of this shot. What you see on the left side of the frame is a wooden structure of some sort, which one gentleman was working on. It was placed outside for a while, then moved inside. It is amazing how visual opportunities appear in front of you if you attune your seeing to one focal length. 

When I received this lens, I didn’t know what to make of it. I had shot extensively with both 35 and 50 focal lengths (in FF terms) and am comfortable with both. Having said that, my “to go” focal length for most of my photography is the GF45mm, a  wider 35mm field of view in full frame terms. 

In other words, the GF45mm F2.8 was a more natural choice for me. I found little reason to reach out for the GF 63mm F2.8. I enjoy having a wider lens to make my frame visually richer and more interesting. This of course comes with the challenge of having more elements to deal with and more space to control in the frame. There are times, especially when I want to take some street portraits, when I could use the GF63mm F2.8 but it doesn’t justify buying another lens and carrying it with me. 

GF 50mm vs. GF45mm

The most vital question for me is whether the brand-new GF50mm F3.5 would solve this problem. Some of you may say, “That’s fine, Olaf, but this is F2.8 vs. F3.5.” You are absolutely right but let’s not beat the drum too loudly. When I see some people go mad over the look of the bokeh of wide-angle lenses it really turns me into a Grinch, even if it might be slightly too soon to become one. I even have a dog. 

The GF50mm F3.5 allows you to play with out-of-focus areas quite effectively. 

No, you don’t buy wide-angle lenses for bokeh. The difference between F2.8 and F3.5 is not enough to play a major role in a light-gathering sense. In fact, when taking a portrait with the GF50mm at F3.5 I don’t have to worry too much about depth of field because most of my subject’s face is going to be in focus (unless I misplace the focal point of course).

Did I notice the difference between the GF45mm and the GF50mm in real life shooting situations? 

ON THE STREET

Initially, yes. Even though the 5mm difference seems insignificant or as someone put it, “nothing to worry about,” I noticed it right away. I have to admit that in my type of creative photography every inch of frame matters. On the first few days of shooting I had several situations when I wanted to include more in the frame, but I couldn’t. The 5mm difference in the wide-angle world is much more than the number would suggest. After about three days of shooting one thought was buzzing in my mind: “No, this lens is probably not for me.” 

This is one of the situations when I wanted to have a slightly wider lens, the GF45mm F2.8, which allowed me to make the space more pronounced. The images still look great.  

Despite these concerns, I kept reaching for the GFX50R and GF50mm F3.5 lens almost daily. With time and some beer, I came to the realization that for the last ten years I have been mostly shooting with one focal length, that is, 35mm in full frame terms. Once you do it for so long your seeing becomes attuned to one focal length, and at times, I don’t even need a camera to frame the scene in front of me. With the new GF50mm F3.5, my seeing needed to make a major adjustment and it did. 

I always enjoy positioning lines and shapes in the frame. The GF50mm F3.5 was neither too wide nor too tight for such an exercise. It was just right to frame what was happening above our heads. 

On the second week of shooting, I became increasingly comfortable with the 40mm focal length. Interestingly enough, I was shooting as if I was working with the classical 50mm, framing my scene and then expanding it for extra elements to get to the 40mm. Starting tight with your framing is always a better idea than going with the “all-in” blunderbuss attack. It was a very interesting visual exercise and helped me to transition to this new focal length.  

The framing of this image couldn’t be any better with a wider lens. 

I especially appreciated the 50mm F3.5 lens when taking portraits. With the GF45mm F2.8 I often found it was too wide for the purpose. The GF50mm F3.5 was just right. I was able to frame my subject comfortably but also include enough complementing elements. In this regard, the GF50mm F3.5 worked beautifully.   

The image was taken on the ferry in Amsterdam. I noticed this woman and asked her for permission to take a portrait. The 50mm was an ideal focal length to have visual amity but enough distance to create some beautiful negative space. 

WHILE TRAVELLING

As someone who teaches photography around the world, travelling light and simple has always been my priority. When I travel, I usually do so with one camera and one lens only. Could the GF50mm F3.5 replace the GF45mm F2.8 for my travels? 

The first test was on my trip to Amsterdam. I packed the GFX50R paired with the GF50mm F3.5. That’s all. No backup camera unless you consider my iPhone as such. I don’t, but don’t get me started. Not today!  

Another peculiar thing I like about the 40mm focal length is the fact that you can shoot across the road without needing to be on the road. With the GF45mm I often have to shoot from the middle of the road to achieve the right framing (don’t copy me!). It is strange but somehow useful. 

PAIRED WITH THE GFX50R

When Fujifilm announced the GF50mm F3.5, the most fitting camera was the GFX50R despite the fact that I am more familiar with the GFX50S. A few months back, when I was testing the GFX50R, I liked the camera but when paired with the GF45mm F2.8 and the GF110mm F2 I found them together slightly unbalanced and difficult to shoot for an extended period. I left with one thought. If only Fujifilm could do the pancake-like lens for the GFX50R it would be a dream travel and street photography combo.  

Here is the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 combo in the hands of a capable photographer. Indeed, it’s a very portable and neat pairing, perfect for travel and wandering the streets. Some of you might guess who the photographer is. 

Indeed, pairing the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 gave me the relatively small, light and highly portable solution. Putting the camera over my shoulder allowed me to walk around Amsterdam without the nuisance of carrying a big SLR around my neck. In fact, it felt as if I was walking with an oversized X-Pro or X-T. 

I would have problems framing so tightly with the GF45mm lens. The GF50 was perfect for capturing this tight scene. The crack that goes from the top to the bottom provides a much-needed visual break. 

Given the combo’s weight and size, the thought of having the medium format system around my neck put a smile on my face. This special combo changes perception and expands the possibilities of what you can do with medium format today. (The only other portable solution is the Hasselblad X1D 2 along with the XCD 45mm 3.5 lens. Look for an in-depth review later in the year.) 

As I was navigating the narrow streets, bridges and canals, my camera was ready for action at any time. After shooting all day long I didn’t feel any fatigue after carrying the gear. In fact, the experience didn’t differ much from shooting with other much smaller systems.   

When I saw this scene, I had to run up close to the bus. The GF 45mm F2.8 would certainly be too wide for this purpose. 

PAIRED WITH THE GFX50S

The GFX50R was not the only camera I paired this lens with. I also decided to test it on my GFX50S. Up to now it had been the GF45mm F2.8 lens that never left my camera, with the exception of some portraiture work I did with the GF110 F2 lens. The first time the GF50mm F3.5 was announced I had to face the dilemma: 45 or 50? Should I switch? Of course, the main point of such a recast would be to make the system lighter and smaller. 

When you attach the GF50mm F3.5 to the GFX50S, it becomes a camera ready for adventure. It is not as comfortable around your neck as the GFX50R, but it has a different advantage. When the GFX50S is paired with the GF50mm F3.5, the camera’s fantastic grip allows for much more confident hold without using the strap. I couldn’t say that about the GFX50R. 

It is not that I am recommending working without straps or secured protection but the GFX50S matched with the GF50mm F3.5 is such a confident combo to hold in your hand. I take it out of my bag when I want to photograph and then put it back when I don’t. The balance of the camera and the lens is just perfect, especially for my small hands.      

AUTOFOCUS

Upon my return from Amsterdam, I continued shooting with the lens in Vancouver. 

At this point I had a great idea about the GF50mm F3.5 autofocus capabilities. I have to say that my confidence in the lens’ autofocus capabilities rose. Thanks to the lens’ linear motor, there are no moving elements. I could even say this might well be the fastest focusing lens in the GF line-up.  

If I could find one annoying thing about focusing, it’s distance. It needs 1.8 feet (55 centimeters), certainly not good for close-up photography. Sometimes I wanted to focus close—not micro-sort-of-close but closer.  

Lines are always a challenge. The GF50mm F3.5 was just perfect to get what I wanted. I wondered if I had had the GF45mm on my camera would I find this framing or would I go wider? Interesting!

IMAGE QUALITY

With the price point below US$1,000 let me remind you, for a medium format lens, the quality I am seeing is excellent. In fact, when I looked at the files and compared them, I was surprised how sharp this lens was. I could even argue that in the centre of the frame the GF50mm outshines the GF45mm and certainly the GF63mm (the weakest of the three). 

As mentioned earlier, I am not going to split hairs about the so-called bokeh. After all, this is still a wide-angle lens so if bokeh is your obsession you should probably be looking at the GF110 F2, not here.

The rendering of the lens appears to be more clinical and acute so it should appeal to those who seek this micro-contrast edge in their images. In fact, when I showed some images to my friends, they asked me if they were from the GFX100? Nope.  

CONCLUSIONS

When I was faced with choosing my first lens for the GFX system I decided on the GF45mm F2.8. Having said that, back then there was no GF50mm F3.5 lens available; it wasn’t even in the planning stage. Today, I would probably go with the GF50mm F3.5 instead, mainly for two reasons: the size, price and focal length. 

Furthermore, the GFX50R is now listed at US$3999 and the GF50mm F3.5 at US$995. For about US$4,000 you have a powerful camera system and entrance into the medium format world—something just a few years ago many thought impossible.  

For those of you who want to learn the craft of seeing properly and would like to enter or upgrade to medium format, the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 is one of the best ways to do that. Furthermore, I would urge you not to add more lenses right away (unless there is a professional need for it) but to shoot with the combo for at least a year. Once you do so, you may well find out that the portable, light GF50mm F3.5 is the only lens you need for a while.

Quite a complex frame with many elements. This is another occasion when I thought the GF45mm could provide me with more breathing space, especially on the right of the frame. Would that make it better frame? I don’t know. 
Here, framing was of crucial importance and the GF50mm F3.5 gave me the perfect focal length to achieve my visual goals. 

If you are shooting with medium format, make sure to check out the Medium Format Magazine. This highly curated, professionally edited and ad-free publication covers all aspects of medium format photography. Subscribe today and take advantage of special anniversary pricing—use the MF30 code for 30% off – the yearly subscription only.   

My path to medium format photography

My path to medium format photography

For years, I have been a proponent of “the camera doesn’t matter” philosophy, engaging in multiple and sometimes fiery online debates on the subject. In my core I still believe it but my views on the subject have altered drastically over the last two years. The revisions didn’t happen overnight but were formed through a slow and gruelling process of observation and honest self-assessment. They are side-effects in my search for new seeing, propensity for visual risk-taking and for meaning in my work. They are not the final answer but rather a snapshot of my photographic state of mind at this moment.

It was 2012 when I first bought the Fujifilm original X100. In fact, this small camera was a Fujifilm entrance into the digital camera business after a brief absence. It was the beginning of the X-series APS-C sensor-sized, mirrorless cameras. At the time, I was shooting with the Nikon SLR as were most of my friends. Even though the X100 was slow and quirky it totally altered the way I shot. Its small size, portability, electronic viewfinder, physical knobs and the fusion of old-fashioned design with the latest technology made me go out and experiment – photography became fun again.  

Over the years, the small X100/S/T/F became my camera of choice along with the Fujifilm X-Pro2 paired with a few other lenses. During this period, I moved through several transformations as a photographer: from landscape to travel, from classical street to visual experimentations, which are difficult to box into one genre. I became expert in going out, observing, experimenting and creating unique visuals. I gained traction and a large following. 

There was one thing that always rattled me for some reason – a thought that kept coming back to me like a boomerang. Given my dedication to seeing and the craft of photography regardless of the gear involved, these medium format thoughts were strange indeed. Each time I saw an image taken with medium format I somehow paused and pondered over it. Whether it was a portrait or a photo of a simple chair, the images had a depth and richness that pulled me in like a magnet.

Over time my obsession became a dream to shoot with medium format one day. It was a very distant dream, indeed. There were rumours about new, upcoming cameras but the only reasonable choice back then was Pentax, priced near $10,000 with one lens. 

Then the GFX50S came on the horizon, a camera which I had an opportunity to test not long after its release. Finally, I had a digital medium format camera in my hands. During this time, I had the chance to go with the GFX 50S on several trips as well as shoot some urban photography here in Vancouver. 

The files I was getting from the medium format were astounding but it wasn’t my biggest surprise. It was the way I had to alter my shooting to accommodate a much larger and more demanding tool. Along with my fascination for what my new companion could do came the feeling of confusion and evaluation. Why, after years of having the freedom of a small, playful tool which had helped me to produce so many great images, would I go back to a large, heavy camera like that? Aren’t you Olaf, the street photographer? After all, medium format doesn’t belong there. 

Those initial thoughts led to more questions and mental tribulation. Who are you as a photographer? Is your seeing articulate? Where are you heading? What are you trying to say with your photography? Strangely enough, the camera I didn’t even own knocked me out of my comfortable warm photographic equilibrium. As much as I tried to push back with “the camera doesn’t matter” mantra I had been preaching for so long, I couldn’t stop this whirlwind from gaining strength. And it was of my own making! 

Despite some concerns I soldiered on! My process of seeing and crafting images slowed down even more. I no longer felt the need to run around town or after my subject. I started observing more and more without pointing my camera. My thought process went from slow to snail-like to the point that on occasions I missed my small camera companion. I felt I had committed treason abandoning everything I believed in. 

For weeks, I was experimenting and shooting with medium format. Over time, the storm clouds inside my head started to dissipate. No, it wasn’t all clear and sunny right away but it became way more welcoming. I started to focus on the long-term projects and pulled away from the constant temptation of creating something new. It is not that I abandoned the idea. Quite the opposite! Now this new thing had to be articulate. I knew that I had to say something important with my photography. At that moment, the pieces started falling into place. This medium format camera I had been dreaming about for such a long time stopped being just an itch, but started becoming my seeing machine which aligned with my current visual aspirations and plans. 

It happened as I started work on my Renatus Project. This project of a lifetime – which I have been dreaming about for years – has finally started taking shape and since its start, I knew that it had to be shot with medium format. After all, I was dealing with remarkable human stories of people who had been through unimaginable drama but found redemption and kindness. These stories carry so much emotional and narrative weight that they must be matched with equally powerful visuals. 

At that moment, my seeing, my photography, my future and medium format came together as one. This was the point of no return. Of course, such deliberations are often met with the cruel reality of life and financing the medium format camera became a major issue for me. One evening, one of my students who had become a friend, called me with a proposition which absolutely stunned me. He said, “I would like to purchase the medium camera for you” adding “please let me do it and this way I could photograph with you.” Despite some initial objections, I humbly and gratefully accepted his generous gift and promised to make great use of it. 

Since then, I have worked almost exclusively with medium format and finally understood what Vincent Lions meant when he wrote “loss of interest in other platforms may occur” in his excellent piece, “Five unexpected side effects of medium format photography.” It was just the beginning. Who knew that my new tool would take my photography to unexpected but familiar places. 

For years, everyone agreed that medium format has no place on the street. After all, the camera of choice for street photographers must be small with fast autofocus. Regardless, I started photographing urban areas with medium format. And more self-discoveries occurred. I lost interest in traditional street photography and started creating visuals which could not be easily defined. 

Whether it is the first light hitting my hotel room or the mosaic of light inside the diner, I have been slowly and deliberately working to turn those temptations of light into my own imagery. What has become really appealing are the transitions of light occurring within the frame, which in medium format are gentle and borderless. I have learnt to use them as my painting tool over the canvas of my own imagination. Indeed, my medium format camera has become my new, irresistible brush.

In sum, I still believe in the truism that “the camera doesn’t matter” but based on my experience, a new tool might play an important role in the fascinating journey of self-discovery and seeing. 

We would love to hear your stories. My team and I will be happy to choose the most interesting and publish them in the next issues of the Medium Format Magazine and/or on this website.

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