FORMALITIES AND DISCLAIMERS

I am often accused of taking photography seriously. It’s absolutely true! For me, photography is my entire life. It embodies my personality and the way I see, feel and function. It is my way of having a conversation with the world. I view it as a serious craft, which requires complete dedication or as Burk Uzzle put it, “Photography is a love affair with life.” Yes, I am having an affair.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that when I write a review of any camera, I take it seriously and very personally. My review is a totally biased and unhinged view of the tool. Some cameras click right away with my seeing, others remain foreign or even unpleasant despite my good intentions to make it work. One example is the GR-line. Many of my friends cherish this camera as one of the best they have ever shot with. Surprisingly, we somehow never connected.

Any first impressions or full reviews are always a sort of diary of my encounters with a specific camera. I am not overly technical as a photographer so I don’t spend much time obsessing about technical specifications – in fact I don’t have much interest in such debates. I take a camera and start feeling, connecting, framing, composing. It works or it doesn’t. It’s that simple.

I am not a brand ambassador of any manufacturer or have contracts with anyone. I am 100% independent and everything I write is exactly what I think. I respect companies that send me gear for a review without any preconceived conditions. It shows that they believe in their product. I simply don’t work with those who would like to put any restraints on me.

There is one more thing. The GFX 50R I have been working with and based my review on is a pre-production copy, therefore some changes in image quality or functionality may still take place.

HERITAGE AT PLAY (lesson from history)

A few weeks ago, my friend Mac Sokulski, host of the ShutterTime photography podcast, paid me a visit. We went for a short photography escapade along the beautiful Sea-to-Sky highway in British Columbia. Mac is a film photographer and he brought with him a camera that grabbed my attention right away. It was a Fujica G690. A few days later as I picked up the GFX 50R for review I couldn’t believe the resemblance between these two medium format cameras – one film, one digital – both from Fuji. It was as if two points in photographic history have merged.

Many people may not be aware but in the late 60s and 70s Fuji had a total of six medium format cameras on the market. Given Fujifilm heritage it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the GFX 50S would finally have a rangefinder-style sibling – the GFX 50R. In fact, during an exclusive interview, Fuji Guy Billy Luong said, When we talk about design a lot of it comes from the film cameras. We had a great demand from a lot of enthusiasts and photographers who loved the medium format style cameras (the G series) and we’ve brought that into the design of the GFX 50R.”

Indeed, as someone who has had the Fuji G690, Fuji GW690II (also known as “The Texas Leica”) and a brand new GFX 50R in their hands within a week or so I can substantiate Billy’s statement. The DNA of the medium format G-series from the 70s can be found in the brand new GFX 50R. Indeed, going back to its roots and the basics of photography is sometimes all you need to create great products.

FIRST ENCOUNTER (first date)

Having said that, when I touched the GFX 50R for the first time, my tendency was to compare the camera to the GFX 50S, which I have been shooting with for the last year. I must say honestly that my first reaction wasn’t overly enthusiastic. I don’t know why. Maybe my expectations were sky-high. I am pretty sure a part of this initial alienation was the fact that when I was shooting with the X-series APS-C line of Fujifilm cameras, my clear choice was the rangefinder-style X-Pro2 over the SLR-like X-T2 style of the body. For this reason alone, I expected to abandon the GFX 50S at the first sight of the GFX 50R. It didn’t happen.

I was surprised by the size of this camera. I knew that the GFX 50R would be larger than the X-Pro2. After all, it has a gigantic medium format sensor inside. I thought the GFX 50R would be noticeably smaller than the GFX 50S but it isn’t. The fact that the new arrival is wider and almost as high as its older sibling (if you exclude the GFX 50S’ towering electronic viewfinder and the GFX 50S’ hump at the back) the dimensions of these two cameras are quite similar. I was expecting a slightly smaller body. This fact alone put my idea of abandoning the GFX 50S on the back burner.

Then the GF X50R fought back. The camera’s lighter weight in comparison to the GFX 50S was something I noticed right away. From the start, I had two cameras paired with the GF45mm lens and I really wanted to try the GFX 50R with the newly announced GF 50mm F3.5 pancake lens but it wasn’t available. I must say that such a lens along with the flatter (no hump) design of the GFX 50R makes it a much more portable and travel-friendly camera. You can wear it over your shoulder without feeling awkward.

HANDLING AND OPERATIONS (becoming one with the camera)

Along with the new body design comes a major layout change. It must start with the grip, which is much, much smaller than the one on the GFX 50S. I can confidently hold the GFX 50S in my hands even with a larger lens attached such as the GF 110mm. When walking around with the GFX 50R paired with the GF 63 or 45 it wasn’t a big deal but when I attached the GF 110, my confidence about holding the camera without a strap crumbled. Also, the weight distribution with the larger lenses is no longer as favourable as it is with the GFX 50S. Having said that, after shooting quite extensively with the GFX 50R on the streets of Vancouver, I really see the R coupled with the 50mm pancake lens. This combo is most likely to become a dream team for street and travel photographers – a sort of medium format X100 package.   

Along with the rangefinder design, the EVF has been moved to the left. It is slightly smaller but the difference is negligible. What was clearly noticeable was the rubber padding around the EVF, which I usually press quite hard to my nose as I am shooting (to stabilize the camera). After coming home after a day of shooting, my wife noticed a mark on my nose, which I quickly found out comes from the hard padding around the EVF. For those of you who mostly use LCD it won’t be an issue.

Image courtesy of Jonas Rask.

The four-way d-pad is gone and now the joystick takes over its role. Although I like the d-pad on my GFX 50S, I quickly found out I was perfectly fine without it. Most importantly, Fujifilm decided to put back the very important exposure compensation dial! I was thrilled with this addition but I found it hard to operate with my thumb, unlike the X-Pro2. Maybe it is too retracted into the body or too small or both. The ISO dial is gone and that is perfectly fine with me because I usually shoot ISO Auto. Interestingly, the front command dial has been integrated with the shutter button. Overall, all necessary operations such as shutter speed, exposure compensation and aperture are plain and simple and at your disposal – the way they should be.   

The on/off switch has been redesigned and it is now placed on top of the plate in the form of a movable switch. When talking about this solution with Take Kayo (bigheadtaco) he pointed out that it is now much easier to turn the camera on or off even without looking. The whole experience becomes more intuitive and I have to agree.

One of the biggest surprises was the new shutter sound. I admit that I find it absolutely mesmerizing. It is gentle but commanding. Well done, Fuji!

IMAGE QUALITY (hello pixel-peepers)

The camera houses the same 44x33mm 51.4MP sensor as the GFX 50S. The processor, focusing speed, film simulations and generous dynamic range result in an image quality that is exactly the same. Yes, there is a considerable difference in the look of medium format files, especially the rendering in comparison to other formats. I wrote about this in more detail here.

PRICE (makes it a no-brainier)

Only two years ago it was difficult to find a medium format system (camera plus lenses) below US$10,000. When the GFX 50S was launched, the prices of most systems were reduced and now you can purchase a medium format camera below $4,500 and just above $5,000 with the lens kit. This aggressive pricing makes the GFX 50R a no-brainer for those who would like to buy their first digital medium format camera. If not for a very generous gift, I would not be able to afford the GFX 50S myself but I would certainly consider purchasing the GFX 50R.

There is no question that this is still a lot of money for most people but keep in mind that this is a medium format system. Most professionals, semi-pros and serious amateurs usually hoard cameras and lenses, old and new. For the first time, there is the option of selling this gear and getting into the world of medium format photography.

IS IT WORTH IT? (hell yes!)

Vincent Lions, a renowned still-life photographer from Toronto writes, “I have to admit I have completely lost interest in shooting 35mm DSLR.” Hecited some side effects of shooting medium format as gaining self-confidence, raising his standards and slowing down, among others.

The qualities of the medium format sensor are difficult to define. Patrick La Roque in his piece “One” writes, “Attempts at explaining the pull of these images on me, however, tended to quickly devolve. It’s like trying to discuss the appeal of a rising wisp of smoke the beauty lies mostly in intangible qualities, hard to put into words. I’ve described it in the past as a hush, a sort of silence bathing the images as though, regardless of subject matter, there’s a certain tranquillity permeating the frames.”

I must agree with Vincent and Patrick (for full articles look at the October issue of Medium Format Magazine). If you are thinking about upgrading to medium format, I would certainty take the leap and do it unless you require blazing fast autofocus and operational speed for sports.

GFX 50S OR GFX 50R? (it is about the money or maybe not)

It is worth understanding the differences between these two cameras. The GFX 50S was designed as a system camera, which is perfect for studio work. You can add a grip, a stunning swivel EVF and a few other accessories. It is a super sturdy camera built like a tank, with a stunningly large EVF and LCD screen.

The GFX 50R is a much lighter camera, designed to be taken outside the studio. It is much more comfortable to have over your shoulder as you travel, especially if you opt for the upcoming pancake lens. However, if you want to use it with larger lenses, you may find the handling less comfortable than the GFX 50S. Another way to think about the choice, especially if you are upgrading, is this. In general, if you liked shooting with the X-Pro2, you will probably like the GFX 50R. If your choice of camera has been the X-T1/2/3 line, you are more likely to prefer the GFX50S.

Having said that, you must keep in mind the price difference between these two cameras, which as of today is about US$1,000. If money were not an issue I would take the GFX 50S over the R. If money is an issue, given the price difference, I would purchase the GFX 50R and put the difference into a new lens.

Which lens to pick along with the GFX50R? (It is all about the lens, stupid)

My favourite focal length is 35mm (45mm in MF), therefore the 45mm F2.8 lens is glued to my medium format camera most of the time. However, if the 50mm lens (63mm in MF) is a more natural focal length for you, go with it. In fact, when you buy the GF 63mm lens with the GFX 50R, the lens is only US$500. For this price you cannot even buy a decent APS-C lens! If you have the resources to purchase two lenses I would personally go with the GF 45mm F2.8 and GF 110mm F2.

FINAL THOUGHT (the rebirth of MF)

I must admit that after shooting with the GFX 50S, I was slightly taken aback by the GFX 50R. Having said that, as I was spending more time with the GFX 50R, the camera grew on me, especially due to its portability, ease of use and appeal of the rangefinder style. Eventually, I reached the point where I had a hard time letting it go. I suspect that when paired with the upcoming 50mm pancake lens, the GFX 50R will become the first truly portable and (relatively) affordable street and travel photography medium format camera.

Given its affordability, aggressive pricing and superb line of lenses, the GFX 50R has resurrected medium format and transformed the space from a niche tool to a serious proposition for a much wider audience. Whether you are a landscape, portrait or street photographer and you want to upgrade from full frame or APS-C to medium format, the GFX 50R is the one to do it. It may be hard to sell all your gear but I believe the reward of medium format will quickly help you to forget your hoarding tendency.

There has been a lot of talk about why Fujifilm decided to focus on medium format but not full frame. Let me say this. While the full frame wars are raging all around us, the over-eager participants may quickly find out they are not even on the right battlefield.

All imagery in this review was shot with a pre-production GFX 50R and the GF 45mm and GF 63mm and GF 110mm.

 

For those of you who have pre-ordered a GFX 50R or are interested in medium format we have prepared a special discount. Please use the GFX50R code to receive 20% off from yearly subscription to the Medium Format Magazine.  

 

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