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Chillout TGIF: Fujifilm GFX 50R and lenses

the dragon slayer - new game changer in the medium format digital camera scene
by Peter Chong on November 29, 2019
Overview
Brand

Fujifilm GFX 50R
Fujinon GF 45/f2.8 R WR
Fujinon GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro
Fujifilm MCEX-18G WR Macro Extension Tube
Fujifilm MCEX-45G WR Macro Extension Tube

Complication / Type of Watch

Medium format mirrorless digital camera
Sensor size 44x33mm
50 Mpx

Recommended Retail Price

Fujifilm GFX 50R S$6,000
Fujinon GF 45/f2.8 R WR S$2,699
Fujinon GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro S$4,199
Fujifilm MCEX-18G WR Macro Extension Tube S$499
Fujifilm MCEX-45G WR Macro Extension Tube S$499

As part of our ongoing exploration into high end photography, we received a Fujifilm GFX 50R with two lenses – the Fujinon GF 45mm/f2.8 and the Fujinon GF 120/f4 Macro for our use as a daily camera system for three weeks. I used this camera system to cover events as well as macro photography shoots in Singapore and in Germany. Here is our look at this system. Thanks to Fujifilm Singapore for the loan.

Fujifilm GFX 50R

The Fujifilm GFX system started out life with the first model – the 50S, released in Photokina 2016 in September, and generally available from early 2017. Notably, this is the second mirrorless medium format camera ever, being beaten by Hasselblad with their X1D which was announced in June 2016.

It was a mark of Fujifilm’s continuous statement of support for the medium format cameras. Since the film era, Fuji has been making medium format cameras. And their lineup now comprise of the APS-C sensor sized cameras and the GFX series 44mmx33mm medium format series. Fujifilm has completely skipped the full frame 36mmx24mm market altogether.

The GFX 50S (review coming soon) was followed by a lighter version in a different body style – the 50R. The 50R was announced in 2018, together with the 100, and the three comprise the medium format family for Fujifilm.

The camera body: Fujifilm GFX 50R

The body is what Fujifilm calls “Rangefinder style”. While it not a rangefinder, it does share some characteristics with the classical rangefinder. The viewfinder is located on the left side of the rear, and the shape of the camera is like a brick – box structure. Unlike the 50S, which looks more or less like a classical DSLR, the 50R is also simpler, and not a modular design which allows the attachment of accessories like the Tilting Electronic View Finder or the Vertical Grip.

The large 44mm x 33mm sensor is visible with the body cap and lens off. The sensor features ultrasonic cleaning which can be programmed to turn on everytime the camera is switched off or on demand.

The body shape and design is reminiscent of the film Fujifilm rangefinder cameras, like the GW690/670, though those cameras shoot 120 roll film in the 60mmx70mm or 60mmx90mm format. Within the GFX 50R resides a Sony manufactured sensor measuring 44mmx33mm. This is the same base sensor as is used in the Hasselblad X1D and also the Pentax 645Z. However, the sensor is not exactly the same as the Hasselblad. Fujifilm worked with Sony to develop microlenses which have a smaller pitch on the 50R (and 50S). This improves sharpness, but sometimes at the detriment of anti-aliasing, as documented by Jim Kasson. Jim notes also that images from the GFX 50 series cameras have a tendency of being over sharpened, and I found that to be true in my usage of the GFX 50R. To reduce this inherent feature, all the photographs made with the 50R and 50S have been set such that the import sharpening on Capture One is turned to zero.

Mounted with the 45mm lens, the system is rather compact (for a medium format camera). I found it easy and enjoyable to carry around and shoot all day.

The 50R body is littered with buttons and dials all over. This is not the minimalist styling espoused by the Europeans who designed the Hasselblad X1D and the Leica systems. There seem to be a button for almost every function, and every button and dial is customizable by the user.

The camera top has two dials – the shutter speed dial is lockable, but the Exposure Compensation dial on the right is not. In my use, I find I frequently moved the EC dial accidentally. I ended up programming the GFX 50R such that the dial is not in use.

The menu system is reasonably easy to use, after the initial teething period to get used to where things are. After getting used to the system, it is flexible and fast to operate.

The menu system is rather easy to use after getting familiar to it. Though the touch screen interface on the rear LCD allows for swipe gestures to be programmed for specific functions, I found the swipes were not responsive and ended up not using them. There are enough physical buttons which are programmable to use in any case.

One gripe we found with the GFX 50R body is the nature of the rangefinder style body means it is box like in form. As the camera is rather large, though in my view not heavy (the body is 775g), getting a good purchase on the body is not easy. There is a tendency for me to grip the body harder, and making my hand tire out faster than the more ergonomic designs like in the Hasselblad X1D and the Leica SL.

Battery life is rather good, I managed to get about 300 shots from each full charge, but I do not use Live View, and have the camera set to go to sleep after 2 minutes of inactivity.

Challenges with macro photography

One key tool which is very useful for watch photography is the use of focus stacking to increase depth of field. In macro photography, the depth of field is a very thin sliver at a normal operating aperture of f/11 at close focus distances. To increase this depth of field, three solutions are generally available:

  1. decrease the aperture to f/16, f/22 or smaller. This, however brings two further issues. The first is diffraction becomes a real issue at f/16 and smaller, more so for high resolution sensors. This can be corrected by various sharpening routines in post processing. The second is that the smaller apertures will require more light. And as macro watch photography is often done via flash, this will place heavier demands to go larger and larger on the flash systems.
  2. use a tilt and shift system. We demonstrated a simple, but not inexpensive, solution with the Hasselblad HTS 1.5. But doing tilt and shift requires great skill on the part of the photographer, and the additional gear needed is often expensive. Systems allowing attachment of a mirrorless system (like the GFX) to a traditional monorail view camera capable of movements is an option to non-Hasselblad H system users.
  3. focus stacking. This makes use of computational photography. Multiple photographs are taken of the subject in a series, each with a progression on the depth field to the next. The resultant stack of photographs are then combined in software (Photoshop, Helicon Focus or Zirine are some examples) to produce a single image which takes only the sharp slivers from each frame and blends it to the others. The result is a depth of field which can theoretically be infinite. The other advantage of this method is that each frame in the stack can be shot at a larger aperture, necessitating a smaller flash system, though this will mean that as each frame’s sliver which is in-focus is smaller, there will be a need for a larger number of frames.

Focus stacking

The Fujifilm GFX 50R (and other GFX cameras) support an automated system to do the captures in a sequence of stacks. Fujifilm calls this tool Focus Bracketing, though the generic term used in the professional photography circles is Focus Stacking.

The GFX tool uses a rather easy to use method is to select the number of frames needed, the step size of each frame, and the interval between frames. The step size is the amount the lens advances with each frame, and the interval is most often used to allow the flash system to fully recharge. The photographer will need to make these selections based on his experience. The camera is then put into Focus Bracket mode via the Drive selector. The near focus is selected, and the shutter released. The GFX 50R will take the required number of frames by moving the focus by the increment specified. The lens will return to the near focal point after the sequence completes. The photographer can abort the sequence at any time he wishes.

The Breitling Avenger photographed with the Fujifilm GFX 50R + GF 120mm macro using the Focus Bracketing function. 15 frames were used to render the entire dial, which is tilted back at the top, in sharp focus. The stacks are computed in Helicon Focus 7. I intentionally left out the 30 marker on the bezel to give some depth to the image. If I had included that in the stack, the image will tend to look like it is a CAD rendering rather than a photograph.

A more automated system is provided by the Phase One XF (Review coming soon). The Focus Stacking Tool in the XF only requires the photographer to input the near focus point (done by focussing at that point and pressing a button so the camera remembers the point) and do the same for the far focus point. The camera automatically calculates the number frames needed based on the aperture selected, and the step size. The user can also set a specific time interval to match the recharge time of his flash system. In use, I found the XF tends to err on overkill on the number of frames needed, but the camera provides the ability to over ride this easily by a rear dial. In use in a production environment, this is a very useful tool and can provide a lot of time saving on the workflow.

Capture One

I think Fujifilm made a huge leap with the partnership with Capture One. The software is the leading image processing software in the market, and as they are owned by Phase One, until the GFX system is not available for medium format sensors. Capture One Pro is available for use with full frame cameras like Canon, Nikon or Sony, but users of other the Pentax or Hasselblad systems are denied the ability to process their images with Capture One.

Why is Capture one important? Firstly tethered shooting, a common method used in studios where most of watch photography is done, is much more stable than via Lightroom or Hasselblad’s Phocus. The software is also easy to use, and very powerful. I also found that raw conversion of the Fujifilm files to yield much higher quality output than from Lightroom. There is no opportunity to compare to Phocus as the systems are mutually not compatible, although Lightroom is a common factor able to process both Fujifilm and Haselblad raw files. Capture One is also not a replacement for Photoshop, but is an excellent complement to it in the digital workflow of a photographer.

My workflow uses Capture One for capture adjustments on Levels, Exposure, Highlight and Shadows control. Capture sharpening set to zero, and export as a large jpeg. Then use Photoshop CC 2019 or 2020, to do the final edits before publishing. Web images and print images follow a different workflow, with more care and less adjustments made to print. Prints are exported from Capture One as full sized TIFF files.

The lens ecosystem

When the GFX 50S was released, the system was very poorly supported by the lens ecosystem. But as of today, the lineup is rather good. A total of 7 primes ranging from 23mm to 250mm is available, in addition to 2 zooms. The lenses all offer excellent image quality, with the standouts being the GF 45 f/4 R WR, the 110mm f/2 R LM WR, the 120mm f4 R LM OIS WR and the 250mm f/4 R LM OIS WR. Two extension tubes, 18mm and 45mm which is stackable to provide 63mm extension is also available, as is a 1.7X teleconverter. This makes the native ecosystem rather complete.

Fujinon GF 45/f2.8 R WR & GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro with both the MCEX-18G WR Macro and the MCEX-45G WR Macro Extension Tubes.

Fujinon GF 45/f2.8 R WR & GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro

For my watch macro use, the GF 120mm is the lens which proved to be most useful. The lens is very sharp, and able to resolve the minute details. Contrast – both macro and micro are rendered very well, as is colour fidelity.

Though it is not a true macro lens, as it focuses only to 1/2 magnification, the magnification can be increased with the extension tubes to get up to 1.07X with both tubes stacked. The extension tubes provide electronic contacts, and full control from the camera, including autofocus is possible during their use. The GF 120mm is also equipped with an Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) which Fujifilm claims provides up to 5 stops of stabilization. The lens is rather heavy at 980g, and when mounted on the GFX 50R tends to be front heavy. As a result, I used the lens almost all the time on a mini-tripod.

The GF 45mm is an outstanding lens in its class. Slightly wider than normal, with a full frame equivalent field of view of about 35mm, it is classically suited for general use. The lens is sharp corner to corner, even at a wide aperture, is not heavy nor bulky and easy to hand hold. Image rendering is excellent as well, with good micro tonal and micro contrast. The lens easily resolves the 50 megapixels of the GFX 50R, and the out of focus bokeh areas are very pleasing.

An ideal triplet of lenses for me will include the GF 23mm as an ultra wide for interior shots, architecture and landscape.

In addition to the native lenses, the GFX system is designed with a short flange distance, and can make use of many other lenses via adapters. Legacy and modern lenses from Leica, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Mamiya and Carl Ziess to the new Chinese lenses from Mitakon, Laowa and others who make speciality lenses are possible to adapt for use. Novoflex, Techart and other manufacturers make these adapters. Almost all these will provide only a manual adapter, so no autofocus, no EXIF data is being passed from lens to camera body.

Image quality

The image quality is excellent. We are careful not to say outstanding as we have just finished testing the Phase One XF IQ4 150. The image quality from the Phase One is truly outstanding and definitely the Best of Breed. You can already see some examples in our Girard-Perregaux Absolute Rock review and the Bvlgari Lightup Event Invite as examples of the Phase One. But the Phase One is a DSLR. It is huge, very bulky and extremely heavy. But the killer is that it costs a whopping S$80,000 for body plus one lens.

The Glashütte Original Senator Chronometer Tourbillon was photographed in Glashütte recently with the GFX 50R + GF 120 Macro.

But other than the Phase One, the image quality out of the GFX 50R is truly superb. Image quality is about on par with the Hasselblad X1D we tested earlier, which as noted uses the same sensor but in a different physical implementation. The X1D uses a regular microlens array in front of the sensor, while the GFX 50R uses microlenses which are designed to be smaller. If I process files from the X1D and GFX 50R with a generic app like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, the Hasselblad files turn out to be slightly better. But when I process the GFX 50R images with Capture One, and compare to the X1D processed with Phocus, the both images are neck to neck in resolution, detail, dynamic range, and in the ability to show micro contrast and micro tones. Hasselblad cameras are not supported by Capture One, and Phocus only supports native cameras, so there is no opportunity to compare other combinations.

Autofocus

Autofocus on the GFX 50R is contrast detect only. Though this method provides a highly accurate nailing of focus, it is usually slow to acquire focus, especially in low light conditions. I found this to be true for the GFX 50R. The autofocus is perhaps a tad faster than the Hasselblad X1D (I have not tried the X1D II yet), but is slow compared to full frame DSLRs like the Canon 1DxII and the Sony A7mkIV.

Dynamic Range and High ISO performance

The dynamic range of the GFX 50R is very good. It is stunning if I compare to what can be found in Full Frame or smaller format cameras, excellent compared to peer 44×33 sensor medium format cameras. A figure of 11 plus stops is often quoted by independent testers, but this is a lab number which is meaningless in the real world. In use, I found the dynamic range to be excellent, with ability to preserve detail and colour in the shadows and highlights. Pushing or pulling of the raw file is a pleasure.

I found that from ISO 100 to about 3200, the files from the GFX 50R are very clean and suffer from very little noise. Above 3200, noise start to creep in but the files are very usable and do not lose detail until above 12800 (the camera ISO goes up to 102400), when the image tends to get soft and intrusion of colour noise become obvious. The GFX 50R provides three settings for Auto ISO, and in my use, I set the Auto ISO limits to 800, 1600 and 3200. And shoot all the watches at base ISO 100 for maximum quality.

Competitive landscape

At a retail price of S$6,999 (or US$4,499 retail, frequently discounted to US$3,999), the Fujifilm GFX 50R is the lowest cost entry into the medium format world. The nearest medium format camera in price is the Pentax 645Z (US retail US$6,999, frequently discounted to US$4,999), but the Pentax is a DSLR with an optical finder and a mirror within the body, and is considerably more bulky and heavier (1.5kg body only). The 645Z also uses the same Sony sensor, but with a different image processing engine. We haven’t tested the Pentax, so will not be able to comment on image quality.

Once one has decided to go into medium format digital, the price may well be the sole reason to buy the GFX 50R. But of course, the camera offers excellent image quality, good ergonomics (your mileage may vary depending on how you operate and your shooting style), and a nice weather sealed body. Another big plus for the GFX system is that other than the native Phase One camera system, it is the only medium format system supported by Capture One software.

The grip on the front of the GFX 50R is rather small, affording little purchase for the fingers to grip the body with lens attached. This is the biggest gripe I have on the camera.

In the world of the mirrorless medium format camera, the contender which cannot be ignored is the first of the genre – the Hasselblad X1D system. The GFX 50R also competes with its own Fujifilm siblings in the form of the GFX 50S and the GFX 100.

Hasselblad X1D II. We reviewed the Hasselblad X1D original version earlier and was very impressed with the image quality and the usability of the camera. The camera has been updated by Hasselblad, and is now less expensive at S$8,800 (with GST or US$5,750 from B&H before taxes) for the body only.

Hasselblad X1D 50C with the XCD 45mm f/3.5 lens.

I have not tested the second generation X1D, but have it on good authority that our two biggest issues with the original is fixed. It offers a faster startup, and shorter black out after each shot. Autofocus is also faster, though being a contrast detect autofocus system on a medium format camera is not going to win any races against the likes of Canon or Sony. But the GFX 50R is also contrast detect only, so nothing gained or lost in autofocus in this comparison. The X1D II body uses the same Sony 44×33 sensor as the GFX, but with different microlens setup and also a totally different image processing system.

The raw conversion is via Phocus, which is an acquired taste, but the images coming from the system is excellent. Capture One used for the GFX is easier to use, is faster and less prone to crashes than Phocus. I have 12 years experience with Phocus and less than a month with Capture One, but I find Capture One easier to use and more stable of the two.

The X1D II is about the same weight as the GFX 50R, but in an even more svelte body. As I mentioned in my X1D review, it offers class leading industrial design, and the mkII version carries this tradition, being almost the same physically. It also offers much better ergonomics than the GFX 50R (or 50S for that matter). I prefer the minimalist button layout and excellent menu system and the grip is much nicer and easier to carry. The lens ecosystem is also rather complete with of 8 prime lenses and 2 zooms plus a 1.7 TC. But for my use, the major fault of the X1D is that the system has no native macro capability to 1:1 by way of extension tubes or otherwise.

Also, in general the Hasselblad prices are considerably higher than those for the Fuji GF system. A system usable for me would be one body with a 45mm, a 120mm macro, extension tubes to give the 1:1 macro (which we need for the high magnification Watchscapes). This is the system as tested here. And add perhaps a 21 or 24mm ultra wide for interior and architectural shots to complete the lens trinity. This setup would cost at least double from Hasselblad vs Fujifilm. In addition the Hasselblad X system does not offer a native solution to 1:1 macro.

But internally, the Fujifilm GFX 50S offers strong competition to the GFX 50R. It is more expensive at S$10,099 (includes tilt adapter) with GST (US retail is US$5,499, frequently discounted to US$4,999) .

Fujifilm GFX 50S

The camera is exactly the same as the 50R except for the physical body package. The 50S is bulkier and heavier (920g body + EVF for 50S vs 775g 50R body only). The 50S is however, a more modular system, allowing an external EVF and the ability to add a tilt adapter for the EVF. The rear LCD also tilts in more directions and the 50S has the ability to add a vertical grip with a second battery. The ergonomics are also more SLR like, although the 50S is a also a mirrorless camera. Comparing the siblihgs, the body ergonomics is significantly different from the rangefinder like body of the 50R, that one is advised to try out both. The grip is better and affords a better hold to the camera plus lens. The internals – the sensor, image processing engine are exactly the same, and both share the same lens ecosystem, so image quality is exactly the same. We currently have a GFX 50S on loan to us from Fujifilm, and will compare the siblings soon.

The GFX 50R is weather sealed against the elements, including light rain and moisture as well as dust. The WR designation on the lens stands for Weather Sealed, so this combination of the GFX 50R + GF 45 is well and good as we shot in the light rain in Dresden recently.

I leave the GFX 100 (S$14,999) out for the time being as it sports a 100 Mpx BSI sensor, in body image stabilization, contrast and phase detection autofocus system. But also in a much larger, perhaps less aesthetically attractive body. The GFX 100 uses the same lens ecosystem as its siblings, and though the sensor size is the same 44×33, it doubles the resolution to 100 Mpx. The sensor is also Back Side Illuminated, and offers significant technical advantages over the traditional Front Side Illuminated sensor used in the GFX 50 and Hasselblad X1D. I will be exploring the capabilities of the BSI sensor in the Phase One IQ4 150 soon.

Concluding thoughts

To say I am totally delighted with the GFX 50R is an understatement. It does everything, well almost everything right, and little wrong. The biggest fault is perhaps the tiny front grip, which is easily solved with an aftermarket grip like the Smallrig GFX L Bracket, which comes with an L Arca style plate for tripod use, for less than US$90.

In usage, the ergonomics of having to deal with many buttons and dials is a matter of getting used to, and after the 3 weeks, I am very familiar with the operations. Plus the ability to customize the buttons is a big bonus.

In addition, I simply love that Fujifilm is able to offer a fully packaged medium format camera with a great lens ecosystem for a rather reasonable price. The price alone makes it a dragon slayer among the world of the giants which is the habitat of the medium format cameras.

We will continue in the next installment of Chillout TGIF to show some of the photographs we took with the system.

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