I proposed a dual camera strategy which consists of a medium format camera and a micro four thirds camera for the watch photography work for this site, as well as for capturing moments in life. I recently made a change to this strategy, and now have distilled all the requirements which can be met by one single camera. Meet the Fujifilm GFX 50S II.
Chillout TGIF: Why the Fujifilm GFX 50S II is the ideal camera for me
My dual camera strategy is outlined in this article here. I also co-wrote with Peter Nievaart a case for using the micro four thirds camera for watch photography. However, I needed to amend the double camera approach for the main reason that both the cameras in my arsenal are getting aged. Both cameras – the Hasselblad H3D-39 and the Panasonic GH-2 are almost 12 years old. While both are still capable of producing excellent images, especially for watches where there is good lighting provided by powerful strobes, their low light performance are showing age.
Thus the quest is for a single camera with the following features:
- Small and light enough to be an everyday carry, as well as for travel and use as the main camera for watch shows. Unless I stay with a MFT system, it will have to be heavier than the GH-2 kit.
- Excellent base ISO performance, but also good high ISO capability. Ideally, up to ISO6400, but necessary up to ISO3200.
- Medium format sensor size preferred.
- Macro capability to be able achieve 1X magnification with appropriate lens. This is a very important criteria for watch photography.
The Fujifilm GFX 50S II meets all these requirements, with a few bonuses.
Fujifilm GFX 50S II
Retail price is SGD 5,999 inclusive of GST. The H Adapter G retails for SGD 1,199 and the GF 50 has a retail price of SGD 1,499, both inclusive of GST. The GFX 50S II is currently the least expensive new medium format digital camera in the market.
The GFX 50S II is the fifth medium format camera in Fujifilm’s lineup. Fuji has been a major player in the medium format market since the film days, with some amazing cameras, and began their foray into the medium format digital mirrorless space in 2016 with their announcement in Photokina. (As a sidenote Photokina has also gone the way of Baselworld, and what was once the biggest photography fair is now gone.) This was the GFX 50S, the first G Mount digital camera and the second mirrorless medium format camera ever made. The first was the Hasselblad X1D in 2016. These new crop of medium format cameras sported the Sony 44mm x 33mm, 50Mp cropped medium format sensor. The sensor has been in the market in the Hasselblad H5D 50C since 2014, so even at the GFX50S’s launch, it was not a new sensor. It was and still is an excellent performer, capable of stunning images and superb colour rendition. The sensor also has very good dynamic range, as well as superb micro tone and micro contrast. The H5D was not a mirrorless camera, but a more conventional digital SLR, with a mirror box. It has the same form factor as my outgoing H3D-39, and is a modular system with interchangeable optical viewfinder, digital back and of course lenses.
Note: In watch lingo, the sensor is like an ébauche. Sony is, by far, the biggest manufacturer of imaging sensors, and used by almost all digital camera makers. However, each camera maker tunes the sensor (ébauche) differently to achieve different results and native out of camera look. Just like different watch manufacturers can base their watches on say the ETA ébauche, but can make very different watches. Like watch manufacturers, camera makers can also add complications to the sensors, and have proprietary filters and electronics.
The GFX 50S was followed up by the GFX 50R in Photokina 2018, which is essentially the same camera, but packaged in a different body. The GFX 50R had a rangefinder style body, with the fixed EVF placed on the left of the camera back, and had a boxy aesthetic.
In the same 2018 Photokina, Fujifilm showed their commitment to this market space with the release of the 100Mp BSI sensor (also sourced from Sony). This was the ground breaking GFX 100. This is a large professional styled camera, with integrated vertical grip on the bottom of the camera to accommodate dual batteries. It was also the first medium format camera to be capable of In Body Image Stabilization, and featured a hybrid autofocus system with both phase and contrast detection. For the first time, medium format autofocus is fast enough for day to day use by a professional photographer, except for situations of fast moving subjects, where the autofocus does exhibit some trouble tracking the subject properly. But this was way more advanced than the single point, non continuous AF which were in common in other medium format cameras. And much better than that all other GFX cameras, from the original 50S to the 50SII, which had multi-point autofocus, but contrast detect only.
And in February 2021, Fujifilm released the sensational GFX 100S, which is essentially the GFX 100, but packed in a smaller body, with the deletion of some (minor) features. With each new camera, till the GFX 100S, Fujifilm kept the older camera in the market, but each new body made new headway as the least expensive medium format camera within its category in the market. The GFX 50S was the least expensive medium format camera at its release, and the GFX 50R which was released 3 years later in 2019 beat it with an even lower price tag. The GFX 100S released in 2021 was less expensive than the GFX 100 in 2019, and both were the least expensive 100Mp cameras at time of their release. And finally, in September 2021, Fujifilm released the GFX 50S II, which will replace the GFX 50S. So it is not a surprise that the GFX 50S II also beats its predecessor in price, and is currently the least expensive medium format camera in the market.
This new camera, the GFX 50S II, is housed in the exact same body as the GFX 100S, but carries a 50Mp sensor instead of the 100Mp one in the GFX 100S. Also, the ground breaking IBIS first seen on the GFX 100 and miniaturized in the GFX 100S is now installed in the GFX 50S II. In fact, the IBIS performance bests the GFX 100S by half a stop, as by the time of release, Fujifilm has already improved on the IBIS tuning on newer GFX 50S II body.
As mentioned, this is not a new sensor, as it first appeared in Hasselblad H5D-50C as early as in 2014, and used in many medium format sensor cameras since – from the Hasselblad H6D-50C which replaced the H5D-50C, to the X1D, the X1DII, the CFV 50C and CFV 50C II, the Pentax 645, and the Fujifilm GFX 50S, the GFX 50R and the GFX 50S II. However, it is now well proven to be an excellent performer with good reliability.
As the sensor on the GFX 50S II remains unchanged from its predecessor GFX 50S, it retains the old contrast detection only autofocus. But the new support and driver electronics is upgraded for a faster readout time, and better autofocus. Overall autofocus of the 100 series bodies is still superior, but the GFX 50S II’s autofocus is better than its 50Mp brothers, and is sufficient for subjects which move slowly. And for me, perhaps a perfect use case, as watches do not move.
The entire GFX range share the same sensor dimensions, and thus can avail itself to the entire range of native Fujinon GF lenses, as well as use the same adapters for adapted lenses.
The dual camera strategy was devised partly due to the mass and bulk of the Hasselblad H3D-39. This camera tips the scales at more than 3.5kg mounted with the HC 4/120 macro lens. The weight and bulk becomes a concern as an everyday carry, and also becomes a chore to lug around when traveling, especially for photography on watch shows. Thus, I decided to add the Panasonic GH-2 for use in watch shows. This combination is so light and small, that it becomes a really practical daily carry as well. However, its technical performance is lacking. Anything above base ISO does not yield acceptable results. And even though the newer generation of MFT cameras have surpassed this performance shortcoming, Panasonic’s replacement cameras, like the excellent new GH-5 is being steered towards the video market. The also excellent G9 is targeted at still photography, but becoming increasingly larger and heavier. The GFX 50S II body is somewhat larger than MFT bodies, but smaller than most full frame cameras. For example, the Panasonic’s S1R, which is a full frame camera is larger and heavier than the Fujifilm GFX 50S II.
The GFX 50S II body is also smaller than the outgoing GFX 50S. The hump on which the rear LCD is mounted is now deleted, but gone also is the ability to have interchangeable EVF. The GFX 50S II has a fixed EVF, while the GFX 50S had the option of a standard EVF, or a tilt EVF. Also gone is the ability to mount a vertical grip which was an option for the GFX 50S to take double batteries. However, the GFX 50S II uses a newer, smaller but higher capacity battery, enabling about 440 shots with a single full battery, while the GFX 50S can do 400 on a single battery.
Pixel size, diffraction and ISO performance
The Hasselblad uses the Kodak KAF39000 CCD sensor, which is well known for superb colour rendition, but also for poor ISO performance. The sensor has a native ISO of 100, and photographs look good up to 200. ISO 400 and above is practically unusable due to noise except in situations of “picture or no picture” where being just able to capture an image becomes more important than one with any technical merit. It does have the advantage of a very large sensor dimension, measuring 48mm x 36mm, exactly double that of a 35mm film frame (full frame in DSLR terminology). Given that it is only 39Mp, the pixel pitch is very large at 6.8μm. This has a strong effect on diffraction. The larger the pixel size, the smaller one can push the aperture before diffraction becomes visible. For practical purposes, I found for this back, it is about f/22.
The Panasonic uses a hybrid sensor which is called the MMOS, which is said to provide a balance of the good ISO performance of a CMOS sensor, while maintaining imaging quality of a CCD. In practice, I find the base ISO of 160 is probably the only usable ISO, but as a dedicated watch photography camera with the Leica-Panasonic Macro-Elmarit 45mm/f2.8 lens mounted, it is all the ISO I need. Its pixel pitch is only 3.48μm, and the smallest usable aperture before diffraction is practically f/11. But as the sensor is smaller, to cover a 1:1 image magnification, I only need a 45mm lens. Shorter focal length lenses have a larger depth of field for the same aperture, and f/11 suffices.
Enter the Fujifilm GFX 50S II. It has a CMOS sensor with 50Mp squeezed into a size of 44mm x 33mm. This yields a pixel pitch of 5.25μm. I find that I can get good practical use of up to f/18 or f/20 before diffraction becomes annoying. I also find the other performance criteria like resolution, colour and handling of micro tones and micro contrasts to be also better than the old Kodak CCD sensor.
And as this is a more modern CMOS sensor than the Kodak CCD, the ISO performance is excellent. From its base ISO of 100 up to 400, with practically no noise, and usable in large prints up to ISO 1600. ISO6400 is usable in a pinch, and for most practical applications ISO3200 yields excellent images. Also a very useful feature for walkabout and low light photography is the 6.5 stop IBIS available on the GFX 50S II. This allows hand held shots to be sharp even at surprisingly low shutter speeds. Combined with the ability to shoot at high ISO makes shots like this nightscape of the Singapore CBD a possibility without a tripod. This photograph would be impossible with either my H3D-39 or the GH-2 outfits.
Lens selection and ecosystem
As mentioned the ability to achieve 1:1 magnification (true macro) is essential for watch photography. Both the H3D-39 and the GH-2 achieves this with their respective macro lenses. The Fujifilm lens ecosystem has the Fujinon GF 120/f4 R LM OIS WR Macro lens which is a close focus lens, but is marketed as a macro lens. The highest magnification it achieves is 0.5X. While the lens is excellent – very sharp, good contrast and fairly flat field, it needs an extension tube to get 1X magnification.
The Fujifilm GFX system can be equipped with a H Adapter, which allows the Hasselblad HC lenses to be used. This is an interesting option. Firstly, the Hasselblad HC lenses are actually made by Fujifilm in Japan. Secondly, this provides an option for 1X magnification without tubes. Or higher with tubes. So this is what I got for my GFX 50S II. The combination works superbly. The only “downside” is that the HC 4/120 is unable to be used in autofocus mode. This is a minor issue in macro photography, where critical focusing is almost always done manually. But it also means that I am unable to take advantage of the auto focus-stacking feature found in the GFX 50S II, and focus stacks have to be made manually. On the positive side, I found the focus peaking and magnify feature on the GFX to be an excellent way to ensure critical focus. On the GFX 50S II, three levels of magnification is available. The only nitpick I have on this usage is that the GFX 50S II’s EVF has a low refresh rate, especially in the dark scenes prior to being lighted by flash, can make composition challenging.
The H Adapter comes with a tripod collar, and when mounted on the tripod, provides a really convenient way to rotate the camera assembly for either portrait or landscape orientation.
The other advantage of adapting the Hasselblad HC lenses are that these lenses are equipped with leaf shutters which allow flash sync up to the fastest shutter speed of 1/800s. This is useful to shut out the background light in strobe photography. Good for macro watch shots, as well as for outdoor flash photography. The highest sync speed using the GFX focal plane shutter is 1/125s, which is usable, but may be interfere with some scenarios where the available lighting may be bright enough for the camera to capture the environment as well as the flash lit subject.
As I already own the Hasselblad HC 4/120, this becomes a less expensive option than if I had to buy another macro lens. The HC 4/120 is a rather versatile lens, and also have the ability to be adapted to other cameras. It can be used it successfully on the Hasselblad X1D. X1DII and I have used it with the 907X/CVF II 50C via its adapter, and can also be used on the Leica S system with an adapter. It is also interesting that none of these medium format systems offer a 1X macro lens. The Hasselblad X system’s XCD 4/120 as well as the otherwise superb Leica APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 ASPH CS only offer a half size magnification. Do note that later versions of the HC lenses will allow autofocus on other Hasselblad bodies as well as the Leica S bodies via the appropriate adapter. My copies of the HC lenses are not supported for autofocus on any body except for Hasselblad H bodies.
The GFX 50S II also work well with my other HC lenses. In my arsenal is the superb HCD 4/28 ultra wide angle, the HC 2.8/80 normal lens as well as the HC 3.5-4.5/50-110 zoom lenses. All work well in manual focus mode with the GFX via the H Adapter. As the only gap in the lens lineup, I additionally purchased the very small, but excellent Fujinon GF50mm F3.5 R LM WR which provides an equivalent view of about 40mm in full frame, and is useful as a walkabout lens. The lens has good optics, but is also very small and light.
Perhaps the final question would be whether the GFX 100S will be a better option. Certainly in terms of technical performance, the GFX 100S beats the GFX 50S II. It has a truly superlative 100Mp BSI sensor instead of an older 50Mp sensor. It has a similar IBIS system. It is equipped with a dual contrast detect and phase detect autofocus which is not only faster, but also more accurate. But it produces much larger files. And I find the workflow to be laborious and slow on my computer systems. Storage demands are also increased. This would be ok if these larger files are useful, but for 99% of the work I do, including large poster sized prints, 50Mp is more than sufficient. Also, the GFX 100S is SGD 3,000 more expensive. If the GFX 100S had pixel bining, it may be a more serious contender, but as it is, the GFX 50S II is a better option for me.
Thus I came to the conclusion that given all the parameters, the GFX 50S II in combination with my collection of Hasselblad HC lenses is the perfect camera for my use case. My old HC lenses may start to fail, and they will fail sooner or later, given their age. The component in danger of failure in the HC lens is the shutter assembly which can be expensive to replace. So when the time comes, my plan is to replace with a later version of the same lens from the used market, or replace them with appropriate Fujinon lenses. The only bump on the road is that the HC 4/120 will be difficult to replace given its ability to do 1X magnification, so options may be quite limited. I may have to explore options to adapt macro lenses designed for medium format film cameras, like those from Mamiya or Pentax, which do provide 1X.
In the meantime, I am also exploring the use of tilt shift attachments. One clean option, and sticking to the Hasselblad theme, is to use the HTS 1.5. But in the market there are offerings from Cambo Actus, and most view (large format) cameras to allow mounting of large format lenses to the GFX with tilt and shift capabilities. Having bellows on these cameras will also allow a higher than 1X magnification should the need arise. Some examples of possible options are the Sinar P3 and possibly P2, the Arca Swiss Universalis, and possibly the Swebo TC-1.
Your use case may be different from mine, so your mileage may vary. You may not already own several excellent Hasselblad HC lenses, including the HC 4/120 which is almost the ideal macro lens for photographing watches. (No it is not perfect, no lens is…and I will endeavor to write an article on its shortcomings soon). But for me, in combination with the HC lenses I already own, this is an ideal system.