Fujifilm GF 50mm F3.5 | 1/60 sec | ISO 400 | F8

Adobe Camera Raw Settings: Adobe Color Landscape, Daylight WB, Highlights -25, Shadows +60, Vibrance -6, Sharpening 40, Luminance Noise Reduction 0, Color Noise Reduction 25

Over the past half-century, 50mm lenses, with a field of view that most closely approximates natural human vision, have reigned supreme as the classic 'normal' lens for 135 film and full-frame digital cameras. In the days before ubiquitous zoom lenses, 50mm primes were kitted with just about every 135 SLR on the market. If you've ever shot with a Canon AE-1, a Pentax K1000, or Olympus OM-1, there's a better than 90% chance it had a 50mm lens on it.

In my nearly 30 years as a photographer, I've purchased a 50mm (or equivalent) prime for every camera system I've ever owned. Over the past 15 years of teaching photography, I've recommended the 50mm prime lens to literally thousands of students as the highest-quality, most-affordable, must-have upgrade for anyone getting 'serious' about photography.

Fujifilm GF 50mm F3.5 sample gallery

The hard truth is, though, I've never truly loved shooting with any of my 50mm primes and they've tended to sit in the bag more often than my other lenses. For me, the 'normal' 50mm has always been a little boring and I find a 35mm or 40mm a little more interesting with a slightly wider-than-normal view that doesn't really feel wide. Generally speaking, 40mm lenses also tend to be rather compact and you'll find them on many classic fixed-lens rangefinders from the 1970's including the legendary Canonet G-III QL17 and the Rollei 35. Canon's current 40mm F2.8 'pancake' lens is a lovely performer as well.

Speaking of 40mm (equivalent) lenses, I have to mention an old favorite of mine: the Panasonic Lumix 20mm F1.7 for Micro Four Thirds. This was one of the first MFT prime lenses, released in late 2009 alongside the wonderful Lumix GF1. Although a bit dated, the Lumix 20mm still holds up very well on my 20MP Olympus Pen-F.

Panasonic Lumix GF1 with 20mm F1.7

The Lumix 20mm also has at least one notable superpower: a close focusing limit of just 20cm, which is significantly closer than just about any non-macro-specific lens I’ve ever used. This very close focusing enables Micro Four Thirds to transcend its inherent depth-of-field limitations (or lack thereof) to produce images with extreme background blur, albeit limited to close subjects. The slightly wider-than-normal field of view also includes a bit more context, which can make ordinary junk-drawer-stuff visually interesting in a way that classic 100mm macro lenses can’t. In short, it’s just a very 'arty' lens that makes casual photography really fun for me. As a bonus, it happens to be very small and very sharp.

Fujifilm's new 50mm F3.5

So when Fujifilm announced the new GF 50mm F3.5 for the GFX system, with its 40mm full-frame equivalent field of view, I got very excited. I imagined a larger version of the Lumix 20mm mated to an ultra high resolution medium format sensor. Is it a dream come true? Well, yes and no. Let me explain.

Fujifilm GF 50mm F3.5 | ISO 200 | 1/500 sec | F11
Adobe Camera Raw Settings: Adobe Color, Daylight WB, Exposure +0.5, Highlights -100, Shadows +100, Sharpening 40, Detail 10, Luminance Noise Reduction 0, Color Noise Reduction 25

I recently drove a 4500-mile loop from Seattle, WA to Santa Fe, NM and back. DPReview kindly loaned me their copy of the Fuji GF 50mm F3.5 to try out along the way, so I attached it to my own GFX 50R and hit the road. It wasn’t a photo-specific trip and I was pretty much always on the way to somewhere else so I didn’t get to shoot in ideal lighting conditions. The images from this road trip are a good example of the sort of casual shooting I might do with the lovely Olympus Pen-F and Lumix 20mm F1.7.

Here are my thoughts.

It's still kind of big

Everyone writing about this GF 50mm has commented on how 'tiny' it is. Well it’s definitely smaller than Fujifilm's other larger-than-full-frame GF lenses, but calling this a 'tiny' medium format lens seems a bit like describing a 16-passenger van as a 'tiny' bus. Yes, it’s the smallest Fujifilm GF lens to date, but it’s still larger than an old Hasselblad 80mm F2.8 or the wonderful Pentax 645 75mm F2.8, both of which have a larger aperture and were designed for even larger formats. Proportionally, the GFX 50R with 50mm F3.5 feels something like a Texas-sized version of the for-real tiny Pen-F and 20mm F1.7.

Inoffensive bokeh

In general, a lens's maximum aperture affects its physical size and weight (and price). It's clear that Fujifilm had compactness in mind here and I’m neither thrilled nor disappointed in the result. Honestly, I’d rather have a slightly larger F2.8 lens or a slightly smaller F4 lens. This lens's maximum F3.5 aperture feels like a compromise nobody really asked for. Does it matter? Not much… F3.5 is fine. The half-stop either way would make very little difference in terms of light gathering or depth of field.

ISO 250 | 1/3200 sec | F3.5
ACR Settings: Default

ISO 250 | 1/250 sec | F11
ACR Settings: Default

My casual impression of the bokeh is that I generally like it. Perhaps it could be a bit smoother (more 'beautiful') in shots with busy foliage and smaller apertures, but there’s certainly nothing specifically negative to say about it. In all, the out of focus rendering is very nice, very clean, and very modern. Some people might even say 'generic looking.' It’s just not the sort of bokeh that really stands out in any particular way – but that's not a bad thing.

It's a darn good lens

Yes, as expected, it’s sharp. Very, very sharp. Fujifilm has claimed that all the GF lenses were designed for more than 100MP of resolution. I have no problem believing that statement. To be honest, I’d be shocked if anyone had a legitimate reason to be disappointed in the sharpness of any modern digital medium format lens. I feel obligated to note, however, that digital medium format should be held to a higher standard, particularly when you consider the physical size and weight (and cost) of such systems.

Does that mean this (and other GF lenses) are, in general, measurably sharper than all other lenses? Not necessarily. There are plenty of extremely sharp lenses for other systems. That said, even the best lenses are rarely the same sharpness across the frame at all apertures. When pixel-peeping at 100%, I was rather impressed to see essentially perfect sharpness all the way out to the extreme corners and I didn't notice any practical difference in quality throughout the aperture range.

ISO 100 | 1/250 sec | F5.6
ACR Settings: Classic Chrome, Highlights -80, Shadows +20, WB Daylight, Sharpening 60, Detail 10

No lens corrections or transform adjustments.

ISO 100 | 1/60 sec | F11
ACR Settings: Classic Chrome, Highlights -80, Shadows +20, WB Daylight, Sharpening 60, Detail 10

No lens corrections or transform adjustments.

I don't myself shoot charts or flat brick walls so I can't comment scientifically on this lens's 'square-ness' or lack of distortion. In my studio, I often capture flat artwork but 50mm is not a focal length I would ever use for that purpose. What I can say is that in the field, I didn't notice any geometric distortion that would matter for a real subject.

I should also note that I couldn't find any chromatic aberrations in any images I shot through this lens. I'd be extremely impressed if this were a smaller format lens, but again I expect nothing less from a modern medium format optical formula.

ISO 400 | 1/250 sec | F11
ACR Settings: Adobe Color, Highlights -50, Shadows +50, WB Daylight

The pine needles are impressively sharp and detailed even in the extreme corners. Note the total lack of color fringing.

ISO 100 | 1/500 sec | F8
ACR Settings: Adobe Color, Exposure +0.75, Highlights -70, Shadows +20, WB Daylight, Sharpening 60, Detail 10

No lens corrections or transform adjustments. Note the total lack of color fringing.

So is this the sharpest, cleanest lens in the world? I have no idea, and I don't care. In my opinion, this lens (really any GF lens) is so close to practical perfection from corner to corner at almost any aperture, that discussion of inherent sharpness or distortion is virtually irrelevant. At this level, depth of field, diffraction, plane of focus, focus precision, and vibration are far more critical issues. If anyone is getting 'soft' rendering out of this system, it is almost certainly a result of technique, or in very rare cases, a manufacturing defect.

Fast, confident autofocus

On my GFX 50R, focusing from close to far with the 50mm seems faster than all my other GF prime lenses except the 23mm. The 45mm is just a bit slower. The 63mm feels noticeably sluggish by comparison. The most notable difference, though, is the surprisingly quiet confidence exhibited by this new 50mm. It locks on almost instantly with hardly any 'wobble' and a barely audible 'zip' sound. The 23mm is almost this good. The 110mm is slower of course, but surprisingly not far behind, considering the longer focal length and how much further the large glass elements must travel. The other primes all make significantly more noise and require a deeper in-out movement to lock on a subject.

The 50mm exhibits surprisingly quiet confidence

All in all, I’d say Fujifilm made the autofocus of this 50mm medium format lens feel a lot more like one of the better X-mount APS-C lenses than any other medium format lens I’ve used. It’s certainly faster than manual focus on Hasselblad V system lenses, faster than Pentax 645 AF lenses, and faster than Mamiya / Phase One AF lenses I’ve used in the past. It’s also faster than my Lumix 20mm on the Pen-F, though not nearly so fast as the best lenses from Canon, Nikon, or Olympus. But let’s put this into perspective... if you’re an event or sports shooter and ultra-fast autofocus is a primary concern, then medium format is NOT the droid you’re looking for. Full stop.

Close focus could be closer

The minimum focus distance of 55cm is really the only thing I find disappointing about this otherwise wonderful lens. In theory, Fujifilm’s 50mm F3.5 should have a full-frame depth-of-field equivalence of F2.8, which should blur backgrounds more than the Lumix 20mm’s full-frame depth-of-field equivalence of F3.4.

In reality, the GF 50mm just doesn’t focus close enough to win this particular contest. There were so many times when I wanted to get just a little closer than the GF 50mm would allow. If there's enough time, attaching a Canon 500D close up filter can help you get a little closer, though I felt the +2 diopter of the Canon 500D was not quite enough to match the 20cm close focusing magic of the Lumix 20mm.

Fujifilm GFX 50R + GF50mm F3.5
ISO 800 | 1/60 sec | F3.5
Shot at minimum focus distance

Olympus PEN-F + Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II
ISO 800 | 1/60 sec | F2.2
Shot at minimum focus distance

It would be easy to suggest simply cropping into the much higher resolution GFX image to match the close crop of the Pen-F. But even if you get to a similar crop with similar resolution, the physics of being closer to the subject produces a more dramatic perspective and depth of field rendering.