Shooting the GFX 50S in the streets of Tokyo

By Dan Bracaglia (originally published March 9, 2017)

Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw and cropped in slightly | ISO 200 | 1/60 sec | F2.8

Japan has long been at the top of my list of places I would like to journey to. Like my coworker, Carey Rose, I enjoy traveling with a camera as a means to create a visual travel diary or log of my adventures.

This year, I was fortunate enough to cover the CP+ trade show in Yokohama, Japan for DPReview. Of course one does not simply fly all the way to Japan for work and not spend some extra time exploring. And so I delayed my flight back by three days, so that I could have some time to check out Tokyo, a city I've long admired from afar in the pages of street photography books and magazines.

Originally, I was going to bring my Leica M6 + 40mm F2 Rokkor (a camera I too often neglect) to explore the streets of the World's largest city. But when Fujifilm informed us they'd have a sample GFX 50S we could take home from the show, my plans changed.

It was weird, at first, shooting street photography on a medium-format digital camera.
Edited to taste in ACR | ISO 800 | 1/800 sec | F2.8

To be honest I never really considered the prospect of trying to shoot street photography with a digital medium-format camera. In fact, the only digital medium-format camera I've spent any considerable time using is the Pentax 645Z. And while capable in many situations, the 645Z is pretty cumbersome to walk around with, being 630 g/22.3 oz heavier than the Fujifilm.

I already had my heart set on shooting a single focal length in the 40mm Rokkor, so I didn't really mind that the only lens Fujifilm could provide was the 63mm F2.8, which is equivalent to 50mm. I really enjoy limiting my focal length when traveling, it tends to give me more mental clarity into what I'm seeing and forces me to move my feet and change my perspective more.

Handling

Edited to taste in ACR and cropped in slightly | ISO 100 | 1/500 sec | F2.8

In short, I love the ergonomics of this camera. The grip is extremely comfortable, it's well-weighted (at least with the 63mm F2.8 on), and most control points can be accessed using the camera with a single hand.

Stopped for a beer at the Tokyo Skytree, mostly to be a tourist, but also to take this photo of the GFX 50S at 350m above the city.

In fact, I'd go as far to say that in terms of ergonomics and comfort, I'd prefer to spend the day walking around with the GFX 50S over a Nikon D810 or Canon EOS 5D SR (with similar-sized lenses) for a few reasons. For one, all three camera bodies weigh nearly the same: The 5D SR is 845 g (29.8 oz), the D810 is 879 g (31 oz) and the GFX 50S is 919 g (32.5 oz). Moreover, the grip on the Fujifilm is just so much more comfortable, especially when holding the camera for an extended period of time (believe me, I've spent very long days with the both the Canon and Nikon in tow).

Fujifilm colors + a high resolution sensor = Lovely files.
Edited to taste in ACR and cropped in slightly | ISO 100 | 1/400 sec | F6.4

I also love the control layout. The top plate is very similar to that of the gold award-winning Fujifilm XT-2, though the GFX has no dedicated exposure compensation dial. Both the shutter speed and ISO dial can be locked. I mostly used the camera during the day in full manual with my shutter speed held at 1/500 sec to freeze any movement I encountered. When I saw something I wanted to shoot, I simply raised the camera to my eye and adjusted my ISO and aperture accordingly. This quickly became a very effective and natural way to shoot (though I acknowledge I could have kept my ISO closer to base in some of these images. Using Auto ISO also would have helped) .

The GFX 50S gives users two ways to move one's AF area or point: via the joystick or the touchscreen. Fujifilm could have easily skipped the touchscreen in a camera like this, but I'm glad they didn't. While I did not use it much for AF point placement (mostly because the joystick is fabulous), I did enjoy employing the touchscreen while flipping back through images (also pinch to zoom is nice). Oh, and the screen flips out both vertically and horizontally (like on the XT-2), which is very useful. I found myself framing with the LCD probably 25% of the time.

Notes from shooting

When I framed up this image, there was no subject in it. But thanks to the sluggish AF, by the time the shutter fired, boom, I had a subject!
Edited to taste in ACR | ISO 200 | 1/1250 sec | F5.6

For the most part, my experience shooting with the GFX 50S was positive. Maybe it was all the canned coffee I was drinking, or the excitement of exploring somewhere new, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself while shooting with it. That said, I had a few frustrations:

Autofocus, as you might expect from a contrast detect system, is quite sluggish. Not only that, it's also pretty loud. And when fully racking focus from minimum to infinity, the 63mm F2.8's lens barrel extends considerably. The camera is also a tad slow to start up. It's really useful that the on/off switch is located in front of the shutter (like on any Nikon DSLR), but I missed a couple decisive moments due to the combination of sluggish start up and slow autofocus.

That said, while AF is slow, it is both accurate and precise (in good light). This is the positive of a mirrorless camera using a CDAF system.

AF speeds are a bit sluggish which sometimes resulted in me missing decisive moments. Fortunately I had a lot of time to compose this image.
Edited to taste in ACR | ISO 400 | 1/1900 sec | F3.2

I only shot using the GFX 50S in AF-S, using a single point. AF coverage is excellent, extending out nearly to the edge of the frame and, as I mentioned, the joystick is an effective way to painlessly move the AF point. When I first was handed the camera, I switched it into AF-C and instantly started to feel nauseous due to the constant, very slow hunting. I quickly switched it back to AF-S.

Because I mostly shot with the GFX 50S in decent light while in Japan, once I was back in Seattle, I was curious to see how its autofocus would hold up in crummy light. The answer: poorly. Using a dimly-lit bar as my scene (settings around ISO 12800, 1/60 sec at F2.8), the GFX 50S proved largely unable to focus on anything. This is not all that surprising given its contrast-detect AF system. And I still got some shots, I simply switched the camera to manual focus and used focus peaking.

Thank God the GFX 50S is weather-sealed. This was shot moments before it started to downpour and I had no umbrella.
Edited to taste in ACR | ISO 400 | 1/800 sec | F4

Another stumbling point is the EVF experience. Although resolution is pretty high (3.7 million dots) the viewfinder image gets noticeably 'crunchy' when focus is initiated, and moiré and 'shimmering' can be very distracting in some scenes, especially cityscapes.

This didn't bother me quite as much as it bothered my colleague, Barney. But as soon as he pointed it out to me, I couldn't unsee it.

That's pretty much it for things I did not like, back to things I did: the camera is weather-sealed, and not just a little weather-sealed, but very weather-sealed. One day, while out exploring part of the Asakusa district in Northeast Tokyo, I got caught in a heavy rain storm. Now, contrary to popular belief, we don't get heavy rain in Seattle, just drizzles, mists and spits. This is to say, I was not prepared for the rain that would fall. Fortunately, the GFX 50S was.

I was also really quite pleased with the camera's battery life. Fujifilm introduced the new NP-T125 battery, and it's enormous, which is awesome. I shot constantly for two and a half days without needing to charge it up once.

The images

I was able to crop this file in nearly 50% and still have a nice image thanks to the camera's high pixel count.
Edited to taste in ACR and cropped in considerably | ISO 12,800 | 1/90 sec | F2.8

So I obviously enjoyed using the camera but what about the files? Well, you be the the judge. Adobe just updated Raw support for the camera earlier this week and boy did I have a fun time playing with these files. The above, for instance, is cropped in nearly 2x.

Raw files also seem to have excellent dynamic range. I was able to pull exposures quite far. I was also able to recover a ton of blown highlights from the Sensō-ji Temple photo at the bottom of this article (first image in the gallery). This is due to a behavior we found regarding high ISO files having extra data in the highlights. But we'll go more in depth on that in the review. To be honest, as a former X100-series owner, using this camera reminded me just how much I love Fujifilm colors and skintones. And processing Raw files allowed me to go back and apply any one of the lovely Film Simulations in post.

I forgot how lovely Fujifilm colors are.
Edited to taste slightly in ACR | ISO 800 | 1/500 sec | F4.5

The take away

There's something really strange/enticing about being able to shoot casually with a digital medium-format camera. And despite some sluggishness in its operation, the GFX 50S was surprisingly good for street and travel photography.

And while the entire experience was a bit overwhelming from a cultural perspective (I speak no Japanese and spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts listening to Tom Waits) exploring Tokyo with what I believe to be one of the most exciting digital cameras in a long time, was truly remarkable. I'm already planning a return trip.

So if you're not going to read any of this article, here's my takeaway: the Fujifilm GFX 50S is fun and easy to use and the files look awesome. What more can I say?