Poetic Landscape Photography With the Medium Format Fuji GFX 100s – Part 2
“To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.”
| Octavio Paz
Welcome to Part 2 of my field report on the Fuji GFX 100s (click here for Part 1). This article is neither a technical introduction to medium format photography, the specifications of the GFX system, nor a review of it. There are already hundreds of similar articles and videos out there and I don’t see any need to contribute to this plethora. In this article, however, I’ll talk about my approach, different experiences, and insights from using the camera and applying it in the field. I’ll close with a summary, take-away, and recommendation for those photographers thinking about switching systems and moving towards the Fuji GFX medium format system. The article comes in two parts: In Part 1 I explain my approach and discuss customization and handling. Here, in Part 2, I share my impressions on image quality, dynamic range, color rendition, details, image stabilization, and how to camera feels in my hands before I’ll close with a personal verdict.
For this opportunity to test out the GFX 100s, I would like to express my gratitude to Fuji Switzerland. This article is neither funded nor sponsored by Fuji. In a generous gesture, Fuji has given me the opportunity to intensively field test the Fuji GFX 100s camera with the Fujinon GF 45mm F2.8 R WR, GF 80mm F1.7 R W, GF 110mm F2 R LM WR, and the GF 250mm F4 R LM OIS WR lenses without asking for anything in return. From my point of view, this is a great example of customer relationship management and collaboration between companies and photographers. For this opportunity, I would like to express my thanks. With this in mind, I also consider my stance to be neutral and will report what I honestly think about the camera. If you have any questions, you can reach out to me via my email.
Image Quality, Dynamic Range, Color Rendition, and Level of Detail
Before I’d like to share my impressions on the GFX 100s’ image quality, I’d like to add a quick excursion about different image sensors and the perception of image quality.
From what I’ve seen, apples are often compared to pears when it comes to the image quality of medium format cameras. Below, I quickly compare some image sensor differences of some recent camera systems. You can see that not only the sensor sizes differ from each other, but also the number of megapixels and abilities to capture images with different bit-depth.
- Phase One XT IQ4, 54 x 40.5mm, CMOS sensor, 151MP, 16-bit, average pixel pitch 3.76μ, introduced 2019
- Phase One XF 100, 53.7 x 40.4mm, CMOS sensor, 100MP, 16-bit, average pixel pitch 4.63μ, introduced 2016
- Hasselblad X1D II 50C, 43.8 x 32.9mm, CMOS sensor, 50MP chip, 16-bit, average pixel pitch 5.29μ, introduced 2019
- Pentax 645Z, 43.8 x 32.8mm, CMOS sensor, 51MP chip, 14-bit files, average pixel pitch 5.31μ, introduced 2014
- Fuji GFX 100s, 43.8 x 32.9mm, CMOS sensor, 102MP, 14-bit files, average pixel pitch 3.76μ, introduced 2021
- Fuji GFX 50S, 43.8 x 32.9mm, CMOS sensor, 51.4 MP, 14-bit files, average pixel pitch 5.31μ, introduced 2018
- Nikon Z7 ii, 35.9 x 23.9mm, CMOS sensor, 45.8MP, 14-bit files, average pixel pitch 4.35μ, introduced 2020
Depending on the sensor size and megapixels captured, the pixel pitch describes the density of pixels on an LED display. The pixel pitch is defined as the distance between the pixel center to the center of an adjacent pixel, i.e. the space in between pixels. The smaller the average pixel pitch, the less empty space is in between pixels, the higher the pixel density and better the resulting screen resolution. While the pixel pitch is mostly used to calculate the best viewing distance for an LED screen, it is important to consider when it comes to evaluating the sharpness of an image seen on a screen.
Sharpness is characterized by resolution (i.e. the level of detail determined by the number of pixels on a sensor: the more pixels are on a sensor, the higher the resolution and potential sharpness), and acutance (i.e. the amount of contrast between each pixel determined by the sensor’s pixels per inch: higher acutance leads to a higher level of sharpness). In sum, larger image sensors with smaller pixels per inch (ppi) have higher resolutions and the capacity to capture light more accurately. Of course, sharpness is also influenced by many other criteria, such as focus, shutter speed, or lens quality. However, what I wanted to express is that in recent years, we’ve seen a trend towards higher megapixel sensors with smaller ppi and higher bit depths (color information). In theory, cameras with larger sensor size and smaller ppi can capture more light, but also more color information through a higher bit depth (12-bit color refers to 212, or 4’096, 14-bit color refers to 214, or 16’384, and 16-bit color refers to 216, or 65’536 possible color values for each one of the three RGB channels). A higher bit depth, therefore, stores a lot more color information of the image, and smoother gradients are possible. This higher bit depth reduces the risk of seeing banding issues (see my articles on banding part 1, part 2, part 3), but it also increases our chances to discover details through significantly brightening shadows or darkening highlights. According to Greg Bence (see references to his great article on PetaPixel), roughly 14-15 bit cameras are the ideal trade-off between the information in the file and what our eyes can see.
In sum, for the price you pay for a medium format camera, you will be able to capture light more precisely, capture more color information, and will be capable to print larger formats more easily. However, marketing always tries to tell us that the more is the better. And we currently see “a more on everything” competition with cameras such as the Sony Alpha 1, the Canon R3, or the Nikon Z9, on “high megapixel, high speed, high sensitivity, and high reliability” (Quote from the Canon website). Whether we are able to see and verify this increased image quality depends also on the quality and size of our visualization medium (e.g. the rear main display of the GFX 100s has a lower resolution than that of the GFX 50S; computer monitors are differently capable to visualize color space; large prints will show details on a higher level than smaller prints). So the question is, am I able to see the “more is better” in the photographs taken by the GFX 100s?
There is no question: The image quality of the GFX 100s is just stunning. You can easily see that the 102MP image sensor is one of the best sensors currently on the market. Yes, you can see an excellent image quality – if you can handle the camera and know how to use it. Some words of warning. The devil is literally in the details here: 1) The level of detail is that high that it is crucial to keep the camera steady, and know the required shutter speed in combination with IBIS to create a steady image. Often I captured flying birds and other artifacts in the image that required a very careful evaluation of the image in post. 2) The depth-of-field is lower compared to full-format cameras. In consequence, higher aperture values or focus stacking may often come into play.
In the following, I’ll share some of the photographs that I took along with the motivation to make it, the technical details, and my take-aways from them.
Photograph 3 – “Thick Skin”: I created this photograph with f/5.6 to validate the depth of field of the GFX 100s. While the texture near the focus point is amazingly beautiful, we can clearly see the fall-off of sharpness in the lower part of the image. With a sensor of this size, one should be very mindful of where to set the focus point, the aperture, and the depth of field. In this example, one would have better used f11 or focus-stack the image. With focus-stacking, you should keep an eye on the buffer which fills up quickly. GF 110mm, 1/120s at f/5.6, ISO 100.
Photograph 4 – “The Lines of Sacrifice”: To play even more with focus and depth-of-field, I created this photograph again at f/5.6, but this time applied to a curvy, rounded tree. I focussed on the center part of the tree and used to small depth-of-field to create a soft fall-off at both sides. GF 110mm, 1/180s at f/5.6, ISO 400.
Photograph 5 – “Round Like a Circle”: This is a panorama made of 5 vertical images. I was especially interested in the stitching quality of high-detail images. It worked amazingly well. The more detail there is in the images, the easier it seems for stitching software to create the pano. I didn’t find any major flaws, neither in Lightroom nor in PTGui. Image dimensions are about 20’000 px on the long edge. A side-note: The application of the Topaz AI Sharpening plugin on this panoramic image with some minor sharpening required about 6 minutes of processing time on my computer (12 core, 96 GB RAM, 32 GB VRAM). GF 45mm, 1/550s at f/11, ISO 400.
Photograph 6 – “Round Like a Circle”: This is a cropped version of the panoramic Photograph 5 before. Did you see the cars in the image before in the center-right? You can even see someone sitting in a chair in front of the green bus. The level of detail is just stunning. Image dimension is about 2’500 px on the long edge. GF 45mm, 1/550s at f/11, ISO 400.
Photograph 7 – “In the Green Dress”: My motivation to make this photograph was mainly to see the GFX’s capability to render colors in an almost monochromatic setting. I have to express that it looks less amazing on screen than on print. On print, however, the full power of the medium format comes into play. Many nuances of slight green color gradation in a high texture environment let this image shine on matt textured paper. GF 250mm, 1/800s at f/8, ISO 400.
Photograph 8 – “Old Friends”: This is a rendezvous with old friends that are part of my “Together” series. I was interested in this high dynamic range setting. On the left side, you find the original image. On the right side is the image with adjusted blacks +100, and shadows +100 to demonstrate the level of detail in the dark areas, but also on the left tree bark. While this is only for demonstration reasons, it, however, shows that bracketing in high dynamic range settings might no longer be necessary with the GFX 100s as long as you control for the highlights. The level of details in the darks is amazing. GF 45mm, 1/4000s at f/8, ISO 400.
All in all, I have to admit that this camera is beyond reproach in terms of image quality. The quality of the images is outstanding, the details – especially in the dark parts of an image – are impressive, tonal transitions from the deepest darks to the brightest highlights are very rich, the colors and especially the rendering of the colors are beautiful. These outstanding qualities, together with the high resolution, open up a whole room of creative possibilities for the photographer when editing the images. I didn’t try out the pixel-shift mode with which 400MP high-resolution images can be created. For me, in landscape photography, there is almost always something moving in a scene and it might be hard to find stable environments in nature that allow for these images.
Handholding, ISO, and Image Stabilization
The summary of the previous chapter was not surprising to me. That I can capture more light, more details and more beautiful colors for more money, I expected for this price (we’ll take about price in the last section). However, my question at the beginning remained unanswered so far. What if I deviate from the typical uses of a medium format camera and use it more creatively? How does it then come into its own? How can I work with it handheld without using a tripod? For this purpose, I took a series of plant images with an open aperture. In the following, I share the images with you and tell you something about my impressions of them.
Photographic Triptic 9 – “Poetry studies 1”: Handholding the GFX was easy. Along with the possibilities of high ISO as now noise level, it even made a lot of fun. The GF 110mm has quickly become my favorite of the four lenses I used and its Bokeh is very dreamy. But what’s most fascinating to me is the detail in the focal point against the Bokeh in the background. Often I only noticed later on the computer that I had accidentally photographed small insects as well. All images captured with the GF 110mm, 1/3000-1/4000s at f/2.8, ISO 400-800.
Photographic Triptic 10 – “Poetry studies 2”: While the motivation of this triptic was similar to the one before, the timing was closer to sunset. The colors were more intense and the flowers showed stronger cold-warm contrasts. Again, I love the level of detail and the color rendering here. All images captured with the GF 110mm, 1/1500-1/3500s at f/2.8, ISO 400-800.
Photographic 11 – “Le cœur de Monet”: With this image, I mainly wanted to test the camera’s ability to blend different photos in-camera. There are different blending modes (including light, dark, average). Most importantly, as you shoot each image, you can decide whether to keep it or capture it again. This is very convenient and allows for high-quality work. On the other hand, it is disappointing that the resulting image is only saved as a jpeg and not as a RAW file. Perhaps this will be adjusted in a future software update. It would be desirable. The multiple exposure functionality works well, but matching and balancing the colors in the final image, especially with dynamic light scenes could be difficult. For this type of photography, one may not need a medium format camera. However, having the opportunity to print these multiple exposure blends on large paper could be exciting for many photographers. Nine in-camera exposures, average mode, GF 45mm, 1/75s at f/11, ISO 100.
All in all, one can easily handhold the GFX 100s with ISO 100-1600 without significantly affecting the image noise level. This is fantastic. Together with the new, smaller, and lighter in-body stabilization system (IBIS), there is a plethora of opportunities opening up for creative, handheld photography. The Fuji specs argue that it compensates for six stops correction, which is impressive.
Autofocus, Performance, and Lenses
The GFX 100s uses a hybrid AF system. Therefore, the camera seems relatively fast compared to, say, a GFX 50S. Compared to full-frame cameras, the autofocus seems slower, but it never seems a hindrance. For a medium format camera, the autofocus works well. What’s most important to me, though, is that when the autofocus is on, it’s spot on. With all my Nikon cameras I often have to check the autofocus manually. With the GFX 100s, the focus – if the point is set correctly – almost always fits. However, the autofocus varies significantly across the different lenses.
Frames per second are less interesting for me in landscape photography, but at 5 fps for about 8s the GFX 100s is amazing. Also, eye-tracking seems to work well.
While photographing with the GFX 100s, you clearly notice the readout of the large amounts of data, which occasionally leads to blackouts and a slowdown in working. On the other hand, when you want to view the images, it takes significant time to display the image on the monitor. This slows down the work extremely – if one needs this confirmation. Overall, the camera is, therefore, more reminiscent of an analog camera, which demands conscious working and decelerates.
Battery life is ok. According to Fuji, the battery allows making about 460 images on the GFX 100s. This is fine, but I am wondering how they work in cold environments. Nevertheless, if you go to remote environments, you will need a set of spare batteries.
Amongst the lenses I tested, my clear favorite is the GF 110mm. It is one of the best lenses I have ever used, but also very versatile. The level of details with this lens is amazing, but it can also be your perfect partner for poetic images with a beautiful Bokeh. Autofocus is quick and precise with this lens. My second preference goes to the GF 250 mm. While I haven’t tried out the 1.4x teleconverter, the lens is beautifully sharp. However, it is a very heavy lens that I don’t want to bring up to the mountains. I haven’t used the GF 80mm often. While it is the fastest lens in the GFX line-up, I haven’t found many applications of that focal length in my natural environment. It might be a good companion for aerial photography. The 45mm wide-angle is a good lens as well, but I have had surprisingly the biggest focus challenges with this lens. With my copy, I always felt that the lens is a bit off-focus.
In the mountains, I usually have little room to move, either forward or backward. Therefore, when selecting lenses, I would probably choose zoom lenses in favor of greater flexibility. Currently, I would probably go for the following selection of lenses:
- GF 23mm f/4 R LM WR
- GF 30mm f/3.5 R WR
- GF 32-64mm f/4 R LM WR
- GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR
- GF 100-200mm f/5.6 R LM OIS WR
All in all, I’m missing more good alternatives to the existing range of GFX lenses here. I especially miss portable f/4 telephoto lenses and a good macro lens.
How Does it Feel and Who is it Suitable For?
What’s most important to me is how the camera really “feels” in my hands, how it supports me creatively in my conceptual endeavors. I have to say that unlike current models from other brands, the camera does not strive to be better, bigger, faster, or more comprehensive in all dimensions (although it is in most dimensions). The GFX 100s is a personality that wants to be appreciated. It is not a camera that should be used to take a lot of photos quickly. It demands that you think about an image, give it some thought, and engage in the process with the camera. In doing so, it supports the creative process in a wonderfully quiet way. It conjures up wonderful tonal and color gradients and often reveals details that might have been hidden before. The GFX 100s is a camera for the mindful photographer who is present in the moment. It slows down the processes in a pleasant way without affecting the photographing. It decelerates the photographer. You don’t appreciate this worth until you can test the camera for a while and at your leisure. If you don’t know this feeling, you won’t miss the camera. However, if you have felt this feeling once, you will long for it.
Who is the camera suitable for? Precisely for the photographer who is looking for this conscious engagement with the image, who enjoys the process of photography and is not looking for the next quick picture.
Who is the camera not suitable for? The person who wants to run quickly from one place to the next at sunset to capture every angle with different exposures and focus stacking, who wants to cover as wide a range as possible with one or two lenses without moving much, who hikes up steep mountains with as little luggage as possible and shoots in extreme weather situations, for whom the GFX 100s may be less suitable.
For what you get, the camera has a very competitive price in my view, on par with a Sony Alpha 1, Canon R3, or Nikon Z9, while offering a medium format. For the beginner or system changer, it is initially an expensive investment, where you quickly arrive at 12-15,000 CHF for a body with 3-4 lenses.
For me, who is already fully invested in a system and also needs a second housing as a backup, this is a very high purchase. In the long run, however, it may just come down to this. It fits my mentality to take pictures.
Let me come to an end to this intense field report that has become much longer than I thought. Here is my quick summary:
What I like most about the GFX 100s:
- A very mindful companion to your photographic journey who slows down the stressed photographer and demands the interexchange.
- Unmatched image quality, tonal gradation, and color rendering with beautiful details.
- The high ISO performance along with the fantastic IBIS allows creative, handheld photography in low-light situations.
- Overall resolution and performance open many ways to creative work.
- Ergonomic camera body with clever usability and many options to customize the camera.
- The AF is ok concerning speed but spot-on concerning the focus.
- In-camera multiple exposure blending (with dark and light blend modes) and operation.
- The rear, tilting touchscreen display is super helpful, especially in portrait mode.
- The quality of the lenses I tested is very good.
- Dual SD cards slots (UHS-II). However, I’d prefer to see the support of modern, faster card systems.
- Weather-sealed camera body.
- Very competitive pricing for the quality one receives.
What challenges me with the GFX 100s:
- Sometimes, you need to make the image. Then the GFX 100s is a reminder to slow down and stands a bit in the way. If you like to take a lot of pictures and never want to miss a moment photographically, this is the wrong camera choice.
- While the whole system is not too large, not too heavy for a medium-format camera, it is still significant. When you hike longer distances, climb mountains, go into ice caves, bivouac with camping equipment, be flexible with a few zoom lenses, then it is not the camera of your choice.
- Write and readout of large amounts of image data occasionally leads to blackouts and a slowdown in working.
- Multiple in-camera exposures are saves as JPEG not as a RAW file.
- The ergonomics of the Q-button: The button stands out a bit too far for my personal taste.
- Operating uncompressed 16-bit image files challenge every computer system. Investing in the camera will not be your last investment.
In sum, those who know that they need the Fuji GFX 100s, will need it. Those, who are in doubt, will not need it.
Thanks again to Fujifilm Switzerland for their generosity and for providing me the system for a whole week. I have been able to enjoy the time very much.
Related other articles on mindful photography from my blog:
- The Four Agreements
- The Study of Wonder
- About Stillness
- About Success in Photography and Life
- The Unassuming Traveller
Related other articles on banding from my blog:
- Processing: What is Banding?, Feb 14, 2020.
- Processing: How to Get Rid of Banding?, Feb 21, 2020.
- Processing: Modern Approaches to Get Rid of Banding, May 8, 2020.
- Greg Bence (2018): 8, 12, 14 vs 16-Bit Depth. What do You Really Need?!, on: PetaPixel, Sep 19, 2018.
- Fujifilm Schweiz.
- Fujifilm GFX 100s Specifications.