Understanding the Fujifilm GFX 50S and the Medium Format Mentality

It’s no secret: lots of photographers are drooling over the idea of shooting with the Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format camera. The idea of owning something bigger than full frame 35mm (though not even the size of true digital 645) is something that is bound to attract a whole lot of photographers. Then consider the fact that everyone and their mother is a photographer these days. Everyone will want a medium format camera because they’re becoming more and more affordable. Though for what it’s worth, I’m very positive that not everyone understands medium format.

In fact, you may honestly want to stick with 35mm, APS-C, or even Four Thirds.

The Way We Used to Shoot

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When photography first got its start, photographers opted for large negatives. The earliest contemporary photographers shot on glass plates and tin plates. These were pretty darn large; 8×10 and 4×5 were very common.

Now, if you look at the type of work that photographers shot on 8×10 and 4×5, you’ll see that it was all very carefully done. Every single photo was very static as photographers needed to shoot longer exposures due to such low ISO numbers. But in addition to that, when you’re working with a negative of this size it becomes harder to actually get a subject in focus. So for many years, the only photos really taken were of stagnant landscapes, cityscapes, and people in the studio.

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Most large format photographers these days do the exact same thing. Have you seen a landscape shot on 8×10 Velvia? Oh man, I’m getting so hot and bothered honestly just typing it that I had to go back and correct a number of typos due to the distraction. There is so much emulsion on the surface area that you’re going to get better images. We’re not the ones saying this by the way, Fujifilm and Kodak do!

The great equalizer in the digital world is the processor.

35mm: What it Did for Photography

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It wasn’t until 35mm film came around that people started to be able to capture very candid moments. Photographers back then looked at the idea and scoffed at working with anything that small. But what 35mm did was allow the everyday person to take images that people didn’t before. Photographers were able to capture candid moments on the streets, in sports, etc. This is partially because the format is so much smaller so there is less shutter vibration, you don’t need to stop a lens down as much to get a subject in focus, etc.

In the same way that your phone has an entire scene in focus at f2, 35mm full frame digital sensors can deliver a beautiful out of focus area. The same thing applies when you go bigger up to full frame and medium format.

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Medium format photographers basically did a mixture of what 35mm and large format both did. No one really shoots sports with medium format but they instead do portraiture, editorial, landscapes, documentary, etc. Medium format is a style of photography that means that you need to go slow and plan accordingly to get the images that you want.

Digital Mirrorless Medium Format

In the digital world, Medium Format is still essentially the same. No one is making a medium format camera with a blazing fast autofocus system that can track Usain Bolt running at his top speed. Instead, you’re going to need to use old school depth of field tactics like zone focusing to get the shot. But even then, it’s tough.

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Digital medium format, especially in mirrorless, will still appeal most to photojournalism, documentary, landscape, editorial, and portraiture work. Even so, it probably won’t be best for most photojournalistic endeavors. Lots of Magnum photographers that still shoot medium format and large format film carefully plan their shots before snapping their shutters.

With all this in mind, we need to keep this considered. Fujifilm is very popular amongst many street photographers and documentary shooters. In fact, I think point and shoots may be the best thing for those style of shooters–and that’s everything that the GFX 50s may not be. As it is, they’re mostly marketing it to portrait shooters. It will make little to no sense putting it in the hands of a sports shooter and shooting street photography in medium format is very tough. Quite honestly, I’ve found Micro Four Thirds to be the best format for the genre. That’s not to say that you can’t do Urban Geometry or at least try to get something with fast motion. But with that said, you’re probably not going to do a very good job of it. Heck, it’s tough for professionals to get it.

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Medium format requires a very different mentality overall. There needs to be little, if any, movement. It’s clinical and careful. Medium format is slow–you can liken it the European mentality of taking one’s own time to enjoy and experience a meal vs scarfing it down the way we in the land of future-Trump take it on. You’ll need to sit there and carefully think about what you want to shoot before you do.

The Fujifilm GFx 50S Medium format camera owner will be one that has the money to justify on the purchase. They’ll also be one with lots of experience that knows how to plan shots out, coordinates and communicates with people, understands the basics of light to get the greatest landscape photo ever made, and will know when to put a big camera in someone’s face or not when doing a documentary project.