9.03.2021

Thoughts on the Fuji GFX50Sii. Changing stuff in my office. It's always a struggle to throw stuff away and to part with things that have been consistent. An homage to my old A/C.

A dystopian photograph of a future...

Before I get to anything else I have to ask if you have seen the Ben Stiller movie, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?  No? Okay, I'll wait while you go online and watch the whole thing... It's one of the best movies I have ever seen about a topic so close to me; the never-ending change of our relationship to photography and imaging. It's one of the few movies I've seen that routinely has me tearing up at the ending and then feeling nostalgic, and a bit sad. But I watch it because my son gave me a copy as a gift when the movie first came out and also because it nicely memorializes the way we felt about photography growing up in a certain age...

A quick note about my office air conditioner. I extracted it from its perch yesterday, framed in a new sized opening for its replacement and actually surprised myself with my carpentry skills (I probably just jinxed myself and the unit will fall out of its lofty residence onto the hard ground before I'm finished typing). I used a traditional, manual saw to cut boards, a time-honor Blue Grass hammer to knock things into place and a retractable tape measure. Things I haven't done since working as an apprentice to a master carpenter back between high school and college....or "uni"). 

I'm sad about the old 12,000 BTU window unit because, until its untimely (or timely?) demise that Sharp branded model was a paragon of mechanical virtue and could chill a room enough to keep poultry safe. Not that we used it for such. It spent ten years exposed to the elements and always ready to ensure my comfort. I'll make sure it's properly recycled and otherwise cared for. There will be a short service for it on Sunday. Please, no flowers. 

With things like A/C it's not about the money spent but the time involved to get things changed. It takes effort. And when things go awry (handyman ghosting me) it's hard to change plans on the fly. I welcomed a new unit in. Onboarding, as they now say. It's so modern that I can download an app for it and control it from around the world with wi-fi. Though I'm fairly certain that will never happen. I'd hate to be hacked by ransomware pirates and not be able to use my appliance until paying a million dollars.... That happened to a client. Not the air conditioning but the ransomware. They are still struggling to re-engage all their servers. How do I know? They keep calling and asking if I have some file or another archived..... I have two words for everyone: Air Gap

Moving on (which is exactly the theme of the movie...): I wanted to write a bit about the new Fuji GFX 50SII camera that just hit but which everyone in the industry seems to have had for at least enough time to get some breathless reviews out the door. The new medium format camera is based the same body as the more expensive, fuller featured, 100 megapixel version but it provides "only" a 51 megapixel sensor and has had a number of useful things stripped away as a result of a retrograde to an older and slower sensor. But the price has also shrunk. When the camera hits the market you'll be able to buy one for about $4,000. If you spend $500 more you can get the new kit lens for half its standalone price. In the kit it's about $500 instead of $1,000. 

So, for just about $4,500 you can be out and about with a "medium format" camera and lens that's pretty much guaranteed to have the potential to make great photographs. But what are the compromises? I guess it all depends on whether you are able to work around a few minor deficiencies or if you require such great degrees of handholding and automation that you also have running shoes that lace themselves... And an app that instructs you on how to run. Or walk. Or sit on the couch looking at your new shoes.

To start with the 51 megapixel sensor is the same one used in the first version of the camera, and also in the second version of the Pentax MF, and the Hasselblad MF. With that in mind you'll understand that while the image quality is quite good the underlying tech is a bit slow. Slow to process mostly. Which means more rolling shutter, a slower refresh rate in the EVF and on screen, video limited to 1080p instead of 4K, and a few more niggles. The one things that will get some people's panties in a bunch is the use of contrast detection AF instead of phase detection. Yes, it means it will focus in a different way than your latest Sony but it will get to sharp focus pretty quickly and stay there just the same. And since it's not a camera one might put at the top of the list for video productions the idea that its C-AF might hunt or be slow while using video is a non-issue. For most. 

The camera's EVF is a lower magnification and lower resolution than today's standard but that's okay because even in its present state it's as good as everyone's (but Leica) top shelf finders from just three or four years ago. And the industry was bragging about how good the finder res was back then. Finally the burst rate and the adjoining buffer clearing time are both slow by 35mm camera metrics. 

You won't be looking at this camera if you are a sports photographer who needs instant focusing and the ability to cover your inadequacies as a photographer by shooting hundreds and hundreds of mostly identical photographs and sorting through them for hours to find a keeper.

On the other hand I think this camera and its price point were made for photographers who shoot portraits, still life, landscapes, found art, street portraits, abstracts and general imagery who hoped for a physically larger sensor and who believe that bigger pixels make better images. It's also a competent platform for people who want to see what difference longer lenses make when making images with the same angle of view as smaller cameras. Oh my God! an equivalence test!!!

Many photographers I meet opine that they would "love" a camera that's stripped down and easy to use but has the best image quality. They seem to have a laundry list which this camera mostly delivers. It's basic and spare. Fuji certainly haven't thrown much money at video features. The design mandate seems to have been to make a camera that's capable (in the right hands) of delivering great images while hitting a price point, and a size and weight, that will make this camera extremely popular. 51 really good megapixels in a small and lightweight (for MF) camera that has the things core photographers (not hybrid guys) desire, like long battery life, in-body image stabilization, familiar Fuji control interface, and entree into medium format at a price that won't cause one's personal CFO to blink. Much. 

It's an interesting offer. One that many will accept. The camera, with the kit lens, is a great starter and would make an interesting, and I think, very fun travel camera. But does it make sense for a serious shooter in 2021?

Comparing it to something like a Leica SL2 is an interesting exercise. They are almost equal in overall resolution and both companies are able to make lenses that deliver the best quality for the respective pixel densities. If size and weight are an issue, looking at body only, I think Fuji is the winner. When it comes to video performance the SL2 is a clear winner. When it comes to ultimate lens quality I think Leica is the winner there as well. But it's really apples and oranges. The beauty of the Leica system is that the lenses deliver high performance even wide open so, if you are an equivalence junkie, you'll see the optical/imaging performance of the two being roughly equal. Then there are all the secondary features. Leica's finder is much better, Leica's weather sealing and rugged build is better. 

Another point is that this format, with its 44x33 mm sensor, isn't a huge leap up in terms of image area from the typical 24 x 36 mm sensor in what is commonly called a "full frame" camera. In film days a square format MF camera would generally have a sensor that measured 56 by 56mm and would have nearly 4X the live image area of a 35mm camera. Getting the same angle of view between those two film sizes would require lenses to be about twice the focal length on the bigger sensor for compositional parity, and there were ample visual cues of the differences. In the GFX 50SII sensor size we have a much more modest increase in size and an attendant reduction of recognizable optical differences. In comparing the performance of the Fuji MF with a camera like SL2 or the Nikon Z7 it would be hard to make the case that there is much difference at all, other than the size of individual pixels. And with better and better lens performance at and near maximum aperture in the 35mm cameras there is an argument to be made that the visual characteristics that should differentiate photographs between the formats is slight. It might not be enough of a difference to motivate users of current top-of-the-line, high resolution cameras to make a big change in systems. 

A better argument could be made for people who are already full invested in a system like Leica, Nikon or Sony but has a specific use for the visual properties of the larger sensor. The other group that I would steer to a GFX50SII is, incredibly enough, first time buyers of stand alone cameras. Those (with adequate budgets) who learned with an iPhone, became intrigued and now want to experience "real" photography. The Fuji is no worse than any number of other entry cameras in many regards (speed, buffer, eyepiece optics and res, video capabilities, etc. etc.) but much better than most when it comes right down to potential image quality. 

At any rate it's a nice move by Fuji and I can hardly wait for it to hit the market. That camera and lens could end up being a nice, single solution for the kinds of photographers who like to shoot as I do. Quickly and without handling encumbrances, or too many sets of "training wheels". 

My prediction? It will sell out and then be on back order for months at a time. For some, it represents everything experienced photographers wished for once film MF  left the building. Were I to retire into a life of quiet hobby it would be a stronger lure as a single tool for all imaging uses. As a system camera there are limitations. But as my first paragraph pointed out the limitations are always changing. 

A parking garage in Austin.

One thing is certain...Fuji has a radical head start on the market if the market is indeed heading toward medium format digital cameras. Unless their lenses cover a bigger area than that presented by their current sensors though I think they may have locked themselves into a corner where image differentiation by sensor geometry is a goal. Still would love to see an affordable 56x56mm sensor-ed system...

I'm betting you would too.