Today, I’ll take you for an in-depth look at a new extensive project I shot with the Fujifilm GFX 100. It will be a longer essay meant to give you a hands on experience to help decide if the camera is right for you.
I like a challenge.
My parents might attribute this to a certain inborn stubbornness that, despite their best efforts, they were unable to train out of me. My good friend and training partner at the gym may instead simply count this as further evidence of my sadomasochistic tendencies. Me? I just call it Wednesday.
The truth is, I believe my chronic need to push my own limits is both an impetus for me to get out of bed in the morning and an essential requirement to grow as an artist. People who achieve great heights in life don’t get there by resting on their laurels. And while we should make clear at the beginning of this article that I am in no way classifying myself as great, striving to be better seems like a pretty basic human goal. And I suspect it’s one you may share as well.
Personally, I’ve always been someone who learns by doing. You can watch all the tutorials you want. You can go to obtain a formal education. Both positives. But there’s nothing like going into the field and getting your hands dirty. That’s how theory transforms into practical application.
This practice is what will eventually lead to a mastery of your craft and, if you so desire, an ability to make a living with your camera instead of it just being a source of credit card debt. But, learning is an eternal process. Even once you have established yourself in your career and are able to pay your cable bill from the fruits of your photographic labor, you still need to push yourself to keep getting better. There is no such thing as getting “there.” Success is a moving target and the more your career advances, the better you’ll need to get in order to both reach the next level and to fend off new competition.
It is with that cruel curse in mind that I devised a new assignment for myself.
A brief bit of background. I am an advertising and editorial photographer with clients mainly in the fitness, activewear, and athletic market. I create images of subjects that are then used by companies to market their products to the world.
Since this is a photography site and many readers will no doubt be wondering, I shoot with a variety of cameras. I began my career with Nikon and currently own a Nikon D850. I generally use a Fuji X-T3 for walkaround shooting and light motion. I have a Canon EOS C200 for more dedicated motion. And for most larger advertising campaigns, I have historically rented a Hasselblad medium format system with a Phase One back to provide the highest quality for my clients.
If you’ve read my previous essays, you may also know that I have recently tried to combine all of those machines into one “perfect” machine for me (there is no such thing as a perfect camera, by the way) and purchased the new Fujifilm GFX 100. It’s a medium format camera with a sensor size in the range of a Phase One (the sensor in the Fuji is slightly smaller) and far exceeds my full frame Nikon’s sensor size and resolution. I’ve raved about the design and usability of Fuji cameras, so this camera allows me to take much of what I love about the X-T3 and add a sensor three times the size. It’s also mirrorless, which, while I was a slow adopter, I have quickly come around to seeing as a major benefit. I wrote in depth about my purchasing decision previously, but, for now, let’s just say the attributes of the Fuji GFX 100 were a good fit for my business model and the demands of my specific clients.
But all that is on paper. How does it play in the actual field? And, since we’ve already established that there is no such thing as a perfect camera, what are the weird quirks that I’d need to overcome or hidden benefits that I hadn’t yet considered? I’d done some light testing with the camera, but, if I was going to trust this as my main body, I needed to throw the camera into the deep end during a real situation and see if it could swim.
It needed a challenge. And that’s how my 11 Women project was born.
I’ll get to why the project is titled 11 Women and this article references twelve shoots in a moment, but first, the outline of the project.
With any self-assignment, I have two basic goals. Objective number one, whether shooting for myself or for a client, is to create something beautiful. If I wanted to simply do a job and go home, I would have listened to my mother’s advice and kept my job at IBM. I became an artist because I love art. So, step one is to create something I could be proud of as a photographer.
Objective number two of any test shoot is to get better as a photographer. I know what I can do now. I’m comfortable with those skills in my wheelhouse. I’ve practiced them a thousand times with various clients and my go-to moves have stood the test of time. But a self-assignment, without the pressure of a client looking over your shoulder, is the perfect time to push yourself and try new things. They won’t all work. But that’s part of the point. Learning new techniques as well as alternate ways to achieve desired results is how you grow as a photographer.
With that in mind, I set one simple rule for each setup. I couldn’t use any lighting setup I had ever used before. Now, that may sound simple, but after being a photographer for 15 years, trying to constantly come up with something you’ve never done before is actually a bigger challenge than it may initially sound.
This problem was further compounded by the basic conceit of the project. Instead of renting out a location, getting a model, and spending a day leisurely trying out different techniques and poses, I wanted to add additional pressure through time restraints and physical fatigue.
So, rather than just get one model, I decided to get 12. Each to be photographed in a standalone session. I then scheduled each of the models into a short time window of two hours (about one hour of which would be consumed by hair and makeup). With each model, I set a goal to get through 5-7 setups (concept, wardrobe, and lighting changes) within the allotted time frame. In order to stay within the studio schedule and my budget, the shooting time was split across three and a half consecutive days. Yes, it was 24 hours in total. No, it wasn’t 24 hours straight. I do have to sleep, after all. But, especially considering those days also consisted of having to load in gear and pack out gear every morning and evening in order to cut the costs down, it was more than enough physical exertion over a short period to test the bounds of my sanity.
When I was in high school, I played basketball. And, in basketball, one of the easiest shots to take is a free throw. It’s unguarded and you don’t even have to jump. But, to make things even harder on us, our coach would make us run sprints until exhaustion before practicing our free throw shooting. The point being that any idiot should be able to hit a free throw when they are rested and relaxed. But, in a tough game, in the 4th quarter, when you’re exhausted and the game is on the line, can you still perform? I never made it to the NBA, but the basic principle has stayed with me. You need to be able to perform as a photographer even when you are not at your height physically or mentally. If you can still do it when you are dog tired, then that’s when it counts.
The condensed time frame was a way of adding physical pressure to strengthen the lessons I was learning into muscle memory. Additionally, by shortening the time I had available with each subject, I was more closely simulating a real-life situation, where time is of the essence, and you are unlikely to have room to dawdle. Decisions must be made fast. Creativity must be at your fingertips.
By having so many subjects, all of these self-applied pressures went into overdrive. By setting a rule that I couldn’t repeat myself, creativity had to go into hyperdrive. This was pushed even further because while I couldn’t use any setups I’d shot before going into the shoot, I also couldn’t use any setups I’d done previously during the shoot. So, while new ideas were fairly straightforward for model number one, by the time model nine and ten rolled around, searching for something I hadn’t already shot in the preceding 18 hours was a real test of my (limited) brain power.
These shoots would all need to take place in the same four-walled studio. I could use the built in cyc wall, my own portable background stand with rolls of seamless, or the walls of the studio itself (which is more like an undersized warehouse). I wouldn’t have time to build sets or do major alterations, so most of the changes I would make would need to be done with light.
Oh, I should probably also mention here that the shoot just so happened to coincide with a major heat wave in Los Angeles. And while the studio I was shooting in had just enough room to turn around in multiple directions, it did not have central air conditioning. Thankfully, there were enough fans to keep the models relatively cool. The photographer on the other hand?
This would also be a massive test for the new GFX 100. I knew what it could do in theory. And I’d done a bit of shooting with it. But this would be its first test with live bullets. And rather than just do a simple test, I decided to throw it directly into the deep end.
So many questions remained going into the shoot. Would the image quality I was imagining from 100 MP really live up to the hype in actual practice? Speaking of 100 MP, would I experience any delays when tethering to Capture One? Would the whole system crash due to the file sizes?
And what about shooting speed? I am notoriously speedy when it comes to photoshoots. I shoot very fast and can come away with thousands of frames from a single shoot. Now, multiply that by 12. Would I quickly max out my drives? And since any medium format system is going to be slower than my Nikon, would I have trouble adjusting to a slower shooting pace?
Speaking of pace, what about focus speed? The Fuji GFX 100 is lightning fast compared to the GFX 50S or other medium format contenders. But when compared to full frame alternatives, it’s going to take a bit more time to maneuver all that glass. Would it be able to keep up? This is especially important because I shoot primarily fitness and activewear. So, while it’s not quite the same thing as being a sideline reporter at a sporting event, my subjects are moving at a rapid pace and in often unpredictable patterns. What was my hit rate going to be? Would I get back to the editing bay only to discover a large number of shots were out of focus?
What about the size of the body itself? The GFX 100 is only about the size of a DSLR with a battery grip attached. So, I wasn’t expecting too much trouble handholding it all day. But I’ve been wrong before, so shooting multiple days in a row would be a real test.
Shooting multiple full days would also test the battery capacity. The body holds two batteries at a time in the built-in battery grip. I brought along two extra batteries. I also bought an extra charger, the thought being that once I went to the second set of batteries, I could have the two other batteries charging simultaneously and be ready by the time a third battery change might be necessary.
From the moment the first model walked in the door, the whole thing was a bit of a blur. As expected, the tightly packed production schedule left me with little time to think. The read and react nature of the project was exactly what I wanted as it forced me to think and move quickly. This has the benefits of not only getting more shots in the end, but also in tapping into your deeper creative truths. Self-assessment is a big part of growing as an artist. And the condensed time frame and multiple subjects will quickly bring to the surface a visual representation of your base instincts. What compositions do you prefer? What type of light excites you? What kind of light just doesn’t fit into your aesthetic?
When you shoot so many models in a short period, it is also good practice for the essential skill of quickly establishing rapport with your subjects. Aside from two, I’d never met any of the subjects prior to their arrival at the studio. I knew very little about them other than having picked them out from the agency package.
Because the objective of a self-assignment is to grow, I intentionally tried to tailor each session to the skills of the individual subject. So, for instance, while my niche is fitness and activewear, I didn’t only cast fitness models for the project. Nor did I limit myself to fitness-related imagery. Instead, I split each shoot in half. I got some activewear stuff, as that is my specialty. But, if the model was more high fashion, or more commercial, or something in-between, I would also create shots tailored to that as well. This had the effect of both stretching my mind creatively as well as creating a more diverse portfolio of final images. The objective was to celebrate the uniqueness of each subject and express something about them visually beyond just their physical appearance. Each woman was special in her own way, and I wanted to capture that.
Oh, this is probably a good time to explain why the project was called 11 Women, but the project was 12 models in 24 hours. No, one was not a ghost. Originally, my plan was to have a fairly 50/50 balance in terms of gender. But, as the casting process went along, the balance began to skew further in the direction of female models. On top of that, we had some last-minute cancellations, leaving me with only one male subject during the week. His shoot was equally awesome, but I felt like having him be the only man in a sea of women would stick out like a sore thumb in a presentation. Hence, I put his shoot into a different series and focused the larger project around the women. Mystery of the missing model solved.
But, given my audience, I’m guessing the real question you want to know is how the GFX 100 performed. In a word: beautifully.
Getting the image quality debate out of the way, the answer is yes. Just, yes. The main reason why you need 100 MP is not because it is going to make your images any better. Megapixel count does not equate to artistic merit. 100 MP is really mostly beneficial when it comes to printing your work So if you, like me, have a lot of clients who need to print their images large for in-store displays, product packaging, and so forth, then the added megapixels become a necessity. Similarly, if you are a fine art photographer and will be making large prints for galleries, 100 MP will make your life that much easier. If you are only posting on Instagram or online, however, you can still achieve awesome results for far less of an investment.
With that said, even looking at the images on a computer screen in Capture One, holy sweet moly. These things are tack sharp. There was an image I shot of a model lying back in a bathtub, wearing this silk shirt. I was a decent distance from her, shooting handheld with the 110mm (85mm equivalent). When I was reviewing the image in Capture One using the loop tool, I zeroed in to check focus. Not only was it ridiculously sharp, but I could even see a loose thread around her belt loop. Furthermore, I swear I could see every fiber that made up that loose strand. Naturally, I retouched that out. But, you can still see the detail and fibers in the silk itself. This type of thing might not be necessary in many situations. But if I were shooting on behalf of that company with the aim of selling that shirt to the market, being able to capture that level of detail would make for a very happy client.
Of course, that particular subject happened to be rather stationary. Could I maintain that level of detail in a moving subject? Would the autofocus capture motion quickly enough to keep subject and product in focus?
I’d say yes. There were some missed shots to be sure. Although, I guess, if we’re being thorough, I would also have to say I miss my fair share of moving shots focus-wise with my Nikon as well. It’s hard to keep everything tack sharp when you don’t know which way the subject is going. But, as a percentage of the overall, I would say that there wasn’t a significant drop off in the number of shots I had in focus. If, for argument’s sake, we say I get 90% of my Nikon shots in focus (thoroughly non-scientific number just for the sake of argument), I got probably 80% in focus with the GFX 100 — the shots of people moving, I mean. Stationary shots are tack sharp every time. Keeping in mind this was the first time I was putting the camera through such a difficult test, I can only imagine my results will improve as I learn even more about the various focus modes and learn which is best for me.
As a side note, I did find myself trying out the manual focus a bit as well. This is not something I use much with my Nikon. But with the focus peaking option available in the mirrorless EVF of the GFX 100, I found it relatively easy to preset my focus points and shoot even faster when I knew where the subject would be heading.
Also, some of the “out of focus” shots I’m referring to were not so much out of focus as they were victims of motion blur. The flash sync speed of the GFX 100 is 1/125th versus the Nikon’s 1/250th. It’s a minor difference and can be overcome with a flash with a shorter flash duration. But, among the flashes at my disposal for this particular project, I was stuck mostly with longer flash durations. High speed sync is one option; however, you lose power with HSS and I was oftentimes lighting a rather wide area. And the only light I had with HSS was also the least powerful. But, I digress. An obstacle which I had to overcome, but not one that was insurmountable. Again, the perfect type of situation to work out in a test shoot.
For good measure, I also did a beauty shot with the 110mm wide open at f/2. Maintaining focus is most difficult at this extreme in medium format due to the incredibly narrow depth of field. But the face detection autofocus and IBIS worked like a charm, and I was able to easily keep the face and eyes in focus with bokeh already beginning by the ear and the back of the head.
As for file size, I was pleasantly surprised. I really did expect to have more problems than I did doing such a voluminous shoot with so many large files. But I didn’t experience any problems with read/write speeds shooting tethered. I was tethered to a 2013 MacBook Pro with an external 1 TB Samsung T5 SSD. I worried that I would run out of space. But, I was able to shoot all 12 models in one large Capture One session on the single drive. I then culled the images in Capture One, made my adjustments, including roundtrips to Photoshop when necessary, and completely wrapped the project before running out of space on my SSD. I did bring in a second drive when it came time to output the nearly 300 final selects in a multitude of formats, but that was a much better setup than I had expected.
As for shooting speed, this was another unexpected benefit. As previously stated, I shoot fast. Really fast. I don’t mean that I just hold down the shutter button and spray and pray. I mean that I generally get my ideas quickly, execute them quickly, and move on. This is a big benefit to my clients, as I am able to turn around a great number of assets in a relatively short period of time.
But there is such a thing as being too fast. And there is a benefit of slowing down from time to time and really digging into a concept a little bit. One thing I always notice when shooting medium format is that I tend to come home having shot far fewer frames. Not that I can’t move faster. It’s just that something about the detail and depth of each frame inspires me to want to go just a tad bit slower and dwell within each frame a little bit more. Shooting with the GFX 100 definitely gave me that urge.
I shot in full 16-bit single frame mode, rather than burst mode (which would go down to 14-bit). I really focused on visualizing the complete frame. I spent a great deal more time than usual tinkering with my lights to get things exactly where I wanted them to be in camera Despite the incredible ability of the GFX images to be adjusted in post-production following exposure errors, I always prefer to capture everything I can in camera. I have a rule about not spending more than 10 minutes retouching any individual image in post. Otherwise, I start to feel more like a retoucher than a photographer. That’s not a knock on anyone else’s method. It’s a purely personal rule and just how I personally choose to approach my shoots. But I found myself really digging into that way of thinking with the GFX 100 and working far more methodically. The result is less exposures but more memorable hero images versus a multitude of just OK but ultimately forgettable images, at least in my opinion.
Oddly enough, even though I shot less frames per subject overall, I found the number of keepers to be about the same as if I had shot three times as many in the first place. I set a goal of 25 hero images for each subject. With a DSLR, it would be easy to rattle off 800 frames for each to get to that number. With the GFX 100, I was shooting maybe 200-250 frames for each subject and still finishing at the desired yield.
In terms of usability and practicality, my hand never got tired of holding the GFX 100. Although it is ever so slightly heavier than my standard Nikon D850 setup, it somehow feels lighter. I think that’s just a function of the way the weight is distributed. But I never found my hand getting tired.
The vertical grip is a well known issue with the camera. For whatever reason, Fuji decided to give the vertical grip a sleek and beautiful but less practical plastic vertical grip versus the main grip, which is the usual rubber you’d be expecting. However, I didn’t really ever feel like the vertical grip was going to slip out of my hand.
The one thing that did bug me about the vertical grip, however, was that for some reason, I was having a devil of a time trying to get the muscle memory down as to where the focus joystick was when holding the camera in that direction. My thumb kept reaching for the joystick and ending up on one of the function buttons. I didn’t have the problem when holding it in the horizontal orientation and reaching for the main joystick. I think it is because when holding the camera with the vertical grip, the joystick is positioned just to the left of a slight lip on the back of the camera. So, you essentially have to clear the lip and land on the joystick, versus in a horizontal orientation, where you just move your thumb to the left and boom, you’re on the joystick. I’m sure I’ll get used to this. But, in practice, I found myself having to remove my eye from the EVF to locate the vertical joystick a few times so I could move my focus point.
As for the battery life, this was another surprise benefit. But, I should point out that this benefit is influenced by my typical shooting situation. One, I hate LCD screens. So, while the EVF is constantly on, my rear LCD screen is almost always off. Two, I shoot tethered. What this means is that there is a USB cable constantly connected from my camera to my computer. This cable serves two functions. While shooting, it transfers the images from the camera onto the computer. But, when not shooting, it will charge the camera via the USB. This is great, because if you’re traveling, forget your charger, or simply don’t feel like plugging it in, you can charge your camera just by leaving it plugged into your computer overnight.
But, I discovered, it had an added side benefit for battery life, as between shots, I would naturally turn off my camera and put it down while setting up the next shot. Whenever I turned it off and put it down, the camera would shift from transferring images to charging. So, essentially, my camera was continuously being recharged throughout the day and only really losing power when I actually had a subject in front of it. As a result, I never ended up having to change those initial two batteries over the course of the entire multi-day shoot.
This, of course, won’t be a benefit if you don’t shoot tethered. But, I shot a celebrity editorial the day following the shoot without being tethered and still was able to do the whole thing without changing batteries. That’s not to say there won’t be days when my dual charger setup will be required, but if you’re going to be shooting tethered in a studio all day long, that is a surprising benefit.
At the end of the week, I had accomplished exactly what I had set out to do. I had pushed myself creatively and created new pieces of art that would not have existed had I done my “usual” thing. While some things worked and some things didn’t, I improved as a photographer in the process. And by throwing my new camera into the deep end, I was able to come out of the week with a far deeper understanding of how it works and how to get the most out of it.
One of the benefits of having shot with Nikons for the greater part of the last 15 years is that I know the systems inside and out from having gone into battle with them day in and day out. Condensing so much time behind the Fuji into such a short time period gave me a bit of a crash course into its own quirks and how to counter them. I took both that experience with the tool as well as the new creative techniques I had developed over the course of the shoot directly into a high-profile professional shoot the next day with the confidence that both I and my gear would be up to the task.
There’s an old secret to working out. Once you are able to lift a certain amount of weight, the work has just begun. You have to keep adding more and more weight to continue to develop. Otherwise, you will plateau.
Developing your own challenges is the perfect way to push your creative limits and develop your artistic strength. Throw yourself into the deep end and see if you can swim. You never know just how far you can go.