In part three of my five-part, in-depth review of the Fuji GFX 50S, I will compare it to the current queen of my household, the Nikon D850. While they each share a similar megapixel count, how does the sensor size affect performance?
In case you haven’t had a chance to read the previous articles in this series, the Nikon D850 is the current standard bearer in my own camera arsenal. I use the Canon EOS C200 as my main video camera. I use the Fuji X-T3 as a B video camera and as my walkaround and travel still camera. I use the Nikon D850 for the majority of my still work for clients without the budget to spring for medium format. Since the strong point of the Fuji GFX 50S is its performance as a still camera, the Nikon D850 provides the most direct comparison among the cameras in my test.
How Does the Image Quality Compare to the Nikon D850?
This was always the biggest question for me. I mean, after all, 50 megapixels is 50 megapixels, right? Well, sort of.
In trying to explain the difference between medium format and full frame to my father the other day, I used the analogy of “Ben-Hur” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” Most motion pictures until recently were shot on 35mm film. In an effort to combat the rise of television in the 1950s, movie producers turned increasingly to spectacle. They wanted to make grandiose epic pictures that simply couldn’t be replicated by the experience on the small screen. This is well before "Game of Thrones."
In an effort to wow audiences, directors with stature began shooting their films in 70mm. The film negative was double the size of a traditional frame and provided significantly more detail, color accuracy, and dynamic range. The audience may not have been able to tell a 70mm film strip from a 35mm one if placed in their hand, but they could definitely feel the difference when they saw it on the big screen.
It is similar when dealing with medium format. The larger size of the sensor allows for much more detail, color accuracy, and a shallower depth of field. In purely unscientific terms, it just feels different. As the vast majority of professional media, moving and still, is still produced in a 35mm equivalent format, it is 100% possible to serve the vast majority of your clients without medium format, especially with the stellar performance of full frame 50 MP bodies such as the Nikon D850. But, to me at least, the resulting images still just feel a bit different.
The obvious place to start would be the dimensions of medium format. While most full frame digital cameras shoot in a roughly 2x3 ratio, digital medium format cameras produce a roughly 3x4 image that is a bit taller (if shooting horizontally). This means your image is more in the direction of square (not quite a square, but a taller rectangle) than most 35mm formats. You can, of course, crop in however you like, but the difference in dimensions does affect how you emotionally relate to and compose your images.
Medium format also has a far shallower depth of field than 35mm. Years ago, the first time I shot medium format with a film camera, I spoiled more than my fair share of rolls by insisting that I shoot as wide open as I was accustomed to doing with my 35mm cameras. You can shoot wide open with a medium format camera, but you might want to practice first before deciding to do so on a big job. Personally, I build in a cushion for myself. Whereas I am known to live at f/4 on a 35mm camera or f/2 on an APS-C camera, for medium format, the conversation usually starts at f/8.
While this may sound like a sacrifice to depth of field, a side-by-side comparison shows that you can achieve similar aesthetic results at the higher aperture number in medium format compared to the corresponding smaller sensor equivalents. This is also something to keep in mind when evaluating medium format lenses. A lens that only opened to f/4 in 35mm might be deemed slow. In medium format, that is usually plenty to work with. And for those times that you do have a lens that will open up all the way to, for example, f/2 on a medium format lens, the extremely shallow depth of field can produce somewhat magical images, separating your subject from the world around them almost as if in a dream state.
What about detail? Well, the D850 reigns supreme in the DSLR world when it comes to detail. Looking at a D850 file brings pure joy as you can see all the technical qualities come alive on screen. Medium format takes those things just a little bit further. When you shoot medium format, you can punch in, punch in again, then just keep going. It never ceases to amaze me how far I can push in, crop, and recompose a medium format image while still retaining information. This is one of the reasons why I use medium format for the majority of my larger advertising projects. You never know how clients are going to need to crop, recompose, or alter the image in order to satisfy their design layout. So, shooting medium format provides you with the adequate cover in order to fulfill the brief.
The other thing that became immediately apparent when shooting with the GFX 50S was the accuracy of the color reproduction. My Nikon is nothing to shake a stick at. But a day spent with the GFX in a naturally saturated poppy field was enough to show off the benefits of the medium format sensor. I remarked to my friend that, more than any camera, what my eyes were seeing appeared to be exactly what my camera was seeing. The colors were so accurate that I found myself looking for colorful subjects to shoot just to double-check that my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.
When I got the files home, it was remarkable just how true to life the images felt, how far I could push in without losing detail, and how much (on a few occasions) detail I could recover in post without the image quality falling apart.
And while the dynamic range of a full frame 35mm sensor is beautiful, stepping up to medium format just offers latitude beyond belief. I shot a recent series, "Impressions," inside a warehouse with bright daylight just outside the window, using strobes to light the model inside, but still being able to easily retain detail in the sky outside without needing to push and pull exposures in post.
The D850 images quality truly is amazing. The GFX 50S image quality and large sensor bring it to a whole new level.
In the next part of our series, we’ll dive into the differences in shooting any medium format system, regardless of brand versus other formats. We’ll also look at the unique quirks of shooting with the GFX 50S.