This is part two of my three-part, unreasonably in-depth real world shooting review of the GFX 100 after having shot with it as my primary camera professionally for the last three months.
Today, we’ll discuss autofocus performance, viewfinder blackout, file size, and how these will affect how you decide to shoot with the GFX 100 system.
Since I ended part one comparing the GFX 100 to using the X-T3, I feel like this is the right place to introduce the topic of autofocus. And again, as we discussed in the first article about this camera being hard to compare to other cameras, the autofocus in the GFX 100 has been both a blessing and a curse, but your reaction will be highly dependent on what and how you shoot.
Because the performance of autofocus is so dependent on what it is that you are focusing on, I’ll take a brief moment to remind you what I shoot personally. This is important, because if you don’t shoot similar things, my reactions may be more or less of an issue for you.
I shoot advertising for activewear fashion and fitness campaigns. I am not a sports photographer, in the sense that I am not on the sideline capturing any live game action. I shoot models or athletes in studio or on location while maintaining some level of control over their movements. I say “some,” because once you get a great athlete moving, it’s best to simply keep up rather than over-direct them. Because of this, I need a camera that can quickly grab and maintain focus on a subject that will at times be moving erratically and quite often, be moving at a seemingly inhuman pace.
I’ve been doing this for years with my Nikon D850 (or equivalent) bodies. I can generally shoot freely at pace with just about any moving subject without really having any worry about not being able to focus in time. Even when using single shot autofocus and focusing and recomposing multiple times on a moving subject, I don’t have many problems keeping subjects acceptably sharp. The only real speed concern I have is whether or not my strobes can fire rapidly enough to keep up with the burst speed.
That focus ability has continued with my X-T3. While it took a second to figure out all of the new continuous focus modes, once I got the hang of it, I was able to keep almost any shot in focus with that camera as well.
The GFX 100 has the same super-fast focusing system as the X-T3. At least, in theory. The sensor is able to move around those focus points as quickly as a subject can move. But, in actual practice, the size and weight of the lenses means that retaining focus in continuous mode can be a challenge. The continuous autofocus on the GFX 100 is far superior to anything available on its medium format competition like the Hasselblad or the Phase One. But, I have found that it’s not nearly fast enough for me to feel like I can really depend on it.
With the other medium format systems, I use single point autofocus, then focus and recompose, shooting at a high enough aperture to provide sufficient depth of field to keep the subject in focus. Despite the availability of continuous autofocus on the GFX 100, I find I need to simply ignore that and replicate the single point focus and recompose method. Or, if the subject is moving especially fast and I want to fire off multiple shots, I have resorted to manually zone focusing, then just spraying and praying (more on this in a second).
But again, this is a result of the subjects I shoot personally having to move at super high rates of speed. When taking portraits, landscapes, or normally paced street shots, I’ve had no problem with focus at all. So, depending on what you shoot, this may or may not be a problem for you.
Also, as a quick note about using autofocus on the GFX 100 with regards to video. Don’t do it. Actually, I jest. Sort of. If you are vlogging or want to set the camera up to record an interview or something similar where the subject won’t be moving through the frame, autofocus will work great. And, like stills, autofocus can keep up with a moving subject quite adequately provided the subject isn’t moving too quickly.
The problem is that the GF lenses, while amazingly sharp, are really only built for stills. They breathe when focusing, meaning that they slightly zoom in and out when acquiring focus. This isn’t a problem with stills. But, if you’re using autofocus during video and the camera needs to change focus points, the camera will zoom in and out in a very noticeable way, changing the frame size in the process. It’s not ideal.
Note: I have the 45mm, 63mm, and 110mm primes. So, my experience is based on those three lenses primarily.
The video the camera captures when already focused is terrific. It’s just that right this instant, in 2019, the lens selections for autofocus in motion aren’t there yet. It’s a young system, and Fuji will get there. But right now, if I do shoot video with the GFX 100, I will more than likely just manually focus, which is made significantly easier with the focus peaking tools included with the camera.
Most likely, however, I will just opt to shoot video with the X-T3 instead, which has a wider selection of lenses and produces video without any noticeable drop-off in a smaller form factor.
Now onto the spraying and praying. I hate spraying and praying. One of the skills I pride myself on as a photographer is being able to click the shutter at exactly the right moment during a movement (or at least what I feel is right at the time). So, if a model is running, jumping, dancing, or doing anything in-between, I don’t make a habit of just pressing down the high-speed shutter and hoping the camera captures the right moment. I only want to press the shutter deliberately once or twice to get what I want. There’s nothing wrong with doing it the other way. I just personally don’t like to.
So, the biggest frustration I’ve had with the GFX 100 is the blackout period between when I press the shutter and when I get a clear image in the viewfinder to be able to recompose for a rapid-fire second or third shot in succession.
Now, before I go into more detail, it think it’s important to point out that the GFX 100 is not designed as a sports camera. In fact, when trying out the system in the early weeks on portraits, travel, street shooting, and other less speed-dependent applications, I didn’t notice this problem at all. It was only when I tried to apply it to my own professional work and style of shooting that it occurred to me this could be a problem.
And to be clear, Fujifilm doesn’t claim that this camera is really optimized to be shooting fast-moving action. But, as I mentioned earlier, I live in a world somewhere between sports photography and fashion photography, and in the real world, often have to make a camera do what it’s not intended to do. So, if you do find yourself needing to use medium format to shoot fast-moving subjects, this particular section might apply to you.
The Fujifilm GFX 100 has three shooting speeds: Single shot, Low Speed Burst, and High Speed Burst. You can shoot in 16-bit color for single shot only. Otherwise, it drops to the still very respectable 14-bit.
I’ve found Low Speed Burst to be the most useful. The 16-bit color available in single shot does make a small difference, but not enough for me to justify the longer processing time associated with it. In my own, very unscientific test, I found that, when shooting in 16-bit mode, it takes longer between shots for you to be ready to shoot again. Again, this is fine if you aren’t shooting a fast-moving subject or aren’t shooting a model who is giving you 28 looks per second who you want to keep up with. So, if I’m just shooting for fun without a model in tow (or shooting still life or landscape professionally), I may use single shot 16-bit mode, but otherwise, I stay in Low Speed Burst.
Why not High Speed Burst? Well, when you shift into High Speed Burst, the camera does shoot more frames per second. But, when it’s doing so, it automatically shifts the EVF into preview mode, so it shows you a picture of the last picture you took while it’s processing the previous one. So, unlike a traditional DSLR, for example, where you are seeing the scene consistently and are free to press the shutter at any time, with High Speed Burst on the GFX 100, when you press the shutter, you are forced to linger on a preview of the previous shot before a clean view of the scene is available again. So, the process of shooting a high-speed burst is not one fluid motion, but instead a choppy experience of seeing only fragments of the scene in front of you.
If you’re spraying and praying, this is fine. But, if you’re like me and trying to pick out specific moments where a runner’s knee hits an exact height in relation to the rest of their body, you’re going to find it very difficult to get off more than one intentional shot per take, because you quite literally won’t see the next few actions, either because High Speed Burst is forcing you to see previews or because of the blackout required to process the 102 MP files.
This poses a big problem if you’re shooting someone running or jumping across the frame. If you take one shot of them on the way up, they will have already landed again by the time you’re able to get a clear viewfinder and start looking for the next perfect moment. This effectively limits you to one intentional frame per movement.
I don’t know that there’s any technical way to fix that. I think both this blackout and the slower autofocus are simply the tradeoff of being able to generate such detailed files. 102 MP takes longer to process than 45.7MP (of the Nikon). The GF lenses are just physically bigger than other lenses, like those on the X series cameras, so they can’t really autofocus any faster than they do. And mirrorless cameras from most manufacturers have blackout in their EVF, whereas it’s barely noticeable in most optical viewfinders. At least, it's not a problem I personally ever considered before shooting with mirrorless cameras in earnest (it's also not super noticeable in my X-T3).
As a side note, yes, I know that the Sony’s promise blackout free shooting with the A9 line. But, as I understand it, it is only blackout free when using an electronic shutter versus a mechanical shutter. And since I am using strobes a good bit of the time, electronic shutters are not an option.
But, back to talking about the GFX 100.
When discussing my experience shooting with the GFX 100 with one of my digitechs recently, he asked me a logical question: “Do the large files clog up the computer?”
He wasn’t referring to archiving, which can be addressed simply by being more prudent with how many of your rejects you keep and how many you move to the trash bin. He was referring to tethering.
About 90% of the time, I am shooting tethered. In other words, there’s a cord running from my camera directly to a computer and into Capture One so that my clients can see what I’m shooting in real-time. Being on the same page as your clients during (not after) a shoot is absolutely essential as a commercial photographer.
If you shoot tethered, then you know that depending on its speed, you can outrun your computer even with 24 MP files if you shoot too fast. This is usually not a problem. And when it is, it’s usually a signal to me that I need to slow down and have ceased to be “seeing the moment” and am instead just pushing the button and hoping for the best.
I answered my digitech’s question with a quick “no,” as I had, as of yet, not experienced any significant problems tethering. That includes both tethering to computers with lightning-quick processors as well as tethering to my own six-year-old MacBook that was cheap (by Apple standards) even when I bought it.
However, as I’ve owned the camera for longer, I have noticed a few situations where the file size can become an issue. Again, these issues are mostly only going to be a problem if you find yourself needing to shoot in rapid succession.
As I talked about, probably in too much depth, in the last section, in order to get the GFX 100 to keep up with fast-moving subjects, I have to cut a few corners against my will. Specifically, let's say I’m shooting a subject sprinting across the frame and I’m trying to capture the perfect moment. This is a fairly regular shot that I am asked to take. Because the continuous autofocus is unlikely to be able to keep up with the action, I’m probably going to be in manual focus. I’ll pre-focus on a specific area where I think the action is going to happen, then press the shutter when the subject enters that area.
Now, in order to cut down on the number of takes the model has to perform, I generally like to get off at least two or three frames in a single take, less due to productivity concerns and more because it’s important not to tire your model out with unnecessary takes. For instance, I’ll capture the height of three consecutive strides one after another and get three options per take, just as an example.
Because of the blackout/auto preview I mentioned earlier, I have little choice but to spray and pray if I want to get off any more than one shot in that scenario. This means, in practice, that often, I’ll wait to press the button until the first moment, but then just hold it down until the model clears frame. I absolutely hate shooting like this. But, for certain shots when using this camera, it can be the only way. And it does work. But, there’s always a “but”: shooting in High Speed Burst quickly fills up the buffer both in my laptop (and even in the camera on those times I am shooting untethered.) What this means in actual practice is that immediately following the first take, I have to make the model wait until the buffer clears before executing take two.
Getting the right moment out of a model is 99% human interaction and putting the model in the right headspace and only 1% what I’m doing with the camera. If I want a model to look “in the moment,” I have to keep them, well, in the moment. Constantly telling them to wait between takes can kill the momentum of the shoot and lead to stiffer-looking images. Human beings in general are far better when they are allowed to simply flow. Your model’s energy should never be dissipated for a technical reason. And while I appreciate the final incredibly tack sharp and detailed image the camera provides and even appreciate it slowing me down in other circumstances, these lost seconds in-between shots can really interfere with you getting the perfect moment out of another living, breathing human being. You’ll get “a” moment for sure. But having the freedom to capture that one special moment can sometimes be a challenge if you are forced to delay due to buffering.
Once again, I think this is the third time I’ve mentioned this: none of this is a problem if you don’t shoot fast-moving subjects or if you don’t shoot quickly. If you are setting up a highly art-directed portrait, for example, and you are planning to spend hours meticulously setting up a shot, lighting it to a tee, putting a model in the frame, and telling them not to move an inch, then you are not going to have any trouble with it at all.
I used the GFX 100 to do a recent celebrity portrait shoot of an NFL player, and the shots turned out brilliantly. Well, brilliant relative to my skill set, not in terms of the history of the photographic art form. The somewhat slower method of shooting mandated by almost all medium format cameras really encouraged me to come up with distinct compositions, and the result was images that really challenged me creatively. In a good way.
I also used the camera for a natural light run-and-gun shoot with a model in a local industrial complex. We weren’t technically supposed to be shooting there so I had to move quickly. Not tethering, obviously, just the GFX 100 and a couple of primes. We did both portraits and some impromptu fitness images. We even ended up shooting into the night, using only street lights and whatever light was given off by the neon signs of closed stores to complete the shoot. I really wanted to push the boundaries of the camera and see how it would perform. And the series turned out well, even at higher ISOs.
So, despite being thrown into situations it is not optimized for, the GFX 100 can perform in areas where most other medium format cameras would come up well short. But, is it the right camera for me? I’ll get to that in the final segment of my in-depth, warts and all, review of the last three months using the GFX 100 as my main professional camera.