Fujifilm has revolutionized the medium format digital world. Their cameras came in at one-tenth of the cost of the existing players, and they want to make them even cheaper! I have worked with the GFX 50S for several months and own a GFX 50R, so when I had the chance to spend a couple of days with the GFX 100, I snapped it up. I'll share my experiences with it here.
First up, a little background. With Korea being hit with COVID-19 early on, everything ground to a halt in February and March. The local rental houses are here putting on ridiculously cheap deals just to keep things moving during the downtime. One of those deals was free GFX equipment rental. I could get two days with a GFX body of my choice and a couple of extra lenses (and a discount if I decided to buy any of that equipment afterward). Since I have loved my experiences with the two 50-megapixel bodies, I put my name in the hat for the big boy. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be drawn, but when the call came in, I quickly scrambled to pull together a couple of shots to make the most of my time with the camera. Here is how I felt at the end of my time with the camera.
By now, if you’ve heard of the GFX 100, you’ve read the spec sheet. It’s impressive. There are plenty of firsts in there for the medium format world, and Fujifilm has put together an absolute technical beast of a camera. Let’s start with a few of those highlights and how they play out in actual shooting conditions.
First up, that 102 MP sensor. The files coming off this thing are spectacular. They certainly don’t want for detail or dynamic range. You can push and pull them every which way and still retain beautiful tonality if you’re careful. As to how many of us ever have a use for 102 MP, I can’t say. But, it certainly feels good to have them, and the detail captured is quite special. There’s also plenty of room for cropping if you need to later on as well.
Next up is the autofocus system. This is another first for the medium-format mirrorless world: the camera employs phase detect autofocus. Its little brothers, the 50S and 50R, only have contrast-detect AF and sometimes leave you wanting a little more performance. On the other hand, the GFX 100 is more like the X-T3 than a medium format body. It is confident and fast in Single AF, and even Continuous AF is usable for subjects moving at a swift walking pace. If I had to place it, the GFX 100 autofocus system feels somewhere in between the X-T2 and the X-T3 in terms of performance and accuracy. That’s quite an achievement.
Finally, the image stabilization. In yet another first, the GFX 100 has an in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system. This is one of those things that you didn’t know you needed until you use it. Honestly, it makes a huge difference to the way you’re able to handle the camera.
With the 50R or 50S, it’s definitely possible to shoot at reasonably slow shutter speeds and get sharp images. However, you really need to brace yourself for anything lower than approximately the reciprocal of double your focal length. With the GFX 100, you can use the camera much more like a small APS-C mirrorless. You can be a little more careless with your shutter speed and still come back with great results. With the GF 110mm f/2, I was able to comfortably make sharp images at 1/40, and with the GF 50mm f/3.5, I could get down to 1/6 while still avoiding camera shake. Of course, these are not practically useful shutter speeds with these lenses in most shooting conditions, but it does give you peace of mind knowing that you can handhold at slower speeds than you normally would.
So, I’ve been raving on about the things I liked so far and not getting to the negatives my title subtly alludes to. Let’s rip that band-aid off now. I won’t be taking advantage of that discount, and there are a few reasons why.
The Fujifilm Feel
This is a subjective one, and I understand that. But, it wouldn’t be my article if I wasn’t talking about how I felt about the camera. Fujifilm is a company that took an abrupt turn 10 years ago to make beautiful retro-styled cameras that were focused on specific types of photography and spent a lot of time refining the design and ergonomics of those cameras. They look great, feel nice in hand, and are extremely tactile, and each has its own identity as a camera. They’re not designed to be a jack of all trades, but a camera that you pick up for a specific task.
The GFX 100 completely misses that mark. It feels like a prototype box with a sensor inside and nothing else. It doesn’t make me want to use it. The digital dials to replace physical dials fall short of their intention, and the e-ink display makes it feel more like a Kindle than a camera. While everything feels very well made, it doesn’t feel well designed like the other cameras. Even the ugly sensor box on the back of the GFX 50S looks sleek in comparison.
On two portrait sessions, I did while I had the camera, the very first statement I got from both subjects as I took the camera out of the bag was about the appearance of the camera (and it wasn't positive). In over 10 years of full-time photography, I have never had a subject comment on the camera I was using. But, they’re right. The design feels like the lovechild of an AT-AP and a first-generation pro SLR. It feels like the engineers were given their way, and the designers asked to use scraps from the original Star Wars films. It doesn’t feel like it was meant to be used as much as it was meant to be tested and refined later.
Aside from its appearance, which you may love (we’re all entitled to our opinions), the design is functionally flawed. When it was released, all the reviewers commented on how horribly un-ergonomic the secondary grip was. That’s true, to be sure. It doesn’t even feel like it was meant to be used. However, it’s the main grip that really worries me. I’m not sure whose hands they tested this thing on, but everything is impossible to reach without a stretch. It’s tiring to use. Having used a Canon 1D X and a Nikon D4, I can say that while those cameras are big and heavy like the GFX 100, they feel great in the hands. The dials and buttons are easy to reach without putting a strain on your hands. The GFX 100 is the exact opposite of that. Constantly having to readjust my grip and stretch my fingers across what felt like miles just to change settings had me looking forward to putting this camera down at the end of the day.
The detachable viewfinder that comes with the camera is a nightmare. In many of Fujifilm’s own promo videos, you’ll see photographers working with the rear LCD and no viewfinder attachment. Honestly, I’m not so sure that was to show off its detachable nature. The viewfinder sticks out so far from the body it’s impossible to get a steady holding platform while using it. I found myself resorting to the rear LCD often as well since it was just too uncomfortable to use the included EVF. Even when you get a good grip on the camera and bring it to your eye, there's nowhere to rest your face, so the viewfinder feels like it's going to keep digging into your eye socket. Eventually, I just took it off and used the screen.
As with all good mirrorless cameras these days, there are plenty of programmable buttons the photographer can use to set the camera up however they want. The problem with these buttons is that they’re so far away from your fingers while you’re working that they may as well not even be there. The 50R and 50S bodies are also quite large, but the buttons are placed in locations that are easy to reach while using the camera (mostly — think about that playback button on the GFX 50S). With the GFX 100, I constantly found myself having to pull the camera away from my face and hold it differently just to get to the buttons.
While we’re on the subject of buttons, where’s the four-way selector? I’m sure this wasn’t a cost-cutting measure, so why remove it? Those little joysticks are great for moving focus points but awful for navigating menus. It’s not a Leica; there’s no need to be minimal for the sake of being minimal. That would have been four extra buttons that could have been located in a much easier to reach area on the back of the camera. The shape of such a selector also makes for a tactile way to find buttons while the camera is being used.
As I mentioned above, I felt like I was using extremely modern and well-refined technology packaged in a prototype shell the entire time I was using the GFX 100. When this technology eventually trickles down into more ergonomic bodies, I think Fujifilm will have an absolute game-changer. Until then, though, I personally will be remaining with a camera that is a joy to use.
Have you used the GFX 100? Do you own one? Do you find it comfortable and easy to use?