Two weeks ago, I wrote about using the Fujifilm GFX 50S as a travel camera. As part of that article, I touched briefly on using it for portraiture. I also touched briefly on using the GF 110mm f/2 lens and a few autofocus issues that I had. Today, I would like to dive a little deeper into using this camera for portraiture and my experience with it. We’ll take a look at focusing, sharpness, skin tones, working with flash, and handholding the camera. Finally, I’ll wrap up by giving you my personal feelings about the camera and whether or not it could be an effective portrait camera.
The autofocus system in the GFX is great. As long as you don’t come in expecting a Nikon D5, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how fast and accurate the system is. With points spanning almost the entire image frame, I feel like this camera has a huge advantage over SLR systems. All points are the same speed and the same accuracy. They also cover much more area. For me, this was a huge boon, as I could put the focus point exactly where I wanted it rather than having to recompose.
Let’s talk about speed for a moment. It’s quick. It really is. Much like the X-Trans II sensor, however, it hunts a lot. I feel that with subsequent firmware updates, we’re going to see a marked difference in autofocus speed. Once (if) PDAF is added to upcoming GFX models, I think you will start to see class leading performance from these lenses. But, for now, let’s just say that you’ll probably miss a fair few shots if you’re shooting a moving subject or working with super narrow depth of field. Depending on your shooting style, you might want to opt for manual focus at this point.
One thing I found really works a treat on the GFX is face detection. It really helps to nail focus on eyes. Without it, I would sometimes focus on the nose or ear. Once enabled, I was able to hit focus every single time. Surprisingly, it also worked quite well in AF-C mode as long as my subjects didn’t move too quickly.
Despite the puritanical disdain for focus-by-wire systems that seems to pervade the Internet, it has come a lot further than most would like to admit. Fujifilm engineers have worked very hard to make their system as close to physical manual focusing as possible. The newer lenses achieve a closeness to this that we haven’t felt before.
Focusing with the GF lenses is a joy. At times when the autofocus system can’t lock, a quick flick of the focus selector takes me into manual focus where focus peeking guides me through making very fine focus adjustments. The huge, detailed viewfinder of the GFX 50S makes this process much easier than smaller mirrorless systems.
There is still a slight delay in realizing your movements of the focus ring, but I liken this to the looser focus rings of some SLR lenses that I have owned. It’s really not a huge problem once you get used to it and muscle memory begins to predict how it works for you.
If there’s one thing you can give Fujifilm, it’s that they flesh out their lens collections quickly with the most important lenses for working photographers. Within the first year of its life, the GFX is outfitted with everything from wide to short-tele, and others are coming. As it relates to portraiture, there are still a couple of things I would like to see, but let’s start with the current selection.
Starting on the wide end, the 23mm. Most probably wouldn’t call this a portrait lens, but the moment I saw it, my heart started beating faster. It’s not for everyday portraiture, but on that occasion where you want something different (like the shot below), magic happens with this lens.
The 32-64mm zoom is something that you might consider for general photography, but I feel like it is eclipsed by the 45mm and 63mm for portraiture, so we won't talk about it here.
The 63mm is neither here nor there for me. It lacks any character and feels like it simply reproduces scenes. For your purposes, this may be great, but this lens did not resonate with me at all. It had its uses because the focal length fit the scene, but I never found myself reaching for it. That being said, it resolves a lot of detail and leaves your scene without the lens’ “stamp” on it.
The 110mm is absolute gold in my books. It carries that fabled medium-format look and is a great focal length for everything from a tight headshot to a full body isolated from the background. It renders plenty of fine detail. For me, this is wonderful because I love to see every pore, wrinkle, and scar on my subjects.
For the few moments that I used the 120mm f/4, I knew it was not for me. I have never liked the way macro lenses render for portraits, but for those who do, this should be your weapon of choice. I found that the 110mm f/2 already rendered as much detail as an average macro lens, and this lens made it look soft.
Finally, there is the 45mm f/2.8. I’ve yet to use this lens, but it doesn’t have me excited. A 45mm f/2 with the character of the 110mm f/2 would be something quite special, but the current offering appears to be quite functional rather than special. Hopefully I will have the chance to play with it over the coming weeks and can get back to you with some more specific thoughts.
There is simply no need to talk about sharpness with the Fujifilm GF lenses. They are all spectacular. That being said, the resolving power of the sensor is quite incredible. In a discussion with Fujifilm, I learned that a great detail of the way this sensor renders is due to Fujifilm’s redesign of the sensor’s microlenses. Whatever they did, it’s working. Fine details render beautifully without over or under sharpening. For digital viewing, I find that I don’t even sharpen my portraits beyond the base levels that Lightroom applies. When it comes to print, I add a little to compensate for the matte papers I use, but nothing too extreme.
For my style of portraiture, which accentuates the fine details of the face, I love the additional detail I am able to capture with this system. However, if you’re the kind who retouches skin a lot or aims to soften things up, it may even increase the amount of time you spend in post.
I mentioned this in my previous article, but this is where the GFX truly shines. In a conversation with my pal Marco Devon a couple of weeks back, we chatted about the way different companies render skin. For both of us, the jump to Fujifilm X series cameras was made just for that reason. Color renders more naturally on these sensors, and that is their draw. I would go as far as to say that the GFX is a full leap ahead from there. Skin renders with the signature Fujifilm colors, but the tonality is much more nuanced. Of course, that depends on the operator getting everything right as well.
The myth that Fujifilm’s flash system is lacking still manages to show up in conversations I have with photographers. It has been a fully fledged system for quite some time now, and Godox have led the charge in really making it something to compete with the established players. Now that Profoto and Elinchrom have announced or developed support, Fujifilm systems now gain access to their offerings as well.
I have been using the Godox system for quite some time now, and I can say that it has been flawless. I have been enjoying the fact that I can go beyond the oft-denounced sync-speed of 1/125 sec on the GFX. Even shooting the AD200 through a 170 centimeter umbrella, I have been able to achieve exposures of 1/2,000 sec and f/2 at ISO 100. That is about as much as I would ever need, but if you require more power, the AD600 is always an option.
The only major issue that I have had with flash photography has been in dim light. As I mentioned in my last article, the camera has a lot of trouble in low light because of its lack of phase-detect autofocus. Hopefully, as with the Fujifilm X-T1, Fuji will be able to improve this over time. Right now, it’s almost unusable in low light. This is one area where I feel like mirrorless medium format is far behind the medium-format SLRs. Of course, manual focus works perfectly, although the refresh rate of the EVF in low light may make focusing frustrating.
I was extremely cautious of this in the beginning. My previous experience with the Hasselblad 500-series film bodies and the Pentax 645Z had left a bad taste in my mouth with sharpness at even slightly slower shutter speeds (1/125 sec and lower). I’m no surgeon and I’ve drunk my fair share of coffee in this life, so I don’t have the steadiest hands. However, after a while, I started to find that the GFX was easy to shoot handheld. Even down to 1/125 sec, I was able to get good results from the camera using the 110mm f/2 as long as I brace myself carefully before the shot.
In the end, the GFX, like any other camera, is a tool to do a job. It will not be for everyone or every purpose. Personally, I feel that for portrait work, it would be best as an on-location portrait camera (unless you have a well-lit studio environment that allows the focus system to work its magic). It is lightweight (in the medium format realm) and offers fantastic lenses to really capture the details of the scene you’re working in. As with all Fujifilm cameras to date, I feel that there is some potential to be realised from the hardware as software is improved. I’ll be looking forward to faster processing, less viewfinder lag, and faster autofocus over time. However, for now, I can recommend this as a wonderful tool for those who like to work a little slower.