DPReview Killed the Fujifilm GFX 50S using facts, they say. I Disagree.
I thought I would write an response to the recent DP Review article which is titled, Thinking about buying a Fujifilm GFX 50S? Read this first. Some DPR readers clearly agreed with the article and rubbished the GFX 50S, while others think it smells of a ‘smash job’ laden with agenda. Let’s take a look….
Firstly, I’d like to state that I’m not outraged or shocked by this article, but I do have a few thoughts anyone thinking about buying a Fujifilm GFX 50S. I suggest you read the referenced article first, if you have not already done so.
First and foremost, the same arguments have been made for many years, with regard to transitioning between all of the adjacent formats: M43 to APS-C, APS-C to Full Frame, Full Frame to 44x33mm medium format. When you have identical technology in adjacent formats it is easier but still not an easy comparison. When technology differs, things get fuzzy. FWIW, the same discussion occurred with regard to film: 35mm vs. 645 vs. 6×7, vs 5×4″, vs 5×7″, vs. 8×10″.
From a technical point of view, I think the article makes fair and well-reasoned points in most of what it says. However, it is important to consider what it didn’t consider, didn’t state and a ‘bigger picture’. Personally speaking, I am a user of the Pentax 645Z with a fairly extensive outfit, so I am familiar with the Sony 44×33 sensor used in both cameras (although there are reportedly some differences between them). Yes, the Fujifilm recipe will be a bit different, but not radically so, especially at lower ISOs. I also spent a bit of time playing with and shooting the Fujifilm GFX 50S at The Photography Show earlier this week, so I also have some awareness of the specifics of this new camera.
So what would I add?
Firstly, it is fuzzy logic at best to compare the Fujifilm GFX 50S to a trio of Full-Frame (FF) competitors, adding together the strongest attributes of the Canon 5DSR, the Nikon D810 and Sony A7R II. Most people will be choosing one of the four cameras, of course. When looked at in this light, we may conclude that the Fujifilm GFX 50S indeed combines all of these FF cameras’ image quality strengths into one ideal ‘mythical’ image quality monster. The difference is that the GFX is actually a real, single camera, which is arguably much more useful to a photographer.
The Canon 5DSR has a superb lens ecosystem, but miserable dynamic range (DR) and file flexibility compared to the competition. When it comes to final output quality, this matters a lot. Besides, most of the time, it still does not match the 44×33 sensor for actual resolution despite having the same pixel count. This is because the pixels are smaller and the lenses aren’t the same.
The D810 has the DR, but does lag a little behind on sensor resolution (before we even consider lens performance). Is this massively visible in prints using the very best possible lenses? No, but it is clearly there if you are looking or printing very large…. and you’d better go looking in the corners over a wide range of focal lengths/lenses too. Picking only a 55mm OTUS to ‘champion’ Full-Frame is close to pointless unless you take all your photos on a tripod using a 55mm OTUS!
The 42MP Sony A7R II sensor comes closest of all in overall performance terms to the Fujifilm GFX’s sensor, due to the newer BSI technology. However, Sony is the *only* manufacturer to have access to this sensor at the moment. Making the assumption that the D810’s successor will have the same sensor may result in disappointment! Even if it does, you still come back to the lenses’ ability to actually tap into that resolution and this is all the harder on smaller formats, which demand more of the lenses. Besides, it would be safe to assume that the 70-100MP GFX II comes out before the successor to the successor to the D810. See how silly it can get speculating?
There are lenses that absolutely can milk every drop from the A7R II, or Canon 5DSR and nudge right up to 44×33. However, many of them are enormous in size and/or cost. A 28mm Zeiss Otus isn’t smaller than a MF lens. In fact it is larger than many if not most and extraordinarily expensive even relative to many MF optics. Primes like the Zeiss FE 50mm f1.4 are much more affordable and absolutely stellar, but hardly inexpensive or light. Putting together a system that can genuinely extract everything FF 36MP can offer across a range of focal lengths is very difficult. When you do, the price and size is often ‘silly’.
Most of the zooms made for FF cameras are generalist lenses. Speed and flexibility (incl. aperture) are key to this market, so there are often real compromises in image quality. Canon is producing staggeringly good zooms at the moment, but I have still never seen a FF zoom that for landscape use can compete with the 28-45mm f4.5 SR for the Pentax 645 system (many primes can’t, even at the pixel level). This is because the lenses have been designed with different applications in mind and at different price points. I have no idea how good the Fujinon GFX 32-64mm is optically speaking, but the modest zoom range may give us a clue: it is a 2x zoom and isn’t a super wide. This suggests Fujifilm has aimed for a prime-like zoom. Perhaps think about how many primes you would need to replace it in FF terms: a 24/5mm, 35mm, 50mm? Now add up the cost and weight of these three lenses, even less expensive and brilliant Sigma Art lenses…
When you actually shoot a variety of subjects, using real lenses across an ecosystem, the differences between 44×33 (at least in my experience with the 645Z) are larger than anticipated. This is because you are no longer cherry picking your comparisons, but instead using the optics you need to cover your purposes (and are prepared to carry!). This won’t be the case for everyone, but I have files from 30+ year old Pentax manual focus A lenses that very comfortably exceed anything I have ever been able to produce from a FF camera. As we know, we buy into systems.
Some people commenting on the DPReview article said that ‘there is a reason Phase One and other high end Medium Format manufacturers’ lenses are so expensive’, concluding that Fujifilm’s less expensive lenses could not possibly be as good optically. This is flawed logic, of course. Not only is Fujifilm aiming the GFX at a larger mass market with higher anticipated production volumes (in the long run), but they also have an existing economy of scale: they’re making loads of lenses for their X-system cameras and the necessary expertise and facilities are already available (not to mention the rest of the business). These factors can have a profound impact on unit costs and buyers should be wary of such easy assumptions. As far as Fujifilm’s expertise is concerned, they made the stunning lenses for the Hasselblad X-pan, they make the lenses for the Hassselblad HC system (which comfortably outperform most of the older Zeiss V system lenses) and their X-system lenses are very impressive indeed. I’d say dismissing Fujifilm’s lenses at this point is a strange conclusion to reach. Can you imagine a company with such optical expertise and history not putting their all into their flagship lenses? I can’t, but we will see in due course. I can only imagine that those comfortable dismissing Fujinon made lenses have never used them.
Theoretical comparisons are not the same as practical ones. I don’t think more explanation is needed here, but I’ll only add that most of those commenting on the GFX article on DPR will never have worked on files from a 44×33 camera that use real 44×33 lenses, shooting a range of material relevant to their needs.
Lens Flexibility: The GFX is mirrorless and can use adapted lenses from most manufacturers. This brings all the flexibility many love in the Sony FE series to the 44×33 format. Certainly no DSLRs offer this dizzying array of options.
Last but not least, what about the actual format? 44×33 is a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 3:2. If you like 3:2 and crop 44×33 to match, clearly some of the advantages of the larger format are lost. However, if you prefer 4:3, the gap between the formats only increases.
Sure, Full-Frame is a bit of a Goldilocks zone for a lot of photography and many photographers. The format offers a great deal of potential for not unreasonable cost, good depth of field control (at a given size and price point) and ample resolution for most people. However, it is fair to assume that the Fujifilm GFX 50S is not aimed at everyone in the Full Frame market. It is surely aimed at a small slice (of a large market) who are seeking the very best file quality, file flexibility, optical output and overall resolution at the upper end of the Full Frame market. These are the people who could afford a high end DSLR (or FF mirrorless) with the best lenses out there, but now have a larger format within financial reach. The 645Z brought it close, but the GFX brings it closer still so that it is genuinely competing with high end FF.
As well as appealing to some FF owners who would not otherwise be able to afford 44x33mm, the GFX is still relevant to another group of existing or prospective MF owners: those who can afford the very highly priced Phase One and Hasselblad 44x33mm cameras. Assuming the GFX does what they need it to do, this group no longer needs to pay Phase One/Hassy prices to get what they want. Simple.
The above point brings me to the deep, dark side to all of this. Is there an orchestrated conspiracy against Fujifilm? Possibly, but I very much doubt it. Was the DP Review article released at the behest of Fujifilm’s competitors? I doubt it. However, what it does suggest is that actually, for the first time, a 44x33mm sensor bearing camera is a real proposition instead of high-resolution high end FF cameras and optics. This is evidenced by the enormous buzz the camera has caused and this has happened because a larger number of photographers than ever before now see 44x33mm as accessible. Does this mean that Canikon is feeling the heat? You bet. They have mirrorless FF and APS-C cameras pressuring them on one side and now the GFX 50S coming in from another. That ‘top end, best resolution FF camera’ market is a very important one for Canikon and the overall result of this pincer movement is that DSLR-land is shrinking. Without doubt, there will be heavily invested FF users who will feel upset that the new GFX is raining on their FF ownership parade, but this sort of lack of objectivity is nothing new. A shocking number of Canon owners dismissed 36MP as ‘silly’ until the 5DS came out. Others dismissed the need for more than 12(ish) stops of DR until the 5D IV came out…..
On top of this, do some of the commentators on the internet have undisclosed relationships with these manufacturers, which affect their objectivity? You bet. However, we can ignore all this guesswork and paranoia and just look at facts and rational analysis to reach our own conclusions.
So how ‘pivotal’ is the Fujifilm GFX 50S?
Is Fujifilm going to bring down the DSLR/FF market with the GFX 50S? No, of course not, and for good reason (FF cameras are more flexible and offer all the image quality most people need). Are they going to steal a good-sized slice of the high-end high-resolution FF market? You bet they are… and for equally good reason. Anyone shooting a 44×33 system now knows very well that when you start making lots of photographs, working on files and making actual prints, the accumulation of ‘small things’ add up to something meaningful. Is it night and day? No, but neither is the comparison between any of the other adjacent formats and we’ve ended up right back at the beginning.
So who benefits most from the Fujifilm GFX 50S?
Well, I think the obvious group (those who can now afford to trade up a format) isn’t the best fit. Many FF photographers looking for ultimate image quality, and who would rather work within one ecosystem using a good selection of top primes and prime-like zooms, will surely love it. There’s no more need to pick up the very finest Canikonsony lenses, plus a Zeiss Milvus/Loxia/Batis and perhaps an Otus or two to get the best out of your 36 or 42MP (I am not even counting the 5DSR, because the DR is not competitive for many photographers). Buying into one dedicated ecosystem (with comparable weight and pricing at the very top of FF), makes a lot of sense when there are quality gains to be had.
Pairing APS-C with the Fujifilm GFX: Some of you will have read my earlier article, Fujifilm Jumps Full-Frame for Fuller-Frame. This ‘bracketing’ of Full-Frame, by one manufacturer offering APS-C and 44×33, arguably represents the best solution of all (for some people). This is because you aren’t dealing with adjacent formats. You can enjoy the benefits of ‘smaller size’ APS-C (small cameras, low weight, more depth of field than FF, greater speed, lower noise, lower cost) with all the ‘larger size’ benefits of 44×33, while skipping FF in the middle. This holds true, whichever APS-C system you are invested in. However, for Fujifilm X-Series owners, the menus are very similar, button layout is instantly recognisable and the whole ‘operational’ process of shooting two clearly distinct formats is made seamless. No other manufacturer offers this, meaning that the Fujifilm stable now offers a unique Full-Frame-Free alternative.
For those shooting (or considering) both FF and Phase One/Hasselblad, imagine the savings switching to Fujifilm X (APS-C) and the GFX? As always, everyone’s needs, perspectives and pocket depth are different. If you are an existing FF owner considering the Fujifilm GFX 50S to shoot alongside your existing rig, you may wish to consider leaving full frame altogether, in favour of APS-C and the Fujifilm GFX 50S. This may be the best pairing of all, for you. Nikon D5 and GFX 50S? Mightn’t the Nikon D500 serve your action needs and selling the D5 help finance the move into GFX 50S? Might the Fujifilm X-T2 fit replace your FF camera, perhaps allowing you to shoot entirely within Fujifilm? Only you can say.
Just as the DP Review article in no way ‘killed the Fujifilm GFX 50S’, the GFX in no way ‘destroys’ the argument for Full-Frame. Life is very rarely binary and (sadly) existing camera owners simply ‘fight for their team’ rather than appreciating things objectively.
For most people, their FF or APS-C cameras remain their best option. However, if you are making big prints, working your files hard and looking for that bit extra, you’d be making a mistake if you thought that the smaller FF format really does match 44×33 as an holistic proposition. Whether it comes close enough is for you alone to decide. However, isn’t it nice that these two wonderful adjacent formats – 35mm/FF and 44×33 – are finally actually adjacent (or even overlapping) in price? We have Fujifilm to thank for that.