It is hard to believe that we are more than two decades into the age of digital cameras. Perhaps most surprising is that digital camera technology continues to advance at the pace that it is. Somewhere around 2010, I recall discussions about how digital camera technology was played out and any future improvements would be minimal or pure marketing hype. And yet, I feel that many of the most significant advances in resolution, image quality, dynamic range, ISO performance, high-tech features and camera format have taken place since 2010. Enter Fujifilm's upcoming GFX 50S, another leap in camera technology which combines a medium format sensor with mirrorless camera design, resulting in a medium format camera with price, size and features closer to DSLRs. The GFX 50S is slightly smaller and similar in weight to my Canon 5D Mk IV and will apparently be just a little more expensive than the top of the line DSLR cameras from both Canon and Nikon.
Like other professional grade cameras, the GFX 50S has a full suite of professional features: multi-zone autofocus, bracketing modes, WI-FI, touch screen and a long list of advanced photo functions and accessories. If I had several days or weeks to work with the camera, it would have been fun to try them all out. However, there were some challenges with my review process. Limited availability meant that I couldn't have the camera for long. Originally, Fuji was going to allow me to have it for three days, but it was held up the first day by a storm in New York and I was scheduled to leave on a trip the third day. By the time it arrived, I only had four hours of daylight to work with it, it was pouring with rain and the camera came without a manual and only a single 63mm prime lens (50mm equivalent). So, my review was limited to a couple hours of shooting in my house in flat light at a single focal length.
Fortunately, the myriad of features is not what I most wanted to learn about this camera. As a dedicated landscape and nature photographer, there is a fairly narrow subset of specs and features that I am most interested in and, ultimately, will determine if I would own this camera or not. My photographs are frequently taken in low light and/or high dynamic range light in nature. So, dynamic range, ISO performance and shadow recovery are a priority. I try to create master image files and large prints that are of the highest detail and clarity I can achieve, so resolution and image detail is essential. I often hike long distances with my camera gear and have it on my back all day, so size and weight is a consideration. I also spend a lot of time in demanding environments and I am hard on my equipment, so build quality, reliability, ease of use and ergonomics are important. In summary, the performance factors I am most interested in are:
• Resolution and clarity of fine details
• Dynamic Range
• ISO performance
• Size and weight
• Build quality and ergonomics
• Interface and ease of use
To really interest me, a camera would need to significantly outperform my current Canon 5DS R and Canon 5D Mk IV in a majority of these categories. While features like the autofocus system, metering modes, video features, shooting styles and flash syncing are legitimately important for many photographers, they are of secondary importance to me.
Instead of simply shooting with the GFX 50S and giving my subjective impression of it, I felt it would be more informative to compare it directly to the cameras that I actually use. I decided on three simple capture situations that targeted dynamic range, resolution and detail clarity, as well as ISO performance. To compare, I took the same images with the same settings with all three cameras. Along the way I tried to get a feeling for the size and weight, ergonomics, build quality, interface and ease of use of the GFX 50S compared to my cameras. It is important to note that my evaluations of the images is based on the visual quality of the images and not on quantitatively measured data. I also couldn't control for all variables, particularly noting that some degree of image quality difference could be attributed to differences between the Fuji 63mm prime lens supplied and Canon zoom lens I used.
Resolution and Clarity of Fine Details
To compare resolution and fine detail clarity between the three cameras, I set up a tripod a couple of feet away from the detailed fabric of an upholstered chair. I made sure the lenses were parallel with and focused on the plane of the fabric and photographed at 4 seconds, f/8 and ISO 100. The close-up comparison images show the detail and clarity when viewed at 100% magnification. The default settings in Adobe Camera Raw for sharpening and color noise reduction were used but no other adjustments were made.
We already know that the resolution of the GFX 50S and the 5DS R are very close at 51.4 and 50.6 megapixels respectively, while the 5D Mk IV has less resolution at 30.4 megapixels. Images from both Canon cameras showed excellent clarity of details, with a slight edge going to the 5D Mk IV, which surprised me considering that the 5DS R does not have a high pass filter which is supposed to improve image sharpness – perhaps I should say that it has a filter to cancel the AA filter. Inspection of the GFX 50S image shows that its larger sensor clearly produces significantly sharper and finer details than either of the Canon cameras, as one would hope and expect.
Fine Detail (100% crops)
Dynamic Range (Highlight and shadow recovery)
I don't have a direct way to measure differences in dynamic range, so that will be left to labs like DxO. For my purposes, I am interested in how well overexposed highlight details and underexposed shadow details can be recovered from a raw image file. For this test I took two exposures inside my home where the dynamic range between the outside light level and the interior shadows was substantial. In one exposure I slightly overexposed the highlights (2 seconds at f/11, ISO 100) and in the other exposure I underexposed the shadows (1/5 second at f/11, ISO 100). I then used Adobe Camera Raw and attempted to recover highlights and shadows in each of the images.
For the overexposed highlight images I decreased the Exposure slider to -1.85 and the Whites slider to -100. As expected, the 5DS R, which isn't known for its dynamic range, had the most difficulty recovering highlights. Few of the edges of the boards on the bright deck surface could be recovered and the edges of the shadows along the window sill show quite a bit of banding. There is also a distinct lack of detail and a noticeable color shift in the shadows below the window. The 5D Mk IV performed admirably, besting the 5DS R and coming close to the GFX 50S, recovering deck detail, giving smooth shadow edges on the window sill and good color and detail in the shadows. But the GFX 50S wins again, showing the most recovered detail in the deck, smooth shadow edges on the window sill and also recovering more in the highlights of the vase and in the wet leaves beyond the deck railing.
For the underexposed shadow images I increased the Exposure slider to +3.50. In this test, the 5DS R really falls short. It shows an extreme amount of luminance noise and lack of detail in the recovered shadows. The 5D Mk IV performed pleasingly well, with minimal noise and good fine detail in the recovered shadows. The GFX 50S still wins, with the least noise and best detail clarity in the recovered shadows. However, its advantage over the 5D Mk IV is minimal and less than I expected.
For my final test, I photographed a large canvas print on the wall of my office. Using an aperture of f/8, the ISO was increased in one stop increments from ISO 100 to 6400, while the shutter speed was adjusted accordingly to maintain a constant exposure value. The default Camera Raw sharpening and color noise reduction settings were used, but no other adjustments were made. All three cameras performed quite well, even at the higher ISO settings. Between ISO 100 and ISO 800, there is very little increase in noise from any of the cameras. It appears that the GFX 50S may have a bit more noise at the lower ISOs than either of the Canons. On the other hand, this could be due to the GFX's ability to record extremely fine detail picking up textures in the canvas that are not visible with the other cameras. At ISO 1600, noise begins to become easily noticeable in all three cameras, with the 5DS R appearing to have slightly more noise than the 5D Mk IV and GFX 50S. Even at ISO 6400 all three cameras still produce very usable images. The 5DS R has the most noise, but only slightly, and the GFX 50S appears to have slightly less noise than the 5D Mk IV.
ISO 6400 comparison
Size and weight
The two Canon cameras are essentially the same size. The GFX 50S is slightly shorter and slightly deeper with its flip out LCD housing. I didn't weigh the bodies but according to the specs on the web all three cameras are within a few grams of each other. It would be really impressive if the mirrorless design of the GFX allowed it to be even smaller and lighter than the DSLRs, but the fact that it is now possible to access medium format image quality with no size or weight penalty is still a big bonus.
Build quality and ergonomics
I am sure the GFX 50S is well built, but without years of banging it around on rocks, pulling it in and out of a pack, tossing it in the passenger seat of my truck, changing lenses in the wind and standing out in the rain, it is impossible to know how it stands up to the Canons. I can say that it didn't feel as solid and tight as my Canon cameras and I did not find the ergonomics to my liking. It is very boxy and angular and didn't fit my hand as well. The button layout also didn't feel as intuitive and the quality and motion of the buttons and controls didn't feel as positive.
Interface and ease of use
For the most part, interfacing with the GFX 50S was acceptable. Considering I didn't have a manual, I was able to figure out how to use the camera in the short time I had it without too much fiddling or confusion. Most of the settings and features were located and functioned as one would expect. I found that I had an easier time navigating the GFX 50S's menus than I do with Nikon or Sony camera menus, but still not as well designed as Canon menus. The LCD window on the top of the camera isn't great, with low resolution, blocky text, and graphically poor visuals. The main LCD looked good and the fact that it tilts is a plus. A touch screen is always a nice feature, but I found the touch screen on the GFX 50S wasn't as smooth or precise as the touch screen on the 5D Mk IV and didn't have as much functionality. One of the downsides of mirrorless cameras, in my opinion, is the lack of an optical viewfinder. But if you have to have a digital viewfinder, the one on the GFX 50S is very crisp, has complete image coverage and good colors.
For a combination of camera size and image quality, the Fujifilm GFX 50S is a magnificent landscape photography camera. In my brief comparison with the Canon 5DS R and 5D Mk IV DSLRs, I was able to quickly notice real benefits from the larger sensor in terms of dynamic range and clarity of fine details, along with slightly better high ISO performance. While I continue to favor the build, feel and functionality of Canon DSLRs, the advances the GFX 50S offers in resolution, image detail and dynamic range (particularly shadow recovery) make it a camera I would absolutely own and use. However, it isn't necessarily the right camera for many DSLR and full frame mirrorless shooters. Like with the Canon 5DS R, if you don't plan to make really large prints, the strengths of the GFX 50S may be lost on you. Images that will only be viewed on a screen or printed at 16x24 or smaller won't benefit substantially from the resolution and fine detail provided by the medium format sensor. For photographers who don't print big but do want dynamic range and ISO performance, Canon, Nikon and Sony offer cameras that can perform very well for quite a bit less money. On the other hand, if you are already a medium format owner, then the size and price of the GFX 50S alone might be enough to entice you. Other things that I would want to know about the GFX 50S are how it holds up to heavy use in harsh environments and how good the entire line of Fuji lenses is.