I do consider myself a documentary photographer. I do, however, use the camera as a research tool in the first place.
I started to think of the camera as a tool for examining complex phenomena when I found myself in the Republic of North Macedonia while working on my first journalistic project. I went there to trace the legacy of Alexander the Great, one of the most mythologized protagonists in history, entangled in a political dispute over who-was-first. I came as a photojournalist, but my interests became more research-oriented than reportage-based, so I reached for a technical camera that would help me focus in order to embrace the seriousness of the situation. The 4×5” camera sees differently from the human eye, capturing a painterly image simultaneously that is detailed enough so we can travel across it. The shooting ritual, taking no rush, rewards the time-consuming mindfulness.
Yet another story took me to Gamvik, one of the northernmost towns of Europe, a traditional fishing village on the Barents Sea. An invited photographer-in-residence, I’ve been working here on the collective portrait of a community that has been striving not to disappear, with dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic for several decades now. My task was to prepare a record of the inhabitants for the inhabitants, in collaboration with the inhabitants, at the intersection of art, journalism and science.
This coincided with the exhaustion of stocks of the discontinued 4×5 Fuji 160S negative, which had been my favourite, and the launch of the GFX 50R medium format digital camera, which I’d began to consider as a digital back. The image produced by the 44×33 mm sensor was closer to the scan from the 4×5” negative, and I knew that its colour reproduction was reminiscent of FujiFilm negatives and slides. The determining factor was the aspect ratio and size of the sensor, closer to the 4:5 format than full-frame 35 mm sensors. One of the biggest advantages of the system is its ability to use any given lens in combination with a larger sensor in a single body to freely change the mood of the image. At first, AF was not a priority as I didn’t assume that a medium format camera could be fast. To my surprise, the 50R turned out to be fast enough for reportage. As a result, it proved a solution universal enough to give up on the 4×5” altogether.
The invitation to test the GFX 100S came as I prepared to return to Gamvik for the winter, an opportunity to test the camera in sub-arctic conditions. My first thought was that it was the most advanced camera I’d ever had a chance to use, but in a smaller package, and probably much more delicate. Over the course of 6 months of testing, my GFX 100S took beating on ski, boat and snowmobile trips, froze, and was exposed to extreme temperature changes, salty water and condensation, all of which made no impression on it. I also used it as a digitise the local museum’s collections.
For me, the key change in ergonomics is made by the larger buttons on the rear panel, the two large programmable buttons on the upper display and the possibility to fully personalise all function buttons. The other key change is the grip, which is essential while operating the camera wearing thick gloves. I had to do without a dedicated exposure dial, and work with a more sensitive shutter release than that in the 50R. I prefer mechanical switches and knobs over buttons because they offer greater resistance, so I’m happy to keep the dedicated shutter and ISO knobs. It’s a matter of choice. I have a similar opinion, display-wise. Often, when framing, I’ll use the tilting display like a prism in a classic medium format SLR. I’d therefore appreciate the freedom to rotate it and hide it.
The switch from the NP-T125 battery for the NP-W235 did come as a surprise. I’ve noticed that the NP-T125 was more efficient at about -20 degrees Celsius, perhaps due to the fact that the 50R and 50S were less energy-consuming with no stabilisation on. The higher voltage of the NP-T125 made it difficult to charge it in the field. The NP-W235 has a lower voltage and powers the X-T4 as well, so my photo traps and the GFX could use the same set of batteries.
My GFX 50R being a photo camera in the first place, I hadn’t been that interested in the series’ filming capabilities. But life at the lighthouse (my Gamvik house) sharpened my mind and senses a lot, making me more aware of the nuances of the weather, as nature determines everything that goes around here. This, in turn, drew my attention to the animals that surrounded me that I’d never noticed that clearly before. I started filming these randez-vous with what I had at hand. It turned out to be the biggest surprise, GFX 100S-wise.
The 44×33 mm sensor offers a cinematic image with a shallow depth of field and minimal noise even at high sensitivities. The combination of sensor stabilisation with a stabilised lens produces great results even while shooting hand-held, without a strong rolling shutter effect. That seems like an exciting prospect: to use the 100S as a handy camcorder that offers extraordinary stills while recording in RAW format to an external recorder. Further improvements to the AF would be a bonus, especially an improvement in continuous tracking and an additional detection of the eyes and faces of animals. The limitation of 4K recording to 30 FPS is a bit of a disappointment, though. I’d also appreciate the opportunity to limit the frame to i.e. Super 35 4K, effectively getting digital teleconverter. Similarly to 35mm photo mode, limiting the sensor to full frame.
All filming capabilities considered, the 100S is an extremely versatile tool, given its dimensions in particular. I wish the 100S kept the detachable EVF – on the one hand, the EVF tilt adapter would come in handy while filming. On the other hand, a complete disassembly of the viewfinder would reduce the camera’s weight to that of the GFX 50R.
Whereas the GFX 50R is the lightest in the system (700 g without the grip and IBIS), the 500 g difference between the GFX 100 (1400 g) and the 100s (900 g) is noticeable. The GFX 100 is feels much sturdier, though. The 200 g difference between the 50R and 100S is, in turn, a small price to pay for such far-reaching improvements. I find the IBIS particularly useful, despite my initial skepticism, as it’s a potentially sensitive element. In combination with lens stabilisation, it allows shooting handheld at relatively long shutter times (1/10, 1/15) with the GF 45-100mm f/4. This proved especially handy in moments when setting up the tripod was too strenuous a task in extreme weather conditions.
I think back to the sheer excitement as the GFX 50R and the 50S opened the door to customise my own rig. A camera that’d take the limitations of the standard 2×3 sensor out of the way and serve as a digital back. The GFX 100 and now the 100S take these doors off their hinges, offering photographers and DoPs a bridge to taking full advantage of pre-digital optics with the additional bonus of stabilisation. Older constructions often have a larger image circle than that of modern lenses, which produces surprising results, given a large sensor. The distinct rendering, the flares or the light spills on non-coated elements are very close to the cinematic look that’s been associated with the negative.
Working with such a device means handling a certain weight, and requires some discipline, but is a very rewarding ritual. As a standalone camera, the GFX offers image poetics similar to those of the 4×5”, which is determined by the physical size of the sensor and the lens rather than the number of megapixels. It doesn’t, however, reduce its functionality as a fast camera for contact work with a set of modern lenses. The GFX means ample possibilities in a single camera and is definitely a new direction in the development of photographic equipment.