7 minute read

Rising to the Challenge

Adventure sports professional, Michael Clark, talks us through his first foray with GFX100S and how it helped him in situations where other larger format bodies can’t compete

In late November 2020, action sports professional, Michael Clark, was facing the unknown on several counts – some of them good, and some of them less so. Fortunately, like the fearless athletes he photographs, he’s a man who enjoys challenges.

On the upside, Michael was tasked with trying out the new GFX100S body and getting to know it compared to the original GFX100 that he relies on for his editorial and advertising work. Complicating matters, in a move guaranteed to test the advantages of this new camera to the limit, Michael chose to feature a sport that was completely new to him. And to add another layer of complexity, Covid-19 was making organized shoots a near impossibility across the country. Could Michael and GFX100S keep up?

“At the beginning,” he laughs, “we had tons of ideas for sports that could test out GFX100S, but then it was a matter of the pandemic forcing our hand. New Mexico, where I’m based, was already in lockdown and neighboring California was only a few days behind. So, we thought we’d better hurry up and get something done before it was too late!” Soon Michael and his team were literally racing against time, because the subject he chose was the thrillingly dangerous sport of downhill skateboarding “Though I’d never photographed it before,” he reveals, “I knew it would look cool and give the new camera a good test.”

Although Michael moved to GFX in part to create pro-quality portraits of his action and adventure subjects, using a large format camera to frame high-speed action is definitely not something he’d have considered before he discovered GFX. Why? “Well, the thing is,” he continues, “GFX100S is designed to be used in any situation that might suit a normal DSLR. That’s just not the case with many other cameras in this class. So, I wanted to try it out on a sport that was fast, which is kind of what I do anyway, but I’ve never actually photographed downhill skating before. Sure, it’s just somebody moving on wheels, but it’s a bit different to cycling, because of what these athletes put themselves through.”

The next step was finding athletes to work with. “It’s such an underground sport in terms of its legality,” he explains. “We had a hard time finding athletes because of that. Usually, I can just call a few people I know and get exactly what I need, but downhill skating is much more underground in its nature. Basically, these guys are on longboards doing 60 to 100mph downhill on public roads – and they may or may not be staying in their lane!  While regular skateboarding is no longer a fringe sport in the US, this certainly is. One of the athletes we met, Ryan Farmer, was actually the world champion in 2017, so we did find the very best people in the area. But it took us weeks, which just isn’t normal.”

Rising to the Challenge

Photo © Michael Clark | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR lens, 1/40 sec at F6.4, ISO 50

During his research, Michael found there wasn’t much photography covering the sport either, something that encouraged him more than anything, offering him the exciting possibility of trying out looks that the athletes and fans hadn’t seen before. “Despite it being such an exciting sport, there weren’t that many pictures of it out there,” he explains. On the GFX100S project, our driver was a former skater turned pro photographer, called Max Dubler. He’s a keen photographer of the sport, but he’s one of only a few who do, so it’s a very tiny world.”

“There are some good photos around,” he continues, “but they’re all made in available light, so we decided to do something different. We used off-camera flash on location to push the envelope and get something beyond what would be a typical image for this sport and, despite being something I do a lot in other sports, the skaters had hardly ever seen these kinds of images.”

And there were even more challenges for Michael on the big day. “We ended up using the super-steep hills above Malibu as our location,” he recalls. “And of course, we went through the right channels and got permits – the police even closed off the road for us. But time was so limited that we could only close the road for two-minute intervals. Then they’d open it up for another ten minutes, let traffic flow, then close down for another two minutes. So essentially, in a full ten-hour day, we got one hour of camera time.”

Fortunately, Michael found GFX100S up to the task. “I’ve been using the original GFX100 since 2018,” he explains, “and its size and weight are probably similar to a pro-level DSLR, like a Nikon D6 or a Canon 1DX Mark II. But GFX100S takes things even further. It has all the same perks in performance, in terms of the autofocus and in-body image stabilization, but it’s way smaller again – just a bit bigger than something like an X-T4.”

For action photography, Michael says this is a real game changer. For the slow-sync flash photos he made as his subjects raced down the Malibu hills, he and his assistant were strapped into the rear of a pickup truck, with Michael literally hanging out of the tailgate. “It’s an effect I used a lot early in my career,” he says. “It really gives you that sense of speed. If you just use a fast shutter speed, the subject is frozen against the background. It doesn’t necessarily give the feel and the emotion of that sport, because you can’t tell how fast they’re moving.”

They all wore climbing harnesses and were clipped into the back of the truck. Michael continues: “It was obviously quite safe, but I was still leaning right out over the road and using the flip out screen on GFX100S to get the lowest angle possible and increase the impact. A bigger, heavier camera might have been harder to stabilize, putting more strain on your body in those situations. But it’s not just about the photographing itself. For the other sports I cover, where I’m hiking a long way into the wilderness, it’s going to make a huge difference for me in terms of how much gear I can take.”

As well as passing its action test with flying colors, Michael also got the best out of GFX100S for portraits, showing what a versatile camera it’s destined to be for working professionals. “Some of the portraits really interested me,” he says. “I really pushed things in terms of the color grading on them. That’s not typical for me as my work is usually very grounded in reality. But for these athletes and this sport, I took inspiration from that edgy feeling it has. I wanted the colors to reinforce that, but also give them this heavy tint. Right at the heart of them, you have that 100-megapixel detail and the incredible dynamic range.”

So, does Michael feel that GFX100S rose to the challenges of this project? “Completely,” he says without hesitation. “Despite the streamlining of the body, it’s got all the quality and features of GFX100 – like IBIS, which definitely came in handy for the slow-sync action images with their motion blur. I was using shutter speeds like 1/10sec and 1/20sec, along with the intentional movement, to get those long streaks of blur in the background, but it helped keep the subjects nice and sharp. And I mean, to be able to use a 100-megapixel camera at 1/10sec…that’s just, you know…science fiction!”

“I wish we could have had a couple of extra days,” he concludes, “because there was so much more that I wanted to try out with GFX100S and the downhill skaters. Location is a huge part of any outdoor image and, though the road we worked on was nice enough – and great for the skaters – I would have liked more natural light along with the flash. All three of the riders were great and, the more you photograph a sport like this, the more you notice they have different styles. So, knowing the sport a little bit better now, I can definitely see a sequel to this project where I can push things a little harder and know that GFX100S can keep up. And that’s great because, while I’ve really enjoyed using GFX100, for what I do, this is just a more compact, easier to use and impressive large format camera.”

FUJIFILM GFX100S is coming soon to your nearest FUJIFILM Authorized Dealer. Learn more and read the full specifications here.

Find out more about the project, the camera, and Michael’s creative process with this exclusive behind-the-scenes video!