Brandon Ruffin is a photographer, filmmaker, and writer based in Oakland California. Falling in love with photography over 15 years ago, Brandon finds himself telling everyday people stories, most often through the world of portraiture and photojournalism. Brandon is a contributor for publications such as Rolling Stone, New York Times, and the SF Chronicle.
Combining the ultimate in portability, affordability, and power, street specialist Brandon Ruffin finds new freedom in the form of GFX50S II
Before we had the freedom to draw with light, as far back as history can delve, we drew on the walls. And so it was for street specialist Brandon Ruffin. “A lot of my street photography has been inspired by a love of hip-hop,” he explains. “But a huge part of my artistic upbringing was graffiti. I was in a paint crew as a kid, and while today it’s more culturally acceptable, people back then were still getting into fights or going to jail over it. What graffiti meant to me was the freedom to create and express myself in ways that could surprise, impress, or educate people – and it became the same with photography.
“Whether it’s graffiti or photography, as well as the art you put out there, it’s also about where and how you made it,” Brandon continues. “That combination gives you the chance to stop people in their tracks and have them ask ‘how did you create that composition?’ or ‘where did you find that scene?’ It’s still an urge that fuels what I do, and in street photography it means spending hours in the city – waiting and watching – taking your chances when all the elements align. To do that, you need to be agile and responsive, and so does your camera.
“I first found that combination with Fujifilm’s X Series,” he says. “And then with GFX100S. But with the new GFX50S II and GF35-70mmF4.5-5.6 WR, I think it’s taken the idea of freedom and quality in street photography to a whole new place. I still love GFX100S,” he admits, “but the ultimate resolution of that camera means I tend to use it as a very deliberate tool. At 51.4 megapixels, GFX50S II still produces masses of detail, but the files are more manageable for my street photography, where I can make a lot of images in a single day. It’s more of an everyday option, but one that still brings all the advantages of Fujifilm’s larger format sensor.”
While its resolution is different, GFX50S II provides the same outstanding color fidelity and dynamic range as its big brother. It’s something Brandon made great use of in his time with the new camera, formulating a project around high-contrast lighting. “I deliberately composed these images where strong light was cutting through the scene,” he says. “It silhouetted the subject, or isolated them against the shadow, much as we’ve all been isolated in lockdown. With a regular camera, I’d be concerned about capturing all the highlight and shadow detail in those conditions, but with the G Format sensor, there was no need. It performed perfectly, just as I expected.”
Creating a cohesive theme through the color images in the set, and mixing in striking black & white compositions, Brandon also made use of GFX50S II’s Film Simulation modes, which he adapted to his own ends in camera. “In street photography, everyone finds their particular spice, and I like to use Film Simulations like Classic Chrome to give a timeless feel. Straight out of the camera, those JPEG files are so impressive and adaptable,” he continues. “While I – like many photographers – often work with RAW processing in mind, I felt a lot freer to simply create and not think so much about the tools and techniques involved.”
A lot of that freedom also came down to GFX50S II’s size, weight, and handling. “It was super responsive,” he explains, “just the same as GFX100S. It switches on fast, so I was ready to react in a heartbeat – and its controls and layout are completely intuitive. The form factor is also great, like a smaller DSLR, but with the benefit of an EVF, so you can see what’s happening in an exposure with complete accuracy. That keeps you very locked in to the experience.”
While larger format cameras have an historical reputation for being slow, Brandon says GFX50S II bucked that trend. “It had all the speed I needed. You’ve got fast AF and all the benefits of in-body image stabilization, too. The contrast AF isn’t as quick as GFX100S’s hybrid system, but the camera’s new processor accelerates it massively over the previous model. And, of course, it also has Face/Eye Detection AF, which is vital for my portraits. That sharpness is always improved by IBIS – and though people often think of stabilization as something only used in making pictures at very slow shutter speeds, for me it’s just as important at 1/200 sec or 1/500 sec, because it ensures the greatest clarity from the sensor.”
Using the new GF35-70mmF4.5-5.6 WR, along with GFX50S II, was another way in which Brandon was taken back to his early forays in street photography. “When I started out, I often used a 24-70mm zoom – and this new model gave me similar versatility, with a 28-55mm equivalent, but in a very compact package, like the size of a prime. Just like the body, it’s very manageable, which is perfect for street photography. Because it’s collapsible, you don’t feel as though you’re walking around with big, ostentatious equipment, making it easier to blend in.
“In a street session, you don’t want to be changing lenses all the time, either” he says. “That slows you down or takes you out of the moment. In contrast, GF35-70mmF4.5-5.6 WR range helped me react faster, while also adding texture to the stories I was documenting. And if I couldn’t get closer to a subject physically and wanted more reach, I could just crop a little to push further into the scene, thanks to the quality of the lens and sensor resolution. I did that several times and still got really sharp, crisp, and detailed images.”
Summing up his time with GFX50S II, it’s clear that Brandon felt motivated to create by the new camera. “I made most of the images around LA and Oakland,” he explains. “Like any classic street camera, it’s small, light, and powerful, and doesn’t hold you back. Because whether you’re making street candids, street portraits, or street landscapes, the necessity is to walk around and see what’s out there. The more you do it, the more likely you’ll find something beautiful.”