Extreme sports photographer Michael Clark pushes boundaries in action photography with FUJIFILM GFX100 II
Suspended from a rope high over the Lower Mesa Falls on Henry’s Fork river in Idaho, USA – and focusing his camera on three world-class kayakers as they descend the torrent – this is not exactly a typical day for photographer Michael Clark. But it’s close.
A veteran of photographing and participating in extreme sports, Michael is no stranger to the environment. He trusts his rope and his skills. What’s new here is that he’s testing out FUJIFILM GFX100 II, a model which promises to be the first true large format sports camera. Is it capable of matching the speed of the athletes, and the harshness of the environment?
After three exhausting days on the water, the signs are better than good. “GFX100 II is a whole other breed of camera,” Michael admits, “and much closer in focusing speed to a high-end full-frame mirrorless than I’ve ever seen before. When you add the image quality of a larger format sensor, it’s like nothing that’s come before.”
The Future of Large Format Sports Photography
Let’s break it down. A sports camera needs to be as fast as the subjects it’s trained on, or it will be a big problem for the photographer. It requires a high frame rate to get bursts of action, a large buffer to keep the files flowing, and tenacious autofocus that locks onto athletes and keeps them sharp. But the checklist doesn’t end there. It also needs to be portable and durable, especially when your location is a two hour hike over scree and rock sloping toward a cliff edge, and frequently bathed in spray. Combining all that with a 44x33mm sensor is not easy.
“Traditional medium format cameras were glacially slow and just as cumbersome. They would cost $50,000, have only one focus point in the middle of the frame, no tracking and no multi-frame burst mode. In fact,” Michael laughs, “the speed you could work at was dictated by how fast you could push the shutter button!
“GFX System has gone an enormous way to changing the landscape of larger format cameras,” he continues, “but GFX100 II pushed the range into a new realm.”
Keeping up with the Action
It’s fair to say that, although kayakers aren’t the fastest subjects, they can still present plenty of problems. “Between portraits, surfing and documentary photos, we did several runs of the falls per day,” says Michael. “So the kayakers, James Shimizu, JT Hartman, and Darby McAdams, would descend in turn. Each time it was a grueling hike to get back to the start, so it was important to make the most of each opportunity.”
Here, GFX100 II’s 8fps burst mode with its mechanical shutter came to the fore, especially when finding clear views of the subjects through an environment filled with splashes and spray. “8fps is vital for sports,” Michael agrees, “and the camera’s buffer kept pace brilliantly. At 8fps, I got over 50 images in a burst, even when making RAW + HEIF files. Considering these are 102 megapixels, it blew me away. Many cameras with smaller sensors can record faster, but 20fps and 40fps just makes for an editing nightmare.
On Track for Success
“Speed is nothing without the subject being in focus,” Michael continues. “GFX100 II’s AF Tracking mode is by far the best I’ve seen on any GFX camera. It locked onto the kayakers and was quick and accurate, despite the chaos of the water all around them.
“In the pools, where they’re paddling and aligning themselves, focusing was never going to be a problem. But as soon as they dip into one of the 50-foot falls, gravity takes hold and they really accelerate!”
Improved Image Quality
Speed and accuracy assured, GFX100 II did not disappoint Michael when it came to image quality. In fact, there have been significant developments over its predecessor. “The camera’s dynamic range has been extended,” he confirms, “and that shows in high-contrast images. At Lower Mesa Falls – or any such location – you have to deal with the super brightness of the frothing water, which can throw the subject into shadow as well as the dark cliffs around. But I could control the highlights and shadows without worry. There’s so much latitude in editing that any corrections are easy.”
Michael also enjoyed GFX100 II’s new REALA ACE Film Simulation mode. “It has a natural feel,” he confirms, “it seemed to me like PROVIA/Standard mode, but with a slightly wider dynamic range, so it suited the environment perfectly.”
Meanwhile the 102-megapixel resolution continues to impress. “One of the things I’ve come to rely on,” Michael explains, “is that the sensor lets me compose from one location working at a wider angle, and then crop in as much as I like in post, so I can get different types of images from a single frame. It’s so far beyond anything in the 35mm full-frame sphere that it’s almost impossible to go back.
Dependable in Challenging Conditions
“And let’s not forget GFX100 II’s in-body image stabilization,” he continues. “The new IBIS system really came through when photographing the kayakers surfing a standing wave at slow shutter speeds down to 1/10 sec handheld. It’s now rated at eight stops. This allowed me to move fast, light, and get some wild motion-blur images.”
A whole 40 feet below the cliff edge he had rappelled from – which itself took hours of hiking to reach – Michael was thankful for the lightness and durability of GFX100 II. “When you pick it up, it feels like it was milled out of a solid chunk of metal. It’s one of the most robust GFX cameras ever made, so I wasn’t at all worried about taking it into battle. With the camera locked to my harness, it’s surprisingly light, and all I need.”
Is it fair to say Michael was satisfied with GFX100 II? “I was really pleased with the photos we got at Lower Mesa Falls,” he confirms, “and that goes for both me and the kayakers. In sessions like this, I’m trying to convey the essence of the sport: a stunning location with amazing athletes showing their skill and passion. I want to reward the efforts James, JT, and Darby are making, and how incredible these moments are. GFX100 II just proved itself the best way of doing that.”