This blog post is an excerpt from a longer feature article that appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of the Newsletter. You read the full article click here to download the PDF magazine.
Having worked with the Red Bull Air Force on more than a dozen assignments over the last decade, it is always nice to get the call for another gig with the team. I have gotten to know the crew pretty well over the years and even wearing a mask and a hat they recognized me instantly when I showed up at the 2021 Training Camp in Los Alamos, California earlier this spring. Imagine working with Superman and Superwoman on your next photography assignment and that gives a sense of what it is like working with the Red Bull Air Force.
On this assignment, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in the back seat of a helicopter—either the Red Bull Helicopter or the shotover helicopter, which was there to capture video. Normally, with a shotover helicopter (which has a gyro-stabilized camera mounted under the left front corner of the helicopter) no one else is allowed in the helicopter when they are shooting. But in this case they were open to having me in the back with an open door because the camera operator and cinematographer (one and the same person) sits up front in the left seat. Hence, we had a lot of options for capturing action from the air on this gig.
Capturing images of Kirby Chambliss and Kevin Coleman, the stunt plane pilots, as well as Aaron Fitzgerald, the Red Bull helicopter pilot, is always challenging. Both Kevin and Aaron were new additions to the team so we definitely wanted to capture some great material of them in action. To document Aaron Fitzgerald in the Red Bull helicopter I worked mostly from the shotover helicopter and flew alongside him while strapped in and shooting out an open door. On that first evening we went out at sunset and buzzed a hot air balloon (which we were set to be working with a few days later) and Aaron did back flips in the helicopter right next to the balloon. All I can say is the folks on that balloon ride got one hell of a show!
A few days later, after having spent a considerable amount of time flying back seat with Aaron in the Red Bull helicopter, he told me to come up and sit left seat after I had been flying with him all afternoon. He wanted to take me up to do his entire aerobatic show, which lasted about six minutes and involves several 360 upside down maneuvers—in a helicopter! My first reaction was, “That sounds great, but I don’t want to puke in your helicopter.” Aaron assured me it wouldn’t be too bad and instructed me how to follow the horizon from the windows above and below the front seats to keep ourselves oriented and our stomachs at bay. I told myself, “Well, if there is ever a time to do this, then this is it—and Aaron is one of the best pilots in the World.” I trusted him completely. Once I got strapped in and locked down with the five-point harness I grabbed my Nikon Z7 II and a fisheye lens to document the experience. At the top of this blog post you can see a fisheye image of us inverted (note the horizon).
I kept my camera firmly on my lap—so as not to injure myself or cause any mayhem in the cabin—and shot series of images during each maneuver. I knew that if I tried to raise the camera at any point and we shifted our position quickly at the same time I could nail my face with the camera or worse. I had the camera tethered to my harness as well so it couldn’t go on walkabout in the cabin and result in a catastrophe. In all we did at least a dozen or more inverted stunts and with Aaron calling them out I was able keep the horizon locked in and hold onto my lunch.
There are only a few helicopters in the World capable of going upside down and even fewer pilots skilled enough to pull off this maneuver. Helicopters technically are not supposed to go upside down. Once we landed, Aaron congratulated me on being on of a very small number (a few dozen) to ever go upside down in a helicopter. That six or seven minutes was definitely a highlight of the assignment for me and gets stacked on many other amazing experiences I have had working with the Red Bull Air Force. Below are a few images of Aaron mid-air captured from the second helicopter.
My sincere thanks to Aaron and the entire Red bull Air Force for another stellar training camp. And also, my thanks to Red Bull for hiring me for this gig. Always a blast!
The Summer 2021 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.
This issue of the Newsletter includes an editorial entitled Upside Down, a review of the FUJIFILM GF80mm f/1.7 lens, an article detailing a recent assignment with the Red Bull Air Force, an editorial entitled Finding your Voice, and much more.
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Disclaimer: While I am not one of Fujifilm’s X-Photographers, I was paid to work with the FUJIFILM GFX 100S on an assignment in the fall of 2020 as part of the launch for this camera. I want my readers to be aware of this up front. With that in mind, also know that the original GFX 100 has been my main camera for the last two years and the GFX 100S will be a welcome addition. As such, I am certainly biased. I am always looking for the best image quality and the best camera for my needs. For those that need or want this caliber of camera, I highly suggest trying it out to see if it will work for you and your needs.
Let’s just be honest right up front here. There are so many great cameras out there that it is pretty hard to buy a bad camera these days. You would actually have to look really hard to even find a bad camera much less purchase it. In light of that, take what I say here with a pinch of salt. There are good cameras, there are great cameras and then there are those that really knock you on your ass with their incredible image quality. This is one of those “knock you on your ass” cameras. The GFX 100S is a camera for purists and perfectionists. That has always been the realm of medium and large format photography since the dawn of “writing with light.”
The GFX 100S is essentially a smaller, lighter, less expensive and slightly updated version of the venerable FUJIFILM GFX 100 from a few years ago. Over the last two years the GFX 100 has been my main camera body. You can find my full review of the GFX 100 here. You can also find an extensive preview I wrote on the GFX 100S here. This review will dive into how the GFX 100S is different and/or better in some respects to the larger GFX 100. Let’s dive in.
The GFX 100S is incredibly compact given that it houses a 102 MP medium format sensor. In fact, it is smaller and very slightly lighter than my old Nikon D850 DSLR. The body overall is superbly designed to be elegant, simple and intuitive. As can be seen below, the rear LCD can pull out in both vertical and horizontal orientations and also pulls back far enough so that the viewfinder does not block the LCD when looking straight down at the camera from above.
One of the big changes on the GFX 100S, a departure from any previous Fujifilm camera, is the PASM mode dial (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure) on the top left side of the camera. On previous Fujifilm cameras these modes were set by adjusting the aperture ring or a top-mounted control. The PASM mode dial simplifies the exposure mode settings and is something many switching over to Fujifilm will find easier to use.
Also on that top left mode dial are six custom settings C1 through C6. This is a first for any of Fujifilm’s medium format cameras and a feature I asked for after working with the GFX 100 for a year or so. The C1 through C6 settings essentially allow you to set up the camera as you like and then save that set up to one of the C settings so you can recall it at anytime simply by rotating the dial to the corresponding C1 – C6 mode dial setting. This is perhaps the biggest upgrade for me on the entire camera as it allows me to save various autofocus and mode settings to the custom settings dial and have a quick setting for portraits and/or landscapes and a variety of action photography options. I’ll dive more into this when we get to the autofocus section.
The grip on the GFX 100S is very nice–and I actually prefer it to the grip on the GFX 100. My pinky is just at the cusp of falling off the bottom of the camera but I have added the FUJIFILM MHG-GFX S Metal Hand Grip (shown on the bottom of the camera below) and that has solved that issue for me. The only issue with the base plate grip is that there is no hole in the bottom of the plate to pop the battery in or out of the camera. Smartly, the Fujifilm engineers fashioned the screw on the bottom of the plate with a fold-out finger tightening lever so it is easy enough to just loosen the screw on the baseplate and rotate the base plate to insert or remove the battery. Overall, the base plate adds just a bit of weight (and improves the ergonomics for my hands at least), but also adds some serious protection to the bottom of the camera. Also, note that the base plate has the grooves for an Arca-Swiss style tripod mount, which is very handy.
I realize some will complain that the base plate is not an L-bracket type plate but for those that want that style of camera mount there are a few options from third party manufacturers. SmallRig, Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises already have a few options for those looking for an L-type bracket for the GFX 100S.
I know many who are interested in Fujifilm GFX offerings will mourn the lack of an adjustable, removable viewfinder on the GFX 100S. In order to make this camera less expensive, Fujifilm had to remove a few features. Honestly, while I see the utility of the rotatable and adjustable viewfinder that works with the GFX 50S and GFX 100 — and I own the adjustable viewfinder — I rarely if ever use it. Mounted on the camera it makes the body very difficult to fit into any camera bag and if I need to see what is going on in the frame I can usually just use the rear LCD screen. Hence, on the GFX 100S I don’t really miss that option at all. I do like the smaller, more compact viewfinder on the GFX 100S and it also makes the camera body easier to pack into any camera bag.
Over a year ago, when I heard that Fujifilm was coming out with a smaller, lighter version of the GFX 100 I was intrigued but my first question was why? It didn’t make sense to me–and I didn’t know what price point they were going for either. But now that I have worked with the camera for several months (remember, I shot with it first back in November 2020) I totally get it. In fact, I have not really taken my larger GFX 100 anywhere with me since I got the 100S. The 100S is much easier to pack, lighter, and just easier to work with when you have to carry your gear any distance.
Overall, the GFX 100S is a triumph in terms of its layout and ergonomics. Some may complain that once again Fujifilm has forsaken their normal shutter speed and ISO dials on the top of the camera but most professional photographers have not really used a camera like that in decades. Hence, I think Fujifilm did the right thing here and made the camera as friendly as possible to those that might switch over to the GFX format from their Nikon or Canon DLSRs.
The image quality produced by the GFX 100S is pretty much identical to the GFX 100. I have seen reports online that the GFX 100S exhibits less banding than in the GFX 100 but I have not really tested that as it only appears when pushing the exposure an extreme amount. Regardless, there is absolutely nothing to complain about in terms of image quality. If you have never seen images captured with medium format digital cameras (even 50 MP cameras) then you might be shocked at just how crisp the images are from those cameras–and also how the images have a more three dimensional feel to them than images created with 35mm digital cameras. The GFX 100S has essentially the best image quality available in any digital camera save for perhaps the Phase One 150 MP camera (that sells for around $50,000 USD). The Phase One XF IQ4 150MP camera might have a larger sensor and more megapixels but it is severely hampered in terms of usability compared to the FUJIFILM GFX 100S. Hence, in a large percentage of situations–i.e. any handheld photography–the output from the GFX 100S, with its very impressive IBIS (discussed below), will supersede the Phase One camera. As shown below, even action photography is not out of the realm of possibility with this lightweight 102 MP camera.
The GFX 100S has incredible dynamic range, 16-bit file support and razor sharp lenses to support the camera. Fujifilm has the entire system dialed in to an incredible level, which all adds up to the best image quality I have ever seen in any camera. I realize this is a lot of superlatives but the reality is that once you see a full-resolution image created with the GFX 100 or the 100S you can’t unsee it. By that I mean no matter what other 35mm camera you work with, the 102 MP sensor in the 100 and 100S is clearly a step up in image quality. That isn’t just the camera sensor itself but the combination of great color algorithms, astounding lenses, an incredible IBIS mechanism and the system as a whole.
In the image above, there are several things to notice that will help to illuminate the image quality on offer in the GFX 100S. First, look at the silky smooth tonal transitions in the sky behind the climber. The sun was intentionally placed right behind the climber but the transition from pure white to blue sky all the way to the upper left-hand corner is phenomenal. This is one of the great advantages of 16-bit large format sensor technology. Second, this image’s exposure was pushed by just over a full stop to brighten up the image and I also pushed the shadows slider in Lightroom Classic CC to show detail in the climber and the right side of the rock face. Larger pixels, a larger sensor and 16-bit image processing all add up to incredible image quality and the ability to really push an image in post-processing without it falling apart. Once you work with a camera of this caliber for any length of time, it really puts things in perspective and also makes it very hard to go back to 35mm (Full Frame) cameras and get excited about their image quality.
In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
The GFX 100S has a slightly more capable IBIS mechanism than that found in the GFX 100. The GFX 100S IBIS mechanism has been shrunken down to fit into the smaller camera body and it has been optimized to work with the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) built into some of the Fujifilm GF lenses. Together that means the GFX 100S has an extra half stop of image stabilization than the larger GFX 100. In practice, I have been able to handhold images down to 1/6th second with the 100S. At 1/6th a second every second or third image is tack sharp. At 1/10th second just about every image is tack sharp and at 1/20th second every image is sharp–as long as the subject is not moving. This is a very handy improvement and makes the GFX 100S usable in a slightly wider array of situations than the larger GFX 100. The GFX 100S is certainly much more usable in a wider array of situations than any other medium format camera made by any manufacturer because of the IBIS unit. The image below was created using a shutter speed of 1/20th second (with flash) while on assignment working with the GFX 100S for the launch of the camera.
I don’t know that the average photographer realizes just how important in-body image stabilization (IBIS) is in modern mirrorless cameras–even smaller format cameras. It is one of the major innovations that separate mirrorless camera from DSLRs and a huge part of why I sold off all of my DSLRs earlier this year. Being able to handhold a mirrorless camera down to a shutter speed of 1/6th or 1/10th a second and get tack sharp images is incredible–especially when doing so with a 102 MP medium format camera! I don’t foresee myself purchasing any new camera going forward that doesn’t have IBIS. It is a must-have feature!
Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)
The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) in the GFX 100S is technically a 3.69 MP EVF. On a pure analytical level, it would seem that this is a major drawback compared to the 5.76 MP EVF found in the older GFX 100. In use, I have found it somewhat difficult to really see a huge difference between the two EVFs. Hence, for those that are hung up on this lower spec number I would say, “Don’t worry about it.” Sure, with the EVF boosted on the GFX 100 it does appear slightly crisper, but the lower resolution EVF in the 100S is no slouch. A lot of this comes down to the optics in front of the actual EVF screen. If I have learned anything so far with mirrorless cameras, it is that the optics in front of the EVF screen are just as important, if not more so, than the resolution of the EVF screen itself. As an example, my Nikon Z6 has a lower 3.69 MP resolution EVF when compared to many of it’s direct competitor cameras, but that EVF is gorgeous and still one of the best in the industry. All I am saying here is that the EVF resolution doesn’t tell the whole story.
The GFX 100S has the best autofocus ever offered in any medium format camera to date. I realize that is a bold statement, but there really isn’t that much of a contest since most other medium format cameras (save for the GFX cameras) have glacially slow and antiquated autofocus. For portraits and most things folks will use this camera for, I think they will find the autofocus snappy and extremely accurate. The face tracking and eye detection is even better than what was on offer in the GFX 100–though with the latest firmware update (as of June 2021) for that camera I believe it is now on par with the GFX 100S. With 425 focus point spread out from corner-to-corner and several different autofocus modes there are no lack of autofocus options on offer.
As with all mirrorless cameras these days the GFX 100S (and the older GFX 100) have many options for how to set up the AF and how to achieve the best results. Critical to getting good results (with any camera) is learning the nuances and quirks of that camera and the associated lenses for that system. This is no different with the GFX cameras than it would be for any smaller format camera system. For subjects that aren’t moving or aren’t moving that quickly the GFX 100S is incredibly accurate and can easily track those subjects with a high percentage of images being in focus.
The real challenge for any camera is when it comes to autofocus tracking of fast moving subjects. While the autofocus tracking capabilities of the GFX 100S–and the older GFX 100–are superior to any of their peers, they can’t really keep up with the fastest cameras on the market. This isn’t to say that the autofocus tracking capabilities of the GFX 100S are bad in any way, they are exceptional for a medium format camera that is moving much larger and heavier glass elements than any smaller format cameras. The GFX system cameras were not designed for sports photography per se, but because they are on the cutting edge of technology and their autofocus is the best ever seen in this format some of us (like myself) are using these cameras for serious action photography as can be seen below.
Now, let’s just be clear here. I don’t want to lead the reader to believe that the GFX 100S can track fast moving subjects with the same hit rate like a Nikon D6, Canon 1DX III or the Sony A1. That just isn’t the reality. But, if the GFX 100S is set up right–and you choose the correct AF tracking mode– it can track moving subjects far better than most reviewers would lead you to believe. Learning the ins and outs of a new cameras autofocus capabilities takes a long time. This is something thing I have learned over two years of working with the GFX 100 and now applying to the GFX 100S. As shown in the image below, captured with the GFX 100, the cameras ability to track this motocross rider going at over 60 mph (96 kmh) surprised even me. The resulting image is ridiculously sharp. For those looking to capture fast moving action with superior image quality the GFX 100S can work in many situations–especially if the athlete can repeat that scenario multiple times.
Of course, as a working professional, I choose the best gear for the assignment. And as an adventure photographer, sometimes that means working with a smaller format camera system. In situations where the action is going to happen only once, and I cannot afford to miss focus or miss the image entirely, I will opt for a smaller format camera–like my Nikon mirrorless cameras or a DSLR if that is the best tool for the job. There are certainly assignment where I need an 800mm lens or a fisheye lens and those are not even options in the GFX lineup. The 5 fps frame rate of the GFX 100S can seem a little slow when compared to 35mm and APS-C mirrorless cameras these days, but that is 5 fps at 102 megapixels! When I need a faster camera I reach for my Nikons or the Fujifilm X-Pro 3 or X-T4.
I just want to make it clear here that the GFX 100S can work in a much wider variety of situations than many think it can. I have been working with the GFX 100 and now the GFX 100S capturing sports images for over two years now–and I have found these cameras quite capable if the action can be repeated and I set up the camera correctly.
At this point I have not done a head to head comparison of the autofocus in the GFX 100 versus the GFX 100S. With the latest firmware update to the GFX 100, I believe it has the same autofocus algorithm as that in the GXF 100S. Hence, they should be fairly similar. I have found in the past that larger batteries (as in the Nikon D5 versus the D850) somehow result in slightly faster autofocus but I am not 100% sure that is the case with the GFX 100 versus the GFX 100S. I will have to do further testing for myself to figure that out for certain. Regardless, both cameras offer phenomenal autofocus options for a medium format camera system.
I have not worked with the GFX 100S in video mode as much as I have with the GFX 100. Even so, I have tried it out and found the video to be pretty much identical as the GFX 100. That is to say the video quality is amazing, especially now that you can capture full 4k RAW video content with an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja V. Having built up the GFX 100 with a cage and all the accessories I can say that the smaller lighter GFX 100S would be a lot easier to handle when built up with an external recorder and a microphone. In addition, the new Custom C1 – C6 modes allow you to set up the 100S in a variety of ways for video separately from the stills mode. That makes the 100S even more versatile in many ways for video than the original GFX 100.
I am not sure how many folks will use the GFX 100S for video. Just as with all larger format motion cameras, the 100S offers quite an interesting image quality and shallow depth of field compared to smaller format systems. I am certain the 100S wil be used in Hollywood level productions now and again when Directors are going for a different look. The GFX 100S doesn’t have the fast frame rates of some smaller format cameras like the 4K 120p built into the Canon R5 but it does produce gorgeous 4K 24p video.
Compared to the FUJIFILM GFX 100
Amazingly, the GFX 100S has most of the features of the GFX 100. The main differences are fairly obvious just from looking at the two camera bodies side by side (as shown below). The GFX 100S lacks the interchangeable viewfinder, a vertical grip and the larger style batteries of the GFX 100. The 100S also lacks the secondary LCD display on the back of the camera as well.
The GFX 100 lacks the new Custom (C1 through C6) options found on the new 100S–and that might be one of the biggest differences in the cameras. The IBIS mechanism on the GFX 100 is also much larger and heavier than that in the 100S. The GFX 100 has a higher resolution EVF as we have already discussed. Aside from these differences the image quality is essentially the same, which would be expected since they use the same sensor.
If you really want a vertical grip, love the interchangeable viewfinder and work mostly in the studio then the GFX 100 might be the better option but those extra features comes at a significant expense compared to the GFX 100S. If you already own the GFX 100 I see no need to upgrade (if it can even be called that). I think photographers that already own the GFX 100 might look to purchase the GFX 100S so they have a backup camera with the same capabilities more than anything else.
Compared to 35mm mirrorless Cameras
Because of its low price point at $5,999 USD–at least in the medium format realm, the GFX 100S is most often being compared to smaller format cameras by reviewers who have rarely if ever worked with any medium format camera. Six grand is not what I would call a cheap camera by any means–that is still pretty expensive for most photographers–even top-end working pros. But, compared to the $20k to $50k digital medium format cameras of the past, the 100S is a revelation. In terms of its main specifications the 100S is fairly similar in size and function to a lot of full frame cameras on the market. For some photographers it will be the ultimate camera system and the only one they would every need. For others, mostly those capturing sports or fast moving subjects, the GFX 100S would be an additional tool that sits alongside a full-frame (or APS-C) camera system giving the photographer options.
The GFX 100S is slightly larger than most 35mm mirrorless cameras–though not by much. In the case of the forthcoming Nikon Z9 and Canon R3, the GFX 100S is actually smaller and lighter than those will be. The GFX lenses are the determining factor in terms of weight–they are generally slightly larger and heavier than their 35mm counterparts but now always. The GF 100-200mm f/5.6 is lighter and smaller than the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for example. On the other end the GF32-64mm f/4 is quite a bit larger and heavier than the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 lens. Let’s take a look at a standard kit from Nikon and compare that to a similar GFX 100S kit. The Nikon Z kit with the holy trinity f/2.8 zoom lenses weighs in only 0.9 pounds (340 grams) less than the GFX 100 with three zoom lenses (32-64, 45-100 and 100-200). That slight difference overall in weight I am guessing will surprise many.
For portrait, landscape, architecture, fashion, and many other genres of photography the 100S is certainly an epic camera system with phenomenal image quality that surpasses anything produced by a smaller format. The GFX lenses are also the best lenses I have ever used–even slightly better than the Hasselblad HC lenses I used to own. As far as sports and action photography, there are certainly faster action cameras out there in both the 35mm and APS-C formats and those formats have a much wider array of lenses to choose from. But the GFX 100S can work for some action photography as well. As I said at the beginning of this blog post, there are really no bad cameras out there these days. It is just a matter of choosing the right camera for your needs and the subject matter you photograph.
For an in-depth comparison check out the interview (above) I did with Dale Sood from Vistek, the largest camera store in Canada. In this video, Dale made large prints from three different cameras and three different camera formats (APS-C, Full Frame and Medium Format) and compares the prints in terms of image quality. In the video, I also talk quite a bit about which camera system I use for different scenarios. When it comes to action sports, especially where it will only happen once, I opt for my Nikon Z system these days. Note that I am eagerly awaiting a faster Nikon Z camera, like the forthcoming Nikon Z9, for action photography as the Nikon Z7 II isn’t what I would call a great action camera.
Wrapping this up, I have pretty much said it all in the sections above. The FUJIFILM GFX 100S is a fantastic camera with epic image quality. The image quality is so good that I am not sure how much better a still camera can actually get. We are at a point now in the industry that photographers who have purchased a camera recently won’t really need to replace their cameras anytime soon. That isn’t great news for the camera manufacturers, but that is the reality. Consider that the day before Fujifilm announced the GFX 100S, Sony announce a 50 MP camera that can fire at 30 fps! We have come a long, long ways from the early days of digital photography.
For myself, the smaller, lighter GFX 100S is great for an assignment photographer like myself who typically has to carry two different camera systems on a gig. As an adventure photographer, I am normally taking my Nikon 35mm mirrorless kit as well as the GFX kit with me on most assignments. Flying hasn’t really gotten any easier (even now in the USA as we emerge from Covid-19) and the smaller, easier to pack size of the GFX 100S is a massive improvement on the venerable GFX 100 when packing up my camera kit and carrying it onto a plane. At the moment, I’d say I use the GFX system for about 75% of my work. The 100 and 100S are my main workhorse cameras. For those situations where I need a faster frame rate or faster autofocus I reach for the Nikons.
Choosing the right camera system these days comes down to what you can afford and what will work to get the images you want to create. If you are looking for the best image quality available then the GFX 100S is most likely the camera for you. If you need to make huge prints, then this is the camera to have. For working pros out there considering a switch–and I have heard from many of you already–I would suggest renting the camera and a few lenses and trying it out. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
For more information on the FUJIFILM GFX 100S check out the Fujifilm website. To order the camera check B&H and see if they have it in stock. From what I am hearing Fujifilm got three to four times more orders for the camera than they were expecting so there might be a little wait time. This one is worth the wait!
Disclaimer: While I am not one of Fujifilm’s X-Photographers, I was paid to work with the FUJIFILM GFX 100S on a recent assignment as part of the launch for that camera. I was also provided the GF80mm f/1.7 R WR lens to use on the assignment. I want my readers to be aware of this up front. With that in mind, also know that the older GFX 100 has been my main kit for the last two years and the GFX 100S will be a welcome addition. As such, I am certainly biased. I am always looking for the best image quality and the best camera for my needs. For those that need or want this caliber of camera, I highly suggest trying it out to see if it will work for you and your needs.
The Fujifilm GF80mm f/1.7 R WR lens, equivalent to a 63mm lens in full-frame (i.e. 35mm), is the fastest medium format lens ever produced. With a maximum aperture of f/1.7, equal to an approximate aperture of f/1.35 in 35mm, this 80mm lens creates incredible background blur. It also happens to be the sharpest lens I have ever used. The images are astoundingly sharp–especially when using the FUJIFILM GFX 100 or the new GFX 100S. I am not sure if it is just the copy of this lens that I have or if it is slightly sharper than the venerable GF110mm f/2, but either way, the image quality offered by this optic is shockingly good. Ok, there you have it, end of review….just kidding.
I have known about this lens for quite a long time–both having worked with Fujifilm and also reading the rumors online. When I first got it in my hands last fall, while working with the GFX 100S for the launch of that camera, I was quite surprised at how small and light this lens is. As can be seen above, without the lens hood (which makes it look quite a bit bigger), the lens seems smaller than some full-frame 85mm f/1.4 equivalents. It is definitely smaller than the Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4 lens and about the same size and weight as my old Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4. With the larger image circle that the GF80mm lens needs to cover this is quite the feat. It balances quite well on the new GFX 100S and especially well on the larger GFX 100 body as well.
There are definitely times while shooting in low light where I have wished for a super fast medium format lens like this. I think fast primes really help to round out a system and make it more versatile for working in tough lighting conditions (as in the MARSOC assignment I had a few years ago where we shot everything at night). I shot some on that assignment with the 110mm f/2 lens but most of it was shot using full frame Nikon Z cameras because I needed a 24mm f/1.4 lens, which doesn’t exist in the GFX system–or in any medium format system for that matter. I would love to see Fujifilm release a GF30mm f/1.7 or something along those lines in the future, even though it would be massive and super expensive.
While working with the Downhill Skateboarders last fall for the launch of the GFX 100S, I did snap a few portraits with the GF80mm lens as shown below. At the time, I was quite impressed with how snappy the autofocus was and how it nailed focus on the eyes using the Eye AF mode. When I got back to the hotel and downloaded the images, I was blown away at how razor sharp the images were as well.
I did notice that wide open at f/1.7 there is a hint of Chromatic Aberration (CA), but only the slightest amount and you would really have to go looking for it to see anything. It probably stood out to me because I have rarely if ever seen any CA with any of the other GFX lenses. Compared to fast lenses in the full-frame world (like an 85mm f/1.4) this lens doesn’t really have enough CA to even mention, and compared to the Hasselblad HC100mm f/2.2 lens–which had the worst CA I have ever seen in a lens–the GF80mm is remarkable in this respect, i.e. in it’s lack of CA.
Having worked with my own copy of the lens now for a few months, I have photographed much more than just portraits as can be seen below. This image was created while working with DPReview for a new video on the GF80mm lens. Action photography, as many like to remind me, isn’t necessarily what the GFX cameras are made for–and the GF80mm lens is not intended to be an action lens of any sort–but in a situation like this where the object is moving up the wall and not really changing their distance from the camera it worked quite well. The GF80mm has slightly slower autofocus than any of the GFX zooms or the faster primes (like the GF23mm and GF250mm), but that is not unusual. Pretty much all of the fast primes for any sensor size have larger chunks of glass in them and tend to focus slower than the zooms or slower prime lenses–no matter what system you look at. As an example, my old F-mount Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G wasn’t exactly slow to focus but it isn’t nearly as fast in terms of its AF tracking capabilities as the recent Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G lens.
The GF80mm f/1.7 makes a little noise when it autofocuses, but not all the time. This fast prime is moving a sizable chunk of glass inside the lens. I would definitely not say the AF is slow, it seems pretty snappy to me. And with the AF on the GFX 100 and GFX 100S, it seems quite accurate as mentioned above. In the image below, I was shooting at f/4 to create some background blur but not too much as I want the viewer to be able to place the climb and see some detail in the background, but also not have it be super sharp so the climber stands out in the frame.
I don’t want to make this a lengthy review as this lens is so good there isn’t much else to say. It is razor sharp and fairly small considering what it is. It is also lightweight and fits into a camera bag very easily for such a fast prime lens. 80mm lenses in the medium format world have never really been my favorite focal length, but because this one ends up at around a 63mm full-frame equivalent (because the sensor size is slightly smaller than old 645 film cameras) I really dig the perspective it offers. The biggest issue with this lens is choosing between it and the GF110 f/2 when I pack up to go out on a shoot. Lately, because of the smaller size of the GF80mm f/1.7, I have been going with the 80mm lens instead of the GF110. The 80mm lens can focus a little closer than the 110, hence you can get fairly similar perspectives with both lenses just by taking a step closer to your subject. The other reason is that I typically always take the GF32-64 and the GF100-200 wherever I go and the GF80 fits in perfectly right between those two, making for a great lightweight medium format three-lens kit.
At $2,299, I realize for most folks this is quite an expensive lens. But in context, looking at other medium format lenses of a similar breed, this is a bargain. The Hasselblad XCD 80mm f/1.9 Lens sells for $4,845! That is more than twice what the Fujifilm sells for and it isn’t even as fast an aperture. Heck, even the Canon RF85mm f/1.2 lens is $400 more expensive than the GF80 so kudos to Fujifilm for making this a relatively inexpensive lens. On that note, all of the Fujifilm GFX lenses seem like a bargain when compared to the Hasselblad and Phase One equivalent lenses that cost two-to-three times as much. And even though they cost less, the GFX lenses in my experience are slightly sharper than the Hasselblad equivalents. Nice work on that front Fujifilm!
Today, March 10, 2021, Adobe dropped it’s latest software updates via the Creative Cloud and among those updates is a new feature in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) called “Super Resolution.” You can mark this day down as a major shift in the photo industry. I have seen a bit of reporting out there on this topic from the likes of PetaPixel and F-stoppers, but other than that the ramifications of this new feature in ACR have not been widely promoted from what I can see. The new Super Resolution feature in ACR essentially upsizes the image by a factor of four using machine learning, i.e. Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the PetaPixel article on this new feature they interviewed Eric Chan from Adobe, who was quoted as saying:
“Super Resolution builds on a technology Adobe launched two years ago called Enhance Details, which uses machine learning to interpolate RAW files with a high degree of fidelity, which resulted in images with crisp details and fewer artifacts.The term ‘Super Resolution’ refers to the process of improving the quality of a photo by boosting its apparent resolution,” Chan explains. “Enlarging a photo often produces blurry details, but Super Resolution has an ace up its sleeve: an advanced machine learning model trained on millions of photos. Backed by this vast training set, Super Resolution can intelligently enlarge photos while maintaining clean edges and preserving important details.”
What does this mean practically? Well, I immediately tested this out and was pretty shocked by the results. Though it might be hard to make out in the screenshot below, I took the surfing image shown below, which was captured a decade ago with a Nikon D700 — a 12 MP camera, and ran the Super Resolution tool on it and the end result is a 48.2 MP image that looks to be every bit as sharp (if not sharper) than the original image file. This means that I can now print that old 12 MP image at significantly larger sizes than I ever could before.
What this also means is that anyone with a lower resolution camera, i.e. like the current crop of 24 MP cameras, can now output huge image files for prints or any other usage that requires a higher resolution image file. In the three or four images I have run through this new feature in Photoshop I have found the results to be astoundingly good.
Let’s run through how this works. First off, it works with any image file, whether it is a raw images file, a tiff or a jpeg. You will have to open the image file in Adobe Camera Raw via Photoshop or Adobe Bridge as shown below. To access the Super Resolution feature, right click on the image and choose “Enhance” as shown below. A dialog window will come up so you can see how the image will look and you can also toggle back and forth between the original image and the new Enhanced version. The dialog will give you an estimate on how long it will take to create the new Enhanced image, which will show up as a separate image file. Once you are ready simply click the Enhance button in the lower right hand corner. ACR starts working in the background immediately to build the new image file and it eventually appears right next to the original file you selected wherever that one is stored.
In my testing, as shown below, it took this old 12 MP image from 4256 x 2832 pixels to 8512×5664 pixels. The screenshots below show this enlargement. The top image is the lower resolution (original) version and the bottom image is the one that went through the Super Resolution process. The higher res image look absolutely amazing. And at 48 MP I could easily blow this up to a 40×60 inch print just as with any image captured using my 45 MP Nikon D850.
Once I upsized the image using the Super Resolution feature, I zoomed into the resulting image and was very impressed. The image seemed just as sharp (if not a little sharper) than the original image file but of course it is massively larger (in terms of resolution and file size). Kudos to the folks at Adobe for creating a truly revolutionary addition to Photoshop. I have tried some of the Topaz AI software options, like Topaz Gigapixel AI, but I have not seen it work this well.
So what does this mean? For starters, it means that AI technology will have a huge impact on photography. Going forward, the software we use to work up our images (and upres them) might in some instances have a larger effect on the final images than the camera that was used to capture the image. To a certain degree this new tool in Photoshop significantly equalizes the playing field no matter what camera you are working with. All of a sudden my Nikon Z6 and Fujifilm X-Pro 3 (respectively 24 MP and 26 MP cameras) are capable of producing stunning large prints in a way that was previously just not possible.
What about high-resolution cameras you may ask? Where do they end up with all of this? The new Super Resolution tool will allow up to upres any image as long as the resulting “Enhanced” image file is less than 65,000 pixels on the long side and under 500 MP in total. What that means is I can upres the 102 MP images from my FUJIFILM GFX 100 and GFX 100S cameras and produce insane 400 MP image files from a single image. That is getting into the absurd, but that also opens some doors for crazy huge prints. The reality is that this feature is a huge boon to lower resolution (12 to 16 MP) and even medium resolution (24 MP) camera owners. Higher resolution cameras will still yield better image quality but we now have the option of making large prints from relatively low resolution image files.
This is just the start of the AI revolution. It also shows quite clearly that many of the advancements in image quality are going to come from the software side of the equation as we start to see cameras with incredible specs that might be hard to dramatically improve upon in the coming years. I am super excited about this new option in Photoshop as it will allow me to offer much larger prints than I have been able to create previously–and they will look stunning.
Update 4:53 PM – March 10, 2021
After talking with some photographer friends about this new feature I played around with images from a variety of different cameras to see how it varies. I ran a few images through from my Nikon Z6 and also a few from my FUJIFILM GFX 100. With the GFX 100 image, the Super Resolution feature popped out a 376 MP image file that was damn near identical to the original image file, just four times larger. My jaw hit the floor when I zoomed into 100% and compared it to the original! You can see both the original and the Enhanced images below. There is no way to actually convey the 100% image size here as I have no control over the viewers screen resolution but regardless, they both look wicked sharp.
From what I can tell, the Super Resolution tool seems to do an even better job with higher resolution cameras and in particular with cameras that do not have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. My Nikon Z6 images when enhanced with this tool still look impressive but not as jaw dropping as the example above. The Z6 has a very strong anti-aliasing filter, basically a filter that slightly blurs the image to reduce digital artifacts. In addition, it seems like the amount of sharpening or noise reduction applied to the image is also magnified so playing around with how the image is worked up may have a significant effect on the final image quality. I will have to do some more testing.
If you have gotten this far, and are still reading this full-on pixel-peeping madness, then you might have realized that this could be the best upgrade to any and every camera ever. This is certainly one of the most incredible features Adobe has ever released in Photoshop. Try it out for yourself and let me know how it works out for you in the comments below.
2021 is the year that everyone in the photo industry will sit up and take notice of the mirrorless cameras that have been flooding the market for the last decade. It has taken a decade for the new mirrorless options to finally match the venerable speed-demon pro-caliber DSLRs that we have all been using as professionals. I am sure many would say this happened a few years back but for pros who get to know their gear over years and years of use, a change in the system is a huge deal. With the back-to-back announcements of the Sony A1 and the FUJIFILM GFX 100S, 2021 kicked off with a bang announcing two new high-end cameras that show what is possible with mirrorless technology. With these two camera announcements, I have sold off my entire Nikon DSLR setup including all of my Nikkor F-mount lenses.
Over the last few years, since I purchased my first mirrorless camera, I have straddled the line between DSLRs and the new mirrorless technology. I first purchased the Nikon Z 6 way back in December of 2018, and shortly after that I worked with Fujifilm on the launch of the GFX 100, which became my second mirrorless camera. From the first moment I was able to shoot with the GFX 100, it became my main camera kit. The resolution and capabilities of that camera are simply astounding. At the same time, I have grown to love the Nikon mirrorless system and especially their new lenses. It has been a seamless transition from Nikon DSLRs to the Nikon mirrorless cameras. Lastly, a few years ago I added a FUJIFILM X-Pro 3 to my kit and that APS-C (crop sensor) camera has been a blast to work with when I need a robust, smaller kit. It has even gotten me to start wondering if I even need a 35mm (i.e. full-frame) camera system at all given my main kit are the two 102 MP GFX cameras (the GFX 100 and GFX 100S).
By no means are the venerable DSLRs from the last few years any less capable than they have been. In fact, the Nikon D850 has taken quite a long time to be surpassed by anything in the mirrorless world, and will for years to come be a stalwart camera capable of producing top-notch results. So, why did I sell off my entire Nikon DSLR kit? Part of the reasoning is that I was one of the lucky few who were able to shoot with the new FUJIFILM GFX 100S–and I saw during my time with that camera that it could be just about everything I would ever need, even more so than the original GFX 100. On top of that, when Sony announced the A1, that was the writing on the wall for all us in the photo industry–and especially those of us that photograph sports–that mirrorless technology has matured to the point that it far surpasses DSLR technology. Hence, the very next day, after a few discussions with fellow pros, I put all of my Nikon DSLR kit up for sale–before it depreciated into a worthless pile of expensive camera gear.
Some photographers hold onto their old cameras forever. While that sounds great to have a big shelf with old gear, that is a crap ton of money sitting on a shelf doing nothing. I look at my gear as just tools for the job. Sure, there are some cameras I will never sell, like my GFX 100, which is still my main camera and also because working with Fujifilm for the launch of that camera was a major career milestone. I still have my Nikon F5. It was the last 35mm film SLR I ever owned. And by the time I switched over to digital fully in 2005, it was essentially worthless anyway.
This period right now with the new mirrorless cameras seems eerily similar to the switch from film to digital. For those paying attention, DSLRs have now gone about as far as they can in terms of the technology–any iteration now introduces very small improvements. Mirrorless isn’t winning out because it is just new and different. The new mirrorless cameras (as a whole) have a lot of features that really do set them apart from DSLRs and allow photographers to keep pushing the envelope as far as the types of images they can create with these new cameras. As shown in the image below, created as part of a campaign for MARSOC, the US Marine Special Forces unit, I was able to create this image (and all of the images for the campaign) because I was using the new mirrorless technology (in this case In-Body Image Stabilization and crazy high clean ISO settings) to actually get an image that would have been impossible with a DSLR.
For the image above created with a 24mm lens and my Nikon Z 6, the camera settings were ISO 6400, an aperture of f/1.4 and a shutter speed of 1/10th second. This image was shot handheld as we were running all over the place and a tripod was just not an option. We essentially shot the entire campaign at night lit by tiny LED lights and the moon. This one assignment way back in 2019 really cemented the advantages of mirrorless cameras for me.
Over the last two years, I have been agonizing over when to sell off my DSLR kit. On the one hand, the GFX system can’t cover all of the adventure sports I photograph–there are no fisheye or super-telephoto lenses for the GFX system and if I need wicked fast AF that has to nail it every time (as when something will only happen once) then I have in the last few years opted for my Nikon D850 and F-mount lenses. The image below is a prime example of that scenario. For this image, created for Red Bull, the Red Bull Air Force wingsuit sky divers were only going to be jumping once and I needed an 800mm lens to shoot from four miles away. At the time I created this image, I wasn’t even working with Fujifilm cameras–or any other brand. My Nikon D850 did a great job tracking the skydiver and the Nikkor 800mm lens came through beautifully. At the time of this assignment (and even to this day), there are only two camera companies that make 800mm lenses, Canon and Nikon. High-quality, top-end 800mm lenses are not that easy to track down–even in rental houses. I had to have one shipped in from San Francisco because no rental house in Los Angeles had one for Nikon mount cameras. This was a unique gig requiring very unique equipment.
Of course, as with any transition, there is the matter of affording the switch. Luckily Fujifilm has been very, very good to me so that softened the blow considerably. But regardless of the financial part of it, there is the decision factor. With the switch to mirrorless, unlike the switch from film to digital, it isn’t just a matter of switching out the camera bodies. It is a clean start, meaning you will need to switch out all of your lenses at some point–either right away or down the line. That creates some mayhem for the camera companies as many folks are switching systems. There is still some incentive to stick with the camera brand you are already using as both Canon and Nikon have excellent adapters, but if you want to get the most out of any new system sooner or later you will have to work with the new native mirrorless lenses.
I obviously made a move to Fujifilm, specifically for their incredible medium format GFX system–which far surpassed my old Hasselblad H5D 50c WIFi that I had previously. But, I did keep my Nikons, and for the moment will keep my Nikon Z kit. I am still wrestling with the idea of my action camera kit–which could end up being a full-frame kit or an APS-C kit like the new FUJIFILM X-T4. My GFX system can handle about 80% of what I photograph. A smaller 35mm or APS-C kit would be for those more difficult shoots with extremely fast, unpredictable action (as shown above). The GFX can handle a lot more action than most people think it can (as shown below) and honestly, I am so spoiled by the 102 MP resolution and the overall image quality of medium format that the idea of working with anything else seems like a compromise. Someday soon I am sure the GFX system will be so dialed in that I won’t need anything else for any assignment. It is already very, very close to that point with the new GFX 100S.
This year will be very telling as to which camera companies push the technology enough to win over those making the transition from DSLRs. Sony has obviously made their big move already with the A1. Canon has some amazing cameras they announced last year (the R5 and R6). Fujifilm has announced the stellar new GFX 100S, which goes in a different direction than most full-frame (35mm) cameras seem to be going–and that is quite refreshing. I look forward to seeing what other cameras Fujifilm might announce this year in the X-series lineup. Nikon has a lot of ground to make up, but they have already built an incredible set of new mirrorless lenses with the Z system glass–perhaps the best glass for any 35mm mirrorless system. So, in spite of the overblown rumors that Nikon is in trouble, I have faith that they can catch up and come out with a stellar, wicked fast camera to compete with Sony and Canon.
I realize this blog post is a bit of a ramble, but guaranteed this subject is on the mind of many pro photographers who are looking to stay somewhat current with the latest technology. When photographers talk, gear is typically a part of the discussion–especially now in this innovative moment of transition. And at the moment, when a lot of us freelance photographers have little to no work due to Covid, this is a topic that comes up often. With the Associated Press (AP) here in the USA adopting Sony mirrorless cameras for their photographers, that is a major signal that the shift is in full swing. Mirrorless cameras have been good enough for quite some time now for just about any photography genre, save for sports. With the latest fast-action mirrorless cameras from Sony and Canon, even sports photographers are sitting up and taking notice. In my experience, once you get used to the EVF (and that took a while) it is very difficult to go back to DSLRs. As with the transition from film to digital twenty years ago, we are in the thick of a transition from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras and probably soon to cameras with global shutters as well. No matter how you slice it, this is a great time to be a photographer. You can’t really make a bad choice these days. Pretty much all of the cameras on the market are incredibly capable. It just comes down to what you need the camera system to do and what you can afford.
UPDATE — March 10, 2021
As I predicted in this article just a few paragraphs above, Nikon will catch up with Canon and Sony. Today, March 10, 2021, they just announced the development of the Nikon Z9, which will be the mirrorless equivalent of the Nikon D6. I don’t think we will be seeing many more DSLRs announced as Nikon said in their announcement that the Z9 will have better performance and image quality than any prior Nikon camera ever produced. This also signals that 2021, as I said in this blog post, is going to be the year that we get a good sense as to the future of mirrorless cameras. Let’s hope the Z9 can compete with the Sony A1 or even surpasses it in some ways.
The Winter 2021 issue of the Michael Clark Photography Newsletter is now available for download. If you’d like to sign up for the Newsletter just drop me an email and I’ll add you to the mailing list.
This issue of the Newsletter includes an editorial entitled Mt. Everest Bump Edition, a preview of the brand new 102-megapixel medium format FUJIFILM GFX 100S, an article detailing my assignment for Fujifilm working with the new GFX 100S, an editorial entitled Riders on the Storm, and much more.
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