Sometimes gear grows on you. And sometimes a piece of equipment’s effectiveness is less about specs and more about combinations.
Today’s article might seem like a product review on the surface, but it is not. This same story could be told about any particular piece of gear and any camera system. My objective is not to get you to buy one thing or another, nor to suggest the superiority or inferiority of any system. But rather, I simply want to tell you the tale of how first impressions can sometimes go awry.
As I am prone to do, allow me to start my story with something seemingly unrelated to photography. I am in love with Audrey Hepburn. Yes, I realize she is a famous actress who I never actually met. And yes, one or two of my ex-girlfriends has found my interest in her to be a worrying trend. But she has always been my favorite actress and thus thoroughly deserves the poster of her hanging in the living room.
Of course, to say that she has always been my favorite actress is perhaps a misnomer. Truthfully, the first time I watched an Audrey movie, I can’t say I felt much of anything at all. And, it’s not like I started at the fringes. I started with her most famous role of them all, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I didn’t dislike the film. It’s just that I didn’t immediately get what all the fuss was about.
But, a couple of months later, when I first saw “Roman Holiday,” suddenly it all became so clear. In an instant, I “got” Audrey Hepburn. By the end of the film, I was hopelessly head over heels for her and constantly on the lookout for any of her work I had yet to see. Even now, some 25 years or so since I first saw “Roman Holiday,” I still get that rush one only gets when seeing their cinematic crush, despite having seen every title in her filmography at least ten times over. That even includes “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which, once I’d been initiated, I eventually came to understand and now love that just as much as the others.
What changed? Did she fundamentally become a different person in between my first exposure to her and my second? No. Did I change? Perhaps. But really, put simply, my perspective changed because I was now keyed into that little thing that made her special. I “got” her all of the sudden and the understanding was the key to unlocking other aspects of her persona.
For those of you non-cinephiles out there, don’t worry. This article isn’t all about an actress. I simply tell that story as it is similar to the sensation I often get, or don’t get, from picking up a new camera. There are some cameras you fall in love with the second you pick them up. And then there are some who you only grow to appreciate with time. For me, this has been the story of my relationship with my Fuji GFX 100.
A brief background. I have used Nikon cameras for pretty much the entirety of my photographic career. The D200 was my camera equivalent of Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Since then, it’s pretty much just been a long line of Nikon cameras with the number of megapixels growing with the size of my clients.
A couple of years ago, I started getting into Fuji cameras. Less with an aim to use them professionally, and more simply because they are super fun to use and reconnected me to the joy of photography. While I primarily used them for walkaround photography, my enjoyment of them inspired me to see what they could do in a professional setting. Because I often rent medium format for larger campaigns, when they started the GFX line, I was intrigued. When they offered a 100 megapixel model, I was sold.
Now, inevitably, every article ever published about the GFX 100 is accompanied by one or two user comments declaring definitively that “You don’t need 100MP to do that!” But setting aside the megapixel argument for a moment, I will say that the image quality produced by the GFX 100 is easily the best I have ever used. Obviously, that’s a subjective opinion based on my experience. And I’m sure that some may argue otherwise, but, for me, the files this camera produces are simply amazing. The wow factor in the final files was immediately apparent from the first time I picked up the camera. Unfortunately, despite the amazing result, the process of using the camera always left me somewhat frustrated. I’ve written at length about the upsides and downsides of shooting with the GFX 100. So, I won’t rehash all of that here. But, needless to say, it wasn’t the files that were letting me down, but the user experience just didn’t seem to click with my personal approach to shooting.
This could be because my hands are, by this point, so pre-programmed to Nikon cameras that I was just experiencing the normal growing pains of adjusting to a new button layout. Or perhaps it was some annoyances that come with mirrorless cameras as I am a pretty tried and true DSLR shooter on most days. Or maybe it was just a handful of the GFX 100’s very real quirks that always made shooting real work with it seem more challenging than it needed to be. Whatever the reason, after my first year of ownership, the $10,000 camera I had bought with the intention of overhauling my entire camera system had amounted to nothing more than a really flashy paperweight. Regardless of the amazing files, I found the shooting experience to be so frustrating that my plan going into this year was to sell the camera off and recoup whatever money I could. Even though I knew this would mean I would be taking a bath financially, I just didn’t see myself choosing it over my Nikon enough to make it worth keeping.
But, not wanting to rush anything, my plan was to sell off the system piecemeal, drag things out, and give the camera every chance to prove me wrong. So, I started off by selling off some of the lenses. I owned as many as four at one point, and I began to sell them off one-by-one starting with the ones I used the least. If I wasn’t going to be using the camera on a regular basis, I definitely didn’t need all those lenses collecting dust as well. So I sold off lenses and poured the money back into my other pieces of gear and/or on producing new projects. Eventually, I found myself with only one general-purpose lens remaining, the 32-64mm (roughly 25-50mm in full frame terms). I hadn’t shot a frame with the camera for months. Needless to say, I wasn’t super happy with my investment.
Yet the files were just so darn good. So, as much as it made logical sense to sell the camera, the shutterbug in me just didn’t really want to let it go. So I rationed that I would continue to hold on until I absolutely needed the money. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t going to invest any more money into the system. That wouldn’t make sense.
And then I saw the sale. If you can’t guess already, I’m a sucker for a good sale. I am also a sucker for a good pancake lens, and the small in stature GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR is the closest thing to a pancake lens in the GFX system. When I wrote a review of the lens for Fstoppers a few months earlier, I thought the lens might actually be too small for the GFX 100 body. It seemed perfectly suited for the GFX 50R or 50S, but the 100’s larger frame simply dwarfed the glass attached to it. Yet, it did seem to focus faster than the other GF primes I had tried, it was obviously smaller, and most importantly in that exact moment, it was at an extremely deep discount. So, I said what the heck and pulled out the plastic.
The result of the impulse buy was not exactly what I had anticipated. The small lens which I had initially envisioned to be an occasional change-up lens for the system, quickly took root as the lens that stayed attached to the camera in my bag. I’ve written before about my love for the 40mm focal length (50mm on the GFX is about 41mm on full frame). It is just close enough to my usual favorite 50mm focal length, but offers just a wee bit more width for tight areas. So the focal length itself could have been a big reason for my enjoyment.
But then, the unexpected happened. We were all hit with a pandemic earthquake which changed both our business activities as well as limited the social activities available to us on a daily basis. I’ve never really considered myself much of a street photographer. I still don’t. But, given we have spent so much of the year under citywide stay-at-home orders, a new tradition of the afternoon neighborhood walkabout was born. And, being a photographer, I of course wanted to have a camera with me to take pictures of all the alleycats and other random sights along the way.
Logic would dictate that I would want to use a much smaller camera for walkabouts. And I have plenty of smaller cameras to choose from. Yet oddly I found the GFX with the 50mm to be my best traveling companion. The body is large, to be sure. But with the 50mm mounted, it is also relatively flat. A smaller DSLR or mirrorless on the other hand, fitted with any of the primes or short zooms in my possession tended to be shorter but protrude out further. Those DSLRs/mirrorless camera lenses always seemed to attract attention when I was walking around. The GFX 100, though taller, sat flatter against my body and more often went unnoticed. Chalk that one up as strange but true.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Especially the guy who will inevitably complain that you don’t need 100 MP for that. And, it’s true, I definitely didn’t invest in the GFX 100 for it to be a fun walkabout camera. This camera was meant to be a business investment that would earn its money back. It was not meant for pictures of the neighbor’s dog, Blue, regardless of how handsome she is.
But, that is not the end of the story. No, the shots I took on my walkabout had no real fiscal value. But, with the 50mm mounted, I had inadvertently found an ergonomic balance that really made the system feel right in my hand. Clearly, this is a subjective thing. But, subjectively speaking, I found myself really enjoying the combination and being able to comfortably shoot with the GFX 100 for endless hours on end. And because I am partial to the focal length, I didn’t find the combination overly limiting. The files the camera produced were always top-notch. But, now, I was suddenly finding that the shooting experience itself was rising to match the occasion. I was still using my Nikon’s for work, but the GFX 100 had almost completely taken over for everything else.
Of course, this newfound appreciation was now making it even harder for me to carry through on my plan to sell the camera. Yet, if I was to justify not selling it, I would have to find a way to get it to work the way I needed to on a real set when money was on the line.
Everyone has their preferences, but if I’m being honest with myself, there is really only one lens I actually need to create my professional work. The 24-70mm pretty much suits me to a tee. I don’t really do landscapes, so anything wider is more of a bonus. Though I shoot athletes, I don’t shoot live games so I don’t absolutely need anything on the long end. So, if I was on a desert island, the 24-70mm is what I would take with me. Thus, it’s always the first lens I buy for a new system. Only problem being, when I bought the GFX 100, no such lens existed in the GF lineup.
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. Around the time the 50mm was revitalizing my love for the GFX 100, Fuji announced a 45-100mm f/4 R LM OIS WR zoom. This is the equivalent of roughly 36-79mm in full frame. I got my hands on a loaner to see if it could be the key to being able to operate the GFX 100 in the nimble fashion I require in my creative process. It easily passed the test. And, yep, you guessed it, another sale came around. But this time, instead of feeling as though money had been wasted, I was now holding a system, the same system in actuality, that was now better able to address my initial needs that made me buy it in the first place.
The camera itself hadn’t fundamentally changed. Yes, the introduction of the 45-100mm was a game-changer. But, truth be told, the real key to turning things around was the 50mm. It gave me just the right balance on the camera and brought joy into shooting with the system. That joy translated into me giving the camera more opportunities. True, at first those opportunities were largely informal and not money-making, but they did allow me to spend more time with the camera and become even more familiar with it. That extra time allowed me the space to start to understand what made the camera special. It also allowed me to figure out those little small customizable tweaks here and there that made it more suited to my shooting style. You know those little things that you won’t learn from the manual or from reading about other people’s experiences, but rather you can only learn from hours of trial and error and tinkering with a camera’s menu settings.
I won’t say that the camera has completely taken over the mantle as my go-to camera for professional work. As many times as I’ve brought in challengers to replace it, the Nikon D850 still remains, for me, pretty much the camera equivalent of a magic wand. I don’t know how it does what it does, but it does things so well that I do truly wonder if I’ll even need another camera.
As I said at the top of this essay, my objective is not to try to sell you on buying the Fuji GFX 100 or the 50mm lens. Rather the takeaway I wish to leave with you is simply how our impressions of things can often change over time. In my initial tests of the camera system, I found that it didn’t suit my shooting style as much as I would have liked. I wasn’t wrong. But I also hadn’t really been able to get past the initial surface level of the camera to see the power underneath. I hadn’t had it long enough to accidentally stumble onto the keys to making it work for me. One could argue that a camera should simply work perfectly out of the box. I don’t disagree with that. My Nikons have always taken to my grip like ducks to water, so I do appreciate the immediate connection between camera and user. But, my experience with the GFX 100 has also reminded me of the value of a relationship that develops over time. It has also reminded me that, while we think of products as being in a bubble, it is often the complementary products that surround them that are key to their success. Tom Brady is a terrific quarterback. But at the University of Michigan, he wasn’t even a full-time starter. Paired with the right team and the right coach in the NFL, he became one of the all-time greats. A good camera can become great when paired with the right accessories. When paired with the wrong accessories, it can struggle to live up to its potential.
The GFX 100, at long last, has finally cemented its place and usefulness in the lineup. It’s been a much longer journey to reaching this point than I had anticipated. But it too has now had the opportunities to go into battle on real-world advertising campaigns for global brands and pass the tests with flying colors. Those positive experiences are essential in building the one intangible that can’t be listed on a spec sheet, trust.
Like my thoroughly unreasonable love for Audrey Hepburn, the connection I felt with the GFX 100 wasn’t instantaneous, but rather it took time to develop. Yet once the connection hit, it quickly became clear just how special it was all along. Let’s just hope that my connection with the camera can last as long as my poster of Holly Golightly.