Every year since 2014 I’ve returned to Venice to photograph the Carnival and to lead a workshop there. This year I took the Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format camera system with me and gave it a good test. In this article, I’ll give you my thoughts and review of the Fujifilm GFX 50S and let you know how I think it rates.
What is the Venice Carnival?
If you’re not familiar with the Venice Carnival, imagine the whole city being taken over by hundreds of people wearing masks and costumes, some of them incredibly elaborate and rich in decorations.
Styles range from the historical to the fantastic, funny to cosplay, and more.
As all those people like to wander around the city day and night, it’s a cornucopia of opportunities for photographers and, indeed, thousands of them come to Venice for the two weeks of Carnival.
Why the Fujifilm GFX 50S?
As I mentioned, in order to try to spice up my experience and create photographs that are different from the millions that everybody else takes, this year I decided to raise the bar and come to Venice with a medium format camera.
That is quite a change from my usual crop sensor kit, which mainly consists of the Fujifilm X-T3, with an assortment of lenses.
As I am familiar with the Fujifilm interface and controls, my choice fell on the GFX 50S, which I had the opportunity to test for a few days last year.
I was mightily impressed by the quality of the files it could create and the amount of detail afforded by its 50MP sensor combined with the phenomenally sharp lenses of the GF line.
Fuji GF Lenses
So to review the Fujifilm GFX 50S, I rented the body, with three lenses
When comparing the focal lengths above to those used on a 35mm “full frame” camera, keep in mind that the sensor of the GFX is larger (42.8mm x 32.9mm) than the 35mm one. Therefore, in order to get the “equivalent” focal length that would give you the same field of view on a full frame sensor, you have to multiply them by 0.79.
Without making you do the math, let’s just say I was covered from about 18mm to 87mm, in 35mm-equivalent terms with the lenses listed above.
Wide-angle or telephoto?
I was expecting to use the wide-angle lens much more than the telephoto, but surprisingly, the opposite turned out to be true.
Many of the private photography sessions we organize tend to be in small spaces and if I tried to shoot from a distance in the street, it’s guaranteed that tourists would have been swarming in front of my camera.
In the end, however, the 110mm proved to be extremely useful and I used it much more than the 23mm, which gave me too much distortion when it was used up close.
I took about 50% of the photos with the 32-64mm lens, 40% with the 110mm, and only 10% with the 23mm.
Another reason why I preferred the 110mm is that, at f/2.0 and with such a large sensor, I could get the background as smooth as I wanted and its bokeh is delicious.
They say images taken with a medium format camera have a kind of 3D look that is not easily replicated with smaller formats.
I was skeptical, at first, but now I am a believer. It will be hard to go back to my puny APS-C sensor, after this.
I used the 23mm lens only when I was forced to stay really close to the subject, like this image below shot on a gondola.
The GFX Camera Body
One of the things I like about my Fuji X-T3 is that it has all the main controls on dials that I can easily reach with my fingers.
With the GFX 50S, the Fujifilm designers had to make some compromises and couldn’t fit all of them around the large viewfinder enclosure, without making the camera larger.
Actually, the only thing I regretted not having was a dedicated exposure compensation dial, mostly because the button you have to press on the GFX is really tiny. Luckily, the weather was unseasonably warm and I didn’t have to wear gloves so I was able to manage.
The body of the Fuji GFX 50S is large, but not much larger than a top-of-the-line full-frame DSLR body and it’s not that heavy.
I have big hands, so a big camera is not an issue for me. Quite the opposite actually.
However, the lenses are big and heavy. They feel tank-solid.
I was worried it would tax my shoulders to carry them along for days, but I was almost never fatigued.
Most of the time, I walked around with the body and at least two lenses carried across the shoulder inside a Peak Design Everyday Messenger 15. That bag is just about perfect for this kind of kit.
The Pros of the Fujifilm GFX 50S
The main reason why someone would want to buy such a camera is undoubtedly image quality.
So how does the Fujifilm GFX 50S fare in this respect?
What I can say is that the GFX produces images are sharp, rich in detail, with beautiful colors and smooth bokeh.
My rate of keepers this time was much higher than in the past. This is also true because this type of camera somewhat forced me to slow down and think about what I was doing.
Most of the time, I shot with Auto-ISO turned on and with the upper limit set to 1600.
In hindsight, I should have probably gone as high as 3200, or even 6400, because the files at ISO 1600 are so clean that it’s hard to distinguish them from those taken at ISO 400.
Fujifilm has managed to bundle all this quality in a relatively compact package that is well-designed and easy to use. Especially those familiar with the design of Fujifilm X-Series cameras will find themselves right at home.
In my opinion, there are only two major drawbacks to the GFX system.
The first is that the camera is slow.
Besides being a little less reactive, in general, than what I’m used to, it can also only shoot 3 frames per second in continuous shooting mode.
In practice, this was not a problem when posing subjects, but on a couple of occasions, we were shooting a very funny couple who liked to move quickly and jump in the air when it’s least expected.
The Fujifilm X-T3 would have been perfect in those situations, and besides, who needs 50MP for these kinds of photos? But in the end, I still managed to capture some funny moments, with a bit of luck.
The second drawback is that neither the camera nor the lenses have image stabilization.
I was a bit worried about this, especially when hand-holding the 110mm. But using auto-ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, I was able to avoid excessive blur even in some critical situations.
Maybe it’s just because the camera is big and I can use its large surface to hold it firmly against my face, but I got away with slower shutter speeds than I thought possible, without stabilization.
Using a monopod would be a good idea, though.
Flash Photography and the Fujifilm GFX 50S
Creative flash photography is a big part of what I do in Venice every year.
This time around, I shot a lot of pictures with one or two Godox TT685F speedlights, driven by a Godox X1T-F trigger. This is the same system I use with the Fujifilm X-T3 when traveling because it’s compact, lightweight, inexpensive, and reliable. It also supports TTL and HSS when used together with the X-T3.
Does it still allow TTL and HSS on the GFX?
I have no idea because I always used it in manual mode. If anyone knows, please leave a comment below.
Keep in mind that the maximum flash sync speed of the GFX is only 1/125th of a second, compared to 1/200th or 1/250th on most other cameras. This would only be a problem when using flash in bright daylight, so it didn’t concern me at all.
Fujifilm GFX 50S Review Summary
Did I love shooting with the Fujifilm GFX 50S? Definitely!
I am already thinking of renting it again when I go to Scotland in May.
I want to see how it works with landscapes, but I have very high expectations now.
Would I buy a GFX kit myself? Probably not.
I am mostly a travel photographer and I still appreciated the compactness and lightweight qualities of my X-T3 with its lenses.
Also, I’m not sure I can justify the cost right now.
This camera is not for everyone
Aside from the price tag, which after all is not much different from that of a top-level professional DSLR, there is one main reason to get it and that’s image quality.
But who needs all that image quality?
In my opinion, it’s only those who are doing large fine-art prints or doing commercial work for demanding clients (high-end stock imagery or billboards).
So my resolve is to rent it from time to time, only when I think it will be the perfect tool for the job!
Next year I will be back to the Venice Carnival for yet another workshop and I am already thinking I’d like to take the Fujifilm GFX 50S with me again. Or maybe by then, Fujifilm will have released the planned GFX 100 and I will take that one instead, just to stay ahead of the game.
Have you tried out the Fujifilm GFX 50S?
If so please share your findings with me in the comments below, as well as your images. I’d love to hear what you thought of it and see your images.
THANKS: I’d like to thank Riflessi Shop of Turin, Italy, who lent me the camera on short notice. Without their help, this article would not have been possible.
Join Darlene and Ugo in Venice for Carnival 2020!
We're super excited to tell you that Ugo has asked Darlene to be a guest instructor at his photo tour of the Venice Carnival next year. The dates are February 17-22nd, 2020. Get all the info or register here!
Early bird pricing is in effect until April 30th, 2019 so sign up now and save.
The Carnival of Venice is an event that attracts thousands of photographers from all over the world, each one of them hoping to photograph the beautiful and rich costumes that people wear during those days.
Expectations are high, but without in-depth knowledge and the right resources, photographing the Carnival can be a frustrating experience, as everyone has to fight for their spot and their time with the models.
Popular locations can be very crowded and it is almost impossible to get a good shot, with the best light and a nice background.
We Stand Out From The Competition
What Ugo offers with this tour is an experience that is completely different from the rushed and confusing one you would get by going to the Carnival on your own.
Thanks to the many Carnivals I and my partners have spent in Venice, we have developed personal and intimate relationships with the best models, those who wear the richest costumes and who are accustomed to posing for the best photographers.
This means having their undivided attention, dedicated to you and your small group for all the time necessary.
In the past, we have also scouted some exclusive locations, like hotels, palaces, and theaters, where you will be able to photograph the models in beautiful settings, amidst ancient furniture and tapestry, without having to share the rooms with many other photographers.
Venice itself any time is amazing, during Carnival it's magical. Come discover it with us!