Making Portraits in Cuba: A Photographer’s Experience with the Fuji GFX 50S Medium Format Camera

Making Portraits in Cuba: A Photographer’s Experience with the Fuji GFX 50S Medium Format Camera

A couple of weeks ago, I had some time on my schedule and decided to board a flight to head to Havana. A friend of mine gave me the best advice before heading out to the trip. “Try not to plan for anything. Spend a couple of days just walking around and taking in the area. This will give you a good plan on what you should focus on for a later trip.” Having that kind of creative freedom really did help as I didn’t put any unrealistic expectations for myself on the trip.

The one thing that I did want to do, however, was test drive a new camera. Not too soon after, I got my chance with the newly-released Fuji GFX 50S medium format camera. I figured I’d give you guys a peek at what it was like to shoot with the camera and get you some sample images for you to look over.

As a photographer, I find myself constantly trying to find a way to use the tools that are out there to see how they can shape my work, or help me make images that have just a bit of a unique touch to them. While I’ve largely spent my time in the DSLR space, I’ve wondered about how much more I would get from working in the medium format space.

The GFX is a 50 megapixel beast, the sensor being 43.8 × 32.9mm – bigger than the standard 35mm that you would find on full frame DSLR cameras to date. Important note: the GFX sensor is actually a bit smaller than the ones you’d find on a traditional medium format camera but equal to the size of sensors being seen in today’s newer Hasselblad and Phase offerings.

GFX 50S in a nutshell:

● 51.4MP medium format CMOS sensor (43.8 × 32.9mm) with Bayer filter array

● 3.69M-dot OLED removable EVF (you can get a tilting adapter for it)

● 3.2″ 2.36M-dot touch LCD that tilts horizontally and vertically

● AF-point-selection joystick

● Weather sealing

● Film simulation modes like those found in other Fuji offerings

● 1/125 sec flash sync speed (there are ways around this sync limitation – see New Arrival: Fuji GFX Medium Format Camera)

● 3 FPS continuous shooting

● 1080/30p video capture

● In-camera RAW processing

● Dual SD card slots (UHS-II)

● USB 3.0 socket

● WiFi

This larger sensor can provide images that do better in lower light and the overall size of the images can yield an incredibly large print – very good for making large high quality prints. But that’s only one part of the puzzle. There’s just something inherently different about the feel of the images that come out of a medium format sensor. The images have an incredible amount of detail but they also have this dimensionality to them that comes with shooting in this space.

The images have this three dimensional feel to them. It’s a little hard to see on a small screen but move these images into a larger monitor and the image feels like it comes to life. The Fuji sensor does a wonderful job of color rendition and tone, getting about 14 stops of dynamic range in the images. With the sensor being larger than your traditional DSLR you’ll also notice that lenses like the 32-64mm give you a look that really does feel like the equivalent of what you can see with your naked eye (the field of view equivalent in this case is 25-51mm).

Depth of feel fall-off feels different. The overall mood of the image just feels different! Subjects feel as if they are popping out of the picture when you work your depth of field. Your field of view looks natural and these things – while I don’t want to get overly technical on the specifics – just yield images that look altogether different than what you can see in the DSLR space.

Ergonomically, I thought the camera seemed very well balanced. I’ve always loved the feature set in the GFX and menus, buttons, and dials seemed very easy to handle. If I had one nitpick it would be having to work the exposure compensation button when shooting. It’s placement felt a little awkward to hit when you were in the middle of shooting but not altogether bad. With electronic viewfinders, I found that there has always been a compromise when it comes to visual quality of the image during capture and battery life. I can definitely see that there is ample battery life in the camera but probably not as much as I am used to with a DSLR. If I were to buy the camera I would definitely be investing in spares and multiple chargers.

I was happy as a clam shooting in Cuba with a camera that was giving me incredible detail but there was something I wanted to work with while I was out here. One of the reasons I had waited so long to get to Cuba was a belief that I didn’t want to just go there and “take pictures”. I don’t know why but I’ve always believed that going to foreign place and just taking pictures of people felt like I was raiding a location. To go without having a way to leave something there felt like a glorified museum exhibit. As a photographer, I have a sense of responsibility to want to feel like I was really inside of a place and just not looking at it from the outside.

I packed an Instax SP1 printer and ordered a ton of Instax prints and batteries and made sure that this was something that I had in my bag every time I went out. I said to myself that if I am going to make a picture of a person then I am going to make sure that I sit and talk with them and offer to make a portrait for them rather than for me. Once I made a picture, I was able to print it right on the spot and give my subject something they could keep. As I was walking around old Havana, I spotted a couple of men working on a bicycle taxi and asked if I could make a picture of them as they worked. After showing them pictures I took, I set up a series of prints for them.

That led to people coming out of nowhere to see if they could get a portrait of themselves made. I was asked to take pictures of families. Babies. Pictures of Abuela. I was asked if I wanted something to eat and was offered a chance to come into their home. I politely declined but did not leave that place until I made sure I gave everyone that wanted a print something to remember the moment. I’m hoping to work on the pictures some more and head back out there in a couple of months to deliver them. It’s easy to talk about how simple the Instax printing was right from the camera but it’s the existence of the feature in the first place that led me to want to push past looking from the outside to actually sitting among things. I pushed myself to try something different. To me that was the whole point of this. Can this camera give me a set of tools that can let me express myself differently? The answer was a wholehearted yes.

Below is a 100% crop of the above image. It is edited already (you download RAWs below) but quickly demonstrates the amazing file size and resolution of the camera.

There are a ton of resources out there that will give you excruciating details and comparisons. The best I could do is this. Click on the links below and you can download a few of the RAW images to check out. This will let you make your own comparisons. To view these, you’ll need to make sure your file viewing software of choice is on the most recent update. For Adobe product users, you can find which RAW files are supported for which versions HERE. Lightroom and Photoshop both support GFX RAW (.RAF) files with their latest updates. Capture One currently doesn’t officially support GFX files.

RAW Example 1 (79.4MB Zip File, 117.4MB RAW File)
RAW Example 2 (79MB Zip File, 116.8MB RAW File)
RAW Example 3 (78.3MB Zip File, 117.7MB RAW File)
RAW Example 4 (63.3MB Zip File, 115.9MB RAW File)
RAW Example 5 (77.8MB Zip File, 117.2MB RAW File)
RAW Example 6 (86.1MB Zip File, 117.7MB RAW File)

You need to form your own opinion on whether this camera suits the work that you do. The only way to make sure that it can help you tell a story is to put it through your paces. This is where I am such a proponent of renting gear. Before you set out to spend a boatload of money, check out the GFX Deluxe Package. Take it out for a week. See what it can do for you. If you feel like I do, then you can start working on a plan for getting your own.

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RC is the founder of First Shot School, an award winning photographer and author of the best selling books Get Your Photography On the Web , The HDR Book, and The Enthusiast's Guide to Lightroom. He worked as Director of Content and Education for Kelby Media Group and host of the popular podcasts Photography Tips and Tricks and The Grid. A sought after public speaker, he has held training seminars around the world and has served as guest instructor for the Digital Landscape Workshop Series with Moose Peterson, Advanced Flash Photography at Jade Mountain with Joe McNally, and His Light workshops with famed landscape photographer Bill Fortney.

2 Comments

  1. WOW! Out of 13 images in the story, only 2 are portraits… And average at most. Are you kidding?

    Reply
  2. Very cool stuff.

    Reply

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