The last time I shot on film was in 2008. At the time I was a fierce advocate of film cameras and convinced it would take some dark magic and/or a personality transplant to convert me to the unromantic world of pixels. Turns out that all it took was a bit of light leak.
I was shooting a picture story in the Punjab, India, of an Olympic boxers (Indian Olympians were a surprisingly rare breed considering the country’s one billion population). With me was my trusted tank of a camera, the Mamiya RB67, along with 100 rolls of Kodak Portra 120mm film. The landscape, light and subject meant that this picture story was in the bag.
I returned to London just before Christmas and sent my film off to a developer. Anxious to find out how they turned out I texted him on Christmas Eve. ‘Looking really good’, came the response. But when I went to pick them up a week later I was met with a sheepish look and the revelation that my developer, not wanting to ruin my Christmas, had told me a white lie. The films were not looking good, in fact. Thanks to a rocky ride in Air India’s hull my Mamiya had taken a few big hits and all but two rolls of film had suffered from light leak.
It was an experience that forced me into the world of digital and since that dark episode nine years ago I haven’t shot film professionally. In that time I’ve missed the weighty metallic feel of my Mamiya, the mechanical click of the Cannon AE1 shutter and the excitement of picking up contact sheets. But most of all I’ve missed the grain of images, the creamy colours only film seems to be able to produce and the clarity of a 120 film.
In various stints during that time I’ve read up on digital medium formats and asked advertising photographers about their digital backs, interested to find out if digital medium formats can actually replicate the feel and visuals of a film camera. The general consensus; yes, if you have £30k to spend. As much as I would have liked to shell out that money for a digital Mamiya or Hassleblad, that wasn’t a spend I could justify.
Recently I followed the seemingly annual tradition of asking around, hoping that perhaps some of the older generations digital backs would now be affordable. As soon as I thought I might have discovered something I would find myself on a discussion feed below some geeky camera blogging website article with the same old ‘why would anyone by a phase one xx when a mark 4 is a better resolution and a better..’ Far from being a technical photographer, I’ve never been able to dissect and judge these counter arguments myself, so every negative review was an irreversible strike against any new discovery. That is until I heard about the Fuji GXF 50.
A month ago I was discussing my recurrent conundrum with a documentary photographer friend of mine when he asked if I heard about the ‘game changer’ GFX 50. After giving me the basic spiel about it being the first affordable(ish) medium format digital camera I went out to find out more. To my delight, not only where all the reviews universally positive, I couldn’t find one negative comment about the camera… not even in the dreaded comment section.
I was so seduced by the reviews (I should be wiser than this by now) I jumped straight in and bought the thing. With 24 months interest-free finance being offered by UK Calumet the hit wasn’t so bad. In fact, the monthly payments seemed so reasonable that I ended up going with quite a few of the extras. But the basics were this – a body, an SLR equivalent 25-50mm lens and 90mm macro lens. Total cost £11,500.
When I went to pick up the camera from Drummond Street Calumet, a mecca for techy photographers and non-photographers that usually I find too much to handle, the guy behind the counter gave me an unfamiliar look as he handed over the box and said ‘you’ve got a great one here. Everyone who has one loves it’. I had won! Anyone who has had the experience of going to a college photography rental room and had to navigate the proverbial gatekeeper of the treasure trove knows how difficult and hard it is to please the camera technician, to not evoke a clear sense of disdain for your ignorance of camera equipment. But here, I was not only getting through our interaction unmarked, I had his approval!
A more pragmatic photographer might spend their time reading through the dense and compressive user manual, setting up the camera and testing its functions, but I was simply too eager to get it out of the wrapper and put it to work. A couple of food shoots in the studio and on location were enough to show the camera’s resolution quality but shooting long exposures on a tripod with natural light wasn’t really putting it to the test. It was like buying a Maserati and driving it around the block. But part of the reason for the quick purchase was because I had a picture story in Indonesia to shoot and this would be the perfect place to really test the engine.
Once I had got used to the basics I became completely confident I had made the right choice. Beyond anything else the most noticeable quality of the GFX 50 was the handling. For the first time since my dreaded India trip I had what felt like a Mamiya in my hand, only with a few big improvements. The GFX 50 seems to ride a perfect balance between being meaty, perhaps a feature mostly appreciated by editorial and documentary photographers, and lightweight. When I have in cupped in both hands its feels like a tank, just as any self-respecting medium format camera should do, but when it slips back into one hand I can comfortably hold it by my waist with no discomfort. The LCD screen at the back, which flips around for all types of use, is something I am, or was, inherently suspicious of. But when adjusted to face directly up so that I can shoot landscapes or portraits from the hip, just as I would with a Mamiya 67, it felt perfect.
Second up, the outstanding resolution and picture quality. Going back to those reviews, I find spec sheets totally unreadable. Just a blur of numbers and meaningless terms that seem inconstant. Presumably, the major camera manufacturers, able to develop cutting edge technology, are able to play the system and present numbers that exaggerate and deceive, like the 50MB camera phone cameras which seem like utter bullshit. With the GFX 50 there is absolutely not questioning the 50+ MB resolution. Rather than describe my point I thought it best to illustrate it with an image from the trip. Below is the full frame shot – taken at 320 ISO at f5.6, 125th of a second.
The filmmaker and I would joke that taking one photo of a group of people could yield a whole series of portraits. Not really a joke though… Shooting at night, something I’ve never been fond of, became exciting all of sudden. The ability you have to bring out detail from black is incredible. I could quite happily sit playing with the raw files for 20 minutes making adjustments (not that I did that though, it’s cheating I hear).
After the physical handling of the Mamiya the thing I missed most about shooting film is the interpretation of light. I have strived unsuccessfully for nearly a decade to reproduce the creamy, vivid but paradoxically dull colours on film like Kodak Portra can give but I’ve finally got those colours back with the GFX 50. With the exception of bumping up the clarity slightly on the raw the shots below have not been retouched.
It might sound like I’ve been paid by Fuji to write this, or maybe been provided with the camera for free. This is not the case, although I wish it was. In fact, if anyone from Fuji reads this, get in touch because you’ve found yourself an impassioned brand ambassador hungry for the new lenses when they come out.