To II or not to II? Usually, that’s an easy question to answer, because of course we always want the improved version of a given current model, right? But when it comes to Fujifilm’s GFX 50s Mk II, the upgrade path presents some cause to pause for thought ahead of slamming your money down.
Having used the GFX 50s Mk I over the last couple of years, I’m very aware of its shortcomings, in particular its lack of image stabilisation.
However, it’s a tolerable shortcoming because almost all the work I do with the 50s is architectural or studio work, so the camera is usually hugging a tripod or other support. Image stabilisation – or lack thereof – usually presents no issue in these circumstances.
Yet the the addition of 5-axis In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) in the new model is very welcome indeed.
Certainly, while I was testing it, shooting a pin-sharp capture of a beautifully textured vintage rail freight wagon handheld at 1/25sec gave me quite the thrill after so many wasted shots of similar subjects using the Mark I with its lack of stabilisation.
But is one new feature really enough to justify changing up?
My initial thought on that was a resounding “yes”. Damn straight, I do.
One of my favourite recreational shoots involves a visit to Spring Mount Conservation Reserve where the dense tangle of scrub makes it difficult to work with a tripod and the subdued light under the forest canopy tends to keep the shutter speeds on the slow side, along with close-up subjects that don’t lend themselves to high ISO settings.
Yeah, I want stabilisation. Who wouldn’t? It’s a very welcome addition.
However, on extracting the Mark II from its box, my heart sank a little.
Fujifilm decided to change the controls layout and one of my favourite things about working with the 50S has been radically changed.
Where the old-school shutter speed dial used to be on the top panel to the right of the viewfinder, there is now an LCD panel displaying virtual dials controlled by front and rear-mounted selection wheels.
If you’re a Mark I owner, you may well share my disappointment. I found it took some getting used to; indeed, rather confusing at first.
If you’re new to the camera, it won’t matter, unless your motivation to buy into Fujifilm is spurred by the maker’s long-standing styling with traditional knob controls. It’s entirely a matter of taste, really, and not a deal-breaker.
In any case, other changes to the controls layout are more welcome. There is now a stills/movie selector on the left side of the top panel, which saves you digging into the Drive menu as required in the Mark I.
The Focus Mode selector has been moved from the left side of the rear panel to the right side where it sits more comfortably within the controls cluster. It’s good to be able to feel your way to that control within reach of your trigger finger (sorry, lefties) rather than hunt for it where it was.
Also, this may seem inconsequential, but the self-timer setting now persists. On the Mark I, if I enable the two-second self-timer (a habit I practise in part to overcome the Mark I’s lack of IBIS) I have to set it again after the camera powers down to conserve battery. It drives me batty. Nice that that’s fixed.
Fujifilm has made a radical change to the battery, too, with the Mark II now using the NP-W235, which happens to be the same battery used in the Fujifilm X-T4.
If you’re so invested in the Fujifilm system that you own an X-T4, you’ll find yourself with swappable batteries, which is always handy. The NP-W235 battery is rated to capture 455 still frames and 80 minutes video, which out in the field largely held up, though of course your mileage will vary depending on how you use it.
It’s quite the improvement over the Mk I, which forced me into buying the battery grip for a second battery in order to get through a commercial shoot without the camera dying on me.
As an inveterate timelapse photographer, my go-to power test is with the rear display disabled and the timelapse function set to record every five seconds. The single NP-W235 battery lasted for 2682 frames before powering off the camera.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – a welcome improvement
Actually, a pretty good result. I’d have been satisfied with 1800 frames, which is what I get from a twin-battery set-up in my Canon 5D Mk III.
Another welcome addition to the Mark II’s power management is the addition of a USB-C port that can charge the battery and power the camera. If you have a portable battery pack, you can take the Mark II a long way from an AC outlet and shoot for days.
Worth noting, though, is the Mark II has no capacity for adding a battery grip, which would give the user a second battery as an alternative to overcome power outage during a long shoot.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – handheld at one fifth of a second
With all that said, the litmus test lies with the imaging quality.
Cosmetic and physical changes to the camera are to be expected to some degree but what we really want in a Mark II model is some measure of improvement to the camera’s imaging prowess. Is it there?
Let’s start with the addition of the Pixel Shift Multi-shot function, which uses the camera’s IBIS to shift the image sensor by 0.5 of a pixel through 16 successive frames, then uses Pixel Shift Combiner software (using a computer with free, downloadable software, not in-camera) to concatenate a single Digital Negative file to deliver a 200MP image, which weighs in to the order of hundred of megabytes, so bear storage requirements in mind.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – pixel shift offers a new approach
I first encountered Pixel Shift captures when using Panasonic’s S1 and I recall how I initially thought it was just a gimmick.
Not so with the S1 and not so with the GFX 50s II. If you’re into shooting any subject with a view to making highly detailed large prints, the Pixel Shift capture option may well be your favourite feature of this camera.
Be sure to use a solid tripod, though. The slightest movement of the camera/lens between shots will lead you into a surreal render of your scene.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – improved image processing at ISO1250
Indeed, a static subject is paramount to a successful Pixel Shift capture. A desert scene with strongly defined motion-free shapes? Excellent. Wetlands with reeds swaying in a gentle breeze? Not so good.
Remember, this comes off a medium format sensor (I deliberately resist using “large format” as per Fufjifilm’s wont) so even with the standard single-frame capture mode, you have a 51.4MP sensor to start with to build a huge file, but it’s not a matter of just having a lot of pixels to play with, there are after all DSLRs with similar pixel counts; the important consideration is the sensor size, which at 43.8mm x 32.9mm is 1.7 times the size of a full-frame DSLR.
And so? Well, geometry, friends. Geometry. There’s a good reason those 10-inch x 8-inch negatives of Ansel’s et al are still awe-inspiring: it’s largely in the size of the recording medium (and, yes, filmophiles, being shot on film didn’t hurt, either) and the same idea holds true in the digital age.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – excellent landscape camera
The sensor dimensions matter. Until you shoot with a larger-than-DSLR sensor, the benefit can’t be apparent to you and, for the want of a less subjective phrase, the larger sensor gives all those pixels extra room to breathe. Shoot with it, you’ll get it.
Sharp? You bet, especially with the GF lenses on the front.
I don’t mind saying the Fujinon GF 110mm f2 is among the best glass I’ve ever mounted on a Japanese camera and the smooth bokeh when shooting wide open on the 110mm or any of the GF lenses for that matter presents another benefit of the larger sensor.
But is the image capture really any better than the Mark I? Well, given it’s the same sensor in both cameras: no, it can’t be, notwithstanding improvements wrought by the upgraded image processor.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – fine detail and soft bokeh
The improvements to image capture in the Mark II lie largely with the improved AF response, a more capable image processing engine and the Pixel Shift function.
On one count, however, the Mark II presents quite a leap; the higher ISO settings are far more usable than the Mark I. I would never have shot higher than ISO 800 on the Mark I. I could confidently shoot up to ISO 3200 with the Mark II.
This brings us to the improved image processor, the X-Processor 4, which Fujifilm claims to offer better AF.
It is more responsive in most instances and portraitists will welcome its faster face/eye lock, but I found it not nearly the sports/action capture beast I was hoping for and in some instances there was a tendency to hunt for the subject, especially with the GF f3.5mm 50mm lens.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – film emulation
Better is always good, of course, but I don’t believe the improved AF is going to be the prime motive for buying the 50s II. That said, I suspect a firmware update will bring some performance enhancement so the jury will remain out on this score.
And this brings us to the overall design philosophy behind the Mark II.
Fujifilm has steered this model well into the compact zone.
The smaller battery, smaller body size, integrated EVF (the Mark I’s detachable EVF was quite bulky, which led me to detach it for most shooting situations) and changes to the control layout combine to offer a shooter weighing in at 900gm (with battery) that feels in the hand more like a bulky DSLR from 2015.
The Mark I is 920gm, so not a big weight reduction but there is a big change in the handling characteristics.
Engineering-wise, especially given the addition of IBIS and the pixel-shifting function, this is quite an achievement, yet I can’t help feeling indifferent to the size reduction.
Image captured by Chris Oaten with the Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II – ISO comparison
Personally, I like the feel of a solidly built camera that sits heavy in the hand. Maybe that indifference is an old-school sentiment that younger shooters – perhaps the demand-drivers for smaller, lighter cameras – might scoff at. In the end, it’s a subjective thing as long as it doesn’t compromise critical functionality, which is not the case here.
On other feature counts, the Mark II delivers well. The rear, 3.2in tiltable display can now be pulled away a little further from the rear panel, which means a top-down view of the display in its fully tilted position lying flat for an overhead view clears the back edge of the EVF.
In the Mark 1, the EVF’s rubber eye patch impeded that view, a real nuisance and another reason to remove the EVF in that model but an issue now resolved.
As with the Mark I, the newer model’s dynamic range is excellent. You will be impressed with the extent of shadow and highlight detail.
Add dynamic range bracketing to your exposures and you’d have to be facing some extra-heavy duty contrast in your scene before your histogram spills its guts.
A shutter speed range from 60 minutes to 1/4000sec (and electronic shutter to 1/16,000) offers versatility.
Also, while the RAW captures from the GFX enable plenty of elbow room in post-production, don’t be hesitant to shoot JPEGs and explore the film simulation modes, especially the Velvia vivid mode for landscape captures. Very tasty. Fujifilm does a great job here and indeed it should. The company has film DNA behind it.
What else? A range of mechanical and electronic shutter settings should be understood in order to get around tricky lighting situations and it’s good to have these onboard.
The Bluetooth pairing and stickiness seems to be improved over the Mark I, which comes as a relief. The re-design of the joystick with its flatter profile and grippy nipple is a welcome improvement, offering more affirmative control as you toggle through the camera’s menus and settings.
There is a wealth of capture and control customisation on board that is easy to overlook as you dive into shooting with it but the Fujifilm’s menu system really should be explored thoroughly to get the most from the camera’s capabilities.
For instance? An adjustable tone curve setting, programmable film simulation bracketing, and a 35mm format mode if you want some crop factor.
There remains one sticking point with the 50S that may be a deal-breaker for some.
It still offers only Full HD video capture, no 4K. I can understand that Fujifilm may want to reserve 4K capability as a point of differentiation for the GFX 100 model but, nevertheless, it’s a disappointment.
On the other hand, given this camera’s prowess with stills capture, it’s hard to imagine most buyers wanting it as a video tool.
But apart from all I’ve written so far, there remains one very compelling aspect to investing in the GFX 50S II – price.
This camera, at an RRP of $6499 (body only, or $7299 with a GF35-70mm F4.5-5.6 WR) represents the most affordable way to get into shooting with a medium format sensor, even more affordable than some of the top-shelf units in the DSLR or MFT camps, and that alone should be good enough reason to give this camera your serious consideration.
Just be sure there’s room in your budget for fast memory cards and maybe a computer upgrade. Those pixel-shifted captures need some serious grunt in post.
The Fujifilm GFX 50s Mk II is a powerful, well-featured stills camera that will enable a user graduating from smaller sensors to pursue higher standards in their photography.
Chris Oaten is a professional photographer from Insight Visuals