Home at last: a travelogue with the GFX 50S II: Digital Photography Review

I had no idea, when I boarded the Boeing 787 at Heathrow in May 2019, that I wouldn’t see my friends, much of my family, or my homeland, for over two years.

This inability to return has, with time, started to rub. Not to the point of becoming unbearable, but enough that it keeps catching my attention: ‘much of what you care about is a long way away, and there’s nothing you can do about that.’ Not that the past eighteen-or-so months have been much fun for anybody, but this was a distinct component of the emotional white noise that I recognized I was finding harder and harder to tune-out.

Widespread vaccination and the promise of summer (even the English variety), meant it might be possible to look beyond the 2020’s increasingly limited horizons, and travel back to a place I’d no doubt romanticized in the meantime. I was going home.

With this as the backdrop, the significance of the trip started to build to an almost unmanageable degree. There were the big questions, of course: who and where do I have time to visit, as I balance an urge to do everything with the risk of making myself a roaming vector for the virus?

Feeling unable to visit your homeland for an extended period is no laughing matter.

ISO 100 | 1/180 sec | F7.1 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 70mm

But there were small questions too: what camera should one take to record a journey suddenly imbued with such importance? Three days before my flight this question answered itself: Fujifilm shipped us an unmarked box with a familiarly-shaped camera inside. It looked like something I’d already reviewed, but had ‘GFX 50S II’ embossed into its left-hand port cover. A second, smaller box contained a lens marked ‘35-70mm 1:4.5-5.6 WR.’

I’m not for one moment suggesting that a medium format camera is the obvious choice for a multi-week, multi-city trip, but a retractable, weather-sealed standard zoom made it seem like the GFX was inviting itself along. My previous attempt to travel with a GFX had been rather undermined both by dreary winter weather but also an injury that had put me on crutches, neither of which made the journey especially photo-focused, but I was confident that this time would be different.

For a start, this camera/lens combination is a smaller, I’d be arriving at the height of summer, I’d be much more mobile, and I’d have both hands free to actually operate the thing. What inconvenience is a little extra camera bulk, on a trip whose shape and tenor was being dictated by the ever changing, and increasingly inconsistent, requirements of testing and paperwork laid out by the UK Government? And what better tool for capturing the people and places I care for most, in some of the highest quality possible?

Part of me thinks the Peaks are at their prettiest with the imminent threat of rain, perhaps an after-effect of many October weekends biking in similar conditions. I’ve hacked around with a lot of the contrast in this scene, safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to get any nasty surprises from the 50S II’s files.

ISO 100 | 1/80 sec | F11 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 70mm

First, then, the Peak District; one of my favorite parts of England. I’d discovered the Peaks when I was first invited mountain biking, all the way back at university. It’s a beautiful part of the world: with rugged, rocky green/grey hills and high moorland dotted with patches of heather. Not as large-scale or wild as the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, for sure, but an area with its own sense of remoteness and drama, swelled by the moody clouds and rain that seem to threaten year-round.

Fortuitously, my sister also ended up falling in love with the Peaks, and moved there some years ago, which gave me the perfect excuse to see-out my quarantine period there.

Any ambition to repeat the dawn photos I took for the Nikon D300S review was thwarted by poor weather forecasts and jet-lag. No-one is more frustrated about this than me: the GFX 50S II is clearly a camera that will make the most of early morning sunshine and an eye-catching landscape. But having the Fujifilm with me meant I paid closer attention to the weather than usual: can I get a shot of the local church in this fleeting patches of evening sunshine? If I stop the car, throw on my GoreTex and head for that rocky outcrop, can I catch the sun as it sweeps the rain from the valley below?

Even with a retractable lens, the GFX wasn’t suddenly small or light enough to take mountain biking with me, but that was about the only time I didn’t have it on my person.

Beautiful light an a landscape I wanted to do justice to made me glad to have a camera I knew would make the best of the situation. These factors combined to mean I stopped and thought more about my aperture, my focus point and my DR mode than I perhaps usually would.

ISO 200 (DR200) | 1/170 sec | F11 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 41mm

Having a camera I knew would produce some of the best possible results from my efforts is what inspired me to trek up a hillside, the moment my quarantine ended. The release of restrictions coincided with the best weather we’d had, so I strode purposefully up Bamford Edge to make the most of the warming light. I knew I wasn’t going to get shots to match the huddle of photographers I met up there, chatting about photo competitions, killing time to see how good the sunset was going to get. But, even with the need to get back and make dinner before the light reached its best, the GFX’s in-body image stabilization made me less concerned about not having a tripod to line up next to theirs.

I’m not a great landscape photographer by any means, and I wasn’t even able to stay for golden hour, but being unencumbered by a tripod meant I could awkwardly clamber into small holes between rocks, to try different perspectives. The light encouraged careful consideration of the DR modes, to get the best result I was capable of. And the large 50MP sensor meant I could be confident that it was my skill level and lack of persistence that were going to hold my photos back, not any aspect of the camera.

With a lesser camera, would I have stopped the car and traipsed up to this viewpoint, having noticed a break in the clouds?

ISO 200 (DR200) | 1/150 sec | F10 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 35mm

It was a similar story after heading down to Gloucestershire and the smaller, rolling hills on the edge of the Cotswolds: the GFX proved to be an excellent tool for capturing the landscapes of my childhood, whenever the gaps between rain allowed. The 28-55mm equivalent coverage of the new zoom was pretty handy for landscapes and, while I would have appreciated a little more reach at times, I was also cognizant that adding a longer focal length would undermine the convenience that convinced me to bring it on this trip in the first place. However, when I ventured into the city, I quickly found myself wanting something that extended a fraction wider.

A view from Haresfield Beacon in Gloucestershire and an attempt to share 50MP of the landscape that I grew up surrounded by.

ISO 100 | 1/40 sec | F11 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 41mm

Gloucester’s cathedral is its most recognizable landmark and one I wanted to capture during this trip. It’s easy to take your surroundings for granted as you grow up; especially if they’re ubiquitously used to represent your hometown. But they become harder to overlook once distance has given you a little perspective, and there’s nothing that makes you appreciate an 11th Century landmark like living in a city like Seattle, in which very little predates a major fire at the end of the 19th.

Gloucester Cathedral may be undergoing near constant repair – the local sandstone isn’t very weather resistant, especially once carved into delicate gothic filigree – but it’s emblematic of where I’m from, so I wanted to capture it in as much detail as I could. The stonemasons seemed focused on the opposite side to the one the sun was hitting, but I had to back up as far as I could (without accidentally including the overhang of the surrounding trees), because I didn’t have anything wider than 28mm equiv.

Also famous as a filming location for the Harry Potter films, Gloucester Cathedral is quite something when the sun lights up its warm sandstone. This is as much of it as I could capture with the 35-70mm lens, but I don’t think anyone is going to complain about the levels of detail delivered by this ‘kit zoom.’

ISO 100 | 1/250 sec | F9.0 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 35mm

Where the GFX fared less well was as a chronicler of my family and friends. Its eye detection does find eyes quite effectively but its lack of stickiness/persistence, compared with other brands, and the slower focusing that comes from having all that extra glass to move around means it’s not the best choice for spontaneous portraiture. If people were willing to take a moment to hold a pose (and that ‘if’ turned out to be another significant factor), it did well. But my weeks with the 50S II just helped cement the idea that it’s a camera better suited to posed portraiture (with the sensational GF 110mm F2, for example), than for candid or spur-of-the moment work. It’s by no means impossible, but there are many cameras that more readily lend themselves to the role.

Now that London isn’t my home, I felt more able to shoot the obvious ‘tourist’ photos

ISO 125 | 1/200 sec | F10 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 35mm

On to London, a city that was my home nearly a decade and yet is now relegated to third in the list of places I’ve lived in longest. As you’d expect of a major global city, even one still emerging from an unprecedented global pandemic, a lot has changed a lot since I last lived here. Many of the pubs and restaurants I used to go to have gone, or are looking a little sad and worn around the edges, rather than vibrant and new, as I first knew them. Even my beloved Ship on Wardour St is under new, younger, management.

There are few places better on Earth to see out a summer’s evening than standing with friends outside The Ship in Soho

ISO 6400 | 1/35 sec | F8.0 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 45mm

It’s a little uncomfortable to recognize that, even if everyone returns to office working, The Ship will never again be my regular venue for post-work drinks. Friday night pints of Pride as the evening sunshine gives way to dusk will be the stuff of fond memories now that my London friends have scattered across the country and been overtaken by more grown-up responsibilities, and I’ve moved to the other side of the world. But even in the era of home working and with low cloud threatening, I got a chance to re-create some of that treasured experience by grabbing a drink with a former colleague.

His familiarity with cameras meant I had to be extra circumspect about precisely which model I was shooting with, but at least I was with someone who understood the need to amass sample gallery photos, and was kind enough not to shy away from the camera. Playing with smartphone LEDs to light a ‘here’s my pint’ photo, having already re-familiarized ourselves with the subject, evoked a certain nostalgia for DPR’s London days.

A literal taste of home, and probably the things I’d most recommend to anybody that visits London: a pint of Pride from a Fullers’ pub.

ISO 8000 | 1/50 sec | F6.4 | Fujifilm GF35-70mm @ 70mm

It wasn’t, apparently, enough of a reminder though. The last full day of my trip was one of the only times I looked up at the blanket of grey and decided to give myself a day off from carrying the camera around; and from thinking about work on my holiday. Of course the sun then came out and spontaneous street photo opportunities presented themselves at every turn. Only in the camera’s absence did I realize that I could have recreated the Tower Bridge photos we used to shoot, showing the field-of-view of the new 35-70mm. So I feel I must apologize to the site’s longer-term readers for not bringing you back something from London. There’s a lesson there somewhere about keeping your camera with you.

As is always the case with trips home, it was over too soon. I never get as much done as I expect: none of those sunrise starts I’d promised myself, nor quite as much time with family and friends as I think there’ll be. My ambition to document the people and places I love, with what will increasingly be an outsider’s perspective, was not really borne out by the contents of my memory card.

In many respects, the GFX proved a good choice of traveling companion: not the one full of enthusiasm, who spurs you to try exciting new things, but a thoughtful one that reminded me to appreciate the experience as I was having it.

Sample gallery

All images were shot using a pre-production GFX 50S II.

Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter/magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review). Please refrain from using them for any commercial purposes.

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