For the first time since I started this blog, I’m writing a review with not much motivation. This is not only because we are living through Covid-19 and my photo sorties have been reduced drastically.
Nor is it because I spent my last 6 weeks writing about the Covid-19, being a bit obsessed about it, having even opened a special chapter in this blog for the purpose.
I’m no longer motivated to write reviews because nowadays photo equipment had evolved to a point that products from a certain high-end category — which obviously the Fuji GF system belongs to — are excellent in all fronts. You can really take it for granted.
I wrote a post before on what I call the Point of Sufficiency. Essentially, the very true fact that most camera gear nowadays are good beyond our needs. Way beyond, for some of us.
So writing a technical review for this lens feels like a waste of time for me. Basically I could summarize the Fuji GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR with a very simple statement:
“Like any other Fuji GF system lens, the GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR is superbly well-built. Design is no different from other GF lenses – manual focus ring, aperture ring, whatever. It’s all there. All the same with the same tactile feedback.
Image quality is superb as you would expect: wide open corner to corner sharpness. You can pixel-peep at will. Good control of light fall-off. No chromatic aberrations found – who cares anyway. Beautiful Fuji colours. AF is fast. Period.”
Therefore, in this Fuji GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR review I’m skipping the usual detail description of the physical features and image quality.
I’m jumping directly to what I see as the main point concerning this lens: its very existence in the Fuji GF lineup.
Now let’s check some product photos first:
Worth noting: the aperture ring clicks firmly in every stop, including every 1/3 in-between each numbered marking. But for whatever reason, at its maximum f/3.5 aperture there is no click to hold. Leave it there and the ring easily slips to f/4. It’s a bit annoying.
Lens hood: this lens comes with a screw-in lens hood with a rather funny shape. With the hood attached, a small lens cap included in the bundle should be used. Not elegant.
Portability: couple it to the GFX 50R and this is as small as you can get in the GFX system.
What they make you think
Fuji — and everybody else — keep highlighting the portability of the GF 50mm f/3.5 R LM WR. This lens is the smallest of the GF line-up and is supposed to be the perfect match for the GFX 50R, which is also marketed as a small and portable medium format camera.
So the GF 50mm f/3.5 lens is, say, the cherry on the cake for Fuji’s quest for portability in their medium format environment. Coupled to the rangefinder style GFX 50R, they even make you think the combination is suitable for street photography. I’m debunking this idea, but more on this later.
Let’s set this straight: is the GF 50mm f/3.5 really portable?
Everything is relative, but from my time using it I didn’t feel much difference between this lens and the GF 63mm f/2.8. And there is a reason for this: in terms of weight alone, we are only talking a difference of 70 grams.
Size-wise, the GF 50mm f/3.5 is smaller than everything else in the GF lineup, but this is by no means a small lens. Yes, it’s small for medium format and you can call it a pancake due to its proportions, but as a matter of fact this lens is about the size of a full-frame 50mm prime lens.
So don’t let the pancake word make you think it is smaller than it really is. When compared to my GF 63mm f/2.8, it’s smaller but not that smaller to make me feel a day and night difference.
In essence, while no doubts the GF 50mm f/3.5 is portable, it is not as portable as Fuji’s marketing material and some online reviewers will make you think it is. It’s just that it is relatively small and portable because it is a medium format lens.
This is about managing your expectations and I can honestly say I was caught in this marketing trap. In my mind, I was expecting this lens to transform my GFX 50R into something unrealistically small and light and it turned out not to be the case.
In the GF lineup there’s a GF 45mm f/2.8 and the aforementioned GF 63mm f/2.8, covering respectively the equivalent 35mm and 50mm focal lengths. Fuji had nowhere to fit this new pancake lens, so they decided for the less common 40mm.
It’s not the first time Fuji takes this approach: in their X system, there is the XF 27mm f/2.8 which I reviewed here and, incidentally, it’s also a 40mm equivalent pancake with an aperture smaller than its immediate XF siblings up and down the focal length.
So from this angle the formula for the GF 50mm f/3.5 is no different to the XF 27mm f/2.8: a pancake for the ultimate portability in expense of aperture, in between the popular and faster 35mm and 50mm focals.
The 40mm equivalent focal
I have mixed feelings about this focal length. This is personal and highly depends on the way you shoot. Maybe it suits you.
The 40mm is sandwiched between 35mm and 50mm. Using this lens, in some occasions the 40mm was not wide enough for the story I was trying to tell. I’m very much a 35mm guy, it is by far my favourite focal length for its flexibility. This obviously contributed for my judgement.
With the 40mm I’m closer to the 50mm focal, but objectively I see no advantage because with a 35mm lens I can always get closer using my feet or just by cropping-in to get a tighter framing if so desired — especially when I have 50 megapixels on hand.
Obviously, this same technique does not work the opposite way.
So with the 40mm I’m losing that extra bit of wide view and it does make a difference for me. I’m just not used to it and couldn’t get used to it. Ultimately, with a 40mm I feel a bit confused and unclear as to what kind of lens I’m carrying with me.
I can live with it and I can shoot with it, but I’m not passionate about it.
For street photography?
Back in August 2019, I wrote a short post here on why I think the GFX 50R is not a camera for street photography.
I already explained above how some people — and Fuji as well — try to convince us this is a camera suitable for street shooting, and even more so if you couple it with the GF 50mm f/3.5.
In my opinion, this is solely based on the fact that this camera is relatively small for a medium format system and, most importantly, the fact that the GFX 50R is styled like a rangefinder.
In reality — and this is coming from my own experience — I see no reason why you should use the GFX 50R and the GF 50mm f/3.5 for street shooting.
There is no fixed rule for this. A camera you feel comfortable with, a camera that inspires you to go out and shoot in the streets — that will be your best street photography camera. To this point, it can even be a Canon EOS 1DX Mk III if it works for you.
But if we take the universally accepted definition that a street camera should be small, fast, agile and inconspicuous, then why use a medium format camera?
Just because you can?
My point is, I cannot think of any street photo opportunity where the GFX 50R will have an edge over other smaller cameras. I don’t see why one should use the GFX 50R when there are other cameras in the market that are simply more suitable for the job.
I’ve been using the GFX 50R and GF 50mm f/3.5 in the streets of Macau. Twice I went to this crowded street market for a test and in both occasions I felt the camera was too large, too heavy for the occasional, quick single-handed shot and, overall, too cumbersome.
Am I happy with the results? Yes indeed. Would I use this combo again for street? Probably not, because it’s not agile enough for my liking.
The lack of agility being fundamentally my general feeling that everything is slower than it should be for street photography. Mind me, the AF speed of the GF 50mm f/3.5 is excellent, considerably faster than the GF 63mm f/2.8. But that’s about the only positive here.
The size and weight of the whole combo makes me feel slow, bringing the camera to my eye feels slow. Then there is the short blackout after the shot is taken, the time the camera needs to digest the large 50MP file.
Let’s be objective here: the GFX 50R together with the GF 50mm f/3.5 weights 1.1 Kg. My Fuji X-E3 with the XF 23mm f/2.8 weights a mere 415 grams. It’s significantly lighter and smaller, it’s overall faster and more agile.
And when I say X-E3, there are obviously other cameras that can perform similarly as well. My Sony RX1R II, for example: full-frame, 35mm f/2.0. And it weights a mere 507 grams.
Then you have the classic street cameras, like Fuji’s own X100 series or the Ricoh GR. I’m stopping here — you get the point.
Not that you are supposed to compare the size and weight of a medium format camera with the ones referred above. Nor the image quality and low light performance, or whatever other spec you want to throw in the discussion.
And not that the GFX 50R can’t be used as a street camera.
It’s that you don’t have to, and you don’t need to, because of the inherent nature of street photography. A street photo that tells some sort of story will not benefit from the added image quality medium format offers.
So what is the GF 50mm f/3.5 good for?
What you read above is just me debunking the romantic idea that the GFX 50R together with the GF 50mm f/3.5 is good for street. I’m a bit sick and tired of reading this in the internet.
So what is the GF 50mm f/3.5 good for? Many things, I’m sure. This is personal and depends on the kind of photo assignments you have in hand, but I’m sure many photographers out there will find this lens extremely useful in some occasions.
As of myself, I have some mixed feelings because of the 40mm focal length that I’m not too passionate about.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to think I still enjoy the most using my GFX 50R when mounted on top of a tripod. It’s not that I don’t like to shoot this camera handheld, which I do. It’s just that this is not the camera I take with me for family trips or shooting my kids running around in a park.
This is a camera I’m using to shoot portraits in a controlled environment, or when I go out by myself for my shutter therapies. And, when I do this, portability is not a priority, not an issue.
So why bother? Why not just use the GF 45mm f/2.8, which has my preferred equivalent 35mm focal? Is the extra bulk and weight a problem for me?
This is the question I’m asking myself now, but to get to this point I guess I had to try the GF 50mm f/3.5 first.
That being said, the privilege of medium format image quality in a relatively small package shall be welcoming and I can’t think of any reason why one would argue against this.
Therefore, Fuji shall be praised for having this option in its line-up even if the lens is not as small as their marketing material makes you think it is.
And I’m not trying to sound negative here. As a reader of this blog pointed out to me, you don’t invest in a medium format system because you want to go light.
So the ability to go light in the Fuji GFX system shall not be seen as a requirement or a goal in itself, whichever camera and lens you are using.
Instead, it should be seen as a bonus. The bonus of having portability associated with the high image quality delivered by a medium format system.
Ultimately, this is how the GF 50mm f/3.5 should be interpreted as a product and, from this angle, its existence in the GF line-up makes all the sense.