Medium on the move

Are medium format cameras suitable for travel photography? Here we field test a medium-format camera on a shoot in Svalbard.

No, this isn’t the ruminations of a travelling psychic! It’s a camera field test, and a bit of a love story, and what better place than the breath-taking Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to push a camera to its limits? 

My travel companion is the medium-format Fujifilm GFX50R and I want to assess whether it’s a viable and practical option for travel and travel photography.

When you’re on a trip, especially if you’re flying, weight is a major consideration and one which has put many travel photographers off moving to medium format. As we hunt for better and better image quality, the options are either to go to full-frame 35mm chip or to move up to a medium format camera with a larger sensor and the resultant benefits in image quality. The main reason most travel photographers don’t consider the latter as a viable option is the perceived weight of medium format cameras and all the difficulties this can cause when travelling. 

In the last few years Fujifilm, has released the GFX series of medium format cameras with models designed for use in both studio or on location. Amongst that series is the GFX 50R. This little beauty is a rangefinder styled, mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras don’t have a prism and a mirror much like the DSLR. Images are composed through an electronic viewfinder, which, doesn’t look directly through the lens but uses a small screen that reads the information being recorded by the sensor, meaning that what you’re seeing via the Electronic Viewfinder is exactly what your image will look like. You can also compose images via the rear screen too but I’ve never favoured this approach as it’s cleaner to compose in the viewfinder with no surrounding distractions.

The biggest advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they’re generally smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras or the older styled medium format cameras and the lenses can be engineered to become smaller, lighter, and to sit closer to the sensor too, which leads to better image quality and truer wide-angle lenses

Into the magic…

I’ll come back to the guts of the camera later, but now a little of the love story. I first went to Svalbard one February when it was dark or nearly dark all day long. Cold, too, with temperatures mostly below -20ºC and -30ºC with wind chill. Even then, in the harsh unfriendly environment, there was magic in the air and after dark – if the gods permit – the enchanting Aurora Borealis, known as the Northern Lights. I’ve returned several times in subsequent years, but in March when the days are brighter and longer, and the first sun returns, to the tops of the mountains at least, after a long dark winter.

Svalbard of old was inhabited mostly by whalers and miners. The whaling has long gone, thankfully, but a few mines still remain, although they’re bordering on being uneconomical these days. However, it’s now a growing tourist destination, for the more adventurous in winter and, once the fjord ice melts, for those in boats and yachts who circumnavigate the archipelago in search of wildlife, birdlife and sealife which includes the big draws of polar bears, whales and narwhals.

Now when I say tourist destination I use this term conservatively. It’s a big place with only a few settlements, Longyearbyen is the main town and the now international airport. There are only a handful of flights a day and none if the weather is bad! On my second trip there I got within a hundred feet of the runway before the plane abandoned the landing and had to head three hours back to the Norwegian coast.

On arrival, you abandon your stresses – everything happens but it happens on Arctic time (if that’s even a thing). The snow-covered landscape is one giant sound absorber and all you hear is nature’s own orchestra of the elements, punctured by the rattling, throaty roar of skidoos. 

But what about the weight?

So I’ve made it Svalbard and the weight of the camera was much less of an issue than I thought it might be. With no prism or mirror the weight reduces considerably. Of the nearest competitors for travel photography, the Nikon Z7 weighs marginally less than the 50R (body with battery and SD card), while the Canon 5D R/S weighs considerably more.

The weight factor obviously assumes greater or lesser relevance depending on how you travel, how many lenses you take and how much carrying you need to do, but visiting Svalbard in winter requires a flight. This camera is not heavy, but the lenses are more so because they are premium glass so the weight gives the quality. The camera’s weight is not an issue in my opinion. If a lighter camera gives you the image quality you require then use that, but if image quality is a primary consideration then this camera and lenses should be a serious consideration.

On a mission

My mission is to capture the vast white landscapes, the soft light, some details and, if I’m lucky, the aurora. In the process I would discover how both I and the camera cope with extreme cold, how easy or difficult the camera is to use and much detail I could capture in an often featureless landscape.

The 50R itself has the potential to perform well; it has a 51 megapixel sensor – double many 35mm cameras, but how would it cope with the cold? The spec sheet on the Fuji website says it copes with temperatures down to -10ºC, but nowadays digital cameras are packed with complex electronics, so with Svalbard’s temperature typically -15ºC, but frequently falling to -30ºC with wind chill, would it even turn on?

In such low temperatures the first and probably most important thing is ‘know your camera gear’. You don’t want to be trying to set it up and find menu features, even with gloves on, in those temperatures! I spent some considerable time in advance learning the camera and setting it up for what I wanted to shoot.

One of the criticisms of all digital cameras is that battery life can be awful in the cold. Taking the usual sensible precautions of not exposing the camera to the elements for too long at a time, keeping it warm next to the body the rest of the time, I had absolutely no issues with battery life. They performed very well and lasted well, which is pleasing as the less you have to fiddle with the camera in those temperatures the better, and you certainly don’t want to be changing the battery every 10 to 15 minutes. 

When I went to Svalbard in winter I expected some shooting issues. I’m genuinely really surprised I didn’t get any of note. In fact the only one was the 32–64mm lens, which was a bit less responsive between 60 and 64mm on one occasion, but this was in -30ºC on an exposed frozen fjord – 20ºC lower than the recommended minimum of -10ºC! It proved to be only a dirty contact and I have to confess I didn’t work that well in those temperatures either! For reference, I tried to fly a drone at the same location and at the same temperature. It got about 2 metres off the ground before the fully-charged battery registered empty. Flight over!

Getting to grips with camera and climate

Personally, I found the GFX 50R easy to use. In virtually all digital cameras, it’s the menu system which confounds your average photographer. This camera has its intricacies too, but it’s also set up so you can use it straight out of the box, then discover the extensive nuances once you are a little more familiar with it.

Photography in cold climates….

In extremely cold temperatures fingers need to be tucked inside warm gloves not fiddling with tiny buttons. When in the darkness as well, waiting for and photographing the Northern Lights, familiarity with the camera, set up and menu make it fun to use, not a cold and painful chore.

In these conditions I wear a pair of Vallarret gloves, specially made for photographers, with a fold-back index finger tip and thumb cover to expose as little flesh as possible for any changes you do need to make. They are really warm and comfortable.

It is, of course, very important to wear the right clothes for any conditions too, but especially for extreme cold.

Arguably more important than more megapixels is the tonal range which the camera captures. In Svalbard, in winter, the colour palate is muted. Until the first sunrise of the year, it is mostly whites and blues. My visit was just after the sun returned, bringing long, dark and half-light days but the light was still mostly soft and diffuse. The camera picked up the subtle tones well, as you can see even in these lowish resolution web images.

I could go into lots of technical detail about the images the 50R captured, but that’s not the purpose of this review so I’ll let the images speak for themselves. You can find all the technical specs on the Fujifilm website or on review sites like DP Review. I’m happy with the image quality and, in these big landscapes, it’s a good and practical landscape photography camera. It’s also light and portable enough to work for other genres of travel photography. 

Sense of place and light

The minimalist landscape of Svalbard requires a sympathetic camera to do its true beauty justice. The feel of the images is almost always overlooked in camera reviews but it’s a vital part of image creation. With film, photographers choose film with the properties we require to enhance the feel of an image. This camera offers 17 film simulation modes and further control through dynamic range and grain effects should you wish to use them. For these images I didn’t play around with those choices, as the subtle tonal range worked well for winter landscapes, reproducing subtle gradation in the images. 

How does it perform in low light? A trip to one of the ice caves which run under the Longyearbyen Glacier is a good place to test it. There is no light in these caves and night time visit is lit only by a head torch. The near white ice creates hotspots where it’s difficult to retain detail. Cranked up to 6400 or 8000 ISO the 50R manages to capture detail in all but the very brightest points (where no camera would anyway) as you can see in these pictures. In low light out in the open the colours are remain vibrant at high ISO.

The range of Fuji lenses is ever expanding. Fuji has a long history in high quality optics. It’s something I’m surprised they don’t make more noise about. In addition to high-spec lenses for film and now digital cameras, they also produce optics for television cameras and scientific use.

I’m a big fan of prime lenses but in weather conditions where you don’t want to be changing lenses too often, I gravitated towards the zoom lenses, and in particular the 32-64mm lens. This gives 25-51mm in 35mm equivalence, ideal for those big landscapes. The 23mm prime lens is a cracker for the very big landscapes. I used a lens range from 23mm to 200m for this shoot, extended by 1.4x with a teleconverter on the longer lens.

At the end of the day

Time flies when you’re having fun and I certainly have the best of times outdoors in this remarkable landscape. I was sad to leave Svalbard at the end of the shoot but I know I will return, as this corner of frozen Norway is etched into my heart. 

The big question for travel photographers, which I set out to answer, is “would I use a medium format camera for travel photography?”. The big answer is “Yes, definitely”. If you’re flying a lot then it’s no more problematic than using a Nikon or Canon, and the weight is just as manageable. I found the 50R is good for photographing people and in an urban setting too. 

Fujifilm have now released the GFX100S with a 100 megapixel sensors and you can expect the next version of the 50R, if Fujifilm produce one, to have a big sensor upgrade. Image detail and tonal range is already impressive with the 50R and I can’t wait to get my hands on the 100S to see how it compares, but I have to say, if this was my only camera, I’d be very, very happy.


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.