GREENLAND and the FUJIFILM GFX100 - ONE JOURNEY, TWO OBJECTIVES
16th March 2021
The Inuit are proud “First Peoples” with a unique culture and a deep and valued heritage.
Fujifilm are a proud company with a unique culture and a deep and valued heritage.
This is a story of a journey to remote Greenland in February 2020 with two interdependent objectives linked by the marriage of the heritage of a proud nation with that of a proud company.
The first objective was to reach a remote Inuit village, photograph the essence of Inuit life in their natural, desolate and harsh environment and determine if the trip could form the basis of a future workshop.
The second objective was to use the Fujifilm GFX 100 and make a decision about “upgrading” from my favoured GFX 50s to the Fujifilm behemoth.
I’ve been a user of the GFX 50s since it was introduced in February 2017 and love the camera for it’s image quality, usability and inspirational connection (See my previous article called “The Camera, Tool, Friend or Both”, in the December 2018 issue).
I’m writing this in March 2020; 3 years is a lifetime in technology and yet it is very unlikely that a GFX XXs Mark 2 will be available before 2021…if at all.
The GFX 100 became available in late June 2019 and I was given one to “play” with. My first impressions were less than favourable but, in the search for image quality, I was prepared to “accept” the huge form factor, the increase in weight and the integrated vertical grip.
However, I had difficulty in accepting that Fujifilm had abandoned their traditional base of a retro-style camera body, embedded with modern/innovative technology and coupled to some amazing lenses and, as a result, had created a “Me-Too” play with Canon and Nikon; it looked like a camera designed by a committee who had decided to reject the Fujifilm heritage! It was like Porsche abandoning the design of the classic 911 to create a Ford Fiesta lookalike with a Porsche badge; my inspirational connection with the camera evaporated.
However, in February 2020, with no indication of a replacement for the GFX 50s, I was lent a GFX 100 to travel to Greenland; could I overcome my initial dislike for the GFX 100? Would I invest or stick with the GFX 50s?
The story will evolve throughout the article, but it is a story about my personal experience, my thoughts on the usability of the camera and the emotional bond I formed with this expensive paint brush. It is not a technical review.
The base in Greenland was Ilulissat, which is the Greenlandic word for “iceberg”; founded in 1741, it is the third largest town in Greenland with a population of 4500 people and 3500 sled dogs! Located on the west coast of Greenland, 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the Ilulissat Icefjord is a UNESCO World heritage Site which spills out natural sculptures of ice into the bay and is more than worthy of its’ reputation as the iceberg capital of Greenland.
In order to reach Ilulissat from the UK, we took a flight to Copenhagan, another flight to Kangerlussuaq and then a third flight in a small turboprop to Ilulissat.
Unfortunately, after 2 days of travel, we arrived over Ilulissat in a storm which was too severe to land; we returned to Kangerlussuaq with heavy hearts. So close and yet so far. The following morning we repeated our journey to Ilulissat in calmer conditions and landed successfully on a beautiful cold and sunny day. The adventure was underway, a little late, but underway nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the delay meant that we arrived in Ilulissat on a Saturday and apart from a supermarket and a café, everything was closed. Our ability to make arrangements for dog sleds and snow mobiles to explore the area and to travel to the remote Inuit village would have to wait until Monday!
Walking around the small town with the GFX 100 gave me the first opportunity to use the camera handheld and put the IBIS through it’s paces. Fitted with one of my favourite lenses, the GF 110mm, I thoroughly enjoyed shooting tack sharp images at 1/30 sec.
Normally, walking around the streets of a town I would be travelling light and using the XT3 with a combined weight of camera plus lens of approximately 0.85kg; the GFX 100 combo at 2.4kg was a challenge, especially in the extremely cold conditions that sucked at the lifeblood and made operating the camera very difficult.
To produce sharp images in the conditions was a huge testament to the quality of the IBIS and the skill of the Fujifilm engineers; I can’t wait to try the XT4 with the same functionality. Looking at the images on the computer in the warmth of the hotel I was amazed at not only the level of detail in high and low frequency images, but also the beautiful rendition of tonal shifts. Processing the files in Capture One demonstrated just how much flexibility and creative opportunity existed in the files. They are undoubtedly large at 210 Mb, but the huge amount of data enables the creative juices to run wild in post processing.
It is fascinating how people living in such extreme conditions do no more than necessary to protect life and possessions in the cold winter months; unnecessary activity is considered a waste of vital resources. Items of everyday life are abandoned and left to the elements; covered in deep blankets of snow, they reappear with the thaw and slowly re-emerge from their enforced hibernation.
Whilst cold, the weather had welcomed us with a “soft” blanket of clear and sunny skies with low wind speeds; this was the lull before the inevitable storm which reared its’ ugly head the following day as we were greeted by a blizzard and very strong winds.
Undaunted, I ventured out and walked, very carefully, down to the Icefjord. The challenge for both me and the GFX 100 was the cold and the severe weather conditions. My expedition jacket, trousers and boots are rated to minus -40°C, but the air temperature of -30°C plus the wind chill was making walking, let alone the art of taking photographs, a tad challenging.
The GFX was cosseted in the camera bag but the big question was how it would cope; rated at an operating temperature range of -10°C to +40°C it was an order of magnitude outside it’s comfort zone and, like all electronic equipment, extreme weather can render it as much use as a paint brush without bristles! With one exception, that was easily corrected with a reboot, the GFX 100 operated without problems.
From my previous experience with the GFX 100 in “normal” temperatures, I had been disappointed with the battery life and was concerned this would again be problematic as they degrade more rapidly in cold weather; normal battery “housekeeping” was all it needed for the camera to keep going.
Working in extreme cold also creates the hoary issue of condensation which appears with a vengeance when the camera and lenses are returned to the warmth of the hotel; the problem is further aggravated if the camera is then returned to the cold with residual condensation present. I employ a simple process; the camera bag, complete with gear, is inserted into a dry sac before entering the hotel and left closed until I’m sure the contents have gradually reached room temperature.
A 1.5 hour trip through the mountains to the ice-fishermen was my first exposure to the hardships presented to the locals on a daily basis; they travel the same route by dog sled or snow mobile to the sea ice, drill holes in the ice, catch huge halibut and then return across the same mountain range to sell their fish in Ilulissat.
As photographers, we expose ourselves to the elements and “bask” in the landscape and nature by choice; the ice-fishermen do what they do to survive and I doubt that they give a moments thought to the magnificence of the landscape and nature around them!
The delay in reaching Ilulissat had made the planned journey to the remote Inuit village impossible. However, from discussions with a local guide, we identified an alternative i.e. Oqaastut in Rødebay with a population of 25. Accessible by boat in summer, our options were 4 hours each way over the mountains and across the sea ice on a dog sled or 1.5 hours by snowmobile.
The dog sled option would have been the sentimental decision but, sensibly, we opted for the snowmobile; given the difficulty of the route and the associated danger in traversing the mountains we were “chauffeured” to ensure we arrived safely.
The journey was magical, scary and very cold in equal measure. Camera bag strapped to the back of the bouncing snowmobile, wrapped in multiple layers, the face protected by the combination of a heavy duty balaclava and full face helmet, I hung on as the “chauffeur with a death wish” manoeuvred the snow mobile through the mountains at what I considered a crazy speed.
Arriving at the village with legs frozen from the knees down, I “wobbled” freely amongst the colourful houses festooned liberally across the mountainside and around the frozen bay. Once again, the GFX 100 was used handheld and on the remote sea ice I had the opportunity to test the autofocus and capture a dog sled charging across the sea ice towards the village; the autofocus behaved impeccably even when parts of my anatomy were screaming at me to throw in the towel and seek a warm refuge.
In the absence of anywhere warm, the thought of the 1.5 hours ride back to Ilulissat bore heavily on the mind, but it was made easier in the knowledge that I thought I had a shot in the can. Hanging onto the “chauffeur” for grim death, we retraced our skid tracks over the sea ice and through the mountains as day gave way to evening and temperatures fell. Whilst the setting sun in our faces brought no warmth and added to the risk of careening off course as we sped homeward, it did provide a beautiful and mystical end to an amazing day.
The objective to embrace the Inuit in their own backyard was completed with superb memories, minor frost bite on cheek and finger ends and a collection of photographs to reinforce the experience.
The trial with the GFX 100 had been completed; invest or stick?
Some might say that the conditions for the trial were not reflective of “normal” use. However, the camera performed impeccably, I was grateful to have it for the trip and don’t believe it was disadvantaged by the either the location or conditions. The IBIS, the auto-focus, the subtle management of tonal change and the flexibility and scope available in post-processing to maximise creativity without file degradation resulted in image quality that made me smile.
However, to be “a tool, a friend or both”, a camera has to complement MY style of working and must support MY creative juices.
I need to want to pick the camera up, to be inspired, to be supported and to take photographs; the ergonomics should be passive in supporting my particular genre of photography and not leave me fighting with the camera. The Inuit would describe that as a waste of valuable energy, and so do I.
As a fine art landscape and travel photographer, I need to be assured that I can hold the camera securely in one hand whilst I’m attaching it to the tripod and changing the orientation from landscape to portrait. Frankly, the ergonomics from this perspective are appalling as the socket for the remote release has been positioned on the right hand side of the camera body i.e. in the middle of the grip.
The ergonomic problems are compounded by a practical problem; it is impossible to open the small “door” for the remote control jack with gloves on. This would not be a major problem if the minuscule gap between the “door” and the camera body was large enough to insert the remote control jack to lever it open. Finally, with the remote control socket on the right hand side of the camera, any attempt to operate the camera on a tripod in portrait orientation creates an obvious point of entry for rain, snow etc.
Using a remote release is part of my workflow and I recognise that those who are happy to use either the camera Self-Timer, a wireless remote or the Fujifilm Camera Remote App will not see this as a negative. I do.
The D-pad has been removed. I can live with that because a strength of Fujifilm cameras is the ability to customise the user interface. However, when a prominent control element is removed and replaced with buttons that are difficult to operate with gloves on I have to wonder, once again, what is the market the GFX100 is trying to prosecute?
102mpx delivers 210Mb files and lots of detail. For me, and I accept that I might be in the minority, the detail produced in high frequency pictures is crunchy, very “digital’ and not very pleasant.
For landscape / travel photographers the camera has some amazing attributes but, in this guise, has very serious ergonomic/design flaws which adversely affected MY workflow.
I wanted to love the camera and wanted to invest in it. I hope it is a success for Fujifilm in order that the income from sales can fund further investment in Fujifilm “heritage” cameras.
I will not be investing in the GFX 100.
Photos from the trip can be found on the Hocking Photographic website https://www.hockingphotographic.co.uk/portfolio/view/icefjord-ilulissat-grenland/new-greenland