Best gear for APOY Landscapes round: medium format film or digital?
April 17, 2021
Entering the Landscapes round of APOY will be hugely stimulating and we can’t wait to see the entries. After all, there are almost as many ways to shoot landscapes as there are landscapes themselves, and there is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
It is the same with your choice of camera – some photographers still steer more towards medium format film cameras for landscape work rather than digital gear, for example.
A good example is Tom Illsley (@tomillsley), a medium-format film photographer, who works at MPB’s UK warehouse as spares and repairs manager.
While studying for his BA Photography degree from Nottingham Trent University, he won the Genesis Imaging Student Bursary.
With this, he created a photographic investigation into England, Wales and Scotland’s geographical centre-points. Tom still mostly shoots medium-format film with a Hasselblad 501cm + Zeiss Planar T* 80mm f/2.8.
Could such a medium-format film die hard be convinced to change over to digital? To find out, Tom went up to the stunningly photogenic Peak District, armed with a Pentax 645Z + 45mm f/2.8 + 55mm f/2.8, a Fujifilm GFX 50S + 45mm f/2.8 + 63mm f/2.8, and his own Hasselblad.
The craggy scenery is a perfect fit for Tom’s gear and his style of photography so let’s see how he got on…
Boring, but in a good way
“When people ask me what kind of photographs I take, or what my style is, my reply is ‘boring landscapes.’
On too many occasions, I’ve had to correct people who think that, by landscape, I mean high saturation, wide angles, long exposures. Sorry if that’s you, but it’s not me.
Give me a bleak overcast day in the middle of winter, in the middle of a field and I’ll be content. My mum’s always said I’m like a labrador. Feed me, water me, take me for a long walk, and I’ll be happy.
My current setup provides me with portability and excellent image quality. My primary camera is a Hasselblad 501cm with the Zeiss Planar T* 80mm f/2.8. I used this camera during my first year at university, and it was one of those cliché ‘love-at-first-sight’ moments.
I’ve tried other medium-format systems – the Mamiya RZ76, Mamiya 7ii, Hasselblad H1 – but the 501cm 6×6 format perfectly replicates my vision into an accurate final result.
I also have a Canon EOS 5D Mk III for digital stills, and a Canon EOS 1V for 35mm. I own a range of EF lenses, but the only one I really use is the 40mm f/2.8 STM.
It’s great being able to use it on both the 5D and 1V, as they both share an EF mount. It’s a bit wider than a 50mm, but not as wide as a 35mm. It’s pin-sharp and super compact.
I’ve recently self-published my first zine, Nine Valleys, which was all shot on the 1V with the 40mm. It was lovely being able to head out with a small setup and a pocket full of film. I also have an Olympus MJU, which is my everyday camera and lives in a pocket or the bottom of my bag.
While analogue is my preferred format, working among digital cameras in my day-to-day work means my eyes are constantly wandering.
On paper, the idea of a digital medium-format camera is amazing. No more expenses on film and processing, no more hours scanning and removing dust, no more trips away shooting 15 rolls of film for an exhibition to have each roll get light leak…
But digital medium format isn’t cheap, so it’s a tricky toss of the proverbial coin. My desired methodology for this review was to treat it as a mixture of my considered medium-format work with the compact ease of my 35mm/digital setup.
The first camera I decided on was the Pentax 645Z, with the 45mm f/2.8 and 55mm f/2.8. It’s weather-sealed, the grip is really comfortable and I would feel confident carrying this camera in one hand.
The compromise is its weight. My shoulder began to hurt toward the end of the second day.
Good look and feel
Looking through the Pentax’s clear and bright optical viewfinder is refreshing in the age of mirrorless cameras. The button placement is excellent, and the buttons even feel satisfying to press.
After only a few hours, I could change settings without taking the camera away from my eye. The Pentax feels like an analogue medium-format camera – if you look at the analogue Pentax 645, you’ll see why.
This camera feels sturdy, everything makes sense and it’s affordable. It’s old but intuitive, and I think that’s why I like it.
The second camera I took was the Fujifilm GFX 50S. I’ve previously used the GFX 50R and I really didn’t like how it felt, it’s like carrying a brick without anything to grip onto.
But the Fujifilm GFX 50S is excellent. It’s just like having a souped-up X-Pro. I like the Fujifilm GF range because the menu system and controls are almost identical to all the other Fujifilm cameras.
So if you want to get into the world of medium format but you’re not 100% sure, then this might be the camera for you. I took the Fujifilm 45mm f/2.8 and 63mm f/2.8 lenses too. Similar to the Pentax, the Fujifilm is comfortable in the hand, it has a sturdy grip and is nicely balanced without being heavy. It’s noticeably lighter than the Pentax. It’s helpful having the tilting LCD screen on both the cameras, although it’s not a function I used much.
As I was given the itinerary of our trip a few days before, I had a good idea of the terrain I’d be encountering and the general environment of the Peak District.
I felt confident I’d be able to take some good photos. We got up early on Saturday to cold, clear skies. The sunrise was amazing, with hues of orange into pink into purple slowly rising over the Derbyshire hills.
We parked the cars near the top of Winnats Pass, and I headed for the top of Dark Peak, aiming to get the low lying early-ish sun. I was feeling really comfortable with each of the cameras, both were working for me and the balance between both was good.
The Fujifilm GFX 50S was definitely more of the ‘go-to’ camera, maybe because it was lighter so I was happier carrying it round my neck with the Pentax remaining in my bag.
Meanwhile, the Pentax 645Z is a slower camera to work with, something I really enjoyed. The analogue aesthetic and functions forced me to slow down, which I loved.
As the GFX 50S is so similar to other Fujifilm cameras, it was nimble and quick to use so I found it was perfect for fleeting moments. The 645Z worked better in more considered compositions.
By this point, I realised that the weather was going the way I’d dreaded – lovely, bright late summer sun without a cloud in the sky. Although this was wonderful to walk in, not so much for the kind of work I make.
Out of the camera, the images on the Pentax 645Z are rendered darker and cooler than the native Fujifilm files. Being bright sunlight, I wasn’t blown away from either of them, but that’s not their fault.
Both cameras feature Sony CMOS sensors, which are almost identical in terms of design. Both cameras have fantastic dynamic range. The file size is significantly larger on the Fujifilm GFX 50S compared to the Pentax 645Z, coming in at around 112Mb to 61Mb respectively.
Having not personally used Fujifilm cameras a great deal, I was interested to use their well-known and respected presets.
I set the Fujifilm GFX 50S to shoot in both Raw and JPEG to see how the files are straight out of the camera, and also in Lightroom with no preset applied.
The Pro Neg and Acros were my preferred choice – being a photographer that shoots both colour and black and white film, it was an disconcerting but enjoyable experience looking through the viewfinder at a monochrome image.
This is definitely something that I’d take away from the GFX 50S as a big plus. A negative for the GFX 50S, unfortunately, was the battery life. Over the two day period, I changed batteries three times, while the Pentax 645Z had plenty of juice left at the end.
I’ll put this down to the live view function, the electronic viewfinder and other variables. It’s not awful, but might be worth considering picking up an additional battery if you went for the GFX 50S.
Overall, I was impressed with the images produced by both of the cameras. The depth and tonality rendered is lovely, and with a bit of tweaking in Lightroom I can get them to a place I like.
The Pentax 645Z, even though the images are cooler than I’d like, have a real filmic quality to them – a quality I can’t describe.
In comparison to the Fujifilm GFX 50S, which yes had the presets, but without any applied the images seemed almost clinical.
The way analogue medium-format photography is going and the price that that the camera systems command since the rejuvenation of film photography, the previously unreachable price that digital retailed for is now more realistic.
No more film, no more processing, as many photos as you want, instant results via playback – this is a film photographer focusing on the negatives of the medium, what’s happened to me?
The film market is fluctuating and won’t last forever, some brands are discontinuing entire ranges, others actively producing more and more films. With this in mind, the thought of purchasing a digital medium format camera has never been more attractive.”
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