Farewell Nikon. Hello FujiFilm Medium Format!

In my previous blog post and newsletter, I explained that I was leaving Nikon – sounds rather melodramatic, lets just say I no longer have a Nikon system – and since then I’ve had about a hundred enquiries (and growing) asking what system I was moving too. Well, here’s your answer.

This latest ‘system move’ has taken over a year to conclude. Yes, you read that right. A year! Since my move to Nikon, eight years ago, I feel I have appreciably developed as a photographer. My work has evolved and most importantly I have matured – photographically speaking.

Most importantly, I know what I like and exactly what I want. I can honestly say that I’ve reached a point where I genuinely no longer care whether anybody likes my photography or not, because I do. It feels really good, completely liberating – a great place to be as a creative. It’s not arrogance, just confidence and contentment.

Some background

A little over a year ago, I trialled the XF 100MP IQ3 medium format system by Phase One. It was incredible. Sensational. Ridiculously good. It literally blew my eyeballs out of my sockets. The rich tonality, silken quality, and sharpness of the images are simply unrivalled. Unfortunately, so was the price tag: £40,000+ for one body, the digital back, and a couple of lenses. It’s enough to make anybody feel nauseous. There’s no way that I can justify that level of expenditure.

The XF Camera System
The XF Camera System. Medium format digital camera system with IQ Digital Backs and Schneider Kreuznach lenses

However, the look and ‘feel’ of a medium format image has a certain quality that goes far beyond simple sensor size, no matter how gigantic – the one I trialled was 100MP!! The format itself was a revelation, as it was precisely this ‘quality’ of depth of field that I have been seeking and, rather stupidly, I had just not made the connection.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)
Fledgling litte owl on perch. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Wiltshire, UK

So what is it about the depth of field?

Simply put, the larger the area of the imaging surface (film frame or digital sensor) the more shallow the depth of field will be. In essence, if you use a fast lens with a wide-open aperture on a 35mm DSLR, you can create a shallow depth of field – think ‘diffused background’ with any of the millions of ‘bird on a stick’ photos you’ve seen. The effect is more pronounced if the subject is closer to the camera.

If you do the same on medium format or large format, that depth of field becomes even more compressed. You can create images with breathtaking effect – if you love bokeh and mushing. And I do. It is my thing. You may have noticed.

Conversely, if you want to shoot landscapes and have front-to-back sharpness, you’ll need a far slower shutter speed to expose the film, with both wind motion and cloud movement becoming an issue. This is why large format cameras have bellows so the focal plane can be altered like a tilt-shift lens in order to maximise and counter the innately shallow depth of field.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Tigress walking into forest clearing. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India

My style of photography

Up until now, to achieve silky smooth backgrounds and hazy foregrounds with 35mm, I’ve used my 600mm f/4 behemoth, shooting wide-open, positioned low to the ground. [Tip of the cap to fellow mushers out there] That ‘effect’ is something that I fell in love with years ago, but it’s difficult to transfer to a wider angle. Maybe with a 50mm f/1.0 shot wide open or a tilt-shift lens?

Using a combination of wide-open shutters and close proximity, I have occasionally managed to capture an impressionistic contextual background for the subject. You can recognise where the subject is, but it’s not distracting. It just implies. It gives the impression of a location, without competing for your attention.

Whether the background is an impression or not, I just get a kick out of photographing an animal in context. When I browse competition galleries, other photographer’s books and work, it is these images that I personally find arresting – example below.

Crater Lion (March 2011)
Male lion basking in the Crater. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

The Investment Argument

Essentially, my income is based on the number of prints sold, images licensed, safari seats filled. Changing systems, or even purchasing more kit, requires serious deliberation and a reasonable expectation that the ROI will be worth it. I am operating a business after all, so it always come down to black and white numbers. This is why this move has taken so long. Really dull, yes I know. Please keep reading…

A change in direction

For the change in direction that I feel is necessary, I haven’t moved just from Nikon, I’ve moved from the whole 35mm format and (dare I say it) mainstream wildlife photography.

FujiFilm GFX50s with 110mm F2 Lens
FujiFilm GFX50s with FUJINON GF110mmF2 R LM WR

I’ve taken a considerable step into Medium Format territory with the incredible FujiFilm GFX50s with the FUJINON GF32-64mm F/4 and FUJINON GF110mmF/2.0. Just as an FYI, I’ve also bought the EVF-TL1 Tilt and Swivel Adaptor for the GFX 50S viewfinder.

My time with giant telephoto lenses and bla bla frames per second is over. I know I will miss the 600mm occasionally – especially when there is something amazing happening out of my range, but then again, something will always happen out of range, no matter what lens you have.

I certainly won’t miss the weight of the 600mm f/4, manoeuvring it inside a safari Landcruiser or zodiac inflatable, nor the collective weight of three DSLR bodies, three lenses, battery packs, etc. For the FujiFilm GFX50s and two FUJINON GF lenses, all I’ll need is the one small shoulder bag/backpack.

 

[My back muscles are currently tap-dancing the fandango]

 

FujiFilm GFX50s
The FujiFilm GFX50s with 51.4 million pixels on a 43.8mm x 32.9mm sensor producing 14-bit 8256x5504px files
FujiFilm GFX50s front and rear views
The FujiFilm GFX50s front and rear views

This move to Medium Format is more significant and meaningful than a simple ‘business move’. It goes back to what I was talking about earlier in the post – an inner confidence and conviction that this is right for me.

For one reason or another, it has been a very difficult year so far. I feel the need and the desire to move in a different direction and perhaps follow a path less trodden. Like photography itself, it’s a calling. The contextual shot pushes my button. I know that now. It’s taken me over a decade to realise it, accept it, understand it, and welcome it. Now, it’s time to develop and progress. It’s time to stop chasing £££s and simply relish the art.

Yes, my wildlife photography will change, without a doubt. There will be far more living landscapes and far less (if any) full-frame, in-your-face portraits. My work now will be all about animals in their environment and, in-line with my other passion, conservation, I will be looking at more environmental documentary photography.

I hope you’ll join me for the ride. For the first time in years, I am genuinely excited about photography once more. I feel a purpose and a passion growing inside. It feels great.

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elliottneep3254

Currently based in Oxfordshire, UK. Experienced professional freelance wildlife photographer, writer, and photographic guide with portfolios from East Africa, India, Arctic, Antarctica and British Isles.

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