Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Justin Black
BASED IN: Washington D.C., USA
KNOWN FOR: Stunning nature conservation photography and leading international travel photography workshops
SHOOTS WITH: FUJIFILM GFX 50S Camera, FUJINON GF23mmF4 R LM WR Lens, GF120mmF4 R LM OIS WR Macro Lens, GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR Lens

Introduction

Justin studied Fine Art Photography and Art History at George Washington University before getting his first picture agency contract in London when he was 21. He shot travel photography around Europe and then moved back to the States to work on natural landscapes and conservation-oriented work. This eventually led him to documentary travel and cultural photography, which demanded a nimble approach. That’s when he fell in love with FUJIFILM X Series cameras. We caught up with Justin to discuss his feelings about FUJIFILM cameras and his GFX 50S aerial photography.

Justin, how did you get into photography?

Photography captured my imagination when I watched the image of my first black & white print emerge in the developer under the safelight in my school’s darkroom at age 12. From that moment, I was hooked.

Back in the film days, FUJICHROME Velvia and PROVIA were my standard film stocks. I also had a few FUJINON large format lenses that were fantastic on the 4×5 field camera that I used for most of my landscape work.

FUJINON lenses have always been great, but today they are better than ever. I use two FUJIFILM X-Pro2 bodies and several FUJINON XF lenses as my lightweight travel outfit. My GFX 50S is my main camera for landscapes, aerials and macro work. It’s an absolute pleasure to work with and the outstanding results speak for themselves. My other cameras rarely see the light of day anymore.

Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S
Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

When did you first use the FUJIFILM GFX 50S?

I’ve been using the GFX 50S for just over a year now. I picked up the camera with the GF32-64mm and GF120mm Macro in March 2017. That purchase was made shortly before a photo tour that I was leading to Torres del Paine National Park down in Patagonia. I was impressed by the quality of the GFX 50S images in terms of dynamic range, resolution, and color palette, but the lenses truly amazed me.

I’ve since added the GF23mm, and I have already preordered the GF250mm that is due to be released soon. In my opinion, Fujifilm has hit upon something very special with this camera system, and I look forward to being a beneficiary of its evolution and expansion.

How did you end up shooting helicopter aerials in Iceland?

Last September, I co-led an overland photo expedition through the remote interior of Iceland. It was a volcanic desert of lava flows, craters, ice caps, rivers, waterfalls, and gorgeous light. Our aim was to get away from the crowds and tour buses that have become the norm in more accessible parts of the country.

My co-leader on the trip, Arctic specialist Chris Linder, and I decided to offer our guests a two-day extension at the end of the trip to do a series of doors-off helicopter flights over the coast of southern Iceland, where several rivers create beautifully interwoven braided patterns and wonderful colors in the glacial meltwater flowing over black sand. The potential for playing with abstraction and design is endless.

Are there any rules or guidelines you tend to follow when shooting this way?

With aerial work, safety is always the first priority. Not only does one need to be securely connected to the helicopter, but you don’t want anything loose that might get dropped and sucked into the tail rotor or engine intake. That means no loose clothing, no detachable lens hood (they catch the wind and introduce vibration anyway), no changing of lenses or filters, etc., at least not while the chopper doors are open.

In terms of gear, the GF32-64mm is a perfect lens for this type of work. It enables you to work with just one camera and one lens for the entire flight, and the zoom gives you plenty of options when it comes to composition. I also used a polarizing filter, to remove glare from the surface of the water down below.

To counteract the motion and vibration of the helicopter and wind, the shutter speed can never be too fast. The polarizing filter eats over a stop of light and the low-angled sunlight is not very intense this far north, so boosting the ISO is a must. I was typically working at ISO values between 800 and 1,600. My shutter speed was between 1/500 sec and 1/1000 sec.

Fortunately, since we were shooting down from altitudes between 800 and 1,200 feet, everything was effectively at optical infinity, so depth-of-field wasn’t an issue. I stopped the lens down just one stop, to F5.6, just to maximize the image quality in the corners of the frame.

Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S
Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

Do you have any tips for other photographers who are thinking of trying this?

Plan ahead and keep it simple. Before the flight, get your camera settings in order, load a high-capacity memory card that will last the whole flight, try to anticipate and address any important considerations or variables, and plan your shots as best you can. Helicopter time is expensive, so you want to spend it shooting rather than fiddling with your gear, changing settings in the menus, etc.

Use one camera and one lens. Bring a backup camera with you if you wish, just in case, but I don’t recommend trying to switch back and forth between two cameras and different lenses unless the situation absolutely demands it.

Remember that in addition to being able to zoom a lens, the helicopter will ‘zoom’ too, by ascending or descending. As the aircraft moves, compositions change quickly, so you want to try to anticipate them. If you see the perfect composition and then decide to raise your camera to your eye, it’s already too late.

Also, be sure to actively direct the pilot, and don’t be afraid to ask him or her to go around again and again until you know you have the shot you want.

How did the GFX 50S perform in aerial scenarios?

I’ve shot aerial images in a variety of locations. Some of the shots you see here were taken in Kyrgyzstan. In each case the GFX 50S performed splendidly. It is very simply the best camera I have ever used for aerial work, and it is superbly suited to that role.

It’s like having medium format resolution in a DSLR form factor. It handles so well that I forgot about the camera itself and was able to focus entirely on composition as the landscape passed underneath us. The resulting images are tack sharp from edge to edge; the detail, definition of form, and the colors are wonderful.

I was shooting at 3fps using the continuous drive mode with high-speed 128GB SD memory cards, and the camera never had to stop shooting to empty its memory buffer. The fact that the body and lenses are weather-resistant was reassuring too because I was sitting on the helicopter’s doorsill with my feet on the skid totally exposed to the elements, and we passed through some rain showers as we flew from one location to another.

Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S
Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

Did you notice a difference in your images when shooting with a medium format camera?

Absolutely. The image quality produced by the GFX 50S is noticeably better than images from the 36 megapixel DSLRs that I’d been using for several years, and I thought those cameras were superb. This is because Fujifilm really got it right with regard to the sensor’s integration with the processor and the lenses. It is not just a great camera, but a superb system.

For my landscape work with the DSLRs over the last several years, I have commonly stitched together three or more 36 megapixel frames to create high resolution composites. Comparing 72 megapixel stitched compositions made on a Nikon D810 with 51.4 megapixel shots taken with the GFX 50S, I often find that the GFX system wins out in terms of rendering of detail, sharpness, and color.

This is particularly true when working at the smallest apertures from F16 to F32, as optical diffraction is less of an issue with the GFX, both due to the size of the sensor, and Fujifilm’s superb lens design and construction. And, of course, I can stitch together composites with the GFX as well. The detail in prints even eight feet long is impressive.

What’s your approach to post-processing your shots?

I shoot in RAW and do the bulk of my image development work in Lightroom. I find that it works exceptionally well with GFX system files. If I choose to make a photograph available as a limited edition print, then I typically take the image into Photoshop to do any necessary local masking and adjustments, as well as final color management and output-targeted sharpening.

What does 2018 hold for you?

A busy travel schedule, as always. I just returned from another wonderful trip to Patagonia, and fortunately I get to spend the next month or so at home. Over the coming months, I’m leading trips to photograph the incredible mountains of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal, the High Arctic landscapes of Svalbard and Greenland, fall colors at Ricketts Glen in Pennsylvania, South Georgia Island, and the Falklands. I finish out the year with our annual visit to the lush Pacific rain forest of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.

Between trips this year, I’ll be planning some new and exciting adventures for 2019 and beyond. We’ve already announced another Iceland expedition, as well as an extension to do more aerial shots by helicopter, in September 2019.

Justin Black is a FUJIFILM-compensated professional photographer.

To see more of Justin’s work, visit his website.

To explore the full GFX system lineup visit GFX Gear Chooser.

Aerial Photography with Justin Black & the FUJIFILM GFX 50S

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