As much as The Radavist is about bikes, it is also intrinsically linked to cameras and film photography. There is even a whole category of strictly film galleries called Recent Roll that dates back to 2010! We take pride in our photography so it makes sense for us to feature some of our favorite cameras in a series we’re calling Obscura.
This is a reference to the first-ever photographic device, the camera obscura.
Kicking off this series is Kyle Klain, who has a review of his Fuji GW690ii. Fans of film photography will know of this quirky system, so read on to hear Kyle’s take on what makes the Fuji so unique and so maddening at the same time…
A Texas Leica That Won’t Die
I’ve been dabbling in medium format since my teenage years when I bought a folding Zeiss Ikonta at a thrift store. That December, while the cool winter rains of Oregon kept me indoors, I rehabbed it back to life. I oiled the shutter and got it back to the correct speeds, patched the leather, and recalibrated the rangefinder. Ever since, my camera closet has included a revolving door of rare and unusual film cameras that I’ve restore back to life and then try to turn a little buck to sustain the hobby.
When I was 20 years old, I made a brief stop in Flagstaff, AZ to say goodbye to my long-distance girlfriend prior to a semester abroad. Much to my entertainment, my photography mentor lent me his Fuji GW690III for the time away, encouraging me to continue on my photographic journey. Before I hopped on a plane en route to Europe, my lady and I did a quick jaunt to Grand Canyon National Park. By sunset, we had found a panoramic scene worthy of any would-be postcard-maker and I set up ye’ olde Fuji with a roll of the heavily saturated Velvia 50.
Storms were brewing, clouds were moving in and out of frame, and the canyon walls transitioned into their various shades of umber, golden rod, and basalt black. I metered for the highlights–as one does for slide film–and set the Fuji upon the tripod head, ready for the light to break through. Just as soon as the camera is set on the support, its front-heavy lens leans into the gravity of the canyon and it tumbles off out of sight.
There are three generations of the Fujica GW/GSW series and production ran for under two decades, starting in the late 1970s before ending in the early 1990s. The GW/GSW came upon the scene during the time of increased usage of medium format film cameras, such as Hasselblad, Mamiya RB series, and Rolleiflex, and offered something different: fixed lens, rangefinder, and 3:2 ratio 6×9 negatives. In some sense, the design was strongly borrowed from the popular 35 mm cameras of the time, although, as we’ll soon see, some unique features were incorporated that are of much debate to this day.
The first of the series came equipped with an EBC Fujinon 90 mm F3.5 fixed lens. EBC stands for Electron Beam Coating, if you fellow nerds were wondering, and it marked the highest-end lenses offered by Fuji at the time. The lenses included a leaf shutter that would go up to 1/500th and was a fairly simple 5-element design that offered relatively pleasing out-of-focus rendering and was dead-sharp in the center. The 90 mm design would be consistent throughout the three generations of the GW series and that was for good reason: the lens provided such a large image circle that the corner-to-corner sharpness of the large 6×9 negative was exceptional. It’s likely this was a recycled design from Fuji’s 4×5 lens lineup.
At 90 mm F3.5 with a 6×9 negative, the effective focal length would be roughly 39 mm on a 35 mm camera, with the subject separation of a F1.2! Now, of course, this doesn’t gather light like a F1.2, but so be it.
Fuji eventually offered a ‘super wide’ version, the GSW series, which included a 65 mm F5.6 6-element design, similar to a Biogon lens, that was exceptionally sharp. Thus, if the 90 mm felt too narrow and portrait, the wider 65 mm was there for landscapes and architecture.
By the 1980s, Fujica ditched the ‘ica’ and the new generation two series would only show Fuji on the body. The Fuji GW690II and GSW690II had some modest upgrades, but retained an all-metal body with ribbed plastic grips. They were offered with some film gates, reducing them down to 6×8 (GW680II) and 6×7 (GW670II).
The final generation went to an almost completely plastic-styled body with rubber grips and included a new built-in bubble level finder. Otherwise, most generations look similar enough and offer a relatively similar shooting experience.
There are are both naysayers and big fans of the Fuji, and it’s easy to understand why it can be so divisive. The comically massive size of the camera (especially as it visually looks like a 35 mm rangefinder) and strange design cues take some learning to appreciate.
First, it’s large. More than once, I have had a person laugh out loud when I pulled the camera out of a bag. Yes, I am compensating for something, but that’s beside the point. Now, I also wear size XL gloves and personally don’t find the body to be unnecessarily large and, until it’s held up to my face, its weight and size don’t really bother me that much. Compared to the weight of a Mamiya RB67 or Yashica TLR, it really falls nicely in between for a medium-format camera. Brilliantly, the camera offers lugs on both horizontal and vertical positions, so if you want to locate your strap vertically, you can! This achieves a tourist look that is hard to overstate.
On the bottom there’s a film roll odometer, letting you know how many rolls have been shot. The long throw film-advance feels like you’re resetting a typewriter and, unfortunately, takes two pulls to advance to the next frame. The rangefinder itself isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. Both the 90 mm and 65 mm lenses cut off the bottom-right corner and it doesn’t offer full visual reproduction. The focus spot can sometimes be lost with glare.
Now, the shutter design is both as frustrating as it is queer. There is no traditional ‘bulb’ setting if you were to desire a long exposure. Rather, you have to advance the film! Why, God, why?! To get around this, I just cover the front element and advance the lever. In order to access the shutter speed and aperture, which both lie next to each other along the lens barrel, you rotate them and often move the other by accident. Of course, in order to access either of those, you also have to pull out the built-in lens shade. Ugh.
There’s no battery. Thus, there’s no light meter, either.*
However, this is where I think the camera is most misunderstood. Many of these little design choices also are decidedly clever. How many of you have shot a rangefinder only to find that you forgot to remove the lens cap? Argh! Well, by making it impossible to extend the lens hood (and thus access the shutter and aperture dials), Fuji engineers ensured that a blank photo was all but impossible to achieve in the field.
Likewise, let’s talk about those tightly matched aperture and shutter rings. By putting the ribbed grips and the rings so close together, Fuji figured, presumably, that once you established your desired exposure you simply gripped both together to maintain proper exposure while changing aperture/shutter. For example, it’s a sunny 16-type of day, so you’re shooting F16 @ 1/125 with ISO 100 film. Now, you set that exposure on the Fuji dials and then grip both the aperture and shutter simultaneously and rotate both. Just like that, you’re now at F8 @ 1/500 without missing a beat.
No comment on the lack of bulb setting, that still pisses me off.
Now, now, now…this is where the obtuse, large, and oddly designed camera starts to make its case. At the end of the day, every camera is inherently a box that lets in light, so the merits really boil down to a simple question: does it a take a good photo? And the answer is resoundingly yes. Oh, yes.
Let’s talk about that negative size. For nearly a decade, I shot a Mamiya 7ii and adored the camera, and if we’re being honest, it is probably the best all around medium format camera ever–the lenses were second to none, the handling expertly pragmatic, the light meter was accurate, and the subtle whisper of the leaf shutter? Oh, be still my heart. But, 6×7 is an interesting format. I suppose now in the age of Instagram and vertical scrolling it works fine, but compared to the Fuji’s 6×9? I still prefer the 3:2 ratio.
The 6×9 negative affords you a ton of real estate. In fact, for years I hauled around a 4×5 assuming it was the pinnacle of resolution and clarity, but eventually I found that for the normal viewing distances and the average human eye, a well-calibrated medium format could easily compete. The 6×9 format was a perfect medium: the convenience of roll film with an area large enough to achieve nearly faultless resolution at full print size.
Back to that 90 mm EBC lens, the contrast is just right, at least for me. It wasn’t so strong that it lost definition in the darkroom, nor was it too light where you lost that perceived sharpness necessary to make an image glow. The fact that the image circle is so large also means that even wide open at F3.5, I could put a subject in the corner and they would be perfectly sharp. Now try to imagine any 35 mm F1.2 lens that can do that…
Color-wise, I have always felt Fuji was the middle porridge. Where zee Germans at Zeiss and Leica can nail contrast and resolution, I always found their renderings a bit clinical. Hues are a little less punchy and the overall temperature is less pronounced. Fuji, on the other hand, feels very ‘natural’ and I don’t know a better way to explain it. On a sunny day, it manages to keep that warmth that sometimes gets washed out, and on a dark and dreary day, it shows it as it should: dark and dreary. There’s no magic to it, which is sometimes all you want.
But the sharpness—there’s no question that the Fuji makes full use of that beautiful 6×9 negative. The sharpest lens I have seen in real life usage is the Mamiya 80 mm F4; the negatives were grain-sharp under the microscope in the darkroom. I’ve heard the Mamiya glass can resolve over 100 lp/mm, which puts them up there with the best 35 mm glass ever made. Compared directly to the Mamiya? The Fuji is not very far behind. In fact, in real world presentation, I’d argue it is a moot point unless you’re doing optical enlargements past 40 inches.
What makes the 90 mm Fujinon so special is that even at F32, there are no chromatic aberrations, no fringing, or other imperfections that otherwise cannot be erased from a film negative. No, even pushed to the opposite extremes of F3.5, the edge sharpness is there, and the color and rendering are well-corrected. Rarely can you use a lens through its full aperture cycle with nary a wild hair. My favorite digital lens, a 40 mm F1.2 Voigtlander Nokton, doesn’t even come close to achieving the same effect.
When the Moment Counts
Almost all reviews of the Fuji center around landscape photography, and for good reason. The resolution of both the 6×9 negative and exceptional Fujinon lens make it ideal for that application. For me, however, I have found the Fuji to become my go-to for portraiture or documentary photography. The rangefinder is fast enough (low throw focus length), and the sharpness at wide-open apertures makes for some beautiful subject separation and creamy bokeh.
If you’re a fellow photographer, I’m certain you have been asked the dreaded question: Can you take some photos of my wedding?
I can count on the Fuji. Above are some samples from my friends Sara and Gabrielle and then our very own John and Cari. It is nerve wracking shooting important moments on film, however the simple proficiency of the Fuji has become my go-to. No surprises, just results.
And here are some examples of portraits.
Je ne Sais Quoi
After sitting on my hands and the rush of embarrassment and disbelief dissipated, I looked over the edge and to my shock, I could see the camera a few hundred feet below, clinging for life in the embrace of a juniper tree. Reluctantly, I climbed down the face of the cliff, utilizing scree slopes and the occasional sage, pinon, or juniper to arrest my descent. Finally, I was staring over a 300’ drop, but now with the Fuji safely back in my hands.
And unbelievably, the camera seemed fine. I unthreaded the broken filter to find the lens unscathed. The body showed almost no signs of the fall minus some dust. I cycled the film and all went well. I shot my first photo and the shutter sounded right. My God, I thought…
Like bikes, sometimes I find it difficult to explain why one gravitates towards a specific model. I’ve owned such a wide array of cameras that I figured I would never ‘settle’ for a single ‘lifer’. There were too many designs, features, and lenses to keep one preoccupied indefinitely. Yet, for some reason, I keep coming back to the Fuji GW690II.
Despite its many flaws and comically un-Japanese and pro-American design, the camera simply performs in a non-flashy, no-bullshit kind of way that I respect. The no-frills body, the unassuming lens, the slow operations, and basic functions all make it…boring. And what’s wrong with that? The pragmatist in me loves it. It performs above expectations and does so without being showy. It’s built like a tank and is well engineered. Furthermore, it also doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
So, next time when I invite John on a trip into Canyon Country, I’ll lust a little over that shiny Mamiya he so handsomely swings around his neck. But I’ll pull out my trusty Fuji, chuckle at its…generous proportions… and shoot away. Why overcomplicate it?
*Attached in the images is a KEKS lightmeter which is something I highly recommend for anyone with a camera sans meter. The USB chargeable, hot-shoe mountable little meter not only looks the business, but as far as I can tell, is accurate and reliable.
Listen, this is a hammer of a camera. If your priority is to have high resolution, sharp, and bokeh filled images, the Fuji certainly checks the box. However, there are quirks that will slow you down and it does not have the bells and whistles of some of its contemporaries. It’s fully mechanical, as reliable as a Toyota Hilux, but about as sexy as an original Hummer. If you’re familiar with the handling of classic rangefinders like the Minolta Hi-Matic or Canon QL, you’ll feel right at home. It’s just one of those cameras that was supersized.
- Fairly easy to find in the used marketplace
- Relatively inexpensive compared to similar quality cameras
- Can survive being dropped into the Grand Canyon
- Fully mechanical
- Big Negatives
- Excellent glass
- Makes your friends laugh
- Bizarre shutter functions
- No light meter
- Large and somewhat heavy
- Fixed focal length
- Makes your hands look small
- John and Josh remind you they still own Mamiya 7ii’s at every chance, and you know deep down inside you shouldn’t have sold it years ago, and because the market exploded, you can’t afford another, so you write an essay justifying why yours is still somehow relevant.
The editorial team here at The Radavist would like to bestow an apology to Kyle for making him feel bad about selling his Mamiya 7ii. Drop him some words of encouragement in the comments!