After nearly three years of running this website, I’ve finally discerned the characteristics that make up my ideal camera. I like versatility and affordability, so interchangeable lens SLRs are my starting point. I really love to travel and explore, so compactness is key. And I often use photography as a relaxing escape, so my ideal camera has to have at least one auto-exposure mode; aperture-priority, if I’m being picky.
Given these parameters, Fujifilm’s GW690 seems like an awful fit. This rangefinder camera has a fixed lens, is farcically large, and offers no auto-exposure modes. In fact, it doesn’t even have a light meter. Cumbersome, heavy, and let’s not forget expensive to shoot, it’s a camera that logic and experience would tell me to avoid. After more than three months of shooting this bloated behemoth, I’m sure of two things; it’s an amazing camera, and it’s not the camera for me.
Why’d I give the GW a shot? Its popularity certainly played a part. Spend any time on photo forums or Instagram and you’ll see these monsters crop up on the daily. More often than not, this camera porn is accompanied by a comment or caption heralding Fuji’s big gun to be the very best medium-format camera around. Those who love them boast of the GW’s unmatched image quality and ease of use. I love quality images and using things easily, so naturally, I had to try one.
And try one I did. From portrait sessions with my daughter to long-exposure cityscapes at night, and everything in between, I shot this Fuji for a long, long time. Still, I never seemed to find the camera’s purpose, the style of shooting that would bring me the amazing results achieved by so many other photo geeks. But let me step back a bit.
For those unacquainted with the camera colloquially referred to as the “Texas Leica”, here’s what we’re looking at. The GW690, and its successors the GW690II and III, are fixed-lens, leaf-shutter, medium-format (120/220) film cameras. They’re manual focus rangefinders that take no batteries, offer no metering, and sport, by all accounts, exceptional lenses. They’ve got an accessory shoe on top (cold on the GW690, hot on the GW690II and III), two shutter release buttons (on the II and III), and a built-in lens hood. Aperture, shutter speed, and focus are all adjusted via rings around the lens barrels, and there’s a tripod mount on the bottom.
Pretty basic, right? Yeah, except for the very fact that someone even made a medium format rangefinder that exposes negatives so outrageously large. Think about this for a moment; we’re looking at a relatively portable camera that exposes images that are approximately 6 by 9 centimeters. Compared to 35mm (2.4 by 3.6 centimeters image area) there’s no contest in image quality. For those who may be new to film, this extremely large negative makes for images with high resolution, fine control of depth-of-field, and the capability of making massive enlargements without visible grain. All good stuff.
And it’s this massive image area that’s the GW’s greatest claim to fame. It, combined with the EBC (electron beam coating – whatever that is) equipped Fujinon 90mm F/3.5 lens, are said by many to make images that are unbeatably sharp, free of distortion and aberrations, and worthy of enlarging to a sixty inch print. Yes, the image quality offered by the GW690 is legendary, and rightfully so. Which makes it that much more galling that I barely made a decent shot with the thing.
How could this be? Some of you are likely thinking that it’s because I’m a terrible photographer. Which is sad, but true. But it’s also true that there are things about the GW690 that make it unforgiving and hard to love. So instead of discussing the many ways that I’m bad at photos, let’s talk about the camera.
Fuji’s designers equipped the GW690 with a leaf shutter, a type of shutter that’s typically quieter, more compact, and more flash-capable than its focal plane counterparts. Leaf shutters are also different from focal plane shutters in that they’re mounted within the barrel of the lens itself. This is no different with the Fuji. What this means is that the controls for the shutter are also placed within and around the lens as opposed to somewhere more familiar, via a dial on the top-plate, for example. Instead of one of these more commonly positioned dials, the Fuji’s shutter speed selector takes the form of a ring around the lens barrel found directly adjacent to the similar aperture control ring. While other cameras have used concentric rings to adjust shutter speed in the past, the GW690’s implementation is less inspired.
Access to both the shutter and aperture rings is criminally stymied. Small cutouts offer paltry finger access points that are so small it’s physically impossible to spin the rings from one extreme setting to the other in one fluid motion. Additionally, the rings are placed so tightly together that adjusting one invariably causes the other to move as well, unless the shooter is being careful. As with any control quirk, long use will eventually create a situation in which the photographer has adapted to fit the machine. If this happens, it’s hypothetically possible that he or she can more easily select the shutter speed, relax his or her finger grip, and subsequently set the aperture, but this shouldn’t be necessary. The camera should accommodate the shooter, not the other way around.
This control foible causes uncomfortable moments and interruptions in the shooting process. Using the camera for street photography or general snapshots (understandably not the style of photography for which the camera was designed), it’s hard to make quick adjustments to capture fleeting moments or spontaneous action.
The viewfinder also causes heartache. With a rather small rangefinder patch, general dimness, and a metal bezel that scratches my glasses, I often wished I was looking down at the waist-level focusing screen of a TLR or through the prism finder of a 6×7 Mamiya. On the plus side, it offers parallax correction. Which is good, if you’re going to shoot close subjects. Except you’re not, because the minimum focus distance is one, long meter away. This can make subject isolation a challenge, even wide open at F/3.5, where bokeh isn’t that great.
And focusing isn’t much of a treat, either. Shooting this thing at any kind of moving subject is out of the question, unless you’re a lucky person. In my time with the Fuji I shot a whole lot of blurry frames. Yes, this is my fault, but the camera doesn’t make things very easy. As mentioned, the rangefinder patch is small and dim. I even attempted the age-old trick of dotting the viewfinder over the rangefinder patch to improve contrast. Didn’t help. Perhaps my difficulty stems from the fact that the contrast patch is a circle? Perhaps it’s just too small? Who can say. I only know that focusing was a slow, methodical process, and that I only ever succeeded when shooting a stationary object at smaller apertures.
What’s most troubling about all of this is something I’ve alluded to, but not yet said outright. I wasted a lot of film with this camera. Normally that doesn’t bother me too much. But the Fuji only makes eight exposures per roll of 120 film! That’s four less shots than most medium-format cameras. The result is that every frame is more expensive to shoot, and that every badly exposed or out-of-focus shot is that much more painful on the wallet. Sure, the massive exposures are great, but are they that much better than those made by a 6×6 or 6×7 camera? Cameras that are easier to use and will offer more chances to get the shot? Hard to tell.
Try as I might, the Fuji’s raison d’être eludes me. It seems to be a camera at odds with itself. It shoots massive negatives of impeccable detail and has an incredibly sharp fixed lens. This signals to me that it’s supposed to be a landscape camera, mounted to a tripod, and used in moments of patient calculation. But then, why do we need it to be a rangefinder? And if it’s a rangefinder so that we can use it as a more versatile camera, why is it so slow and cumbersome? If it’s meant to be used on the street, why doesn’t it have an auto-exposure mode? Or a light meter?
I’ve read that this camera was made for a very specific (and somewhat odd) purpose, but since I haven’t corroborated that with Fuji I’ll not mention it until I make that connection. Until then, the GW690 just leaves me feeling… confused.
All this said, there’s no denying the Fuji GW690 is a special camera, and I completely understand why so many people love it. With a metal core and bulletproof mechanics, it’s well-built and robust. Its exceptional lens is a proven construct capable of making fantastic images (even if mine rarely were). And the very heart of the machine, it’s large and interesting format, offers something that not many other cameras can. Rangefinder focusing is loved by many photo geeks, and for those shooters this camera will be the ideal medium-format machine. And landscape shooters who are comfortable with massive view cameras and large-format giants won’t be bothered a bit by the Fuji’s size and weight. People who use this camera often and know it very well, make incredible images with it, and that’s undeniable. There’s amazing talent out there doing great things with this Fuji.
Believe me; I get it. It’s a really great camera, and all told I made some pretty nice shots with it. But those few decent shots were made with hundreds of dollars worth of film (factoring purchase price, plus development and scanning). After more than two months shooting one, trying everything I could to make high-quality images consistently, I never did make the most of my time and money. Rangefinders challenge me. It’s too heavy, and too big to use comfortably. I wasted too much film. And I rarely got the shot. The Fuji GW690 is a wonderful camera that’s supremely capable. But for me, it’s just not a good fit.
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I use the sister camera to this model, the GSW 690 on a regular basis, and I find the advantages to far outweigh the downsides. It is definitely a camera that rewards those who take their time, but the results cannot be matched with any camera I’ve ever used. (I’m definitely glad it’s a rangefinder though, I don’t think I would enjoy carrying around a 6×9 SLR, even a fixed lens!