As we approach 2020, Fujifilm remains one of the most bold and energetic camera makers in the world. In recent years the company has given us a number of unusual and specialized tools, including a mind-blowing 50 megapixel medium format digital mirrorless camera. They followed that quickly with a brain-liquifying 102 megapixel model. A decade ago they helped reinvigorate street photography with their X-series cameras. They’re the only real producer of instant film and instant cameras that exists in the world today. And let’s not forget the weird LCD screen that graces their latest camera, the X-Pro 3.
And it’s always been like this. For decades Fujifilm has blazed a unique trail, often focusing their efforts into highly specialized or niche areas of photography. The ultra-fast, ultra-wide premium point-and-shoot Fuji Natura Black F1.9, for example. And let’s not forget that they’re the company that produced the 35mm panoramic rangefinder Fujifilm TX-1 (released outside Japan as the Hasselblad X-Pan). They were making medium format rangefinder cameras well into the 2000s. Yeah, Fuji has made some wild products. But most wild of all may be the camera I’ve been fiddling with for the past few months; the Fuji G617.
What is the Fuji G617
The biggest selling point for the Fujifilm G617 Professional is hinted at in the name; the enormous image area. Measuring a truly massive 6 x 17 centimeters (2.25 x 6.5 inches) in a 3:1 aspect ratio, the G617 is capable of exposing unbelievably large swathes of film. And it makes these enormous photos on standard 120 film (it could also be used with 220 film by flipping the pressure plate, though this format is now discontinued by the major film manufacturers).
The G617 was first produced in 1983, and was intended to be a specialty tool for landscape and architectural photographers who were looking to expose gigantic negatives in a relatively portable camera (compared to large format, let’s say). This is evidenced by the highly ergonomic handles on each side of the machine and the dual top and front-mounted shutter release buttons that seem to encourage handheld shooting.
The camera features a fixed Fujinon 105mm F/8 lens made of six elements in four groups. This lens provides a diagonal angle of view of 80.3º (the approximate equivalent angle of view of a 25.8mm lens in the 35mm format). The lens’ aperture spans from a maximum aperture of F/8 to a minimum of F/45, and this sits behind a Made-in-Japan Seiko No. 0 interlens leaf shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to as fast as 1/500th of a second, with additional Bulb mode for long exposures and flash sync at all speeds.
Focusing is handled via the scale focus system – estimate or measure your distance to the subject and set the focus ring to that distance. Film advance is achieved via a thumb-powered advance lever on the top plate, while focus and aperture and shutter speed are all adjusted via rings or levers on the lens. Multiple exposures are possible by resetting the shutter with the lens-mounted lever and firing it again via the release on the lens without advancing the film between shots.
The top plate boasts the top-mounted shutter release, the four-stroke film advance lever, two accessory cold shoes for bubble levels or flash triggers, and the housing for the viewfinder. There’s also a film frame counter and a switch for changing between 120 and 220 film formats. There’s a spirit level integrated into the lens protection cage, which helps to ensure level compositions. This obviously helps us level the camera when doing tripod work, but it’s also unexpected and useful that Fujifilm created a cutout in the viewfinder mask which allows the user to see the spirit level’s reading through the viewfinder while the camera is raised to the eye. This further reinforces the idea that Fuji intended the G617 to be a perfectly usable handheld camera.
The bottom of the camera is similarly sparse. There’s a tripod mount, as well as the knobs for controlling the film take-up spool, and a shutter release counter that counts in multiples of ten (if the counter reads 150, for example, the shutter has fired 1,500 times).
Essentially, that’s all there is to the Fuji G617. For such a specialized device, it’s an incredibly simple camera. Hell, the user’s manual is only thirteen pages in length. But this simplicity can be deceiving. Shooting the Fujifilm G617 is a process that rewards concentration, and tends to punish less conscientious photographers.
It’s a camera for people who know how to use cameras, or know how to learn how to use cameras. There’s no light meter, no batteries powering anything. There are no focusing aids. There’s no auto-exposure. Even remembering to advance the shutter after advancing the film can be difficult without formulating and practicing this particular camera’s order of operations. For these reasons, it’s a camera that will feel most comfortable in the hands of large format photographers, or those who have used a wide variety of camera types. All of this noted, there’s really not too much to learn here. Anyone can use the G617, with practice.
Build Quality and Aesthetics
I tend to mention aesthetics in my classic camera reviews. This is because I think that some cameras are strikingly gorgeous. The Contax IIa, the Polaroid SX70, the Nikon SP – these cameras look as good as the photos they make, and in this modern era, a time in which these cameras will never be the main tool of money-making photographers, I think the style and aesthetic of the classic camera has become more important than when these cameras were first released. This lengthy preamble is here to justify the next paragraph, my “hot take” on the almost-not-worth-mentioning looks of the very-serious-photographer’s-tool Fuji G617.
It’s a good looking camera. In fact, besides the later models in the G617 line by Fuji, there’s no camera that looks like it. I mean, crikey, it’s got a roll cage. The satin black body, the robust handles, the diamond grip pattern sitting astride the black leatherette – it looks like a serious machine. Even the restrained use of what looks to be anodized gold accent strikes just the right note. It’s not a classically beautiful camera, but it looks cool as heck.
Build quality seems strong. The camera weighs five pounds. The lens mount, film gate, and chassis are all made of metal, as is that big honkin’ film door. The top plate is made of plastic, but it’s thick and sturdy (I know this, because I needed to remove the entire top plate of my camera to replace the film frame counter window, which had come loose). The cage surrounding the lens is made of rubber-coated metal tubes. The strap is thick and connects at four points. I wouldn’t recommend dropping this camera, but it seems like it would survive a couple of falls. When not in use, keep it safely locked in its dedicated, branded, and padded G617 briefcase.
Shooting the Fuji G617
The process of using the Fuji G617 can be described in a few words – challenging, humbling, stimulating. It’s also fun. It’s a camera that’s unlike any camera that I’ve ever used. The enormous and wide-field image area pushes one to see the world surrounded by an unusual frame. At 3:1, the wide aspect ratio all but eliminates the possibility of vertical shooting (although vertical shots can be made to great effect in certain cases), and forces us instead to look for sprawling vistas and horizontal lines. Like the Fuji TX-1 in the 35mm format, the G617 pushes us to think cinematographically, for better or worse.
Landscape shooting is the most obvious use for this camera. Find a nice view, set up the tripod, mount the camera, level it, take a light meter reading with your external meter (I just guess), then set your aperture and shutter speed, set focus to infinity, charge the shutter on the lens and press the button. You’ve made a photo.
The critical factor in making a good photo with this camera (with any fully manual camera, really) is to get our settings right. The rather dim maximum aperture of F/8 certainly precludes the G617 from being a low-light camera, unless we’re making long exposures with a tripod. It’ll be critical to have and use an accurate light meter in challenging light.
You’ll also want to use the supplied (if your almost-thirty-years-old used camera comes complete) Fuji Center Filter ND-2X, which dims the center of the image area to eliminate the effect of the natural vignetting brought about by the lens’ wide angle of view. When not using this filter, the edges of the enormous images will appear just slightly darker than the center. There’s also a proprietary lens hood to eliminate ghosts and flares in cases where the sun might otherwise strike the front lens element. Use it. It’ll boost contrast.
When shooting subjects closer than the far distance, you’ll need to estimate distance to subject and set the focus ring to match. It’s also possible to use an external rangefinder attachment, which can conveniently mount to one of the camera’s two accessory shoes. Minimum focus distance is a rather distant three meters (nine feet), though stopping down to, or close to, the minimum aperture values can move the minimum focus distance as close as 1.5 meters (five feet).
The real tricky part about shooting the Fuji G617 is remembering the proper order of operations. Since the shutter advance mechanism isn’t paired to the film advance mechanism, users should expect that for the first few rolls he or she will advance the film and then press the shutter release button only to find it locked. You’ll need to manually charge the shutter via the lever on the lens before either shutter release button will work. This isn’t a serious problem. But I won’t pretend that I haven’t meticulously set up my shot over a span of eight or ten minutes, only to finally and importantly press down on a locked shutter button. After which I sheepishly charge the shutter and press it again. That said, I’m pretty dumb. You’ll likely do better.
Image quality is phenomenal, and really leaves nothing to be desired. The Fujinon lens produces exceptionally sharp images on modern film, and slide film shot with this machine is a wonder to behold. A handful of pro photographers launched or relaunched their careers with the G617, and they made plenty of money with the images that came out of this camera. You probably can, too! Actually, you’ll likely need to make some money with this thing, since it only shoots four exposures per roll of 120 film. Yes; it’s an expensive toy to use.
[Sample images in the gallery above were made by my friend Sean Goss, and sample images in the gallery below were made by another friend, Anthony Retournard.]
Buyer’s Guide and Final Thoughts
If you want to shoot massive 6 x 17 centimeter negatives, the Fuji G617 is probably the best way to do it. But you can expect to spend quite a bit of money to own a G617. Excellent examples complete with the case, filter, etc., tend to cost $2,000 or more. While that’s a big pill to swallow, remember that the G617 is substantially less expensive than the GX617 which came after it. The GX617 offers interchangeable lenses and viewfinders, but costs about double the price of the original G617.
Even with the two-grand price tag, the Fuji G617 is a great camera to own and to use. It’s a special, nearly unique machine that does a singular job extremely well. More important than that, it helps us break away from the ordinary and shoot something extraordinary (and by that I mean both the camera and the images it can make). It’s fun, challenging, and invigorating. And if you’re serious about landscapes or interested in shooting close to large format without carrying the clumsy weight that large format cameras typically bring with them, the Fuji G617 is a must-own.
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Soooo many questions . . .
– I know that developing would be exactly the same as for any medium format film (whether you do it yourself or send it out), but what about prints? In a traditional darkroom you have this dilemma: 6.5 inches exceeds the limits of a 4×5 enlarger, there aren’t many 5×7 enlargers, and an 8×10 is a beast. If you’re scanning, are there film holders to accommodate this size negative? Are there photo finishers that will print from these negatives?
– I’ve never used a center filter. Does it really even-out the exposure across the negative, or just approximate it. In other words, would additional dodging or burning be necessary?
– What the heck happened on the fifth shot by Anthony Retournard?
– What would I do with a transparency in this format? Surely there is no slide projector for this size.
– When you’re done with the camera, can you send it to me?