Shooting with the Fuji GW690ii in 2015

Earlier this summer I bought a second-hand Fuji GW690ii, a 6x9cm medium format rangefinder with a fixed 90mm lens (equivalent to about 35mm full frame). It takes film. Mention this to most people in 2015 and the immediate question is why you would want such a thing. In my case it was a mixture of curiosity (could I take film images that I actually preferred to digital ones?) and long suppressed equipment envy (I would have loved to have medium or large format equipment in the 90s, but back then it was way beyond my budget). But mostly I thought it would be a fun diversion.

Over the course of the summer I’ve shot just enough on the Fuji (two rolls, that’s 16 exposures, total!) to form some first impressions…

The tale of the tape

Fuji GW690ii rangefinder

Out of the box the first impression is that this is a large camera. Large enough to amaze, amuse or horrify your friends, depending on their inclination. It’s not, however, tremendously heavy. It tips the scales at about 1.5kg (a little over 3 pounds), which is actually lighter than my full-frame DSLR (a Canon 5D3) with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. I’ve mostly used a tripod, but hand held shooting is perfectly feasible. Discrete shooting, less so.

The shooting experience

Coming from an SLR / DSLR background, the main challenge to using the Fuji is mastering the rangefinder focusing system. The optical finder has a small bright spot at its center, which shows horizontally displaced double images that snap together when focus is achieved. For those with long memories, it’s quite like the split-screen focusing that used to be a staple of film SLRs. For subjects that are basically stationary, and which have prominent vertical lines, it works extremely well, and very little practice is needed to focus quickly. Moving subjects – a field of flowers waving in the breeze for example – are doable but a good deal more challenging for a beginner.

Focusing apart, the rest of the camera works very much like an oversized SLR, though as there’s a leaf shutter both the aperture and the shutter speed are set via rings on the lens. You don’t have to worry about running out of battery as there is no battery – the operation is fully mechanical and there isn’t even a light meter! I bought a hand held light meter – which does wonders for one’s professional image in the field – though I’ve mostly been using the Fuji side by side with other cameras that can be used as glorified light meters. Minor hassles with metering apart, I’ve found it a very easy camera to get to grips with.

The workflow

Having some fun with film need not imply all out luddism. I don’t have any inclination to process my own film (even though for B&W it’s not that hard), or to print it optically. Scanning and then processing / printing in the same way as my digital images was therefore the plan. I choose a 6x9cm camera, in part, because the large negative size allows for decent scans from an inexpensive flatbed scanner. For the first few rolls, however, I got low resolution scans made at the time of processing, and had the best looking image drum scanned at high resolution.

A first comparison with digital

You certainly don’t buy a film camera in 2015 with the idea of getting a sharper or objectively “better” image than high-end digital equipment. But it’s hard to resist seeing if there are any obvious differences in the look. I took both the Fuji and my normal camera (a Canon 5D3 with 24-70mm lens) to Iceland and shot a few roughly side-by-side frames. Here’s the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, in harsh direct sunlight in the early afternoon. Conditions for sightseeing rather than making good photos.

Gulfoss Canon 5D3

Gullfoss, Iceland (Canon 5D Mk3)

Gulfoss Fuji GW690

Gullfoss, Iceland (Fuji GW690, Ilford Pan F 50)

Both images have been processed to taste in Lightroom (darkening the sky in the Canon frame by pulling out the blue in the B&W conversion). You can’t say anything about sharpness from this comparison – it’s a low resolution scan and the jpegs are smaller still – but to my eye the overall look of the images is pretty similar. The only real difference comes from using a slower shutter speed on the Fuji frame (ISO 50 film is slow, and I used a red filter with a 3 stop filter factor on top).

Detail rendering

The black sand beach at the outlet of the Jökulsárlón (glacier lagoon) is littered with small-ish chunks of ice (and with photographers, most of the time!). I shot with the Fuji (mounted to a sturdy tripod, 1/2 second, about f/16 as I recall) and with the Canon (using a 24-70mm lens, here at ISO 400, f/13). The main purpose of the Canon frame was to meter the Fuji shot, so the framing is similar but not identical. The Fuji film was drum scanned at extremely high resolution (about a 70 megapixel scan).

Here are scaled crops of the Canon (on the left) and Fuji images, adjusted for fairly similar contrast and exported from Lightroom with the same sharpness settings. The Fuji crop comes from near the right hand edge of the frame.

fuji_canon_sharpness

You can’t quite describe this as pixel-level sharpness, given that there are none on the film and even the Canon image has been (slightly) rescaled for this comparison. Nonetheless it’s obvious that the rendering of fine detail, via some combination of the lens and the film / sensor, is distinctly different between the cameras. Out of the box, with not much processing, the digital file is sharper.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Glacier lagoon iceland

This is the full frame from which the crop above was extracted. I’ve made a small number of adjustments in Lightroom, but this is still close to the “raw” image off the film / scanner. It prints well, and I like the somewhat impressionistic rendering of the sea and sky the Fuji / Pan F 50 combination has produced.

I’m going to continue to experiment with the Fuji, perhaps especially for some informal portraits where I suspect the combination of an f/3.5 lens and enormous 6x9cm frame ought to be quite appealing. Thus far it’s lived up to the promise of being fun, and I’ve discovered that I enjoy experimenting with black and white (whether sourced from film or digital) more than I knew I did. I’ll be very pleased (and surprised) if I can maintain a hit rate of one satisfying image per roll of film!

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