Fuji Medium Format: Film & Digital

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Sometime in late February,  amid a social distancing Covid-19 lock-down atmosphere, a message pops-up in my phone: it was my mate and fellow photographer Nino Bártolo (NB) — previously featured here in Measuring Light — challenging me for a photo walk.

There was more to it though. NB already had an idea in mind: a Digital VS Analog challenge. Well, it sure sounds cliché at first, but here’s a detail that triggered my interest: this was to be medium format.

In other words, a Medium Format Digital VS Analog photo walk.

Fuji GSW690ii

While NB is the proud owner of several medium format cameras — including a Mamiya RB67 — this was going to be a street photo session.

Hence we decided the appropriate analog camera would be his Fuji GSW690ii, a relatively small and portable camera by medium format standards, sporting a fixed 65mm f/5.6 lens.

This choice would also make things that more interesting, as from my side I’d bring my Fuji GFX 50R with the 63mm f/2.8 lens.

So we had 2 medium format cameras representing analog and digital, both from Fuji and with the same focal length. Well, not really the same, but more on this later.

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Fuji GSW690ii

Just a few words about this camera. The Fuji GSW690ii belongs to a family of Fuji medium format rangefinders produced from the late 70’s all the way to the early 2000’s.

This branch of the Fuji family is quite numerous. The older members are actually called Fujica, while somewhere down the line the younger generations became known simply as Fuji. Differences between them include a variety of specs, from the output format (6 x 7/ 6 x 8 / 6 x 9), to the fixed lens length and aperture, or even the ability for interchangeable lenses.

In essence, these are rangefinder cameras for 120 / 220 medium format film, with a leaf shutter and a very bare-bones approach. For this reason, they are commonly known as “Texas Leica” due to their simplicity and operational similarities with the iconic M cameras from the German marque, while being significantly bigger because they are medium format.

One interesting detail about these Fuji rangefinders is that their past is everything but glamorous. Being medium format, you would think they were created for high-end, avant-garde artists and photographers, while in reality their market couldn’t be more different — and poignant.

These Fuji medium format cameras were mostly produced for tour group photos in Japan. As is, a bunch of tourists standing in front of a Japanese shrine, group photo taken with no passion by a tour guide before boarding the tour bus. Hardly inspiring.

As a result, they were designed and built to achieve bulletproof mechanical reliability and ease of use. Hence the simplicity and no-nonsense approach.

Loading a roll of precious Ilford B&W stock…

The Fuji GSW690ii was released in 1985 and has a fixed 65mm f/5.6 lens. The output of the camera being 6 x 9 medium format, the frame is so much larger compared to 35mm full-frame that the 65mm lens effectively has an equivalent 28mm field of view!

To be honest, I was really surprised and not aware of this significant “reverse crop factor” due to my own ignorance and lack of experience using medium format. So while my first reaction when talking to NB was “cool, I’ll bring my 63mm f/2.8”, it did not occur to me that the field of view of these two lenses in their respective cameras would be so different, because in my Fuji GFX 50R the 63mm f/2.8 works as full frame equivalent 50mm.

Therefore, even though the Fuji GFX 50R is a medium format camera, its sensor size is much smaller than 6 x 9. It’s effectively a cropped sensor medium format, same as APS is to full-frame.

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This specific Fuji GSW690ii owned by NB was acquired in the second hand market in Shanghai. While the body’s exterior shows several battle bruises, internally it’s flawless. Everything operates as it’s supposed to be. After all, this is a sturdy camera and by its appearance and built, I trust you can give it the hardest beating and it will still work fine.

In fact, this camera is 100% mechanical — no chances of any electronic gremlins. There is no built-in light meter, so you either set your exposure by using Sunny 16 and your own experience and feel or, like NB, you bring a dedicated Sekonic light meter hanged on your neck and measure the light before each shot.

Another interesting aspect about the Fuji GSW690ii is that both aperture and shutter speed are regulated in the lens body via dedicated rings. While an aperture ring is still common in these days, shutter speed control in the lens is basically non-existent nowadays.

But if you think about it, it makes sense in this camera which is purely mechanical and has a leaf shutter. Everything is happening in the lens, so it’s logical that the shutter speed control stays there and not in the camera body.

The camera body, in this case, serves the only purpose of carrying the film and its associated workings for film advance, plus the framing window with the rangefinder mechanism. And this is essentially how I would describe this camera.

The walk

Both cameras being so different, I disposed any thoughts of a side-by-side comparison. Strolling around the streets of old Macau, we kept walking with no specific destination in mind. We would stop in case any of us saw a photo opportunity.

Shooting digital nowadays can be such an informal and tasteless exercise. I’ve seen people street shooting and they don’t even care to stop walking while they bring the camera to their eyes.

The typical spray-and-pray method, relying on the camera’s automations and post-processing in front of a computer screen to get things right. This is how mundane the act of creating a photograph had become for most hobbyists in the digital photography age.

None of this when you carry a camera like the Fuji GSW690ii though. Everything becomes more deliberate, because it’s a multiple-step process. Frame to see if it works, measure the light with the external light meter, set the aperture and shutter speed, then frame again. And click. To capture, and finalize the process.

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NB at work. Shot from Fuji GFX 50R with 63mm f/2.8 — 1/60 — f/2.8 — ISO 160 — Classic Chrome

In contrast, using my Fuji GFX 50R everything just looked so effortless — and hardly exciting. Contrary to my usual practice, this time around I decided not to shoot RAW and go directly to JPEG.

The reason being that Fuji colours are usually vivid and eye-popping in Standard mode. To capture old Macau, I thought a bit of melancholy would be suitable. I set the camera to Classic Chrome film simulation, which felt appropriate for the feel I was looking for.

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Fuji GFX 50R with 63mm f/2.8 — 1/80 — f/2.8– ISO 100 — Classic Chrome
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Fuji GFX 50R with 63mm f/2.8 — 1/60 — f/4 — ISO 320 — Classic Chrome

While tweaking the camera settings for this specific Fuji “digital film stock”, NB working next to me was actually dealing with real film stock… He was shooting black & white film from Ilford, each roll good for 8 exposures only.

Compared to the 256GB SD card in my GFX 50R that stores over 2000 uncompressed RAW files, or 10000 JPEGs… You get a sense of how how things changed over time. In any case, this means shooting medium format film slows you down even more because every 8 exposures you are stopping and loading a new roll on your camera.

In a world where some people (like me…) spend crazy amounts of cash for Leica cameras that are meant to slow you down and focus on pure photography with their simplicity, I wonder why we don’t just move back to film photography.

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With my GFX 50R: shot by Fuji GSW690ii with fixed 65mm f/5.6 — Ilford B&W film stock

In fact, looking at NB’s black and white photos coming out of the Fuji GSW690ii, Gear Acquisition Syndrome hit me and I started a search in eBay and Buyee in no time… I was so close to pressing the buy button, having found several mint examples that were so reasonable priced.

Film photography has a very special feel to it. The grain and the imperfections give it a special flavour that had long disappeared with the now clinical outputs from digital files.

These film exposures look like antiques and were actually processed and exposed by NB himself. That’s really the beauty of it all.

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Fuji GSW690ii with fixed 65mm f/5.6 — Ilford B&W film stock

And below a couple of photos that we managed to have shot the same subject. Not really for a like-to-like comparison, but at least good enough to see the difference in field of view and the character of the respective outputs.

No need to say which photo belongs to which camera, I guess.

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Below is actually the only colour photo from the Fuji GSW690ii that I’m posting here. I like the colour temperatures, I appreciate that they are somehow muted and washed out. While digital photos nowadays can reproduce the reality with accuracy, it’s also true that sometimes they look over saturated and not pleasant to the eye.

Besides, let’s just say photography is not necessarily about representing reality with accuracy — a topic worth discussing in a separate post.

And by the way, that’s me on the photo capturing the second photo below.

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Fuji GSW690ii with fixed 65mm f/5.6
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Fuji GFX 50R with 63mm f/2.8 — 1/500 — f/5.6 — ISO 100 — Classic Chrome

Our walk coming to an end, we decided to swap the cameras.

When I put the strap around my neck and got my first person view of the Fuji GSW690ii, my first impression was that I was looking at an oversized version of my previously owned Fuji X-Pro2.

That boxy top plate and the proportions of the long rectangular shape. It somehow felt familiar, in a way. And it’s just interesting that I’d never felt the same using the GFX 50R.

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Shooting with the Fuji GSW690ii is really as straight forward as you can think of. The viewfinder is bright, the split screen for focusing is very visible — focusing was second nature. The only thing I had to get used to was setting the shutter speed on the lens. Otherwise, there is really not much to say. Operating this camera requires no special tips and tricks.

On the other hand, handling my Fuji GFX 50R to NB, I had to explain him a few things.

Like how to review a photo after the shot (because I always have auto review turned off), the slight delay of the EVF turning on when you raise the camera to your eye, the different auto focus modes and how I prefer to use Manual focus mode with a dedicated button for 1 press focus, the AutoISO that is capped at 3200…

These were just a few points so he could quickly get an understanding of the camera and start shooting. And frankly, this is how stupid modern digital cameras had become.

Signing out

I started this post referring to a Medium Format Digital VS Analog case, but now that I’m signing out I realize there is no real “VS” battle here.

These two cameras are so different in nature that you are not supposed to make a direct comparison and build-up a “VS” case. Hence I changed the title to Digital & Analog. It’s really a case of “&”, and not “VS”.

Both are beautiful examples of how Fuji approached medium format in different technological eras, aiming at different targets and different markets altogether.

Ultimately, the GSW690ii’s fully mechanical operation, no-nonsense approach and ease of use is something to be cherished in our modern days where everything is electronically controlled and over-complicated.

Talking of which, it would be interesting if Fuji produced a digital version of a “Texas Leica”. They could use the GFX system as a platform, and produce a rangefinder medium format camera as simple as the Fuji GSW690ii. In other words, the same approach as Leica for their modern M cameras.

I mean, why not? It would be Fuji’s way to honour their legacy — after all, their medium format rangefinder cameras had a 30 year production run.

Heck, if it ever happens I would buy one in no time.

 

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