Fuji GW690 – Medium Format Camera Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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29 Comments

  • Reply
    Perry Liston
    October 31, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    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!

  • Reply
    Mike Eckman
    October 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    Excellent review! I applaud your bravery for writing a critical, but honest, review of an often heralded camera. Something that you only really discover after building a collection of film cameras is that just because a model has a “legendary” reputation, does not mean it will produce the best, or easiest to capture images. I’ve had similar opinions of the Mamiya M645, a camera that SHOULD produce some of the best auto exposed images, I often find myself struggling to get a roll of consistently good pictures, not to mention, it has horrible ergonomics.

    I would never pass up a chance to try out a GW690 of course, but after reading this, I won’t go through any heroic effort to acquire one! 🙂

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 31, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement. It can be a bit daunting, but I need you guys to know that you can trust what we’re doing here. Thanks again!

  • Reply
    Adam
    October 31, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    Great (and brutally honest) review. I think you summed it up best in saying that this camera is made for a very specific purpose. It seems to be a capable rigid-bodied landscape shooter that has the plus of being able to have critical focus in situations where you are focusing on still scenes with focus at less than infinity. The lack of at least a metered manual ability is admittedly a big shortcoming even in the above situations, particularly with unforgiving transparency films.

    I could see myself using one of these on some outings, but admittedly those opportunities would be rare. It offers little real advantage to my Super Ikonta, which is far more compact. It would be similarly tough for me to “want to like” this camera, yet consistently feel underwhelmed by it when all is said and done.

  • Reply
    Huss
    October 31, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    I use the GW690III model with no issues. The aperture and shutter rings are intentionally so close so that once you have set your exposure, you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed in tandem to get variations of that initial exposure setting. e.g. say it was 1/125 @ 5.6, you can turn it to 1/60 at 8 or 1/250 at 4
    The rf patch does not match up to my Leicas, or CLEs or Xpans. But their image quality does not come remotely close to what 6×9 can do.
    I manage to get far more ‘keepers’ from this camera than any other I use because of the fact it only takes 8 shots per roll. It makes me very selective with it!

    Attached is a shot of the Peace Bell in San Pedro – Ilford PlusX (I think ) with a green filter. It has sold very well for me at my gallery (shameless plug huzgalleries.com!)

    http://i12.photobucket.com/albums/a249/Desmolicious/b00c3cfe-c6f4-4d82-acb8-a4d0a0c86fee_zpsawp2iyam.jpg

    One thing I should note, it took a while for me to find a good version of this camera. There are lots for sale, mostly from Japan, and the first two that I got had very hazy viewfinders (even though the sellers claimed everything was perfect). I finally located an excellent one locally.

    James, if you ever are in my ‘hood (LA or San Pedro) you are welcome to check/try my one out.

    Best regards
    Huss

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 31, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Fantastic angle on this camera. I’d be interesting in trying the III. Maybe my II is just a bit beat down.

  • Reply
    Huss
    October 31, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    p.s the Voigtlander VC Meter II is perfect in the hot shoe, and looks like it belongs on the camera.

  • Reply
    Neilson
    October 31, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    I was curious about these but after reading this review I think I’ll pass. I didn’t realize that there’s no meter. The price is a pretty big plus though if you can’t afford a Mamiya 7 or a Plaubel Makina.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 31, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Yes, they are fairly affordable. And don’t let this review dissuade you if you’re thinking about trying one. Like I said, it’s a fantastic machine that just doesn’t match my lifestyle. It could very well work for you!

  • Reply
    Theo
    October 31, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    I shoot the wider GSW690III, and recently wrote about it on photothinking.com . Interestingly I hit quite a few of the quirks you wrote about James, with the only difference being that I tend to gravitate towards quirky. Mind you, that lens hood is a pain in the behind.
    One thing I can say though, is that it is a very sharp lens, and those luxurious negatives are great. You just need to forget about trying to use like a Leica type rangefinder.

  • Reply
    the6millionpman
    October 31, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    A nice review and downright honest., sometimes you hear so much about a particular camera that when you shoot it you don’t see what the fuss is about. I know there’s plenty of camera’s I’ve shot with that I just didn’t get on with despite being told how great they are, in the end we all have different photography styles and ways of working hence why there’s no one size fits all camera for everyone……despite what the manufacturers want you to believe :p

  • Reply
    FederiCollazos
    October 31, 2016 at 11:29 pm

    I have been waiting for this review since you mentioned it on a past article about a Minolta Rokkor-M lens, also because I own a GW6900iii.
    I truly love iteration of the 6×9 Fuji, but I totally understand your honest perspective. The camera can deliver amazing pictures, if you’re willing to slow down. A lot. Like seriously slow down your photographic flow.
    In my case, it felt great going back to basics, but you’re exactly right about the camera limitations. I do consider myself lucky whenever I get 4 or 5 good exposures out of the 8 frames a 120 roll will give.
    The camera can really work wonders with Ektar100 and Portra400, but I get the feeling I’d appreciate a Pentax 67 ii much more. Too bad it’s 4x the cost…
    Some of my shots on the 6×9: http://bit.ly/2f2IwCL
    Spot on review! Looking forward to many more.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      October 31, 2016 at 11:34 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, my friend. I should have tried Ektar. My favorite film, and maybe it would have all clicked. Next time!

  • Reply
    Samuel Tang
    November 1, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    When the camera (and it’s forebears) were current, I sure was looking into getting one at a sensible price, but failed to do so.

    Do bear in mind that the 120 film was originally designed to take eight nominally 6X9 pictures, it’s basically returning to its roots: cameras were mostly made as folders, ranging from very basic ones – effectively a box camera that can be folded – to very sophisticated ones with coupled rangefinder etc.

    The reason for Fuji – along with Doi-operated Plaubel etc – to carry on building rollfilm cameras was basically for professionals working for publications. Sure enough, a technically decent 35mm transparency was – and still is – more than good enough for a double-page spread, but larger first-generation pictures would certainly look more impressive on the light table, and more likely generate more sales.

  • Reply
    Stéphane
    November 2, 2016 at 7:04 am

    I’m using the GSW 680 III and found it great for shooting landscapes In the scottish highlands, with tripod of course. The lens is fantastic and the simplicity of use is a positive point for me. Of course, and as you said, you need to shoot by taking your time for composition and settings (with the Voigtlander VC meter on the hot shoe). For sure, it’s not an action cam or a street photography one and it’s not the kind of camera you have always with you as it’s big and heavy (but not as big and heavy as the Pentax 67…)

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    November 2, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    But wait, there’s more! The design of the lens hood is fantastic BECAUSE it covers the aperture/shutter rings when not in use. This forces you to use the lens hood, maximizing image quality.
    If that’s not enough, Fuji have even thought of a way to make sure you never take a shot with the lens cap on (a huge deal with only 8 exp per 120 roll). The lens cap fits over the lens hood. So when you pull out the lens hood to use the camera, to reveal the shutter/aperture dials, your hand naturally grabs the lens cap. And so you always take it off!
    These were all conscious ergonomic design choices by Fuji. And all make sense.

  • Reply
    Mike
    November 5, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I recently purchased a GSW690III – I see the strength of it’s rumored purpose alluded to in your article – shooting group photos of tourists. New to the site and really enjoying the articles, thank you.

  • Reply
    Jordi
    November 5, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Hey James,

    Nice review, it does hit home in some points well seen. From my modest experience with it (GW690III) it requires a bit of a mindset to operate and I share your conclusion on photographing not so moving subjects, more towards scenery. I’m also conflicted about it at times.

    There are some particularities that are IMO a bit unfaily attributed:

    The format, 3:2 just like 35mm! Sometimes it is a bit meh, rather wideish but not so.

    The lack of meter, is shared by many 135’s such as the Leica M. I use phone app (+ graycard) and a bit too much sunny 16. I do have a minolta meter with both incident and spot attachments, I did an unfulfilled resolution to use it more by forgetting to take it last weekend!

    And comparing it with Mamiya 7 and Plaubel Makina is not that fair (IIRC the M7 with lens would be 2x the price of a GW new back then, $3K vs $1,5K).
    I got one of these from Japan because it’s terrific bang for the buck (neg size and modern machine) and decided that a RF was nice to save prism SLR weight, as the P67 seems even more of a Titan in weight and maybe size.
    Sometimes I do feel I’d veer towards a 6×6 or 6×7, travel for example, a situation I want to take it but haven’t yet. I’d like to try a GF670, M7 or Makina for sure, but prices are way steeper.

    The hood is a nice design but I feel too for those who want to use P, Cokin, GND and such filters. The T setting also seems a PITA for lower than 5-10s exposures.

    In some ways it doesn’t seem that bad and unwieldy, the 35mm form factor does help. It is after all, a rather Large Format camera or perhaps a cinematic still camera. Again, and agreeing on Huss, it’s about taking time. 15-30s at least of zen prior exposing. Many shots that I’d take in 35mm are a no-no in 6×9. Then, I’ve taken weeks to do the 8EXP. I’m a poor grad at the moment so very selective.
    When those big negs/slides come back and are really nice, I like the camera again. When a frame is sh*++y because of my composition, I’m like “dude, you are an idiot for taking that, don’t!”.

    BTW, I have an OM1 which sadly jammed (short on $ for CLA now). Thought that by having the GW I’d leave 35mm, as I shot film very slowly. I got an F80 cheap to play around the sea, it was quite nice to go from manual to AF and AE priority; shoot much more 35mm, and kind of compensates and compliments the GW!

    And I have to confess, I feel a bit self-conscious carrying this thing around on the open; and don’t shoot as much as I could because of it and some of the slower pace quirks. I mostly use a backpack and take it in and out at the designated scene, where the film shall be exposed.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 5, 2016 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks for these detailed thoughts! Let me know if we can see your shots anywhere online? Thanks again, my friend.

  • Reply
    Thomas
    November 7, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Great and honest review! I completely agree that the GW690 is made for a specific purpose, even if it wasn’t your own specific purpose it was a very even-handed review.

    I own a GW690II and have found that that purpose is portraits for me (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommfy/30836001275). The lack of metering does not bother me as I always use a handheld meter anyway, certainly as mentioned earlier in the comments I think it’s a bonus that the shutter and aperture are so fiddly and close together; you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed in tandem to get variations of that initial exposure setting á la Hasselblad style.

    I bought mine in a sorry state for £50 and had it rebuilt by Aperture in London, the focus patch is still pretty large and bright and is more than adequate for any situation – perhaps it was just bad luck that you found a dim one. Once you get over the size, the GW690 is one of my favourite and most versatile medium format cameras – great for spontaneous sessions or on the street!

    Keep up the good work, I love your articles!

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 7, 2016 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you like the site. And great photos you’ve made with that Fuji!

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    November 7, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    If I am taking 6 x 9, I prefer to take more time and care than commonly one would do with a hand held Fuji 690. For this format I use a Graflex Speed Crown Graphic with a Singer 6 x 9 back and unusually, an 80mm/f2.8 Zeiss Tessar. I suspect the lens is a refugee from a Super Ikonta, transferred onto a Graflex lens board. There I have the dual options of using the Kalart side mount rangefinder (after I managed to get an 80mm cam for the coupling) or putting on a ground glass screen in place of the roll film back and using a magnifying glass to focus. Obviously all this is done on a tripod. 35mm film is so good nowadays (T-Max 100, FP4, Fomapan 200), I agree with James, that 6 x 9 is just not a particularly good fit for rangefinder style photography. That said, I would still love to acquire a Graflex KE-4 70mm rangefinder military camera, the original “Texas Leica” but all the ones I have looked at had BIG problems, like a dead clockwork motor or serious fungus in the lens (lenses).

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 7, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      I’d love to see that setup. Link to a picture if you can! Thanks, my friend.

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    November 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    James,

    here is a link to a photo of the Graflex. https://www.dropbox.com/s/nttcfrpazge5fdd/Graflex.jpg?dl=0 I was trying to use it the other day, only to find that flash sync appears to have died. I thought it was my Grafflash but when I tried another flash, my Rolleiflash Type 1, which I knew worked, that was dead as well. It is going to have to go and have some TLC from Kelvin at Protech. I suspect it may just be some dirt on the contacts, as it was working last year. It is just a standard Prontor SVS shutter, so not to difficult to either mend or replace. Interestingly it had some strange marks on the back mating surface with the lens board, which I examined with an illuminated sensor loupe. It says in tiny writing “Manufactured in the USSR occupied zone of Greater Germany.” I imagine if the person who engraved that had been caught, he would have been the next against the wall.

    The Graflex is good to use for architecture, as it has a rise and fall front plus positive and negative Scheimpflug tilt. There is a studio version where you can adjust the tilt but this one, as more of a press camera, just has one setting for each direction. I have 6 x 9, 6 x 7 and 6 x 6 120 roll film backs for it, all of the late type Graflex or the later Singer ones, with film counters and lever wind.

    Wilson

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 9, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      That’s gorgeous. Show us some shots from it when and if you can. Thanks again.

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