Camera Geekery: Fuji GW690III review

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by Michael Nguyen /

7 min read
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Camera Geekery: Fuji GW690III review

I’ve always heard whispers of the Fuji GW690III among medium format shooters for its supposed legendary lens and portability, but had not ever used one in practice.
So when the opportunity arose to borrow one and shoot for a weekend, I promptly got a photo boner and was aroused to see what the fuss was about.

Released in Japan in February 1992 for ¥179,000, the leaf-shutter fixed-lens rangefinder camera for medium format film was targeted to professionals and travel and landscape photographers. While it has a fixed 90mm lens, it was affectionately dubbed “the Texas Leica” for its resemblance to a Leica M on steroids. Indeed, its dimensions are H 119 x W 201 x D 132 mm and weighs in at 1510g. Below you can see one juxtaposed to my M6 for comparison.

For those not familiar with the Texas Leica, let’s take a quick gander.

The camera

EBC Fujinon 90mm, F/3.5 (equivalent to 39~41mm on a 35mm camera).  Five elements in five groups with a No. 0 interlens shutter.  5 straight shutter blades.  One meter nearest focusing. Takes 67mm filters.  58° coverage diagonally.  Built in metal lens hood.

Some key features

  • Leaf shutter
  • 6×9 negatives on 120/220 film rolls (8/16 exp)
  • f/3,5 – f/32 half-stop increments
  • 1s – 1/500s plus T-mode. full-stop increments
  • Film length selector (half roll-4 shots, 120-8 shots or 220-16 shots
  • Hot shoe with a X-Sync connector
  • Spirit level on top plate

The negatives you will get are HUGE. The camera shoots 6×9 cm frames which roughly equates to 5 times the size of a 35mm frame or about half the size of a 4x5in frame. A nice thing is that 6×9 is about the same aspect ratio as 35mm film making it a smooth transition for those wanting to get into medium format.

These manual focus rangefinders are entirely mechanical so they take no batteries and provide no metering, so you’ll need to bring a light meter or trust your knowledge of sunny 16.
They’ve got an accessory shoe on top, two shutter release buttons, a tripod mount on the bottom and a built-in lens hood. An interesting aspect to the ergonomics is that aperture, shutter speed, and focus are all adjusted via rings around the lens barrels with the hood out. More will be said of this later.

On the top plate you’ll find the film length selector which I guess is rather moot now as 220 rolls and half rolls of 12o are about as abundant as Quaaludes. The spirit level can be handy for tripod setups but is only single axis, serving only to help balance the left and right for horizons.

On the right hand side of the top plate you will find the frame counter and the shutter release. The shutter release is within the film advance lever, which takes 1 and a quarter throws to forward a frame.
The shutter button is a classic design, and takes threaded cable releases. To advance the film is a 2-stroke motion much like the single stroke of early Leica M3’s; the first stroke will cock the shutter and advance the film partially and the second stroke will complete advancing the film.

A couple little details I appreciated is the push-button spool release which you can see once you open the back as below. The red buttons are pushed to pop the spools out, reducing fiddling with trying to pry the rolls out and the pop-out button on the bottom plate helps with loading a spool securely as well. Wish my toilet paper holder in the bathroom had this function.

The front of the GSW690III has another shutter release button which is quite useful for vertical compositions and is built into a locking lever that stops both shutters ensuring no accidental firing while in transport.

A camera back locking lever is another welcome addition, being much more secure than just a release slide. It also is part of a rubberized grip that I find aids in holding the camera more securely as the camera is rather robust in size, especially for smaller hands.

The bottom plate also features a total shot counter window (you need to multiply by 10). Meaning this particular camera has had 1750 shots gone through it.

There are of course camera strap lugs on both sides but also I like the addition of another one on the base of the left side for hanging the camera sideways if so preferred much like the Leica CL and M5.

Performance

Alrighty then, let’s take a look at it in use. As it was designed to be portable I decided to take it along for a nice little cycle around town. For being a big camera it fit well into my messenger bag and didn’t feel too hefty on my back. The sun was shining, plums were in blossom and I packed some Kodak Portra 400 and Fuji Pro 400H into my JCH film case and went exploring.

The viewfinder is quite nice, it’s clear and contrasty and a joy to view out of. But that rangefinder patch is a bit of a b**ch to use, especially in bright light. The focusing patch is circular vs. rectangular and is quite small and dim for a camera this size and one can get lost easily.
It very much reminded me of the rangefinder patch of the Yashica Electro 35’s. Once found though it’s easy to fine tune focus with the big rubberized focus grip. The guide lines move as you move the focus closer or farther away and the finder has 75% magnification with 95% field of view at 1 meter and 92% at infinity.

While feeling weighty enough and balanced in the hands, one cannot help but agree with the “plasticky” murmurings read online. You’d expect more metal put into a pro-level camera but you start to realize how heavy the camera would get if it did. After using it for a bit though it does feel robust enough and is fairly well built.

Shot wide open at 3.5 the results are lovely and yields subjectively nice bokeh and the vaunted 3D pop and sharpness I’ve heard about was not a let down to my eyes.
The closest focusing distance is rather far at 1 meter, so it’s not ideal for tight head shots or macro photography. What’s nice though is that you can focus on something up to 10 meters away and still have noticeable bokeh in the background.
It’s quite a different feel from shooting with a smaller format. But because of a far minimum focus distance, and centered nature of the rangefinder system as well as parallax issues inherent in that system, using the Fuji GW690III for serious portrait work could pose quite the challenge.

Gripes

It excels in scenes where you have some time to set up up a bit and hence its forte as a companion for travel and landscapes. As mentioned earlier, focusing is not much of a treat so you’d be forced to rely on zone focusing for street photography as trying to pinpoint a moving target is an annoying exercise in futility.

The shutter sound is also sonically challenged, making a metallic clang when fired resembling dropping a pan on the kitchen floor. The source of such a God awful sound is reported to be a spring mechanism inside the body that is attached to its shutter counter. If the sheer size of the camera doesn’t render it useless for stealth, the horrible shutter sound will.

Another source of many a complaints among photographers is the hood design. When retracted it covers the aperture and shutter speed controls so you have to extend it out but once you do, you can only use 67-77mm filters that screw on which limits your selection of filters significantly.
Not a huge deal to me personally but I can see it being frustrating as well as using an ND filter on a rangefinder.

Of bigger concern to me is the proximity of the aperture and and shutter speed rings under the hood. While an interesting design in theory, in use it’s cumbersome and people with big fingers will no doubt shout expletives fiddling with their settings. The rings are placed so tightly together that adjusting one invariably causes the other to move as well, kind of like using a Miyazaki lens. If you can get around these quirks the results have nice depth and a cinematic feel.

The biggest concern is the the shutter advancing mechanism. As mentioned earlier, the film advance uses a two-stroke cocking feature. If done properly there seems to be no issue, but when you’re trying to run and gun, rushing the advance can yield a loosely wound finished roll resulting in light leaks if you open the back in light. Not sure if this is a recurring issue with others as I couldn’t find any information online but it’s happened to me when not being careful with the advance lever.

Conclusion

The Fuji GW690III is a good bang for your buck medium format camera for the purists. It’s relatively smallish and light and shoots a very large negative with premium glass and is generally well built.
This is probably not the camera for the person who takes pictures of fast moving scenes or prefer full automation as one must think carefully and use some time before a photo is taken.

The quirks are something that need getting used to and if you’re a glass half full type it’ll force you to slow down and think about the process.
As results go, yeah the lens is great and lives up to the hype and I’d love to have one for specific shoots someday. It’s a recommended entry for people wanting to try the wonders of medium format but it hasn’t appeased my lust for a Makina or Mamiya 7.

MN

20 comments on “Camera Geekery: Fuji GW690III review”

    Tsukasa March 21, 2018 at 10:00 am / Reply

    Nice review. These do intrigue me quite a bit but I think if I were to get such a thing I’d rather go for the older Fuji medium format rangefinders with interchangeable lenses.

    Randall March 21, 2018 at 12:43 pm / Reply

    Great review! Sad thing is that when I read a review like this I want to try one. I wondered what they were selling for today when in 1992 they sold for about $1800 US. Looking to eBay for a quick price check I found them selling between $450 and $2700 US. More interesting than that was that I loaded 50 per page and only 2 were selling from the US. The other 48 were selling from Japan. Just a bit if trivia for what its worth.

    Michael Turk March 21, 2018 at 3:21 pm / Reply

    I love my GW690III and use it for street and landscape photography. I have a couple of gripes with it. The tiny yellow focus spot is virtually impossible to use at night without the aid of a torch. My workaround is to use zone focussing. What is really odd is the “Bulb” exposure method. You can initiate it mechanically but to turn it off, I have had to resort to covering the lens with a black cloth and then manually cancelling it, to avoid camera shake.

      Michael Nguyen March 30, 2018 at 3:00 pm /

      Huh, interesting workaround. I hardly ever use bulb but good to know!

    Markus March 21, 2018 at 8:38 pm / Reply

    Want a bit more metal and exchangeable lenses? Try the Fujica G690BL – I like mine :) It is, however, a bit heavier at about two kilograms with the standard lens.

    Charlie Gardener March 22, 2018 at 9:12 pm / Reply

    The shutter and aperture rings being together is a feature and not a bug. It lets you grab both and adjust in unison to change DoF without changing the EV once you’re dialed in. The issue is with the more modern GW690iii. The original GW690 did not have this hood covering and the rings were much easier to differentiate and use. The filter issue created by the hood is also missing in the earlier version.

    Great cameras for what they do well, but they have a limited scope. I miss mine whenever I don’t have it.

      Michael Nguyen March 30, 2018 at 2:59 pm /

      Never said it was a bug, said it was a design choice that takes some getting used to which it is.

    Mads March 23, 2018 at 4:15 am / Reply

    I love mine – you can’t argue with negatives this big; they’re gorgeous!

    Dan Morris March 25, 2018 at 2:07 am / Reply

    I have a 90mm and the wide 65mm. It has one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used. Most of your photos aren’t in focus. If you nail focus with this camera you can count every twig and tiny bud on those flowering trees. The camera is made of metal with a plastic casing.
    As someone above mentioned, the ability to keep the same EV while changing the aperture and shutter speed is a big advantage. Most people wouldn’t try to use a medium format camera for “street shooting”. Most medium format cameras require a more deliberate kind of image making. Finally, a very famous German photographer created an entire series of very stunning color portraits using this very camera, his name is Martin Schoeller. He said it was his favorite camera of all time and owned 5 of these excellent Fuji cameras. See article link. https://petapixel.com/2015/02/08/interview-photographer-martin-schoeller/

      Michael Nguyen March 30, 2018 at 2:52 pm /

      Umm the photos look in focus to me, perhaps due to the low-res thumbnails in the article? But yes the sharpness of the lens is out of this world, reminds me of the Yashinon on the Yashica Mat 124G. Love Martin Schoeller’s work as well.

    Larry March 25, 2018 at 3:24 am / Reply

    What a great review. It was a treat to read it.

    Some guys got the idea to use these as a substitute for a 4×5 large format. And if you want a big neg with less fuss, this works good. Roll film is more convenient to load and develop. And the camera is much easier to pack versus a 4×5 kit. When used that way, the limitations pretty much go away, and you are looking at several positives instead. For example the poor rangefinder spot looks great when comparing to a 4×5! For scenery, you would usually shoot f11 – f22+ at max hyperfocal distance or the infinity mark, and so then the focusing which is poor for a 35mm camera, looks really great when compared to a 4×5. So this camera and a tripod, plus a meter and a roil of film can be a nice alternative for a 4×5 kit, and even the smallest 4×5 kit takes a very large backpack + tripod.

    theindustrialist March 26, 2018 at 5:27 am / Reply

    Kalavinka & Samson frames?

    Tina Kino April 8, 2018 at 3:43 pm / Reply

    Thank you Dan Morris for that lin – a very interesting interview.

    Cheers!

    TK

    Huss April 10, 2018 at 5:06 am / Reply

    I too have had issues with fat rolls (loosely wound rolls) that resulted in light leaks.
    I found mine came from not maintaining adequate tension on the film advance side when loading the camera. It has happened several times even when I’ve tried to be careful, the camera really seems to not like losing film tension as you close the back.
    I’ve never had this issue with any of my other 120/220 film cameras, so it is a bit of bummer.

    Marco April 29, 2018 at 3:01 am / Reply

    As Larry pointed out, it makes a fairly reasonable alternative to carrying a 4×5″ field camera in the backcountry, and that’s my use. I use a 6×9 view camera with movements (Horseman VH) for when I don’t have to go far from the car, or when I fly somewhere and want a camera with movements with less bulk than a 4×5. But if I have to shlep it very far the GW690 is used, along with a small carbon tripod, light meter, couple filters, and a few rolls of film. The GW doesn’t offer camera movements, but it’s a good compromise against the weight and bulk of a view camera.

    I’ve never seen this camera as a good handheld street or snapshot machine because in my opinion it would be a waste of film. Even at the highest shutter speed many shots won’t have the critical sharpness that this camera is capable of when handheld, due to both camera shake and focusing errors. It makes much more sense to use a smaller format when shooting handheld.

    Jens G.R. Benthien April 29, 2018 at 2:45 pm / Reply

    You can mount a filter holder:

    Purchase two cheap filters, remove the glass, screw them in, use a thin adapter for your Lee or Formatt or Haida 100 mm filter system and use GND and other filters.

    This set up works for me like a charm – no need to grind the hood off of the lens.

    However, this works only for the 90mm version the GW, not for the 65mm GSW.

    Rich C May 15, 2018 at 9:23 pm / Reply

    Great article – I wrote one myself over at my blog at sixby45.com. I agree with the comments above – and that rangefinder is giant and fun to use but I ended up having to use the red dot trick to make the rangefinder patch more visible for studio and lowlight shooting. Handhokding isovely and the lens is well damped and sharp as can be! I loved it but ended up going back to a 6×6 tlr for street work. Oh! I should say mine was the GSW680 varient which had the same body but frame masked for 6x8cm. A great camera!

    Jakob May 22, 2018 at 4:40 am / Reply

    Hey Rich, what is this red dot trick you mention? Would love to learn more about it.

    Chris Whelan June 14, 2018 at 9:58 pm / Reply

    Excellent review Michael and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments. These cameras were never designed for walkabouts – they shine when mounted on a tripod or monopod. They love bright sunshine, being focused at infinity and Neopan Acros 100.
    I use my Fujica GW690 for documenting the historic sites around town and I love the extraordinary detail, contrast, and depth each supersized negative gives me. A side bonus is the amazed looks I get from the locals whenever I tote this beast around. The only downside – 8 exposures from 120 film!
    My Fujica is a close second to using my Yashica 6×6’s – pure analog bliss!
    Chris

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