Quick thoughts on the Fuji GSW680III – “Texas Leica”

I’ve tried a bunch of various film format cameras, and for a time was enchanted by the idea of super large (for medium format) negatives / slides. At the time I was also very concerned with portability and curious how to mate the two together into something usable but satisfying the need for detail. I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mamiya RB67 / RZ67 series, ever since using an original Pentax 6x7 with its lovely 6x7 cm negatives – but very poor flash sync speeds. Nonetheless I started researching rangefinders (aha! Portable) and ended up discovering the Fuji line of rangefinders in the GSW / GW series (GSW690, GW690).

The internet seemed divided though, some people adored the large funky looking rangefinder with huge 6x9 negative, and others didn’t quite get the hype, and ultimately left it to the users “your mileage may vary & not for me”.

One thing that did stick out to me was only 8 exposures per 120 roll, and trying to decide on a fixed lens aspect that suited my particular style. Since the Fuji’s come in two variants , GW, and GSW (wide & Super wide I would guess) the difference was between about 28mm, and 40mm field of view. After reviewing my various shots in my collection, it looked like wider was best, so I settled on finding a GSW variant, however was surprised to find that Fuji also made a series of other frame sizes in 6x8 and 6x7 cm (Fujifilm GSW680, and 670 respectively) and scored a good deal on a GSW680III from KEH camera (link) in excellent condition.

*Keh (link) is amazing by the way – I recommend all of you check them out for amazing quality used equipment (my opinion).

The Fujifilm GSW680 arrived shortly, and it is a huge affair compared to small DSLRs, and say a Leica, but it is very well put together. Everything that I can tell is the same about the actual camera in regards to the 6x9 version, however there has been a frame mask applied to the inside, and viewfinder window, along with I would imagine numbers on the frame counter spool. This camera is entirely mechanical, and focuses via a rangefinder window which is giant and bright (really giant, compared to even professional DSLR’s). My particular variant was the GSW version, with a 65mm F5.6 fixed lens, with an approximate field of view around 28-30mm.

Operation of the camera was a breeze, winding film was simple and straightforward, while the inclusion of a vertical and horizontal shutter release (one on the front of the body like a Miranda Sensorex) was excellent! In my estimation the camera was going to be great!

In practice the GSW680 was at first exceedingly difficult to use, as everything was blurry out of the box! I was concerned at first, until upon closer inspection, I noticed some small writing around the eyepiece (the small circular version on the back of the rangefinder). Closer inspection revealed a screw on diopter adjusted for +2 which is way past usable. Further research showed that a Nikon screw in “zero” adjustment eyepiece was regularly available, and upon receiving mine – it went right on, and problem solved!

Now out to shoot – it took some finagling, but I loaded my 120 roll of Kodak Ektar 100 (it was very sunny that day), and hit the streets looking for images that looked interesting that afternoon. The first thing I noticed, the viewfinder is HUGE, and VERY WIDE compared to even my professional level DSLR’s. Interestingly due to the coupled rangefinder design, the lens will be visible with the GSW variant in the right hand lower frame area. Without a doubt, the field of view is wide, and struck me as good for landscapes. The lens is a joy with easy clicking, and firm setting of leaf shutter timing & F stop (it’s all on the lens). A few winds of the lever, and a loud spring like *Clunk* and the giant rangefinder has taken a snap, and is ready to wind on.

The main problem I had that day was with focus – or the focus patch. It was a tiny (relatively) yellow patch in the center of the viewfinder, however for my eyes the contrast to line up images was lacking, and even more problematic as shady areas became more present. Lower light was really throwing me for a loop, and I resolved to see what could be done to assist. This would continue to be a theme on each shoot I’ve taken this camera to – the tough focus, or feeling of “did I nail it with only 9 shots per roll?”. Based on my portfolio of images you may be able to tell I love shooting in natural lighting, or in the studio, but often close to my subjects, and this created further concern over sharp focus.

Not wanting to use hyper-focal scales all the time, which is exacerbated by the huge F Stop required to achieve said distance (the large film frame size makes depth of field adjust to smaller apertures) I continued to look for ideas. The best method to improve the use of the focus patch was to increase the contrast using either the “dot trick” or in my case a tiny square of tape put on the front of the rangefinder window – providing a solid edge to line up through the focusing mechanics.

After this I find the Fujifilm GSSW680 III a fun to use giant frame camera, and don’t hesitate to recommend it for those who don’t mind racing through film rolls – while totally making GIANT detailed negatives, or slides. You really won’t understand until you are looking through your developed roll, and picking out images which are about the size of small trading cards, in a word awesome! The lens is contrast and top-quality optics wise (Fujifilm can compete with the best), and I have to agree I think that for its size, the GSW680III makes the best large frame medium format to weight argument there is. As long as you don’t mind not looking through the lens, this should be on your pick one out and try it for yourself list. Here are some images from the camera, some on Kodak Ektar 100 ISO, and some on Kodak Portra 400 (an amazing film). Enjoy, and if you end up picking one up, enjoy it!