There is a saying that “everything in Texas is bigger”. So, let’s take the svelte Leica M camera, and visualise what it would look like if it came from Texas, but to add a twist, has the build from Japan. We have just described the Fuji GSW690III Professional camera. This is a camera capable of some amazing results, has an extremely sharp lens and is quite mobile. It also shoots big 6×9 negatives with so much detail that suck you into the picture. Not a street shooter, but a great companion for travel photography.
Specifically, the GSW690III, is the third generation of a successful line for Fuji, and as per the “S” in the name (don’t ask me!), this one sports quite a wide lens at 65mm. While the results from this camera do in fact ensure the name “Professional” is justified, it does have some odd quirks which question the designers. This, though, makes you want to use it more and more.
Fuji began building medium format rangefinders in 1967, coincidentally in a 6×9 format, but from there they did branch out to other formats which included 6×7, 6×4.5 and even 6×8. There is even the famous 6×17 camera. Originally the cameras had interchangeable lenses but in the later models this was discontinued from the mid-1970s for a fixed high quality lens, which meant you needed to decide your focal length at the time of purchase. That is when the GW models were introduced.
The first GW690 model only sported a 90mm lens, and it was not until the mid-1980s with the mark II of this camera that Fuji introduced the wide lens. The two cameras that were introduced then were the GW690II with the standard 90mm lens, and the GSW690II with the 65mm lens.
By 1992, these had been progressed to the mark III models of which this camera is one. My camera, based on serial number, does indicate it is a mid-nineties model, it is a GSW, so sports the wide Fujinon 65mm lens. It is not easily clear in any searches I have performed when Fuji decided to discontinue these cameras, but I would hazard a guess at the early 2000s.
The Fuji GSW690III Professional is a fixed lens rangefinder camera, that shoots medium format film. The camera shoots 6x9cm frames, which roughly equate to 5 times the size of a 35mm frame or about half the size of a 4x5in frame. This is a bucket load of detail being captured but can be challenging as it is like shooting widescreen due to the wide angle lens. The plus side though, is that 6×9 is about the same aspect ratio as a 35mm film ratio, so a lot of people are used to it. There is no metering function, so you will need to rely on either sunny 16 or an external meter.
The camera, while portable, is not a lightweight. It comes in at 1510g, which if you are used to carrying a flagship Nikon or Canon with a booster grip is ok, otherwise you’re in for some muscle building. The dimensions are H 119 x W 201 x D 132 mm, so also not small. It almost screams to be handled by big hands. Some people have complained that it is not as strong as the previous model, due to the plastic, but the camera is actually heavier. The plastic moulding is only covering a full brass and steel body; this camera is tough! The exception being that the lens base is susceptible to being bent, but that would take a hell of an effort.
The lens is the very acclaimed Fujinon 65mm 1:5.6 EBC SW. 65mm equates to 28mm in the 35mm format. It is constructed from 4 components and utilises 6 elements and has a filter thread of 67mm. It can focus to 1 metre which is very close for the type of pictures you would be making with this camera.
This lens is extremely sharp, especially from f/8 onwards. Removing vignetting is hard for a manufacturer of 35mm cameras, so Fuji have done a marvellous job of achieving this with a 6×9 field of view lens. It really is considered one of the best lenses ever made. The caveat here though, is that it is fixed, so the tolerances on the camera body can be closer controlled to achieve this quality, but still, what a great lens! The settings for the camera are all mounted on the lens, for both aperture and shutter speed. Aperture ranges are from f/5.6 through to f/32. Shutter speed ranges are from 1/500th of second to 1 second. It also has T (time) setting, but no B (bulb) setting. The tabs or grips to rotate each of these have different shapes and feel, for easy identification.
Focusing is a big rubber grip towards the base of the lens and is a joy to use. Handles very easily. It also has markings of the distance against the aperture settings for zone calculations.
The lens has a built in hood, which when retracted covers the aperture and speed settings. The hood is a point of contention for a lot of people, I’ll get into that in more detail with the description of the experience of using the camera.
On top of the camera there is a hot shoe for flash with a X-Sync connector on the left hand side of the camera, in front. Rangefinders are not really not my cup of tea for flash photography, so have not really tried this out. Also on top of the camera is a switch for the film type. As mentioned earlier, the camera takes medium format film, and it allows for the half 120 rolls (4 exposures), 120 rolls (8 exposures) and 220 rolls (16 exposures but has no backing paper). These days you would find that only the 120 rolls are mainly used, as I haven’t seen the other ones available. Mine has never been moved from 120 (8 exposures) since I have had it.
On the left hand side on top is also a little feature which I think is great. There is a bubble level to help you compose a straight horizon. While these days most digital cameras have a level guide function, I cannot work out why this was not in more cameras back in the film days.
Finally, on the right hand side of the top plate is 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, as did the majority of cameras of the era, that did not use electronic cable releases.
The front of the GSW690III has another shutter release button which is surrounded with a locking lever. Handy to ensure you don’t fire accidentally. There are also camera strap lugs on both sides but also another one on the base of the left side for hanging the camera sideways if so preferred.
The back of the camera is fairly plain and houses the viewfinder on the left hand side. There is a slot to put in the film type/speed reminder in the middle of the back. The one thing that is very handy (pardon the pun) is the grip for the thumb. This has been criticised as adding plastic to the camera, but it does make it so much easier to hold.
Normally there is not much to see under a medium format camera, but under this one there is a little surprise next to the tripod collar. There is a shot counter which tells you how much the camera has been used (you need to multiply by 10). My camera has the number just higher than 126, so this camera has taken about 1,265 pictures. Considering this is a camera just over 20 years old, this is a low number. Medium format cameras do tend to have lower usage though, due to their size, limited number of frames per roll and cost of development. To me this means this camera has a long and productive life left in it!
The back is opened from a lever on the right-hand side and in usual roll film process, you move the used spool to the right-hand side and load the unused roll into the left-hand side after you press the little red buttons at the bottom to make space for the spools. Some cameras do it the other way around though. Roll the film to the start line, close and film advance to 1 and you are off and going.
The viewfinder has appropriate frame lines, which adjust when focusing to allow for parallax changes. There is a small yellow rectangle in the centre for the rangefinder focusing. It uses a similar design to the Leica M cameras, which even has the little round circle on the front of the camera.
I bought my camera off eBay from a reputable seller in Japan. When it arrived I found that somewhere in the transport, the lens had sustained a large knock and was not quite straight on the camera. I emailed the seller right away, with a photo, and he quickly (and I mean quickly – 30 minutes) agreed something was not right. He offered for me to buy another one he had which was in almost mint condition for the same price, and make a refund for that one on return. He also covered the full freight on the exchange. There is something to be said about making sure you buy from reputable sellers.
About 4 days later I received the one in this article. When I first took out this camera I must admit I thought it looked very plain but I was very impressed at how solid the unit is. It felt very natural in my hands, and I found that the buttons being exactly where I would want them to be. The shutter button at the front is also a very convenient place to have it. As soon as I opened the back I was extremely keen to take it out, as just by looking at the opening for the frame, I knew that if the lens lived up to the hype it would be something special.
My first go was a bit of a disaster, as I took out some very expired Velvia (yes, old expired slide film, with very little tolerance on a test run!). Even though I use them quite a bit in street photography, I am not used to shooting landscape type shots with a rangefinder, so I got all messed up. Could not work out my filters properly and all sorts of things. Even with all this I did notice that the little bubble level did come in very handy to setting up the camera on the tripod. The next time I went out, though, all was good in the world again. In fact, from that point I fell in love with this camera even with some of it’s interesting quirks.
Loading the camera is quite easy. What I found interesting is that it seems to have been designed for people to load the camera with small hands, while the rest of the camera is more comfortable if you have big hands. Trying to get the spools in and out takes some getting used to because of that.
Originally I thought the f/5.6 maximum aperture was going to be limiting, but in fact I found that for this type of camera and intended use, this is not really a problem. It is not intended for portraits being so wide, so does not really need a larger aperture. This is well thought out, and allowed the designers to concentrate on the quality.
Focusing with this camera can be a challenge in bright light. The focusing rectangle in the viewfinder is quite small for a camera this size and can get lost. Once found though, very easy to focus and you can operate it quite smoothly, especially with the big focus grip. I love the feel of the big grip and how you can focus from the end ranges in one turn. The frame lines are also quite small with considerable bit of space around them. Not sure about that design, while this is handy in a street shooter so you can see what is coming into the frame, a camera like this is more for scenic and landscapes and would have been better with a bigger view in the finder.
One of the big gripes by many people online is the dreaded lens hood on this camera. I have heard of people amputating it from the camera (please don’t). The problem is that when retracted it covers the aperture and shutter speed controls, so you have to extend it out. But when you extend it out, you can only use 67-77mm filters, that screw on. Using the Cokin or Lee filter systems is not an option, and even an adjustable B&W Neutral Density filter I have, which screws in at 77mm (I used an adapter), but has an actual filter size of around 84mm, is not possible. This was somewhat limiting at long exposures I wanted to take at the various Sydney beach pools at sunsets. So I duplicated owning some filters and was all set.
One thing that did surprise me is the rather large click the camera makes when shooting. Generally, rangefinders are quiet, but this camera is there to be heard. Some people blame the counter at the bottom for the sound, but I have it on good authority this is not correct, and it is the shutter returning back into position. In any case, not a big one, as this is not a street camera.
The quirks above are quite small ones, and to be honest just a bit of knit picking as they can all be solved easily. The one thing I must admit, even with having fallen for this camera, is that there is no bulb setting, but only a time setting. The process of an exposure over 1 second is to set it to “T”. When you fire, you need to then move the shutter speed off “T”, remembering it is on the lens you are currently making a picture with, to close the shutter. This risks camera shake, and is not very natural. It makes it almost impossible to shoot at 2-3 seconds, as that is too fast for this movement.
When I got my negatives back was I in for treat. Oh man, these were great! I scanned them in and was amazed how much detail was in there. It felt like you could walk into the picture. So I took out the camera again, shot some scenics, and again was very pleased with the results. I even took it out for some walking photography with my son and it just gets better and better. This lens really is a work of art!
What I have found is that it is a great camera to take on a walk or a hike. So a medium format camera that shoots 6×9 frames, about half a large format 4×5 size, that you can easily include in your bag and shoot some amazing scenes. Tough as nails, just look after the lens base, and you will have a fantastic performing camera that will give you photographic pleasure for a long time.