Slow photography with the GW690III
I own a new mirror-less Fuji camera.
It’s a (real) rangefinder and shoots medium format (120) film. And, it is around 25 years old. It is the Fuji GW690III 6 x 9 medium format camera.
Given it’s outsized proportions, the GW690 series are known as the Texas Leicas. I think of them more as the original Fujifilm X(L)-camera.
The GW690III is a 6 x 9 medium format rangefinder with a fixed 90mm f/3.5 lens. The angle of view is approximately equivalent to 40mm for a 35mm camera. The camera was first released in 1992 and one can find them at reasonable prices on the interweb. Shutter speeds range from 1 second to 1/500th of a second. Plus there is a T mode, which is similar to a bulb mode.
In my journey to shooting with the excellent Fujifilm X-cameras, I started with a film Bessa R2A rangefinder. When I found the digital equivalent, the Epson RD1, I moved away from film. When I found Fujifilm X-cameras, I moved away from rangefinders. The acquisition of the GW690III is a move back to both film and rangefinders.
Why film now?
Inspired by my photography network (usual suspects below), I have been looking for a way to shoot film again. However, no matter how much I enjoy shooting with a film 35mm rangefinder, the end results were never very satisfying, given the size of the negs and the resulting poor-quality scans.
One of the reasons I purchased the Epson RD1 was so that I could shoot as if I was using a film rangefinder, but I didn’t have to hassle with film developing and poor quality scans. The Epson’s 6-megapixel sensor always out performed scans from my 35mm film. Given the image quality and convenience of the current generation of Fujifilm’s X-cameras, I prefer them for all of my small-format photography, which includes work and personal projects. With this MF Fuji, I now have an alternative for other personal projects. Besides that, it’s fun!
The key for me has been format size. 35mm is too small. Medium format however, is another story. The negs from my GW690III are six times larger than a 35mm neg or full-frame DSLR sensor. They are impressively large. The first time I looked at a 6 x 9 neg on the light table, I was hooked. The resulting scans from these negs are also impressive. Using a consumer-grade flatbed scanner, the Epson V600, I am getting very good scans that I can easily print up to 20 inches long. The first print I made from one of these scans looks great. If I want to print larger, I just need to pay for a better quality, high-res scan.
Another upside to shooting 6 x 9 negs, is that I only get eight, that’s right, eight exposures per roll of 120 film. The reason I consider this a positive is that I can experiment with a roll of film and finish it, scan it and review the results, in a short timeframe. This is helping my education in MF film photography.
Speed? Not so much
Everything else about shooting with this camera makes for a slower, more deliberate experience. Something I welcome, given the normal speed at which I am supposed to deliver work jobs. The GW690III is a totally mechanical camera. No batteries and no meter. Just aperture and shutter speed controls on the lens, and a shutter release (actually there are two!). There isn’t a lot to go wrong. Because it’s a rangefinder, there isn’t a mirror to go clunk, however the shutter release sounds reassuringly mechanical.
Because it lacks a meter, I need to meter with an external meter before I make a photo. For available light, I use the Lumu meter with their iPhone app. In the studio, I use a Sekonic flash meter. Once I have a reading, I generally don’t check exposure again until the lighting conditions have changed significantly.
Due to the camera’s size (again, it matters), I am not going to surprise anyone and get a quick, candid shot. Instead, I ask people if I can photograph them and the process of composing and shooting is usually prolonged with a discussion about the camera and shooting film. It takes a satisfying amount of time to shoot a photo or two, before moving on.
The viewfinder isn’t in the same league as a Leica, with a small, round focus patch. It is fairly easy to see in good light, but very difficult to use in low light. As I am using this camera for some studio portraits, I need to have the studio lights on in order to correctly focus. Since the camera has a leaf shutter, it can synch flash at any speed, up to the maximum 1/500 sec. Shooting at that speed will kill most ambient light, so it doesn’t really matter if the studio lights are on.
A hot shoe and more…
Despite receiving the very good advice to choose another type of MF camera for studio work, I am enjoying in-studio with off-camera lights. The key to this is that the GW690III (and the II model) has a hot shoe and a synch port. In recent portrait sessions, I switch from digital to film and put the flash radio trigger on the 690’s hot shoe. I snap a couple of frames and thank the subject for indulging me. I have plans for a series of studio portraits shot with the 690. Watch this space for more info…
Another low-tech feature of the 690 is the threaded shutter release, which accepts a cable release. Add an ND filter or three and we are ready for shooting long exposures. I have only done this once, so I will need to experiment more and write later about T mode, reciprocity failure and composing with the camera.
This feels like the beginning. A start. A challenge. There is a lot to learn about shooting, framing and lighting, pushing and pulling, as well as the entire downstream component of digitizing these awesome negs. Hopefully, there will be more to write about and, even better, some worthwhile photos to share.
All photos captured with the Fuji GW690III on a variety of film stock (still experimenting). Scanned with an Epson V600. Camera photos made with a Fujifilm X-E2 fronted with the XF56mm f/1.2 lens.