The Fuji GW690III is a 90’s-era 6X9 medium format rangefinder with a fixed 90mm f/3.5 lens. The angle of view is slightly wider than ‘normal’. The camera is fully mechanical. It gets 8 exposures from a 120 roll or 16 on 220 if you are lucky enough to have some. This camera also came in 6X7 and 6X8 variants and a wider angle of view variant as well. The Fuji GW690III is simple. Focus, aperture, and shutter are the only controls. There is no built-in light meter, no lens changing, no double-exposure, no auto film advance, and no removable film backs. You only get 8 shots (120) anyway so you don’t have long to wait to change out your film. Another advantage of 8 shots per roll is less time spent scanning. What the Fuji does offer is a very sharp lens, a huge negative, and excellent build quality all in a very portable package. Best of all, it doesn’t look vintage so you will be left alone by hipsters.
To set the stage for this article, I feel it is important to share what experience I have with other photographic formats. My workhorse is a crop-frame DSLR. I shoot film simply because it is fun. My film experience has covered Mamiya 645 AF, Hasselblad 503CW, Toyo View 4X5, Nikon F100, Disposable 35mm, and now the Fuji GW690III. I am a bit obsessed with technical quality so 35mm film rarely cut it for me, especially when shooting 400 speed film.
The Fuji GW690III is appealing for several reasons. It is relatively new so it is easy to find one in good condition and the prices are great compared with other more popular medium format cameras. The negative is huge. It is almost half of a 4X5 sheet. Imagine a camera with that kind of resolution that will easily fit into a shoulder-slung camera bag, give you 8 shots, and doesn’t need to be reloaded in a bathroom. You also get a 1/500s leaf shutter that syncs with flash at all shutter speeds via a hotshoe or PC port. For photographers who love flash, 1/500s sync gives you a lot of flexibility when working outdoors. The viewfinder is bright and large although the lens does project into the view, blocking a good portion of the bottom-right corner. The viewfinder image is slightly larger than my Nikon F100 35mm and about as bright as that mounted with an f/2.8 lens. I find the rangefinder focusing dot itself to be a bit dim and hard to use at times. At least the world is not confusingly reversed as in ground-glass cameras. The shutter release is quite stiff and the camera lets out quite a clang when it fires. The shutter also has a cable release thread and a lock feature so you don’t take shots of the inside of your camera bag. Although there are many horror stories about people leaving the lens caps on their rangefinders, this one makes removal hard to forget. To access the shutter and aperture rings, which are on the lens, you must pull out the built-in lens hood. This process almost forces you to remove the lens cap. Aperture goes from f/3.5 to f/32 in half-stop increments and you can also set it between detents. Shutter speed comes in full-stop increments from 1 second to 1/500s. There is also a T option for long exposure. In T mode the shutter opens the lens and then you then twist the shutter speed selection dial back to 1s to close it. In practice it is not a very user-friendly system and it makes exposures in the 2 to 4 second range a bad idea. Film advances with a manual thumb lever, 1.25 strokes.
Coming from a much smaller format what struck me the most about this camera was its need for light. To get the same depth of field at the same angle of view as a 35mm camera you will need to stop the Fuji down by a couple of stops. The lens is equipped with focus distance indicators for various apertures that can be used for zone focusing or setting hyperfocus. The need for smaller apertures calls for either more light, longer shutter speeds, and/or higher speed film. To take full advantage of the image quality potential I highly recommend having a tripod available when light is not flooding in and you want a large depth of field. I have successfully handheld the Fuji down to 1/60 of a second but I can not recommend handholding slower. When using wide apertures, shooting in ample light, or equipped with a tripod it is hard to beat the Fuji as a landscape camera. Do note that the rangefinder setup does not allow you to preview the effects of filters but the lens is threaded to accept them.
The wide f/3.5 aperture of the Fuji GW690III can yield nice soft backgrounds. One limitation though is that you don’t know exactly how much bokeh you are getting until you build a rapport with the camera over time. The closest focusing distance is rather far at 1 meter, so this is not the best camera for tight headshots or macro photography. The combination of the f/3.5 lens and the 1 meter minimum focus distance is not enough to totally blur out the background; there will always be some hint of detail remaining. What did amaze me is that you can focus on something up to 10 meters away and still have noticeable bokeh in the background. It’s just a different feel overall from a small format. Due to the rangefinder setup the shooting order is focus, recompose, shoot which is a bit different from a ground glass or advanced autofocus camera where you can compose, then focus and shoot. I find this as a limitation of a rangefinder system. Although corrected for parallax error another limitation of a rangefinder system shows up when you are trying to precisely align two things like a sunflare to the edge of your subject. Because of the slightly wide lens, far minimum focus distance, and centered nature of the rangefinder system, using the Fuji GW690III is challenging for serious portrait work. An SLR or TLR is the more obvious medium format choice.
Because there is no built-in light meter you must be prepared if you want to be fast and capture a moment. Sometimes it is nice to pull an automatic camera quickly out of your pack and just shoot something interesting and fleeting before that moment is gone. Conversely, having to slow down and actually think, then dial in shutter and aperture makes you distinctly aware of what it is you are doing. Sometimes with my DSLR I get home and wonder why I was shooting 1/3000s at ISO 2400. For the Fuji I use a combination of incident metering and spot metering depending on what I’m shooting and how much time I have. I use a Sekonic L-758DR spot/incident meter. If I’m in a hurry I guess.
The Fuji GW690III is a great value for a medium format camera. It shoots a very large negative with premium glass and it is built to last. It has some limitations when working very close to your subject but at medium and long distances these limitations disappear. In the 6X7 to 6X9 range it is very portable in comparison with most options. I highly recommend this camera to those who want extreme detail from their negatives but are willing to accept a fixed focal length and to those who do not do a lot of close-up work.