On the morning of July 8th, 1947 history was forever changed when the debris of what many believe to be a flying saucer was recovered near Roswell, NM. Some people claimed it was a weather balloon while others were sure that an alien craft had crashed. For years the debate would go on regarding the truth in Roswell. People would go on to claim that alien technology had been harvested and that it was in fact already being used. Innovations like fiber optics, night vision goggles, and the common remote control have all been speculated to have been reverse engineered from alien technologies. But what if we’ve overlooked the greatest piece of evidence of all because we’ve been looking in the wrong place? The greatest piece of evidence is not your remote control, nor is it the fiber optics which delivered this blog post to you. It is in fact the Fujifilm GA645 and it wasn’t created or found in the deserts of the United States, but rather on an island in the Pacific.
The Fujifilm GA645 is one of the most overlooked medium format cameras on the market these days and as a result it can be had for a relative bargain. Most everyone now is familiar with Fujifilm’s excellent line of X-Series digital cameras and when I was searching for a travel companion for my X100 the GA645 fit the bill. First off, a lot of people will scoff at the GA645 for a number of its perceived shortcomings. Yes, it has a maximum aperture of f/4. No, you can’t change the lenses, and yes, you’re right; it’s quite ugly, but I think this is the perfect first film camera and a winner for travel photography.
First off this camera is compact. It’s definitely not the smallest camera ever made, but for medium format it is quite slender. This camera is easy to carry all day long and you’ll never tire of having it around your neck. The camera itself is just shy of 2 pounds and is actually lighter than the Canon 5DMKII (with a lens) while exposing a film area that is over twice the size of the Canon’s sensor. For you full-frame junkies out there take note of what I just said.
Exposing that substantial piece of film is a lens that is truly out of this world. I know it’s not the fastest lens out there and you’re probably yawning as you’re reading this, but stick with me for a minute. The first thing you have to remember here is we’re talking about medium format, and I know that the man Carl Zeiss has built some f/2’s for Hasselblad and Contax, and yes I know there’s a Mamiya f/1.9, but it’s important to remember that within the medium format product lines these lenses and their speeds are the exception and not the rule. All of my medium format gear is in fact slower than f/3.5 and I am just fine with that. The good news is that the leaf shutter within the GA645 will allow you to hand hold this camera down to 1/15th of a second if you’re hands are steady, which is something I challenge you to do with your Hasselblad or Mamiya.
"But I need to turn backgrounds into the consistency of melted butter, with nothing being discernible" you say; your name depends on it. Well, with regard to depth of field you have to take into account that as the exposed film area increases your depth of field decreases. As such this somewhat slow lens looks more like an f/2 on 35mm than you’d expect. Important to most, this lens is sharp with a capital “S” and produces pleasing colors and out of focus areas that are not too distracting.
Another reason I think this is the perfect first film camera is that it has auto-everything. That’s right, I’ll say it. . . I LOVE AUTO. There are times, and I think this is true for most photographers, where I want to focus on “seeing” and focus not so much on “settings”. Now, before you go on and crucify me let me tell you that while this camera does have auto-everything you can switch it over to shoot in aperture priority mode as well as full-manual mode. In addition, the camera has a manual focus mode that is quirky at best, but when your inner artist calls you can tell everyone that you manually focused that photo and you set the exposure yourself by remembering some obscure formula having to do with lumens and the moon.
One thing to remember for a number people whom have never shot film before are under a bit of mysticism that it is a difficult thing to do. And on top of that a lot of these same people come from a digital only background and while you or I may feel comfortable in a world of manual cameras for someone who is taking a step into the realm for the first time it can be a little overwhelming to move to a purely manual camera.
There’s nothing more that I love than to turn new people on to film photography. Now more than ever we’re seeing a number of photographers who have started with digital and are coming back to film just to see what all of the fuss is about. For them, I think this is the perfect camera and it’s the one I recommend most often. Surely you’re thinking, “wait, he’s lost his mind. . . Medium format for someone who’s never shot film”? It’s crazy I know, but listen, when people come back from digital to film they need to be blown away with the results or it’s not going to stick. When you look at that sharp 645 negative or positive on a really well exposed piece of film it’s addictive. When you see the scans they are perfection. Simply put for a lot of people who are interested in film, the magic of 35mm may not be there for them and if you want them to be won over by film they need to be wowed.
For me, 35mm was something that I had to come back to and only after having explored other formats could I really appreciate it for what it is. With full-frame digital cameras almost becoming the norm nowadays it’s important that when people do shoot film for their first time they have an “oh my God” moment and I think this camera is capable of providing it.
The Fujifilm GA645 has a host of features which make using it a pleasure. First off the camera has a built in light meter that while not through the lens (TTL) is still quite accurate. In practice I’ve found it to be just about right for my shooting style with negative films. One thing to remember is that if you’re using filters with this camera you’ll have to manually compensate using either the exposure compensation button or the ISO settings.
One of the reasons that film photography can be such a turn-off for some people is that the innovation of these cameras stopped over a decade ago. With that said these cameras do have one feature which I find particularly cool. The GA645 series of cameras is capable of printing the time and date or f/stop and shutter speed outside of the frame. A rather cool and handy feature. Less of a feature and more of a quirk, though not a bad one, is the fact that these cameras take photos natively in the portrait orientation. If you want to take a photograph in landscape orientation you'll need to turn the camera on it's side.
The viewfinder of the GA645 is also a nice feature. The finder contains a crosshair for focusing and is quite bright. The framelines are easily visible day or night and the parallax compensation displays clearly as you focus. The bottom of the viewfinder provides you with all of the information you’ll need such as f/ stop and shutter speed. In addition if you’re using the GA645’s built in flash an indicator will be present in the finder. Helpful if you inadvertently activate the flash or forget you’ve left it up.
On the subject of the viewfinder I think it's worthy to note the viewfinder brightness. It is what I would consider to be quite bright, though I've noticed some variation in the brightness of the viewfinder lines depending on the camera. This is due to age and not quality, and by no means a deal breaker. Just note that if you have the opportunity to handle one at a shop with more than one that you may in fact notice a difference. If you don't ever look through another one of these cameras after having purchased your own this is something you will likely never be an issue.
The camera is not without it’s faults and while I could wax on for a long time about how much I love the Fujifilm GA645 it wouldn’t be fair to ignore some of it’s shortcomings. First off, this camera is not silent. In fact, the focusing of this camera is done with a fair amount of racket of the electro-space-ship-whirring kind. Comparatively though a Mamiya or Hasselblad with it’s mirror slap is no more stealthy. Aside from the focusing noise of the GA645 the film advance is relatively quite and overall operation probably won’t turn too many heads.
On the subject of the viewfinder I think it's worthy to note the viewfinder brightness. It is what I would consider to be quite bright, though I've noticed some variation in the brightness of the viewfinder lines depending on the camera. This is due to age and not quality, and by no means a deal breaker. Just note that if you have the opportunity to handle one at a shop with more than one that you may in fact notice a difference.
The next greatest limitation for some will be the maximum shutter speed. The camera sadly has a maximum shutter speed of 1/700th of a second, but in reality while using a working f stop range of 4 through 9.5 the shutter speed maxes out at 1/400th of a second. If you’re okay with carrying an ND filter in 52mm you can easily over come this problem though. Personally I have yet to have this be a problem, but I tend to shoot film that is slightly slower ranging from Velvia 50 to Kodak Portra 400 (rated at 200). Again, consider for a second here that most Hasselblad lenses top out at 1/500th.
While we’re on the subject of shortcomings lets talk about design. It looks like it could be the control module for some sort of spacecraft. Only because it has a lens does it even resemble a camera. I can assure you though that while it looks like it was assembled out of spare spacecraft parts it is in fact a great handling camera with all the right parts in all the right places. In fact, the ergonomics of the camera are quite excellent.
The viewfinder is both a blessing and a curse. When focusing the camera the viewfinder will display one of 14 flavors of distance in the bottom of the finder which correspond distance of the subject. Those 14 flavors actually approximate the GA645’s 870 focusing steps. Purists will have a hard time trusting the system while newbies will have a hard time remembering to check the distance. In practice the GA645 has yet to return an out of focus shot for me whereas my manual focus GW690 has. The good news is with the GA645 you can at least blame the camera (even if it’s your fault) whereas with the GW690 I can’t blame anyone but myself.
The autofocus itself is not fast by today's standards, but not particularly slow either. It is neither turtle nor hair. Porsche nor Geo Metro. It's not fast enough for street photography in Tokyo, but it is plenty fast for photographing non-moving subjects. To be honest, while I'd love to have a medium format autofocusing camera that was Cartier-Bresson fast this is not that camera. So, if you're coming from something autofocus, like a Canon or Nikon, expect the convenience of autofocus but don't expect to be blown away with focusing speed.
When searching for a used Fujifilm GA645 keep in mind that it comes in three completely different flavors. First there is the plain Jane model, the GA645 or GA645i which are in effect the same camera with only minor mid-life cycle refreshes. These models feature the 60mm lens with a 37mm equivalent focal length. Next there is the GA645w or GA645wi which features a 45mm lens with a 28mm equivalent focal length. In addition to the two aforementioned models there is also a GA645Zi which incorporates a 55-90mm zoom lens and is a favorite amongst travelers, but for the purposes of this review it’s really in a class of it’s own as it shares only some similarities with the GA645.
Generally speaking when introducing people to this camera I recommend the standard GA645 or GA645i. The 60mm lens is a great lens for a variety of subjects and for someone with only one film camera it’s really a great place to start. The wider version too is amazing, however, for some people the 28mm equivalent lens will be unwieldy if they don’t have a lot of prior photography experience. As with anything your mileage may vary.
So, what do you think, is the GA645 out of this world or interstellar space junk?