Fuji's 645 Rangefinders
Offer Cool Versatility

Review by Greg Smith

I like to make pictures with 35mm cameras. Most 35's fit my hands and eyes well. The cameras are small enough to carry easily, and they're ready to make pictures quickly, with motor drives now standard equipment. But sometimes you just need a bigger negative or chrome. To fill that need, many years back I bought a used RB-67 at a really good price. I've added used lenses, a prism and a few other accessories over the years, and the 10-pound beast has served me well when I've really needed a big negative. Still, I avoid using it the way a medieval hypochondriac could be expected to dodge the plague. It's a monster, unwieldy when off the tripod (and sometimes on it), unsuited for anything "candid."

That's why I've watched closely as other 120/220 cameras have evolved. Square format, especially the wonderful Hasselblad system, interests me. But I'm not making money that serious with medium format, and 'Blad equipment is still fairly large, heavy and cumbersome (until you add expensive grips, winders and prisms). The 645 (6x4.5 centimeter frame) format has long seemed to me a good compromise, but even though 645 SLRs are more affordable than current 6x6 or 6x7 options, getting an easy-to-use system configured can cost as much as a practical boat.

Then I saw the Fuji GA645 rangefinders.

First off, they're affordable: You can buy the GA645wi, with a fixed 40mm/f4 lens (roughly equivalent to a 24 on a 35mm camera), for less than $1,000; and the GA645zi (my choice) comes permanently mounted with a 55-90mm/f4.5-6.9 Super EBZ Fujinon lens for well under $2,000. Both offer auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-wind and auto-ISO setting (with Fuji bar-coded film). They're compact, quiet and fairly unobtrusive. The permanently mounted zoom on my camera, while limiting options, keeps me focused on what's happening, rather than the choices in my bag. Some have called these cameras "Leicas on steroids." And except for the slower lenses required by the larger 645 format, I'd have to agree. Moreover, its automatic functions and pop-up flash make my new camera almost like a Canon SureShot that grew up. It's a pretty good choice for the camera to carry in the car when you're not on assignment.

Additional Features I've already listed the lenses and prices, so let's look at the GA645s' other features:
- Selection between 120 and 220 formats before or after loading the camera.
- Four exposure modes (three on the 645wi), including full manual.
- Electronically controlled shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 1/700 second, plus "bulb," although the upper limit is 1/400 in manual exposure mode.
- Built-in, automatic, pop-up flash.
- Hot shoe (standard sync, no TTL) and PC connectors for external flash.
- Exposure compensation adjustment in automatic modes.
- Lighted LCD display for frame number, ISO, battery level and exposure settings.
- Built-in diopter for viewfinder.
- Infrared focusing assist for low-light auto-focus.
- Ergonomic grip and zoom controls.
- Self-timer.
- Threaded socket that accepts regular, mechanical cable releases.
- Versatile data function prints day, date, time and/or exposure data on the film -- outside the frame.
- Strap, custom lens hood and form-fitting soft case are standard.
- Choice of chrome or black finish.

Handling the 645zi

The Fuji fits my hand almost exactly as my EOS cameras do. The grip and shutter release feel comfortable and balanced. However, instead of control dials near my thumb and forefinger, the dials sit on top, with the zoom lever (push up for longer, down for wider) above the thumb position on the back. A set of grooves molded into the camera back lead my thumb right to the zoom.

The dials and displays are a bit hard to get used to. A labeled dial turns the camera on, allows you to change the film ISO and sets exposure modes: "P" for programmed exposure, "A" for aperture preferred, "As" for shutter-speed preferred and "M" for manual. You must press and hold a small release to turn the mode dial. You set the shutter speed or aperture, depending on the mode, by turning a second, unlabeled knob and viewing the settings either on the LCD or in the viewfinder. In the automatic modes, pressing the 3+/-3 button while turning the unlabeled knob adjusts exposure compensation up or down (as much as 3 stops, in half-stop increments, either way). An alert in the viewfinder and on the LCD reminds you that you've set it to compensate. In manual mode, the same button shifts the multi-function knob from aperture adjustment to shutter speed settings. And in "ISO" mode, the unlabeled knob adjusts the sensitivity of the camera's built-in metering system, with the result noted on the LCD.

When you look through the viewfinder, the most striking sight is that it shows a vertical frame when the camera is held horizontally. Both 120 and 220 film are about 6cm wide. To get a narrower, 4.5cm, frame, you crop from the sides perpendicular to the roll's length, and since the film travels horizontally in this camera, the frames are vertical stripes (16 frames total with 120 film and 32 frames with 220). This also means you need to be careful with shoe-mount flashes, most of which light a horizontal frame (although Fuji makes a GA model flash designed for the two 645 cameras). Plan on using a diffuser or wide-angle setting, or you may end up with dark heads and feet in your vertical flash pictures.

Turn on the camera (which is powered by a pair of CR123A lithium batteries) and a motor extends the lens from its storage position to the wide-angle setting. Press the zoom button up and the lens extends further, although rather slowly. The zoom range is from a gentle wide angle to barely a telephoto. Auto-focusing targets a marked central area in the viewfinder, and you lock it (with the exposure) by holding the shutter release halfway down. Glowing green figures display the exposure settings to the left of the vertical frame in the viewfinder. And the focus distance displays on the right side, in meters.

While still slower than changing film on a 35, putting a fresh roll in a GA645 is easier than loading most medium-format cameras. Press tiny, red buttons beside the film and take-up spools and you release them, so you can pull them out. Larger, black buttons pop out on the camera's bottom at the same time. As with any 120/220 camera, you must switch the empty left-hand spool to the right, then load a fresh roll on the left, but this is easy with the pop-out system. You thread the leader in the take-up spool then advance the film to the arrow on its paper backing by turning that same, unlabeled, multi-function knob. Push in the buttons on the bottom or you risk slack in the film that can jam the transport. When you turn the camera on, it then advances automatically to the first frame. After the last frame, it winds all the paper and film onto the take-up spool. The focus motor is much noisier than Canon's USM lenses, but it's quick, and so long as you watch your focusing point location, fairly accurate. The shutter is Leica-quiet and the winder (about a frame or so per second) isn't too loud.

Manual focusing is not very intuitive or practical for fluid situations. You must hold down the "AF/M" button beneath the LCD, as well as the shutter release (halfway), while turning the unlabeled, multi-function knob on top of the camera. What you get (besides finger cramps) is stepped focusing (15 steps) from 1 meter to infinity. The focus setting, besides being displayed in the viewfinder, reads out on the LCD panel. You must scroll up and down through the steps, with the highest setting "AF" for auto-focus. There's an "MF" warning on the LCD but none in the viewfinder, except that an alert photographer will note that the focus doesn't change as he/she changes the framing.

The popup flash, while solidly constructed, is very small, better suited for fill than any main light. I wouldn't attempt to use it beyond 7 or 8 feet with ISO 100 film. Unlike most point-and-shoot cameras, it does not pop up automatically. It works only when you press its button, which I prefer. However, in "P" mode, popping up the flash automatically limits the lowest exposure to 1/45 at 4.5. There are no red-eye settings or other such nonsense.

Good Points and Bad

The camera, as noted, feels very natural in the hands, and while very solid with its metal body, it's fairly light for its format. But the viewfinder, despite its rubber eye cup, diopter and good data display is hard to see through, much like most old rangefinders (and some simple digital cameras). However, it has a very nifty way of automatically adjusting the frame lines to account for parallax (between the viewfinder and lens), depending on whether the focus is near or far.

The automatic exposure seems pretty accurate, and as noted, the auto-focus, while not suited for fast action, does pretty well. However, I've learned that it's important to keep track of both the exposure readings (at least on automatic) and focus settings displayed in the viewfinder, especially since your subject is always sharp in the viewfinder. It's not too hard to lock on the wrong point or exposure and blow a picture.

Flash photography, except for fill in bright light, works best with off-camera strobes or a good flash bracket. Besides the popup being so close to the lens and underpowered, the default vertical frame can be a problem. If you turn the camera to get a horizontal frame, your shoe mounted or popup flash is directly to the side, throwing a pattern of light perpendicular to the frame. But I've had success both with an old Vivitar 283 with remote sensor cord and studio units.

If you use filters with the GA645s, realize that since exposure readings are made through a separate window, not the lens, you must compensate for filter factors either by setting the ISO appropriately lower, using the exposure compensation settings in automatic mode, or by manually computing your exposure and compensation.

Some things I really like about the camera are:
- The package, its solid construction and its feel.
- The motorized film advance and loading.
- The lens quality.
- Half-stop settings for both the shutter and aperture.
- The custom lens hood, which fits over most filters just fine and can stay on when you put the camera in its case.
- The capability of switching the pressure plate between 120 and 220 with the camera back closed (since I'm a forgetful type).
- The data coding along the film edge.

I wish the GA645 had:
- Frame numbers displayed in the viewfinder.
- An easier way to change shutter speeds in manual mode (you almost have to use two hands to push in the button and turn the knob).
- A faster shutter in manual mode.
- More practical manual focusing.
- Compatibility with my cool Canon E-TTL flashes (yeah, I know, I'm asking too much here).
- A faster lens with a wider zoom range (as long as we're asking for the moon) or some interchangeable lens options, even a wide or tele adapter.

A Practical Tool and a Nifty Toy

My GA645zi is cool. It has nice lines, good balance, easy operation (at least in automatic modes) and considerable imaging power. It's easy to tote as a nearly complete camera system. With up to 32 exposures, it allows me to keep working when 'Blad shooters would be changing rolls. And the auto-winder gets me to the next frame much more smoothly than my double-cocking of the beast that is my RB. The zoom lens, while slow and limited in range, is the right length for most event coverage (yes, I shoot some weddings), most group shots, many environmental portraits and most aerials. It's sharp with very little barrel distortion.

The 645zi is a decent landscape camera, too, offering the most common focal lengths for scenic shots, along with a compact, fairly light package that fits in a backpack and brings back negatives with enough visual information to look really good when enlarged well past 11x14. I wish some of the manual controls were easier to get at, but the automatic system is solid.

The bottom line is that the GA645 brings point-and-shoot simplicity to medium format photography. At the same time, it does have manual controls and full connectivity with studio and basic shoe-mount flash systems, making it a genuine, professional camera.

There are a few compromises along the way from EOS to 645, but they're worth living with, given the total package and bigger film. Now I just need an affordable medium-format film scanner, so I can easily bring my larger images into Photoshop.

Greg Smith