June 13, 2013

Review: Fuji GA645zi - An Odd But Fun Instrument

Fuji has a strange history in the camera making world.  It seems to me they have a knack for designing unique, yet at the same time flawed photographic tools that tend to polarize gear heads throughout the photographic community.  We see this trend even today with digital models like the X100.  A quick Google search will find hundreds of photographers arguing back and forth about either the brilliance or utter folly of that little pixel capturing machine.

However, in this review I would like to go back to an older Fuji camera that tends to draw the same "love it or hate it" reactions - the GA645zi.

It is easy to forget now, but for many years Fuji was a major player in the world of professional grade medium format cameras.  Rangefinders, modular cameras, panoramic models...Fuji made them all and was quite well respected among photographic professionals.  You may recall just a couple of years ago Fuji produced a high quality 6x7 folder!  Making a medium format folder with a price tag in the thousands in the year 2010 was rather gutsy if you ask me.  In the United States it was branded under the Voigtlander label and named the Bessa III, but namesake aside, it was and still is a Fuji.

The GA645zi falls into a category all it's own.  The best way I can describe it is think of a Canon Sureshot consumer point and shoot circa 1985.  Now triple it in size and you have a general idea of what it is like using the GA645zi.  At its core it is a point and shoot camera, complete with auto exposure, auto focus, automatic film advance, and even a small zoom lens in a camera body fit to take medium format film.  Was there ever a serious need or desire for this from the photography world?  Evidently there was because Fuji made it!!

The styling of the GA645zi is so positively 80's I actually find myself humming tunes from The Breakfast Club soundtrack when I pick it up.  While it may not win any awards for timeless beauty I would actually say this can be a positive thing.  Probably more than any other camera I own people ignore me when I use it.  Even Holgas tend to draw more attention.  The "champaign" color scheme, plastic shell, and pop art shape make the GA645zi seem more like a thrift store purchase than a serious tool.

But all that of course is only the impression one would get looking at the GA645zi from a distance.  Despite its heavy plastic construction, Fuji built a solid workhorse with the GA645zi.  It feels well put together in your hand and has a fair amount of heft.  Unlike some of my older film cameras, I'm not afraid to let the GA645zi bounce around in my messenger bag while I ride my bicycle around nor am I fearful of throughing it in my travel bags only to be tossed around by disgruntled baggage handlers while I board a plane.

Now I did mention that Fuji had a tendency to design quirky cameras right?  Case in point; the natural orientation of the viewfinder is in portrait as opposed to landscape.  Anyone with even hap-hazard experience around photography knows this is straight up opposite of how cameras have been designed for decades.  I cannot tell you how many times I have lifted the GA645zi to my eye expecting on pure instinct to see one type of framing orientation only to discover something else when I look through the viewfinder.  It may seem trivial, but it's not an easy thing to get used to.  Every photographer on earth expects to turn their camera on its end when taking a portrait.  The Fuji GA645zi laughs in the face of such assumptions.

Then there is the ability to I imprint exposure data between frames on your negatives.  Much like a date stamp (the GA645zi can do that too) I can choose to record ISO, F/stop, and shutter speed on my negatives.  This begs the question why should I care?  After all, the GA645zi is really designed to be used in such a way that the camera makes most exposure choices for you.  Sure, there is an all manual mode, and yes i can dial in exposure compensation, but it is slow and cumbersome and I am convinced Fuji only included it so they could put the "Professional" label on the camera body.  Given that fact, why would I need to know exposure information after the fact?  It's not like I'm going to scold it for making a choice I don't agree with.

I have used this feature once for the novelty and have since left it off.

If I could make one major change to the GA645zi it would be the motorized film advance.  It really blows my mind why any camera designer would think this is necessary in a medium format camera.  Not only did this feature undoubtably balloon the cost of construction for Fuji, and not only is it prone to failure, but it is also very LOUD and slow.  A simple manual single stroke advance lever would have worked much better.

I would also consider the zoom lens pretty much pointless.  The zoom range doesn't reward me with anything I couldn't gain by simply walking a few steps forward or backward.  In all honesty, after purchasing the GA645zi I learned there is a version of this camera with a fixed focal length lens (just called the GA645) and I probably would have held out for that if I had been more familiar with the overall GA series line.  The lack of zoom on that particular model also gives the gift of a slightly faster aperture which to me is more valuable than a tiny zoom range.

Ah well...live and learn...

While we are on the subject it is worth mentioning that Fuji also made version of the GA series with a fixed wide angle lens aptly named the GA645w.  If you tend to favor working with a wide angle perspective that may be the most appealing model for you.

Auto focus on the GA645zi is surprisingly accurate.  Keep in mind, this isn't and SLR so when looking through the viewfinder window everything will always appear in focus.  To use the auto focus simply point be center cross hairs at the object you wish to focus on, press the shutter button half way, and then recompose while keeping you finger on the half depressed shutter button.  A distance scale on the right side of the viewfinder will confirm focus has been locked.  It is simple and it works.  Those used to modern day digital SLRs with a ton of focus points all around the viewfinder frame may find the GA645zi a bit crude and sluggish, but for me it is more than adequate.

Manual focus is possible but not really recommend.  To focus manually the camera operator must simply guess the distance between the lens and your subject and hope any errors in judgement are covered through a long depth of field.

As for the image quality of the Fujinon lens attached to the GA645zi I will concede it is top notch. Rendering is lovely and sharp and the bokeh is creamy in all the right ways.  However, considering the maximum aperture is only f/4.5 it had better be excellent!  Let's just say that even the lens on my seventy year old Rollei is faster so producing sharp glass with a maximum aperture of f/4.5 covering a 6x4.5 frame wouldn't have been rocket science at the time.  Even the fixed focal length GA645 only opens up to f/4.  Those craving extremely shallow depth of field won't find comfort in the Fuji GA series.

Now having said all this I don't want anyone to walk away with the impression that I am less than enthused about the GA645zi.  Quite the opposite actually!  This strange contraption is one of my absolute favorite image making machines.  For all its quirks, pointless features, and odd ball mechanized noises the GA645zi manages to do something remarkable.  It is fast in operation, is relatively small, has accurate auto focus, and lets me do all this with a nice large medium format negative.  In the world of 35mm cameras such characteristics are common place.  With medium format it's all but unheard of.

Yes, the GA645zi has flaws, but they are the right kind of flaws.  I can work around them when necessary or even work with them when I want to.  I can honestly say that the GA645zi is the only medium format camera I own that I am willing to bring with me on casual vacations or long distance plane travel.  It is light weight, dependable, and has the features I need to get the images I want quickly without standing around like a dorky tourist.  When photographing public events like parades or street festivals the GA645zi positively shines.  Despite its medium format proportions it is about as non threatening looking as a camera can possibly be.  It is easy to sling over a shoulder and forget about it when not in use and just as effortless to grab and swing up to your eye when wanted.

Just don't forget to pay attention to the orientation of the viewfinder!!

The GA645zi makes me long for the days when camera designers took chances with their creations and weren't afraid to make instruments for a specialized market..  I can't help but feel a lot of modern cameras are trying to be one solution to all photographic applications.  That may be a great thing on paper, and even better for a marketing pitch, but in reality it diminishes the joy of the user experience, and surprisingly, if not ironicly, in some ways diminishes the ultimate potential behind that tool.  It's like seeing the infomercials on TV advertising drills with hundreds of attachments for any job.  It can do everything!  Just buy that drill and you can throw all your other tools in the trash.  That seems nifty I suppose, but most of the time a simple screw driver is all you need.

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