fuji ga645i review

posted in film, gear at May 30, 2011

What is the Fuji GA645i?  It’s an odd duck – a fixed lens, medium format rangefinder with auto focus.  Think of it like a big medium-format point-n-shoot rangefinder, sort of like the big brother to the Contax G series 35mm cameras. You could also think of it as a big brother to the new Fuji X100.  Same concept:  fixed lens, autofocus rangefinder.  [American Dreamers: yes, this was a discretionary purchase]

Onto the review:

Body and Design

Compared to my 5D you can see that it’s just about the same size in terms of height & width. Maybe a shade larger. However, it’s much lighter. It weighs 790 grams (including lens) compared to 1190 grams for the 5D + 50mm f1.4 lens.

From the side you can see that it’s much slimmer than the 5D, and that’s with the lens extended. When you turn the camera off the lens retracts into the body, making it much more compact and travel friendly.

Aesthetically, this is one uuuuuuuugly camera!  In fact, it’s so ugly, it’s almost attractive, in a weird sort of way.

Build quality

This thing is 100% vunderplastik!  The rubber hand grip feels nice enough, but overall it feels somewhat flimsy due to its light weight and plastic covering. However, just because a camera is light and feels flimsy doesn’t mean that build quality is poor. For all I know this thing could last decades.  There is absolutely zero internet chatter about poor reliability or parts falling off on this model, if that means anything to you.

Controls

The GA645i has the standard manual, aperture priority and program settings. The controls are pretty intuitive, I didn’t really need the manual. There is one main control dial that sets the aperture and pressing on the exposure compensation (+/-) button and turning the dial changes the shutter speed.  One weird thing is that it takes 2 hands to turn the thing on, you have to press a button then spin the mode dial.  A minor complaint but not a biggie.  Overall the controls are pretty simple. It does what you need it to do.

Loading film

Loading film is much easier than a regular medium format camera like the Contax 645 or Mamiya. However, it’s not quite as easy or fast as loading 35mm.  It’s the price you pay for that big, gorgeous negative! You get 16 shots per roll of 120 or 32 shots with a roll of 220. Pretty standard.

Viewfinder

Here is where things get very interesting. The viewfinder shows the image in vertical (portrait) format when held normally!  Every other camera out there (except for, I think, the Bronica rangefinders) shows a horizontal image in the viewfinder, so this is somewhat disconcerting the first time you look through it.  However, I love it!  I shoot more verticals these days so it’s quite natural.  I think the switch to medium format and it’s wonderful 6×4.5 aspect ratio is what got me into shooting more vertically. I’ve always found 35mm too tall and skinny when shot vertically.

Anyway, you have to rotate the camera to shoot a landscape image.  But here’s the kicker – you’ve got to rotate it clockwise so your left hand is on the top, otherwise the metering window can get blocked and throw off the reading.  This is awkward for me since I always rotate counterclockwise with my right hand on top.  Thankfully, there is a second shutter button on the front of the camera which makes shooting this way somewhat less awkward.  It does have automatic parallax correction, which is a good thing.

In the viewfinder you can see LED readings for aperture, shutter speed, and distance to subject. The distance reads in only 8 steps!  So for example, it will read .8 meters (2.3′). Start moving back and the next distance reading you’ll see is .9m (2.5′).  Don’t worry too much about this. The camera has in fact 870 auto focus steps, not 8.  It’s just the viewfinder doesn’t show the other 862.

The problem with the viewfinder is that the LED readings can be very difficult to see the brighter the light gets.  In bright direct sunlight you can’t see the readings at all. If you’re using a hand-held meter this isn’t a problem, but if not, you’re going to have to trust your accumulated instincts/knowledge to judge if you’re exposure is going to be okay.

Shutter

Unfortunately, when shooting between f4-f9.5, the maximum shutter speed is only 1/400 sec. Above f9.5 the max shutter speed goes up to 1/700.  It is whisper quiet.

Lens

This camera is all about 3 things:  (1) a big negative (2) compactness and light weight and (3) razor sharp Fujinon lens. The lens is a 6 component, 7 element lens, equivalent to 37mm on 35mm format.  I love this focal length – I find it just about ideal for much of my shooting. Filter size is 52mm.  It comes with a rubber lens hood, however I’m sure I’m going to lose this thing pretty soon.  It doesn’t reverse for storage and you can’t attach a lens cap without taking it off.  I don’t really see a way to store it so I’ll probably just use the old “hand-shade” when I think I need one.

As for this lens, I’d rate it at least as sharp but probably sharper than the sharpest Canon lens I own, the fabulous 35mm f1.4L. Unfortunately, its only an f4 lens, so this really isn’t a low light camera.  As far as depth-of-field goes, @ f4 it’s equivalent to shooting at f2.2 on a 35mm camera or full-frame DSLR.

Auto-focus

This system does take getting used to. There is no auto-focus confirmation, and the viewfinder is always sharp, so there’s no way to tell you’ve nailed the focus other than by looking at the distance scale in the viewfinder. However, the distance scale is only 8 steps, so you can’t really tell.  You just have to trust that it works.  On my first roll of 220, 30 of 32 images were tack sharp, so I’m pretty happy with it.

Batteries

Takes two CR123A batteries, rated for about 90 rolls if you don’t use the built-in flash.

The images

Here are some quick snapshots I took walking around Boston and San Francisco – this is a great travel camera.  Boston:  Fuji Pro400h, San Francisco:  Kodak Portra 400.  2 stop ND filter on most of the shots. NCPS “bargain” scans.  Theresa:  Kodak Portra 400, RPL.

Of course these tiny web images don’t tell you much.  I can tell you this, these are the sharpest images I have ever taken with any camera.  And these were basic mid-resolution (6 megapixel) minilab (Noritsu) scans.  If scanned at high resolution with an Imacon or drum scan………..wow.  And of course they have the depth and richness that you get with medium format film.

Conclusion:

Pros

  • Razor sharp lens + medium format film = stunning, tack sharp images that (with a good scan) can easily exceed the image quality of my 5D and L lenses.
  • Ideal 37mm equivalent focal length.
  • Native portrait orientation viewfinder makes this very comfortable for portrait shooters.
  • Compact and light weight means this a camera I’d be comfortable hanging around my neck all day long.
  • Inexpensive – I got mine for $400 on eBay.
  • Simple, intuitive controls.
  • Accurate auto-focus.

Cons

  • Maximum shutter speed of 1/400 means you’ll need to carry a neutral density filter with you if you want to shoot at f4 outdoors.
  • No TTL meter means that, when using a filter, you’ll have to remember to adjust for the filter factor.  For example, if you put on a 2-stop ND filter and you’re using ISO 400 film, you’ll have to set the camera’s ISO (or your handheld meter) to ISO 100.  And that’s if you’re setting it to box speed. If you want to overexpose a stop (especially for Pro400h) you’ll have to set the ISO to 50.
  • With the largest aperture at only f4 this camera is going to be challenging to use in low light.

Compared to

The Mamiya 6/7. This is probably the GA645i’s closest competitor, although they are different animals. Both systems have razor sharp lenses. Image quality is very close, you can see a comparison here.  I prefer the Fuji to the Mamiya for 4 reasons:  (1) smaller size/weight (2) portrait viewfinder (3) auto-focus and (4) closer focusing distance.  I can focus as close as .7 meters with the Fuji, making it useable for close portraits.  The Mamiya system only lets you focus as close as 1 meter with their standard lens.  However, I’m not sure I believe that. When I tried the Mamiya 7 I was almost sure I couldn’t focus that close.  But what about the 150mm Mamiya telephoto lens?  Sorry, that doesn’t help get you any closer, because the minimum focus distance on this lens is 2 meters!  And that lens is notoriously difficult to focus given the Mamiya’s short rangefinder base.  The real advantage to the Mamiya is the wider angle lenses, including the spectacular 43mm.  If I were a landscape photographer, I’d get the Mamiya for this lens and the bigger real estate (6×7 vs 6×4.5).

The Contax G2. Believe it or not, these are similar cameras.  The Fuji is the closest thing you can get to a medium-format G2.  Both systems are smaller and lighter than their counterparts (GA645 vs. Mamiya/Contax 645 – G2 vs. Canon/Nikon SLR). Both are auto-focus rangefinders.  The Contax pulls ahead in terms of ease of use (e.g. auto film loading) and better specifications (f2 lens vs. f4, 1/6000 shutter speed vs. 1/400), while the Fuji will give you better image quality with a negative size that’s 2.7 times bigger.  Horses for courses.

Fuji X100. Both cameras are auto-focus rangefinders.  Both cameras have a fixed lens at a similar focal length.  Both produce sharp images.  These are pretty similar cameras, with one in a digital and one in a film format.  Lots of people have emailed me to ask if I’ll buy the X100.  Now that I own the GA645 I don’t think so.

Resources:

Dante Stella has a nice writeup on the Fuji GA series.

The bottom line

The Fuji GA645i is a great camera. I’m keeping it for any time I want to travel light yet still get extremely high-quality images.  This is my “personal” medium format camera (the bulky P1 being reserved primarily for professional use).  However, it does have significant limitations, so this camera is definitely not for everyone.  It’s not great for very bright light or very low light.  It requires experience because you’ll need to shoot without seeing the aperture/shutter settings in the viewfinder in bright light.  It requires carrying an ND filter with you. So despite it’s point-n-shoot operation I’d say this camera is best for experienced shooters.

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  • Dominik

    Thanks for that detailed review. I think i buy one on ebay (; (May 30, 2011 | 10:10pm)

  • Honza

    Very nice review! Friend of mine bought a FUJI Fujica 6x9 ( 690 or something like that ) and he's very satisfied with it ( but it's a manual focus camera I think ). For me it is a bit sad that you sold the Contax 645, becouse I love this machine. But you're right with its autofocus - 3 AF sensors would be very nice in it ( especialy when I recompose and at the same time trying to not shift the image ). But still, If you have more photos from that Contax yet, It would be nice to share them :~) Thank you, Honza. (May 31, 2011 | 01:37am)

  • Nasir Hamid
    Twitter: nasirhamid

    Nice review and images. Is there a difference between the i and non-i models? I like the look of this camera but I can only find a non-i model at the moment. Thanks. (August 17, 2011 | 08:05am)

  • admin

    @NH: It depends on whether the non-i model is version 1 or version 2. Click on the link to the Dante Stella write-up, he explains the differences. (August 17, 2011 | 11:54am)

  • Haris Abdul Rahman

    "Aesthetically, this is one uuuuuuuugly camera! In fact, it’s so ugly, it’s almost attractive, in a weird sort of way." Classic quote. Nice review man. (August 28, 2011 | 07:07pm)

  • Pascal Vossen

    Seems to be a jewel for that price. In some way you always seem to get the best out of these film camera's. I thought your images with the Contax 645 and P1 were also sublime! I ended up buying a Contax 645 for a good price because of your review. Havent seen the results yet but I love the handling of it. Regarding this review; I havent seen anything this nice on e.g. flickr taken with the fuji ga645i. Most of them lack the clean and crisp look of your shots. Do you overexpose all your film? :) I am selling my X100 at this moments because it is to unreliable in my opinion and its giving me the sh*ts in general. I would like to replace it with a good MF analog camera and therefor I am thinking about the Fuji ga645i, although the Mamiya 7II + 43mm is also on my mind..so much that I cannot seem to make up my mind. The costs dont matter that much, only is it worth getting the M7II over the Fuji, since the latter is such good value? Too bad you dont have a detailed review with the M7II ,) Keep up the good work, I love reading your reviews!Cheers. (December 06, 2011 | 02:39am)

  • admin

    @Pascal: Both the Mamiya 7 and the Fuji GA have similar limitations you will have to learn to live with. For example: slow lenses and slow maximum shutter speeds. So it's hard to get shallow dof with these cameras, yet they also require ND filters to shoot in bright light. That's why they're used primarily by landscape/travel shooters. For that purpose, they excel. The advantage of the Mamiya is that it has interchangeable lenses. The advantage of the Fuji is that it is lighter and has autofocus. Both will take incredibly sharp images. (December 06, 2011 | 07:16am)

  • David Leung

    Still got this camera? Have you had a chance to try out the GF670? Would be interesting to see opinions on that. The fact that the GA is some much incredibly cheaper than the GF makes it an extremely appealing choice. Unfortunately I have a 645 camera already but all that travel friendly. And would love 66 or 67 format (although I could always crop 645 and still have a decent sized negative). Well, in any case, excellent review as always. (March 16, 2012 | 01:39pm)

  • admin

    @David, no I don't have the camera any more, nor have I tried the GF670. At the end of the day, the limitations of the camera (f4, 1/400 max shutter) were just too much of a pain for me to deal with. (March 16, 2012 | 01:48pm)

  • Ramayana

    "You could also think of it as a big brother to the new Fuji X100. Same concept: fixed lens, autofocus rangefinder." Except, of course, the Fuji X100 isn't a rangefinder. (January 30, 2014 | 06:33am)

  • Bazzer

    I just dug mine out tonight, covered in dust, gave it a clean looks good, I have not used it for some time and left the battery in, all seems to be working well, thanks for the information on the 8 steps, I did not know that, I thought the camera was lying to me or not working correctly. (February 19, 2014 | 06:41pm)