I recently tested the Fujifilm GF670 folding medium-format rangefinder camera over nearly a month of intermittent use. As promised, I wanted to share my experience with this camera. The bottom line for me is that, though I liked many things about the camera, and think it’s a fine photographic instrument, I have returned it to the vendor. The reason? Ergonomics. Bear with me as I elaborate on this decision.
I’d been a Mamiya 7 rangefinder user for nearly two years when I bought the Fuji. The Mamiya was my first rangefinder camera, and I’ve loved it for the most part. It feels as good in the hand as a chunky rectangular box can feel. Its lenses are simply superb in their sharpness and contrast—among the best I’ve used. And those glorious, huge 6×7 negatives are a trove of image information waiting to be scanned. At its best—on a tripod, tripping the shutter with its self-timer or a cable release—its images are comparable in overall quality to those from my 4×5. That’s high praise indeed.
As a system, the Mamiya 7 and my three lenses (50, 80, and 150mm) are compact and travel well. For the urban- and suburban-landscapes and environmental portraiture I typically shoot, this camera is really all I need; and I use the 80mm probably 90% of the time for this work. It is slightly wider than “normal” for the 6×7 format, equivalent to about a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera.
On the downside, the Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder camera, with the compromises rangefinders entail: no close-focusing capability, for one; imprecise framing, for another. And the rangefinder doesn’t like the sort of mistreatment a DSLR would routinely shrug off. Though I’ve never dropped or broken mine, is has gotten bumped hard against the dashboard of my car. This relatively minor shock necessitated a trip to Mamiya for a rangefinder adjustment. In general, though, I accept the fact that no camera can do it all and do it well, and the camera’s drawbacks haven’t been limiting for my work. Balancing its pros and cons, I’ve made the Mamiya my workhorse for the past two years, as other cameras have come and gone.
I do love me some gadgets, however, and I’m on one of my periodic downsize-and-simplify kicks right now. To load a small shoulder bag with a single camera/lens and a handful of film, and just go, sounds appealing. To this end, I’ve had my eye on the Fuji for some time—as well as on some digital counterparts (another blog post, that)—and the recent sale of some little-used photo gear freed up the funds with which to scratch the Fuji itch. Given that the 80mm may as well be welded to my Mamiya, would the fixed-lens Fuji serve as a newer, even more compact replacement?
It should be a given that an $1650* camera (I buy retail, just like you do) will make good images, and the Fuji does not disappoint there. But crucially for me, it has to feel right in the using. Good ergonomics are essential for working seamlessly. The camera should become a little-noticed extension of your hands and brain, requiring little conscious thought to operate, once you’ve mastered its basic functions and control layout. Of course, one photographer’s dream camera can be another’s nightmare, regardless of its merits. But to justify its price, the Fuji needed to be an out-of-the-park homer, right out of the box. Evidently it’s selling well, so that must be the case for many users. And you have to admire Fuji’s corporate cojones for daring to introduce a nearly-$2k film camera with a fixed lens in an era when film cameras are dying like asteroid-winter dinosaurs.
So what is it about the Fuji? There’s a lot to like about this camera. It is well-made and sturdy, and has a cool, minimalist retro look that I like. Its clamshell cover opens and closes easily, with absolutely no wiggle or play when the bellows is locked fully open in shooting position. It’s a nice touch that the clamshell cover also turns the camera on and off, eliminating the need for a separate power switch. Its center-weighted averaging meter was quite accurate for the most part, with the usual caveats about strongly back-lighted scenes, or those in which high or low image brightness prevails. (Like any meter, it has to be coupled to a functioning photographer-brain to get the best results.) The rangefinder is spot-on accurate; I tested it close up and wide open, and it was right on target. The lens is sharp and contrasty, yet smooth in its tonal rendering; it reminds me of the subtle, silky sharpness of a Hasselblad, more than the surgical sharpness of the Mamiya 7. I did notice some vignetting in low light with the lens wide open, but it is not objectionable, and is easily corrected in post if you’re using a hybrid film/digital workflow as I do.
Its controls are well laid out and minimalist; the do-it-all shutter-speed, ISO, and exposure compensation knob at upper left is conveniently located for left-handed operation, and all detents are positive and firm. On the right side of the top deck, the film-advance knob is also right where it needs to be. I had my doubts about having a knob where there “should” be a lever, as on the Mamiya 7. But in practice, the ball of my thumb fell exactly on its knurled rim, and advancing the film took only a few swipes. Not quite as fast as a single-stroke lever, but no problem either. The shutter release button requires more force than you’d expect, but is smooth to operate; when it fires, it is so quiet that you might not hear it if there is even a modest amount of ambient noise. The first few times I shot it, I didn’t hear it at all, and only knew I had fired the shutter when I was able to advance the film.
I especially love this camera’s dual-format option; this feature may be the single best thing about it—a real genius move by Fuji. Since this feature makes the Fuji essentially two cameras in one, it takes some of the sting out of the camera’s steep price. To switch formats, you use a coin to turn a selector switch inside the camera, located to the upper right of the film gate. The default option is 6×7, but selecting 6×6 brings two half-centimeter shutters in from the sides of the film gate. Presto! You now have a 6×6 camera. Very slick. You can’t change your mind in mid-roll, but that didn’t bother me in the least.
So after heaping all this praise on the Fuji, why did I return it? Simply because, despite its sleek competence, even excellence, as an image-making tool, it simply never felt right in my hands. Its clamshell design forces certain changes in the way you hold and focus the camera. With a few months’ use, maybe I’d have gotten used to its ways. And it’s such a lovely machine, I was tempted to do just that. At $1000, I would probably have kept the camera and dealt with it. But during the crowded 30-day return period I had in which to try it out, I could never get used to doing things the way its shape dictates. So back it went, but not without regret, given the camera’s many virtues.
To understand what I mean, hold an imaginary rangefinder camera, like a Mamiya 7, up to your face in shooting position. Note where your hands fall on the “camera” as you hold, aim, focus, and shoot. The Mamiya has a grip “hump” at the front of the right-hand side of its body; you grasp this with your middle, ring, and small fingers as if you’re holding a thick broom handle vertically. The camera’s right edge seats in your palm; your thumb naturally falls onto the film advance lever, and your index finger onto the shutter release. It feels completely correct; you soon forget you have anything in your hand. Meanwhile, your upturned left palm cradles and supports the camera’s bottom, while that thumb and index finger encircle the lens. These two digits make an upright “U” shape as they grasp the focus or aperture rings, with thumb at left and index finger at right. You can therefore focus or change apertures while looking through the viewfinder without having to take the camera away from your eye. This is how I hold all my cameras—waist-level finders excepted—and I’ve done it for decades.
Things are quite different when you pick up the Fuji. The clamshell cover is hinged at right, which narrows the right-hand grip area side-to-side. Unless you have a really tiny hand, you hold the camera with your right fingers, rather than seating it in your palm. I found this strange at first, but with continued use it didn’t seem so much of a problem. On the other hand, the left hand really gave me trouble. With the Fuji’s clamshell door open in shooting position, the left index finger can’t circle around the camera-right circumference of the lens, since the door is in the way. Instead, you have to work the focus ring’s tab with only the thumb, while all four fingers curl around the bottom edge of the clamshell door. Or you have to turn the left hand 90 degrees so that the palm faces forward and rightward, cradle the left body edge in your thumb-forefinger web space, and focus with the index or middle finger on the tab. Either way, I found the tab to be out of position; my thumb couldn’t easily turn it through its entire range of motion, necessitating constant hand movements to reach the extremes of the ring’s travel. Just as it’s tough to wear a pair of shoes that pinch in the same spot every time you put them on, I couldn’t get past this seemingly minor quirk. Call me a noodge or a cantankerous crank, if you must.
I had a couple other more minor nits to pick with the Fuji also. First, unlike the Mamiya, it has no self-timer. As a folding medium-format camera, compact portability is the Fuji’s forte, so this seems a curious omission. I’d envisioned its replacing the Mamiya for travel, and a self-timer is essential for this purpose—not only for taking unaided self-portraits, but for firing the shutter when you have no cable release handy. Perhaps this design decision was driven strictly by form-factor considerations I’m unaware of. And further, while the Fuji has a 1/4-20 tripod socket, I haven’t found any available custom camera QR plates for it from either Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Arca-Swiss, or Markins, to name the majors. There may be a standard plate that fits, but if so I’ve yet to find one; I’d love to hear from you in the comments if I’m wrong about this, and I’ll update this post accordingly. I’ll grant you that this camera is primarily conceived as a hand-held device. But if you want to use it on a tripod, you’ll have to simply bolt it on via a standard screw. If your tripod head is fitted out with the more usual quick-release receptacle, this may cause you some heartburn.
Do I recommend this camera? Absolutely. But you have to try it out for yourself. Ideally, you’d source it locally and spend some time in the store handling and dry-firing it. If you have to order it, keep it pristine and save everything in the box, in case it doesn’t work out. I suspect for many of you it will, especially if you don’t already have something similar. I liked it so much, I wish it had been so for me. Would I reconsider it? Yes. I’d have to decide simply to buy it, use it a lot, and sell it after a few months if things don’t go well. I’m not there yet.
I’m eager to hear from other users or prospective buyers of the Fuji GF670, preferably in the comments that follow. So let fly, everyone.
* Update 12/12/2010: I tell you, I’ve reconsidered this decision ever since I reluctantly boxed up the camera and sent it back to Adorama. Given the GF670’s many virtues, I’ve always wondered whether, with more devoted use than the little I was able to achieve during my 30-day trial period, I shouldn’t give it another go for a good solid month or more of shooting, and simply sell it if it still didn’t feel right. Browsing their sites this snowy morning, I notice that B&H and Adorama have both discounted the camera by around $100 since my purchase. Hmmm….