Monday, May 22, 2023

A year with the Fujica GW690

A bit over a year actually, but time flies when you're having fun. Some of my best photographs of the past year were taken with this camera. This is the most recent, a long exposure from just upstream of Elbow Falls. Film is Kodak Gold 200.

A couple things have come together to produce this particular blog. It started as I was browsing through images looking for something suitable for VERO #momo or Monochrome Monday. I found a few places where I hadn't done my Lightroom key-wording right, and as I was fixing that I found some images I'd lost track of. It was nice going back over them. And yes, I did select an image and put it up on VERO. (Look at the top of the blog roll for a link to my VERO photos.) This one, if you were wondering. It's one of the first images with this camera, taken on a road trip right after picking up the camera. Film is Acros II.

I've put about 45 rolls through the camera since late March 2022 and have thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. Keep in mind that I'm not an old school film photographer that converted to digital and then went back to film as a nostalgia trip. My only film experience was a point and shoot using the cheapest film that Black's sold. More recently I'd read about film photography and wanted to at least try it. A friend generously lent me a couple 35 mm Nikons, but they never felt happy in my hands and I struggled with the split ring prism.

Then I picked up the Fujica GW690 in a film photography store in Longview, Alberta. (Yes, this tiny little town is a mecca for film photography.) It felt right at home in my hands, and I hadn't known I was a rangefinder guy till I tried to focus it. For all that it's a huge camera mostly made of metal, it does not feel heavy or clunky. It feels solid and comfortable. There's 3 versions of it but I have the original. It first came onto the market about the time I was graduating high school.

I had to essentially learn the differences between film and digital photography. The camera doesn't use batteries at all; thus no auto functions and no light meter. It does exactly what it's told to do. I use my phone and have got pretty good at estimating the settings for the light and the image I want. Most film can cope with being a stop or two wrong, especially if you tend to over expose. Digital photography changed the way I look at the world, and film photography has changed it again.

But, I hear some readers saying. But why film? But isn't it expensive? But isn't it a drag waiting to finish the roll and then wait to get it developed? But don't you have to convert to digital anyway, so why bother with film?

Digital is all about the end product right now. Why not take the photo of some random scene? Take another, just in case. Goofed on the settings? Chimp your brains out. Keep taking more images till you get what you want. Edit and filter it to your heart's content. Let an AI product have a go at it to make it into the photo an algorithm decides to create. Drop it on Instagram and wallow in the likes. 

To some extent, comparing digital to film photography is comparing apples and oranges. Yes, they're both fruit, but there's a lot of differences. Lots of people have done image comparisons, but I don't have the technical expertise to do that in a meaningful way.

Film is more deliberate, especially with an older camera. I put more thought into the images, or potential images. I tend to edit them very lightly in Negative Lap Pro mainly because I'm not trying to make them look perfect or like digital. About the only thing I do in Lightroom is spot removal. 

I enjoy the process of manual film photography. Deciding which camera to take (I have 2 film cameras, and one digital that I could take for a walk.) Deciding which film, if there isn't film in the camera already. Thinking about where to go and what I might find there. Then looking at the various scenes and thinking if they would make a good film image, or how to work the composition to get a good image. Adjust the settings and focus, 2x everything, relax, and click. Or rather, ping! The GW690 makes a mechanical ping sound, which is not the leaf shutter. I'm told it's the mechanism on the bottom of the camera  that counts the number of rolls, but I'm not sure why or how accurate it is. 

Then I drop the film at the lab, and typically a couple days later I can pick up the big beautiful negatives. If I've done everything right the images amaze me. I've goofed a few times on various aspects, which is to be expected and it's a learning experience. When I say big negatives, I'm not kidding. They are 6 cm high x 9 cm wide. This is about 5 times the area of a 35mm negative, and commensurately more detail. How much detail, you ask?

Look at these two images. My favourite model Michelle and her husband, as I was showing off the new to me camera. The film is Acros II on an overcast day. This digital image was captured from the negative using a Canon EF 100 mm f2.8 L macro lens, and lightly edited in Negative Lab Pro.

This is not a digital zoom of the above image, it's photographed again using a Canon MP-E 65mm macro at about 1:1. This image is about 15 or 16 mm wide out of the original negative, and was edited slightly differently.

That tells me if I do everything right, and have a subject worth it, I could print an image about 10 feet across, detailed enough to count individual hairs. I'm not likely to need any more resolution than that.

Part of the process is conversation. The only people that talk to me when I'm using a digital camera are the people at the event that know me, and it's seldom about the camera. When I'm around other people with the big film camera, lots of people ask, and a surprising number are familiar with it, or know of it. I've had some lovely conversations with other photographers that started with the camera. Like this one. The guy on the left used to shoot film, and was thinking about it again. I never would have asked to take their photo if I hadn't been carrying the film camera. We had a nice chat as we strolled the beach. Film is Kodak Gold 200.

One of my best photos from last year with this camera was during a Yukon trip in September. I took along Kodak Gold 200, and was stunned at the colour. This photo is handheld. You can see other photos from the Yukon trip here, including this one.

As for the expense, the camera itself is much, MUCH cheaper than a digital camera and lens system. I can't find the paperwork, but I think I paid $650, and a version 3 of it is available for $1100. After buying it, my only expense is buying film and paying to have it developed. Most 120 film is about $10 to $15 a roll, some a little bit cheaper, some lots more expensive. Developing costs just over $10 a roll, so I tell people my cost is about $25 per roll, for 8 photos per roll. Eek! Some say $3 a photo, when digital is free? Are you out of your mind? 

Keep in mind that digital isn't free. You had to buy the camera, the lens(es), SD cards, a computer and probably an external hard drive, and a program like Lightroom or Photoshop. Without even trying that could be a $5K up front cost, and could easily be $10K. 

I can expose a lot of film for that much money. But really, lets say I expose a roll a week, that comes to $1300. No hobby is free. There are people that drop that much at Starbucks every year. Plus when I see a sale on film I can stock up. 

Is this the perfect camera? Of course not. It's not even the perfect film camera. It can't focus closer than about a meter so macro photos are right out. Most of them have the T shutter speed, rather than a B, so there's a trick to long exposures, and exposure times between 1 second and 5 seconds or so are kind of tough. The lens is a fixed 90mm. To say it's not unobtrusive is a huge understatement, so it's not the camera for stealthy street photography. The ping, or rather PING sound of taking a photo is off putting for some people. Some people are not fans of range finder cameras. Some want (need!) a light meter.  Whatever.

But it's become my favourite camera. I don't take as many photos with it but it's fun carrying it around as I look for, or create photos. I think about projects I can use it for. Here are some photos of it with my DSLR for a size comparison. Looking forward to making lots more photos with it!

1 comment:

  1. Joe Glez sent in a great comment on the GW690 Facebook page, and graciously gave permission to publish here. Thanks Joe!

    Hi Keith, I just read your blog post and I agree with many of your thoughts. I've had mine since about 2015, when I was able to buy it from Ebay for about $240 USD. It isn't the cost for me, it never has been. As you said, it is how it changes your work rhythms and you as an artist/observer. Yes, digital is very inexpensive, although the initial cost is there. But I feel I do not enjoy the process nor am I nearly as careful and thoughtful as when I use film. When using film I know I have to make it count, and when I do see my compositions, I value my selectiveness. I also do not like to over-edit nor apply all kinds of AI algorithms, we are inundated with those photos on social media and they are, in my opinion, dreary and monotonous in their perfection. I consciously choose to pursue the imperfections, I will not blur backgrounds to achieve artificial bokeh nor am I interested in *infinite* dynamic range. Those photos look bland and fake to me, just mass-produced product that people shoot and process and fake and manipulate. I want the experience of discovery and singularity, and film provides it. Plus, I can really lose myself in the worlds I photograph when I use slide film, which is what I prefer to use with my GW690ii camera!


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