talkin bout camerasa blog by Branden Frederick

Fujfilm GA645Zi

Published 21 Nov 2018 – Updated 29 Nov 2018

Medium format point-and-shoot

Nine months ago I learned of the existence of a line of cameras that both use medium format film and are flat and compact. With several revisions of the lineup available – each with much praise online – I landed on the last model produced: the Fujifilm GA645Zi.

in all its glory

Released in 1998, all those letters and numbers in the name "GA645Zi" equate to mean the following: the camera shoots negatives that are 6x4.5cm in size on both 120 and 220 film, has a zoom lens from 55mm to 90mm (sort of...), and sets exposure automatically. All in all, it's a modern film camera that's so simple anyone can use it. The most complex part of operation is loading film, but the camera even winds the spools automatically – a luxury common in small formats, but unheard of for medium format cameras.

the camera's photographer's side

Peculiarities

This camera has some curious design decisions. If you're like me, these peculiarities will draw you in, since they're all the "fun and exciting" type of oddball features, not the "obnoxious and frustrating" type. The first is immediately obvious upon putting the camera to your eye: the viewfinder is in portrait orientation. As in, tall, up-and-down, hamburger orientation. I mean, if you think about it, this makes sense, since the film has to roll through the shutter area horizontally, and 6x4.5cm negatives fit on roll film long-side-across. The caveat here is that you'll end up either holding the camera sideways the majority of the time, taking a lot more portrait-orientation shots, or both. Like I said, this isn't a bad thing, per se, it's a ~*~curiosity~*~.

~*~professional~*~

Second is the "zoom" lens. See, the lens is at its widest at 55mm and its longest at 90mm, but in between it only zooms to exactly two other focal lengths: 65mm and 75mm. To repeat, it never zooms to anything other than one of those four focal lengths. So when using the camera it really doesn't matter that you're limited to those exact four focal lengths, but what does matter is that 55mm to 90mm isn't a very large zoom range. It's what they call in the industry, a *audience gasps* 1.6x zoom! *cheering* You can zoom from sort-of wide to ever-so-slightly long. It's ... well, I'd say it's better than nothing, but I do love me some prime lenses. At least the lens is sharp as a razor.

sexy Fujifilm dials and buttons and levers

Frustrations

And like every camera, there are things here which detract from its utility. First, the lens is dog slow. That expression doesn't make much sense, some dogs are fast. The lens is sloth slow. At 55mm it's an f/4.5 lens, and by 90mm it's f/6.9. And to further frustrate the speed issue, the maximum shutter speed is only 1/700. The consequence of all this is that photos from this camera tend to always have everything in focus, down unto the point where it's too dark to shoot. You won't find any of that fun medium format subject isolation through blur here – no, you'll be forced to compose with your whole scene in focus.

where film goes

The next biggest issue is that rear LCD screens on these are dying. The rear LCD gives you critical information about loading film and setting the ISO, and without it the camera is crippled. If you're buying one of these cameras, you should make absolutely certain that the LCD is working before handing over your cash.

San Francisco on CineStill 50D

Taking photos

This camera is great at taking photos. Between the automatic exposure meter, automatic film advance, zoom lens, and light weight, if you're using this camera to take photos, you will have a smooth experience. This isn't one of those cameras that takes effort to use. It's large, but that's because it's medium format, there's no getting around that. But it's flat, so it feels like holding a smaller camera. Push the shutter and the camera makes a sound reminiscent of the X-ray machine at my dentist's office, and then the motor whirs as the film advances. The whole effect is very soothing: your camera says professional on it in three places, you're exposing 16 frames of medium format film and not that plebeian 36 frame small format garbage, and you're not taking snapshots or making photos, you're imaging your environment.

San Francisco on Ilford FP4+ 125

But here's the thing, as weirdly gratifying as the camera is to shoot, the fact is that the slow aperture and shutter speeds combine with the off-center, not-through-the-lens viewfinder to deliver what is, in essence, a large point-and-shoot camera. The parallax adjusting view-frames and exposure compensation dial and manual exposure modes and pretend manual focus lens all are there to try to hide it, but it's true: this is a point-and-shoot camera.

so?

Ok, point-and-shoot cameras, it's not that they're bad. They're probably how we all started, right? They are good enough to spark that interest in photography in all of us. But now ... they're boring. You just kind of throw a bunch of stuff in your frame, push the shutter, and hope it all works out. There's none of that precision or control that goes into making photos when the camera does it all automatic. "But it's not about the camera" the photographer forums whine. "It's about what you point the camera at" the PetaPixel comments blather.

Los Gatos on Portra 160NC

Those aren't real quotes, but you know they could be. Those people are idiots. It is about the camera, in as much that the camera must be an extension of the photographer, and if the photographer wants exactitude, a point-and-shoot camera isn't going to deliver it. Sure, I can fine-tune adjust exposure and focus and aperture with this camera, but without a clear idea of what my photo is looking like, those adjustments are just shots in the dark, not careful calibrations.

Verdict

I want to like this camera. It looks sexy as all get out, it's a real pleasure to use, and I've taken photos I'm proud of with it. But when it comes time to grab a camera from the (ever increasing) gear cache for a day's shooting, I'm reaching past the GA645Zi. I may force myself to take it on one or two more outings, but I know its days in my possession are numbered. GA645Zi, I will miss you, but you and me are not meant to be.

And now, some more sample photos

about Branden Frederick

I am a photographer: I have fun taking photos, and I always have.

I've had a camera in my hand my whole life, a 110 camera as a kid, and the high school's 35mm SLR later. In 2008 I spent six months doing nothing but taking photos and loved it. From that point on I've had my camera surgically attached to my hand (I lie). I went digital in the year 2000, and I came back to film in 2013. My parents tell me my photos are "nice".

bf@branfred.com