Tag Archive | Fujifilm

Sony a6300 and Techart LM-EA7 II

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Sony a6300 with Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and LM-EA7 II

Sony a6300: love to hate you

There may not be any point, six months after the fact, to writing anything about the Sony a6300 compact camera. Well, maybe there is. Sony APS-C cameras are something that Fuji fans love to hate. And what’s not to hate from their perspective? Sony doesn’t make cameras that look like old rangefinders or SLRs, Sony lords it over Fuji with sensors that are slightly ahead (Fujifilm buys sensors from Sony, so it is not going to get the pathbreaking product immediately), Sony lenses are supposed to be terrible, and despite all this, Sony still outsells Fuji by an order of magnitude. How could this be?

— Sony strengths relative to Fuji in the mirrorless arena

The two possible answers are video and AF performance. Video on the a6300 is nothing short of phenomenal: 4K, 120fps HD, and just about every type of video gamma geekery that you could want. The Multi-Interface Shoe allows for some interesting snap-on microphone options, including XLR and wireless. The worst thing anyone has said about the a6300’s video is that it has rolling shutter problems, and the answer to that is really, so what? It’s an artifact of any mirrorless camera when used for video. And since Fuji sources its sensors from Sony, you’re not going to do any better. In fact, no one outside the Fujisphere considers Fuji’s video in any way significant.

The focusing speed and accuracy a NEX/Alpha has always been somewhat incredible. Even back to the old NEX-5, Sony could make lenses that silently and smoothly achieve focus on faces. The a6300 with its kit lens posts some insanely fast times, and Sony’s claims about continuous focus tracking are largely true, at least as far as this author has been able to reproduce the right photographic, ahem, “needs.” In fast action, a camera with poor lenses but a responsive system does much better than a more ponderous camera/lens combination that misses the forest for the trees.

One thing that is clear from the dpreview.com tests is that with whatever mystery lenses the site used to test the X-Pro2 and A6300,* there is almost zero difference in image quality, anywhere on the frame.

*Never disclosing the lenses used is dpreview’s second-biggest failing. The first is retconning itself into the time before the internet and digital cameras existed. Sorry. That was a mistake. The first is allowing itself to be bought by Amazon. Then the second is retconning. Then the third is mystery lenses (apologies to Steve Martin).

— Handling

The A6300 is fairly easy to handle. The grip section of the camera is substantial, and in general, it is easy to operate. No one, though, understands what the second command dial is doing on the top deck. It’s not comfortable to use with the camera at your eye. Controls are snappy and solid, as is the general build.

— Viewing

The A6300 has the latest OLED high-density electronic viewfinder that features a 2-axis level (pitch and roll) and more information display possibilities than you want to admit you want. Battery life is helpfully provided by percentage (and if there is one nice thing about Sony batteries, they are good communicators. Shooting does not black out in continuous mode. The EVF senses heat (infrared radiation); hence, its eye sensor does not react to glass-lensed glasses or sunglasses. If you don’t like the EVF, there is a big LCD on the back. Knock yourself out.

— Shooting

This is mostly unchanged since the a6000. The big thing is silent shooting, which uses a front and back electronic curtain (you can also choose electronic front or mechanical front). Silent shooting has two failure modes: first, in any situation with fast-moving objects, the progressive read of the sensor will cause typical “rolling shutter” artifacts. Second, dimmed LED lights (dimmed at the wall switch) flicker, even at full brightness, and can cause light banding in the finished frame (rolling shadow).

— Legacy lenses

One big note is that it is not particularly easy to engage viewfinder magnification on a shot-to-shot basis. You either have to learn to live with focus peaking or slow way down if you want to focus older SLR lenses, for example.

— Accessories and cutting corners

If you are accustomed to older NEX cameras, you will marvel at how Sony expects you to charge this camera with a USB connection to something else. The better solution is the Sony BC-TRW, which is a microscopic dual-voltage charger. It actually has four charging indicators (1-3 and off – meaning “fully charged.”). But yes, you still get a useless camera strap in the box.

 

An exit from the closed system

The problem with APS-C camera systems, whether Sony or Fuji makes them, is that they are closed, highly proprietary systems. You can’t stick a Fujinon on a Sony; you can’t get a Sony Zeiss lens onto an X-Pro2. Change systems? Get ready to pay the price when you sell your old system’s lenses.

There are two tired retorts:

  1. But the system has all the lenses you’ll ever need.
  2. Why don’t you just mount legacy lenses on an adapter?

The first argument is disposed of easily: what if you don’t like the one lens with your preferred angle of view and preferred maximum aperture? What if you don’t want to shell out for new lenses? What if you need the money for booze?

The second fails due to the kludge factor. Yes, it’s possible to mount other lenses on these bodies for use with cheap Chinese adapters and your old lenses. It’s also generally miserable. Both Fuji and Sony allow focus magnification, but Sony makes it difficult to use when a non-Sony lens is mounted. Both makes have focus peaking, but that’s not as definitive as you think. And although Fuji offers a phase-detect driven split-image manual focusing function, it’s not that much fun and not that fast to use.

The “out” provided by Sony was to enable phase-detect autofocus with third-party lenses. This enabled things like the TechArt LM-EA7 II adapter, which in theory allows the autofocusing of any M mount lens (or lens that can be adapted to M, provided it physically fits the adapter). If this works, it would be a game-changer, since it would bypass the usual foibles of adapted lenses (focus difficulty and inaccuracy of focus peaking being two big ones). Is this true?

The good, the bad, and the ugly with the LM-EA7 II

The adapter comes in a nice, foam-padded box and includes a NEX/E-mount body cap and rear lens cap. This is a nice touch, since people who bought the a6300 with a kit lens will have neither.

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50mm f/1.5 ZM C-Sonnar with LM-EA7 II

The good news is that with the sweet spot for Leica lenses: 35-50, the LM-EA7 works like a charm. The noise is a faint whirring, and the Sony phase-detect system fairly effortlessly computes and reaches the focus point (provided, of course, that your lens would ordinarily need 4.5mm or less of travel between infinity and minimum focusing distance).

Some observations:

  1. Focusing is through the lens, at shooting aperture. ***This forces the camera to automatically adjust for focus shift on fast lenses, again making the a6300 more accurate and repeatable than a Leica M body, which can only have accurate focus at one aperture.
  2. The camera plus adapter can focus on an off-center subject using (for example) wide AF. Face recognition works with this adapter, even though the adapter supports phase-detect only. ***This is significant because it means that the a6300 can more accurately focus fast Leica lenses on off-center subjects than a Leica body can.
  3. The camera plus adapter rarely misses, even off-center. In fact, the focus with things like the 50/1.5 ZM Sonnar (the modern version) is better than can be achieved with a rangefinder (naturally, due to focus shift).
  4. The adapter is serviceable with 75mm and longer lenses, provided that you pre-focus to somewhere at least near the expected focus point.
  5. The adapter, by virtue of its inbuilt extension, gives you slightly closer close focus with 35mm and shorter lenses.
  6. There is little or no color shift with adapted wides. Depends on the lens, but even the ZM Biogon 4.5 seemed to do ok.
  7. Flash works with the adapted lenses.
  8. The multi-shot vibration-reduction mode works (JPG only).
  9. The weight limit for the objective assembly (lens plus any adapters to M mount) is 750g. This is well beyond what you need for almost any Leica-mount lens and covers most DSLR prime lenses (if you go lens – to M adapter – to LM EA7 – to camera.
  10. The artistic effects, such as “Sad Clown with Single Tear Airbrushed onto Sweatshirt” still work with adapted lenses.

Now, what’s the catch? Well, there are seven.

  1. PDAF does not work for video, and the adapter does not do contrast-detect.
  2. Due to some clear limits in the Sony PDAF software (which is probably set up to look for big focusing changes), wide lenses (≤21mm) and lenses with maximum apertures of f/4 or smaller do not focus well. Granted, why do you need AF with these lenses?
  3. The motor part of the adapter hangs below the camera, making it hard to set the camera down. This is not entirely negative because it also makes a nice grip.
  4. Not all SLR mount to M mount adapters work. In general, you have to use the Leicaist versions because they taper enough to miss the motor unit. Konica AR is one of the couple that work with the adapter, and even then, it’s just the typical Chinese adapter with a relief milled into it to clear the autofocus adapter.
  5. Taking the camera’s aperture setting off f/2 or 2/8 tends to cause overexposure.
  6. The system for selecting and recording lens-specific metadata is confusing, pointless, and possibly both. Your best word may be to record everything as 15mm.
  7. It does take a toll on your battery.

Tips and tricks

  1. Disengaging AF. For some reason, there is a lot of internet kvetching about how it is difficult to disengage AF. This is probably based on old firmware that requires you to use Aperture Priority and turn to a small f/stop. It is actually very easy to disengage the AF temporarily. If you press and hold AE/AF-L on the a6300, the adapter will park at its “infinity” setting, the focus peaking will come on, and you can then focus manually. When you let go of the AE/AF-L button, the adapter goes back to normal AF operation (make sure the lens is set to infinity before you do this!).
  2. Quickly overriding face-detect or wide area AF. If you have the camera set to wide AF, and you press the center of the back wheel, it will go into spot AF, center area only. It will also automatically focus in that zone. There are many possible green boxes, so it’s not like spot AF – but it suffices in most situations where you need an arbitrary focus point.
  3. Minimum focusing distance. With a travel of 4.5mm, and the lens set to infinity, the adapter does not have extension enough to reach minimum focusing distance with any lens over 50mm. The slight exception appears to be some zooms, since their designs often obviate a direct relationship between focal length and extension while focusing. Minimum focusing distance, though, is all in your mind with the A6300, whose narrower angle of view causes you to back up to get the same field as with an FX/35mm camera.
  4. Prefocusing longer lenses. With long lenses the quickest and easiest way to get to a range where you can achieve focus is to press AE/AF-L (which parks the lens), turn focus peaking on, and focus to a point where focus is just behind the intended subject. Once you are there, let go of the AE/AF-L button to reactivate AF. Because you focused behind the subject, and because the adapter extends (thereby moving the focus point closer to the camera), you have now put your lens exactly in the right place. Needless to say, the longer the lens, the less frontward subject movement this technique will tolerate.
  5. Marking your close-focus point with long lenses. If you habitually shoot at 1-1.5m, find the right “parked” focus distance (see above) and then mark it on the focusing ring with a dot of colored paint.

Compatibility

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Konica 57mm f/1.2 Hexanon AR, shot by the Konica 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Hexanon AR ($50), the “plastic fantastic” in its quasi macro mode, on the LM-EA7II.

Yes. In general the performance of this adapter depends on two major variables: lens weight and maximum aperture.  The former degrades focusing speed; the latter, certainty of locked focus. As noted above, Hexanons were tested due to the availability of an ulterior SLR adapter (plus I had a bunch sitting around).

  1. 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-ASPH M (pre FLE)
  2. 40mm f/2 M-Rokkor
  3. 50mm f/1.1 MS-Sonnetar
  4. 50mm f/1.5 ZM C-Sonnar
  5. 50mm f/1.5 Jena Sonnar (prewar)
  6. 50mm f/2.0  M-Hexanon
  7. 50mm f/2.4L Hexanon
  8. 50mm f/2.8 Jena Sonnar (with Amedeo dual-mount Contact to Leica adapter)
  9. 50mm f/2 Jena Sonnar collapsible prewar
  10. 50mm f/2 Carl Zeiss (Opton) Sonnar, postwar
  11. 75mm f/1.4 Summilux-M (prefocus)
  12. 90mm f/2.8 M-Hexanon (prefocus)
  13. 10.5cm f/2.5 PC Nikkor (LTM)
  14. 40mm f/2 Hexanon (AR) (Konica mount via Leicaist adapter)
  15. 57mm f/1.2 Hexanon AR
  16. 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom-Hexanon AR
  17. 85mm f/1.8 Hexanon AR

Kinda. For wide-angle, medium aperture lenses the adapter does not do so well because Sony’s phase-detect AF isn’t set up to split hairs.

  1. 24mm f/2.8 Hexanon AR

No? Here, the details are too small and/or the depth of field too much to get an easy lock (or sometimes, any lock) with the A6300 [edit note: this appears to be due to the camera’s having difficulty in deciding where the focus point should be – and even in its “spot” modes, the a6300 is picking a focus point]. The behavior on these is more deliberate focusing, almost as if the camera had switched into contrast-detect].

  1. 18mm f/4 ZM Distagon [too wide, too small an aperture]
  2. 21mm f/4.5 ZM Biogon [too wide, too small an aperture]
  3. 21-35mm f/3.4-4.0 M-Hexanon Dual [too wide, too small an aperture]
  4. 50mm f/1.5 Carl Zeiss (Opton) Sonnar [aberrations that Sony AF can’t understand?]

Conclusion

The Sony A6300 is a pretty formidable camera for video and not a slouch for stills provided either that your style does not exact ultra high performance from kit lenses or provided that you are willing to invest in better Sony or Sony/Zeiss glass.

The LM-EA7II may never be good for sports or high-intensity moving work, but it provides some fun with old lenses, or as much of it as you can take! It’s actually a bit irritating that I did not have an A7-series camera on hand to try it.

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Fuji X-T10, Time Magazine’s 35mm Camera, and Fuji’s direction

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Unfrozen Cave-Man Design

The comparisons are inevitable (if you were born before, say, 1985). They are unnoticeable to Fujifilm’s obsequious band of pre-release “reviewers” (more on this later). But the similarity is undeniable. Fuji has, for its sixth camera based on the X-Trans II sensor and its eighth based on the 2011 Sony 16Mp base sensor, copied the design of a camera given away with magazine subscriptions. Hopefully unconsciously. That said, let’s not denigrate the Time-Life unit too much; it has a 50mm f/5.6 glass meniscus lens that at a small enough aperture will be competitive with multi-element lenses. It also contains so much lead in a ballast plate in the base that the scrap metal content outweighs (literally) the purchase price. Operators are standing by.

The only thing that makes the X-T10’s design really egregious coming from Fuji is that the Fuji X line is supposed to be a better-thought-out alternative to DSLRs. Yet here we are, in 2015, and the most recent two models have aped DSLR designs. Are we as a market that gullible? Do they think this will somehow make it easier for us to swallow giving up heavy SLR gear? Whatever it is, it does not say good things about the market or the manufacturer.

The silly game of making one thing look like another goes back a while. Consider the Horsey Horseless Carriage. Whether it was serious or a parody perpetrated by a rich gentleman, you get the point:

horsey

HorseyText

Fig1

Fig2

One is left to wonder whether the head was to be sourced from taxidermy or upholstery, but whatever the intent, it was not going to end well for horses.

Mimicry in camera design is not new, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In most cameras, form has to follow function; a camera is a box with a lens on one end and an imaging surface (film or digital) on the other. In the old days, there were no twin-lens reflexes that looked like rangefinders and no SLRs that looked like anything else. It is probably also fair to say that with a few exceptions (like the Zeiss Tenax or a couple of Raymond Loewy specials), no one actually cared whether a camera was ugly or not. After all, a Rolleiflex is only attractive in the context of twin-lens reflexes. You wouldn’t put it on a coffee table.

For some time, the proportions of digital SLRs were tied in to the film cameras that spawned them. Some of this was understandable; makers were in many cases recycling the chassis castings/moldings of existing cameras – or reusing key components like mirror/shutter boxes and viewfinder assemblies. When DSLRs started to feature their own purpose-built main castings, there was some carryover that were hard to explain – such as why grip surfaces retained proportions originally designed to house 35mm cartridges. But then again, the Space Shuttle’s engines’ dimensions are ultimately traceable to the size of the rump of a Roman soldier’s horse.

Fuji, for its part, stuck to function in designing its early X-series cameras. The X100 looked like a baby Leica M3, but any combination of an integrated optical finder is going to force a certain layout – the window either goes on the left of the right of the lens, and most people are right-eye-dominant. Yes, there was a little window-frame embellishment, but that has evaporated in the X100T. The X-Pro1 carried very subtle call-backs to the G/GL690-series cameras, but it too stuck to the function-defines-form script for the most part (it is clear given subsequent cameras that Fuji made this camera much thicker than it needed to be, given that it had a non-articulating screen). The XE, XM, and XA cameras looked like other finder-equipped or finder-less bodies – various Panasonic G, Sony NEX, and Olympus EP cameras.

The industry turning point (for the worse) came with the Olympus OMD-E5 in 2012, an unabashed visual clone of any of a number of Olympus OM-series SLRs. There was no reason to stick a pentaprism-looking housing atop a mirrorless camera. Pentax was also right there with its K-3. As if it had passed through a mirrorless camera development stage, the K-1’s top bump suddenly blossomed into a full-figured faux prism.

Fuji was always late to the party, and it took Fuji until 2014 to imitate SLR design in the X-T1, the pretext being that the big EVF required a pentaprism “hump.” Fuji dropped that pretext with the 2015 release of the blocky X-T10, stating now that it did this to recall Fuji’s (forgettable) AX line of SLRs. But the X-T10 does not look like an AX at all; it looks like a rinky-dink plastic camera. And its design appears driven neither by function nor aesthetics. It’s an ugly little box.

Why should anyone care?

On one hand, one would be tempted to ask, who cares? Fuji owners (and potential Fuji owners) should. Like a photographic version of roles written for Jason Statham, Fuji has for three years pumped out camera after camera based on the same sensor and incremental inclusions of off-the-shelf technology. Fuji’s three big additions since the X-Pro1 – namely, high-quality EVF technology, on-chip phase-detect focus, and face-detection – were set up for consumer products before the X-Pro1 came out (check out the timing of the NEX-5R and its patents). By the time the X-E2 came out, all the pieces were in place for a serious update to the X-Pro, the “flagship” camera. Between then and now, Fuji has instead pumped millions into design, tooling, and software for multiple minimally differentiated cameras – far more than it would have taken to put an X-Trans II chip, EXR II processor, and better EVF into an X-Pro2. This points to one of two possibilities: (1) the X-Pro1 was such a dog for sales that management required the engineering team to start doing what other mirrorless makers were doing or (2) Fuji has turned to avidly churning the market to keep up market share in the declining interchangeable-lens market, and an updated X-Pro1 was not anticipated to do the job.

1. Looking like what sells. On the first point, it is of some note that the X-E2 resembled the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras, as well as the Sony NEX-6 and -7 APS-C Cameras. The X-T1 and -T10 have followed other manufacturers’ quasi-SLR digital designs. The lens selection in compacts of both formats (APS-C and M43) also reflects a more into competing with entry-level DSLRs: zooms, big zooms, and big primes.

This direction (physical bloating) undermines what APS-C (and Micro 4:3) were supposed to be about: smaller, lighter cameras. This has never really happened: Fuji’s and others’ lenses are not as much smaller than FX lenses as one might have been led to believe. Part of this may be that it’s cheaper to design big telecentric lenses than smaller, more symmetrical ones that require offset micro lenses. And autofocus probably exerts its own size expansion.

But for people who liked the idea of the X-Pro1, this translates into a camera that is somehow bulkier than a 24x36mm Leica M. That does not seem to be the right direction in an era where camera phones (that everyone is already carrying) are eating into compact camera sales. If aside from a camera phone, we are going to haul around another box with its own lithium-ion battery, one that is not plugged directly into social networking, do we want it to be bulky?

2. Churning and burning. The second possibility is more sinister-sounding – but it is supportable. Fuji’s product releases have occurred twice yearly since the X-Pro1. That is very often considering that the underlying technology has moved very little since fall 2013. Fuji’s marketing strategy for the XF has been simple: use shills to build up excitement, release products at high prices, slash prices when sales start to flag a couple months in, and then build excitement for the next big thing.

Fuji is not alone here, but it seems more visible in its use of “reviewers” to promote the process. The practice began with with some Fuji employees — but at least they disclosed who they worked for. But then it moved on to “reviews” started coming rom (a) semi-pros; (b) Fuji-sponsored photographers; and (c) a few easy marks who believe that whatever just came out – from whatever manufacturer – is the greatest thing ever (we all know who they are). Throw into the mix some hyperventilating Fuji-oriented sites that get revenue when people click through to retailers, and you get the perfect storm of non-objective reporting. After all, whether it trips FTC guidelines or not, who would bite the hand that feeds him? And in a world where people pay good money for SEO work, catapulting your photo business to the top of any search has value.

Then comes the product. It’s great. It takes great pictures. I know this first-hand.

And a few months later comes the burn. Left with a run that it can’t sell, and even absent any fundamental spec change or replacement model, Fuji will usually slash prices 20-30% within six months. This gives an impression that every Fuji model is overpriced to begin with – and in slashing new prices, Fuji puts its own new sales directly in competition with the secondary market. This in turn hurts middle-class amateurs trying to unload old Fuji equipment to upgrade within the line. This is a great strategy for fixing a one-time inventory problem, and certainly no budget shopper in the used market will object. But especially where forced depreciation occurs without some compelling improvement (or even the oddly missing “camera body” roadmap), existing users start to feel burned, and smart shoppers learn to hang back. Why would you ever buy new? Look at completed sale prices on Ebay. Buying an XF body or lens new costs you 30-40% the day you open it. Put another way, Fuji’s pricing practices violate a fundamental rule of luxury goods sales (and let’s face it, a $1,300 camera body is a luxury good for most people): never slash MSRPs. You can have occasional rebates, bundles, or “demo” units. But once you start slashing prices, you begin degrading your brand equity. Or has that happened already?

3. Rewarding risk? Fuji should never lose track of the risks that one takes on a proprietary camera system. XF lenses do not fit anything else. There is no repurposing the same lenses on old film bodies (such as with Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Leica) – or even repurposing them on different types of digital bodies (you can stick the same Nikkor on an APS-C D7500, FX D4, and 36Mp D810, for example). In a closed digital system. people invest in a collection of lenses in part on the premise that the line is going to continue – and that the line will remain viable compared to other systems. In a sense, everyone knows that they will be replacing camera bodies in 3-4 years. But when real upgrades never come, it causes justifiable questioning. And it’s not just sensor resolution. It goes to functionality:

  • Will battery life ever improve?
  • Will there ever be a good TTL flash?
  • Is there something about X-Trans decoding that makes it too processor-intensive for a 24Mp sensor?
  • Is the “organic sensor” thing a dodge for never upgrading the X-Pro?
  • Will the video function get less “aliasy?”

These are questions that Fuji should be in a position to answer.

Now what?

Fuji presents a strange case. Its X100 line is fantastic (and its marketing low-key). Even in the XF line, there is little to complain about in image quality. But the reaction to Fuji’s marketing strategy? Maybe the best strategy is to wait out new Fuji XF product releases and just buy used. History, after all, tells us that most of the the prices are inflated anyway.

Fujifilm Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS

1855If nothing else, the Fuji X series exhibits good looks. The 18-55mm is no exception. For what Fuji charges for this standalone lens ($699 – or, if you are like this writer, $249 plus a zillion American Express points), the company knows not to disappoint buyers with entry-level plastics.  The 18-55mm is a substantial lens, heavy and (at least to the touch) well-built. The zoom is extremely well damped, the switchgear is good, and it even has a nice ED-style trim ring. The lens extends when zoomed but not when focused.

Be aware that this is a fairly big and heavy lens; it is fatter than an original Tri-Elmar, and it makes the camera more nose-heavy (and not so featherweight). It is not pocketable by any stretch. The lens barrel will partially block the AF assist light, and in the “wide” OVF mode, it impinges quite a bit into your field of view.

Let’s get to the big question first. Yes, the image quality is all that, wide open, at pretty much every focal length and all reasonable distances.

Actually, let’s back up a little bit. Why are these marked “Fujifilm,” when “Fujica” is already in the inventory and more media neutral?

The next big question, and the one that gets too little play, is how fast this lens focuses (Fuji claim: 0.1s for locking, though under some unspecified set of conditions).  It’s easy to ascertain that this corresponds to outdoors daylight, which is, realistically, EV10 and up. And yes, it’s crazy fast.  Indoors, in artificial light, it slows down a little bit, but it is still a lot faster than the 35/1.4 in most circumstances.  The 18mm setting is blindingly fast (in no small part because the lens lets in the most light at that setting).  23, 35, and 55mm slow down progressively (and, as can be expected, the closer the range, the slower the focusing).  Toward the 55mm end, you occasionally see some unfamiliar behaviors (if you are used to the 35).  One is that hunting is inaudible, and its only manifestation is that for a second, it looks like nothing is happening when you press the shutter. Then, without warning, the framelines (OVF) shrink, the light goes green, and the camera fires.  In EVF mode, you see the lens run through its distance range and then locks and fires. The interesting thing in EVF mode is that the frame momentarily seems to pixelate, which might be indicating that the camera looks at a downsampled data set to see when contrast is maximized.  The other interesting behavior is the red AF warning.  A few notes:

  • The red AF warning comes up more often in EVF mode, and after some experimentation, it seems that it happens most often in low light, where the AF spot size is set to the smallest setting. If you press AF and then increase the size of the spot with the thumbwheel, it mitigates the problem. This fix is not suprising; increasing the sample set helps the camera find some contrast to compare.
  • In EVF mode, the X-Pro1 will let you fire an out-of-focus shot with no warning. If the box does not turn green, don’t count on getting a picture that is in focus.
  • The “mash-n-go” technique still works in OVF mode. This is the one where you press the shutter release until the camera fires (and it only does so when things are in focus).

Manual focus runs through the entire useful range of distances in a little over a quarter turn at all focal lengths. You won’t use it much, and even if you do, you will probably use the AE/AF button to do a spot focus.

Note that the focusing is dead silent – making your AF-s or USM lens sound like an agricultural implement. What is not silent is the aperture actuator, which makes a very subtle click when focus completes and the lens stops down.

As to controls, the internet seems a little confused about how aperture setting works. The unmarked ring just to the rear of the focal-length indicator is the aperture ring (aperture is not manually controlled from the body, as some people seem to think). Unlike the primes, which have numbers and a physical stop at each end, the zoom has a ring that turns all the way around. Turn it to 2.8 and keep turning – it still stays on 2.8. The A switch activates auto-aperture (like the red A on the prime lens rings). To tell the truth, this is a lot better than the prime lenses, which inexplicably omit locks on the “A” setting – making it easier to accidentally switch the control from A to 16 (with attendant blur). The aperture automatically compensates as the focal length changes if the ring is set to the widest opening – but if you set the aperture to f/4 or smaller, it does not change with focal length changes.

The viewfinder picture answers the question of why this is normally packaged with the XE-1.  On an X-Pro1, in OVF mode, the framelines shrink or grow (continuously) depending on the selected focal length. If you turn on corrected AE targets you can also see part of the challenge of using the OVF: the distance between the nominal and near-range boxes changes dramatically between 18 and 55mm. Though this condition exists with prime lenses, the zoom introduces a situation where you have to be able to internalize intermediate corrections at many more focal lengths.  In addition, you really have to decide whether you want to shoot wide or long. If the X-Pro viewfinder is in “wide” mode, the 55mm frameline seems impossibly small. If it is in “normal” mode, the framelines become bigger than the viewfinder around 30mm. It would actually be nice to have the camera automatically switch magnifications, but that does not look like it is part of Firmware 2.01.  It will be very interesting to see what happens with the 10-20mm OIS lens that is slated for next year.  EVF mode is easier to manage, with a stable focus point, and it is here that you get a little of the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)  seasickness: the camera moves but the viewfinder picture moves less.

And on to OIS – this has three modes: off (via the lens), “shooting only” mode (via setup menu), and “continous” (also via the setup menu). The latter two appear to be a choice between having the accelerometers come on instantly or having them get up to speed while frame-finding. Cutting down on the OIS on time probably has a lot to do with conserving power.  The OIS will allow you to shoot below 1/10 sec @55mm and get passable results, which probably comes close enough to the “four stops” claimed by Fuji. It is very important to note that VR or OIS or however you want to trademark it is only effective at compensating for camera movement. It is completely useless for arresting subject movement in low light – and depending on  the interaction could conceivably make it worse (i.e., lens compensates in a direction opposite subject movement direction). So if you are trying to track fast-moving children in low light, well, get a Nikon D700 and a fast prime instead (if for no other reason, the AF is better).

Flash operation with the 18-55mm is fairly predictable (at least with the EF-42, which zooms appropriately with the lens). But do note that as you use more telephoto-like focal lengths, redeye becomes a bigger problem if you use direct flash.

All of this aside, though, the 18-55mm radically increases the functionality of the X-Pro1 and in yet another way makes it more fun than its Leica inspiration. The Leica world has no continuously variable “zooms” – let alone any that gets to the 82mm equivalent of the 18-55mm. And nothing in the M world gets as wide as f/2.8 (the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon does f/3.4, but that is mostly just for kicks).  The 18-55mm is a nicely done lens that should work great for travel, and it is certainly more enjoyable than the Fuji primes for casual snaps. It tends to make the reportage dichotomy a choice  between the X-Pro1 on the one hand and the $7,000 M240 on the other.

We will work on some nice-looking sample pictures over the next month when the weather transitions into winter (rather than grey, dull late autumn…). In the meantime, you might want to order one of these.

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Fuji X100: the dirt on the dirt

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Updated: May 24, 2011 (moved the close-range AF discussion to the end to accommodate some illustrations).

One does not need to comment on the X100’s picture-taking ability. If you want to see performance evaluations, some good, some half-baked, some systematic, some useless, and some by people who saw a spec sheet and freaked out (note that the last two are separate categories…) you can go to the usual sites. There, you can also see, variously, sample pictures of liquor bottles, small-town riff-raff, anodyne Scandinavian scenes, flowers, and felines. On this last point, with all of the other strange auto modes showing up on cameras, why no “cat” mode?!

I would shortcut the performance issue by looking at Dx0Mark, concluding that the camera is fine for most purposes, and move on. Your application may be different and more demanding, covering things we humans can’t even believe. Perhaps taking pictures of attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion. Or capturing sea beams glittering at the Tannhauser Gate. You should probably wait for the perfect camera and herniate, while your photographic prospects are lost in time, like tears in rain.

But what might merit some discussion is correcting (or supplementing) some misinformation about what the X100 is like in person in terms of how it handles. I was able to pick this much up from a couple days. It is not certain whether any of the information or opinion below will impel you to buy an X100 (or not), but there are many things that just don’t appear to be the way people describe them. So here, labeled in a Snopes-style fashion, we have what we hear versus what we see.

1. “The X100 is as big as a Leica M [Hexar AF, etc.].” False. In overall volume, it’s only about 2/3 the size and less than 80% of the weight. In terms of feel, it seems a lot smaller and lighter than it is. It’s still about triple the volume of a GR Digital I/II/III, though. It’s a little bit bigger than a late-model Canonet 28.

2. “The X100’s build quality is fantastic.” Unclear. Expectations regarding build quality must have slipped a lot. The X100 is made of metal, but it has a very lightweight feel in the hand that is suggestive of a Bessa R or a compact SLR of the 1980s. Magnesium does not create the same heft in the hand that the typical silicon-aluminum alloy does. The top-deck switchgear and the aperture ring are excellent quality.

Finishing of the filter trim ring is unremarkable, as is the finishing of the lens cap. These are revelations if you grew up with Sony’s plastic accessories, but they are pretty mediocre even by the standards of third-tier SLRs of the 1970s. All of that said, this feels a bit more solid than the Olympuses and a little less solid than an NEX-5.

By the way, this camera comes with the flimsiest triangular strap rings ever. You don’t need the included spreader to get them on – just your fingernail. By the way, other than some bizarre nostalgia, why not just put a modern strap loop on both sides of the camera (and two on one end, in Fuji fashion)? It seems strange to go crazy making a metal top cover only to make a strap attachment mechanism (rings) that is likely to damage it. And speaking of nostalgia, I am not sure how I feel about the Leica M2/M3 styling. This could have looked a bit cleaner and more modern, like the Hexar RF. And why does the viewfinder selector lever look so much like the self-timer lever on an Olympus 35RC?

3. “The X100’s OVF is nothing to write home about.” False. Are you kidding? It is bright, clear, undistorted, and has the most visible framelines every put into a camera. It also has the ability to project a lot of data that has never been seen in a rangefinder camera, such as depth of field against a distance scale, a digital level, and composition lines. It even has parallax and field corrections. If you use Leica Ms, the X100 ‘s optical viewfinder is like something that came back through a time warp (naked), stole a biker’s clothes, and then started punching holes in brick walls.

4. “The X100’s image-review-in-viewfinder is annoying.” Unclear. You can always turn it off, but it is impressive to be able to see – for a second or three – what you just shot, without taking your eye out of the viewfinder. You take the shot, the blind closes, you see the image, blind opens, next shot. Suum cuique… but do consider that if you set auto-review and b/w simulation, it looks just like in a movie: color image (seen through the OVF) followed by momentary b/w freeze-frame (instant EVF-in-finder review).

5. “The X100’s flash is a joke.” False. Well, it will light up a white wall to white at 15 feet away at ISO 200, so it is not exactly impotent. If you think that’s insufficient, bolt another flash onto the hot shoe. After all, you won’t need that shoe for an accessory viewfinder. Just watch the sync voltage. But bear in mind the following: (1) the hot shoe contact must be activated through a menu – and that option shuts down the internal flash; and (2 ) the locking pin is in the same position as on a Nikon or Leica flash (following the ISO standard).

6. “The X100’s charger is poorly designed.” True. Get the Digipower TC-55F compact charger for about $25. Very small; plugs in without a separate cord; runs on 220; seems to have fully charged a Delkin NP-95 (1800 mah) from new in about 3 hours. It also has a nice, clean display and has a USB port to charge your phone.

7. “You can screw in a 49mm filter upside-down, right onto the filter threads.” Unclear. This is physically possible in a pinch, but (a) it is not clear whethe alloy filter threads will bind to the accessory threads and (b) you can’t use a hood easily. A 49mm Hoya filter, for example, does not seat completely and may end up falling off. Also be aware that if you get too close and try to autofocus, the lens front will bump into the filter and prompt you to restart the camera. There is also an issue with scratching up what is normally the inside glass surface of filters (B+W MRC, for example, is not hydrophobically coated, to my knowledge, except on the front side). Get the double-female 49mm spacer ring from photofilters.com for $5. It’s ugly, it’s crudely finished (like many Sonia products), but it works perfectly (and it’s black).

8. “The X100’s menus are confusing.” Depends. An adult of moderate intelligence (I’ll be the guinea pig) can figure out where the various controls are in half an hour or less and have the camera completely set up in two. What is confusingis having different settings apply in different modes (M, A, S, P), and it is the same thing the Ricoh GR digitals have done forever (MY1, MY2, and then settings associated with the individual exposure modes). Is there only one firmware writer in Japan?

9. “The X100’s manual focus is useless.” Depends or False. It beggars belief that people think to replicate a mechanical rangefinder mechanism with an electronic one. But it is true that the manual focus “ring” is vestigial on the X100. They could make it more functional – but the question is, why?

The theory of a prism rangefinder is that you point the camera at what you want to be in focus, you use a defined focus aid to line things up in a go/no-go fashion, and you shoot. Since rangefinders have no groundglass to illustrate what is happening in the rest of the field, most rangefinder users are doing manually the exact same thing that single-point AF is. Sorry, guys, but if you’re a slave to the RF, you can be replaced by contrast-detect or phase-detect autofocus. View camera users can, of course, move on to management… if you can find that elusive 8×10 film in your favorite variety.

The X100 actually does the same thing in MF mode when you point the focusing spot at the subject you want and hit the AE/AF button. The camera focuses on the selected item and stops focusing when you let go of that button. That cuts the lag and prevents refocusing. It’s the functional equivalent of using a rangefinder, but it just requires different hand movements.

10. “The “shutter sound” is for tyros.” Depends or False. You can tell that Fuji must have acquired some people from Konica-Minolta (or Fuji management spent a lot of time watching Airwolf) because the camera has a “silent mode.” This mode cuts off the AF assist light and all sounds (on the Hexar AF, it slowed down all of the camera’s motors to half-speed). You can also dial down individual sounds. The default shutter sound is a cheezy p/s noise, but there are two others. I am a big fan of sound #2, which sounds like a louder version of the clicks and whirrs that occur in the process of focusing and taking pictures – because at least you know you’ve taken the picture (unless you have instant-review turned on, it’s not always obvious that you shot the picture). And the practical reality of camera noises is that no one really hears them unless they are listening for them.

11. It would look better in black. False. For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, black-painted (or -finished) cameras were viewed as workmanlike, plebeian, cheap – and with good reason. Chrome was a tougher, more elegant finish – and photographers rarely felt the need to sneak around.

Some people think tha having a black camera makes it more unobtrusive. Arguably, this is false; people are least freaked-out by camera phones and silver point-and-shoots. A black camera signifies professional (or spy). And you lose any element of surprise when you actually try to shoot with anything. Sometimes you never had an element of surprise. To put it in a crude and potentially politically incorrect way, a western tourist in Bangkok shooting is still a western tourist- regardless of whether the camera he holds is black or silver.

Seriously, though, there is a case to be made for chrome cameras where heat dissipation is needed. You never really think about the 140º F maximum operating temperature of your black, electronic camera until you are in Luxor in June at 11 in the morning – with no shade in sight. You will be surprised at how fast a camera can start acting strangely.

Also, the silver color is very popular with infants. Had I kept that little Hi-Matic F, I may have been able to deflect unwanted baby attention.

12. “The menus are too hard to use/inconsistent/anti-intuitive.” Depends. If my 14-month-old son can figure out how to press buttons on a stereo receiver until music comes out, you can probably make it through the menus on the X100 to take a picture. Once you settle on how you want the camera set up, many of the most commonly-accessed controls are buttons and dials. The only two things that are somewhat buried are the on/off controls for external flash and Auto ISO (whose “on” should be popping up in the menu of ISOs when you hit FN).

The menus in general could be a little “flatter,” and that is something that is true of most digital cameras. The Leica M8/M9 menu structure is simpler in that regard – but those camera have intentionally limited settings. Perhaps the easier solution is to do what Kodak used to do on its Nikon-based SLRs – and have a selectable one screen “basic” mode that shows commonly used functions and a complete hierarchy of menus for everything else.

The relationship between the “view mode” button and finder selection lever on the front requires some practice. The switch is actually electronic, not manual, so it only has a resting position and an activate position.

13. “You can’t hit the OK button on the control dial without selecting something else.” True but pointless. It is true that you need microscopic fingers to reliably press the OK button. The catch, however, is that you don’t need the OK button – all you need is the directional control. The way the Fuji menus are set up, selecting an item and pressing left (back) selects it just the same way OK would. And for the controls accessed while using the camera, you don’t need an OK. Whatever option the cursor comes to rest on automatically is selected when you release the particular buttton. The exception is in deleting files, but that should be difficult anyway.

14. “It doesn’t work with Lightroom.” False. But for some strange reason, you first see the JPG preview (film simulation) on importing the files. But when you click on the Lightroom preview, the picture reverts to the raw file. Frustrating, to be sure.

15. “The X100’s OVF has inaccurate AF at close range.” False. Actually, it is fine down to the minimum focus possible in OVF mode, which is not particularly close (in the film era, compact film cameras’ closest AF focus was always about two feet). There are three things at work here. First, what people don’t seem to grasp is that it is an AF zone – so if everything in the zone is at the same distance from the camera (or you get closer to fill up more of the zone), it all works out fine. If you don’t fill up the zone, the camera does not know the focusing intent. This is true of every AF camera ever made, whether a DSLR using TTL phase-detection or a viewfinder-type using external active or passive AF.

Second, there is also parallax error for which to account. You might be totally ignorant of how AF works with viewfinder cameras, but you need to recognize that focusing misses are largely a lack of practice on your part, not a product or design defect. Fuji did a pretty reasonable job at attacking a very tricky problem – what do you do when you are using one optical path to frame and another to focus?

  • On a camera where the focusing is external to the optical path (Leica rangefinder, infrared on a point-and-shoot, hybrid on a Fuji GA-series camera), the AF sensing target/point is simply looking to find range to an object and make sure the lens is set, arbitrarily (through a coupling or encoder), to that distance.
  • The basic system is one in which the focusing mechanism (zone, square, crosshairs) shown in the viewfinder in the same relative position, no matter what the focusing distance. So when you focus, if your framelines shift or shrink (depending on the camera) to account for parallax and field size, all you have to do is recompose – because the accuracy of focusing has zero to do with what is going on at the imaging (or film) plane.
  • Leica-style rangefinders will also move the focusing spot along with the framelines as you close in. But the idea is the same: the you are sensing a distance to which to set the lens, through a mechanical coupling – and as the RF spot shifts, you naturally and continuously adjust the focus.

But the real pain comes when you use a focusing target in the (offset) viewfinder but put the focus mechanism on the image plane. Here is an illustration of what happens:

This is the base case. At infinity (or some preselected distance – the Fuji appears to be set for about 2m), the field shown in a separate viewfinder and captured on-frame is identical

This is field shrinkage (seriously exaggerted so that you can see where the focusing zone ends up). This happens because you are getting closer to the subject than infinity or the preselected distance, effective magnification increases, and the viewfinder or framelines are showing too much. Because Fuji’s preselected distance is relatively close, you don’t see this as much as you might expect (but it’s there). Shrinkage alone doesn’t have a huge effect on focusing accuracy in the center spot, because the position relative to the frame is the same. Other focusing spots change their radial distance from the center – as well as their size.

This is parallax error. Closer than the preselected distance, the fact that the finder is above and to one side of the lens comes into play more. Framelines move to compensate.

This is parallax error plus field shrinkage. Note that the focusing spot (in the middle of the frame) is different from where it appears to be in the viewfinder. You can see how both moving the spot and changing its size could cause a little bit of a problem.

Fuji’s solution was to disable the AF at very close distances when the OVF was activated. This does not entirely solve the problem, but it is not unlike what Leica did in making the M3 stop focusing at 1 meter. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all. Think of SLR lenses. There is nothing that theorectically stops you from infinitely extending a lens barrel to get closer focus – but size, weight, and piled-up optical aberrations get in the way.

Finally, as you may have gathered from some of the discussion above, all cameras have mismatches between the focus indicators and the actual focusing sensing. DSLRs are a great case in point – those brackets in the VF can be off a very close distances. Other mismatches occur because focusing mechanisms assume that the lens throws a perfectly flat plane of focus. Most lenses do not.

The bottom line – as it always has been, with every camera, is this: if you find yourself shooting pictures with subjects smaller than the focusing zone or inside of a meter, you might want to switch to the EVF so that you get a true TTL representation of the picture. And as you approach a meter, you should always make sure that the focused subject more than fills the selected focusing zone. Fuji could have gone the extra mile by having the framelines shrink and grow in real time with the camera in AF-C mode (where it continuously focuses, even without the shutter pressed) – and that may be something for firmware.

* * * * *

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that seem a little off in other accounts of the X100. The camera looks fairly functional so far, and it is a nice piece of design and engineering work by Fujifilm. We’ll see how it goes and report back in a couple of months.

Fuji GA645 family of autofocus 6×4.5 cameras

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Introduction. I found this camera impossible to take seriously when it came out. What a toy. Who would buy that piece of plastic? Then I rented one for a trip to California. Then I bought the camera, right from rental. And so it began. I took it to Germany and Austria and the Czech Republic and Hungary and Italy and Spain and Portugal and Italy again and New Orleans and England and the Netherlands and Belgium and Chicago and Mexico.  Then again to Italy, then Thailand, Turkey, and so on.  You can see the pictures on this site. The shot counter reads about a zillion. And it’s still cranking away lovely pictures.

Concept. At least on paper, this camera is a follow-on to the Fuji GS645 6×4.5 folding camera and the GS645S model with the crash bars. What Fuji added was dual active/passive autofocus (with focus lock and manual zone focus), programmed and aperture-prority autoexposure (retaining manual mode, of course), exposure compensation, autoloading (a la Rollei Automat), automatic 120/220 changeover (push the pressure plate to the correct setting and the camera does the rest), and data imprinting (shutter speed/aperture/shooting mode or date/time) – outside the frame! On top of that, you get a popup fill flash.

This camera comes in five variations, four of which are essentially similar.

  • GA645 has a 60mm f/4 lens;
  • GA645 (v.2) increases the number of shots on 120 film to 16 (from 15) and the number on 220 to 32 (from 30), adds a little protective ridge around the AF button to prevent accidental pressing, and quiets down the focusing;
  • GA645W is the same as above but has a 45mm f/4 Biogon-style lens, a 0.4x finder, and a rectangular bayonet hood;
  • GA645i is similar to the GA645, except that it also has a second shutter release and barcode reader for Fuji medium-format films (it automatically sets the film speed);
  • GA645Wi has the improvements of the GA645i but the basic specs of the GA645W; and
  • GA645Zi has a 55-90mm zoom lens.  See more extensive description below.

Regular or wide?  Your immediate impulse might be to question why you would use the GA645W (or Wi), since it is the difference between a 37mm lens equivalent and a 28mm.  That’s actually quite a bit of difference.  Having now had a chance to use the wideangle (45mm model), my basic comment is that the finder has a very slightly lower magnification, the depth of field is much greater, the ability to capture tall objects (when the camera is held normally) is greatly enhanced, and the lens barrel is very slightly longer when retracted.  The one lingering question is how to assure that the camera is level – fairly critical when you have a lens as wide as a 28mm on a 24x36mm camera.  One definite caution is that the 60mm lens seems to represent the minimum for closeups of people.

Finder. The GA645 finder is about a 0.5x magnification, with parallax-corrected projected framelines. There is a central crosshair that signals the focusing sensitivity. At the bottom of the display is an LED readout showing the aperture, shutter speed, distance and if in manual mode, up-and-down arrows. There is also a lightning-bolt indicator for flash. In terms of the big picture, the finder has the usual Fuji blue-cast. But that matters very little, because you don’t use the finder to focus. I can say that the finder is much easier on your eyes than the new Fuji GA645zi zoom finders are. Like other modern Fujis, the eyepiece takes Nikon F3 (non-HP), FA/FE2/FM2 diopters, etc.

Lens/Shutter. The lens on the GA645 and GA645i is a Super-EBC Fujinon 6-element 5-group multicoated planar-type lens. The field of view for the 60mm lens is like that of a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera. The 45mm lens version (GA645w and GA645wi) has a field of view similar to that of a 24mm lens on a 35mm camera (angles of view are not entirely comparable because the 6×4.5 frame is closer to 4:5 than it is to the 2:3 of a typical 35mm frame.

All I need to say about the 60mm lens is that it is deadly sharp, and that wide-open, it is still pleasant. 

The lens delivers enough resolution to sustain a 4000dpi scan and then a perspective correction in Photoshop (see the picture at top).

The shutter is an electronic (stepper-motor-driven) #00 that has manual settings up to 1/500 sec (1/700 sec if you are shooting at f/11 or f/16. 

Exposure system. The camera meters scenes through the viewfinder. In my experience, the metering system is typically about 1/3 to 1/2 stop under on bright daylit scenes, which is well within the tolerances of any film you would use in a 6×4.5 camera (slide film especially needs normal-to-under exposure). On a shot-to-shot basis, the system is so accurate that the density changes between negatives in wildly varying light conditions (inside cathedrals, outdoors, sunny and overcast) are within 1/10 of a stop. So you can trust the meter…

Focus. So the question you’ve been dying to ask is how does it autofocus? In a word, well. I remember reading somewhere (I don’t think it was in the manual, which I at any rate lost) that the GA645 uses a 900-step autofocusing system. This is more than enough to cover the entire focusing range of 0.6m (2.3 feet) to infinity. You can have the camera focus, and then lock (for single, you just hold in the shutter release partway; for multiple shots, you hold the MF button under the lens).

Manual focus is a little bit different. Since there is no focusing aid, the way you handle this is to tap the AF button on the top, hold the MF button on the bottom, and to turn the control wheel. This cycles through various fixed distances (for example, in feet: 2.3-2.5-3.0-3.5-4-5-6-7-8-10-15-30-INF). The best thing to do is to Xerox the back page of the manual with the DOF scales. This is a mode I use a lot. It would have been nice to have a depth-of-field scale on the camera, but after 150 rolls with this camera, I don’t really need it anymore.

You can set the camera to beep after each exposure and three times at the 14th (or 28th) frame on a roll, but it is annoying and you should turn it off (how to do that is in the manual).

Flash. Did I mention that the camera has a built-in flash? You can use the built-in automatic flash for all exposure modes. In Program, the flash operates in automatic (although it sets an excruciatingly-low shutter speed of 1/30 sec – and why do they call it “Flashmatic?” That terms refers to something else entirely). Ditto for aperture-priority mode. I don’t know what it is doing in manual, but I believe that that mode causes the flash to operate in automatic as well. GN is wimpy, so if your subject is more than 10 feet away, forget it. I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t ever use the flash (maybe 8 shots in 150+ rolls of film so far).

You can mount a shoe-mount flash on the hot shoe (or you can mount a Nikon AS-15 hot-shoe-to-PC adapter and use an off-camera flash like a Metz. The camera did not self-destruct with my old Vivitar 283 flash, but I would not recommend using high-sync-voltage flashes. Make sure your flash has 28mm coverage (remember, 6×4.5 is a vertical format with this camera).

Transport. The film transport is a little loud, as is the AF. But it’s not enough to cause anyone to notice the camera. The camera has a sensor that picks up the start of the film so that once you get the film threaded on the takeup spool, you snap the camera shut and it goes to town. The camera gives you 15 shots on 120 and 30 on 220 (why it shorts you that extra frame is beyond me). The film-tensioning system works well, and none of my negatives exhibit light leaks. Spools eject by little red buttons underneath each spool (definitely a step up from older Fuji and Zeiss folders).

Ergonomics. This is where you learn to love or hate it. The GA645’s feminine curves feels great in your hand, and the shutter button falls right under your index finder (much as it does with an F4s or an F3 with MD-4. The bummer is that the mode selector is right next to the eyepiece. But if that’s the worst of your problems… the control wheel falls naturally under your right thumb.

Size/weight. There is no denying that a GA645 is bigger than a Super Ikonta A. But it is a lot smaller than 645 SLRs. The lens retracts into the body, so that you can fit the camera into a good-sized coat pocket or a thin briefcase with no problem whatsoever. The overall size is about the same as an F100 with the new pancake 45mm Nikkor. Of course, your negatives will come out better.

What about the GA645zi?  Surprisingly, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison with the other GA series cameras.  I took one of these to Africa (South Africa and Namibia) in 2006.  It performed flawlessly.  Here are the differences from the “regular” GA line:

  • 55-90mm zoom lens (35mm-55mm) f/4.5-6.9.   The zoom is useful for landscapes – since you can’t get appreciably closer to infinity by walking toward it.  55mm is only very slightly wider than the 60mm on the GA645.  90mm (for which you sacrifice significant lens speed) is like a 50mm on a 35mm camera.  Lens is not noticeably different in sharpment from original GA lenses (all in all, lens is net positive over the GAs, although variable and slow maximum aperture pushes this camera more into the daylight/flash range);
  • Zoom viewfinder with LCD framelines, LCD distance scale, LCD shutter speed and aperture readouts, fixed eyepiece, built-in diopter correction (net slight negative; this is the user interface, and the visibility is not as good as the LEDs in the original);
  • Relocated mode dial on top deck (net positive if you haven’t used another variety of GA645).
  • Backlit LCD status indicator (frame number, ISO, exposure comp, etc.) is now on the back door (backlighting is a positibe, display placement is a subjective factor, but net negative to have such a critical display located on a moving part via ribbon connector).
  • Lens cap detection warning – viewfinder info flashes.  (net positive if you use lens caps instead of UV filters);
  • Improved flash operation with slow synch/no slow synch modes, external PC connection.  Flash is moved to upper right corner of camera (from front) (net positive);
  • Metal bottom plate – more attractive, more easily damaged (net neutral);
  • Improved weather sealing (net positive);
  • Back to one shutter release button, down on the front grip (net neutral);
  • Ability to change between 120 and 220 pressure plate settings while the film is loaded(!) (net positive, though 220 film is getting close to extinct).
  • Data imprinting expanded to show focal length and AF mode (net negative – why does anyone need to know the exposure mode except the photographer?); and
  • Your choice of black or champagne color (on the latter, 1987 called and wants its color scheme back).

Ultimately, I did not bond with the GA645zi because I had been using the older GAs for years and sheer muscle memory made it very difficult to adapt to the changed control layout.  That said, it is a much more refined camera – the Leica of Fuji 645s.

Bottom-Line. This is a painless way to shoot medium-format and for $450-600 used (60mm version) you can’t go wrong. Fuji just discontinued this whole series, so buy it before someone figures out how good it is and makes it a cult item.