Sibling rivalry: Fujica GS645 & GS645S street photography shootout – by Michael Duke
The Fujica GS645 Professional and its sibling GS645S Professional are very much alike, but different enough that the cameras beg for comparison….which interestingly enough, is what this article is all about.
Both models make 6×4.5-sized images on 120 or 220 film, both were released in the mid-1980s, both share the same black plastic body, exposure-control layout and quirky default portrait-orientation viewfinder – the latter being the result of the film travelling horizontally across the shutter plane.
The cameras were released some 18 months apart and although similar in form and function, they are different enough that I ended up with one of each.
While both cameras also sport the same Copal #00 leaf shutter and a similar rangefinder mechanism, the original GS645 features a “normal” 75mm f/3.4 lens that utilizes a bellows for focusing and allows the lens to fold up inside the camera, whereas the GS645S is outfitted with a rigid, wide-angle 60mm f/4 lens that’s protected by a circular “cow bar” (top left above)
Both cameras have superb optics, even by 2018 standards. The images they’re capable of creating are full of contrast and corner-to-corner sharp across their respective aperture ranges. Both lenses also boast enough character that they can produce stylistic-looking photographs, as well, if that’s your intent.
Here’s what I cover in this article:
Table of contents
- 1 Introductions: the Fuji GS645 and GS645S
- 2 My experience with these cameras
- 3 Handling the GS645
- 4 Why use a camera with “less-than-optimal” exposure controls?
- 5 Going wide with the GS645S
- 6 Comparing the GS645 and GS645S
- 7 A few final thoughts
- 8 Specifications: Fuji GS645 & GS645S
Introductions: the Fuji GS645 and GS645S
Both cameras bodies are made of 1980s plastic typical of the era, but their innards are metal. The GS645 and GS645S advertise themselves as “Professional” cameras and their build quality does seem solid enough, with a few exceptions.
Fujifilm is said to have designed its GS series with the travel industry and documentary photographer in mind.
The cameras are fully mechanical, meaning no batteries are required to make exposures. To run the light meter, however, you’ll need a pair of easy-to-find 1.5v LR44 (or equivalent silver oxide SR44) batteries. The checkered handgrip pattern on both cameras reminds me of the texture on the velour seats in my family’s old Volvo 240 from the same time period. The cameras are pretty boxy, too.
Both models yield 15 frames per roll of 120 film. If you can find 220 film today, the GS series can shoot that too, doubling output to 30 frames. Because the GS645 and GS645S are relatively lightweight and compact in size for medium-format shooters, they’re both well suited for street photography.
My experience with these cameras
Before I start comparing results from these cameras, I need to make the following distinction. There are two basic types of photographers: those who want a camera that gets out of the way; and those who want a camera to be part of the experience.
I belong to the latter camp. I want a film camera to be the experience. That desire is what led me to the Fujica GS645 and GS645S.
Despite being close in age to these cameras, I learned film photography more than 30 years after they hit the market. Today, they might be considered obsolete by mainstream digital photography standards, but to my eye, that’s what makes them so attractive to shoot in 2018, particularly the original GS645.
What could be more obsolete than glueing some folded paper to a bit of glass and calling that job done? Yet, it was the GS645’s bellows that drew me to this retro-inspired camera in the first place.
I love old stuff. And the GS645’s design was old when it was brand new, having taken its design cues from cameras that were popular during the prewar era. To be honest, the Fujica GS645 had me at bellows. In fact, I’d probably still play with the camera even if its image quality were junk. But thankfully, its image quality more than lives up to its “Professional” claims.
After deciding I needed to have GS645, I indulged in a lot of camera porn until my wife had enough and surprised me with a GS645 for my 40th birthday. For the next several weeks, I shot the heck out of that camera. So much so that I somehow snapped the pulley cable that cocks the camera’s shutter. The cost of repair was more than what we paid for the used thing, but thankfully we were able to get a refund.
A few months later, I was able to find a replacement GS645 which, apart from developing several pinholes and tears in its bellows – a common problem that I managed to fix myself with a $5 tube of black silicone from an auto-parts shop – has otherwise been trouble-free, though it’s admittedly uglier now, due to my budget repair.
Function over fashion, right?
While I initially fancied this model because of its retro look, the truth is, I’ve fallen in love with it because of its optics and the results they produce. Before my introduction to the GS645, I lamented the fact that I was pretty rotten at making landscape street photos. Ironically, it’s been a camera with a default portrait-orientation viewfinder that has given me some much-needed practice in the genre.
Handling the GS645
As good as the camera is, the GS645 has some issues.
The bellows, though sexy, are inherently fragile. They’re just origami after all. Ideally, you’d keep the lens collapsed for protection, but that doesn’t really work for street photography, which requires quick reactions. So, to avoid knocking into the bellows when the camera is open and ready to fire, it’s a good idea to keep your left hand gripped around the lens barrel.
As I found out, the shutter pulley cable is prone to snapping. While the camera’s superb Fujinon 75mm lens is, well, superb, its focus must be set to infinity, and the shutter must be cocked, in order to collapse the lens inside the camera. Failing to do causes catastrophic damage.
Fortunately, though, there’s a warning label for English-readers on the back of the camera that reminds you how to safely perform the operation.
Exposure on the GS645 is set manually – there are no fancy electronic priority shooting modes. Shutter speed and aperture are adjusted via a set of narrow rings that are integrated into the lens barrel and are spaced only a few millimetres away from the focus ring. If you have good muscle memory, the learning curve isn’t too steep, but it certainly takes some practice. The viewfinder lacks exposure-setting data, so any time you have to make changes, you must lower the camera from your eye.
The shutter can fire as fast as 1/500th of a second and as slow as 1 second. There’s also a timer setting. The film advance lever re-cocks the shutter. The lens is engraved with a DoF scale for those who like to zone focus, but keep your expectations low for apertures wider than f/8. The focus tab is easy enough to find, compared to the tiny helper nobs on the shutter and aperture rings, which are pretty subtle.
Why use a camera with “less-than-optimal” exposure controls?
Life is supposed to be a challenge, right? Why should film photography in the 21st century be any different? The fun is in the challenge. If you disagree, then perhaps you ought to shoot digital.
Warts aside, the GS645 really is a fun camera to shoot. Its Copal #00 leaf shutter should be quiet, in principle, but in practice, the spring-slapping-plastic action of the mechanism produces an amusing thwap!
The viewfinder is big, bright and uncluttered. Parallax correction is built in and its brightlines help keep horizons level while framing. The rangefinder patch is small but still usable.
It takes two hands to load a new roll of film, but the procedure is pretty straightforward:
- Unlatch the film door.
- Press the two red buttons at the bottom of the film transport to release the film spool nobs.
- Move the take-up spool to the right position and lock it into place by pressing the corresponding spool-nob button on the camera’s base plate
- Do the same with the new roll of film on the left side.
- Pull the paper lead across the shutter plane, feeding its tab into the empty spool’s slot.
- Advance the film lever a few times until the film’s start arrow lines up with the camera’s arrow, located at the top-center of the film transport groove.
- Close the back, keep winding until the film counter is set to Frame 1, and it’s ready to go.
If you have 220 film, simply side the pressure plate on the inside of the film door from 120 to 220, and move the film-counter switch, located to the right of the viewfinder, to the same setting.
The film-advance action on my GS645 has become creaky over time, but that’s my fault for shooting the camera so often in wet, sticky conditions. That being said, the GS645 never fails to make negatives with frames that are perfectly evenly spaced apart. Though the camera has no weather sealing that I’m aware of, its build quality is such that even after getting splashed about in the rain, it dries out fine in front of a fan and is ready to go again the next day.
The camera’s photocell light meter is surprisingly dependable, too, apart from scenes with strong backlighting. Its ISO range is modest, 25 to 1600, but adequate, and offers 1/3-stop increments. Half-depressing the shutter button activates the meter. A red LED light appears in the viewfinder window, offering advice by illuminating either a “+”, “-“ or “o” in the middle for the correct exposure.
Having the ability to add a soft-shutter release to the camera’s threaded shutter button (as I have above) helps to avoid accidentally tripping the shutter while metering. The shutter release also has a lock switch.
The GS645’s strap lugs are positioned on the right side of the camera body, which is ideal for my preference of winding the strap around my wrist, rather than around my neck while shooting. The placement of the lugs also helps prevent the strap from getting snagged on the lens and damaging those beautiful bellows.
Going wide with the GS645S
As much as I enjoy the GS645, I prefer a wide-angle lens for street photography and street portraiture. Thankfully, the GS645S offers just that, plus some additional refinements.
Rather than bellows, the GS645S sports a rigid lens. It, too, must have been fragile because Fuji’s engineers decided they needed to protect the lens barrel with a cow bar – so named for the bumper guards that ranchers affix to their pick-up trucks. Because the S-model’s lens no longer collapses, you’re able to keep filters and/or a hood attached at all times, if you like.
Optically, the GS645S’ 60mm lens performs just as well as the original model’s 75mm lens. The S model’s lens is equivalent to a 35mm focal length in 135 film terms and the Orthometar design of the 60mm helps reduce distortion and softness in the corners. Because of its wider-angle glass, the S-model features a viewfinder with 0.5x magnification, compared to 0.63x in the original GS645.
The GS645S’ exposure controls are much improved over the GS645. The shutter speed and aperture rings are in the same position as before, but they’ve been fitted with larger tabs, which are much easier – and faster – to find and adjust. Whereas the original GS645 has a stepless aperture ring, the GS645S’ aperture ring offers full-stop clicks. Both cameras have f-stop numbers engraved on the lens barrel and stop down to f/22. The little ISO dial that’s also built into the lens barrel is easier to adjust on the S-model, thanks to a redesigned tab.
In short, these minor tweaks add up to a big difference in terms of speed of use out in the streets.
Despite the usability speed boost, however, my particular GS645S suffers from a slow rangefinder, which apparently is a common ailment with this model. From infinity to about 3 meters, the focus is snappy, but with anything closer, there’s a 2-second delay until the rangefinder catches up.
Looking online, the slow rangefinder problem can be an easy fix, if you’re brave enough to remove the top plate and hit the arm that interlocks the rangefinder/focus ring with a drop of lighter fluid in order to free up the movement. I hope to find the courage soon to attempt the repair myself. In the meantime, I’m learning to be patient while also practising my zone-focusing skills.
Incidentally, Fuji also released a GS645W model, outfitted with an even wider 45mm f/5.6 lens, but the camera lacks a coupled rangefinder. I have come to appreciate zone focusing through the GS-series cameras, but not enough to acquire the W-model…yet.
Comparing the GS645 and GS645S
When EM expressed interest in having a review on both the GS645 and GS645S, he suggested that I try to shoot them side-by-side for comparison. It sounded like a fun challenge, so that’s what I did.
Normally, I’m a one-camera-per-outing-type of photographer. My brain gets easily confused when there are too many choices. Nevertheless, I schlepped both the GS645 and GS645S together for a couple of street sessions. For this review, I hit a 1-mile stretch of Downtown Houston, a bus exchange near my home and an urban neighborhood cemetery in search of sample shots.
As is typical during Houston summers, the sun was harsh and the rains swept through as I worked. During the process, I learned that you can operate either the GS645 or GS645S one-handed, if necessary, which then frees up your other hand to hold an umbrella.
Whenever possible, I tried to grab a couple of frames with one camera, then switched to the other, photographing a similar scene, from a similar position, with similar settings. This worked okay when scenes were static, but proved to be more challenging when things were fluid, as they often are in street photography.
In a couple of instances, I photographed a scene with one camera, then returned another day and photographed the scene with the other camera.
To eliminate as many variables as possible, I used the same film – Kodak Tri-X 400 – in both cameras, exposed every roll at box speed and processed all the film myself at home with Ilford Ilfotec DD-X (1:4) developer. I then scanned my negatives with an Epson V600.
The following three sections break out as follows:
- Photos taken with the GS645 Professional
- Photos taken with the GS645S Professional
- Comparative photos taken with both the GS645 Professional and GS645S Professional
I’ll leave it up to readers of this review to judge which camera helps make better photographs. From a pure user’s perspective, I’m torn.
As with the images above, you can click on any thumbnail to have it expand to full screen.
Photos taken with the GS645 Professional
Photos taken with the GS645S Professional
Comparing photos taken with both the GS645 Professional and GS645S Professional
10 scenes, all shot with both cameras follow. The first images in each gallery were taken using the GS645, followed by a comparative image taken on the GS645S, followed by a side-by-side comparison of both.
A few final thoughts
I prefer the S-model’s shorter focal length and friendlier controls, but I can’t help but love the original model’s design. Ah, those bellows. I also prefer the slightly faster lens on the original GS645.
When these cameras were new, they retailed for about $400 in the US. More than 30 years later, you could easily spend upwards of $500 for a used GS645 or GS645S in solid condition.
After shooting these two cameras side-by-side, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fuji should have made one more version of this camera, taking the best features from the previous iterations. This proposed model would revive the use of bellows, but would utilize the S-model’s 60mm lens and exposure controls. It’d also have a top shutter speed 1/1000th of a second and an expanded ISO range. This would be the ultimate Fujica GS645-series camera for street photography, in my opinion.
In the absence of such a camera, however, we’re left with the GS645 and GS645S. I’m hesitant to recommend either of these two models to other photographers, but that’s purely out of selfish reasons.
You see, there are only so many working GS645-series cameras available today and I’d like to snatch them all up for myself. Both cameras offer the experience and are capable of producing the photographs, that I want out of a film camera for street photography and street portraiture.
Once you’ve shot 120 film, it’s hard to go back to 135. After using the GS645 and GS645S, I’ve found it difficult to enjoy making photographs with any other film camera within reach.
Specifications: Fuji GS645 & GS645S
|Manufacturer||Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd (Japan)||Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd (Japan)|
|Camera name||Fujica GS645 Professional||Fujica GS645S Professional|
|Camera type||6x4.5 format folding rangefinder camera||6x4.5 format rangefinder camera|
|Manufacture dates||March 1983||October 1984|
|Viewfinder||92% coverage at 1m|
90% coverage at infinity
3x LED exposure indicator
|91% coverage at 1m
90% coverage at infinity
3x LED exposure indicator
|Rangefinder||39.5mm baseline (24.9mm effective)||40mm baseline (20mm effective baseline)|
|Shutter||Copal #00 shutter|
T, 1-1/500 sec + timer
|Copal #00 shutter
T, 1-1/500 sec + timer
|Lens||EBC Fujion S 75mm f/3.4 lens (5 elements in 4 groups) - 1m closest focus||EBC Fujion W 60mm f/4 Orthometar-type lens (7 elements in 5 groups) - 1m closest focus|
GS-grip (flash accessory)
|Metering||EV 3.5 - 18|
ASA 25 - 1600
|EV 4 - 18
ASA 25 - 1600
|Power||2x LR44 / SR44 (1.5v)||2x LR44 / SR44 (1.5v)|
|Weight||820g (without batteries)||766g (without batteries)|
147mm x 114mm x 56mm (WxHxD)
147mm x 114mm x 122mm (WxHxD)
|147mm x 114mm x 90mm (WxHxD)|
Write for EMULSIVE
The driving force behind EMULSIVE is knowledge transfer, specifically creating more of it in the film photography community. You can help by contributing your thoughts, work and ideas to inspire others reading these pages.
Take action and help drive an open, collaborative community: all you need do is read this and then drop me a line.
Lend your support
Like what you see here? You can support EMULSIVE by helping to contribute to the community voice on this website (see above), or by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and considering financial support from as little as $2 a month.
As if that’s not enough, there’s also an EMULSIVE print and apparel store over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique prints of photographs made by yours truly
In short, I want to continue building this platform and I’d love your help to make that happen.