One of my favorite, but also one of the most frustrating, film cameras I ever owned was the Fuji GS645s, a mostly plastic 645 with a fixed 60mm ƒ/4 lens. The 645 format was nominally 60x45mm on 120 and 220 medium-format film—the actual image size of 645 was somewhat smaller, usually around 56mm in the longer dimension for most manufacturers. The lens focal length of 60mm was moderately wide-angle on the format. When I was testing one for a magazine, I dropped it and it shattered, which of course (being me) I duly recounted in the magazine even though it made me look like a dolt. Hey, as David Vestal said, we're in the disclosure business*. Gotta be honest, even when it makes you look bad.
My GS645s was frustrating because when it was good, it was very, very good. But the lens was super-slow. Its widest aperture was ƒ/4, and it was so poor wide open that the first good aperture was ƒ/5.6. Of course you could put it on a tripod—I often did—but this fought against the gestalt of the camera, which was configured as if it were designed to be portable and hand-held.
The film manufacturer had a long history of making medium-format cameras as a sort of "hobby business" alongside its real business, making film. Now Fuji has moved into diversified businesses, which again dwarf the business significance of its cameras. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Fuji has said it's looking into a medium-format digital camera, and there are two ways to look at that. First, that it might be a pretty foolish and foolhardy thing to do—market demand for digital cameras with sensors larger than 24x36mm (135 or "full frame") drops off like the face of El Capitan. On the other hand, it would make perfect sense as a sensible complement to Fuji's existing APS-C-sized X system. Full-frame is too close to APS-C to make enough of a difference; with a medium-format system, Fujifilm could offer a real alternative, one with significant differentiation. After all, Leica's S system has probably been as popular as it can possibly be given its price.
And that's another plus for Fuji, as it was for the Pentax digital 645—it's not hard to undercut the main competition on price.
The idea of the two-part strategy, with a larger format that's better than "full-frame," reminds me of an open letter I wrote as Editor of Photo Techniques to Kodak and the other members of the Advanced Photo System (APS) consortium when APS came out in 1996. I made a closely-reasoned argument that enthusiasts were not going to get behind the new format (as indeed they did not) unless the APS consortium (mainly Kodak, which was the tail that wagged that dog) were to throw them a bone. I also argued that APS would not succeed in taking over the market for consumer snapshooting unless Kodak made a concerted effort to kill 35mm. (That was radical talk back then.) That problem was simply that APS had been comprehensively optimized, but mainly for the convenience of the manufacturers. From the consumer's perspective, there was nothing wrong with 135 cassettes and one-hour photo developing with double 3R prints. As a system, APS offered film manufacturers and processors plenty of benefits, but the benefits for the consumer were harder to detect. And people don't buy things unless there's something in it for them.
My idea was that the only way to kill 35mm—and, at the same time, provide that "bone" to serious photographers—would be something that had been sorely needed for a long time—a thorough rethink of the existing medium-format film format. We were all used to 120, but it had originally been designed for studio use and gave deep meaning to the term "fussy." I proposed a cassette-loaded, non-paper-backed filmstrip 40mm wide with sprocket holes on only one edge for counting and positioning purposes (much as APS had—for still photography there was never any need for all those sprocket holes on both sides of the film. That, in turn, was a legacy of 35mm's origins as movie film). I suggested calling it "APS Pro." Finally, instead of the ancient and decidedly non-optimal 120 arrangement, with film and paper wound together around an open spool, photographers would have a sensible, through-designed, better-than-35mm alternative. By moving enthusiasts and pros to an APS Pro, they could have both provided APS with status and cachet, and also cut off an important part of the support for 35mm. (35mm had been tenacious up till that point, having survived several assaults meant to "improve" on it.) With a "pincer movement" reminiscent of Civil War battles, attacking it from both sides, mighty 35mm could be defeated and APS would triumph.
I still think I was right, but, of course, only in the context of the ecology of film. Those two formats, operating in tandem, could have helped kill 35mm, which in turn would have driven consumers into the waiting arms of APS. If film had continued to be the medium for photography. That turned out to be a pretty big "if." Paradigm change was on the horizon in 1996. Digital was coming. As it ended up evolving (nobody really knew how it would, in 1996), it would have made film melt away—APS along with it—regardless of how sensible the formats and the marketing for them had been. APS was doomed even if it had been managed more carefully. Its only lasting legacy is the name we use for certain reduced-size digital chips.
There's medium format and then there's medium format
As to whether Fujifilm should offer a medium-format digital system to complement the APS-C-sized X system...wow, I have no idea. It partly depends how you read the relative success of the Pentax medium-format cameras, the digital 645's. Or does it? I really have no idea, either what the 645Z means or what it would portend for another Leica S competitor. As I said yesterday, I don't think that's the way things will eventually go. I think FF is an evolutionary tributary that will eventually dead-end as smaller sensors get better and better.
A late-model "Texas Leica" Fuji 6x9 fixed-lens film
camera, currently for sale on eBay
I would suggest, though, a new version of the famous "Texas Leica," with a fixed lens, a kind of X-Pro2 on steroids. Then, if the first one is successful, Fujifilm could market variants with different lenses. That would be more likely to succeed in the market, I think, than a super-serious (and super expensive to develop) "system." I don't know—would you buy an X-Pro2 with a 30x45mm or 40x60mm sensor and a fixed lens**? I might not, but I'll bet it would make me salivate and give me GAS.
So should Fujifilm produce a medium-format digital camera? I guess the big advantage Fuji has is that cameras are still a small part of its business, and hardly crucial to its overall bottom line. Maybe, with minimal danger to its overall financial health, Fujifilm has the resources to test the waters, and find out. I guess we'll see.
*When asked why he refused to sign non-disclosure agreements, David said, "I'm in the disclosure business." I have to think he made an exception, though, when Ilford responded to his suggestion for making a fiber-base variable-contrast printing paper (previously, variable-contrast papers had been resin-coated (RC). David was consulted on the development of Multigrade FB, and was featured in early ads for the paper.
**Better yet, make the sensor square. We know how to crop.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mark Roberts: "Your plan for killing 35mm film is almost exactly what Kodak did to kill 8mm movie film when they invented Super-8 movie film: Keep the width the same, put sprocket holes down only one edge, make the exposed area larger, put it all in a convenient cartridge. It worked with Super-8. It might have worked to kill off 35mm if it had been done about 20 years before APS was invented."
Mike replies: Just so. It was a good system. As my father says, "timing is everything."
Michael Perini: "Let us not forget that Fuji has expertise in every configuration of medium format, has made superb Large format and medium format lenses, and I believe still produce all the AF Hasselblad H lenses.
"Add to that, the size and resources of the company which would make a low volume 'statement camera' a possibility, and it seems possible. While Fjii has tons of experience with fixed lens cameras in different configurations, I'm not so sure that works for digital. Film bodies were boxes, making different shapes was easy and relatively cheap.
"If the (expensive) sensor is going to be of the non-removeable variety, I would think interchangeable lenses would give it broader appeal. They do already make superb MF zooms, but they are very slow.
"Although a digital 6x17 might be fun, or a (slightly) more realistic digital X-Pan (not sure if Fuji made that or not).
"I hope they go for it, because as Leica has Already showed, you can get superb quality from a 'cropped' medium-format size."
Tom Duffy: "Given the probable costs of a medium format digital camera, I think it best that Fuji offer an interchangeable lens camera. I would think you would too, given your recent post about a good lens being forever tied to an obsolete digital sensor as technological progress continues to be made.
"Secondly, I would hope Fuji would us a 2:3 format ratio, as with 35mm instead of square. I think it's natural to compose for the format you're shooting. I agree with a statement I once read, 'If you shoot square, you'll compose square.'"
CF Salicath: "I worked part time in a photo store through my period in university (2009–2012), and was surprised to find quite a few benefits with APS for the average amateur 'holiday snapper.'
"For the customers, usually older ladies still clinging on to their compact camera, APS was far simpler to handle. Shifting through piles of 35mm strips, bending back to see it through the ceiling lamp, making notes of the tiny numbers? They could now match the number on the back of the print with the cassette, and hand it in for enlargements. It was easier for the store as well, finding the right frame from a set of notes. Storage was also simpler, and easier to avoid dust and crumbles. Even inserting a new film was easy, and you could see if a film was exposed by looking at the cassette.
"For the store it was a bit more fiddly, as we had to spool the film into temporary cassettes and back into the original after processing. This was done with two dedicated machines. But it was still easier than trying to get a 35mm roll out of its cassette.
"Being born in '89 I am sort of a bridge generation having grown up with film but learnt photography digitally (and then going partly analogue in later years). From my experience with the 'consumers,' APS was a great idea and would have been a success. If digital hadn't come along that is....
"P.S. While working in the store the last suppliers of APS ran out of stock (after doubling the prices of course), and I had to watch those old ladies going glum at the idea of learning how a new camera worked."
Ctein (partial comment): "Ahhh, the GS645. I loved that camera! My 'pocketable' medium format camera. Also, the only camera I ever got for free. Funny story. Fuji lent me one for extended testing. When I finally got around to saying to them, 'Hey, I'd like to buy this, how much?' they told me to just keep it. They weren't trying to bribe me. What happened was Fuji Japan hadn't told Fuji USA that this was a discontinued camera that they were dumping on the US market. They never expected it to catch on here. Fuji USA only found that out when they sold out their stock and asked Japan for more.
"By the time I got around to inquiring about the purchase price, it'd been officially pulled off their books. Consequently, Fuji USA informed me that trying to collect money for it would cause them more bookkeeping and accounting problems than the money was worth, as would returning it at such a late date, and I should just keep my mouth shut and keep the camera.
"Interestingly, the one I had was very sharp wide open, at ƒ/4. I'm thinking possibly lens variation, but more likely mechanical alignment? Those folding scissors bellows designs are notoriously hard to build and keep square—another reason for it not having a faster lens. (Which also goes to the claim of some photographers that the camera body doesn't really matter, it's all about the lenses. Sure, in a universe of ideal engineering.)
"I gave up the GS645 when the bellows developed too many pinholes to be patchable, just about the time the GA645 came along. Which, in my always objective view, was the most wonderful camera anyone ever made. Ever! I state that as a matter of fact, not opinion! [TiC]
"So, yes, bring on a digital Fuji medium format camera! (Then you can hear me whine that it's too big and too heavy and that I'm going to stick with my Olympus.)"
Mike replies: Ctein, you had the GS645, the folder with the bellows. That had a 75mm ƒ/3.4 lens. The one I had was the GS645s, the so-called "Wide 60" variant, which was a different camera—no bellows, didn't fold. It had a 60mm ƒ/4 lens. So that explains the disparity between our experience of the lenses.
Here is a page with a picture of both cameras side-by-side.
By the way the folder was the cult camera of the two—much pricier and more rare for a long time on the used market.