2012-06-13

Ken Kirkwood on the Fujifilm GX680


I recently received an email from UK-based photographer Ken Kirkwood about his experience with the Fujifilm GX680 family of cameras, of which I had previously reviewed the Mark III version. I have to say that reading his letter makes me want to get out with my camera again, so it's time to pull some film out of the freezer.

With his permission, I'm including it in its entirety here. Ken has also been kind enough to provide these sample photos.



It was with great interest that I recently read your excellent review of this fabulous camera.

As a professional here in the UK working mainly on location shooting architecture and interiors (amongst many other subjects) I have used the 680 since 1990. I started with a Mark 1 (obviously as that was the only one available then!)

In my view it was the 'perfect' camera for the work I was doing, not that there is such a thing as a 'perfect' camera.

I found that it combined many of the useful/essential features of a view camera with the mobility of a medium format kit. Obviously the word mobility is used in the context of it being quicker and easier to handle than a Sinar or a Linhof, both of which the 680 replaced. It is still a lump to carry round. My assistants used to say it was a Hasselblad built by Tonka Toys, which sums it up beautifully, I suppose!


I later added a Mark 2 then finally a Mark 3, which was an improvement on a camera which I thought could not be improved on!

To say I used it a lot is an understatement! For example just ONE of roll film backs' exposure indicated shows 150,000+ exposures on that back alone!

Whilst it is bulky to transport and carry around it didn't seem to matter too much as I was shooting mainly interiors in offices, hotels etc so on location we usually transported the camera kit plus lighting on trolleys. Outdoors it was a different story but it was still possible to move around with the Fuji so long as it was not too far! I was very interested to see your solution to carrying it on location.

If I had to move/shoot fast or over some distance I resorted to the Hasselblad kit.


We literally transported the beloved Fuji all over the world from Hong Kong, the Middle East and the Caribbean by air freight. In Europe it was just case of throwing all the equipment (in big Peli cases) plus lighting and grip kit in our van and just set off.

None of my 680s ever once let me down on any shoot anywhere. The only problems we ever had—and these were minor and easily overcome by using spares—was with the roll film backs and this was just because of amount of use to which they were subjected! They just wore out!


The image quality of the lenses was incredible—but that I suppose is subjective. I have never been a nerd that had to feel better knowing how may lines per millimetre a lens could deliver. That is chimera in any case, in my view, as any superiority any lens might in theory display eg a Zeiss Biogon is nullified when an image is reproduced in print in a brochure. That is the reason I was shooting so when the images went through the four colour reproduction process they were normally only printed using a maximum screen process of 360. So it was not possible to detect what lens was used to deliver the final image!

Because of the subjects I was shooting my most used lenses—possibly my favourites, too!—were initially the 65 and 80 mm. I could hardly wait until the fabulous 50 mm came out! I loved that lens even more.The front standard movements, rise, fall, cross and tilt made the camera unbeatable for interiors whilst with the shutters being in the lenses it meant that flash sync. was not ever a problem. Long exposures were easy and accurate, this was essential because I was using tungsten lighting or available light almost exclusively.


Because of the rail extensions and front tilt it made the 680 an ideal camera when shooting food on location as we often had to do in hotels. Sometimes we had two 680s on different tripods setting up a food shot on camera and shooting another dish on the other as it was prepared. So we could move FAST and more than often had to! Clients loved the quality and resolution of the 680 as well as the format as well as the mobility and speed of use of the camera itself. My time was their money so I always worked FAST.

My total lens kit comprises 50, 65, 80, 180, 210, 300. 500 and the HUGE zoom—what a lens that is! Both it and 500 each had be supported on a special extended plate before attaching to a tripod! I also have several 120/220 roll film backs, bellows, extension tubes, finders, etc plus batteries and chargers. Almost as soon as we arrived at a location we would plug in a charger, just in case, because we would shoot a LOT of roll-film 120 and 220 per day using Kodak EPP, or Fuji RTP, or Provia films as well as the excellent Fuji Instant film. I never shot much, if any, Velvia which I could never get on with. But we hardly ever had a flat battery even after a long day's shooting.


The ability to rotate the magazine was also a terrific bonus but perhaps the best feature of this camera was the format 6x8 cm. It is almost on the same diagonal as 35 mm, 6x4,5 and 5x7". And it is an almost perfect fit on A4 paper. A win-win situation.

At the same time as I was using the 680 I was also using the other Fuji masterpiece: the 6x17 panorama camera, with three lenses.

Sadly these days the beloved Fuji (or the FOOJ as my assistants used to call them!) is hardly used. Lack of work and the cost benefits (to clients at least) of digital medium format has rather made it unnecessarily redundant. I know it is possible to use my Sinar Eyelike digital back on a 680 body with an adapter but its' 645 format negates the benefits of the 680 format. Also, the widest angle lens the 50mm is nothing like as wide on the 645 format so all my lenses immediately would become 'longer'. How very sad. I miss it so much and it breaks my heart to see this fabulous kit unused but there is almost no second-hand market for it especially in the UK. But there is no way I could just dump it all…


I just think that this fabulous camera should be more appreciated and have—and should have had—a better press. That other photographers never accepted it or even investigated it is their loss. Years ago a pro dealer I used in London, when I asked about ordering a Fuji 680 item said 'I don't know any photographer, especially of architecture, who would ever use that camera'. I said 'How about me?' He investigated it and lo, and behold he stocked it and sold it!

I used the camera to photograph the work of some of the best known architects and interior designers in the world. It was not uncommon for us to return home at the end of a shoot overseas, in Europe or the UK with literally hundreds of rolls of film. Almost all shot without instant film/Polaroids. I knew I could rely on the 680 and it NEVER let me down. EVER.


In terms of cameras I have owned and used almost all the Big Names in medium and large format: Hass, Rollei, Mamiya, Pentax, Linhof, Sinar, but none of these ever came close to the Fuji 680. The optimum compromise. As near perfect as a camera can get, in my book. I think the man in Japan who conceived, designed and then manufactured it deserves all the credit and accolades he should have. So does Fuji Photo. But he will always be an unsung hero. How sad. What a shame, too, that they no longer manufacture it.

What also made it so great was the format: 6x8 cm which is wider than 6x7 but not so wide as 6x9 and the added 'hidden' bonus was the fact that with 9 frames per roll (or 18 on 220) it was easy to bracket three exposures per shot without having an odd image at the end of a roll of film.


I understand that it had a greater appreciation in the US and obviously could attract a much bigger customer base there. But you have already discovered just how good it is. Great news.

Sure, it takes a little getting used to to really appreciate its' qualities but that also applies to another Great Lump: the fabulous Boeing 747! They are both in the same league in my book: big, brilliant, unequaled work-horses.

I just thought you might like to share my Fuji 680 thoughts. If any have any contacts interested in purchasing a Mark 1 or Mark 2 body please put them in touch.

But again thanks for an excellent and justified review, I agree with every word you wrote—and then some!


Ken has vastly more experience with the GX680 than I ever will; while I do cherish it, mine mostly lives in its purpose-built storage unit and only comes out to play a couple of times a year. But Ken's experience rings true for me as well. If medium format film ever becomes scarce, my 680 is the camera that it will be dedicated to.

I also had to laugh when I read Ken's characterization of the Hasselblad as the system he would resort to when he'd need "to move/shoot fast or over some distance". That's exactly why I bought my 500c/m – the idea of a `blad as a small, convenient camera is something that makes perfect sense to people who use the GX680. The Fuji has a dedicated Kata 210 backpack and wooden tripod that also needs its own bag, while the Hasselblad can slip into my usual Billingham Hadley Pro and fits on a tripod that can be hand-carried. But I'd still only use the little Swedish camera when that added mobility is more important than image quality.

While many photographers are just being reintroduced to Fujifilm through its retro-styled "X-series" digital cameras, to me the GX680III will remain their greatest achievement. There may not be a 'perfect' camera, but the 680 remains undefeated.


Ken Kirkwood can be reached at

ken at kenkirkwoodphotographer dot com.
His website is kenkirkwoodphotographer.com.


last updated 13 june 2012

10 comments:

  1. Twaddler BelafonteJune 19, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    Great stuff!

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  2. I wonder which tripod head are you guys using for gx680? I have used ball head, 2d head and currently I'm using "pistol grip" from Vanguard but to be honest non of these have been fully satisfying as they loose a lot of stability. The best for me has been mounting the body directly to tripod but it's extra trouble to do so and also to frame and I feel a bit crazy doing it.

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  3. I've tried my GX680 with two different tripods. The first was a Gitzo Explorer with a Manfrotto 410 geared head, which is something that I already owned for product photography. It was almost enough, and very nice to use, but wasn't quite up to the weight.

    I use a "3D" Manfrotto 460 head for my small cameras, like DSLRs and my Hasselblad, but it would run screaming from something this heavy.

    The solution that I eventually settled on is a dedicated Berlebach 3032 tripod, which is an inexpensive way to handle the 680's weight, and it has a levelling ball built in. This is enough for basic positioning all an its own, but I've also added a screw-driven levelling base and quick-release plate.

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  4. Ken writes:

    Marek
    As you know the Fuji is a Big Heavy Lump. Therefore you will need a heavy duty tripod head to handle its' weight as well as a very sturdy tripod. The heavier the better in both cases!

    I have found the Manfrotto Geared head (part number 400 look it up on the Manfrotto web-site) to be ideal because its' movement is controlled by gears in tilt and pivot ie forward and backward and tilting left and right as well as panning. This is done by means of fold-away cranked handles which provide the ultimate in fine adjustment and control so that you can achieve exact framing. It is superb and cannot think of anything better nor have I found its' equal let alone anything superior especially for fine tweaking the camera position for composition.

    This head is not lightweight which only adds to the total bulk when you add a GX 680 on top but you will need something as tough as this to support a camera as bulky and heavy. But the heavier the better, as I have written. There are other heavy-duty tripod heads from manufactures such as Linhof and Arca-Swiss which are worth investigating, but none of these will be cheap either.

    But I suggest that you do not use a ball and socket head because the three way movements of a pan and tilt head offer you much better control of the camera in three distinct directions independently.

    New in the UK this head is currently priced at £614.95 plus tax (about $US 1150) so it is not cheap, but you might find a used one for much less money as I did. Obviously you could trawl through e-bay for one or your local Pro Camera Dealer might help. I never paid anything like that money when I bought mine, used, from a camera dealer but it is so long since I bought it I honestly cannot remember what I paid. But I felt I had got a bargain and this has proved to be the case since!

    Like the Fuji is has never let me down and it too has been all over the world so I would be lost without it.

    There are other superb Manfrotto heads I use and can recommend such as the 405 Geared Head. It is not as heavy duty or as convenient to use with a 680 as the 400 Model but is cheaper (£409 pus tax in the UK). It will handle a 680 though.

    It all depends on your budget and your weight-lifting abilities! For me attaching the 680 camera—any camera—directly on to a tripod without using a head is a non-starter.

    I hope that this is helpful
    Ken Kirkwood

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  5. Great, thank you for these suggestions!

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  6. Thanks to both of you guys for taking the time to write such detailed, in-depth reviews. I've been tossing up between the 680III and an RZ67II, and I believe I'm going to go ahead with the 680, how could I not, after reading your articles! I've had the G617 for a number of years now, and love everything about it. I plan on using the 680 primarily in a studio environment, but having travelled the world with my 617, I dare say I'll be game to go out and about with the 680 as well. Thanks again!

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  7. An heartwarm and precise appreciation, very much like a "win win" camera deserves.
    Thank you, Ken and Matthew.

    Hélcio

    Bauru, Brazil

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  8. I appreciate Ken's paen to the GX680. I came late to the party but have recently acquired a GX680III and have been enjoying it immensely. I am curious about Ken's praise for the 50mm, especially since he is a commercial architectural photographer. Since the 50mm has a smaller image circle I have heard that the lens movement is restricted for this len, which makes it less optimal for architecture work. Because of his body of work, I wonder if he can share some tips on how he manages to cope with the 50mm when doing movements.

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  9. I am thinking about the GX for architectural applications and I have one doubt and one question.

    My doubt is... the whole point of this camera is in the movements. But these seem to be rather limited, not only comparing it to even basic field / technical view cameras but also to the only "competitor", the Mamiya RZ67+75mm Shift lens (I know, it does not have the tilt and it is only one lens, the tilt / shift adapter has even smaller movement range and works really with only two cameras). I have worked for a little while with the Horseman LX monorail and found the movement range not that excessive (just about right, I would say, and these were way way larger than the GX). So, my doubt is... how often do you feel you need more (rise / fall, in particular)? Are they really of that much help?

    And the question is: I assume the movements work with all lenses, is this correct?

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  10. Compared to a technical large format camera the GX680 is relatively limited. The movements aren't as large, and there's no movements for the film back to partner them with. A 4x5 camera will also give better quality if you have a high-quality scan made.

    All but the widest lenses will give full coverage, however there are different bellows to allow the most leeway with the wider ones. I'll switch bellows along with the lens when I change between my 80mm and 210mm lenses.

    From your description the single PC lens for the Mamiya RZ67 doesn't sound like much of a challenger. It is a smaller and more convenient camera, but it's no match for the Fuji.

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