Camera review: me and my Zenza Bronica S2A by Ed Worthington
Hello again, it’s The 6 Million P Man here back after my review of the Yashica-D with another offering from my (not quite extensive but close enough) camera collection, another delight of the medium format variety, the Zenza Bronica S2A.
Let’s start with a little bit of history
Zenza Bronica first started making cameras in 1958 when Zenzaburo Yoshino (awesome name yeah?) introduced his first 6×6 medium format SLR, the Bronica Z at the Philadelphia Camera Show.
He’d invested nearly all his company’s money into the design and manufacture of the body and had to outsource lenses from other well known Japanese manufacturers, notably Nikon (hence why my Bronica S2A came with a fantastically sharp 75mm Nikkor lens). It was this optical quality with paved the way for early success.
Bronica’s were well regarded for their affordability and quality in the relatively expensive world of medium format SLR’s and despite not being manufactured anymore – the brand name is owned by Tamron – they’re still widely used by professionals and amateurs alike.
The S2A was the successor to its earlier counterpart the S2 and most notably includes an updated gear advance mechanism which results in jess jamming (something that both the S and S2 were known for). The main advance from the Bronica S and S2 was the introduction of a dedicated focusing helicoid integrated to the camera body.
This design was unique to the Bronica S2 and combined with the camera’s focal plane shutter, allowed the lenses to be incredibly compact when compared to Hasselblad, Rollei and other vendors 6×4.5, 6×6 and 6×7 offerings. Interestingly, some lenses came with their own additional helicoid to provide the extra bump needed for their focal length. Truly innovative!
The S2A was sold until around 1977, although it had been officially discontinued some time before. I was lucky enough to pick up my copy in almost mint condition with the original box and instructions!
A few of the features that Zenza Bronica deemed worthy of being printed in bold lettering on the very first page of the manual:
First, the Instant Return Automatic Mirror which is described as “an exclusive and original mechanism.” When you fire the shutter the mirror moves forward and down, rather than the usual upward of an SLR mirror and then returns automatically to the viewing position, apparently this makes it easier to use wide angle or deep seating lenses on the body and gives a brighter image in the viewing screen.
Second, it has an interchangeable film back magazine. The real reason many of us want to get into medium format is the ability to change out film half way and swap to something different, I imagine back in the day this was coveted as an amazing feature. I have two film backs for this, one I use for colour and one for black and white, see this was worthwhile them harping on about in the manual. You could also purchase a Polaroid film back, not that I have ever seen one.
Third, the lens selection. The manual makes a big song and dance about Nikkor lenses being available for the camera, although by the time the S2A was around they were also making their own Zenzanon lenses too. In fact the selection of lenses available at the time of this camera’s release is genuinely quite impressive. There were at least ten lenses ranging from a wide angle 40mm (somewhere around 25mm in 35mm film terms), to a whopping great big 600mm lens (around 375mm in 35mm terms), covering all the major focal lengths in between.
True to their boast about the mirror allowing a deep seated lens, these lenses jut quite far into the body of the camera itself, giving them excellent stability and quite a compact size for the format.
Finally the final big feature that Zenza Bronica like to emphasise in the manual is its ability to take either 120 or 220 format film, allowing the choice of 12 or 24 exposures. I’m sure this would’ve been a great feature back in the day, one camera with the ability to shoot multiple formats of film.
So, how do you actually use this beast? The answer to that is, surprisingly easily.
Yes it’s a medium format camera and therefore you can’t just snap away like a sports photographer at 100 frames a second but neither is it particularly complicated to use either. Let’s go through setting up a shot:
First you’ll want to load a film back with film. There’s a small selector dial on the bottom right of the film back for selecting 12 or 24 exposures, unless you’ve got a good old stock of expired 220 hanging around you’ll probably want to set that to 12.
Next, lift the small flap that allows you to place a piece of card underneath to remind you what film you’re shooting, underneath it a small switch marked “C” and “O” marked, take a guess what they stand for? Once you’ve opened the film back you squeeze together two little knobs to release the internals and attach the 120 film roll to the bottom.
Wind it around and feed it into the take up spool at the top and clip this all back inside the film back before winding it along to the START arrow.
Close the back and attach it to the back of the camera. Now all you need to do is wind the advance crank until the numbers on the bottom of the film back reach “1” and the crank clicks: it’ll sound like you broke it but believe me that’s just it clicking into place. And there we go, you’ve loaded up the S2A.
Next up is taking an actual photo.
The S2A has a nifty feature where the shutter cannot fire if the metal dark slide is left in place between the film back and camera. Great for making sure you don’t waste a ton of money shooting the inside of a camera bag by accident.
When you’re ready to take a shot, take out your dark slide and pop up the waist level viewfinder.
Next, select the shutter speed using the dial on the left side of the body, set the aperture on the front of the lens, focus and there we go, snap away by pressing the shutter button, which is located on the front bottom of the camera.
Don’t be alarmed when the shutter fires, it really is meant to be that loud.
Wind on with the crank and get ready to take another shot.
It’s pretty basic and easy to use, as long as you don’t scare easily.
Below are a selection of images I’ve taken with the camera, the colour samples are Kodak Ektar 100 or Fuji Pro 160S, the black and white is Ilford FP4+.
Before I get on to the reasons why I love this camera I’m going to point out its flaws. The camera’s weight is a big issue, well a massive issue. This baby is made entirely of metal, it’s the size of a toaster and it weighs in at (according to the manual) 1780 grams.
Now that’s a heavy piece of kit.
My model did come with a strap but I have to admit I have never used it. The one time I carried the camera around in anything other than a shoulder strapped camera bag it gave me some serious wrist pain. It’s not designed to be carried about like a point and shoot, a tripod is pretty essential when using it.
Second, the noise of that shutter. I’m not exaggerating when I say it sounds like Thor hitting his mighty hammer against the side of a mountain. Genuinely it’s like a thunderclap. If you are of a nervous disposition or have heart problems this camera isn’t for you. The noise and size also limits the type of photography you can do with this, sports and street are a big no no, you can hardly take a candid image when it sounds like you’ve fired a gun every time you take a photograph.
Here’s a truly awful quality video (apologies for this, I have an old Moto G and the sound quality isn’t great and really doesn’t do justice to the sound of the shutter but it’s here nonetheless!).
Third, the price. Yes this is the big issue with any medium format camera. Remember me saying that Zenza Bronica’s were affordable for amateurs? They are of good quality for the price but cheap they are not. Mine was a steal at £250 but every Zenza Bronica I had been looking at before was going for upward of £350-£400. So, if you haven’t the pennies saved away in a big jar somewhere, you may not want to get one.
With the cons out of the way, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out this camera’s numerous pros. Number one of these is build quality. This thing is built like a tank and considering it’s size and weight, probably from the same materials too. It will last a lifetime. Mine looks almost brand new and is in perfect working order.
The photographs you can produce do not do it justice. These are professional, quality cameras built for the serious amateur market, no cheap plastic here.
The lenses are brilliant. You’d expect that, considering most of them were made by Nikon but they really are. I have a 75mm Nikkor F/2.8 (which provides around a 50mm equivalent focal length in 35mm terms) and it is beautifully sharp. The lens selection is, as I said earlier, quite impressive for a medium format system too. All major focal lengths are covered and the vast majority are no slower than F/4.
Having the ability to swap out film in the middle of a roll is invaluable. I hate the thought of wasting film (don’t we all?) and having two backs pre-loaded with different speeds should there be a change in weather, lighting or situation is just perfect for my needs. I know in the modern digital world that sounds stupid but, well I don’t want to shoot digital.
The Viewfinder is incredibly bright, sharp to look through, has a pop up magnifier to make focus that much easier and is just an all-round pleasure to use. I also have the waist level finder but there are accessories available including two types of prism viewfinders, a magnifying hood and a TTL exposure meter viewfinder as well. There’s a sports finder available as well but we’ll ignore that as it’s just stupid for this type of camera.
What really clinches it for me is just the pleasure of using a 45 year old camera that just works: perfectly. I know you can say that a lot of film cameras just seem to last longer that their digital siblings but seriously, my S2A feels like I bought it yesterday.
I can see me using this for another 45 years and it still being in perfect working order. That is why I didn’t mind spending quite a bit of money on it. It’s an investment rather than a cost.
I can’t recommend this camera enough for landscape and portrait work, and if those are two styles you want to shoot, then getting into medium format with the Zenza Bronica S2A is a damn good place to start.
~ Ed Worthington
Zenza Bronica S2A technical specifications
|Camera name||Bronica S2A|
|Camera type||Single Lens Reflex|
|Format||6x6 - 120/220 rollfilm|
6x4.5 - 120/220 rollfilm
|Manufacture dates||1965-74 (unconfirmed)|
|Shutter||Cloth Focal plane (vertical travel)|
B, 1 sec - 1/2000 sec
|Lenses||Ranging from 40mm wide-angle to 600mm. 10+ in total|
Waist Level Viewfinder
|Metering||With TTL prism only|
|Flash||Focal plane and X-Sync PC connection|
|Body only: |
100mm x 100mm x 140mm (W x D x H)
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