Camera review: Zenza Bronica GS-1 – by Laidric Stevenson
I’ll be talking about the least talked about model in a criminally underrated brand….the Bronica GS1. Specifically, I’ll be discussing the camera in the light of the following questions:
“I’m buying my first medium format camera, any recommendations?”
“I want a medium format camera, but I don’t know which one, help!”
“Going medium format, but I’m clueless, where do I start?”
Over the last 15 years or so, the professional market has moved to digital. Medium format film camera prices have dropped dramatically, and photographers have been able to buy gear at fractions of what it cost new. Film-loving photographers, eager to take advantage of these bargains but confused by the various format options and cameras naturally took to photo internet forums as a place for them to ask questions.
Experienced photographers always chime in, giving advice on cameras they’ve had personal experience with but one name is almost always left out of these conversations… Until that is, when one or two lone voices chirp up and in hushed words say “…Bronica”.
For some reason, these conversations then turn into complaints about accessories and availability of parts; system reliability issues, or how some wedding pros may have trashed their cameras during the 80’s. …or even thoughts from photographers who started their careers with Bronica equipment, just to “trade up” to a Mamiya or Hasselblad as soon as they were able to.
Usually, these photographers are talking about the Bronica SQ 6×6 or the ETR 6×4.5 systems; I’m here to talk about the one Bronica camera that rarely is talked about – the GS-1. Here’s what’s covered in this review:
Table of contents
Why not the Mamiya RB/RZ 67 or the Pentax 67?
Let’s deal with my personal reasons one by one:
While the Pentax is prized for what is hands down one of the best medium format lenses for any system (the 105/2.4), the system as a whole didn’t speak to me.
I wasn’t a fan of it’s oversized 35mm SLR looks and ergonomics; and I was heavily into shooting in the Strobist style using off-camera flash. The Pentax’s 1/30 max flash sync, was a deal breaker for me.
I wanted to be able to sync all the way up to 1/500, which I felt was always the strength of shooting medium format.
The main reason why I didn’t go with these Mamiya systems was strictly to do with size. While shopping around, I had the chance to handle a Mamiya C330, and while I loved the photos I saw from it online, the camera felt like a cinder block in my hands.
I figured that if Mamiya had dared make a 6×6 TLR that big and bulky, their take on a 6×7 SLR would be even heavier and bigger. Some time after I bought the Bronica, I had the chance to compare directly with a friend who had just bought a RB67 and my suspicions were proven correct. At the time, the Rz67 was still an in-demand film body, and Mamiya was still selling this camera as new (as the RZ67 II pro D), so used lenses and accessories ran a tad pricey for my pockets.
The GS-1 won out in the end due to price, I was able to get the body, a prism, one lens and one 120 back for under $500 from KEH, I would have spent a couple of hundred more (which I didn’t have), for a comparable Mamiya RZ67 outfit.
When the GS-1 arrived, I was surprised at how well it was designed — it was just large enough to handle shooting the big 6×7 negative, but at the same time it was lightweight and compact enough that you could visualize shooting it handheld on location for an extended period of time, without needing a tripod.
Upon shooting that first roll, I instantly knew that this was going to be a camera that would be with me for the long haul. The way images drew into focus in the viewfinder (there’s nothing like looking through the viewfinder of a medium format camera – especially when all you’ve previously used is 35mm cameras), and that resounding “Ka-thunk” of the mirror just made me want to shoot it all the time.
The Bronica GS-1 system
The GS-1 was introduced by Bronica in 1982 and designed to be a compact and lightweight 6×7 SLR. It was created to go up against the industry standard 6×7 SLR system – the Mamiya RB / RZ67.
Bronica only released 9 lenses for this system; 50, 65, 80, 100, 110 Macro, 150, 200, 250, and a 500mm super-telephoto. Shutter speeds are electronically controlled from 16s to 1/500 sec, and flash sync is available at all speeds. Like most medium format SLRs, the GS-1 was made to shoot multiple formats, from 6×4.5 to 6×7, in both 120 and 220 roll film. A polaroid back was also available for image proofing, but unlike the Mamiya RB / RZ cameras, you get a 6×7 image (instead of their 7×7) on the 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 print:
The GS system also had two teleconverters (1.4x and 2x) and two extension tubes (18mm and 36mm). The 110mm Macro lens gives you 1:4 image reproduction without extension tube but adding the 36mm tube allows you to reach 1:1 magnification.
The tubes are also useful because of the relatively long MFD (Minimum Focusing Distance) of the lenses, as compared to other camera systems.
There are 4 finders available; a Waist Level Finder, metered and non-metered prisms; a special 90 degree rotary prism that allows you to shoot the camera vertically on a tripod, with the addition of the Rotating tripod adapter.
Let me explain a little further about the rotating pieces. Many photographers point out that the Mamiya RZ system’s advantage over the Bronica is that the film back of the Mamiya rotates from landscape to portrait, so you don’t have to turn the camera 90 degrees to shoot in portrait format.
Because the GS-1 was designed to be as small as possible, it’s film back does not rotate, so to shoot portrait, you have to turn the camera 90 degrees. This is perfectly fine if you are shooting the camera handheld with a speedgrip, but what about in the studio on a tripod?
Bronica’s solution to that was to create two accessories, the Rotating Prism AE (for auto exposure – the prism provides spot metering and allows you to shoot in aperture priority) G and the Rotating Tripod Adapter G:
While a creative solution to address this issue, be warned that these rotating accessories can be somewhat difficult to find (sometimes you can luck out and buy them as part of a lot of GS-1 equipment). Otherwise expect to pay around $100 for the Tripod Adapter and $200 for the Rotating prism.
Bronica GS-1 lenses
What about the lenses? The GS-1 lenses were held up to be gold standard for Bronica. So much so that after they created the coatings and formula for the GS-1’s PG series of lenses, they went back through their other camera lines (the 6×6 SQ and the 6×4.5 ETR) and re-released lenses for those cameras with the same formula. This is the reason why you have S and PS series lenses for the SQ series and MC and PE lenses for the ETR series.
Now, I’m normally a one lens type of guy, that is I buy a camera and usually I’m happy with only one lens, but I actually have four lenses for my GS-1! They are:
- The “normal” 100mm 3.5
- The 110mm Macro
- The wide angle 50mm and
- The wide angle 65mm
These four lenses work out to be approximately equivalent to 50mm, ~55mm, 24mm and ~28mm on 35mm film.
The normal 100mm f3.5 is one of the two fastest lenses in the system, with the other being the rare 80mm 3.5, which was also the last lens that Bronica released before the line was killed off by Tamron in 2004. I’d like to get a telephoto lens (or two) to round out my system, then I’ll have a range of lenses to handle a wide range of shooting situations.
Fortunately, because Bronica is so underrated, lenses don’t cost an arm and a leg! The most expensive commonly found lens on the used market is the 50mm which can run you at the highest $300, the 65mm is usually a $100 or so less. The tele’s can be had for around $200 or so, with the 150mm usually the cheapest. in fact, I’ve seen some of those go as cheaply as $70!!
Medium format 6×7 lenses for under a $100??!?! The only lenses that get expensive are the normal wide 80mm, and the ultra rare 500mm beast!
Interesting tidbit: The GS-1 also, is the only 6×7 camera that has the capability of shooting TTL flash, using the Speed grip (which is equipped with a hot shoe) and the dedicated Bronica Speed Light G.
The end of the Bronica GS-1 system
So what happened with the GS-1 you might ask? Why don’t we hear about or see more photographers using them?
I’m not sure. I did a search for old photography magazines to see if there were any advertisements or marketing on the GS and here’s what I found:
Seriously people?? How many other camera manufacturers during this time were offering a FREE EXTRA BODY when you bought a system setup (Body, prism, lens and film back)? Or if you bought a system setup, selling an extra lens for a major discount ($1300 lens for $250)???
Despite the above examples of advertising, this system was so under the radar, that now on the used market, finding some lenses & accessories can be quite a quest – unless you’re in Japan. The Japanese have tons of gear that seemed to never have seen any time out in the field – practically almost mint!
But seriously, after looking at those offers, I still wonder why we don’t see as much GS equipment in the second hand market. I guess it was difficult for the GS-1 to shine under the shadow of Mamiya. Although, I will put any of my Bronica PG lenses up against any Mamiya RZ lens (and a comparison of these two workhorse systems will becoming in a future Return to Film feature!)
Using the Bronica GS-1
Lately, I’ve gotten interested in shooting at night, inspired by Patrick Joust of Baltimore, so I’ve been dragging the GS-1 through the streets of Dallas photographing interesting scenes. I hope to do a book of the images once I feel I have enough to complete an overall statement. The GS-1 is actually a pleasure to use at night, once you learn the dance you have to do with locking the mirror up.
Here are the steps that will get you a full 10 shots on a roll, because if you follow the directions in the GS-1 manual, you lose a shot after each time you wind.
- Focus and compose your shot and set your exposure.
- Trip the mirror lock up switch (on the bottom of the camera on the left side of the lens).
- Take the shot.
- Move the MLU switch back to its normal position (I also re insert the darkslide at this point – not necessary, but I just like to do it anyways…)
- Trip the multiple exposure switch, to set the camera for a multiple exposure.
- Wind the crank, this will lower the mirror.
- Set the multiple exposure switch back to normal.
- Wind the crank again, this will advance the film to the next frame.
- Get setup for your next shot!
I haven’t gotten a chance to take the 50mm for a spin, so no shots from it yet, but I suspect the image quality will be a lot like these other three lenses. The only lens that I’ve heard some less than glowing things about is the 250mm — and that was in the sharpness category — but I don’t have one of those and I’m not really interested in anything longer than 200mm. That said, I would take any opinions (even mine!) with a grain of salt…
I’ve enjoyed my time so far with the GS-1 (about 7 years and counting), it was my first “real” medium format camera, and I can see using it for as long as it holds up!
My verdict? Highly Recommended*
*just be aware that it takes some time to build up a kit, unless you buy from someone selling a package deal.
~ Laidric Stevenson
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