David Hume | Jul 10, 2018 | 6
Camera review: Bronica SQ-Ai – by Adrian Vila
Just a few months ago, I was happily shooting digital. But my work was lacking something. Soul, perhaps. And I was getting tired of photography.
I tried to do something different to avoid this: first shooting black and white (never shot it before, or at least not thinking in black and white from the beginning but rather converting color photos), and then I started experimenting with different aspect ratios. And I loved the square format.
Composing a square photo isn’t as easy as it might sound or look, and I wasn’t good at it. I loved that challenge though.
These two changes were enough to make me feel very excited about photography again. But my biggest step was yet to come.
You see, my Sony digital camera didn’t support square format natively. Yes, you have a grid that helps a bit, but the stored photo (both RAW and JPEG) was your traditional 3 by 2. Even post-processing the photo would mean you are “wasting” a third of your sensor (16MP 1×1 instead of the 24MP 3×2).
I began what turned out to be a very quick search: there’s nothing in the digital world using a square sensor that I could afford.
Film had to be it, then. But I didn’t love the options:
TLRs: I already had one at home (Rolleiflex) that I didn’t enjoy using. Not being able to use different lenses, a not very bright finder, a very desatisfying shutter…
Holga, Polaroid… nah.
Hasselblad: this one seemed to be my dream camera, but it was way too expensive. This was going to be my first film camera for “serious” use, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out.
But then, I learned about this Japanese brand that made some medium format cameras similar to the Hasselblads, and they had a few 6×6 cameras that’d fit my budget!
Enter the Bronica SQ-Ai: my favorite camera, ever.
Table of contents
A quick tour of the Bronica SQ-Ai
The front of the camera is very simple, on the bottom right (when you are holding it) is the shutter. You can (and should) lock it when the camera isn’t being used. Not because it could fire (it won’t if you have the dark slide in), but it will drain the battery if for some reason it gets pressed in a backpack or somewhere like that.
Moving to the left side of the camera, you have the switch to take the lens off (top left). Then the shutter speed dial, a very – for some reason – satisfying one to use. Speeds go from BULB to 1/500th of a second in one-stop increments: 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 16s, BULB.
Also present on this side, cable release socket and PC flash sync that I haven’t used.
And finally, on the bottom right of the picture above, a button that releases the film back.
Moving onto the right side, we find another switch (top right), in this case to take the finder off.
We see another two switches, one for multiple exposures and another one to lock the mirror up – single or continuous. I always use this for low shutter speed shots, or when taking long exposures.
I’m not sure if this is a “feature” of the camera or mine is defective, but if the shutter is not cocked and you flip the mirror up, it won’t let you take a picture and you’ll lose a frame when you wind the film.
To do so, finally, we have the wind-on lever.
On the bottom, we have the tripod socket, the battery compartment and some connections to use with a speed grip accessory. The camera takes LR-44 batteries, and fortunately I can’t tell you how long they last because I’ve run 100+ rolls through this camera over the last 6 months and it’s still running with the batteries it came with!
As you might imagine, the finder takes all the space on the top of the camera.
No matter which finder you are using, the camera has the following features:
- A red light will show up on the top of the finder if you are pressing the shutter half way but you can’t take a picture for some reason (be it: dark slide is in, you haven’t cocked the shutter, the lens is not properly attached…).
- That same red light will go off when you do take one and turn itself off when it’s done. This is useful for low shutter speed photos, it tells you to stay still until it’s turned off.
- A little mark on the right side tells you the multiple exposure setting is on and of course, looking down at the top of the camera you’ll find the shutter speed selector window.
Before I move on to the lenses, here are a few more shots of the camera:
Bronica SQ-Ai lens system
The Bronica lenses I have are all Zenzanon PS, and are supposed to have slightly better optics and coating than their predecessors, the Zenzanon S. Both generations of lenses are compatible with the SQ-Ai.
The lenses have leaf shutter, a depth of field preview switch, and the ability to shoot in T (Time) Mode.
The Bronica SQ-Ai added a BULB mode, but this is only recommended for exposures that don’t go over a minute, since it needs power to function and that will eat your batteries really quick. The solution is to use the T-mode in the lenses. Once enabled it will keep the shutter open for as long as you want, until you put it back to “A-mode” (without wasting battery).
So despite using batteries to move the mirror, the Bronica SQ-Ai is able to take really long exposure without using them. I took a 3-hour long exposure this way.
Also worth mentioning; these lenses have electronic connections so they can send information to the camera about the aperture being used. This lets you use metered finders.
I own the following Zenzanon PS lenses: 50mm f/3.5, 80mm f/2.8, 150mm f/4 and 250mm f/5.6…but there are quite a few more available:
- Fisheye 35mm f/3.5
- 40mm f/4
- 50mm f/3.5
- 65mm f/4
- 80mm f/2.8
- 110mm f/4.5
- 135mm f/4
- 150mm f/4
- 180mm f/4.5
- 200mm f/4.5
- 250mm f/5.6
- 500mm f/8
You can also add two teleconverters to your kit: 1.4x and 2x. I own the latter and to be honest, I don’t like it. The loss of sharpness is too much. But it might be an option to use in conjunction with the 250mm instead of buying and carrying the ultra expensive 500mm.
I believe the most common lenses to have are the ones I have: 50mm, 80mm and 150mm. They give you a focal length range of, more or less, 28mm to 85mm in 35mm equivalent.
I just wish the filter thread size of the 50mm lens was 67mm like the other three I own. Unfortunately, I have to carry a step-up ring to use filters.
Finders and other accessories
The camera came with a prism finder, but I knew I wanted a waist level finder. It not only makes the camera smaller and lighter, but in my opinion it’s just a better experience overall. But if you don’t want to struggle with a reversed image, you can use the prism finder.
More finders are available for this camera, from “chimney” finders to metered finders.
There are plenty of other accessories, from extension tubes to bellows that allow some basic movements that otherwise would be reserved for large format cameras.
There are different types of film backs, from 6×4.5 to Polaroid backs, and also for 220 and 35mm films.
I have two regular 120 film backs, they are the newest version (the ISO selector is on the back). These film backs also have electronic connections so they can inform the camera about the speed being used, in case you are using a metered finder.
The film backs have their own wind-on lever and of course, the shot counter and the dark slide.
Another thing to mention: the dark slide can only be inserted in one direction, and if you put it back the wrong way, it can ruin your film.
Bronica SQ-Ai in use
I had some problems when shooting this camera for the first time. There are many elements you have to consider to even get a shot.
Batteries have to be in good health, of course. The lens has to be properly attached (this made me waste a couple frames the first times). The shutter has to be cocked. The shutter button has to be unlocked. The dark slide has to be off the film back.
Then, you can shoot!
Focusing is pretty straightforward using the split screen, and the finder is very bright. Using the preview switch on the lens and the magnifier on the waist level finder, you shouldn’t have problems shooting with regular lenses.
As a landscape photographer, the weight of your camera system is really important. And unfortunately, the Bronica SQ-Ai is not a light system. Add to that the accessories you’ll need (tripod, filters…) and we are talking trouble for your back. I talk from experience.
This is a very wild estimation but I’d say half of my shots are taken from a place easily accessible, either by car or after a short walk. In those cases, I’ll bring everything with me.
The other half of the shots are more challenging. For easy to moderate hikes, I’ll bring 2 lenses, 3 at most. The big, heavy 250mm doesn’t get to come with me on these trips.
If the hike is hard (or long), then I either bring just one lens plus tripod (and nothing else!) or I simply leave the Bronica behind. I’ve been experimenting with other cameras trying to find a decent “plan B” for these situations, and I’ve settle on a Rolleiflex. For now.
I bring my tripod almost every time, unless it’s a bright day and I’m not planning on taking long exposures. I usually shoot at sunrise and sunset and those low light situations really need a tripod.
I’ve spent the last 6 months capturing the Northwest and Southwest of the US on film using this “little” camera, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
Granted, it’s not for everyone. I’ve had cameras that are arguably better for a landscape photographer, but this is the one that inspires me the most and the one that pushes me out all the time.
It’s also a great way to get started with medium format, since it’s pretty easy to use if you have used a (D)SLR before.
At the time of writing it has been 6 months since I got the Bronica SQ-Ai. I’ve shot 100+ rolls of film through it and I love this camera even more with each day that passes.
As I said at the beginning of the article, the square format is really important to me. It’s something really hard to explain, but it feels right. It fits my style; what I want to convey with my photos. And this camera not only gives me that, but it helps me define my photography.
The main body of my work is landscapes. I try not to replicate an exact copy of what I see but rather an interpretation. For that I use color filters and long exposures. Being able to shoot exposures for as long as I want to without draining battery is really a key advantage of this camera. Most of them my exposures are under 20 minutes, but others (like the long exposure of the full moon over Mt St Helens, which is second to last in the gallery below) are exposures of 4+ hours.
I use a variety of film stocks, but my favorite is ILFORD HP5 PLUS pushed to EI 800. I also use different developers and fixers depending on where I am and their availability. I scan them using an Epson Perfection v600 scanner. I do post-process my photos in Lightroom, changing the contrast and burning / dodging.
These sample shots were taken in the Northwest of the United States, where I lived for the last 4 years and where I fell in love with photography. You can see shots from all over Oregon and Washington: the coast, Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier, Columbia River Gorge, Smith Rock, Astoria, Three Sisters Wilderness…
This camera made me fall in love with photography all over again, and I couldn’t be happier using it. It’s not the easiest camera to shoot, or the lightest. But somehow, it’s become my favorite companion when I’m out there shooting. It doesn’t feel like a tool I have to use to capture an image, but it’s a big part of the work I’ve been doing lately.
It inspires and motivates me like no other camera has done.
- This camera is ideal for someone who wants to shoot a Hasselblad but can’t justify the cost: I got the whole system for less than $1k.
- Modularity: lenses, film backs, finders, grips… almost feels like a Lego.
- Lenses are very, very sharp.
- You can use flash, and it will sync at any speed.
- It supports metered finders, in case you don’t want to use or carry an external light meter.
- The finder is extremely bright.
- The noise of the shutter is very satisfying.
- It’s heavy, but not that heavy.
- If this is your first medium format camera, it might take you a while to get used to it.
- Lenses are not the fastest.
- Probably not as reliable as a Hasselblad.
- While you are shooting, there’s no place in the camera to attach the dark slide. I put in my pocket, but I’m afraid I’ll lose it one of these days.
- It’s very loud, not a camera to shoot squirrels from up close.
- It’s a heavy camera.
And while this is very personal opinion, I’d keep the Bronica SQ-Ai in mind if you want to shoot medium format and you like to compose in square.
~ Adrian Vila
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