The Bronica has been described as the poor man’s Hasselblad. That is just wrong, as I hope to demonstrate through this article. When I began my journey back to film photography, I looked at Rolleiflex cameras first, but finally settled on the Hasselblad 500C/M — of which I have two now. I recently decided to look for another medium format camera and initially thought about a Pentacon 6TL. Despite a useful article by Ludwig Hagelstein and some other online sources, I decided against this (at least for the time being).
With the two Hasselblad cameras, I was up for something similar, eventually deciding on a Zenza Bronica. A couple of recent articles caught my eye: Is shooting film a waste of money, Neil Piper’s Bronica ETRS Review here on EMULSIVE, and an encyclopedia entry in the FStopppers A-Z of Photography on Bronica and Burtinsky. There have been other articles on similar Bronica cameras, including one on the ETRSi by Maxime Evangelista.
I visited a local source in the center of Bangkok before hitting on the Bronica ETRS and finally found one complete with 75mm f/2.8 lens from eBay.
It communicated with me the moment I saw it.
My Bronica ETRS in the flesh
I started this article with the statement, “The Bronica has been described as the poor man’s Hasselblad”. I’ll reiterate that I believe that to be wrong. As I pulled the camera out of the box, it looked beautiful. The exterior was clean and the parts appeared well made.
As expected with a camera of this age there were, of course, some slight scuff marks and with two Hasselblad cameras on hand, I was able to make a direct comparison between the two. I do not feel that the Bronica is cheap at all. I thought the outside was aluminum, but some sources tell me it is chrome. It feels good in the hand and my first instincts from seeing the entry on eBay were right.
Although it looks similar to a Hasselblad, there are some subtle differences, and I was confused by one or two of these.
First, it has a removable film back which can be removed for changing film, but the film carrier can also be detached. This does not work like the Hasselblad at all. It took me a couple of attempts to remove the film magazine, and then a couple more tries to remove the film back. This is not necessary when reloading.
Both the magazine and film-back sit more firmly to the rear of the camera than is the case with my Hasselblads. The dark slide is also nicer with its plastic side-piece. Under normal circumstances, it goes in and out of its location smoothly. However, on one occasion, I found it became stuck. I think this was because of the high outside temperatures in Bangkok when taking photographs (34C/95F). It might also be because the film type I was using had a rough paper backing. This was a once-only event and has not re-occurred.
When I first loaded film, I treated the camera like a Hasselblad. The film counter failed to move. After taking several shots, I knew something was wrong so I opened up the back. The film was not moving. I tried again with the same results. I posted a query on Facebook’s Film Camera GAS Factory group and a sharp-eyed contributor noticed that the multiple exposure lever was engaged.
This is to allow double exposure so does not wind the film on. I flipped the lever and loaded the third roll: the counter moved correctly. I note that others also had this problem.
On the the road with the Bronica ETRS
The main purpose of my cameras is taking photographs, but each camera has its own special features some of which require me to make some adjustment for the best results. My Agfa Record III produces 6x9cm images (8 per roll) and the Hasselblad, 6x6cm (12 per roll) but the Bronica ETRS uses the 6×4.5cm format, giving 15 photographs from a roll of 120 film.
After finally learning how to load the film, I started with one of my regular film choices: Bergger Pancro 400. It took me several weeks to see any output as my usual lab was closed for refurbishment. I eventually tried a city-centre shop with mixed results.
As well as the Bergger Pancro, I have now tried ILFORD SFX and PAN F PLUS, as well as Kosmo Foto 100. The SFX and Kosmo films have produced the best results (they are always my favorites), but this may be from a combination of factors as the Bergger Pancro and Ilford PAN F PLUS work quite well in other cameras.
With some of my cameras, including the Hasselblads, the control for adjusting shutter time is on the lens. With the Bronica there is a rotating dial to the left side of the body. The readout is under a clear plastic cover. As one of the displayed time settings is selected there is a distinct feeling – like a silent click – from the notched wheel that controls the display.
Unlike the Agfa or Voigtländer where there is a smooth motion of the time-selection, I felt it was less easy to choose a setting between the specific times available: 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500. I was less-confident when setting a time between (e.g.1/100) than with other cameras. Times of 1 second and above (2, 4, 8) are displayed in orange.
Focus using the 75mm lens and looking through the waist-level viewfinder with its split-image rangefinder was easy to accomplish. The Zenzanon MC lens showed aperture settings from f/22 to f/2.8; and distance from infinity down to 0.6m (2 feet). Once set up for a shot, the dark slide was extracted and a shutter press gave a solid sound. My engineering student rather liked this firmness on the Hasselblad as opposed to the quieter sound of the 35mm camera he was also using.
With the ETRS’s 6×4.5 output, all images are in landscape orientation but the shape of the frame seemed perfect for portraits. As Malcolm Myers mentioned in his Yashica article recently, when discussing the ETRS, without a prismatic viewfinder it is odd trying to frame a shot with the camera on its side: the usual left is right and up is down are all the more confusing. Some experiment is still needed here.
Looking at output from the two Hasselblad lenses and the 75mm on the Bronica, there is not a lot to choose between them, although subjectively, my preference is for ILFORD SFX using the Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm lens on the Hasselblad. EM asked if I might consider the A16 back for the Hasselblad, but I prefer 6×6, and the 6×9 format of the Agfa Record III so 645 on a 500C/M might not give me the output I like. That is not a closed door, and if an A16 back came my way on loan, I would give it a try.
I have had one problem since the Bronica arrived: the battery cover. It just fell out and appears now to have a part of the spring securing mechanism missing. Like the dark slide problem, this may be climate-related. As the battery housing is underneath the body, I have secured this with some duct tape for the time being. From online searches, I am not alone, and some have had to resort to 3D printing to replace this.
Rare appearances of this component on eBay demand high prices. When I had a look in a local store, the three Bronica 645 cameras had a different base design. The smaller availability of used examples means fewer spares are available. This is is not a problem for the Hasselblad: plenty of spares, and no battery of course.
Conclusions: is the 6×4.5 image format right for me?
I certainly enjoyed using the Bronica which felt substantial and produced output which I found technically acceptable. It is a well-made camera that feels good in the hands. Once I was used to it, the film magazine worked better for me (especially the dark slide) than my Hasselblads. It is as if Bronica looked at the Hasselblad solution and made some useful improvements.
On the other hand, the timing adjuster to the left side of the body seems less instinctive to me compared to the Hasselblad and other cameras where this is part of the lens adjustment process: distance, aperture, time all together. There are a couple of things that do not suit me related to the 6×4.5 image format. I am so used to 6×6 (and latterly 6×9) that I find this restricting. This is compounded with the difficulty of taking portrait photos that others have also mentioned: something that 6×4.5 should be perfect for.
Apart from the battery cover issue, which is not noticeable in day to day use with my tape fix, there are no problems with the camera although I am not as comfortable with it as with the other medium format cameras I own. I find it difficult to explain exactly why, although there is a nagging feeling about the 6×4.5 output. I discussed this with EM who suggested leaving this personal confusion as part of the conclusion.
Every camera or film choice involves compromise and some options may fall the wrong side of the line. I still prefer my Agfa Record III for day to day use because of its weight (and 6×9 output), the Hasselblad for more concentrated shooting, and 35mm cameras when the mood takes me. I solved this in a satisfying way by giving the Bronica to my student as a graduation gift. He had tried one of the Hasselblads and liked the solidity. He immediately produced a test roll of Fujicolor (400) that was competent and has taken some 20 rolls since. Within a few days he was also looking for other lenses…
…I may have started something.
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