Monday, January 30, 2017

Getting to know the Bronica ETRS

In my last post I described my amazing fortune in acquiring a Bronica ETRS and Nikon F4 (thanks again Bill). I couldn’t wait to get out and shoot with both of them, and fortunately the weekend looked like it was going to be perfect weather for some early morning photography.
I used both cameras, but will concentrate this time on the Bronica ETRS. It’s been a while since I’ve shot any medium format, so this was the camera I was most looking forward to making some images with. First though, just a little history about Bronica itself.

Zenza Bronica (named after its founder, Zenzaburo Yoshino) was a Japanese manufacturer of medium-format film cameras and photo equipment – based in Tokyo, Japan.  Zenza Bronica is simply a shorter version of Zenza’s Brownie Camera, since the Brownie was used in Japan to refer to all 120 roll film cameras.

Yoshino was the third son of a Japanese rice merchant, but at an early age he developed a passion for the cameras produced by Leica and Contax. Yet as enamoured as he was with these cameras, he also felt they had many limitations that could be fixed by creating a more modular system of his own design. Using money from the family transportation business, he eventually opened a small camera store in Tokyo. This quickly became popular, buying and selling luxury Leica and Contax cameras to photography enthusiasts and US Army soldiers stationed in Japan after WWII.

Revenue from the camera store allowed Yoshino to found the Shinkodo Works factory in 1947. The vision was always to produce cameras, but the factory began by creating luxury Art Deco accessories like cigarette cases and watches with the Bronica branding. Yoshino’s first hand-made camera prototype was a modular system called the “Yoshino Flex”, produced in the Shinkodo Works factory in 1956. But it wasn’t until the Philadelphia Camera Show, in March 1959, that Yoshino was finally ready to unveil the first Zenza Bronica (the Bronica Z), to the camera industry.
Who wouldn't want a Bronica! :-)

The Bronica Z was soon modified to the Bronica D (for Deluxe), and was the first serious challenge to the Swedish line of Hasselblad cameras. Bronica medium format cameras are often referred to as the ‘Japanese Hasselblad’ or the ‘poor man’s Hasselblad’, even though they went further with their use of electronics and offered three different aspect ratios: 645 (ETRS), 6x6 (SQ-A) and 6x7 (GS-1).

Bronica was eventually acquired by lens manufacturer Tamron in 1998, who went on to introduce the RF645 under the Bronica name in 2000. Unfortunately, with the advent of digital photography and rapidly declining medium format sales, Tamron discontinued support of the ETRSi, SQ-Ai, SQ-B and GS-1 by 2004. The RF645 was discontinued soon after, in 2005, which also saw the termination of the Bronica brand.

This could all seem a bit depressing – just another sad tale of digital technology destroying a once proud and noble camera company. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Bronica’s were incredibly well made cameras and many survive today in ‘as-new’ condition. And because of Yoshino’s vison of a modular system camera, you can have back-up parts on hand that are relatively inexpensive to buy. The body of the ETRS itself is really just a box with a mirror – the shutter is in the lens itself, and the film is in its own ‘back’. Viewfinders can be changed at will, so that if any one of these component parts fail, you simply swap them out for a new one – no need to get rid of the whole camera. That’s the beauty of a modular system – and of this type of medium format design.
An incredibly customisable system
My camera has 2 film backs, a waist-level and metered prism viewfinder, speed grip and Zenzanon PE 75mm f2.8 (45mm equivalent) lens. With the metered prism and speed grip attached, it’s a fairly portable ‘SLR’ style unit that reminds me of the Pentax 645 I used to have. As a 645 format camera, it’s the ‘smallest’ of the medium format ratios – about 2.7x bigger than 35mm. I’ve also owned and used 6x6 (Bronica S2A) and 6x7 (Mamiya & Pentax) formats, but the more I use it, the more I think that I’m a 645 kinda guy. The 6x7 negative is nice, but it comes at a cost – massive cameras that weigh a tonne! The 6x6 square format is exactly that – a square format – and one that I never really gelled with. It seems like an insignificant thing, but composing the world in a square takes a lot of getting used to (for me at least). I didn’t like it.

I find the 645 format suits my vision, and my shooting style, moving up to medium format from 35mm. It just ‘feels’ right. And with the speed grip and metered prism attached, I found that I could hand-hold the Bronica ETRS in either vertical or horizontal orientation and shoot comfortably either way. It still has a solid ‘clunk’ when you take a picture, so I made sure I kept the shutter speed at around 1/250th or 1/500th to avoid any camera shake. That said, because it’s still quite a hefty camera, it feels ok hand-holding it and shooting. I can’t say the same about using the Pentax 67, even though that camera has a more traditional SLR-style design. It ‘looks’ like it would be easier than the Bronica to shoot hand-held, but it’s not. The weight alone is prohibitive on the Pentax, let alone its thunderous mirror-slap!

Bronica ETRS with Zenzanon PE 75mm f2.8 lens. Agfa APX400. F8 @ 1/500th sec with Yellow filter
With Fuji Provia 100F slide film loaded in one back, and Agfa APX400 B&W negative film loaded in the other, I started in the early morning shooting at sunrise with the Provia 100F – on a tripod. It will take a while for the slide film to be developed, so I’ll show those images in another post. But what I can say is that the camera was a joy to use, was easy to compose and focus through the metered prism (which orientates the view so that what-you-see-is-what-you-get), and I’m confident that they will be amazing shots.

Bronica ETRS with Zenzanon PE 75mm f2.8 lens. Agfa APX400. F11 @ 1/500th sec with Yellow filter
Once the sun rose, and the mid-morning light increased the shutter speeds, I took the ETRS off the tripod and shot the roll of APX400, hand-held. I wanted to put the black & white film through so I could develop the film that night, just to make sure everything was working as it should. But I also wanted to be a bit more ‘free’ with the camera. To think about it, and begin to use it, more like a 35mm – so that I wouldn’t have the mind-set that it’s a tripod or studio camera only.

Bronica ETRS with Zenzanon PE 75mm f2.8 lens. Agfa APX400. F5.6 @ 1/500th sec with Yellow filter
The results? Absolutely gorgeous! I’m thrilled with the camera, I’m thrilled with the lens, and I’m thrilled with the images. The extra sharpness and definition you get from medium format (vs 35mm) is undeniable. It’s almost hard to put into words, but the quality you get from the larger negative, together with the look of medium format lenses, is just unique. It’s unlike anything you can get in 35mm, and (dare I say it) also unlike anything you can get from digital.  They all have their place. But there’s just something extra special about medium format film. All the images are tack sharp (where they should be), perfectly exposed, and shake-free. Shooting hand-held at 1/250th and higher wasn’t a problem with the ETRS at all. Spurred on by my success, I will experiment a bit more with some slower speeds. Given the lens is a 75mm, I might even get away with 1/6oth sec hand-held (I’m fairly steady when I shoot)?

Bronica ETRS with Zenzanon PE 75mm f2.8 lens. Agfa APX400. F8 @ 1/500th sec with Yellow filter
If you’ve never shot with a medium format camera before, I would strongly encourage you to do so. The Bronica ETRS is a fantastic choice if you want to get into medium format film, as is the Hasselblad (although I’ve heard some can be a bit temperamental), Mamiya and Pentax systems. The choice of film ratios (6x4.5, 6x6 or 6x7cm) can be a little more confusing – but may I humbly suggest starting with a 6x4.5 camera – especially if you are coming from 35mm or digital. It may not be the biggest format, but at almost 3x bigger than 35mm (2.7x to be exact) you will certainly notice the difference in detail and sharpness.

Cobden Lagoon Walk. Bronica ETRS with 75mm f2.8 lens. Agfa APX400. F8 @ 1/500th sec with Yellow filter