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Zenza Bronica: A Brief Overview

Introduction

Zenza Bronica was a Japanese company created by engineers, for engineers. In their time, they created some of the most intuitive, smart, and well-featured medium format cameras without driving prices up.

Bronica cameras have earned a reputation as great value propositions for a reason, and only recently have their prices risen. Even at current prices, though, the various Bronica systems represent a great entry point into 120 photography for most people, and the different systems can serve different photographer’s needs.

In the following videos and text, we’ll go over Bronica’s history and then dive into four Bronica systems individually with the help of Nuno and Nico. Let’s get started!

History

Zenza Bronica first came to be in 1958, when Zenzaburo Yoshino revealed his first camera, the Bronica Z. He had invested countless years and quite a lot of Yen into this camera. 

After World War II, Yoshino had founded a camera store that grew popular with GIs and local photographers. He invested the profits into a factory where he produced jewelry and watches for a while before switching to cameras.

With the Z camera, Zenzaburo had invested so much of his time and energy into the camera itself that he subcontracted the lens design to a well-established brand. Nikon provided the lenses, and they immediately put Bronica on the map as a player in the 120 SLR space.

The Z was an instant success, adding many features to the modular-SLR format that Hasselblad had popularized. The Z had an instant return mirror, automatic aperture control, and built-in depth-of-field preview.

From the Z, Zenza Bronica iterated and added features for a few years until the release of their next substantial camera, the Bronica S, in 1961.

The Bronica S Series

The S is a 6×6 SLR that introduced a new line of lenses and accessories from previous Bronica bodies. The S trimmed the fat from the previous models, removing extra-long shutter speeds and other extraneous features while adding some nice quality of life features.

The most notable ones are those involving the dark slide. With the S, it is impossible to fire the shutter or remove the back until the dark slide is removed.

A simpler version called the C came shortly after. This camera did not have interchangeable backs, but was otherwise similar to the S. The first revision came in 1964 with the release of the S2. The S2 added a second focusing helicoid for normal length (between 40mm and 200mm) lenses. Longer lenses would have their own helicoids. This also allows the S2 to accept a bellows attachment for close focusing.

As before, there was a simplified C2 model without interchangeable backs. The S series used Nikkor lenses for its entire lifespan, although other manufacturers made lenses for the system as well.

The S2A succeeded the S2 after five years on the market. It mainly had internal changes aimed at reliability. Specifically, the film advance of the S2 jammed quite often. The S2A fixed this issue.

The EC series would replace the S, adding electronics along the way. The next major revision came in 1976,when a 6×4.5 option appeared.

The Bronica ETR Series

The ETR system had a lot of firsts for Zenza Bronica. It was their first 6×4.5 system, their first system using leaf shutters, and their first time designing lenses for themselves. Nikon was no longer their partner, and after failing to strike deals with Topcon and Carl Zeiss, Bronica decided to move the lens design in-house.

The ETR also introduced the Bronica graphic design and camera aesthetics that would remain for the next two decades. It took until the ETRS, however, for the Bronica to really catch up with its competition from Mamiya and Pentax.

The ETRS added compatibility with interchangeable prisms and finders, including auto-exposure models. The original ETR does not have the electrical contact necessary for this. 

Bronica revised the ETRS a few times over its life, adding lighter plastic parts, mirror lockup, and even TTL flash support in the 1988 ETRSi. Despite these iterative changes, all film backs, lenses, and accessories are interchangeable between ETR models, except for the aforementioned electronic finders.

The ETR series of 6×4.5 SLRs sold from 1976 all the way until 1988. During this time, Bronica revised their 6×6 SLR system to more closely resemble the ETR.

The Bronica SQ Series

The SQ brought the improvements and design language of the ETR to the square format. It’s often said that SQ is short for square.

Like the ETR, the SQ lenses have built-in leaf shutters. This means that the previous Bronica 6×6 lenses would not fit on an SQ. It is also the first electronically-controlled 6×6 Bronica camera, after years of mechanical, focal-plane cameras.

Also like the ETR, the first model did not come with support for auto-exposure prisms. 1982’s SQ-A fixed this and added mirror lock-up, too.

One weakness of the SQ and SQ-A is the difficulty in attaching a motor drive. A band aid solution would come in the form of the SQ-Am, which had an integrated motor drive but no manual film advance.

It took until 1990 for an easy-to-use motor drive to come to the SQ system, in the form of the SQ-Ai. Also added was off-the-film metering and support for TTL flash. Newer SQ-i film backs also included exposure compensation as well as increasing the ISO range up to 6400.

In 1996, the SQ-B was introduced. This camera removed many features from the SQ-B and launched as a basic alternative. It is essentially a meter-less alternative, without support for internal light meters or ISO control.

They produced, sold, and supported the SQ until 2003.

The Bronica GS-1

Following the success of the 6×4.5 ETR and 6×6 SQ series of cameras, Bronica decided to enter the 6×7 space with the GS-1. Despite the larger format, the GS-1 is not substantially larger than the SQ, and is quite a bit smaller than its competitors, like the Mamiya RZ67.

One reason for this is the choice to use a Seiko #0 shutter. These are reliable shutters that Bronica used in many other models. The only downside is size. Using it instead of the Seiko #1 used in the Mamiyas made it possible for the GS-1 to be smaller, but limited the maximum aperture of its lenses.

The GS-1 designers paid special attention to lens coatings and design in order to maximize performance of the slower Bronica lenses when compared to Mamiya or Pentax offerings. Compared to the Pentax 67 or Hasselblad systems, the Bronica lenses were able to focus closer as well. Unfortunately, the bellows of the Mamiya cameras made them better for close focusing.

Another limitation of the GS-1 is the lack of rotating backs. The Mamiya system makes it simple to shoot portrait or landscape photos, but the Bronica requires turning the entire camera body. This may impede focusing and composition with certain finders, especially waist level ones.

One claim to fame the Bronica had was being the first medium format camera with TTL flash capability in 1983, one year before the Rolleiflex 6006 and Hasselblad 500 ELX. It took until 1998’s Pentax 67ii for TTL flash to come back to the 6×7 space.

Bronica produced the GS-1 and its nine lenses until 2002 without major revisions.

History (Cont.)

The founder of Bronica, Zenzaburo Yoshino, passed away in 1988. He brought his company, and his name, to the forefront of the medium format world, producing quality medium format cameras with cutting-edge technology. In 1996, Tamron acquired them.

Their final camera, introduced in 2000, was a huge departure from the norm for Bronica. The RF645 was a 6×4.5 rangefinder camera. This camera never sold in massive numbers, despite winning many awards. Tamron discontinued the RF645 in 2005. This ended the production of Bronica cameras.

Conclusions

Bronica occupies a great place in the medium format space. Their lower sales numbers, slightly lower price (when new), and less recognizable name combine to make a package that’s excellent for getting into medium format.

The Bronica models, especially the newer ones, have a cohesive design language between the various film formats, and their various lines retain a large amount of intercompatibility despite iterative improvements.

Put simply, it’s easy to assemble a Bronica kit without worrying about issues of compatibility that may come up with other systems. Another advantage is that Bronica dipped their toes into the main popular medium format.. Formats. With cameras in 6×4.5, 6×6, and 6×7, Bronica shooters can get exactly what they’re looking for in terms of image size and quality.

While a Bronica may not come with the luxury or prestige of brands like Hasselblad, Rollei, or Mamiya, they are solid shooters’ tools that give you everything you need, and nothing you don’t. Ever since Zenzaburo Yoshino unveiled the Bronica S, this has been the company’s place in the market.

Bronica has been, and will remain, a smaller, slightly-under-the-radar producer of medium format cameras. Because of this, you can get a great deal on a Bronica camera, with 90% of the features of more popular cameras for often 30-50% of the price. Now that’s the type of deal to make you say “Bro.. nica”! Sorry.

Filmi, Technical/Educational

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