The Zenza Bronica

Today I’d like to talk a little about my Bronica ETRSi and some shots I’m taking. I like the ETRSi, but haven’t been working with it much because it was hard for me to focus with the focusing screen that came with it (all matte) – especially with the 50mm f/2.8 lens (which is considered wide angle with 120 film). I changed my focusing screen to one that’s actually made to work with the 35mm film back on the ETRSi – but I’m going to use it with 120 film. It has a more conventional split image center surrounded by a microprism ring for easier focusing – very similar to what you might experience in a traditional 35mm SLR camera from the 70’s and 80’s. I’ll see if this helps alleviate some of the issues I was having when focusing this camera.

First, I should say, the Bronica is a bit awkward to shoot with because of it’s shape. It’s just not easy to hold while shooting – compared to a 35mm SLR. I think this explains the popularity of cameras like the Pentax 67 – although it’s large, it is easier to hold. However, there’s something about the Bronica that has always been attractive to me. Maybe I saw a photographer that I liked using one of these at one time, or maybe I just liked the way this camera looked (I still think it’s a very nice looking camera), but for one reason or another, I wanted to own one. I have 2 lenses for mine. A 50mm f/2.8 and a 75mm f/2.8. The 75mm is newer.

Notice in the image above, the aperture ring is at the front of the lens, like the Olympus OM lenses. The lens also has traditional distance markings in meters and feet, and traditional depth of field markings. This is very handy when focusing and setting the aperture before taking a photo. Today we do all this while looking through the viewfinder, but the viewfinder in these cameras was very simple, and very manual. When using the Eyelevel AE finder, the shutter speed will show up at the bottom – when using a waste level finder, the camera is completely manual, and displays nothing but your image. Any metering must be done externally – with a handheld meter like the Sekonic Studio Deluxe, for example.

In this model, a leaf shutter is built into the lens. If you turn the camera over and look at the bottom of the lens, the SEIKO name is proudly displayed because they made the shutter – it’s part of the lens like on large format lenses, except that you can’t separate it. This works well, but other Bronica models employ a focal plane shutter in the body, and originally used Nikon lenses so, presumably, Bronica wouldn’t need their own lenses, and this got things up and running quicker when they started making cameras. By the time the ETRS and ETRSi came out they used all Bronica Zenzanon lenses. They were originally labeled MC for multi coated. They had a couple variations over the years, ending with the the PE lenses which were generally considered better, but for my purposes the original MC lenses are quite fine. My 50mm is an MC version, and my 75mm is a PE version. With used equipment, newer is generally better because it can have less wear, but both my lenses are very nice looking, and produce quite nice results. These cameras were generally not the kind that were carried around getting banged and scratched from normal use – they were generally studio cameras, on a tripod for most of the day. For that reason, you can find some many Bronicas in very nice condition.

The lenses and the viewfinders with these cameras, although good, are nothing like our current cameras. First of all, the focusing screens and viewfinders are just not as bright – but also, f/2.8 is a fast lens on these cameras. Current SLRs commonly have faster lenses (which make brighter viewfinder images), and our mirrorless cameras have much brighter viewfinders because they’re electronic and artificially brightened, even in very dark conditions.

The ETR bodies are SLRs, meaning they have a view finder, a mirror and a single lens. When you take a photo, the mirror flips up and out of the way, allowing a clear path between the lens/shutter and the film. The mechanism is different than in 35mm SLRs in that the mirror only is placed back into position for viewing through the viewfinder after the film advance lever is cranked and the next frame is in place. In 35mm SLR bodies, the shutter is at the film plane – behind the mirror. In the ETR bodies, the shutter is in the lens, in front of the mirror – so, complete darkness is only provided when the mirror is in its up or down position – during an exposure, or for viewing through the viewfinder – and if it were to go back down, I’m afraid light from the viewfinder might leak and expose the film. I’m not precisely sure how this mechanism works, and I haven’t dissected my camera to see how all this works – but I believe there is potential for light leakage issues if the mirror were to go up and then down again, so it only goes down when you advance the film, presumably there is a way to keep it light tight during this process. I’m sure they had their reasons for what they did. Sometimes I’m amazed at the mechanical marvels that these older cameras are. I have dissected cameras before (which usually didn’t turn out good, except for satisfying my curiosity) – before electronics took over – and I was amazed at the pullies and gears and wires that made them work.

So, I took some test photos. Let’s see if I was able to achieve sharp focus with the new focusing screen. These are on Tri-X film, processed in HC-110, my go to developer.

Here are some color test images – shot on Kodak Portra 400 – processed and scanned by my favorite local lab. The same subjects – the wood pile and the fire pit. I think I was able to focus much better with the split image screen.

All in all, I like the ETRSi, and the standard matte focusing screen I had before was just too hard to focus when I was outdoors shooting landscapes or architecture. The new split image focusing screen is much easier, and I like the quality boost of medium format negatives over 35mm. It’s not quite as convenient as my OM-2 or OM-4 when I’m traveling, but I think it’s worth it to get the improved quality.

If you’ve never shot medium format, or are interested in another medium format body, I would definitely recommend checking out the Zenza Bronica ETRSi (or any of their other models). And, I’d love to hear about your experiences with medium format.