A a few weeks ago I ordered a box of Fujifilm Velvia 100 to use in my new Holga. This was part of a more grand scheme to start developing slide film. After unsuccessfully running a roll through my Holga (slide film doesn’t have much exposure latitude) I decided better results would be had from a legit medium format camera. To be fair, I have several non-Holga medium format cameras. I’ve got the 1933 Rollei TLR, the Zeiss Ikonta, and the Lubitel 166B. However, none of them are much fun. The Rollei and Zeiss are both 50+ years old and have seen better days. They’re also cumbersome to use. The Lubitel has a strange lens shift due to the lens elements collapsing during shipping and the subsequent repair job I did. I wanted something easy, modular, and actually useful. So after perusing eBay for a couple days I came across a mint Zenza Bronica ETRS located in Japan for a fantastic price, and I snatched it up.
The Bronica is a modular SLR camera. It consists of the light box, lens, viewfinder, and film compartment, called film back, all as separate connecting pieces. This is a really incredible design. If I decide I want to shoot black and white and color I don’t need to run through an entire roll of one and switch to the other. I simply keep more than one film back, each loaded with a different film. If I want to point and shoot it, I attach the AEII Prism and the accessory quick advance handle. If I want to treat it like a classic waist-level medium format camera, I can attach a waist-level viewfinder and a winder handle to it, and I’m set.
Come to the Dark Slide
Another interesting feature is the dark slide. This is a metal shield that you pull out of the film back when you’re ready to make photos. It serves a couple purposes. First, it prevents the film from being exposed when the film back is off the camera. Remember, we can switch film backs if needed. Second, when inserted, it locks the shutter release so the camera won’t fire. This is a blessing when you’re limited to 15 shots and releasing the shutter means you have to wind and advance the film to re-cock it. That’s a wasted shot, and an expensive one. Currently, medium format film runs $5 – $15 a roll!
Good Cameras Need Good Film
Now that there is a new camera, it’s time to get new film! I can’t lie, I splurged (read: skipped groceries for a week) and snatched up a ton of film. I keep Kodak Ektar lying around for the Holga, but I wanted some more slide film and some black and white. I hit my favorite film supplier and ordered Kodak TMAX 400 black and white, Fujifilm Provia 100 slide film and Fujifilm ACROS 100 black and white. The upside is that I’ve got plenty of film for the camera. The downside is that it’s freezing outside and I’m not willing to waste good film on bad shots. I’m taking my time with it.
Medium Format Style
This camera is purpose-built for professional photographers. Combined with all the accessories, it has to weigh 4 lbs. It’s a beast. It’s also loud. The mirror in it is the size of a garage door, so when that mirror comes up people for miles know you’re taking a photo. Don’t expect to get Vivian Meier style candid street photos with this camera. What I have found is that it’s pretty decent for stylish black and white architectural photos and really good for portraits. I can’t believe the bokeh at f/4, although wide-open it’s really difficult for me to get sharp focus.
Loads of Features
The Bronica, as equipped, has some interesting features. First, it takes a modern battery that’s easy to procure. Batteries Plus+ actually has it for about a third of the price that you’d pay for it at the drugstores. The AEII prism has a pretty decent light meter. A half press brings up an old-school illuminated recommended shutter speed in the bottom of the viewfinder. If you are shooting slide film you might want to bracket, but shooting color or black and white negative film and you can safely trust the meter to give you a decent exposure. The camera also has a switch on the right side that allows you to make double-exposures. It does this by unlocking the film spool during the shutter cock/film advance cycle, allowing you to cock the shutter without advancing the film. I haven’t had a chance to try this out yet, but as soon as I get some interesting ideas I will give it a shot. This is also a handy feature when switching film backs.
Front Street. Kodak TMAX 400 – Zenza Bronica
The Shooting Experience and Final Thoughts
The Zenza Bronica ETRS is a really nice camera to have in the arsenal. It may be heavy and loud, and the film isn’t cheap, but the experience is worth every penny. It is a solid, sturdy ubiquitous medium format camera with a plethora of different attachments and films. I actually had a couple photographers on Beale Street yell out “Nice medium format camera!” and chat with me for a few minutes when I was making a photo of the A. Schwab’s store. So it has bling status, too!
If you intend on buying one, I would suggest sticking with cameras you can get from Japan. The Japanese camera market is really solid because they love film cameras. If the auction or ad says mint they mean “If we put it in the original box, you would think it was new” mint. In fact, average cameras in Japan are what Westerners would consider mint.