And the best bargain in a medium-format film camera is undoubtedly Bronica.
Bronica (the brainchild of Zenzaburo Yoshino—"Bronica" was a compaction of a Japanese phrase that meant "Zenzaburo's Brownie camera," "brownie" being used generically in Japan in those days to refer to a 120 camera) fled the field in 2005, meaning there are many recent cameras out there. And the stuff is going absolutely begging—you can put together a whole working camera for just a few hundred dollars.
Bronica was known as the "Japanese Hasselblad," and paralled that camera's modular basic nature. But Bronica went a good deal further with its SLRs, having electronic controlled operation and offering three separate lines for the three main aspect ratios in medium format:
• 645 (6x4.5cm nominal), called ETR and ETRS;
• Square (6x6cm nominal)—the SQ-A, SQ-Ai, a motorized version called an SQ-AM, and SQ-B ("SQ" for "square"); and
• 6x7 (6x7cm nominal), called the GS-1.
The one to look for in my opinion—although any are serviceable—is the unmotorized square camera, because it's the easiest to use with a simple waist-level finder. The SQ-Ai was later, but it's nearly identical to the SQ-A save for a few minor refinements (but at the cost of somewhat worse battery life); the SQ-B was a "stripper" economy version sold in a kit with a normal lens and a back, but is perfectly fine to use. As modern buyers will probably be getting one to play with rather than to impress the ad agency, I don't think there's much to choose between them.
The weak point of the SQ's are the backs, which failed first (this according to a survey of repairpersons and two big-city camera rental outfits in the '90s, so consider this a robust fact). But they tended to fail under very heavy use, and I doubt present-day mostly-digital buyers will give them the kind of exercise that would cause a back to fail.
The lenses are called Zenzanons, and the lenses for the SQ cameras are available in two different series, the Zenzanon-S and the Zenzanon-PS. The PS lenses were newer and supposedly improved, but, since digital is sharper anyway and today's users would be looking for "that classic film look," there's no reason to scorn the S lenses. The only PS lens I undoubtedly preferred to the S was the 80mm ƒ/2.8 normal lens; in many other cases the S lenses are just fine. In the case of the 150mm choices, the Zenzanon-S 150mm ƒ/3.5 is something of a secret weapon, with nearly perfect bokeh and a balanced soft/sharp look that is perfect for portraits. You can see a nice representative example here. (The photo is by Lou Meluso, taken on Kodak T-Max 400.) The PS lens is still nice, just not quite as nice.
You can go one of two ways with a Bronica square camera—either get a bare-bones play camera consisting of a body, a back, a normal lens, and a folding waist-level finder (the cameras have no light meters except in some of the prism finders, so you'll need a handheld of some sort), or you can make a game of putting together an entire extended outfit, piece by incredibly inexpensive piece. I'd start with a couple of extra backs if it were me.
Prices? I tried to sell a good SQ-A, w-l finder, 120 back, hand grip, and 80mm PS lens for $400 a couple of years ago and found no takers. Look around, and don't buy the first thing you come across; extremely good bargains aren't rare.
The KEH rule ("Before buying an old camera on eBay, check KEH first") holds here, though, very much.
And, finally, Tamron, the independent lensmaker that was the last owner of Bronica, lists a number of repair facilities across the U.S. at least—I didn't research European or Asian repair stations, but they undoubtedly exist.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Antony Shepherd: "I've put together a small ETRS system (I call the 'SLR of DOOM'), two backs, the AEII prism, the speed grip (which makes it easier to use when you've got the prism), and a 50mm wide as well as the 75mm standard lens. I did think about getting a longer lens but figured I might not want to carry one of those about all day if I was out and about. I really need to use it more often as I'm always happy with the results."
adamct: "I'd say it's a tie. I continue to believe that the YashicaMat 124 is a complete steal, has great ergonomics, takes beautiful pictures and— importantly—is fairly light and compact for a medium format camera. And the 124 has a built-in light meter that works surprisingly well. It's not an interchangeable lens camera, but I assure you that I have gotten more use out of my YashicaMat than I have out of my three other interchangeable lens systems. The bulk, weight and lack of a light meter just wound up being too cumbersome to be worth it with the other systems. And I say this despite having purchased prisms with built-in light meters in some cases, as those prisms add an extra 72 lbs. (this number is...uh...shall we say...subjective. The objective value is probably closer to 26 lbs. ;-) to the weight of the camera."
Brian: "I got my SQ-A a few months ago, along with a PS 80mm ƒ/2.8 and an S 200mm (and a Pentax spotmeter), and I'm very pleased with it all. I was told by an ex-Bronica salesman to go for the PS lenses, so I'm happy to read your tip about the S 150mm. That will be my next purchase. Thanks for the tip! Except, now that you've written about it, maybe they'll be harder to find and pricier. Darn you!"
Ken Bennett: "I used the heck out of my Bronica SQ bodies, both the SQ-A and the SQ-Ai. Did a lot of magazine and corporate work with them, then when I took a university staff job I replicated my whole kit and then some. Absolutely loved the lenses, especially the 40mm PS lens. There's just something very cool about shooting square format 120 film, from loading the backs to dropping the trannies on the light table. I still have some portraits shot with that system in my portfolio."
Chris Lucianu: "Bronica veteran reporting for duty. First, here's Tony Hilton's Bronica bible for Zenzaficionados. My Bronica was the S2A. It looked as if designed by Edmund E. Anderson, and it had all the functional purity of a 1963 Rambler American 440. (Mike, where's the sarcasm flag at TypePad?) It weighed a ton; a ton and a half with the optional pentaprism, two with a spare back, and the Nikkor 135mm it came fitted with dwarfs a Zeiss ZF Makro Planar 100mm to MFT proportions. The standard 75mm ƒ/2.8 Nikkor P weighed hardly an ounce more than a Zeiss ZF Distagon 15mm. The mirror would serve as a passive echo-locator in an emergency, as its slap could be heard all the way to the horizon, and beyond. Best bargain in MF? You bet, it was a bargain all right—when I sold it. But it paid off handsomely: after a few years of rehab, my spine recovered to the point where corrective surgery could be eschewed. On the plus side, while I schlepped the Bronica, I always could count on getting Anthony Quinn's table in the bistros around Notre Dame in Paris: my back was naturally hunched, and my scowl genuine."
Mike replies: Great comment. To be clear, though, I'd never recommend an S2A.
Marco Venturini-Autieri: "I have a love-hate relationship with my SQ-A. The hate comes mostly from the backs (yes, they do fail and no, not only out of heavy use). So I must live with non-interchangeable backs (I tape one with black gaffer tape to the body, to cover where the dark slide should enter). I have 80mm, 110mm, 150mm, all PS, the 110mm not used yet (bought yesterday). Although on 35mm I love the 70–85mm focal length, I really cannot go along with this 150mm though."
Jon G: "I put together a Bronica SQ-A kit a couple years ago, four lenses, three 120 backs. Ran me about $400 CAD. One of the lenses still had the original box, with an ~$1800 pricetag from a local photo store on it. Awesome bokeh on the 80mm ƒ/2.8."
David Lonsdale: "I spent many happy years with my extensive ETRS outfit but changes in life meant no longer having a darkroom so I bit the digital bullet and the Bronnie was due to be sold. However, the best offers were, I felt, an insult to this magnificent equipment so it languished in the attic for a few years. Recently I took it all out, dusted it and put a fresh battery in and got a thrill from its feel; weighty, metal, glass and a sense of a lovingly manufactured instrument. I hope to bring it back into use when family and work demands reduce in a year or so and I take the pension."
`/1nc3nt (partial comment): "Bought Rolleiflex 80mm ƒ/3.5, sold it after couple months. I am schocked with the image quality, it's not like people always admire. It's too average for me."
Godfrey: "I learned photography with my grandfather's 1949 Rolleiflex. The allure of 6x6 has never left me. I've been addicted and re-addicted to it over and over in the 45-plus years since. With my latest re-addiction, I decided I didn't want a system camera. Had the Hassy system in the past. I've done the waist level finder thing too, so much I felt I needed to try something different. I bought a couple of 1950s folders...a beautiful little Balda Baldix and an even nicer Voigtländer Perkeo II. About $200 each, very compact, very portable—and amazing photo quality, particularly with the Perkeo II's Color Skopar lens. Unfortunately, it didn't stop there. This stuff is addictive: two rolls of film and I was totally hooked again. The photo linked below (and the four later ones in my flickr stream) were made with a new Voigtländer Bessa III. A superb camera. Thanks for feeding the mania. We seem to be channeling cousined gods."
Mike replies: A great source for anyone who want to play with folders is Jurgen at Certo6.com. He rehabs everything he sells, and his website (currently under reconstruction) is great fun.