Medium Format

A Bronica ETRS Review – by Andy, AKA The Phlogger

bronica etrs by phlogger

A lot of camera reviews include technical details and specifications, but this one has almost nothing like that. Instead, it has the important things, like why you might want a Bronica ETRS and what it will help you to achieve.

Although they have gone through some small changes over the years, all of Bronica’s 645 models look similar to the casual eye, starting with the original ETR from 1976. The ETRS was manufactured from 1979 through to the early 2000s, and while it shoots 6×4.5cm frames, the design is essentially the same as the Hasselblads that came before it: the camera body is a box in the middle, and you add a lens, viewfinder, film back and an optional grip if you want to.

Originally, Zenza Bronica partnered with Nikon to make the lenses, but subsequently decided to make its own. Unlike 35mm cameras, the shutter is inside the lens and is based around a leaf system, which means it will sync with flash at any shutter speed.

Why a Bronica?

The simple reason why you should buy a Bronica ETRS is because it’s a great camera. I know most people say that about their camera, but in this case it’s true. Obviously it has good and bad points, but to give you an idea of why I like it we can break it down into five key points:

  • Weight
  • Availability
  • Cost
  • Lenses
  • Simplicity

Weight

A medium format camera will be heavy compared to any 35mm camera, but if you compare the weight of the ETRS to a Mamiya 645 (its nearest rival), the Bronica is noticeably lighter. It’s all relative, though, as by the time you add a lens, viewfinder and grip it starts adding up!

However, it’s not that much different to a high-end DSLR and I carry it in pretty much the same way as a smaller camera – on a shoulder strap that screws to the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. This lets me quickly move it up to my eye to shoot and I’ll happily walk around for hours like this. It’s great for trying your hand at street photography with large negatives!

etrs on kitchen scales by phlogger

ETRS weighing in with a 50mm lens, grip and loaded film back

Availability

There are normally plenty of ETRS cameras for sale on eBay and Gumtree (in the UK), or you can buy from a shop like Ffordes or West Yorkshire Cameras, where you’ll get a warranty and friendly and knowledgeable support. I’ve used both shops and can’t fault either of them.

There are plenty of different backs, viewfinders and grips to get you started, including a rare ‘wide back’ for shooting 35mm film a speed grip that combines a shutter release with a winder. Quite often you will see boxed accessories popping up on eBay (especially from Japan).

Boxed lenses also appear quite regularly, and while there isn’t the same range of focal lengths for the Bronica that you’d find on a smaller format camera there are enough lenses for everybody (the 75mm f/2.8 standard lens is common). There are also some zoom and macro options, but they tend to be priced at a premium due to the lack of supply.

etrs with 220 film back by phlogger

ETRS with 220 film back and custom dark slide

Cost

The Bronica ETRS is extremely affordable, coming in at around £200-£300 with a 75mm lens, depending on condition. I doubt you would find a similar medium format system for the money, otherwise I would have tried it already!

If you want to move up to 6×6 format, the Bronica SQ is also an affordable option (especially compared to Hasselblads and Rolleis), but a good example will cost you in excess of £350, and you would need new glass as well, as the ETR and SQ systems are not interchangeable.

Lenses

Obviously, there are a variety of lenses for the ETR system, ranging from a 30mm fisheye all the way up to a 500mm telephoto, plus a few macro lenses, zooms and a 55mm tilt/shift lens. There are also supplementary close-up lenses and extension tubes.

50mm etrs lens by phlogger

Bronica ETRS 50mm lens

This covers a large enough range for most types of photography: 50mm is good for street and landscape work (and it opens up to f/2.8 as well!), while the 150mm and 250mm primes are great for portraiture.

Simplicity

One of the main reasons to buy a camera like the ETRS is ease of use. With so few buttons and dials, there is isn’t much to learn or go wrong. Once you understand how to load film, advancing a frame is far easier than 35mm and because the exposure counter is slightly bigger than a 35mm camera it’s great for those of us who suffer from vision problems.

exposure counter on etrs by phlogger

Bronica ETRS exposure counter on film back

Having the ability to swap backs mid-roll makes it more practical as well, just as long as you’ve got a dark slide to keep your film back light tight.

I’ve only ever used my ETRS with a waist level finder, which is fine for general use, but there is a slight issue is with portraits. Depending on the height of your subject you sometimes have to think about how high you need the camera. I’ve had to stand on stools and chairs to get above my camera and look down into the viewfinder when I’ve been photographing a standing subject and want to shoot from their eye level.

For those who prefer an SLR-style view, a number of prism viewfinders are available. Certain models have built-in metering so you can meter just like your regular SLR as well.

I’m not going to go into every feature on the camera, but it’s worth pointing out that is has a multiple exposure option that is good fun to use, and although the shutter speeds start at 1/500sec and go down to 5 seconds, there is a way to override them on the lens.

Downsides

Like any camera – film or digital – the Bronica ETRS is not without its problems and design issues:

Bulb mode

There is a screw on the lens that you can adjust to give you Bulb mode; you will need a screwdriver to do it, though.

Speed grip

The speed grip almost blocks access to the multiple exposure lever, making it quite fiddly to activate it.

Size

The ‘brick like’ Bronica is in no way ergonomically designed for handholding, although a grip will help. Also, while some bags I’ve used will fit the camera, its boxy design means it’s not quick to get it out again.

Spares & accessories

There are plenty of accessories you can bolt on to the camera, but nothing has been made for decades, so certain items might not be available all the time and prices can fluctuate. Getting cameras repaired could also become difficult if any parts start to become unavailable.

Battery

The ETRS relies on a battery (4SR44/4LR44), so like any electronic camera it pays to carry a spare. The battery is easy to replace (on the bottom of the camera body) and there is a test button.

The results

Perhaps the most important reason for buying an ETRS is the results. From shooting my first roll I’ve been totally amazed by the image quality of the Bronica, especially compared to 35mm.

It’s important to understand light when you’re shooting without a meter, and the choice of film is important as well. I shot my first six rolls on Kodak Portra, because of its reputation. I had never used this film before, but it didn’t let me down. The results were so good that I would wait in anticipation every time I sent some off for developing and scanning.

stephen rendall portrait by phlogger

Picture of Stephen from Fez photography using Kodak Portra 400

It’s magical to be rewarded for your hard work, especially when a professional company like filmdev can produce such good scans. Having a good negative will also help in the darkroom, as you can print larger images without any loss of quality.

Conclusion

As far as I’m concerned, the Bronica ETRS is a great option for anyone who wants to get into medium format photography. Sure, there are cheaper ways into 120, like a budget TLR or folding camera, but they don’t have interchangeable lenses or the same choice of backs – it’s great to have some color and b&w loaded and switch between the two! It took a while to get used to loading the film, changing lenses and focusing, but these were moments to enjoy, and using a waist level viewfinder literally makes me look at the world differently.

So talk to the staff at West Yorkshire Cameras or Ffordes, pop in to your local second-hand camera store and look at one. Don’t waste time thinking about it, just make the jump and buy one: if you don’t like it, you can always sell it for the price you paid!

Until next time…

Andy aka Phlogger

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12 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Harry Berger
    May 1, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    I prefer the Mamiya C330f. Much better in every way, and not that much more expensive. And those Sekor lenses are just fantastic.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      May 7, 2019 at 4:41 pm

      You can’t say a C330 is better in every way. It is a different camera, 6×6 format and twin lens design. It is a different beast. I agree that the Sekor lenses are excellent.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Zisis Kardianos
    May 1, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    After a month trying my friend’s ETR with WL finder, and having been amazed by the results, I decided with no further ado to make the jump and bought the ETRSi complete with 75mm PE, AE III prism and speed grip with winder. I’m waiting for it in anticipation. On my wish list is a 50mm, a couple of extra backs and two rarities. The 55mm super angulon shift/tilt, and the 135W back. But even without them, I’m pretty sure I will enjoy this camera. Thank you for your review!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Matt
    May 1, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    I am a proud owner and user of an ETR and an ETRSI. I started with the ETR and did not like the T mode on the lens to do long exposures. The ETRSI has a built in Bulb mode. The Bronica is cheap, has great lenses, is lightweight, and there are a ton of options out there for accessories. My only issues have come with finding 120 backs. 220 backs are everywhere and quite cheap. 120 backs are a little harder to find and about 3 times the cost.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    BC
    May 1, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    No doubt Bronica is a good option for anyone who wants a start in medium photography on a very reasonable budget for this format, thank you for reminding us. The greatest arguments are cost and good-quality lenses. Now having used a Bronica for professional reasons I would pass for a Mamiya (plenty of cheap options too with the C220 and the C330 and of course their rangefinders), or invest long-term in a Hasselblad (also the pleasure of an extremely-well-made repairable camera). Both have better lenses whose shutters are less likely to freeze (yes it happened to me during a wedding with my Bronica), and, and it is a subjective impression here, feel better to use. Now again as a starter Bronica is a wonderful option, but in my opinion if one is serious about medium format and sees long term it might be sensible to go to Hasselblad or Mamiya (there are also very good options on ebay if someone is patient) as you may end up with something that you keep instead of buying a transitional object. There might be a slight budget difference but worth it in my opinion (and practice as I have used all theses cameras). But you are right Bronica is probably the most budget-friendly option (another issue is who will repair it (mostly the leaf-shutter) in case of problem? Parts are not that common anymore and you may have to buy another lens and be left with the feeling of a not-that-reliable camera… not a pleasant one if you have to rely on it (trip or professional venue); as for playing with it, yes pleasant.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    George.B.
    May 1, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    The output looks like any decent ILC + any decent Zeiss lens + one of the RNI’s film profiles. Incredibly similar to the RNI’s Agfacolor 40’s Warm inn fact. Am I missing something?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 6, 2019 at 10:54 pm

      Eh? Odd comment – this is a film camera

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    May 1, 2019 at 5:09 pm

    20+ years ago, Tamrac and other companies made specific medium format bags. They had internal dividers that fit the square cameras nicely. But you need to find a used one now.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Adam Laws
    May 1, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    Nice synopsis of the equipment. Sounds like a great set-up for a cheap interchangeable system. Would loved to have seen more of your work.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    iGlad
    May 2, 2019 at 1:17 am

    That’s a very nice review of a great medium format camera, which i bought on Ebay about 18 months ago and I was amazed by the lens quality as i usually shoot in B&W and develop my own negs. Sure it’s heavy you just don’t really notice the weight if you have a nice winder grip on it as thats how i carry mine. I was a 6×6 user but i soon got used to it and i bought a couple of lens wide and telephoto. I paid just under £200 for mine with a 75mm lens and back with dark slide and they are selling for pretty decent prices. They are a quality camera with some great lens and this year i intend to use it a lot more.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Patrick Abe
    May 2, 2019 at 6:56 am

    In the 1980’s, I was ready to move up from 120-using TLRs such as Ye Olde Rolleicord or Minolta Autocord. I had looked at the Kowa Six and the Mamiya M645, but the Bronica ETR fit the pocketbook. (Hasselblad? I’m not made of money!) To give the system a try out, I chose the cheaper Bronica ETR-C, which used roll film inserts like the M645. I assembled a Speed Grip + Prism finder + 50mm Zenzanon lens and found that it handled very much like a large 35mm SLR. I didn’t branch out into 220 film, though that was just an insert away. The 50mm was OK, but things got very interesting when I added a 150mm and 75mm lenses to the set. These lenses were sharp and crisp, completing the basic trio for medium format work.
    I considered the interchangeable back ETR/ETRS, but never had to use more than one kind of film per session. It was at least as interesting as a Hasselblad 500C at a fraction of the cost. Having used a waist level finder for years with the 120 TLRs, I also didn’t find much reason to stray from the prism finder. All in all, a better package than the M645, which used a Power Winder to do what the Speed Grip could do without a load of batteries.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Geof
    May 2, 2019 at 8:13 pm

    A couple worthwhile additional points—there are three models in the range; ETR, ETRS, and ETRSi. If you want an easier to access “bulb” mode, the ETRSi gives it to you, with the caveat that it consumes battery as long as the shutter is opened.

    Composing rectangular frames (like the 6×4.5) in portrait mode with a waist lever finder can be a real bear because of the mirrored image. Some people don’t like the WLF, even in landscape mode. They tend to get the prism and grip, which makes the camera physically large and heavier. Most of my shots are in landscape so I almost always shoot my ETRSi in minimalist mode with WLF and no grip. This makes the a small and light, which I love.

    One of the biggest selling points is the price of the lenses (and their relative quality.). They are crazy cheap. The only expensive ones are the 30mm fisheye, the 105mm 1:1 macro, the 180mm and the 500mm. The rest (40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 135, 150, 200, and 250) are all very inexpensive. Even the two Bronica branded zooms are comparatively inexpensive. (The Schneider zooms are expensive and the Schneider tilt/shift is unobtanium as I’ve never seen one for sale.)

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