Bronica S2A

Zenza Bronica S2A – Early Experiences Review & Buyer’s Notes – By Mark Herse

The Bronica S2A is a hefty 6×6 focal plane medium format SLR produced in Tokyo from 1969-1977. It was the last fully mechanical 6×6 SLR among Bronica’s Z/D, C, and S series, and later replaced by the electronic EC model. The S2A is unique in having an ‘instant return automatic mirror’ that swings down instead of up during exposure, which allows space for wide-angle and deep-seated lenses that extend far into the camera body.

Weighing in at just under 2 kg, the Bronica S2A is a tank, almost to the point of being absurd. It’s made of steel and chrome. Firing the shutter is like slamming a car door, so you can forget about being discreet with this camera. That said, the S2A makes up for its lack of subtlety with good looks, a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 second, interchangeable film backs, a bright viewfinder, and a safety that prevents the shutter from firing without removing the dark slide (i.e., no misfires).

From what I can tell, the best feature of the Bronica S2A is the standard Nikkor-P 75mm (~50mm equivalent in 35mm format) f/2.8 lens. It’s sharp, fast enough for shooting indoors in decent light, and produces gorgeous images. Bronica partnered with Nikon to produce a line of reputable lenses for the S system. Some other lenses that fit the S2A include the Nikkor-D 40mm f/4, Nikkor-O 50mm f/2.8, Nikkor-H 50mm f/3.5, Zenzanon 150mm f/3.5, and Nikkor-P 200mm f/4.

During the 1960s-1970s, Bronica’s 6×6 SLRs provided photographers with alternatives to the pricey Hasselblad 500 C and C/M. Fifty years later, this is still the case, with Bronica S2A kits costing around one-fifth the price of Hasselblad C/M kits.

My first photo with the Bronica S2A, New Brighton Beach, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford HP5+).
Christmas Eve, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford HP5+).
Christmas Eve, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford HP5+).

What led me to the Bronica S2A

I was lucky to live in Aotearoa/New Zealand during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, spared from the long-term lockdowns, infection rates, and losses that so many others have experienced. Still, the initial outbreak and lockdown in Aotearoa was a punch in the gut. My partner had to cancel an upcoming visit from overseas, and I had to face the reality of being stuck in a shared flat for six weeks instead of going on a road trip as planned.

Like many other photographers, I looked for inspiration to go on photo walks during lockdown, but inspiration eluded me. I had shot digital cameras exclusively since the 2000s and grown tired of capturing, sorting, and editing heaps of photos. My photography felt inconsistent, dispensable, and plagued by my own perfectionism. It had become an exhausting chore that distracted me from enjoying and remembering what I was doing.

Something clicked during lockdown and I decided that returning to film was the antidote I needed. I perused information online (thanks 35mmc), recalling what I’d learned while shooting film as a teenager, plus lots more about different cameras and film formats. Eventually I narrowed my choices down to fully mechanical medium format cameras, as I wanted a slower, more tangible experience than what I’d had with modern digital photography.

I first discovered the Bronica S2A in a brilliant ASMR-like video by Tywen Kelly. The aesthetics pulled me in, and then I was sold after reading more on the history and specs of the camera (see above). I knew about the Hasselblad 500 series and its iconic status, but as a casual photographer, spending thousands of dollars on a used camera was simply out of the question. The S2A’s lack of prestige was attractive to me. By all accounts, it was a solid camera that could take great photos without destroying my bank account or demanding any special respect.

Bronica S2A sample image
Hooker Lake trail, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Fuji Pro 400H).
Bronica S2A sample image
Hooker Lake, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Fuji Pro 400H).
Bronica S2A sample image
Hagley Park, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Kodak Ektar 100).
Hagley Park, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Kodak Ektar 100).

Buyer’s notes

Before heading over to eBay or your local camera shop, there are two things worth noting about the Bronica S2A.

Bronica S2A vs S2

First, the older S2 (1965-1969) is notorious for faulty film advance gears that jam, and the mechanics were improved on the Bronica S2A. The S2 and S2A appear almost identical apart from serial numbers and a few small features (e.g., film advance knob, neck-strap lug). According to a video by David Hancock, S2 bodies have serial numbers less than 100000, early generation S2A bodies (1969-1972) are between 100000 and 150000, and later S2A bodies (1973-1977) are above 150000. However, I’ve seen cameras with serial numbers around 80000+ that appear to be S2As. There are different bits of information floating around the internet about these numbers, and they do not all match.

To make things more confusing, some camera batches included an “S2A” after the serial number and others did not. The film backs also have different serial numbers than the bodies. Owners and sellers often swap bodies and film backs. Every time I look on eBay, I see at least one seller falsely advertising an S2 as an S2A. So, if you want an S2A, the safest bet is to look for a body with a serial number above 100000, and make sure the folding handle on the film advance knob is black (not silver). If you’re lucky, you might find an Bronica S2A being sold as an S2.

Focusing issues

Second, the Bronica S2A focus may be off if the original foam padding beneath the focusing screen and/or mirror have never been replaced. This material degrades into a flaky residue over time, which can lead to the focusing screen and/or mirror dropping by millimeters and throwing off the focus. It’s a simple fix for anyone comfortable disassembling a few parts, and covered in detail here and here (the latter video is in Mandarin but useful visually for those of us who cannot understand). You’ll need a small flat screwdriver, alcohol and swab for cleaning, and replacement material to hold the screen and mirror firmly in place, like when the camera was new. I used light seal foam to replace everything and my focus is spot on. Be careful not to strip the small screws, and avoid handling the fresnel lens with your bare hands.

Christmas, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford Delta 3200).
Bronica S2A sample black and white image
Christmas, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford Delta 3200).
Sleepy New Year’s Eve, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand (Ilford Delta 3200).

Bronica S2A – Final words

The Bronica S2A has been great for me. It isn’t perfect, but its only real flaw, the focusing issue, is an easy fix. Besides, doing some minor repairs or upkeep on a camera helps to get to know it. Since day one I’ve been surprised by how many photos turn out better than I expect. Personally, I don’t think that spending thousands of dollars on a Hasselblad would have improved my experience or photos in any significant way. Bringing the S2A back to life renewed my interest in photography and led me to capture lots of good times with friends in Aotearoa before leaving. So, the camera has served it’s purpose.

I moved to Thailand in 2021 to be with my partner after more than a year apart, and the S2A has proven to be an attention-grabber here as well. I’ve been excited to find a strong film community in Thailand, with no shortage of film stocks or labs.

Buddhist family ritual, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Ilford FP4+).
My better half, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Ilford FP4+).

I recently sold my Canon 7D and lenses and used some of the cash to buy a Yashica Electro CCN rangefinder for when I don’t want to haul the Bronica S2A around. I still have my Fuji X-T2 and lenses, but they mostly sit in the closet these days. I’m all in on film and haven’t felt more excited about picking up cameras in years. 

Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Kodak Portra 160).
Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Kodak Portra 160).
If cheeks could kill. Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Kodak Portra 160).

Thanks for looking, stay safe, and feel free to connect on Flickr or Instagram.

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About The Author

27 thoughts on “Zenza Bronica S2A – Early Experiences Review & Buyer’s Notes – By Mark Herse”

  1. Great story and beautiful images. The first picture, of the beach, is simply great. The fact that it was your first with that camera, on film, makes it all the better.

  2. Thanks for the interesting article and pics! I love hearing about other people’s journeys towards making art. I also choose Bronica for medium format but went with the 6×9 ETRSi. The price / value proposition was so good and I love my Bronica 50mm and 150mm lenses. Two 75mm lenses that suffer sticky shutters that I will need to clean one of these days… Thanks!

    1. Thanks! I would love to try the ETRSi sometime. Looks like an awesome camera! Although I enjoy the challenge of shooting with a 6×6 format, I generally prefer a wider image.

    2. J Alan,
      I’m sure you know but just so no one gets confused the Bronica ETRSi shoots 6×4.5 not 6×9. I should know as I have one.
      To my knowledge Bronica never made any 6×9 format cameras.

    1. There are plenty of old bodies around, which means there are plenty of parts. The cameras are fully mechanical which means servicing them isn’t very difficult – I am a novice and dismantled the mirror and focusing screen to fix the focus. The S2A has an improved gear system, so they should last, but even if they fail, they are not terribly expensive to replace.

  3. Talk about that Sekonic L398 meter sometime. I use the same. They really confuse people—Just covered in numbers! But no batteries! I love a no-battery setup.

    1. I love the Sekonic L398 meter! I bought the deluxe II used on eBay. It’s super simple once you get the hang of it eh? I like that it’s so easy to glance at a range of aperture/shutter speed combinations at one time.

  4. I’m so used to, and enjoy reading about, peoples journeys into old film cameras and the photos they take. I understand that everyone’s creative tendencies are different and take that into account when viewing pictures that generally don’t appeal to me. However, your photos are fabulous! Great compositions, selective focus and nice subjects. I really enjoyed looking at your creations! I’m a fan of Bronica too having owned an EC-TL in the 90’s and having it produce great results. Having also shot with a Hasselblad 500 C/M at the time, when I look at the Kodachrome and Velvia transparencies now I can only tell them apart by the telltale notches along the edge of the Blad shots – that’s how good the Bronica is! Great article and photos!

    1. Thanks a lot Ken – that is great to hear! I haven’t used a Hasselblad, and I believe that they are great cameras, but the S2A has been good enough for me. 🙂

  5. I’ve been looking into getting my own S2A for a while, but the one thing that always kept me from buying is the lack of mirror lock-up. Now I know the S2A has it’s own sliding mirror kind of system that I suppose eliminates some of the camera shake(?), but I’d like to hear first hand how slow you can actually go when shooting handheld and, if you’re the tripod-hugging kind like me, how much shake is left to ruin the image when doing long exposures?
    Besides from that, great article and really good photos, thanks for the good read! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment! I am opposite in that I almost never use a tripod, so I might not be able to offer much insight. I haven’t had any issues with camera shake when shooting handheld. I’ve shot a bunch of indoor photos at 1/30 and f 2.8 (the delta 3200 photos of the cat and dog in this post, for example), and never had issues. The lowest I’ve gone is 1/15, like this recent photo here. I was expecting some blur but it turned out surprisingly sharp. I’ve never done long exposures with this camera. You can use a shutter release cable on the S2A which should prevent any shaking during long exposures. 🙂

  6. Very nice article! Have one myself and like it quite a bit, especially after replacing the focussing screen with a brighter one from RB67.
    One thing which I’d like to add from my side to ones who’s only about to get one: don’t be afraid of noises the camera makes! If you think you’ve broken something when advancing the film – you did not. The shutter release also does not break the mirror 🙂 The point is: this is not a quite camera, presumably due to the very unusual (for an SLR) construction. The mirror does not move up, but rather down, and at the same time a dedicated shutter comes into play to shield the film from light coming through the focussing screen. This is meant to reduce effect of the mirror slap in terms of vibration, but not the simplest construction. It’s kind of amazing how they managed to fit everything within a reasonable compact body, but the price is apparently rather loud operation and potential issues with reliability (not that I had any issues though).

    1. Thanks for your reply Victor, and for adding that comment. I forgot to mention that the film advance sounds like it breaks every time you wind it! Even after hearing about this before buying the camera, I wasn’t fully prepared for it and definitely thought something was wrong the first time I shot a roll.

  7. Great article Mark – I do have to quibble with one thing though. The S2 was never known for ‘faulty film advance gears that jam.’ According to my ‘Bronica Guru’, Frank Marshman, this is the situation when I was asking him recently about that final ‘snap’ that happens at the end of the film advance crank’ s rotation of the S2/S2a:

    “The ‘snap’ is normal, it is the clutch kicking out and resetting for the next wind.
    The S simply stopped when wound and animal users would force the crank and stripnthe gears so they redesigned the winding. The S2 was designed so the wind gears kicked out when the shutter was wound. This is the difference between the S, Supreme, and the S2 and S2A. The S2A has deeper cut teeth in the winding gears since even with clutch that kicks out some of the animals still would force the wind crank on the S2 and break the teeth of the gear.”

    So at least according to Frank, as long as you’re not an ‘animal’ when advancing the film the S2 should be as reliable as the S2a. I think that reputation may possibly have come from back in the day when these cameras were used in commercial studios and they went through rolls and rolls of film, working quickly and those ‘animal’ commercial photographers would be forcing that winding crank time and again.

    1. Thanks Vince. Yes, I understand that the ‘snap’ is normal on both the s2 and s2a. But based on what you shared, I would still describe the s2 film advance as faulty, because it was so susceptible to stripping. A sound design should be resilient to this sort of thing, hence the updated s2a with the deeper cut teeth, as you mentioned.

  8. Great article and images. I have the dreaded S2 with that 75 Nikkor and the Wide Nikkor as well. I LOVE it. It’s my Japanese Cadillac.

  9. Toby Madrigal

    The light meter mentioned above is both accurate and sensitive. I have the Deluxe 11 version. I find it more responsive than the Weston Master V I’ve used since 1981 with a Nikkormat.
    I’ve been considering buying an S2A to continue making 6 X 6 slides. I had a 500CM for a few years but got my partner to sell it on eBay as I was afraid of it breaking, then being faced with horrendous repair bills.

  10. Having used a Hasselblad 500CM between 2007 and 2015, I sold it as I was concerned that a repair would cost me more than the price of the camera. I used Zeiss folding cameras for a while, 6 X 6 and 6 X 9. I found a Bronica S2A complete on a dealers website last moth and like it. I’ve already bought spare backs and four lenses plus a big metal case for the outfit. The prices for Bronica are a fraction of Hasselblad and the gear seems much tougher.

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