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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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