The SQ-A camera was built by Zenza Bronica in Japan between 1982 and 1989. As part of the Bronica SQ series, it could use 120, 220, or Polaroid film with full six by six cm square exposures. The Bronica ETR series on the other hand, were masked to produce smaller six by four cm exposures. – rectangular, smaller, but allowing more exposures per film roll.
I’ve owned a Zenza Bronica SQ-A camera for a little over two months, and fancied writing an early appraisal (not too sure if I have the experience to call it a user review). The Bronica SQ-A is both a medium format film SLR camera, and a modular system camera. The former, as it indeed is a single lens reflex, with a reflex mirror that moves out of the way – either lockup preset, or automatically before the shutter opens. The mirror does not return to viewing position, until the film is cranked on. The camera has a leaf shutter, located in the lens. It is a modular system camera, with interchangeable lenses, focusing screens, prism or waist level finders, film backs, and an optional grip.
My Bronica SQ-A came fitted with a Zenzanon 80mm f/2.8 PS lens, standard focusing screen, waist level viewer (with magnifier), no grip, and with a 120 film back including dark slide. I purchased it on Ebay for £180. The largest sum that I have ever paid for a camera, but it was a good price for a private purchase. Buy it now prices for a similar system on Ebay, range from GBP £200 to £500, so I’d say I got a good buy. These system cameras were popular tools used by professional studios and wedding photographers during the 1980s and 1990s, so plenty come along for sale, although some may have been well used. They are sometimes nicknamed “the poor man’s Hasselblad”. However a used ‘Blad of similar spec and vintage is likely to cost you between £750 and £1,750. Performance of a Hasselblad is considered to be superior to a Bronica, but “not necessarily THAT superior for all types of photography. That is what attracted me to the Bronica SQA. Value for money. Having recently entered medium format film photography using a £3 Lomo Lubitel 166B TLR camera, I desired something better, but couldn’t justify the cost of buying a Hasselblad.
The Bronica SQ-A, with a 120 film back, exposes a 6cm by 6cm square image onto each film frame. That’s about four times the area of a 35mm film, or full frame digital sensor. These are pretty large exposures, enabling great detail, and either enlarging or cropping capacity. A square format negates landscape v portrait camera handling. It challenges the photographer with new compositions. On a roll of 120 film, I get 12 negatives. The film is manually cranked on, but as long as the film is correctly loaded, the winder takes you automatically to the next frame – and the exposure counter is displayed on the film back. No light leaking red windows on this system camera. As previously stated, the film crank also (unless set not to on the lockup selector) resets the reflex mirror for viewing.
The film back can be removed part way through using a film, by inserting the supplied “dark slide”, and pressing release tabs. A professional photographer in the past would carry a number of film backs – ready loaded with film, or maybe a choice of films and formats. Film backs were manufactured for 120, 220, and Polaroid. 220 film format is no longer widely available. It is similar ro 120, only with paper backing only at leader and foot at the film – allowing more film to be rolled, with more exposures than 120. Polaroids were often used by studios whilst testing a photoshoot. I have also seen mention of a 135 (35mm) film back, but I do not know if this was ever officially available for the SQ-A. Still, you can see why modular system cameras were developed, and became so popular with studios and wedding photographers.
Mirror lockup either one exposure or continuous, is available via a toggle switch. As is a multiple exposure function that allows for more than one exposure without cranking on film.
The lens supplied with my Bronica system was the kit Zenzanon PS 80 mm f/2.8. On 120 medium format, this gives a similar “standard” focal length to a 35mm film camera fitted with a 50 mm prime, or alternatively to a DSLR APS-C sensor fitted with around a 35 mm prime. The Zenzanon PS line of prime lenses were manufactured in a range of focal lengths, from 35 mm to 500 mm. Some prefer the later PS line (built from 1986 to 1989) to the earlier S line (built from 1980 to 1986). Mine was very clean, and mechanically sound. The Zenzanon 150 mm prime lens is preferred for close up portrait work, to the 80 mm. It’s on my wish list. My lens also has a depth of field preview switch – allowing the user to preview through the stopped down aperture.
A variety of focusing screens and finders modules can be used on the Bronica body. Mine is I believe fitted with the standard kit focusing screen, and with the most common choice for the 6 x 6 SQ-A, a waist level finder. The focusing hood has a well made feel to it, and releases very well. A magnifier for fine focusing can be popped up. It’s worth noting that the reflex finder image has not passed through a prism. It is the correct way up for the user, but back to front. If expecting someone to cross the path of the lens from the left – they’ll appear instead from the right in the viewer. The whole feel of the waist level viewer is that of good construct and design. Alternative finders for the Bronica include a prism viewfinder. This, especially when combined with a grip, can make handling the camera something more like a 35mm SLR – although with rather more weight and size! The camera can be held up at eye level, and viewed through a prism. The AE prism finder has a light meter built in. More on that later. However, Bronica users seem to prefer using prism finders on the ETR series, which reflex waist level images upside down (or so I’m told, please tell me if I’m wrong), and waist level finders on the SQ series.
The SQ-A with a waist level finder is a fully manual exposure camera. However, with an AE prism finder, it is capable of Automatic (Aperture priority – the AE finder sets the shutter speed) exposure. I’m happy with my waist level finder, but I’m using my SQ-A without any light metering (I had an unreliable portable light meter that totally died), setting exposure by judgement and the Sunny F16 rule. Sacrilege! I could carry a DSLR around and use it as a light meter, but too cumbersome!
Power is supplied by your cranking the handle, and electrically from a 6V silver oxide battery. A battery tester is built into the body. Shutter speed is set on the body, by a well built dial, from 8 secs to 1/500 sec. Aperture on my PS 80mm lens ranges from f2.8 to f22. A film speed dial sits on the back of the body. By default, it’s just a reminder. However, if used with an AE prism finder, it does adjust automatic exposure.
By the way, I’m told that the correct pronunciation for Bronica is “brownie-ka”. When George Eastman and his company Kodak introduced the 120 film format in 1901, it was initially intended for their new range of Brownie box cameras. The Japanese managers at Bronica still knew 120 as “Brownie film”.
So what’s it like to use? To an amateur enthusiast like myself, awesome! It’s a heavy lump on the shoulder strap, weighing in at 1.5 kg. That’s without a prism or finder. It’s solidly built. On the shoulder, it hangs down – lens cover facing to the ground. I used it in the streets of Cambridge last weekend. Plastic Canon / Nikon DSLRs flashing around everywhere on rapid shoot auto modes. I move in with the Bronica, release the finder hood and magnifier. Carefully judge the light and set shutter speed and aperture. Look down into the finder hood, and focus through the magnifier. Then a single thought out CLUNK goes the mirror. Crank the film on with it’s mighty handle. It’s super cool. I’ve never had a camera that feels so carefully engineered, and so well built.
As for results, I don’t feel that I’ve had a chance yet to get my best out of it. It’s most probably a better portrait camera than street camera. I really would like to try it out in a studio, or at least in good lighting. Still, until then, I submit the images here on this post. Click on any leads you to my Bronica SQ-A Flickr Gallery. My poor man’s ‘Blad.