Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
I bought into medium format for a few reasons. The main ones not in any
I love toys for big boys and I always want more then I can afford or my wife
will let me have;
I saw an increasing possibility of doing more portrait and wedding shoots and
desired to have a system more suitable for these formal shoots;
I love to shoot landscapes and I try to shoot for enlargements when I do so
in a very serious fashion -- I came to regard my 35mm kit as a restrictive
bottleneck for quality enlargements I'd be proud to display on my walls.
With those factors running through my head, numbers 2 and 3 being key (high
speed flash syncing in a convenient sized body that could do portraits and
landscapes equally well), I wanted to buy a medium format kit that would best
address my needs.
The decision-making process started with trying to decide which medium format
SLR size I would buy into, 645, 6x6 or 6x7, discounting the even larger and less
standard 6x8, 6x9 et al. I took some ideas and inspiration from some of the
wedding and portrait professionals I had come across or read about. Most used the
6x6 format for the compromise in a good-sized negative and being able to dispense
with having to tilt the camera for verticals. I decided to follow suit and go
with convention on the size issue and decided upon 6x6. Now I needed to decide
which company to buy into.
I'm no Philip Greenspun with reams of ArsDigita.com Internet money flowing out
of my pockets so overall costs were a major factor in my decision making. Rollei
never entered into the picture because they simply aren't a presence on the West
Coast of Canada where I live. It basically came down to Hasselblad or Bronica and
as I was going over the prices of both systems it became a perverse experience to
realize how poor I was/am. The price of admission into the rarified world of
Hasselblad was a humbling experience. Even though the entry-level prices were
actually affordable for me, subsequent purchases of lenses and accessories would
not be. So much so that Bronica became the only realistic choice for me to
The Bronica SQ-Ai body is a system-oriented camera based upon the classic
Hasselblad model. Meaning that you start with a squarish box that contains a
mirror assembly and a few control dials and switches on the exterior. And, oh
yes, you also get a film winding crank for your $1100 US. You must of course add
a viewing device such as a waist level or prism finder, a film back and a lens in
order to begin the picture taking experience with the Bronica. All of which will
cost you $2500 at B&H Photo for the basic kit (waist level finder
Your basic Bronica SQ-Ai kit will look remarkably similar to a Hasselblad,
which was probably no accident, functionally and aesthetically. The Bronica
SQ-Ai, more so then the other bodies in the Bronica lineup, can be thought of as
a Japanese Hasselblad. Incidentally, the other bodies of the 645 ETRSi and 6x7
GS-1, are respectively, basically smaller and larger versions of the SQ-Ai with
slight differences in features. Buy one body and you'll know exactly how to
operate the other two bodies.
The controls of the basic SQ-Ai body are simple. On the side of the body
(right hand side as you look down at the viewfinder) with the film-winding crank
there are two control levers and one release lever. One lever directly above the
winding crank is for multiple exposures. Flip it down and the film won't advance
until the switch has been flipped up. The multiple exposure switch is also
utilized when the Polaroid back is attached or for testing out the shutter action
without film in a back. The lever to the front of the winding crank is for mirror
lockup in either single exposure or continuous exposure shooting. The third
control is a release lever for changing viewfinders and is located near the top
edge of the body closest to the lens.
On the other side of the SQ-Ai body are more controls and inputs for
accessories. The shutter speed dial is situated at the top, middle edge of the
body and ranges from 1/500 to 16 seconds with Bulb mode. These shutter speeds are
in full stop steps. In front of the shutter speed dial is a release lever for
changing lenses and to the rear of the shutter dial is a battery check button
which will light up a red LED in the viewfinder to confirm battery juice is still
good. This red light also confirms that the shutter has been released for an
exposure. The lower portion of this side of the body also sees a threaded cable
release socket which will work quite nicely with any standard cable so no need to
buy an expensive $50 Bronica cable when your $10 one left over from your manual
35mm kit will do just as well. This cable release socket will also work when the
SQ-i motor drive is attached, so again, no need to buy a special motor drive
cable release either.
The other socket beside the threaded cable release socket is for the SCA 386
flash adapter. Buy this adapter and you will enjoy TTL-OTF (Off The Film plane)
flash reading with Metz flashes. Sunpak and Quantum also make their own flash
adapter compatible with their own line of flashes, which adds more flash
versatility to the SQ-Ai system. The SCA 386 adapter is an expensive, puny little
box with two coiled cords running out of it, one for the camera body and the
other for the flash. The top of the box has an ISO dial that ranges from 25 to
1250 which means that if you're silly enough to shoot ISO 800 film outdoors and
want one stop under fill flash, you're close but still SOL (Shit Out of Luck).
Users should also note that the flash exposure is independent of any metered
prism exposure values so one has to ensure that the shutter speed doesn't go
dangerously slow and show up hand shaking when in low ambient light conditions.
The last control on this side of the body is the release button for the filmbacks
and is located beside the SCA socket.
The front of the body has the shutter release button with lock mode on the
lower left corner of the body as you view it from the front. Diagonally opposite
to the shutter release button is the PC Sync socket -- the joys of having an
electronically controlled shutter means not having PC cords inconveniently
connecting to your lens. The back of the body has no controls or features save
for the slots for the film back hooks.
The under side of the body is spare with the standard tripod socket, motor
drive pin sockets and the battery compartment. The SQ-Ai is an electronically
controlled body and requires juice to run although it does have a "life-saver"
default shutter speed of 1/500 should the juice run dry. The batteries required
are four 1.5volt LR44 types which are at least commonly available in most
drugstores should you run dry in Hicksville, Canada or USA. Add the motor drive
though and you can dispense with the annoying little cells as the six AA sized
batteries in the motor drive will power the camera as well as any attached
SQ-i Motor Drive
Since I, like most other amateur photographers, came to medium format from
35mm, I became spoiled by the ease of use of the smaller format. My Nikon F90x is
not exactly the last word for state of the art in the world of 35mm but it is
imminently functional and goes about its duty in workmanlike manner. The motor
drive and autofocus are fast enough for most of my needs and of course the flash
capabilities allowed me to become a moron when it came time to do flash
photography. 35mm is all about convenience and I knew that moving up to 6x6
medium format would entail a bit of a learning curve for me to fully appreciate
the virtues of the larger format.
What I never got use to though was the lack of ergonomic handling of a basic
6x6 Bronica or Hasselblad. I despise the winding crank and find the bottom
oriented shutter release button to be awkward. I find it more comfortable to turn
the body on its side to orient the release on top again (using a prism finder of
course). This awkwardness prompted me to purchase the SQ-i Motor Drive right from
the start and I don't regret the decision despite the relatively high cost for
the blistering 0.7 frames per second winding speed.
The motor drive makes the SQ-Ai as close to a modern 35mm body as I can get
for ease of use and handling. It of course adds bulk and weight to the body but
the ergonomics of the motorized SQ-Ai make up for it and I don't have difficulty
fitting it into my Lowepro Street and Field Reporter 400 (my bag of choice for
street shooting) along with a number of other accessories. Bronica also makes a
Speed Grip accessory for their bodies that looks like a motor drive but works
like a manual 35mm camera with a film winding crank for your thumb. A more
convenient shutter release and hot shoe mount are also provided on the Speed
The motor drive comes with a nice hand-strap that adds greater stability and
security when hand holding the kit. The top of the motor drive from front to back
is equipped with the obvious shutter release button, a hotshoe, a film winding
button and power on/off dial that also selects either single or continuous
shooting mode. The main handle section is covered with a rubberized material to
provide better grip.
For as much as it costs the motor drive smacks of cheesiness in the amount of
plastic used in its manufacture and I do wish that Bronica had provided better
fit and finish to this accessory. There are other aspects of the motor drive
build that give me some concern as well but I'll have more to say about that in
the Caveats section.
For now though, the motor drive is functional and serves exactly the purpose I
bought it for, that is greater comfort and easier transition from 35mm to medium
The first time I looked down at a waist level finder I hated it. The reversed
left/right image was awkward to get use to and given my penchant for buying more
then I really need, I decided that I would add a metered prism to the SQ-Ai kit.
I still bought the waist level finder because the 3.6X popup magnifier is too
good to pass up for getting critical focus. I have since come to enjoy the
virtues of the waist level finder and find it indispensable for much of my
shooting with the SQ-Ai. But while I got use to the waist level finder, I had the
top metered prism available from Bronica for the SQ-Ai body, the SQ-i AE Prism or
AE III as it known in Canada. The SQ-Ai also has five other viewfinder options
besides the top SQ-i Prism Finder. These five others are an older 90 degree
metered ME Prism; a 90 degree non-metered prism; a 45 degree non-metered prism; a
top viewing MF finder with built-in meter for critical close-up work; and the
standard waist level finder.
The SQ-i prism is large and moderately heavy due to the amount of glass in its
front structure. Despite the gross amount of plastic used to lighten the prism
finder when mounted onto the SQ-Ai body, the whole kit with motor drive becomes a
bit of a brute to heft for handholding at a combined weight of 5½lbs with
an 80mm lens attached.
The SQ-i prism adds a number of features to make life easier for the
non-manual type of photographer. Besides the obvious advantage of a laterally
correct image the prism adds a full viewfinder area averaging meter and a spot
meter. Aperture Priority auto exposure is also available as well as a metered
manual mode in which the meter provides you with a meter reading that you can
disregard as you maintain full exposure control. When in Aperture Priority mode
the prism takes over the shutter speed and any speed set on the body's manual
dial is disengaged. Shutter speeds available are from 32 to 1/500 of a second in
1/12 increments in AE mode and the same as that on the body in manual mode; B, 16
An exposure lock is available in which the meter will keep a set exposure
value for one minute or until the shutter release button has been pushed or the
memory lock has been cleared. Exposure compensation is available up to +/- two
stops in 1/3 increments. This exposure compensation dial is independent of the
exposure compensation dial on the SQ-i film backs so when combined, exposure
compensation of up to +/- four stops can be had. A viewfinder shutter and diopter
control from --2.5 to +0.5 round out the features of the SQ-i prism finder.
Controls and layout are straightforward and right-hand oriented. The right
side of the prism has the power on dial that the user sets to either Aperture
Priority or Metered Manual mode. Above the power-on dial and towards the middle
of the prism are two buttons, one labeled M for exposure memory lock and the
other C for clearing memory lock. The top of the prism has the exposure
compensation dial, which requires the user to depress a small button in the
center of the dial to rotate it to the desired compensation value. Beside this
dial is a switch to select either averaging metering or spot metering. The rear
of the prism where the viewfinder eyepiece is has the diopter dial on the right
side of the eyepiece and viewfinder shutter lever to the left of the
The prism also comes with two rubber eyecups, one small and one slightly
larger. I find neither to be satisfactory and wish that Bronica would produce an
eyecup that is of similar design to those available for Hasselblad users; that is
larger and more comfortable.
When looking through the prism finder, a small LCD readout provides a few
basic pieces of information. From left to right, the user will see either AE or M
depending upon which mode of operation has been set, AE for Aperture Priority and
M for Manual mode. When exposure lock is engaged an L will be added to AE and
stay locked for one minute or until the shutter has been release or the lock is
cleared. Next in the LCD information is the shutter speed. There is no aperture
value readout, which is a shame and obviously requires the user to take the eye
away from the eyepiece to confirm the aperture setting. The shutter speed
indicator will flash when outside of the 1/500 limit ability of the camera.
Beside the shutter speed is the type of meter chosen. A rectangular outline
indicates averaging mode and a black dot indicated spot meter mode. Lastly, a
simple + or -- will be lit up to indicate any exposure compensation dialed in. In
low ambient light conditions the LCD will be backlit by a lime green light
similar to the Nikon F90x's LCD. A multiple exposure indicator is also visible
when engaged but this is a mechanical indicator built into the body and can be
seen with all view finder options.
SQ-i Film Backs (rollfilm and Polaroid)
There are several film backs available for the SQ-Ai. The standard 6x6 for 120
and 220 lengths as well as two non-rotating 645 format backs for 120 and 220
lengths that will provide 15 and 30 exposures respectively. Two 35mm format backs
are also available, one for standard sized 35mm exposures and one for 24mm x 54mm
panoramas. A Polaroid back rounds out the film back options for the SQ-Ai.
The standard 120 film back is non-excitingly functional in its layout and use.
As with all medium format SLRs with removable film backs, a dark slide has to be
utilized for mounting or dismounting a film back from the body. The Bronica film
backs suffer from a problem that plagued most other medium format manufacturers,
what to do with the dark slide. The companies have come around to the wishes of
its users and have come up with storage slots on the film backs (Mamiya) or an
internal engage or disengage solution (Rollei) to the dark slide problem. Even
Hasselblad has addressed this issue in their most recent film back designs.
Bronica has yet to provide such conveniences for its users, as the current
SQ-Ai system is now a relatively old update of the old SQ system of the 1980s.
Bronica may come up with a redesign of the backs to allow for storage within the
back in its next incarnation of the SQ design but for now, users have to put the
dark slide in a place of there own choosing that will be readily available when
the need for changing backs on the fly is required.
The dark slide is not that much of an issue for Bronica users changing over
completed rolls of film since the inserts are interchangeable with the shells.
The film back compromises of two parts, the shell and insert and 120 and 220
inserts can be exchanged at will with no need to match shells and inserts by
serial numbers. I don't have experience with the 645 or 35mm film backs but logic
dictates that these inserts can also be interchanged with other film shells.
Thus, a user can have a film shell attached to the body and simply exchange
inserts when required rather then fiddle around with a dark slide and disengaging
the whole film back. This is assuming of course that the user has shot the entire
roll of film. Mid roll changes will of course require the dark slide.
As mentioned earlier, the Bronica film backs are straightforward in design
with little in the way of frivolous features or controls. Two levers on top of
the back will disengage the insert from the shell when pressed inwards together.
Also on top of the back are two gold plated pins that connect to a metered prism
to send ISO data to the meter. The rear of the film back has a dual ISO and
exposure compensation dial. The inner ring of the dial allows the user to set the
ISO from 25 to 6400 while the other ring of the dial provides +/- two stops of
compensation independently of the metered prism. The exposure compensation is of
course just a temporary fooling of the ISO of the film to obtain the desired
result. Beside the dial is a slot for storing a piece of the pro-pack film box so
that you know what film is loaded in the back.
The insert has a film-winding crank on the lower right side. On the top right
side of the insert is an additive film counter that counts up from 1 to 12 or 24.
To load film, there are two spool holders that have pop out latch doors on the
left side of the insert to allow the film spools to be placed in position. The
film spool is placed on the top carrier and then the film is pulled over a roller
on the top of the insert and then down over another roller and then onto the take
up spool. The film loading procedure is actually far easier in reality then I can
describe it in writing and I find it faster to load then a typical manual 35mm
body. Fuji's film spools with the little hook to catch the paper on the take up
spool are a great boon to speeding up and securing the film. Kodak et al, take
note and do likewise with your roll film spools.
I also have a Polaroid back for instant images. I won't describe the loading
procedures, as that would be tedious so only a few general notes and observations
will be mentioned. Instant imaging is of course a great necessity and assistance
when dealing with complex exposure situations. The downside though is the
smallish usable image that one receives. The instant film print is able to
provide a near 3x4-inch image but 6x6 users will get a 2¼x 2¼ inch
image instead, which of course is the size of an individual negative or
The Bronica Polaroid back comes with a dark slide but this dark slide is not
required for mounting or dismounting of the back, only for shielding the film
from light. The Polaroid back also requires that the camera's multiple exposure
lever be engaged for proper operation. The film-winding crank or motor drive
would simply cock the shutter for the next instant exposure, as there is no film
to be wound forward.
In my time using the Polaroid back, I came across one fit and finish issue
that would present problems when I wasn't vigilant with it. I would mount the
back onto the camera and appearance would appear to be that the back is fully
engaged but if I neglect to push down on the lower section of the back to engage
with the body's lower slots then I would get ruined exposures as light would leak
onto the print. All Bronica backs engage onto the camera the same way. The top
hooks are inserted first and then the bottom hooks are pushed in and a click is
heard to confirm engagement. The Polaroid back is the same and when the bottom
hooks are pushed in a click is also heard BUT another push is required with
another click heard before the Polaroid back is actually properly engaged.
Without this second click you either get light leaks or a non-functioning
camera. Trying to disengage the back is also problematic when not properly
engaged. I thought I had a defective Polaroid back when I discovered this problem
but subsequent experiences with it lead me to believe that it is more of a
quality control issue that Bronica should deal with.
PS Lenses and Accessories
At various points of Bronica's existence there have been several lens makers
for their 6x6 bodies with Nikon and Schneider being the two most notable quality
manufacturers. Sadly though, neither produces lenses for Bronica bodies anymore.
Users of the smaller ETRS bodies can still pick up new old stock Schneider zoom
lenses in some stores but there is nothing available for the SQ line of bodies.
Although two more high quality lens makers would be nice to choose from,
something Rollei users enjoy with Zeiss and Schneider lenses; it should not be
lamented too greatly. (Schneider and Bronica worked together to create the lenses
but I suspect that the Tamron buyout was a major reason why Schneider is out of
Bronica emphasizes the quality of its current lenses and from what I can
gather of users' opinions on the newsgroups and mailing lists; Zenzanon lenses
are quite good and compare well to the more expensive German-made lenses from
Zeiss and Schneider. The SQ-Ai's line of lenses is known as the PS series. These
lenses had their origins in the mid-1980s when Bronica revamped the PG series of
lenses for the 6x7 GS-1 body. They found the results to be noticeably superior to
previous lenses and began to revamp the lenses for the SQ and ETRS bodies. The
SQ-A body was upgraded to the SQ-Ai in 1990 but the PS lenses were not introduced
until 1996, roughly ten years after Bronica began to redesign their whole lens
lineup and one year after Tamron bought out Bronica.
Speculation has most of the improvements in the current PS series over the
previous S series lenses to be an improved multi coating process of the lens
elements. There had been some concerns regarding the buyout of Bronica by Tamron
and what that might mean for the quality of future lens designs. To date there
have been seven new lenses introduced for all three Bronica bodies that have been
a direct result of Tamron engineering. Two sexy zoom lenses, a fisheye and a
macro lens have been introduced for the ETRSi while a 35mm f3.5 fisheye and 110mm
f4.5 1:1 macro lens have been introduced for SQ-Ai users. The macro lens is very
intriguing, as it is a true 1:1 macro range instead of the previous 1:4 limit of
the older 110mm lens. So as far as I can determine now the Tamron buyout has been
for Bronica and its users a boon as more interesting and very high quality lenses
are slowly being introduced.
At present I only have two lenses, an 80mm f2.8 normal lens and the classic
6x6 medium format portrait lens of 150mm f4. Finances forced me to forego the
50mm f3.5 lens at time of purchase of the main kit and it has become my biggest
purchase priority for the kit. I won't feel entirely well equipped until I have
the wide-angle lens as well as the macro and a 250mm f5.6 telephoto lens in my
arsenal. I have already had a few shoots where a wider and longer perspective
would have helped me capture better and more interesting shots.
The occasional wedding I do can be a bit restrictive with only an 80mm
perspective for group shots, as I often don't have the room to backup to capture
very large groups. I don't think I really need the 50mm for group shots. A 65mm
f4 lens would probably be comfortable enough but since I like taking landscapes
too, a 40mm f3.5 lens would be the more interesting perspective. Trouble is I
can't afford both lenses so the 50mm lens has become the compromise choice.
I haven't worried much about the quality of the lenses, as I trust
Tamron/Bronica to produce acceptable samples. I do admit to wondering what it
would be like to taste the fruits of German designed and manufactured lenses but
the cost of admission keeps those desires in check. I've found the quality of the
Zenzanon lenses to be quite good from the enlargements I have had done to
One 16x20 inch print from a Kodak Portra 160NC negative of some friends in a
wedding pose was shot at f2.8 to blow out the distracting background. When I saw
the original 5x5 print I knew that I had a good shot and wanted to use it as an
example to show others what could be done with my Bronica kit. I ordered 5x7,
8x10, 11x14 and 16x20 prints to round out a suitable example presentation. In the
back of my mind I worried about what the f2.8 aperture would do for sharpness and
clarity in the larger sizes but the 16x20 holds up remarkably well given the
Another shot of the same couple was enlarged to 20x24 for their personal
display. This was another shot that gave me some concern about the quality of the
enlarged print as we had to discard much of the negative in order to enlarge just
the central portion of it. I needn't have worried as the 20x24 print showed
enough detail to see which person had the whiter teeth. My experience to date
gives me no concern about the quality of Bronica lenses. They are indeed sharp
with good color and contrast and taking care of the other technical incidentals
such as using a good tripod, cable release and locking up the mirror will produce
excellent enlargements. Of course this is true of most other medium format lens
The lenses are perhaps the best built of any Bronica product. Solid and with
good heft to them, they inspire the kind of confidence that only metal build can
provide. The lenses attach via a four claw bayonet mount and rotate on and focus
in the same direction as my Nikkor lenses so there wasn't a need to adapt for
focus direction. The body and lenses have six gold contacts for the passing of
information and control. Most of the PS lenses have 67mm filter threads but a few
of the more unique or larger lenses have larger threads such as the fisheye,
macro and 500mm super telephoto lenses. A bayonet mount is used for attaching
dedicated lens hoods.
Although the SQ-Ai has a bulb mode on its shutter speed dial, users can
utilize the Timer switch on the lenses to conserve battery power. This lever is a
manual control located at the front, bottom of the lens and is a slide switch.
The slide switch is tricky enough that a piece of black cardboard or lens cap
should be used to close up the exposure before fiddling with the Timer switch to
avoid blurring or shaking. I should note here that buyers of the SQ-b kit (a
stripped down SQ-Ai) will be missing this Timer switch on their ‘B' lens
and their B body will only go up to 8 seconds on the shutter speed dial with no
Bulb mode. The B body is also lacking contacts for metered prisms, TTL flash
capability, and the B film back has no ISO dial as it also lacks contacts to mate
with metered prisms.
All current PS lenses allow for half stop increment changes from the aperture
dial, which is located near the front of the lens. The aperture ring is knurled
but quite narrow. The focus ring that is also a bit narrow on the is covered with
a textured rubber material for better grip. Standard depth of field notations are
easily read. A depth of field preview lever is located to the front left side of
the lenses. Bronica advises not to use the lever at the same time as changing the
Putting it all together (handling and use)
The SQ-Ai body and the style of photography it entails took some getting use
to for me, as I was a 35mm AF user prior to buying into medium format. When I
first started shooting with it, I found it amazing that professional wedding
photographers could shoot a high percentage of usable images with such kits
during candid moments. Of course I later found out that anticipation is much of
the battle and like good sports photographers, you have to anticipate where and
how the action is going to follow and pre-focus your next shot. Even so, I find
it a frustrating enough process that I generally don't try to do action or
flowing styles of photography with the SQ-Ai.
Having the SQ-i Prism Finder and motor drive greatly facilitates the rare
occasions that I do use the Bronica for candids but mostly the two major
accessories come into their own for some street shooting that I try and do every
now and then. Lugging a large tripod on the busy streets of Vancouver is not
exactly conducive to grab shots so handholding is the obvious way to go. The
accessorized SQ-Ai will get a few stares from passers by as it is large but since
most people have little idea of what a medium format camera actually is, I'm
quite certain that most of the people who see me take me for a Japanese tourist
with a camcorder.
For tripod mounted shooting, the motor drive does seem a bit frivolous and a
bit lazy on my part for not manually advancing the film since it is so quick and
easy but given how much I spent on the accessory and some of the trouble I've had
with it there isn't a bloody chance that I won't use the motor for all of my
shooting. As I mentioned previously, I found the waist level finder to be
awkward, especially for handholding. On the tripod though it comes into its own
and is far more valuable to me then my seven-times as expensive prism finder. The
pop-up magnifier is the real key as it allows me to focus properly and
What I would find to be absolutely perfect though is a 45 degree finder with a
laterally correct image and a 3-5X magnifier that can be engaged when needed. I
find the 45 degree way of viewing to be very natural and comfortable but
unfortunately Bronica's 45D finder does not have a magnifier. There is hope for
me yet though as Brightscreen makes an accessory magnifier that will adapt to
various finders from several medium format companies. The cost is a bit steep
though at $400 US (remember I'm from Canada where the current exchange rate
requires that I add 50% more to every US $).
In the meantime I bought Brightscreen's custom Proscreen to replace the
original Bronica focusing screen. Brightscreen claims an increase in light
transmittance to be 1½ stops more then the original screen but more
importantly the custom screen supposedly increases the contrast to allow for
better focusing in low light or with wide angle lenses. The screen I bought also
has a larger then normal microprism/split screen circle and has very well defined
horizontal and vertical outlines for 8x10 cropping in-screen. Does it work as
This is subjective and my opinions and findings may differ greatly from other
users. For some a custom focusing screen is a Godsend but for me, I found the
$240 price tag to be grossly overpriced and not up to the hype of the
Brightscreen promotions. The differences were subtle and hardly night and day
that Brightscreen seems to imply. I could discern little difference in light
transmission and only very small changes in contrast from the visible concentric
circles of the screen. If I had a chance to do it again I wouldn't and would
rather put the money towards a 45D prism or film back or just about anything else
besides a custom-focusing screen.
The SQ-i Prism Finder is fairly accurate as far as reflected meters are
concerned. Comparing it to the spot meter in my F90x and testing via a Kodak grey
card found the two to be so close that they were essentially identical. I also
used my Sekonic 508 in spot meter mode as reference and found it to be virtually
identical as well. But in incident mode, all of the spot meters were about
½ stop underexposed in comparison.
In the field, the SQ-Ai kit is functional and performs its duties in
workmanlike manner, just like my Nikon F90x. No frills or gimmicks and equipped
with the features necessary to get sharp images. All the functions are easily
accessible and with the motor drive handling the film winding and shutter cocking
for me, changing filmbacks on the fly is a snap (provided of course you have your
dark slide handy). The Bronica bodies require that the shutter be cocked before a
lens can be dismounted. My brief moments using the camera sans motor drive
required me to think a bit more to remember certain manual steps. Steps that
become second nature for those without motor drives and ones that I could easily
get use to but since I don't have to, I don't worry about them. In other words
the motor drive is my most important accessory, so much so I don't remove it from
the body whatever the type of shoot (besides the fact that it cost me too much
not to use it).
The advent of medium format for me has done what many others have already
stated, I slow down and contemplate a bit more about just what I'm shooting and
why. With 35mm and 36 exposure film, it was easy and relatively cheap to burn off
a bunch of exposures based upon a meter reading and compensated by +/- 1/3 of a
stop. Even though I knew that I generally only had to go one over and one under
the metered reading to get acceptable exposures the amount of frames available
allowed me to experiment more from the base reading.
Medium format is of course more expensive. One roll of 120 Velvia (film and
processing) is going to cost me the same as one roll of 35mm format and of course
I only get 12 frames versus 36 frames. I try to make sure what I shoot with the
SQ-Ai has something to it. Whether or not I succeed is another matter but I try
harder with the medium format kit instead of going through the motions, as I
sometimes tend to do with the 35mm kit. If slowing down and doing most things
manually helps to make me a better photographer then I'm all for it.
As much as I like my SQ-Ai and the Bronica system in general there are some
concerns and general comments I have to make.
I, like many other people, consider the lenses to be the most important factor
in putting together a photo kit. The cost and quality of the Zenzanon lenses vis
a vis Zeiss/Schneider was a major factor in my going with Bronica and for the
most part Bronica has a well-rounded selection of lenses and accessories
available for the SQ-Ai. I do however, miss the opportunity to eventually pick up
a tilt/shift lens or adapter for the SQ-Ai. Bronica does not have either
available for any of their bodies whereas all of their major competitors do. Even
third party manufacturers that make tilt/shift adapters for Hasselblad, Mamiya or
Pentax do not make them for Bronica. I'm hopeful that Tamron will address this
issue in due time.
Plastic. Too much of it seems to have made its way into the build of the
Bronica bodies and accessories but thankfully, not the lenses. I know that
plastic helps to reduce weight and costs over heavier metal construction but I
have tiny nagging concerns for long term quality and durability. I have already
had an incident with the motor drive regarding the use of plastic in an
The hot shoe of my motor drive failed to fire off my flashes during the summer
of ‘99 and I sent it back to the distributor for warranty repair. The cause
of the problem was a damaged base locating pin that helps to couple the motor and
camera near the gold contact pins. Instead of having a warranty repair done I
ended up having to pay for a replacement part and horrific labor costs as the
distributor stated that only user error could cause the damage. The damaged part
is a plastic piece and most certainly should not be made out of such material in
a relatively critical juncture of the motor and body coupling. I was of course
quite annoyed that I would have to pay for the cost of a part that is just asking
to be damaged through normal mounting and dismounting, which doesn't speak well
of Bronica's warranty policy and empathy for its users.
Plastic is abundant on all the other parts and accessories from the expensive
prism finder to the film backs to the exterior body covering. I concluded that
such materials help to make Bronica products very price competitive with
Hasselblad and Rollei but I feel like I'm carrying the equivalent of a top
consumer level 35mm SLR such as a Nikon F90x instead of a more robust,
pro-oriented Nikon F5. In reality, I don't think I have much to be concerned
about but a more metallic build would provide greater ease of mind and more pride
of ownership. The plastic build issue has come up recently for the Contax 645AF.
Most of its users do not feel that the plastic is a detriment to the quality of
the camera so I guess I shouldn't feel like I'm slumming it with my SQ-Ai when
even Zeiss/Contax users have to deal with it at a much higher cost.
Film back failures. Perhaps related to the plastic build is the rather
notorious reputation for Bronica film backs to fail in very quick order, say five
or so years compared to the twenty plus that Hasselblad users crow about. I think
both claims are over rated but it is another thing that is in the back of my mind
as a number of users have reported on filmback failures on the medium format
newsgroups or mailing lists. >From what I can see of the Bronica filmbacks
though, aside from a high enough catastrophic drop onto solid rock that would
crack the plastic the only thing I can see failing over time is the black foam
and felt used to keep light from leaking in and the pressure spring to keep the
film flat. Even Hasselblad users can't escape this type of eventual failure or
need for timely maintenance.
Bronica's 220 backs are also reputed to be faulty as far as light leaks and
improper frame spacing is concerned. I have on occasion seen light leaks and
improper spacing on 220 lengths of film but on those occasions it was due to my
not winding the paper leader tight enough on the take up spool (the risks you
take when you load film on a rush basis). Only the first few frames would exhibit
the leaks and spacing problems while the rest of the roll would be fine as the
film wound tighter onto the take up spool. This however, is not a problem unique
to Bronica 220 backs as most other companies' 220 film backs suffer from similar
I'm still too new of a user to experience critical failure with my 120 and 220
film backs but since I do have a quirky Polaroid back I do give a tiny bit of
credence to the user reports I have come across.
Pricing policy. Although on an overall basis, Bronica is good value for the
money compared to Hasselblad; there are inexplicable prices on some accessories.
Extension tubes are outrageously priced even by Hasselblad standards. If I didn't
find my 36mm tube used and at half the price of new I wouldn't have bothered to
buy one new until much, much later.
Film inserts are also costly. A new insert is 2/3 of the cost of a full film
back and it would seem quite silly to buy an insert when you're already most of
the way towards the cost of a full film back. Most other medium format companies
make the insert very attractive in price to allow the user to purchase more
inserts and pre-load them for quick film changes. I personally would not bother
with buying accessory inserts to save a few bucks and would rather buy the full
If Bronica is to maintain its attractive pricing with its major competitors it
should reconsider its more outrageously priced accessories. In its defense
though, the lens prices are excellent in some regards to the Zeiss equivalent.
Certain wide angle and macro lenses from Zeiss are double what the Zenzanon
equivalent is. In that regard the pricing on some accessories is more
Bronica has a long history in the world of medium format. It has had some
firsts in some of its old designs such as an electronically controlled shutter as
well as a few innovative if head scratching ideas like the EC/EC-TL's split
mirror hung with "fish-line". Some of its old bodies can be considered classic
such as the S2/S2A that preceded the SQ designs. But for the most part Bronica
seems to be the also ran to Hasselblad. That's a shame as it is a fine system
even with some of my caveats; things that it shares with most of its
There is nothing pretentious about the Bronica SQ-Ai. It is an obvious copy of
the venerable 500 series from Hasselblad but from what I know of and have heard
about Hasselblad bodies, far less quirky and more straightforward in operation.
No need to worry about jamming the shutter and requiring a special tool to fix
the jam. It is battery powered so you'll never be admonished for not regularly
firing your lens shutters like Hasselblad users have to do with their 500 series
bodies to keep the shutter from sticking due to their mechanical nature. The
Bronica's shutter speed will also always be more accurate thanks to the battery
powered Seiko O shutter.
In fact I think of the Bronica SQ-Ai as everything the Hasselblad 501/503
should be as far as operation is concerned. I know the users of the Swedish
"Faberge Eggs" will sniff at that but aside from the Zeiss optics the superiority
if which is not conclusive among today's computer designed optics, I can see no
real advantage to spending up to 50% more for the Swedish smorgasbord over
I have full confidence that I will obtain excellent images from the SQ-Ai when
I take care of the technical and aesthetic details that all serious photographer
have to utilize no matter what the system. Solid tripod, cable release, mirror
lockup, interesting subject and good composition in fine light. These factors, I
feel, are far more relevant then the make of a camera system.
I'm not a heavy user or abuser of photographic equipment and neither am I a
long term user of the SQ-Ai so I can't comment as to how it will fare after years
or decades of use. Despite my misgivings with some of the plastic build and the
reputation of Bronica filmbacks I think I'm going to have a very good
relationship with my SQ-Ai.
Phillip Greenspun asked if any camera system is worth $20,000 when he reviewed
his Rollei 6008 system. Coincidentally, by
the time I get to finish off my SQ-Ai kit to what I feel will be a well-rounded
ensemble, the price will be about $20,000. Mind you that's in Canadian funds so
you'll have to take the exchange rate into account but if and when I do succeed
in getting that kit, yes, it will be worth it.