Compared to the small group of brands around now, medium format photography was once the happy hunting ground of many – Bronica, Fujifilm, Linhof, Kowa, Mamiya, Norita, Rollei, Hasselblad, Polaroid, Pentax, Plaubel, Pentacon, Kiev and Yashica.
The end of the TLR era saw many camera makers abandon rollfilm in favour of 35mm, but the arrival of Hasselblad’s revolutionary 6x6cm SLR sparked a revival in medium format photography and convinced others they could do even better… among them Zenzaburō Yoshino who established Bronica in Tokyo in 1956. Initially the company made hand-crafted luxury goods – including watches – but Yoshino was a keen camera enthusiast with a penchant for the prestige European brands, and he soon began working on his own design for a modular rollfilm SLR to compete with Hasselblad.
Bronica’s first 6x6cm SLR, the D (which for stood for “Deluxe”), appeared in late 1958 and used a focal plane shutter with a speed range of 1-1/1250 second. It looked very much like the Hasselblad in terms of its styling, particularly the chromed edges and stepped bodywork, but introduced a number of key changes on the inside. The first of these was a cloth curtain shutter rather than the troublesome metal blades of the early FP ’Blads. Bronica also introduced the instant return mirror to this category of camera and an automatic diaphragm to enable open aperture viewfinding... both conveniences which didn’t arrive on a Hasselblad until 1970 and
the 500C/M. Additionally, the reflex mirror didn’t swing up during an exposure, but slid down and forward, enabling the fitting of more deeplyrecessed wide-angle lenses and also reducing the amount of vibration. Another Bronica convenience was that the film magazine was automatically detached when the darkslide was inserted and pushed all the way home... so there was no separate locking arrangement.
The lenses – initially supplied by Nikon – fitted into a rack-andpinion focusing mount on the camera body which was adjusted via a large knob on the side. This same knob was also used to set the shutter speed and advance the film (which also recocked the shutter) so just about everything except aperture control was in the one place. In practice, however, it proved to be very fiddly.
In 1961 Bronica introduced the model S, which had a restyled body – so it no longer looked exactly like a ’Blad – and separate shutter speed selector was introduced. The top shutter speed was reduced to a more reliable 1/1000 second. Additionally, the film advance knob gained a fold-out handle, but was still also used to focus the lens. This changed with the S2 which arrived in 1965 and had a helicoid-type focusing mount which could also be fully detached from the camera. New film magazines could accept both 120 and 220 length film and inserts were available for the 6x4.5cm format. The S2A was introduced in 1971 and had a significantly beefed-up film transport to eliminate the gear failures which plagued the earlier models.
In 1972 Bronica introduced the EC, its first model with an electronically-controlled shutter, albeit still a focal plane type. However, with the 6x4.5cm ETR in 1976, Bronica switched to leaf-type shutters and subsequently did the same with its next generation of 6x6cm format SLRs when the SQ-series was introduced in 1980. With its 6x4.5cm SLR Bronica was again keen to be better than the competition so, unlike the Mamiya M645 (which, incidentally, had a focal plane shutter), the ETR had interchangeable film magazines (although there was subsequently cheaper ETRC and ETR-C models with fixed backs). The ETR line evolved into the ETRS (1979) which incorporated mostly minor improvements and was further modified in 1982 with no change of model name, and the ETR-Si (1989) which had TTL flash metering, mirror lockup, a bulb timer and a revised film magazine design with a locking darkslide. Production finished in December 2004.
The SQ line progressed through the SQ-A (1982) with mirror lock-up and compatibility with an AE finder, the SQ-Am (1982) with a built-in autowinder, and the SQ-Ai (1990) with TTL flash metering, a revised film magazine design and connections for an accessory autowinder. A stripped-down – and hence quite a bit cheaper – SQ-B model was introduced in 1996, but all SQ model production ended in December 2003.
There were two other Bronica camera lines – the GS-1 6x7cm SLR which was introduced in 1993 and the 645RF 6x4.5 rangefinder body
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with interchangeable lenses which appeared in 2000. The GS-1 failed to make any impact on the market as the Mamiya RB67 and RZ67 ruled the 6x7cm format, and the 645RF similarly struggled against the Mamiya 6 and 7 which offered the benefits of the larger formats.
The 645RF was the only new camera to appear after Bronica was acquired by lens maker Tamron in 1998. Tamron closed down the SLR lines, determining it was too costly to get involved in digital capture at any level – primarily because Bronica had done virtually no preparation for it – and then production of the 6x4.5cm RF camera ended in September 2005. This was also the end of the line for Bronica, a comparatively small and fairly specialised camera maker which ended up with a big following among photographers, both amateurs and professionals.