My Bronica ETRSi

This is my Bronica ETRSi. There are many like. But this one is mine.

I bought this camera 10 years ago when I decided I was going to be a Landscape photographer. It is a medium format film camera that shoots 645 sized negatives (6cm wide by 4.5cm tall) on 120 roll film. You only get 15 shots to a roll, so it really makes you think hard about what you are shooting, but the results are worth it if you want to print big.

The camera is fully modular. In fact, the ‘camera’ bit is just a box with a big mirror in. The shutter is housed inside the lens that mounts on the front and the film is carried in the film back that mounts, well, on the back. You look down into the camera through the waist level finder fitted to the top onto a giant focussing screen to compose your image. The lack of a prism between you and the lens means the image is shown on the screen the right way up but horizontally reversed, so it takes a bit of practice to frame your image squarely.

This is a camera with everything you need and nothing you don’t. I say need like that so as not to confuse it with want. The camera gives you three things to set, aperture, shutter speed and focus distance. It is a camera that leaves the thinking to the photographer, a point that is usually first noticed through a lack of a light meter.

I shoot with this camera using a Sekonic handheld light meter to measure exposure. This has one stand-out benefit for me and that is the ability to take incident light readings. A typical modern camera meters the light coming in through the lens, light that has reflected off the subject first. The camera therefore has to make a judgement on how reflective the subject is in order to calculate an exposure. Incident light meters measure the light falling on the subject as an absolute value, so if you set your camera to expose for that light then the tonality and reflectivity of the subject have no undue influence.

With incident light metering I take an initial reading, set the camera and put the meter in my pocket. I only take further readings if the light changes significantly (if shooting in the shade for example) so in a way not having a light meter built in simplifies my shooting.  I don’t have to worry about compensating for light and dark subjects as they will record exactly as I see them (light or dark) without the camera trying to average everything out, and the dynamic range of film means I don’t need to worry too much about what the highlights and shadows are doing.

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So why go to all the effort of lugging a huge camera about and metering by hand? Well, one word. Quality. 645 format negatives are huge compared to 35mm film, so I can scan the film at a relatively low dpi and get a massive image file with tonnes of detail and plenty of tonal detail.

The physically larger negative means less magnification is required to produce an image of a given size compared to 35mm film, so the effective grain sized is reduced and suddenly you can shoot ISO 400 film (Tri-X!) without the grain becoming too obvious or destroying any of the fine detail.

I generally scan my medium format negatives to 20 megapixel images for processing in Lightroom, giving lots of detail without the file sizes getting silly. With a decent scanner you can capture more dynamic range than a typical digital camera, so there is plenty of highlight and shadow detail to play with.

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The crop factor goes the other way with medium format and so a ‘standard’ 75mm lens matches 50mm on 35mm format but you get access to a shallower depth of field for an equivalent aperture size which can be useful. The aspect ratio of 645 is squarer than 35mm format though, so you get a different perspective which I find very pleasing. I only have the one lens but  I have never wanted for anything wider, even through I favour the ultra-wideangle on my DSLR.

With the SLR medium format cameras like my Bronica you compose your image on a ground glass screen rather than through an eyepiece. The are subtleties to this that change the way I see the image from a compositional point of view. With a viewfinder you are looking at the scene itself, it fills your view and your eye explores the detail of the image without a real sense of overall scale to it. With a ground glass screen you are looking at a small projection of the scene, hiding the detail from you and letting you see the composition more clearly. I find my medium format shots are the most compositionally accomplished of my work.

I find it hard to explain, but I think it comes down fundamentally to how your brain reacts differently to seeing something yourself, and seeing an image of that same thing. With a viewfinder to your eye filling your view with the image you can’t step back and see the pure composition like you can within this camera.

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So that’s my Bronica ETRSi a big, clunky, mechanical affair that I adore greatly. Using this kind of camera could arguably help make you a better photographer, it will certainly slow you down and make you think more about what you are shooting. It’s no more difficult to shoot and process the film than it is for a 35mm film SLR and the results have much more potential.

It’s a very easy camera to like.

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