Pros: Excellent images, modular system, lenses very consistent, and reliable
Cons: Idiotic mirror lock system, old fashioned backs and limited lenses
I have owned this venerable camera for close to 10 years. When compared to other 645 SLRs it looks seriously out of date. But if you are familiar with medium format cameras the advantages of these newer models are not as important as with 35mm cameras. I use the Bronica for landscapes and natural history especially close-up work. For these subjects I don?t need autofocusing, programmed exposure or very fast shutter speeds. It does have flash sync up to 1/500 sec., TTL flash, mirror lock-up, interchangeable backs, spot metering and very high quality lenses. The built quality is excellent and in all those years (200+ rolls) the camera has never let me down.
To fully take advantage of this camera you will need lots of patience, a good tripod, and access to a high quality photo-lab. Despite the hand grip and motor winder this is not a camera you will want to hand hold. As the body does little more than set the shutter/aperture it is the lenses that really make or break a system. Bronica (now Tamron) make excellent lenses and I cannot find any problems with the quality of the resulting images. I have tested some of the PE lenses (40mm, 45-90mm, 60mm, 105mm macro, and 180mm) and found exposure, color, resolution to be consistent between lenses. In fact I have a great difficulty determine if there is an optimum F/stop for each lens. The large viewfinder makes focusing easy and the metering of the Auto Prism III is accurate. To get the best results use a tripod, mirror lock and a cable release. It makes it a slow and thoughtful process but forces you to take better pictures. If I feel the urge to go back to 35mm all I have to do I take out a couple of 6x4.5 slides and look at them under a loupe.
Drawbacks? Three design flaws have irritated me since buying the camera. Namely the clumsy mirror lock-up, no storage place for the dark slide, and the need to remember to change the ASA on the prism when changing backs. The first is easy to mess up but fortunately can be remedied without losing any film. I use the mirror lock-up for every exposure so you would think I would not make the same stupid mistake. Because the shutter is built into the lens the mirror also acts as a light curtain protecting the film. Consequently using the mirror lock-up does more than just move the mirror out of the light path. After firing the shutter (which is very quiet) you must reset the mirror lock-up switch before advancing the film. If you forget to do this the mirror locks-up again as you advance the film. To reset the camera you (i) remove the attached back, (ii) fire the shutter, (iii) reset the mirror lock-up switch, (iv) re-attach the back and (v) wind on! What a pain and makes the motor winder useless in this situation.
Regarding ASA settings Bronica really shows it?s age as no other MF has interchangeable backs that do not have ASA dials built-in. Switching between 50 and 100 ASA films may not seem like a big deal for negative film but it will ruin slide films. And how many times have I fumbled in my camera bag or pockets for the dark slide especially if I messed up the mirror lock-up.
My only other issue would be the limited lens selection at the more extreme focal lengths. At wide angle there are no lenses between the 40mm (angle of view ~80 degrees) and the 30mm (180 degrees). At the other end there is only one expensive telephoto beyond the slow 250mm. If Tamron ever reads these reviews, how about giving us a 35mm F4 and an APO 350mm F4.5?
I might seem unduly harsh on Bronica but this current model has been around for 12+ years without any improvements. It is nice to see the newer lenses coming out but at a snail?s pace compared to Pentax and Mamiya. I wonder if the new rangefinder 645 is the future for Bronica in this format?
Now the 2000 dollar question would I buy the ETRSi again? Doubtful, the Contax 645 is really tempting given my applications but is twice as expensive. I don?t like Mamiya, call it a personal thing as I am not about to get into a mud-slinging about whose system is better. The Pentax is a very good system,just check out their current zoom offerings but the major drawback is no interchangeable backs.