Why the Bronica ETRS is the Best Deal in Medium Format System Cameras

Two years ago, I became interested in owning a system camera. One of those cool, boxy cameras that can be adapted to any style of photography. After seeing all the Hasselblads and others out of my price range, I became really interested in the Bronica ETRS lineup. First off, these are 645 cameras, meaning they take 15 images per roll instead of the 12 on a 6×6 camera, or 9 on a 67. Getting those extra shots per roll makes a big difference when you’re shooting a wedding. 3 extra images per roll doesn’t sound like a lot, but the extra real estate on the 6×6 format is something that I don’t really ever use. 

The next reason I was interested in the Bronica is because I could get this camera with three lenses for less than half the cost of a Hasselblad 500cm body. I thought if the build quality and lenses held up, then this camera would be the best bargain camera on the market. And I have to say, this camera has been nothing short of fantastic. 

I’ve used this camera for many photoshoots, and have achieved some brilliant results from it. And it’s just as good for landscapes as it is for portraits, thanks to its lightweight compared to similar cameras, and tack-sharp lenses. For portrait photographers, this camera also features a leaf shutter which can be synced with a flash at all speeds! It’s amazing to be able to shoot a portrait at 1/500 of a second and f/2.8 on a film camera — a feature virtually unheard of until high-speed sync came out on digital cameras.

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Zenza Bronica ETRS kit taken apart
The Zenza Bronica ETRS system camera I’ve been putting through the paces this past year.

Pros and Cons of the Zenza Bronica ETRS and ETRSi, A.K.A, ‘The Poor Man’s Hasselblad’

This camera has been my go to every time I’ve needed a bit more image quality. It has nearly everything you could want in a system camera at a fraction the cost of the more popular versions. Having multiple backs means that it’s easy to switch between film stocks. If you’re shooting Portra, but find the perfect place for an artsy B&W shot, you can simply switch to a different back pre-loaded with a roll of HP5 and get the shot. As a portrait photographer, that feature has been a godsend. 

Below is my honest review of using this camera for two years. I’ve put it through its paces, and have found some places where this camera really shines, and some others where I just needed a different solution. Let’s start with the Pros and Cons. 

ProsCons
Best deal in medium format System CamerasLater versions are plasticy
Sharp lensesNot as sharp as Hasselblad
Common battery Bulb and Mirror lockup only available on ETRSi
645 means more frames per roll of 120 filmThe maximum shutter speed is 1/500th
Lightweight, easy to handleCan only shoot at 1/500th without a battery
Adjustable to your needs
Leaf shutter means flash sync at all speeds
A pros and cons list for the medium format Bronica ETR-series cameras

What’s the difference between the Bronica ETR, ETRS, and ETRSi? 

The Bronica ETR was the company’s first camera that used a leaf shutter built in the lens. The camera  was a good place to start, but many of the later versions have some pretty significant advantages. If you just want a basic camera without fancy additions like a lightmeter, mirror lockup, or bulb mode, the ETR will be perfect. This camera features minimal electronics, which means there’s very little to go wrong. If you read my article about Reveni Labs making the newest spot meter on the market, you’ll know a bit more about what can go wrong with film camera electronics. 

The ETR line was initially launched in 1976, and went through three major releases, the ETR, ETRS, and ETRSi. There are also variations that didn’t contain the removable back, called the ETR-C, and ETRC. 

The major difference between the ETR and the later models is that the ETRS and ETRSi feature more advanced electronics. These cameras can both use the Auto Exposure, or AE meters, which have a built-in light meter and the ability to automatically adjust shutter speed based on the light. Otherwise, the three models all include shutter speeds ranging from 8 seconds to 1/500th of a second, and a lever on the right side to allow multiple exposures. 

However, there are a couple of advanced features in the ETRSi that made it particularly useful for landscape photography, including a mirror lockup feature and bulb mode for exposures longer than 8s. The ETRSi is also the only version that allows TTL metering when using flash, which can be particularly useful for portrait photographers. However, this model is plasticy compared to older versions, which were made with more metal parts.

Shooting with an ETRS

Which version of the Bronica ETR series is best for me?

All three cameras can use the same lenses, handles, viewfinders, and film backs. But any electronic features will only be usable on the later models. If you’re a photographer looking to use cameras that are as electronic-free as possible, the ETR is the best bet. But for those looking to use the camera for flash portraits and landscapes, the ETRSi is the best choice. 

I personally don’t recommend the ‘C’ models at this time. The inability to use film backs and switch film mid-roll is a major drawback on these cameras. And at this time, the C versions aren’t significantly cheaper than the non-C versions, so I can’t recommend them at this time.

But no matter which camera you go for, most of the fun is in modulating the Bronicas to fit your needs. Mine came with both a speed grip with the hot shoe flash holder, a camera back, and the AEII viewfinder with the built-in light meter. I took off the speed grip to save a bit of weight and space in my camera bag. And personally, I’ve found it a joy to use the hand crank instead of the speed grip. Holding the camera with two hands feels more natural to me than with the grip. Others will definitely disagree.

But I believe my next purchase for this camera will be the waist-level viewfinder. I find myself often using this camera low to the ground, and would have a much easier time focusing looking down rather than awkwardly laying on the ground using the viewfinder. The only reason I haven’t switched that out yet is because a waist-level finder costs as much as a new lens.

Personally, the best place I’ve found to buy cameras like the Bronica ETR series is from KEH.com. They use a simple, unified, easy-to-understand rating system and have money-back guarantees on all of their qualified cameras. None of the “Near Mint +++++” that then comes scratched and banged up with some fungus inside the lens. 

Qualified purchases when using that link do earn me a small commission as per my affiliate policy. While these don’t add to the cost of your purchase, they do help me keep this blog running. 

The underside of the Zenza Bronica ETRS with the battery cover off. This camera uses a standard A544 battery.

What type of battery does a Bronica ETR, ETRS, or ETRSi use?

When you’re purchasing a new film camera, one of the biggest concerns is always if you’re going to be able to buy a battery that will allow the camera to function. Many cameras relied on battery technology that is no longer manufactured for safety, environmental, or other concerns. Luckily, the battery used in the Zenza Bronica ETR series cameras is likely more popular today than it was when the camera was originally manufactured.

The Zenza Bronica ETR series cameras require a single 4LR44 (a.k.a A544 Energizer, or 28A Duracell) battery to operate the shutter mechanism. Without a battery, the camera can only shoot at 1/500th of a second. So the camera won’t stop working if the battery dies, but it’ll be hard to get the proper exposure. In the ETR, it can be difficult to know when the battery is dead if you’re shooting in daylight, as the shutter isn’t as loud as the mirror, making it difficult to differentiate between the 1/125 and 1/500 of a second. In the ETRS and ETRSi cameras, the battery will also power the viewfinder light meter.

What lenses are the best for the ETR system?

All of the lenses for the Bronica system are sharp, especially when they’re stopped down one or two stops from wide open. The oldest lenses by Bronica are the MC line. Those ones tend to be less sharp than the newer, PE lenses. 

In general, an MC lens won’t let you down. If you buy the Bronica as a kit with a couple of MC lenses, it’s still going to have stellar performance. But if you can purchase a couple of PE lenses, like the 150mm F3.5 PE, you’ll get sharper images with less flaring. The beautiful thing with this system is that very few lenses on this system cost more than $250 USD. Meaning it’s a great system for anyone looking to get high-quality glass on a small budget. The top-of-the-line PE lenses are usually only about $25-$50 more than the early MC lenses, so I absolutely recommend spending a little extra to get superior performance.

645 Lens135 equivalent
30mm 20mm
40mm24mm
50mm30mm
60mm35mm
75mm45mm
105mm65mm
135mm85mm
150mm95mm
180mm110mm
200mm125mm
250mm155mm
500mm310mm
645 has a 0.62075x crop factor compared with 35mm. These conversions are to the nearest standard 35mm focal length, as most have a 1 or 2 mm difference.

The camera comes stock with a 75mm f2.8 lens, which is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. The lens is an absolute dream to use, and has been one of my favorites to keep on this camera at all times. I’ve also loved using the 40mm (24mm on 135) lens, which is perfect for vast landscapes and street photography. The wider lenses are typically short and extremely portable. While the longer, telephoto lenses like the 200mm PE F/4.5 (125mm on 135) can be fairly long. 

All of the Bronica lenses are built like tanks. These are lenses that are all metal and glass builds, making them good to handle in all conditions. That means even a relatively banged up lens is still likely to perform well. But if you’re buying on the used market, it’s still always better to pay a little extra for a lens that’s been well taken care of. 

What are the drawbacks of the Bronica ETR series? 

The Zenza Bronica 200 F4.5 PE lens coating reflecting the light.

The Bronica ETR system cameras are an incredible value for most photographers out there. Portrait photographers especially will love the leaf shutter mechanism that allows them to use flash at high shutter speeds. And it’s an absolute must for wedding photographers, because of its small size, light weight, 645 film size, and the interchangeable backs. 

But this camera doesn’t hold up in every situation. For one, the maximum shutter speed is only 1/500th of a second. Most film photographers have learned to stop down their aperture and keep shooting. But for professionals who need the very best image quality every time, stopping down too far can cause problems with diffraction, which ruins sharpness and contrast along the lens. 

This slow shutter speed also means that it’s not a good camera system for anyone shooting sports, action, or wildlife. 1/500 of a second is not fast enough to freeze action, like birds in flight. 

For landscape photographers, it’s essential to look for the Bronica ETRSi version. The ETRS and ETR can only keep the shutter open for 8 seconds, which isn’t nearly long enough to blur clouds in the sky. Of course, you can get around that by flipping the double exposure switch and shoot two 8s exposures, but it’s not going to get as good of results as one continuous 8s exposure. And the other issue is the mirror itself — the ETR series mirrors slap the camera hard when the shutter is released. The ETRSi version also has a switch for mirror lockup, which will significantly reduce camera shake in long exposure landscape photography.

ETR Lenses in a lineup.

Final verdict: why isn’t the Bronica ETRS more popular?

For portrait, wedding, and landscape photographers, the Bronica ETRS and ETRSi are the best deal in system cameras right now. This camera is an amazing deal with sharp lenses, interchangeable backs, and a brilliant viewfinder. I have had a lot of fun using this camera, and have bought additional lenses to add to my kit.

As to why this camera isn’t more popular, I’m not sure. Most of the drawbacks that exist for this camera are because of the shutter speed only being as fast as 1/500th of a second. But all of the leaf-shutter system cameras from the same time have this same limitation. Even the Mamiya 645n, which was a direct competitor, only managed to get a 1/500th shutter speed with a cloth focal-plane shutter, which only had a flash sync speed at 1/60th.

The Bronica is the perfect camera for photographers looking for a system camera on a budget. And I absolutely recommend picking up an ETRS camera to add to your collection, as this camera is not going to stay this cheap for long.

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

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