by Philip Greenspun; created November 2001
Site Home : Photography : Bronica RF645
Bronica's RF645 system consists of a rangefinder camera body, a 65mm f/4 normal lens, and a 45mm f/4 wide-angle lens (equivalent to a 28mm perspective on a 35mm camera). The camera creates 16 6x4.5 cm images on a roll of 120 film or 32 pictures from a roll of 220. This Bronica system has a 100 percent electronic interface between camera and lens. The camera controls are large traditional individual knobs and switches but underneath is a high degree of electronic sophistication.
Like the old Fuji 645 cameras, this Bronica pulls the film from left to right and therefore creates vertical images when held horizontally. You have to rotate the camera in order to create a horizontal photo.
No rangefinder camera is capable of handling the full range of photographic challenges. For example, rangefinders don't work very well for telephoto or macro photography. Consequently, it is likely that a rangefinder camera system will sit in the bag for several weeks between projects and therefore it is important that, once picked up again, the camera is easy to use.
The Bronica RF645 borrowed for this review came without an instruction manual, which provided a good test of usability. Within five minutes, I was able to (1) set the camera to accept 220 film, (2) load the RF645 body, (3) mount a 65mm lens, (4) set film ISO, (5) try out metered-manual, aperture-priority autoexposure, and program-autoexposure, (6) use exposure compensation. More or less every control on the camera is self-explanatory with the possible exception of the "ME" button (multiple exposure?).
Exposure control is particularly straightforward. Aperture is set with a ring on the lens. Shutter speeds from B-500 are set on a top-deck dial. If you set the top deck to "A" the camera picks a shutter speed appropriate to the aperture set on the lens ring. If you set the top deck to "P" the camera picks both aperture and shutter speed, ignoring the lens ring. There is no exposure mode button or wheel; the mode is implicit from the shutter speed setting. Nor, when the camera body is determining the aperture, must you set the lens ring to a particular position. Compare this to the Nikon AF SLR system, where the camera flashes "fEE" at you if you've set the (separate) exposure mode control to "P" but neglected to turn the lens aperture ring to the minimum aperture.
Watch out in available light situations. My Bronica underexposed in dimly lit interiors. According to the Bronica Web site, the camera meter is supposed to be good down to EV 3 (ISO 100), which is f/2.8 and 1 second. But I found that the meter underexposed in interiors that were lit about 2 f-stops more brightly. In low light, check the camera's recommendation against a handheld meter.
Controls are large and easy to operate while wearing gloves. Control settings are confirmed with positive clicks into position.
The lens caps and hoods interact in a pernicious fashion. The plastic hoods are cleverly molded for compactness but they end up so tight that you can't remove the lens cap without first removing the bayonet-mount hood. Should you forget to remove the lens cap, you won't find out until you get your film back from the lab. The camera determines exposure with an on-body sensor. The flash determines exposure with an on-flash sensor. All of the readouts and autoexposure modes will function the same with the lens cap on or off.
The camera body's viewfinder contains frame lines to show you the image likely to be captured by the 65mm lens. These are parallax-compensated, i.e., they move as the lens is focussed closer. Presumably these frame lines would pull in if a telephoto lens were mounted but this is tough to test in the United States, where Tamron USA has decided not to import the 135/4.5 telephoto lens (too tough to get accurate focus with the rangefinder; see the moaning and whining of Mamiya 7 users of the 150mm lens for what happens when you combine a long lens with a short-base rangefinder; if you really want a 135, note that some large New York dealers may bring them in grey market, try Adorama, for example). The frame lines disappear if you mount the 45mm lens, reminding you to check framing in the supplementary shoe-mounted viewfinder supplied with that lens.
The rangefinder overlap area within the viewfinder is reasonably large, extremely bright, and easy to use. This is one of the better rangefinders available, comparable in quality to that of a Leica M6, which I happened to have available for direct comparison.
In autoexposure modes, aperture and shutter speed are displayed in the upper left-hand corner of the viewfinder. If you're in metered-manual mode, only the shutter speed appears, along with an indication underneath of how far away you are from the camera's suggested exposure. This is a numeric rather than an graphical display. For example, if you're overexposing by 1 and 1/2 f-stops, a "+1.5" will appear underneath the shutter speed. Personally I find this hard to live with. The 35mm SLRs get it right: an in-camera display of aperture and shutter speed plus a bar-graph showing how far away from the recommended exposure.
As with most rangefinder cameras, eye-relief is barely adequate without eyeglasses. You can see the 65mm frame lines in one glance but will have to rotate the camera a bit or adjust your gaze to read the in-finder display. With eyeglasses it is a bit of a struggle to position one's eyes correctly.
Because of the unusual vertical orientation of the camera, Bronica supplies its own RF20 flash. This is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket but reasonably powerful (GN 20 in meters for ISO 100; GN 16 when set to cover the 45mm lens). In auto flash exposure mode, the angled LCD display on the flash shows
Want to adjust flash exposure or fill-ratio? There are dedicated "+" and "-" buttons right on top of the flash. If you switch to manual flash exposure mode, the LCD display shows film ISO, flash guide-number, aperture set, and highlights the optimum distance for a correctly exposed subject. This is one of the nicest user interfaces that I've seen on any flash.
(Note: If you want a higher-power flash whose tube can be oriented vertically, look at an old used Nikon SB-15.)
For use with studio flashes, the RF645 body contains an X-sync PC terminal ideally positioned at the bottom left of the lens mount. No matter whether the camera is held for a vertical or horizontal photo, the PC cord should be out of the way of the lens. This is an important consideration on a rangefinder camera since you aren't viewing through the lens.
To take a wide-angle photo, follow these steps:
The need to use two viewfinders will slow you down considerably.
The RF20 flash can be set to cover the 75.5 degree angle of view.
The 65 and 45 lenses focus only to about 1 meter (3.3 feet). If you're accustomed to similar lenses on 35mm cameras, which focus down to 30 cm (1 foot), you'll be in for a rude surprise. At its closest focusing distance, for example, the 65mm lens captures an adult from the waist up. You won't be making any head-and-shoulder portraits with this camera.
The electromagnetic soft shutter release is centrally threaded to accept a standard mechanical cable release. The camera includes a self-timer for steady tripod exposures without a cable release.
The camera runs on two CR2 3V lithium batteries. Given that these are only operating the metering system, shutter, and diaphragm, these should last for hundreds of rolls of film.
Most 645 cameras are bulky single-lens reflexes, which are great for macro and telephoto work but not serious competition for the Bronica RF645 when it comes to weight and pocketability. Also, any medium format camera will have a prodigious amount of mirror slap from the prodigiously sized mirror and therefore a rangefinder can be successfully handheld at slower shutter speeds than an SLR. Thus we cannot consider any of the SLR 645s as competitors to the Bronica RF645.
Among 645 rangefinder camera manufacturers, Fuji has the longest modern tradition. The Fuji cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, however. If you want a normal perspective, you start with the original folder with its 75mm lens. Want something a bit wider? Add a Fuji 645S with its 60mm lens to your shoulder. Want something wider still? Maybe get one of those double camera straps and clip in the 645W with its 45mm lens and guestimation focusing system (no rangefinder). None of these are manufactured anymore but they can easily be found used, produce high quality images, and are very reliable. How does the Bronica with the 65mm lens mounted compare to the old Fuji 645S? The Bronica has a much better rangefinder. The Bronica offers automatic exposure. The Bronica has a more modern and easier to use flash system.
What about the latest Fuji 645 cameras? We haven't tested them yet for photo.net but I've played with them in the Shinjuku Yodobashi shop. The new Fujis look like huge 35mm point-and-shoot cameras and they work like 35mm P&S cameras too: autofocus, automated setting of film speed (from bar codes in Fuji 120 film), semi-automated film loading, motorized film advance, built-in flash, as few buttons as possible. One version even has short-range zoom lens. The Bronica RF645 offers more direct controls, silent operation, and a classic look. If you're looking for something to hand down to your grandchildren, the Bronica wins. In day-to-day usage, the Fuji point-and-shoots might win in situations when you don't have time or energy to think about photography.
If you like the perspective of a normal lens, the Bronica RF645 is a great camera. It is unobtrusive, lightweight, easy to use, sensibly engineered, and produces images of outstanding quality. As a wide-angle camera it becomes somewhat cumbersome.
Text and photos copyright 2001 Philip Greenspun.