Another Bronica – The Bronica SQ-Ai


I have had a bit of a love affair with Bronica cameras for many years but it took me until 2019 before I ever owned my first one, an ETRS complete with speed grip and AE II prism finder. Since then, I have acquired a further ETRS body, an assortment of lenses and accessories including a waist level finder. The last of my adventures with the ETR range was the last of the range, an ETRSi. The beauty of this range is that it is modular which means that once one has the basic body, all the accessories and lenses are interchangeable.

The ETRS range shoot the smallest of medium format images, viz. 6×4.5cm. I have been shooting larger medium format cameras, both 6×6 and 6×9. I particularly like the 6×6 format and decided that it would be nice to have a Bronica camera that shot this format. The SQ range fitted this criteria and I commenced my search!

The Options

As I have already intimated, the SQ range was the obvious choice but the question was which model. My choices were as follows:-

  • SQ: This was introduced in August 1980 as replacement and successor to Bronica’s classic and increasingly bulky Nikkor-lens based cameras. Production discontinued in September 1984. It was a modular 6×6 cm traditional “square film” medium-format SLR camera system with a leaf shutter lenses which I discounted due its age and the fact that I wanted a camera for regular use, not a ‘shelf queen’!
  • SQ-A: This was introduced in January 1982 and production ended in December 1991.The SQ-A was a refined version of the SQ. The contact pin array for the viewfinder was increased from six to ten gold contacts, allowing for auto metering capability with the AE finder S. This feature attracted me. Also, a mirror lock-up lever was added. This feature is particularly useful when shooting at slow speeds as it is fair to say that the mirror does return with quite a ‘thud’! Of course, a tripod is essential for its use otherwise you cannot see your composition with the mirror locked up! This initially was a contender.

    The film-backs were modified slightly but only cosmetically with the lettering on the film speed dial changing. The darkslide was changed to the locking style; to lock required both the new grey handle slide and the new silver numeral ISO dial back. All accessories for SQ cameras fit the SQ-A, however the AE finder cannot physically mount on the SQ; a safety defeat pin prevents its attachment.
  • SQ-Am: This model was introduced in August 1982 and production continued until March 1991. It was, in essence, a motorized film-advance only version of SQ-A body. It used six additional AA batteries. I discounted this model as I saw no need for the motorization with its intended use.
  • SQ-Ai: This model was introduced in December 1990 and production continued until December 2003. It added the following functionality to the SQ-A. Ability to add the motor drive SQ-i and off the film (TTL-OTF) metering with select flash guns. These changes required the addition of a circuit board which also required the battery compartment to be “flattened.” The single 6v cell was replaced with four 1.5 volt “button” cells (LR44 or equivalent). A bulb ‘B’ setting was added to the shutter speed selector. The film-back was also modified again with the introduction of the SQ-Ai, relocating the ISO dial to the rear of the film-back (rather than on top) to allow the speed setting to be seen better with a prism attached. Exposure compensation control was also added to the new SQ-Ai film-back, with the ISO range extended to 6400.
  • SQ-B (Basic): This model was introduced in April 1996 and production was discontinued in December 2003. The SQ-B was a manually operating SLR evolved from the SQ-Ai, built to primarily satisfy the needs of professional “studio” photographers who work with hand-held exposure meters, studio or portable flash equipment as well as various other accessories. Thus, motorized film-advance and through the lens metering (TTL) functionality were not present. Bulb exposure (B) and T (time exposure), as found on other SQ-series models was similarly unavailable. However time exposure (T), was available when utilizing the appropriate SQ-series Zenzanon-S/PS lenses which incorporated the time (T) exposure lever function. By default, the Zenzanon-PS/B 80mm f/2.8 lens which accompanied the SQ-B model did not include this feature. Most SQ-series accessories and lenses were interchangeable with the SQ-B. Despite being the last iteration of the SQ range, I discounted this model due to the lack of features.

Difficult Decisions

I was faced with having to make a decision between the SQ-A and the SQ-Ai and at this point, I feel it necessary to confess that my available finances did play a part in my ultimate choice.

On the one hand, the SQ-A had a good selection of functions that I could live with. On the other hand, the SQ-Ai had improved functionality and was a newer model and should, in theory, should be less likely to breakdown. Because of the additional functionality and being more recently manufactured, the SQ-Ai was obviously going to be more expensive. I resigned myself to the fact that I would almost certainly go down the SQ-A route.

I scoured all my usual sources. Due to Brexit and the added cost of import duties I had to discount the UK market. As both models are modular, I considered buying the component parts ie. body; lens; viewfinder; winder, film-back and building my own. I gave up on that idea!

As occasionally happens in life, fate took a hand. I was looking through the listings of a company in Italy from whom I had bought before, when I spotted an advert for an SQ-Ai, complete with a f2.8/80mm Zenzanon-PS lens and an additional f3.5/150mm Zenzanon-S lens that I felt I could afford. My immediate reaction was to wonder what the catch was. Yes, I am a born sceptic! I read the small print and the description carefully and eventually entered into a discussion with the sellers online.

The camera and both lenses appeared to be mechanically and optically sound. It was allegedly CLA’d and came with a warranty. On the downside, it was not cosmetically perfect but if you recall, I did want a camera that was to be used and not just for occupying shelf space. It also had a waist level finder which If I am honest is not my favourite. I would have preferred a prism finder but was prepared to forego that as they are a readily available accessory. Would I have liked a speed grip? Again, I could live without that as the camera shoots 6×6 square images there is no need to rotate the camera under normal circumstances although going on my experiences with my ETRS models, it would improve handling..

As a result, I ‘pulled the pin’ so to speak and put in an order for this camera. I am now the proud owner of a Bronica SQ-Ai and having run a couple of films through it, I am very pleased with it.

The Bronica SQ-Ai in Practice

The standard configuration of the Bronica SQ-Ai consists of the main camera body with a Zenzanon PS f2.8/80mm lens, a Waist Level Finder-S and a 120 Film-back-i. How the user ultimately configures it, is a matter of personal choice. The standard configuration weighs marginally over 1.5Kg which is only a little heavier than the ETRS which weighs 1.28Kg. Its weight came as no shock. If I was ever to join a gym, I wouldn’t feel the need to cancel my membership! It uses four LR44 or equivalent batteries.

The standard Zenzanon PS f2.8/80mm lens has slightly better optics and coating than the earlier Zenzanon S lenses. However, both generations of lenses are compatible with the SQ-Ai.
The lenses have leaf shutter, a depth of field preview switch, and the ability to shoot in T (Time) mode which has its uses! The lens has six elements in five groups. Apertures range from f2.8 to f22 with half stops. It focuses from 80cm to infinity.

The lens has a SEIKO between-lens leaf shutter with shutter speeds of 16 seconds to 1/500th second, ‘B’ and T modes. ‘T’ mode is recommended for long exposures say, over 1 minute to save battery power. This is achieved by pulling a button on the lens and moving a switch from ‘A’ to ‘T’. Once the shutter is depressed whilst in T mode, it will remain open until the lever is returned to the ‘A’ position. This uses no battery power however the length of exposure. (It is, however , a little fiddly IMHO!)

Controls Accessed on the Front of the Camera
The shutter release is situated on the bottom left of the front panel and incorporates a locking ring which when rotated to the ‘L’ position, locks the shutter. Not only does this prevent the shutter from being fired but also reportedly saves battery power if an AE prism viewfinder is installed. There is also a flash synch socket on the top right of the front panel.

Left Side of the Camera
Looking from the back of the camera, the left-hand side of the camera houses the lens release button, the shutter speed dial, an SCA adapter connector, a cable release socket, a battery check button, a film-back release button and a neck strap eyelet.

The left side of the film-back has a slot for the darkslide and two film spool catches.

Right Side of the Camera
Looking from the back of the camera, the right-hand side of the camera houses the film winding crank; a double exposure lever which when moved to the horizontal position, allows multiple exposures; the viewfinder release button; the mirror lockup switch and a neck strap eyelet.

The mirror lockup switch has three settings – ‘N’, ‘S’ and ‘C’. ‘N’ is for normal shooting, ‘S’ is for a single shot with the mirror locked up and ‘C’ is for continuous shots with the mirror locked up.

Also visible on the left side of the camera film-back is the manual film winder.

Back of the Camera
The back of the film-back has the film speed dial; an exposure compensation dial; an exposure compensation dial lock button and a frame to take a film carton end as an aide memoire.

The Top of the Camera
In standard configuration, the camera has a waist Level Viewfinder which incorporates a ‘pop-up’ magnifier for precise focussing. Also visible is the shutter speed scale; two back cover release buttons and an exposure counter.

The Bottom of the Camera
On the bottom of the camera there are a variety of electrical contacts for use with a power winder and flash synch. There is a standard tripod socket and the batteries are concealed under a cover that is released with a small catch.

Neck Strap
I make mention of the neck strap specifically because, compared to those that I was accustomed to with my ETRS models, it is much more substantial and dare I suggest, comfortable to use!

Final Observations

I am very pleased with the SQ-Ai. I have read several comments about their appearance and that they are somewhat ungainly to use. I disagree on both counts! Using the camera is no different to any other camera. You simply have to practice until everything becomes second nature. I originally found using my ETRS slightly awkward having progressed from 35mm SLRs. As with all film cameras, you need to take more time over shooting your images than one might when blasting away with a digital offering!

Some people refer to Bronicas as ‘ a poor man’s Hasselblad’. They certainly don’t have the same price tag and the lens quality may not be the same but on this score, the range of lenses available for the Bronica is certainly adequate and the quality of those lenses for my ETRSs and the SQ-Ai that I own seem to be of a high standard. I have read criticism of the 50mm offering but have no experience with it. To be honest, when I have saved enough for a wide angle lens for the SQ-Ai, I will be on the hunt for a Zenzanon f4/40mm lens! I might have to warn my bank manager!

This Really is the End!
Since acquiring my SQ-Ai, I have obtained a metered Prism Viewfinder-S which is pristine. It is an excellent addition to the camera and is a joy to use.
I have also obtained a bellows lens hood which is sitting in my daughter’s house waiting to be shipped to me from the UK. Given the cost of lens of conventional hoods I consider this a good option as it will fit most standard and telephoto lenses up to 250mm using a 67mm filter ring.
Once I have had an opportunity to put both accessories through their paces, I will probably post my findings at a later date. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.