In November 2012, I was browsing ebay (like I do way too often), and I ran across a listing for a Zenza Bronica S2, with a Nikkor-P 75mm f/2.8 lens. I had read a bit about the Bronica and was intrigued by the camera, and since the ebay listing was Buy It Now with a Make Offer option, I decided to throw caution to the wind and I sent in a rather low ball offer. Lo and behold, my offer was accepted, and a week later I was holding the camera in my hands and getting ready to shoot square format film for my first time.
I have now had the camera for 6 years, and in that time it has become one of my all time favorites, so I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts on the camera and lens.
The Bronica S2 was the third variant of the top end Bronica medium format 6x6 camera built by the Japanese camera maker Zenza Bronica, named after its founder, Zenzaburō Yoshino. The original Bronica Z (later renamed Bronica D, for Deluxe) was designed and built to compete directly with the Hasselblad camera of the late 50s, as well as to surpass some of the shortcomings of the Hasselblad. When released in 1959, the Bronica was, in many ways, a more advanced and arguably better camera than the focal plane shutter Hasselblad cameras of the time.
Of the many advanced features the Bronica came with, perhaps the most unique is the mirror, which instead of flipping upwards like every other SLR made, the Bronica mirror slides downward and forward during exposure. With the typical SLR design where the mirror flips upwards, all the lenses need to be designed so that the rear element is far enough away to still allow the mirror to move freely. This pushes the lens optics out further from the film, which makes for generally larger lenses compared to those found on rangefinder cameras and TLRs. By utilizing the downward sliding mirror, the Bronica lenses could be closer to the film, and therefore could theoretically be smaller lenses. I say theoretically because other than the Nikkor-P 75mm most of the lenses for the early Bronica cameras are still quite large. The unusual mirror design made for a very complicated mechanism though, and possibly made for reliability issues, as well as high production costs.
Two years after its introduction, the Bronica D was replaced with the Bronica S, a slightly larger but simplified camera. Both the Bronica D and S models also had the somewhat unusual feature of having the lens focusing helicoid built into the body itself, instead of being part of the lens. I think the idea being that this would make lenses cost less, but my guess is that it proved problematic, especially with distance scales and different focal length lenses. The Bronica S was eventually replaced with the S2, which did away with the built in focusing helicoid. The newer camera used interchangeable focusing helicoids that mounted to the body, and then the lenses mounted to that.
When the Zenza Bronica company first got started, they lacked the wherewithal to produce their own lenses, so they convinced Nikon to produce a range of medium format Nikkor lenses for the Bronica cameras. Eventually Bronica would have their own range of Zenzanon lenses, but most of the earlier Bronica cameras came equipped with Nikkor lenses. The standard lens being the Nikkor-P 75/2.8, a 5 element lens design based on the Carl Zeiss Biometar design. I personally think this lens is possibly the most underrated lens out there, and I think it is worth having an early Bronica just to have this lens. In real world results, I think the Nikkor-P 75/2.8 is every bit as good as the best from Zeiss and Schneider.
The Zenza Bronica S2 is (to me) the 1957 Chevy Belair of cameras. It's big, it's bold, and it's covered in chrome. I think it's one of the best looking cameras out there. My particular camera has grey leatherette, which makes it look even better in my opinion. It's not exactly a subtle camera. When you're out with it, people usually take note, and when the shutter goes off, people really take note. The shutter is loud (rivaled only by the mighty Pentax 6x7), but it is surprisingly smooth. You don't feel the clack of the mirror the way you do with the Pentax, or even a Hasselblad. With the S2 and the S2a that came after it, I think Bronica was able to resolve much of the reliability issues that seemed to come up with the earlier cameras. I don't know that the Bronica S2 is as reliable as say a Hasselblad, but I think they are well built and very good cameras. Of course it's important to remember that these cameras are nearly 60 years old now, and decades of use and/or neglect can take their toll.
As I mentioned before, over the years that I've had it, the Bronica S2 and Nikkor-P 75mm have become one of my all time favorite camera and lens. When you look at the current prices of Hasselblad kits, these early Bronica cameras are an extraordinary value too. Because of my failing health, I haven't used my Bronica S2 in a few years, but keep it in the cabinet, and every now and then I pull it out and wish I still had enough strength to lift in my hands, focus that superb lens, and hear that glorious ker-chunk as I fire the shutter.