Bronica Zoom Lens Duo

Strip of four slides represents the range of the two lens combo. (Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)
Photos © 1999, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I shoot over 90 percent of my work using medium format cameras. Like many portrait/ wedding photographers, I envy the 35mm shooters. They've got it all--long lenses, motor drives, zooms, fisheyes, etc. But watch out 35mm, because all these features I just listed can be yours now in medium format.

I've been shooting for about a month with a Bronica ETR-Si outfitted with a 120 film back, Speed Grip E, the AE-III Prism Finder, and two lenses--the Zenzanon PE100-220 f/4.8 Aspherical (IF) lens and the Zenzanon PE45-90 f/4-5.6 Aspherical. With 75mm being considered the "normal" focal length in this format, you've got everything from a fairly wide angle to a substantial telephoto covered with just two lenses. Let me tell you how they performed in the real world.

The first thing that you notice about these lenses is that they are substantial. They are ruggedly built and ready to withstand the rigors of hard, everyday use. They are all black with the focusing ring at the front of the lens and the zoom ring in the center. The longer lens has a retractable lens hood and the shorter one is supplied with a flower-shaped bayonet mounted hood that my test sample was lacking. Each lens also has a very nice carrying case with it that offers super protection. Fit and finish appears to be absolutely first-rate in both lenses.

Color, contrast, and sharpness are evident in this portrait of Emily Reynolds. (Taken with the 100-200mm lens at about 180mm, 1/250 at f/5.6; Fuji NHG800 film.)

Both lenses make use of aspheric elements, which are usually used to improve sharpness and reduce distortion in the corners, especially at shorter focal lengths. They also increase the illumination and prevent vignetting in the corners. The 100-220 lens makes use of one Hybrid Aspheric (glass plus other materials), the shorter lens has two. The long lens has 16 elements in 13 groups, the short one 11 elements in 10 groups. During the time I had the lenses, I shot a range of films from slow slide film (Kodak E100 SW) to fast color negative (Fuji NHG800). I'm going to make some comments that apply to both lenses first, then take each one individually as they are very different lenses.

These lenses are very sharp and have plenty of contrast. I don't shoot a lot of transparency film, but after looking at the chromes I got with this, I bought some more to shoot. The slides had intense color and a three-dimensional quality that you don't get with print films. It was like seeing an old friend again. One of the very first shots I took was of a flower. The stem was backlit and the fuzzy hair on it was needle sharp. I took that photo with the long lens set at 220. Another shot on my first roll was taken with the short lens at 45mm. I leveled my tripod and took a row of bricks as a field test for any type of distortion that might show up at the corners of the lens. I didn't see a thing out of kilter. My first two rolls of slide film told me these lenses produce outstanding results. If there is any difference in the image quality between these and the fixed focal length lenses available from Bronica, I doubt you'll be able to see it. Real world results are very impressive. Now let's go on to the individual lenses.

The 220mm lens pulls the distant tree closer, the typical "compression effect" of a telephoto lens. This GTS "R" model with the wing is a new model and this is serial number 1. (Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)

The Bronica Zenzanon PE45-90mm f/4-5.6 Aspherical. This is a cool lens which has a couple of features that are unique. Hold this lens in your hand and rack it through the zoom range. You'll see the front group of elements first retreat back in and then come right back at you--it's basically in the same place at 45mm and 90mm, sliding in and back out. Turning the focusing ring and the lens, of course, moves the elements out the closer you focus. Now the cool part. While technically not an internally focusing lens, Tamron (noted lensmaker and parent company) has designed the lens so that the outside barrel does not move. All these lens movements and gyrations take place by the lens moving and turning on the grooved inside section of the barrel. What does this mean to you, Joe Photographer? Plenty. Slap your lens shade or filter holder on the front of the barrel and it stays put, just how you want it. This is very important if you're using any filter in front of the lens that can be oriented just one way--like a polarizer or a graduated filter. Your pro lens shade or matte box will also remain the same. I have a 35mm zoom that does not use internal focusing or a neat trick like this lens and the bellows shade swings wildly about the front of the lens during focusing. Be advised--it's a good design feature.

I started shooting the lens before I had any documentation for it and immediately noticed another design feature that I was not familiar with. I like to rack lenses out as close as they focus, then find something to take a picture of. Of course, when you do this with a zoom, you've got to keep changing focal length and focusing distance. I noticed when doing some close-up photography, I was trying to focus closer on an object when I had the lens set at 45mm. When I racked the lens focusing distance closer, it automatically changed the focal length until the closest focusing was to be had at 90mm. This internal coupling of focusing and focal length is referred to by Bronica as Minimum Object Distance (MOD). The greatest image magnification is 1:4.3, which can be had at 90mm.

The 45mm wide angle setting creates a sweeping view of the sign. (Kodak Ektachrome 100SW.)

Lens speed is a major consideration in zoom lenses. Their complicated designs, size, and number of elements often dictate rather slow speeds. In this case, we've got a lens that starts at f/4 as a wide angle and tops out at f/5.6 at 90mm. A look at the Bronica lens line for this series of cameras lists the standard lens as a 75mm f/2.8 chunk of glass. The 60 and 50mm versions also top out at f/2.8 and the 40 lists a maximum speed of f/4. So while all of these lenses are considerably faster, it also means you need to buy three or four lenses instead of one. There's always a catch. My quick figuring shows you'd spend about $4500 street price for four lenses from 40-75mm. The street price of this lens is a remarkably low (I think) $1450. Buying a lens that offers all this one does at that price is an outright bargain. My suggestion? Buy the 75mm lens for less than $800 and get the zoom. It's faster at the shorter focal lengths, takes up less space in your bag than a bunch of lenses, and gives you that exact cropping you need for slide film.

One thing I've got to say now about both lenses. Like all lenses for this camera series, they both have leaf shutters built-in, which means you can use flash at any speed, a great boon shooting outdoors. Also, both have a filter size of 95. That's big folks, so think seriously when buying filters for these lenses and consider squares to keep costs reasonable. A Cokin P series looks like it would just barely cover it. The nice thing is that you can use the same hood or filter on both lenses since they're the same size.

Before discussing the longer lens, let me make a couple of comments that apply to both and the camera operation. Both lenses focus by turning the ribbed front ring and zoom by turning the rear ring. Bronica has made the ring for zooming rougher than the focusing ring, but I still found myself confusing the two rings. I'm sure my little pea brain would get used to it with more extended use, but I'd like to see the zoom ring made even courser or some way easier to differentiate from the focusing ring. While this is not a report on the entire camera, just the lenses, I'd like to make mention of the AE-III prism finder. This is an absolutely first-rate piece of equipment. You can set the film speed on a large and easy to use dial on the left, then set another dial to auto and the camera becomes completely automatic with Aperture-Priority TTL exposure. Set the switch to manual and use the meter and set the controls manually. It even has the option of spot or average metering and a memory feature that at first puzzled me. How's it work? In a word, great.

There's one more feature of the prism that's very nice but that caused me some trouble at first (remember, I didn't have an instruction manual). The eyepiece has a built-in diopter system to help those with glasses. It's stepless and is controlled by turning a knob that is right next to the viewing window. When I first started using the camera, I was impressed with how easily it focused. Then I started having trouble with it and got frustrated. It seems like the knob, which would end up on my eyebrow, would turn. Once I set it back to the upright (normal) position, I was fine again. I'd like to see some kind of lock or detent on that knob so it doesn't keep moving. Then again, maybe I've got a big forehead. The diopter range is -2.5 to +.05.

Now let's move on to the long lens.

Tamron touts this lens as the ideal portrait lens. Being primarily a portrait photographer, I can say that the idea of having one lens with the most often used focal lengths is quite appealing to me. I have a friend who shoots 6x7 format and uses a 100-200mm zoom lens in that format for all his studio portraiture. That lens is slower and costs about two times as much as this lens. This lens goes for about $1900, which is less than many single focal length lenses sell for in medium format, so again I think that's a remarkable bargain.
You'll note that I said he uses his zoom lens in the studio, not outdoors. I found this lens a pleasure to use in the studio. I repeatedly found myself moving, then stopped myself and just zoomed the lens. I will many times change my lens on my Bronica SQ-Ai from a 150mm lens for close-ups to the 80mm lens for full-length shots. When you do this, you create a chance to make errors by neglecting to check your f/stop each time you switch lenses. With a zoom, set it once and forget it. For studio shooting, it's an unqualified success.

Depending how much you move around outside will determine if you want to take this baby with you. Why? Because by the very nature of being a zoom, it has to do a couple of things inherent in zoom lens design--add some weight and lose some light. I think the light loss is minimal. Most lenses in the 150-180mm range are f/4s. The f/4.8 opening in this lens only loses about a half stop of light to the single focal length lenses, and the maximum aperture is not variable, another plus I liked. But to achieve this relatively high speed requires quite a bit of glass--16 elements in 13 groups to be exact. This causes the lens to tip the scale at almost 5 lbs, which is quite a noticeable weight in your camera bag.

Having said that, I found this lens remarkably easy to use. Two features contribute greatly to this--the internal focusing and the rotatable tripod mount. The internal focusing again means the physical outside size of the lens does not change and filters mounted to the front of the lens maintain their proper orientation. The rotatable tripod mount is terrific. The tripod that I use for location shooting has a pistol grip and quick release mounting plates. I put one plate on the camera body and one on the rotating mount. This allowed me to quickly change from one lens to the other. When using the short lens, I'd mount the camera on the tripod. When using the long lens, I'd attach it to the tripod via the rotating mount. By loosening one of the two big "set screws," I'd quickly change from vertical to horizontal operation. The lens is marked to assure you're lining up at 0 and 90°. Tripod straightening is up to you. The mount does come off for handheld operation, reducing weight.

The lens also has another great feature. Remember how I told you I like to rack lenses out and go around taking pictures as close as I could focus? This lens maintains the same MOD throughout the entire zoom range. Whether you're at 100mm or 220mm, you can focus at about 39". Get in as close as you can to that flower, view various croppings through the lens while zooming, pick the one you like, and shoot. No moving tripods around. The best part is that at 220mm the magnification is 1:4.9, making it a near macro lens.

I guess I can tell you how I really feel about the camera and lenses by the way I used them. Anytime I had an excuse, I'd throw the body and two lenses in a camera bag (I keep the tripod in the car), and take off. I watched carefully the date on the calendar when I had to return the equipment to Bronica (no, I didn't get to keep it). I really had a great time with these lenses and felt that with the two of them I could take care of about 90 percent of my shooting needs. Optically they're first-rate, construction is rugged, they focus close, handle quickly, the price is terrific--what more can you ask for? If you currently own this system or are looking for a comprehensive 645 format camera with leaf shutter capabilities, go check out this dynamic duo.