The “star” of the last episode of this blog was my big Zenza Bronica GS-1 medium format camera. However, that brute has a slightly smaller brother, and by coincidence, he’s about to undergo some road-tests after rather a long period of “hospitalization”.
When I reached the age of 40, back in 1994, it was in the heady days when 35mm photography was probably at its height, though “real” photographers still liked to say “big is better”, and medium and large format photography was still getting many pages of coverage in the camera press. These were, of course, pre internet and pre digital camera days. A last hurrah, or the calm before the storm? History will decide.
I was a regularly-published photographer of things to do with Britain’s mountains, and my “specialist” area, the Italian Dolomites. I worked almost exclusively with a really lovely Nikon F3/T camera.
My Nikon was a marvel. This wasn’t your ordinary black-bodied F3/T, but one of what was known as the “champagne T” limited editions. See photo.
The T cameras had numerous titanium body parts. The “champagne” cameras were produced in a pinkish-grey finish, very resistant indeed to scratches and knocks. Moreover, mine had been “winterised” at some point in its life. I think this involved some special lubrication being put in, and a bit of insulation of the electrics. It was also able to take an external battery pack that could be worn inside a jacket. I never did get to find out its full history, but the guy in the shop told me he thought the previous owner had done a stint with the Antarctic Survey.
So, I had the ideal mountain camera. However, I was well aware that 35mm format was limiting so far as the purer forms of landscape photography went. Large format cameras were beyond my price range, and impractical for my needs. Medium format was dominated by various forms of Rollei and Mamiya cameras, and Hassleblads for those with the money. There was a strong following for Bronica cameras too. A used camera dealership about 20 miles from where I lived had a service whereby they would search out and put together mint or near-mint condition camera outfits, to order. I gave them a specification for what I thought I wanted, and a week before my 40th birthday, my collection of “big boy’s toys” was ready to collect.
I’d bought a basic kit. Think big, modular single lens reflex camera. Camera body, film back, basic lens, prism meter/viewfinder and general-purpose standard lens. I loved it, and it wasn’t long before I began searching the shops and magazine ads (no such thing as eBay back then) to add useful accessories to my outfit. I was also loving the results from a film format (6cm x 4.5cm negatives and slides) that is quite a bit larger than 35mm. OK, there are only 15 shots per roll of 120 film, but while I could get through a couple of 36 exposure rolls of 35mm film on a day out in the mountains, the smaller number was fine for the situations I used the Bronica in. It was too big and clumsy, in my opinion, to take up high in the hills, and totally, totally impractical for rock-climbing photography.
Reading “Amateur Photographer” magazine one day, several months after buying my Bronica outfit, I came across a short piece about the delights of the “135” film backs made for my Bronica model. These take a cassette of 35mm film. There’s one that takes the standard 36mm x 24mm frames, and a “W” model that shoots 52mm x 24mm panoramic format frames, achieving 23 of such frames to a roll of 36 exposure 35mm film. I was immediately interested in the ‘W’. Here was a brilliant crossover option between my 35mm and medium format needs. There was one problem. The 135 series backs had only ever been made in small numbers, and the W backs in particular were allegedly, said the magazine article, as rare as hen’s teeth.
I rang the used equipment dealer from whom I’d bought my outfit, to check this out. “Yes”, he said, “they don’t turn up very often, but by coincidence, we’ve just got one in. If you want it, you’ll need to be quick, because it’ll be advertised in ‘Amateur Photographer’ next week, and be sold immediately.” I needed no other prompting. I bought it sight-unseen, and collected it that weekend. I don’t recall that the fact for, back then, it was quite expensive, ever came into the equation. I don’t scour the used equipment ads in print, (or on eBay) much these days, but ever since buying my 135W back over 20 years ago, I think I have only ever seen one or two advertised. I was that fortunate. The last one I saw was on eBay and it attracted hundreds of bids. I can’t begin to think what price it went for!
Anyhow, me and the Bronica ETRSi went on some superb outings. I was fortunate to have a series of Christmas/New Year trips to Tuscany, and it was the ideal camera for everything I wanted there. The big GS-1 Bronica would have been even better, but I hadn’t bought it then!
Then came the fateful day. We’d stopped off in the lovely little walled town of Monteriggioni for coffee on our last afternoon. I parked the Bronica on the cafe’s high counter while paying for coffees, and, as I lifted them on their tray, I up-ended the camera, which headed straight for the cafe’s stone-tiled floor. My hands were full of a tray and coffees etc, and I had no chance to catch it. The crash brought silence to the whole cafe. Yes, it even sounded to others as near-fatal as it sounded to me.
The Bronica’s 75mm lens was totally smashed and the lens body horribly distorted. The floor came off far better, without even a mark! The impact had parted the lens from the camera body. The viewing prism was similarly cast adrift, though apparently undamaged. The 120 format film back I’d been using at the time had burst open, immediately ruining the ten or so shots taken on it. Maybe everything would have survived a fall on to a wooden floor, but four feet or so directly down on to Tuscan stonework was far too much. It was a disaster.
I didn’t get a real chance to study the damage until we were back in the UK. There was nothing to salvage of the lens, which had clearly taken the main impact. It went in the bin without much ceremony. The film back seemed none the worse for the fall, the force which had caused its latches to open. In normal operation it seemed fine. The metering and viewing prism was an expensive later addition I’d bought. It didn’t seem to be damaged or marked at all, but wouldn’t lock properly on to the camera body. This was traced to a hairline crack along a length of a plastic casing to the body, which was made of very firm plastic, around a strong metal chassis. The metal chassis seemed fine. A replacement lens fitted to the lens mount perfectly. The 75mm lens had, in effect, acted as a crumple zone! The impact had also dislodged the internal mirror mechanism.
The box of bits languished untouched for several years in my office, a constant reminder of bad luck and clumsiness. I was using digital SLRs for most work by now, but still had a freezer full of film that needed using. The Bronica had been reserved for special trips. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I had the entirely unexpected chance to buy a very complete outfit built around the ETRSi’s big brother, the GS-1 for really not a great deal of money. I’m glad I did, because the GS1 has given me great service – see this blog, for example. However, the damage to the ETRSi still irked. However, an experiment had shown that the camera’s metering electrics still worked, and eventually I decided to drop it in to a now much-missed local repair workshop for a look.
Professional attention fixed the mirror without difficulty, but the advice was that the crack in the camera body wasn’t capable of being mended. It was a stressed section that helped hold the viewfinder prism firmly in place. Options were to find a way to tape it up, or stump up the cost of a new camera body. Once the mirror was working again, I was able to confirm everything in the camera worked, but the viewing prism would not stay fixed on. Everything went back in that box in the office. While I could have sold the individual components, with its crack, the body wasn’t saleable. Heart ruled head.
It wasn’t until late 2017, around ten years since the accident, that I finally got around to having a serious look at how to repair that split. To my surprise, by discreetly taping the viewfinder to the camera body, I had something that stayed firmly in place and allowed full functionality. With the use of just a couple of inches of good quality, carefully-positioned mending tape, I had a complete ETRSi outfit again. I was glad the camera hadn’t had its rather expensive 50mm wide angle lens fitted when it was dropped. I can’t justify replacing the 75mm “workhorse” lens, so the 50 looks like it might become the new standard. It gives a view approximately equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm format camera or digital slr.
Well, today I finished the job of cleaning and fettling all parts of the ETRSi kit. It looks wonderful. The wide angle lens will bring out the best from the 135W film back, and I still have more than a dozen rolls of 35mm film in the fridge. Stand by for some experimentation!
My title this time is a Strawbs song, which will be unknown to almost everyone likely to read this piece!