Camera Geekery: Bronica RF645 Review

Today we have a guest review from site semi regular Joe Curzon. Check it out.

Like many interesting cameras I first discovered the Bronica RF645 through an article written by Bellamy on Japan Camera Hunter, the article itself covers the history of the camera, but it doesn’t really tell you what it’s like to use. So I thought I’d fill in those gaps.

It’s an unusual camera, as it was made just as digital cameras were gaining traction and marks the end of era of film cameras. I wish all cameras had such as simple naming convention – RF it’s a Range Finder. 645, it’s 6×4.5 medium format.

If you’re going to shoot film, there’s something satisfying about shooting medium format. There are the options of different film sizes, 6×6, 6×4.5, 6×8 and all sorts of other permutations. Normally medium format cameras are huge bricks. If you look at the SLR types like the Bronica ETRS or similar Mamiya offerings, they’re not exactly compact or light weight (and I say this after lugging a 3 Kg medium format camera around).

A medium format range finder, however, like the Bronica RF645 is just a bit bigger than a conventional 35mm film SLR so is easy to carry around. This makes them popular for those looking for larger prints and more detail than 35mm film. In London camera shops and online I frequently see the Mamiya 6 (which shoots 6×6) or Mamiya 7/7II (which shoots 6×7) cameras popping up for sale. They’re an excellent choice but have shot up in price due to their popularity. Rarer still is the Plaubel Makina 67 and a few variants. They normally cost more than the Mamiya range finders and owners will never part with them. If they do appear for sale they get snapped up very quickly.

This makes the Bronica RF645 an interesting choice as it’s not as well known. They appear on the second hand market a lot less frequently. Fewer people seem aware of they used to cost a third or half of the price of a Mamiya, but they’re slowly creeping up in price as more film shooters realise how good they are.

The Bronica RF645 is manual focus camera with its own lens mount. Bronica made a few Zenzon-RF lens for it including a 45mm F4 which is the most common and was often bundled as kit with the body, a 65mm F4 plus an exceptionally rare 135mm F4.5. The 135mm proved problematic if near impossible to focus accurately, so Bronica release an 100mm F.4.5 and later models of the camera had 100mm framelines instead of the 135mm framelines. To tell the two models apart, the serial number for the 135 frameline model starts with a 0, while the 100mm frameline version starts with a 1. I’ve only shot with the 45mm but I’m curious to use the others.

This camera shoots portrait instead of the conventional landscape. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you start framing your shots differently when everything is portrait by default. It is easy to get confused and think the lens hood is on the wrong way around, but it isn’t.

It’s got loads of bells and whistles too. It’ll take 120 or 220 film giving you 16 or 32 frames respectively. It’s got a +/- 2 stop exposure compensation, with half stops in-between. It’ll take film from 25 up to 1,600 ISO. It can do multiple exposures at by pressing the ME button on the back and it has 10 second timer for self portraits too. It has an exposure lock as well. If you’re shooting manual you can got from 1 second to 1/500 of a second (plus a bulb mode). It also has an aperture priority mode that will go from 8 to 1/500, or a Program mode that goes from 8 to 1/750.

The camera works by a half press confirming the exposure and a full shutter button press taking the photo. There are 3 modes of shooting, full manual, where the camera will warn if you if thinks the exposure is off and tell you which direction to go to correct it. It will let you take a photo regardless. Aperture priority mode will figure out the shutter speed once you’ve set the aperture on the lens. It won’t let you take a photo if the metering is off. P mode is where things get interesting. At first glance you think the lens is a fully manual lens with the electronic contacts to tell the camera which aperture has been used, but it P mode, it’s actually full auto. It will figure out the aperture and the shutter speed and set them accordingly, telling the lens which aperture to use.

There are lots of little touches in the camera like this. The film advance lever will work with a single big crank, or multiple small ones, it doesn’t care and this is by design. The mode / shutter speed dial can only be moved after pressing down a button next to a dial. It’s the same for the ISO setting for film dial too. It’s all very considerate and avoids those annoying mishaps that can happen when the wrong setting is nudged (this still happens with digital cameras today).

The camera even has a special curtain that raises between the film and the lens  when you remove the lens from the camera. So you can switch lens mid-roll without any issue.

The camera has a hotshoe and Bronica have made a flash for this camera called the Speedlight RF20 which will communicate with the camera to figure out the best flash settings. It’ll also take a standard mechanical shutter release.

The camera requires 2 CR2 3V batteries to work. You can’t take any photos without battery power. When the camera is turned off, the film advance works without any power and you can also adjust the aperture and focus on the lens. There is no auto focus, it’s manual focus only.

The only annoying thing about this camera is the view finder. It’s mostly lovely, it’s clear and bright, it has a clever parallax compensation that varies for each lens. However if you’re looking at the view finder you don’t always realise you need to be at a very exact angle in order to see the LCD panel. The LCD Panel again has some clever design as it takes advantage that you’re shooting portrait, so all the details are on the left side of the view finder window.

The camera is a mix of metal and strong solid plastic. It feels very well constructed and sturdy. It feels rugged, but due to the range finder aspect of it, I wouldn’t want to drop it or use it for self defence (I know some photographers consider that an option with their more chunky gear).

Using the RF645 doesn’t often attract attention, most people assume it’s a 1980’s camera and a few people I’ve spoken to assume it’s just another digital camera. This works in its advantage when you want to be discreet. The shutter is near silent, it does make a funny “pew” noise that I’ve hear some people describe as a meow.

I find I go through phases with my RF645. Sometimes I’ll use it constantly as my main medium format camera as it’s portable enough and can easily be tucked into a bag for when you’re going out. Other times it’ll just be on a shelf collecting dust. I really do need to stop leaving it out, as when it does gather dust there’s something about the matt plastic on the body that makes it awkward to clean compared to other cameras.

As the demand for good condition film cameras increases, film photographers have started to look beyond Mamiya 6’s and 7’s and have found a cheaper alternative in Bronica RF645. I’d grab one before the price starts to creep up even more. But this seems to be a common thing with all film cameras in general! I can’t really ever seeing myself parting ways with mine. It’s nice to have a medium format camera you can just take out on whim.

Thanks for the review Joe. Much more concise than I could be.