‘It’s Hip to be Square’

My 6x6 film story is short, short in terms of time spent shooting, but long in terms of length of ownership. You see, I bought my first 6x6 medium format camera, a Zeiss Ikon Nettar, with copal shutter, in Rochester Cameras for £18 in circa 1986. I then shot a couple of rolls and threw it in a cupboard, you see I was young, impetuous and spiral loading 120 was a pain – after all 35mm was the ‘in thing’ – gee’s people, I had Canons with AF, good meters, fast glass and stuff.

Fast forward 35 years and I still have that little Nettar, 3 of them in fact (well one is Sarah’s), it still takes gorgeous images for a camera so old, cheap and somewhat difficult to use, but I decided that it was time to go 6x6 with a degree of seriousness.

I had owned a Zenza Bronica 6x4.5cm camera system for about 6 years of my own but long before that I had used the company one in the 1990’s when I first shot weddings on film. Using the Bronica for that, was a pleasure, but challenging with the 6x4.5 format, having to constantly turn the camera by 90 degrees to take a portrait image can be a pain. 

After all everyone else was shooting square back then!

I wanted a Blad, let’s face it who doesn’t, I nearly bought one from Richard at Nik and Tricks in Folkstone in 2019 and I bloody wished that I had!! It sat in blue leatherette in a glass cabinet in the shop, it was begging me to buy it, but I walked away, I had the money too back then!  Now, some 20 months on, they’ve made a thousand pounds sterling (should you need to buy or sell), wow, such is their popularity and esteem. 

The Hasselblad 500 cm, an 80mm Carl Zeiss planar and WLF, was/is to remain something I’d just have to dream about – that won’t, of course, mean me making lesser photographs.

Instead of Hasselblad or indeed Mamiya, I chose to go a different route, which was to stay with Bronica brand, but to sell on my existing ETRSi 6x4.5cm system and try and get the same kit, lenses etc but in the larger SQ 6x6cm square format. I searched the pages of eBay and the classified and found that with a little diligence I could acquire what I needed for similar money, so I did not even have to break the bank to do it, bonus!

Why 6x6cm, you ask? 

I like and have always liked square, I often compose square in the Nikon Digital system, quite often even when I don’t, I perform a square crop in the post edit workflow stream.

6x6cm or medium format is also known as 2 &1/4 square although it is slightly more than that, it is one of the oldest film formats introduced in 1901 or sometime around then, it utilising a paper backing material which is adorned with indications of the differing formats available in the one roll. 

Utilising this film, the most popular and famous camera brands such as Rollei and Hasselblad have built superb camera systems, specifically around the format. 

Remember the Kodak Box Brownie that Granny had – yup 6x6 on 120 film, quite possibly the most popular camera ever made and used by millions.  

This, simply put, means that you can shoot 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, 6x9 and even 6x17 on the same film using differing camera types – the film length remains the same but the number of exposures per roll will differ according to size – 6x4.5 yields 15 exposures, 6x6, 12, you get the picture.

Whilst the film is basically the same now as it was back then, there have been incarnations of 120, these being 620 for smaller cameras and 220 which dropped the use of the backing paper to permit more film per spool, in fact double the film per spool giving 24 exposures on 6x6. 

Neither are mass produced these days, 620 is available from specialist sources and can be re-spooled from 120 but 220 is making noise once more, people are talking, even film manufacturers are talking, such is our love of film photography, our seemingly unprecedented interest in this old format, the resurgence is huge, it really is a fabulous time to be shooting film!

Medium format film offers many advantages (and some disadvantages) to the more popular and accepted 35mm consumer cartridge film. While it cannot equal the convenience and speed of 35, it more than eclipses it in terms of final print quality.

Technically 120 is far superior, with 6x6 offering more negative area per image, it’s a similar thing to sensor size in a digital camera, when either are bigger the data captured is generally greater which correlates with better images – simples!

A quick digital comparison for you ‘digiphiles’ out there; - 6x6 cm film is a rough equivalent of about 80 mega pixels – this is somewhat speculative because folk calculate pixel densities differently, but you get the idea, 35mm by comparison is about 20 but for the purposes of comparison it’ll do.

The quality is quite good, it gives you lots of options for film choice, most of the popular emulsions available in the more popular 35 are around in 120 too – great isn’t it.

So why Bronica?

The rather fabulous Zenza Bronica company was founded in 1956, the very name was already quite famous in Japan for its range of luxury goods, cigarette cases, cosmetic product cases and compacts and watches.

The company’s founder had a son, Yoshino, well, he was basically into photography. He bought and sold some of the many cameras which circulated Japan through the US service personnel who were based there, post WWII, implementing the Marshall Plan. There were large quantities of German Leica’s that made the streets of Tokyo this way just after the war. Yoshino scratched enough together to build the company and make the Bronica Z released in 1959. The modular system following on shortly after it.

They then developed the ranges through the S, C, S2, EC and EC-TL and then in 1976 came the 6x4.5 ETR, the SQ followed in 1980 and the larger GS 6x7 in 1983 – they even made a rangefinder the RF 645 for 5 years, these are rare and collectable these days.

After a search on the bay and other places, I managed to find a body, 80mm lens, waist level finder and 3 backs here in the UK which I put an offer and got it rejected, well, you must try these things, you understand. Anyway, we haggled a couple of times and I secured it for £40 more than my original offer, bargain.

It duly arrived and I was at work, typically, waiting as I often do to get out and be creative or at least my attempt at it – I have been a long time away from the format, shooting 6x6 is basically new to me, framing and composition were going to be interesting that’s for sure.

One thing to remember is that the positioning of the camera with a Waist Level Viewfinder is however reversed, you move left to go right and right to go left, although the image is the right way up, thanks to the SLR design, a bonus after the 4x5” plate camera. This makes subject tracking quite entertaining at times!

The waist level finder has a number of advantages, which afford the photographer, not only the luxury of far better perspective, but also better support for the camera when shooting, us older chaps with bellies will testify to that one!

 Another nice bonus is that, you, the photographer are looking down into the picture box and thus attracting far less attention to yourself when making images, particularly useful for street and candid work, the likes of Vivian Maier and her little Rolleiflex are a good example of what can be achieved. 

The waist level finder allows you to look down onto the ground glass and be able to frame the shot, provided you are stopped down enough f11 of 16 for example, then rough focus will be sufficient for a sharp photograph. For more critical focus there is a flip up magnifier which allows you to use the split screen in the centre of the ground glass – the trick is to use it correctly. Keep the camera at waist (reads belly) level and flip up the magnifier, at this position it is aligned with the centre split screen, perfect – no need to raise it to your eye, and yet so many people do just that all the time when it is really not necessary to do so, unless of course you are a spectacle wearer.

I also now have a pentaprism finder for the camera but rarely use it.

The interchangeable back, developed originally by Hasselblad is a system common to most manufacturers of this style of medium format camera now. They all use these n one form or another, the Mamiya RB67, being the best, because you can rotate the back, an outstanding idea if you ask me. Of course, you don’t have that issue with the square format of 6x6, primary reason for me to use it. 

The film backs allow you to have several rolls of different film loaded enabling you to change films mid roll for a different look or feel, colour to mono etc, it really is very useful. One can of course pre-load the film backs to save time in the field, although I generally just take two and then rolls of extra film to save weight. 

Having now acquired a brace of lenses, I am really going to enjoy shooing with this system, and I hope to be able to share my journey with you.

One of the things I like about shooting film is it enables you to release from the very clutches of the modern digital ways, and whilst I still enjoy my more modern photography very much, film gives me the freedom to enjoy the additional challenge and to be much more creative. 

My square journey continues apace now, and I am looking forward to hopefully making some wise film choices and shooting and developing and honing my skills with the silver print to be able to start to produce some nice work.

Watch this space …..may it be a ‘Square space’

Thank-you for being with me, remember I’m one guy with one opinion and I am not always right or wrong – this is, after all, my celluloid journey