The Bronica RF645 Review: The Last Bronica

Good day awesome war torn camera geeks and if I haven’t said so already Happy New Year 2022!! I hope your New Year is going to be the best so far.

Note: This post was obviously started earlier in the month but just posted yesterday! I should have said Happy Belated New Year! 😍

As many of you readers know, I’m quite a nostalgic fellow. Even as a younger man I had always thought fondly of good times and memories in my past. Now as I grow older the nostalgia has gotten more intense, if anything.

Where is this leading to? Well, it’s leading to today’s Camera Legend, the Bronica RF645.

THE BRONICA RF645

The Bronica RF645 is an interchangeable lens, medium format rangefinder camera manufactured by Bronica of Japan. It came to market in the year 2000 and was discontinued in 2005.

The amazing Bronica RF645 and 65mm f/4 Zenzanon. The last Bronica Camera Legend.

At the time of the Bronica RF645’s production, Tamron had already taken over Bronica since 1998.

Tamron is a Japanese manufacturer known mostly for their production of 35mm lenses which they made for a multitude of camera mounts, including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, and more. They were and are known as a third party manufacturer and supplier of lenses and accessories.

The RF645 shoots 6×4.5 images on 120 film. The lenses available for the camera were the 45mm f/4, the 65mm f/4, the 100mm f/4.5, and the 135mm f/4.5 lenses.

YOUTUBE VIDEO

For a more dynamic experience check out my Bronica RF645 YouTube review. To spice it up, there are some sample photos on the video that are not here and vice versa. If nothing else, check out the “Image Analysis” segment. It will show you what you cannot see, or might miss when viewing sample images straight on 😎📸👍🏻

SAMPLES

Most of the samples here are from my early days with the RF645, circa 2010-2015. The latter images are from last month, December 2021. All images taken with the Bronica RF645 and 65mm f/4 Zenzanon RF. Due to a mix up, some scans may be lower in quality than they should be and due to the time constraints of trying to post the video and publish the article at the same time, I haven’t been able to update it.

Please check my YouTube video for a couple of color samples, a double exposure, and most importantly the geeky “Image Analysis” segment. That, you don’t want to miss! 😍

BRONICA RF645 ESSENTIALS

The Bronica RF645 is a manual focus rangefinder medium format camera that takes 6×4.5cm images on 120 film.

The Bronica RF645 is at its heart an electronic camera and it runs on two CR2 batteries.

There are four lenses made for the camera. The 45mm f/4, the 65mm f/4, the 100mm f/4.5, and the 135mm f/4.5 Zenzanon RF lenses.

The RF645 has a dedicated flash unit, the RF20 flash.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE RF645

I first came across the Bronica RF645 in 2010. It was not actually a camera on my radar of cameras to get but I had seen some great photos from a photographer friend who spoke highly of it.

I had also read many great threads on this camera on rangefinderforum.com a very nice and close knit community for rangefinder photography enthusiasts.

As always, I was more of a lurker than a contributor. I love looking at the photos and soaking in the knowledge of the great photographers there!

I was too shy really to contribute. I may have once or twice, I can’t remember but I was not a prolific poster. Some of the folks there are prolific! I could mention a bunch of names but I don’t want to out anyone 😍

They must be shy too though. I’ve never had an rangefinder forum member comment here or on my videos, at least not that I know of. Don’t be shy guys and girls! You cats on RFF are da bomb! You own this genre. Open up and say hi! 😎📸👍🏻

Anyway I ended up buying a Bronica RF645 body and 65mm lens kit used for $700 in 2010.

I DID NOT EXPECT TO LIKE IT BUT…

Although I first bought the RF645 in 2010, I didn’t expect to like it. Why wouldn’t I like it? Well I was not too keen on the vertical format although I figured I’d get used to it. It’s not that I don’t like vertical shots, I mean portraits are mostly vertical. It’s that as someone used to 35mm where horizontal framing is the norm, it may take some getting used to.

I was also concerned about the slowish f/4 to f/4.5 lenses. Also knowing the 6×4.5 is not all that much larger than 35mm, relatively speaking, well that also gave me reason to pause.

In 2010, I was really into the bokeh phase of my photography. I had been a bokeh whore for years already with lenses like the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AIS, the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, but the Canon 50mm f/0.95 “Dream Lens” that I got in 2009 really set me off!

But isn’t the Bronica RF a medium format camera? Shouldn’t it give better bokeh effect because of the larger film format you might ask?

Well, yes the Bronica is a medium format camera but not all medium format cameras were created equal or for the same purpose.

For one thing, remember the slowish f/4 and f/4.5 lenses which on 6×4.5 would translate to roughly f/2.5 and f/2.8 respectively as far as what you might get in shallow depth of field or its bokeh “look.” However you must remember that f/4 and f/4.5 is still f/4 and f/4.5 in its light gathering abilities.

Secondly, rangefinder cameras, whether 35mm or medium format never focus as closely as their SLR counterparts so you can’t recreate or enhance the bokeh effect by just getting closer like you can with many SLR lenses.

So why buy it in the first place? As I said, I saw some great images and my photographer friend, who I met on Rangefinder Forum, kind of pushed me over on it although I didn’t buy it from him. His wasn’t for sale!

As with most of my photographic purchases, I figured I could sell it if I didn’t like it.

So why did I end up liking the camera, or more correctly, loving the camera so much?

Well it’s the combination of really quite impeccable sharpness, contrast, and at times, even bokeh from the 65mm f/4 Zenzanon RF lens that won me over. And these virtues worked well for me, especially for portraits where the vertical orientation of the framing works perfectly.

WHAT THE BRONICA RF645 TAUGHT ME

The Bronica RF645 and especially its 65mm f/4 lens taught me how to better appreciate subtle bokeh.

2010. Bronica RF645 and 65mm f/4 Zenzanon RF on T-Max 400 developed in T-Max developer. Note the beautiful subtle bokeh and how the sand melts in the background.

Yes I’ve seen subtle bokeh from other lenses many times before but they always got overlooked especially if I’m using a camera where I can swap out the lens and use a fast 85-90mm portrait lens. But since I’ve only used the 65mm f/4 on the RF645, I don’t have any of its other lenses to swap out so I’m stuck analyzing every frame. That’s how I came to appreciate the qualities of the 65mm Zenzanon RF more.

2021. Note the uniform blur on the Christmas lights. The 65mm f/4 Zenzanon is not a character lens such as the Canon 50mm f/0.95 “Dream Lens.” Instead it has just enough of a beautiful soft background blur that allows the subject to shine through.

My two favorite forms of photography are portrait and street. The RF645 is an excellent camera for both! Just as long as you understand, the 65mm is not going to give you the classic head and shoulders portrait. The best you can get is a half or full body. It’s great for environmental portraits of people in their surroundings, which in turn makes it a great lens for street portraits.

When you’ve used lenses like the Canon 50mm f/0.95, the 85mm f/1.2L, the Leica Summilux 80mm f/1.4, or the Hasselblad 110mm f/2, you get really spoiled with that “in your face” bokeh look.

You’re not going to get that with the 65mm f/4 Zenzanon. What you get is subtle bokeh that accentuates and complements the subject rather than overtake the subject.

For a lot of the bokeh lenses I mentioned, ie, the Canon 50mm f/0.95, many times the “look” created by the unique characteristic of the lens becomes the subject. In other words, people are drawn to the look created by the Dream Lens first, then to the actual subject second.

The Bronica 65mm with its much more subtle bokeh helps to draw the viewers to the main subject first.

Sometimes people worry that this means the lens itself has no character but that really depends on the viewer and how one sees it.

For me, the Bronica 65mm f/4 Zenzanon RF, especially with a film like Tmax 400 gives me images with the kind of character I like!

It mixes excellent “modern” sharpness from a lens built in the late 90s or early 2000s with just the right amount of contrast that gives me a kind of look I like. Images can look vintage and modern at the same time.

I can’t pinpoint it but black and white images from the 65mm Zenzanon reminds me of black and whites from the Twilight Zone tv series but at the same time, not! Confusing ain’t it? 😂

Don’t be confused, it’s all in the eye of the beholder 😍👍🏻

BRONICA RF645 PROS

1. Portability. The biggest pro for the Bronica RF645 would probably be portability. It’s not a small camera by today’s standards but it is portable for a medium format camera. It will fit nicely into most camera bags that could hold a DSLR and lens.

It is hefty but light enough to carry around all day without feeling its weight too much.

2. More Shots Per Roll. Another pro is the fact that 6×4.5 gives you more shots per roll. What the RF645 loses in negative size, it makes up for in shots per roll and you’ll get about 16 shots

3. Handling & Ergonomics

I find the RF645 to have excellent handling and ergonomics. The viewfinder is nice and bright and the viewfinder lcd display is green and easy to read.

The controls are well placed. The shutter speed dial has nice, distinctive clicks and doesn’t move out of place too easily. The shutter speed range is 1/500 to Bulb.

The camera has a very competent set of controls on its back door, which includes the ISO settings, a self timer, and multiple exposure capabilities. Please check my YouTube video for a closer look.

Before I get to the Cons, here’s a quick look at the lenses…

BRONICA RF645 LENSES

Although I can only speak to the 65mm f/4 because it’s the only lens I’ve used on the RF645, I can say that if the other three lenses are consistent with the 65mm, then you can be assured of top notch optical performance.

The 65mm f/4 has a field of view equivalent to 39 or 40mm on 35mm film cameras.

The 45mm f/4 is a wide angle that has a field of view equivalent to roughly a 28mm (27.9 to be exact) on 35mm film. There is no frame lines for it on the RF645 so you either have to use the optional external finder or do without the finder.

The 100mm f/4.5 is usually seen as a telephoto but it corresponds to roughly 60mm on 35mm film making it more like a longer “normal” rather than a telephoto lens.

The 135mm f/4.5 is roughly 80mm on 35mm film which puts it in the classic portrait category.

As far as I know, the 135mm is very hard to achieve precise critical focus due to the RF645’s short rangefinder base.

Early RF645 cameras came with the viewfinder mask in the finder for the 135mm but apparently Bronica offered a free upgrade to anyone wanting to send the camera in for the 100mm viewfinder mask “upgrade.” Apparently they had heard complaints of focusing difficulty with the 135mm and tried to shift customers towards the 100mm.

CONS

1. Repairability. The main con of the Bronica RF645 is the possibility of expensive or hard to find repair service should your camera need servicing.

The film winder is a potential weak point. I have heard of people breaking the winders when used over enthusiastically. Mine has never broken in the five years that I had it but I always wind the film gently because the winder always had a bit of a fragile feel to it.

Another commonly reported problem is an out of alignment rangefinder window.

Now both of these problems could probably be fixed by a competent camera repair man but the problem really comes from availability of parts, or lack thereof.

Also one must remember that at its heart, the RF645 relies on electronics and as with all things electronic things are bound to fail as age and time takes its toll.

2. Increasing Prices. Another con for the RF645 is the increasing prices on this beautiful camera and its lenses.

Just like all the great Camera Legend cameras of yesteryear, prices have been increasing steadily over the past few years.

It’s still not as bad as the price increases on other legends such as the Mamiya 6 or 7, or the Leica film cameras but it’s getting there!

Keeping all these cons in mind, should you still decide to get one I can say that it is a great camera system that will produce exceptional results!

PRICES & AVAILABILITY

The Bronica RF645 and its lenses can still be easily found especially on eBay. The bodies come and go on sites like Keh or UsedPhotoPro.

If you are looking for the RF645, prices are trending at $1000-1500 USD for the body in good to excellent condition.

The 45mm and 65mm Zenzanon are easiest to find and trending at $500-750 for the 45mm and $450-650 for the 65mm.

The 100mm and 135mm are harder to find and prices are trending at $900-1400 for the 100mm and $1600-2000 plus for the elusive 135mm.

Some people think the 135mm is a unicorn because they have never seen it for sale but I have seen it on eBay and more recently on Keh where they were asking $1700 plus for it in Excellent condition. It was on their site for a couple of weeks.

I’d love to try one but the price for the 135mm was way too much for something I know I’d use once or twice.

I nearly bit the bullet on the 100mm many times but didn’t. Only a year ago I saw the 100mm in the $600-800 range. Now it’s probably too late for me to buy one because I’m not willing to spend over $1000 for it. Remember my favorite quote that I borrowed (stole!) from Steve Windwood? “While you see a chance, take it!” Well sometimes I don’t take my own advice and now it’s too late for me 😢

Everyone has different needs but for me, honestly, the 65mm is probably the only lens I need for the RF645. It’s a very sharp, high resolution lens that’s perfect for environmental portraits and street work. Check the “Image Analysis” segment of my YouTube video for a clear demonstration of its resolving power.

CONCLUSION

The Bronica RF645 is an amazingly brilliant camera that puts great handling and sharp optics into a highly portable package.

Brought to market in the year 2000, it represents the best of what can happen when a lens legend like Tamron and a Camera Legend like Bronica work together.

It also represents the climatic end of Bronica. A great camera manufacturer that started out trying to compete against medium format giants like Hasselblad and Rollei only to find themselves always underrated and underestimated.

Pros and enthusiasts always knew how great Bronica cameras and lenses were but it’s hard to compete when you’re up against not only Hasselblad and Rollei, but also Mamiya Fujifilm and Pentax, all of which have greater name recognition from the general public.

The RF645 was their last medium format camera and in terms of ease of usability, perhaps their best.

It also didn’t help that the RF645 was introduced during the dawn of the digital era. Had it been introduced a decade earlier, say around 1990, perhaps it would have stayed on the market longer than five years, which in all honesty is already longer than you might have expected!

Anyway that’s all pure conjecture now. The Bronica RF645’s story is history but this Camera Legend lives on in the hearts, minds, and eyes of photographers like myself and many others. In my opinion, it’s the most fun 645 camera I’ve ever used and more importantly, it produces consistent results that I love!

IS IT WORTH IT? IS IT FOR YOU?

Due to increasing prices and possible repairability issues, I would say NO for most people.

But for you HARDCORE camera geeks, I’d say YES!! Get it now before prices go beyond its worth!

What is a HARDCORE camera geek? Camera Legend definition: A camera geek who knows the risks but is willing to take it 😍👍🏻

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4 thoughts on “The Bronica RF645 Review: The Last Bronica

  1. Thanks for this review. I think that you highlighted the important, unique characteristic of the combo RF645 + 65/4 : the perfect amout of blur for reportages, surprisingly very easily achieved at every setting. Definition and contrast are top class, with highlights and shadows detailed too. Quite sensitive to flare, however.
    Moreover I find it quick to operate, with a precise rangefinder patch, and an efficient metering. Thanks to its moderate weight and the lens shutter, it achieves easily sharp images at 1/8s. Loaded with a 400 asa film, we can success wonderful pictures, full of character and with a fine grain in dim light. Drawbacks : delicate cover, some fragile parts, lag of the shutter.

    I was looking for a nice subtle bokeh medium format camera and I came
    initially to the Rolleiflex 2.8GX. Unfortunately I never succedeed to focus it properly, even after updating the focusing screen. This is I think because of the low contrast of the viewfinder lens. So I went to the Bronica which never disappointed me in 15 years, except for the color rendition where the Rolleiflex is better.

    I had the winding issue. In my case it cames from the weakness of an aluminium cast part below the lever. A delicate crank disc with notches. Such a part can be easily replaced by some of stainless for example. With patience, I guess that you can achieve it with small ropes from some thick disc. The vertical adjustment of the focusing patch can be adjusted after disassembling the winding lever (compasses wrench is needed), the top cover and a wired plastic part on the right of the eyepice. Take care of the flat wire which links the eyepiece to the cover. But take care : wrong adjustment can make the patch disappear.
    I never had an electronic issue. I am more worried with the top cover : delicate, it can break and magnesium is very sensitive to corrosion. But globally, the camera seems reliable to me.

    I have the 100/4.5 which allow more close portraits thanks to a close focusing up to 1 meter. The finder precision is ensured up to 1.8m. On contrary to the 65mm, I found it somewhat ordinary. Besides, it enlarges the camera a lot wich goes against its vocation of reportage.

    Comparisons :
    Rolleiflex 2.8 GX : Images are less contrasty however I prefer its results, even if I am very fond of the Bronica’s. Color rendering is richier and intense. Bokeh is wonderful, and one of the very few with a nice foreground rendering. However it is far slower to use, and almost impossible to focus properly wide open at short distance. More suited for portraits.

    Rolleiflex 4 FW : Wonderful camera. The lens is not very contrasty but I like very much its rendering. Focus can be achieved easily on contrary to the GX instead of a slower, but contrastier viewfinder lens. Can focus up to 0.6m.

    Voigtlander Bessa III / Fuji GF670 : the graal. One of the last and the best camera that we could have dream, released just in time before the collapse of the analoge era. Thank you so much, Mr Kobayashi ! Immense negatives, contrasty and hi-definition lens, compact, very very silent (maybe the ultimate silent camera), no vibration, efficient meter and easy to use automatic mode, “close focus” of 0.9m better than the Bronica’s, small shutter lag, lightweight. It is flawless. But I am disappointed. To my eyes, the lens lacks character. Besides, the whites and blacks have few details, and the pastel tone of the colors didn’t convinced me. Black and white results are impressive however. Maybe it is simply not fitted to my style : I use often the lens close to wide open, so maybe I would have been pleased from f/5.6 ?

    Leica M : In my opinion, the main contender of the Bronica. With its fast and modern, top class lenses like a 35/1.4, loaded with low-sensivity films, it even outperforms the Bronica. It feels also reliable and solid like a rock. But the Bronica is still a medium format which delivers big negatives with an unique rendering as many works of art with a human-friendly 4.5×6 ratio. I would recommend to have these both, the Leica for dim light, close focusing and color films, the Bronica for everything else in black and white. Fortunately, pepole are not aware of the Bronica’s capabilities regards to the Leica’s, allowing moderate prices for oftenly better results !

    Liked by 1 person

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