TEXT AND IMAGES BY JACK NEUBART
Let me start by saying the Bronica RF645 is a joy to use and a
comfortable fit. The nicely contoured body is about the size of a
professional 35mm SLR. Yet, in contrast to smaller-format cameras,
notably the high-tech models, this rangefinder features controls
that are quickly and easily accessible by virtue of their larger
size and convenient placement.
Aside from the shutter button and advance lever on top, there is a largish mode dial, and on back are the exposure compensation lever, ISO dial, and on/off switch. Three additional function buttons are smaller, so as not to be intrusive. The AEL (autoexposure lock) is conveniently positioned for quick thumb access, while the less frequently used functions, namely self-timer and multiexposure, are over to the far left.
SHARP & CRISP
When I say that controls are quickly and easily accessible, I'm not exaggerating: I took the camera out on a bone-chilling day after a major snowstorm. My fingers were numb, but I had no problem working with the camera. The film-Fujichrome Provia 400F- advanced smoothly, and when it was necessary to compensate for excessive scene brightness operating the exposure override lever was a simple matter. Exposure adjustments aside, the camera's centerweighted averaging metering system (with 5-segment sensor) proved itself capable of handling even troublesome contrasts. I especially liked the viewfinder's digital exposure display, which was unobtrusive but easily viewed when needed. That experience in frigid cold constituted my initial outdoor foray with the RF645 and the 45mm f/4 wide-angle lens. It went a long way toward warming me up to this camera.
Three lenses flawlessly complement this medium-format camera. The 45mm is superbly suited to groups and scenic views. The 65mm f/4 optic is the accomplished all-purpose lens. The third lens in the group is a short telephoto, the 135mm f/4.5. Of the three lenses, only the first two were available in time for review. The telephoto should be available by the time you read this.
The RF645 employs a coincident-image rangefinder and automatic parallax correction. As you look through the viewfinder, you'll see the bright frame outlining the subject area, which comes into play for composition with the two longer lenses. The shortest lens uses its own external viewfinder, but only for viewing and composition. This attaches to the camera's hotshoe.
All lenses use the primary viewfinder for focusing, which requires that the two out-of-phase images in the center become superimposed as one, hence coming into focus. Operating the focusing ring on each of the lenses proved as effortless as working with the primary camera controls. Moreover, both lenses have a very comfortable size and heft, providing excellent balance overall. Most importantly, the pictures each lens delivered were sharp and crisp.
The camera itself offers some very nifty touches, outside and inside. Goldtone lettering gives the camera presence, serving to reinforce the RF645's quiet yet solid look and feel. Beyond that, gold-plated electronic hotshoe and lens contacts should maximize communications with the camera, ensuring equally solid performance when electronically controlled functions are called into play. There is an optional Speedlight RF20 that attaches directly by way of the dedicated hotshoe terminal. The flash is tiny and great for fill-flash applications, and will do as the main light in a pinch, for nearby subjects. The RF20 has a digital display, with both automatic and manual operating modes (manual with variable output). Using this flash in auto, with the camera in Program AE mode, is as simple as switching it on.
On a typical roll of 120 film, the RF645 delivers 16 exposures. It takes only one full throw of the film lever, or ratcheted strokes, to advance to the next frame. The lens shutter is automatically cocked. When changing lenses, film fogging is prevented by an internal baffle that drops into position when a lens is removed.
We've already alluded to the camera's excellent exposure control system. Shutter operation is electronic. The mode dial offers two lockable positions: Program AE and Aperture-Priority AE. In Program mode, given the ISO, the camera automatically sets aperture and shutter speed. In Aperture-Priority, when you select an f-stop the camera automatically sets the shutter speed. Additional mode positions are for individual shutter speeds, which when set, also set the camera to full manual control.
Shutter speeds can go as high as 1/750 second in Program, 1/500 in other modes. In Manual, shutter speeds go down to 1 second and Bulb; 8 seconds at either auto setting. While different situations call for you to take advantage of the camera's various exposure controls, I found Program mode quite effective, although I did try the other modes of operation for good measure.
When it came time to take the camera indoors, to photograph a young couple and their eight-week-old baby, I began by using the camera with available light, which was in short supply.
For the second series of exposures I used the Bronica shoemount flash. For the final series, I brought out my Metz handlemount, which attached by sync cord to the camera's standard PC sync terminal. I held this flash aloft, with the main head pointing at a nearby wall for bounced lighting, while the secondary head provided fill. One hand gripped the flash; the other, the camera. I set the 65mm lens to the nearest focusing point and moved forward or back with the camera to fine-tune focusing in the viewfinder. We got some great pictures. One-handed operation-that says a lot about the Bronica RF645.