Our resident rangefinder expert analyzes three leading models and explains
why clicking these shutters is good for the soul.
Zeiss, the world's most prestigious lensmaker, needed a market for its lens designs. Kyocera has quit Contax manufacture. Hasselblad is going elsewhere for H system lenses. A limited number of non-autofocus 35mm SLR lenses are being made for the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony, plus only a spattering of lenses used on medium format cameras. So Zeiss decided to make its own camera...
Not producing cameras since 1972, Zeiss was in no position to create new camera factories in which to produce rival DSLR or SLR systems to compete with Alpha, Canon, Nikon and Pentax. What Zeiss needed was a camera body it could call its own with a universally usable, respected interchangable lens mount.
Having strong reservations concerning the true maximum capability of today's digital cameras compared to film, and abhoring the constant DSLR model upgrades with cutthroat price competition, Zeiss, like Cosina, decided to stick with 35mm and enter a sea with calmer waters.
There were only two manufacturers successfully producing interchangeable lens rangefinder 35s. Could Zeiss produce a high quality 35mm rangefinder camera with peerless lenses that in price could slip right between the prestigious Leica and utilitarian Voigtlander and help expand the field?
Who could make such a camera? It was a sure thing that Leica wasn't going to produce a less expensive rangefinder camera for Zeiss and put the Zeiss name on it. But Cosina, Voigtlander's manufacturer, has a history of producing cameras for other companies. Cosina had been making many high quality Zeiss design lenses and saw no reason why its engineers couldn't have a joint venture with Zeiss for the new Zeiss Ikon camera. And so it came to pass. Let's see how they made out.
Both the Leica M7 and Zeiss Ikon are equally elegant, but the fine dull black finish of the Leica plus the subdued white on black shutter speed dial markings provide a generally conservative look. The clean cosmetics, bright black finish and the large, white markings on the Zeiss Ikon make it the most attractive camera. If the Zeiss Ikon doesn't provide the battleship solidity feeling of the Leica, it at least resembles a heavy cruiser.
A look through the Zeiss Ikon viewfinder, comparison of the shutter speed range, mechanics, film focal plane and film loading reveal the undeniable Cosina heritage shared with the Voigtlander cameras. Like the Bessa 2A there is no automatic DX film speed setting or through lens flash. So what on the Zeiss Ikon camera is superior to the Voigtlander?
The Zeiss Ikon includes 28mm viewfinder frames which the Voigtlander does not. Because of the great effective rangefinder length base of 55.5mm, the Zeiss Ikon can accurately focus lenses up to 135mm (instead of the Voigtlander's 90mm limitation) even though there is no 135mm viewfinder frameline. You will have to resort to a separate auxiliary 135mm finder in the accessory shoe. The opticalbase also exceeds the 49.32mm of the Leica.
Theoretically, this could make the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder slightly more accurate, but in practice, they are even in capability. However the Zeiss Ikon has an oversized viewfinder eyepiece which provides a larger total viewing area, making it slightly easier to see the 28mm framelines. Its secondary image rangefinder rectangle is slightly larger. Ease of precise focusing however is about equal to the Leica. Even though you can fasten a 135mm lens to the Bessa 2A, focusing won't be accurate unless you use a very small aperture and we wouldn't be certain of that either.
While the Zeiss Ikon viewfinder framelines, like those of the Leica, do automatically set themselves to show the area covered by the lens in place, the Zeiss Ikon focal lengths are clearly marked right on the frames. They are 28+85, 35 and 50mm. Why Zeiss didn't provide a 135mm frameline is a mystery.
The frames can be previewed via a front lever as per Leica but there's no need to guess as to which frame is which. To make room for the enlarged eyepiece, the Zeiss Ikon rewind knob and folded handle have been moved to the bottom of the camera, obviating any chance of a bottom rapid wind lever (Bessa 2A) or motor ( Leica). Some will like that and some may not. The tripod socket on the bottom is at the far right, quite similar to the placement on the Leica. Oddly, when a 50mm lens is attached to the Zeiss Ikon, the camera tips forward when placed on a flat surface.
The viewfinder's red shutter speed exposure diode information is practically a repeat of that on the Voigtlander Bessa 2A except the shutter speeds run vertically up the left side of the viewfinder, rather than horizontally at the bottom center. Like the Bessa 2A, the longest marked shutter speed is 1 sec, although in aperture priority exposure unmarked speeds up to 4 sec. are possible. Photographers who don't wear glasses may be happy with either system, but eyeglass wearers will probably find the Bessa bottom digits easier to see.
The Zeiss-Ikon's brightly chromed, large shutter release button and collar are very attractive. Its frame counter provides numerals at every other frame, which is more useful than the Leica's every fifth frame. You may think that Leica's use of Vulcanite and similar looking Zeiss Ikon vinyl leatherette body covering a bit chintzy compared to traditional leather. There are reasons for not using leather.
Collectors of old leather-covered cameras will tell you that leather will wear with use, can shrink, flake off, attract mold, and be sufficiently porous to cause any screwheads beneath to oxidize, resulting in little bumps beneath the leather. The Leica, Bessa and Zeiss Ikon camera coverings are near impervious to damage.
Zeiss Ikon Planar 50mm f/2 lens rating: Excellent