If you ride the special express train 126 miles northwest from Tokyo, you'll
find yourself in Nagano Prefecture...
In 1999, Rollei decided the world needed a Rollei 35mm rangefinder camera and introduced the Rollei 35RF plus Rollei-made, Zeiss-designed 40mm f/2.8 Rollei Sonnar and 80mm f/2.8 Rollei Planar lenses, with the promise of a 50mm Zeiss or Schneider lens to come. No sign of it yet, but the elegantly finished camera body contours and specs seemed familiar. Under the Rollei cosmetics beat the mechanical heart of a Voigtländer Besse R2.
The Voigtländer R2A and 3A weren't the only interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder cameras introduced in 2004. After giving up camera production 34 years ago, Carl Zeiss proudly showed off the new Zeiss-Ikon 35mm rangefinder camera and a new set of seven Carl Zeiss ZM mount lenses, in both black and chrome, for it and any other M mount camera.
Zeiss made little secret that the camera body was the result of cooperation between Zeiss and Cosina. Five lenses were to be made by Cosina and two by Zeiss, but all would be Zeiss-designed. Internal camera specs are almost identical to the Cosina Voigtländer R2A; but the finder system was vastly improved,with the projected frames automatically set by the lenses, and, most important, the base of the rangefinder vastly increased to 70mm, improving its accuracy compared with the relatively short rangefinder base used on the Leica CL and Cosina'Voigtländer cameras. The increase in the rangefinder's base probably allows it to work even with 135mm lenses. The Cosina Voigtländers have a maximum focal length acceptance of 75mm or 90mm. The rangefinder base increase necessitated repositioning the rewind lever to the bottom of the Zeiss-Ikon. Many users of the camera report that its range-viewfinder equal to that of the M-Leica's.
Cosina's optical cooperation with Zeiss doesn't end with the ZM lenses. Cosina is starting a Zeiss-designed, Cosina-made, manual-focus 35mm SLR ZF series of lenses in Nikon mounts starting with 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 Planars.
Are Cosina, Zeiss, and Kobayashi soft in the head? Don't they realize the whole world's gone digital?
Certainly, Cosina's attempts at selling Voigtländers through a U.S. distributor were disasters. Dealers thought they should do well, but the cameras in nearly all stores just sat on shelves. There was little sell-through. Only two sources in the U.S. are now official Voigtländer distributors: CameraQuest (www.cameraquest.com) and PhotoVillage (www.photovillage.com). (However, their enthusiasm, particularly CameraQuest's, can be catching.)
If you flip through the pages of Japanese Asahi or Nippon photo magazines, you'll be shocked at how much coverage the new Voigtländer and Zeiss photo equipment and other film cameras get. You may shake your head and figure such equipment must be a Japanese passion.
The prestige of German equipment names is part of the passion. The other part is a love of precision equipment. It's the difference between being attracted to an optical instrument and using a kitchen utensil.
Are we now passionless? Pretty much so, I think. Did we ever have it? Yes-once, opening a box containing a new camera and showing it off to our friends with awe was almost an act of worship. With today's digital SLRs, we'd probably tear open the box and get the camera working. We're just too practical to get passionate over a camera. Too bad. It made us feel good. I hope at least we can still be passionate about shooting pictures.
Apparently the Japanese can have their passion and practicality as well. And if Zeiss is going to all the trouble of creating cameras to get passionate over, there might be a sufficient segment of Europeans who get passionate over something proper.
Me? I love the convenience of digital, but I get a greater joy from my film cameras, and sometimes think that I get better pictures with them. Must be some Japanese in me.
And what of Hirofumi Kobayashi, who produced lowly 35mm SLRs and budget-priced substitute element lenses? He now has an exclusive monopoly creating optical masterpieces and classic cameras rivaling the best ever made. Prices are quite affordable and steady. Is he better off with his super selectivity of purchasers than the competing armies of digital camera manufacturers?
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