Speaking Frankly: Rangefinder Revival

Our resident rangefinder expert analyzes three leading models and explains why clicking these shutters is good for the soul.



Is there any rhyme, reason or room for 35mm rangefinder cameras in today's ever expanding digital photographic world? Last year camera manufacturers churned out some 6 million DSLRs, which were prominently announced, advertised, written about profusely, and gobbled up by enthusiastic buyers. In the same time period, Leica and Voigtlander quietly sold an estimated 20,000 35mm rangefinder cameras. A drop in the bucket, you might say. And in 2007, these two, now joined by Zeiss, will just as quietly try to expand the breed. It's high time to make a critical, but personal comparison of the species.

Why use a film camera? If you don't know, read Russell Hart's eloquent defense (or is it offence?) in his website column, "5 Reasons to Shoot Film." Why a rangefinder camera? Rangefinder vs reflex is an old battle many of us fought years ago. So as not to get sidetracked fighting it again, I've boxed in the pros and cons, so we can get on to the cameras themselves. And remember, no one said you had to use only a rangefinder, a DSLR, digital point-and-shoot or a film camera. You'll get more out of photography trying as many as you can, instead of sticking to one.

Rangefinder Pros • Quickest time between pressing shutter button and exposure • Quieter camera • Smaller lenses • Better wide angle optics, easier to compute because no swinging mirror • No mirror or aperture movement to cause vibration • Outside picture area easy to see • No mirror movement blackout • Holds its value better • Brighter viewfinder, easier to see in low light Rangefinder Cons • Lack of autofocus makes following action difficult • No rangefinder focus ability for lenses over 135mm • No macro lens capability • Viewfinder frames show only an approximation of true picture area • No zoom lenses available • Depth of field doesn't show in viewfinder • Except for lens focal lengths showing framelines, separate accessory finders are needed

For consistency's sake, I've selected like models in black finish with equivalent lenses from each camera brand. All are manual focus only, have metal bodies, electronically controlled focal plane shutters with manual speeds and aperture priority auto exposure, M bayonet lens mount plus projected lens framelines. These are my favorite models. (However when there are interesting alternatives that I think you should know about, I'll mention them at the story's end). The cameras and lenses are: the Voigtlander Bessa R2A with 50mm f/2 Heliar ($1100), Zeiss Ikon with 50mm f/2 Planar ($2398) and the Leica M7 with 50mm f/2 Summicron ($4395). One item you should know now: Nearly all M lenses are readily interchangeable, but there are no zoom lenses available (although Leica does have two multiple focal length lenses). So anyone who dreams of putting a 50mm f/2 Planar on a Bessa 2A can do it. And all camera bodies and lenses can be bought separately.

We'll hit the salient points that distinguish each camera since there is no way we can do justice to all technical information. I haven't provided measurements because all three camera bodies are practically the same size. Weight is another matter. The Leica is 21.5 oz., the Zeiss Ikon is 16 oz., as is the Bessa.

Use the navigation below to continue reading this article, or the following links to skip to a section: Leica M7, Voigtlander Bessa R2A, Zeiss Ikon, and The Bottom Line.

View through the Leica M7 viewfinder. Click photo to see more images of the Leica M7, Voigtlander Bessa R2A and Zeiss Ikon viewfinders.

Let's start with the Leica M7 because to a great extent, the concepts of the other two, the Zeiss Ikon and Voigtlander Bessa 2A, are derivatives of the M series Leica. Leica designed the M lens mount and the rangefinder viewfinder with multiple parallax correcting frames for the 1954 M3. Its advanced features created a sensation and were the primary cause of the Contax IIA and IIIA's demise. Little has changed in the M body styling or the Leica range-viewfinder since. A glance through the eyepieces of all three cameras will show you how very much alike the finder optics are.

The Leica M7 is an elegant looking, beautifully designed piece of equipment. Its cloth focal plane shutter provides manually set shutter speeds from 4 sec to 1/1000 sec while the aperture priority auto exposure mode increases the slow speed capability down to 32 seconds. The top flash sync speed is 1/50 sec. Both existing light and flash exposure are read through the lens. An exposure sensor located at the top right of the lens mount interior reads a 12mm diameter central white spot on the front shutter curtain. Film speed can be automatically or manually set via a wheel on the back of the camera which also sets exposure compensation.

A central superimposed viewfinder rectangle image can be clearly seen and precisely brought together with the main image for accurate focus. Depending on what focal length lens is mounted on the camera, you will see bright frames for 50+75mm, 35+135mm or 28+90mm lenses. A three-position lever on the front of the camera allows you to preview these settings so you can choose the focal length lens you want to use. However the frames are not marked as to which focal length they are covering so you have to remember which frame is which. The outer edges of the 28mm framelines are difficult to see all at once.

The bright red, articulated four digit, seven segment informational diodes at the bottom center of the picture area are very visible and helpful. At camera turn on, the ISO speed set appears momentarily. In aperture priority mode, you then see the shutter speed set all the way down to 32 seconds. The numerals blink when you're out of exposure range. There are red exposure lock, compensation and flash indicators. When you set the camera for manual exposure, red triangles show over or under exposure and a red dot between them indicates correct exposure.

Loading film in the M7 is an acquired art and cannot be rushed. You remove the base plate, flip the rear panel open and carefully thread the film leader through the bottom slit in the camera. Why Leicas don't simply have a hinged back is a mystery. The tripod socket is on the far right end of the bottom cover, not the best place to maneuver the camera precisely on a tripod. Shutter release is ultra quiet and all controls operate with the smooth precision of a finely made optical instrument, which the M7 is. The fitting of all parts is exquisite. The effective rangefinder base, found by multiplying the finder magnification, .72X, by the total rangefinder base length of 68.5mm, is 49.32mm, sufficient to provide accurate focusing of lenses as long as 135mm.

The construction of the M7 is massive and satisfying. The camera is powered by two D 1/3 N lithium batteries, more often found in hardware stores than camera stores. A battery driven motor providing speeds up to 3 frames per second is available as an accessory.


Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 lens rating: Excellent


28+90mm 35+135mm 50+75mm

Leica afficianado and president of Cosina Co. Ltd., Hirofume Kobiyashi, watched his 35mm SLR business atrophy as digital photography boomed. He decided against making digital SLRs, reasoning the field was already too crowded and competitive with prices constantly being cut. He sought a smaller, nearly exclusive field and found one. Taking the shutter mechanism, exposure system, film advance and body styling from the 35mm Cosina SLR, Kobayashi's engineers in 1999 fashioned a 35mm basic rangefinderless, Leica-type screw thread camera.

Acquiring the rights to a fine old camera manufacturer's name and trademarks, Kobayashi named his new camera the Voigtlander Bessa L. Cosina made a series of excellent wide angle lenses for it which could easily be guess focused. In the next seven years, Cosina, under the Voigtlander name, produced more advanced and better constructed Bessa rangefinder cameras and a large field of excellent lenses.

The 50mm f/2 Heliar lens is available primarily as part of a mechanical shutter camera and lens set for the 250th anniversary of Voigtlander. I requested the importer break up the set and to sell the lens for the electronic shutter Bessa R2A. He assured me he could do likewise for any readers wishing the same combination.

The Bessa 2A is a business looking camera with a vertical travel, metal blade shutter having manual speeds 1 to 1/2000 second and aperture priority auto exposure beyond 1 sec. to about 4 sec. But these slow speeds are not indicated in the camera. Flash sync is a faster-than-Leica 1/125 sec, but but there's no camera flash control. The hot shoe has only a single contact for manual or automatic exposure flash units. Score one for Leica. An exposure sensor is located in a similar position to that of the Leica but reads a somewhat indistinct centerweighted area from the gray painted front metal shutter curtain. Film speed must be set manually, but a window on the back allows you to check what film is loaded and whether it is 24 or 36 exposure, a useful touch particularly if you put the camera away loaded and then forget what film you were using.

Viewfinder brightness, the superimposed, secondary image rectangle and frame brightness are almost identical to those in the Leica. Unlike the Leica, viewfinder frames are not set automatically by the lens in use. Instead, a well marked lever atop the camera provides three positions manually for 75, 35+90 and 50mm focal lengths, making it easy to identify which frames you're seeing. But the 28mm and 135mm frames are missing.

In my opinion, the 28mm frames could have been squeezed in with the 75mm or 50mm focal lengths. A 135mm focal length has been deliberately left out. In designing the Bessa rangefinder cameras, the Cosina engineers took as their model the diminutive Leica CL of 1972. They wound up with a effective rangefinder base of 25.16mm, too short to provide accurate focus with a 135mm focal length lens.

Why didn't the engineers use a longer base rangefinder? It may be due to Leica patents. Zeiss managed it it as we'll see but had to give up a top rewind crank.

Red informational diodes in the Bessa 2A viewfinder indicate the shutter speed set in aperture priority auto exposure. In manual, a shutter speed to the right or left of the set speed will blink when the proper exposure isn't set. By turning either the shutter speed dial or aperture ring until only one constantly lit numeral is seen, you reach proper exposure. The red diodes are smaller than those in the Leica, not as easy to see and perform fewer tasks. The Bessa is powered by two LR44 alkaline or silver batteries available at most camera stores and many hardware or drug stores.

Unlike the Leica, film loading is easy and quick. Slide a small lever adjacent to the rewind knob forward, pull up on the knob and the back swings open. Attaching the film leader to the takeup spool is simple. However the Bessa 2A's ISO film speed must be set manually, although the exposure compensation scale around the well-marked shutter speed dial is easier to operate than the Leica's rear one.

But the Bessa 2A does not offer through the lens flash control via the hot shoe as does the Leica. However, the tripod socket is placed directly below the lensmount, making tripod adjustments easy, and an accessory folding rapid winder can be fitted snugly below the camera's baseplate.

Leica M7 Bessa 2A Zeiss Ikon

The Bessa 2A is well made and rugged if not with the same precision fitting of parts as the Leica M7. The black satin metal surfaces are more practical than elegant. However, the exterior leatherlike vinyl covering has a slightly superior, non-slip surface and the molded right hand grip is very welcome. Release noise is surprisingly quiet for a metal blade shutter, although the Leica cloth shutter is whisper quiet. Overall, the 2A is a no nonsense-handling camera that doesn't put on airs.


Voigtlander Bessa R2A Heliar 50mm f/2 lens rating: Excellent


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


28+85mm 35mm 50mm

The Bottom Line

If you were asked to boil all this down to a single paragraph explaining the major differences between the three cameras, it might go something like this. The Bessa 2A is a business like, well-made, utilitarian camera with speeds 1-1/2000 sec, no TTL flash, manually set viewfinder frames showing focal lengths between 35 and 90mm.

Zeiss Ikon ranks highest on beauty scale, is a more sturdy camera, has finer tolerance specs, same speeds as Bessa 2A, auto setting frames including 28mm, accurate focuses 135mm lenses and incorporates the best viewfinder by a hair.

The Leica M7 has auto setting frames 28 to 135mm, aperture priority speeds 1/1000 to 32 sec, manual to 1 sec., TTL flash, best viewfinder information, quietest shutter, subdued but readable markings, superb construction, great reputation. Owning one and clicking its shutter occasionally will be good for your soul.

Now comes the financial fun. In order of ascending bucks for bodies, here are the Bessa 2A, Zeiss Ikon and Leica M7: $550, $1580, $3,500. Roughly speaking you could get nearly seven Bessas for one Leica or over two Zeiss Ikons. Gosh.

On to the lenses. I have separated them from the bodies since the lenses can be bought separately as explained before, and put on any of the three bodies you wish. The 50mm f/2 Heliar (focusing to 1 meter, half stops to f/16) is $550; 50mm f/2 Planar (focusing to 0.7, meters, one third stops to f/22 ) $800, and the 50mm f/2 Summicron focusing to 0.7 meters, half stops, to f/22.) $1,600.

Of course price for many photographers, as well as closest focusing, minimum aperture and fractional stops are secondary to quality. To let you browse through our SQF (subjective quality) results and draw your own conclusions, here are the charts and other essential information.

Surprised at how nearly equal the three lenses are in terms of optical quality? I think you would find the same with the lensmounts. Superb craftsmanship. You could put the Heliar on the Leica M7 with few if any qualms in terms of results, but many photographers, myself included, might think it was sacrilegious to do so. One caution: If you plan on buying a Leica M8 digital camera, keep in mind that only Leica lenses are or can be fitted with the six bit code which allows the M8 to apply the software providing vignetting correction. M8 users tell me this correction is only necessary with 35mm or shorter wide angle lenses.

Besides the .72X magnification Leica we tested, the M7 is often available with different magnifications, which you may want to check out. If you're a wide angle buff you might wish to investigate the Voigtlander R4M (mechanical shutter) or R4A (electronic shutter), which have viewfinder frames for 21, 25, 28, 35 and 50mm lenses. Owning a Bessa R2M or R2A and a R4A would let you cover more focal lengths than any two other camera bodies.

When we asked a number of our editors to choose which camera they would choose between the Zeiss Ikon and Leica M7, they were about equally divided between the two. Best buy? Bessa 2A.

Where to buy? From an authorized dealer. I've heard too many stories of purchasers buying from non-franchised dealers and then finding they don't have official warranties. Most major camera stores are franchised for Leica and Zeiss Ikon. If in doubt, call Leica at 201-995-8666, or Zeiss Ikon at 914-681-7502. Voigtlander has but two authorized dealers: www.PhotoVillage.com (212-989-1252) and www.CameraQuest.com (818-879-1968). CameraQuest is almost exclusively Voigtlander, fun to read on its website and recommended.

But don't have sleepness nights worrying over a camera or lens choice. Instead of counting sheep, substitute seven Bessa bodies jumping over the fence. That oughta knock you out.
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Zeiss Ikon: Challenger at half the price


Open wide: Zeiss Ikon has oversized viewfinder eyepiece, all the better to see the whole picture area. Like the Bessa it has useful window to show you what film's inside.


Zeiss Ikon


Carl Zeiss Planar is only lens of the three rangefinder 50mm f/2 M mount lenses with 1/3 clicked f/stops, and it is most brilliantly marked.


Handsome Zeiss-Ikon top: Left side is much like Leica but with rewind crank and lever at bottom of camera. Note shutter speed dial and compensation scale much like Bessa 2A. Hot shoe is non-TTL flash. Automatically set marked frames from 28mm to 85mm.


Zeiss Ikon