Zeiss Ikon ZM camera
The Zeiss Ikon Rangefinder camera, announced at Photokina 2004 has become widely available recently. A special batch of 1200 cameras (silver edition limited edition: code 30 81035) has been assembled and sold in advance. The project is based upon collaboration between Mr. Kobayashi of Bessa fame and Dr. Scherle, head of the Zeiss Photography Department.
The Zeiss optical designers have always been very innovative in optical designs and at the same time created lenses that with a few exceptions have always been in the very first rank of the products offered by world-class lens manufacturers. The camera designers, to put it mildly were more inclined to work within engineering constraints than on the basis of ergonomically driven principles. The engineering excellence of the Contarex range of cameras is without peer, but it is not a joy to use (apart from the pleasure derived from the knowledge to own a unique camera). The history of Zeiss has always been dominated by the creation of lenses and then to find camera manufacturers who would use the lenses. In the twenties and thirties of the previous century, Zeiss acquired a number of camera manufacturers who were going bankrupt in the great German Depression of the late twenties. The Zeiss Ikon imperial period lasted till 1973 when the last Contarex left the assembly lines.
The Contax RTS SLR that arrived in the late seventies was a Porsche designed, Yashica built camera with Zeiss optics. This camera had many innovative features, but in an AF dominated SLR world a manual focussing camera was an anachronism. The main problem however was the cultural barrier between what Zeiss assumed that 35mm photographers wanted and what they could deliver based on their optical excellence. In the roll film and large format arena, best optical quality was not needed as the large negative area compensated quiet aptly any optical shortcomings. And in the 35mm area the photographic goals were not defined as the ultimate in optical performance, but in terms of flexibility and speed and ease of use. Most photographers used the cameras handheld at moving subjects or were moving themselves, and optical excellence was not the overriding element of choice. Zeiss learned this lesson the hard way. Leica is currently struggling with this cultural gap too and is contemplating its strategy for the coming decade.
The Zeiss Ikon RF camera follows the same approach as the Contax camera. It is designed by Henssler and Schultheiss and built by Cosina in Japan. It uses its own range of ZM lenses. All lenses are Zeiss designs and most of these lenses are built in Japan. The idea that good lenses and cameras must bear the 'Made in Germany' stamp should now be considered as obsolete and only true during a very narrow time slot in the fifties and sixties of the previous century. Even the most stubborn adherent of the belief that top-quality cameras and lenses can only originate from a certain Wetzlar manufacturer should by now accept the fact that engineering excellence and optical performance is not region dependent, but the result of manufacturing technology and quality control.
Basically the ZI is a compact film loading rangefinder camera with metal focal plane shutter and TTL metering system in automatic mode (aperture priority) and manual mode. The top speed is 1/2000 and maximum flash synch is 1/125. These are the specs that should lift the spirit of many unhappy Leica M users who keep complaining that their M camera has only 1/1000 and 1/50 respectively. The general specs can be found on the Zeiss site and do not have to be repeated here. The weight of 460 grams is low compared to the 610 grams of the Leica M7, the camera that is the direct competitor in the Leica range. The weight difference is due to the overall use of aluminium and magnesium in the case of the ZI and metal and brass in the case of the Leica. The ZI feels substantially lighter than the M7, but also less solidly built. This initial impression might be wrong, but is still is there. After handling both cameras in succession and in comparison, I am inclined to think that the difference in depth dimension is the cause. The M7 has a depth of 38mm and the ZI has a 32mm base and the same length of 138mm. The body contours are more rounded in the case of the M7, compared to the square edges of the ZI where your fingers grip the body. The chrome finish of the ZI is somewhat brighter and more glossy than the finish of the M7 and this higher level of reflectance may add to the impression of 'lightness' of the camera.
The shutter is the well-known vertical-travel metal focal-plane shutter with electronically controlled speeds from 8 seconds to 1/2000 (automatic mode) that has been installed in millions of Japanese camera bodies. The shutter is quite accurate, in fact better than the horizontally running cloth version in the M6 and MP The prototypes were a bit noisy and the shutter braking action quite notable. Zeiss has given this aspect very close attention and I have to say that the production version I have used for this test is admirably quiet and smooth. There is some high-pitched metallic noise, compared to the low frequency noise pattern of the Leica that produces a distinctly duller sound, but you are really splitting hairs to make an issue out of these differences. Results count and the ZI shutter unit is accurate and reliable, albeit not as durable as the Leica shutter. We should revisit this statement after a five-year period to be sure, to be honest.
The shutter speed dial can be used for exposure compensation to and this arrangement is easier to use than the Leica dial at the back of the camera body.The screws of the ZI are the traditional ones and this is done intentionally to visually link to the legacy of the great CRF tradition.
The rangefinder is the most important part of a CRF and Zeiss, understandably so, puts some effort in the promotion of its features. Basic statistics say that the magnification is 0.74 (Leica 0.72) and the physical rangefinder base has a length of 75mm (Leica 69.25), giving an effective base of 55mm (Leica 49.9). The increased theoretical accuracy does not bring faster or more precise focussing. Using both cameras under a variety of circumstances does reveal that the focus alignment is equally fast and accurate. The eye relief of the ZI is better and one can look through the finder with somewhat more ease and especially for eyeglass wearers the longer distance might be an improvement. Overall the clarity of the finder and the rangefinder patch are identical, but then the differences are more obvious. The ZI shows the selected shutter speed along the left side of the frame, but that is quite difficult to observe without changing view. Against a clear background the LED lights are quite dim and difficult to read. On the other hand the very bright LED lights in the Leica at the bottom of the frame may distract from the act of composing the scene. A nice feature of the ZI is the focal length indication at the bottom frame line of every frame.
The optical construction of the finder has its roots in the classical M3 finder and not the current M6 design. See the diagrams below: ZI, M3
It shares with that classical design the problem that the rangefinder patch does disappear quickly when you do not position your eye squarely at the optical axis of the exit pupil. Here the new M7/MP finder has a distinctive advantage. Quite intriguing is the mechanism of the parallax compensation. As with the Leica the framelines move in the bottom-right direction when focusing in the near distance range. But the rangefinder patch does not move at all in the ZI finder. The Leica patch moves with the frame and stays in a central position of the frame. With the ZI finder the frame moves and the patch is stationary, and will be positioned in the top left part of the finder frames when you focus at maximum near focus range. When you are new to the CRF camera, it will not look unusual, but when you are migrating from Leica to ZI, it is remarkable.
The rapid-wind advance lever
The lever-wind in a mechanical precision camera has a special role and standing. It is the direct interface between the photographer and the camera when making a picture, but the throw of the lever-wind translates into the mechanical force that transports the film, cocks the shutter and during this process moves every wheel and cog and spring that is involved in the mechanical working of the camera. The design of the lever should ideally be such that a short stroke action is possible to speed up the transport/shutter-wind cycle, but the design should also stop any tendency of the thumb to fly off at the end of the stroke. The ZI design fulfils these requirements but the thumb does not rest quite comfortably at the end of the stroke, at least with my hands.
The lever-wind cycle is without any resistance and here Zeiss may have gone astray a bit. The major complaint about the classical Contax CRF from the thirties (of the previous century) was the stiff movement of the transport mechanism as this consisted of a gear train of 24 wheels that had to be set in motion at one stroke. More gears imply more force and more potential slack between the gear teeth at engagement. The adjustment may be too stiff or too loose, and the movement is then stiff or sloppy. The impression of mechanical excellence of the Leica CRF is primarily based on the smooth and silky movement of the advance lever when the gears mesh without slack, but with sufficient resistance to notice that the film is transported and the camera is ready for the next exposure.
The ZI transport mechanism does not give you any feedback on its state of operation. After making a picture and operating the lever-wind, you have the impression that nothing has happened. The whole movement is a bit too light and the film rewind knob on the other hand is a bit too rough. Handling the camera from a tactile point of view gives an impression of lightness verging on the brink of cheapness. This is a pity as the camera as a whole is most pleasant to use and a joy to own.
I have dwelled some time on this topic as it is one of the more important aspects to deal with when analysing a mechanical camera. The mental act of preparing for the next photograph is set between the moment that the shutter is pressed and the film is wound on for the next exposure. The CRF is famous for its propensity to synchronise the compositional state of the scene and the mental state of the photographer. The mechanical movements of the camera should not distract from this synchronisation. The 'emptiness' of the transport movement does interfere in the stream of consciousness approach of the CRF.
The ZI camera is an independent design and should not be interpreted as a cheaper competition to the Leica M series. It will appeal to first time users who want to learn the features and advantages of the CRF approach in photography with a camera that can be owned and operated without being bowed down by the prestige of the Leica lineage and heritage. It will also appeal to seasoned photographers who want to enjoy the pleasures and results of a finely engineered mechanical precision camera, coupled to a range of ZI lenses that do sit at the top of the market performance wise, without a big investment.
The ZI is a film-loading camera and as such one may question the decision of Zeiss to market the camera at this evolutionary moment in time. Silver halide recording, however, has its advantages and high quality film is widely available for the foreseeable future. (Some observers note that film may be dead by 2007!). The claims made by Zeiss, that film still is the best medium when high definition photography is required, must be seen as the free interpretation of the facts by a public relations mind. If pure photography is your goal and computer assisted image manipulation not your specialty, then the ZI and its lenses can create superb pictures in the time honored tradition of the straight (documentary) photography. The camera is not perfect in its present incarnation. The camera needs more substance and profile in order to become a viable contender in the present RF scene. If the ZI can evolve beyond being seen as an upgraded version of the Bessa and a cheaper cousin of the Leica M, than we have a interesting new player on the stage of the CRF theatre.