the Zeiss Ikon
By Bill Marshall
Introduction – The purpose of this review is to supplement what Mike Elek has already written about the Zeiss Ikon on this blog. Mike has done an excellent job describing the camera and its functions as well as providing ongoing insights about how it functions in use. Other reviews can also be found on the Web by Tom Abrahamsson (www.cameraquest.com) and Erwin Puts (www.imx.nl) as well as user reports at RangeFinder Forum (www.rangefinderforum.com). Specifications, description, a downloadable brochure, and the history of the development of the camera are also available at the Zeiss Ikon website (www.zeissikon.com). I especially recommend the section entitled “The Making of the Zeiss Ikon” for its treatment of the quality control and testing procedures that were established by Carl Zeiss AG to insure that this camera would be a high quality instrument.
What I have not seen in any of the reviews that have been written so far is a description of just what is on the inside of the Zeiss Ikon and how it differs from other modern rangefinders. Although the manufacture of the Zeiss Ikon camera, lenses, and accessories has been accomplished by Carl Zeiss AG of Germany in collaboration with Cosina of Japan, there are significant differences between this camera and others that have come out of the Cosina factory. Like the Bessa R2/3A and almost any modern camera, the Zeiss Ikon is built on a die-cast aluminum chassis. And like the Bessa R2/3A, the top, bottom, and front plates as well as the back door are made of magnesium. However, the design & dimensions of the body are different. And the differences don’t end there. Those that are most significant are in the internal operating systems of the Zeiss Ikon. Cosina’s Voigtlander Bessa series of rangefinder cameras were designed to provide a cost effective alternative in the rangefinder market, and they have succeeded admirably at doing so. Typically a Bessa camera will be described as “excellent value for the money.” Carl Zeiss AG had different goals for this camera, which were to offer a superb photographic instrument while still maintaining reasonable cost as a factor in the equation. What they have accomplished in the development of the Zeiss Ikon is nothing short of a tour de force.
Finally, let me say what this review is not. As I write this on March 1, 2006, I have been using a Zeiss Ikon for over 3 months. However, I am not attempting to offer a subjective user report. Plenty of these are available in the links I have posted above. I will state that my own bias is that the Zeiss Ikon has been built to the highest standard. However, I will otherwise attempt to present a factual description of what has been built into the camera to make it the superb photographic instrument that I believe it is. In addition to drawing on my own experience with the camera and the public information from the links posted above, I have obtained additional information from correspondence over the past year with Carl Zeiss AG and Victor Hasselblad AB, distributors of the Zeiss Ikon system.
The Rangefinder – What distinguishes a rangefinder camera from other cameras is first and foremost its focusing system. In this regard, the Zeiss Ikon immediately distinguishes itself from all other contemporary rangefinder cameras, i.e. those built by Leica and Konica, as well as Cosina/Voigtlander. All four focusing systems share the same goal of precision focusing by bringing together two separate images in the viewfinder so that they can be aligned to establish the correct object distance and therefore the precise setting for maximum clarity. The precision of the coincidence rangefinder is determined by three factors: the mechanical length of the rangefinder base line, the magnification of the image in the viewfinder, and the brightness of the viewfinder to obtain optimal viewing for the human eye. Cosina/Voigtlander opted for a short base rangefinder for its Bessa models, which inherently lacks the precision of a longer base rangefinder and places this line of cameras in a separate category.
While all three of the other camera makers employ basic split-image rangefinder technology, the rangefinder in the Zeiss Ikon is different than those of the other two. The design of the rangefinders of the Leica and Konica systems requires that the “mask” with the frame lines behind the central illuminating window be positioned at an oblique angle, requiring the use of a mirror for illumination as well as additional optical elements. In order to have very bright frame lines, there needs to be as much light as possible focused on this “mask.” The result of this design is that there is the potential for flare as light is introduced to achieve optimal brightness of the frame lines. Every rangefinder employing this design must balance the need for maximum illumination with the requirement to reduce flare so that the rangefinder patch is not lost as one is viewing it during focusing. The potential for flare increases as viewfinder magnification is increased so the challenges are greater with higher magnification viewfinders. The advantage to the Leica and Konica systems is that it is a fairly simple, cost-effective design requiring the use of only one prism located at the small secondary rangefinder window..
The Zeiss Ikon employs a different rangefinder design in which the “mask” with the frame lines is positioned directly behind and closer to the illumination window, i.e. the plane of the mask is parallel to the plane of the illumination window, thereby eliminating both the oblique angles that increase the potential for flare and the need for a mirror to redirect the light onto the frame lines. The frame line mask on the Zeiss Ikon is illuminated directly by the light entering through the window itself, not by mirrored reflections. This is a more complex design, requiring three 90-degree beam deflections and different types of prisms to produce an upright image. It also means that the rangefinder patch can be lost as one is viewing the rangefinder to focus unless the eye is positioned directly behind the patch – an adjustment which can be fairly easily made with practice. While the more obvious benefit is the elimination of flare as an issue, the major gains are a brighter viewfinder, the virtual elimination of rangefinder parallax, and as a result more precise focusing.
Other design differences in the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder are obvious from its specifications. With a base length of 75 mm and a magnification of .74x, it offers the longest effective base length (55.5 mm) of any rangefinder camera ever made with a range/viewfinder displaying 28 mm frame lines. When the brightness of its illumination is factored in, this is a remarkably precise rangefinder focusing system.
The Shutter – At the heart of any camera is its shutter, which controls the entry of light from the lens onto the film. The Zeiss Ikon employs standard Copal parts, such as the blades, the linking levers and the blade-guiding structure, but the shutter system itself is unique to this camera. Designed specially for the Zeiss Ikon is the electro-magnetic control system, which determines the shutter's timing capabilities. It is more sophisticated than the system employed by Cosina in its less expensive cameras and additional measures have been taken for noise reduction so that it is quieter than a Bessa shutter.
The shutter release button is designed to be balanced with the overall design of the camera. Its depth of travel is only 0.9 mm. This compares with 2 mm in travel distance for the shutter on a Leica M camera, for example. Of the Zeiss Ikon's 0.9 mm, the first 0.6 mm is to activate the camera’s meter. There is then only 0.3 mm left to actually activate the shutter itself. And yet with such a short travel distance, I have not once activated the shutter accidentally in almost four months of use. The amount of resistance seems to be just right.
Anyone who feels that the weight of a Leica M is needed to hand hold a camera to shoot at slow shutter speeds has just not attempted to do so with this camera – or is just speaking from habits acquired with another instrument. The shorter travel distance of the shutter release button seems to balance just right with the lighter weight of the camera to allow for excellent control in situations where slow shutter speeds of up to 1/15 of a second are called for.
Time Lag – The rangefinder style of photography is based on the idea of being able to capture what one sees at that very moment. Seeing is facilitated by a clear, bright viewfinder with the ability to see around the outside of the frame lines and without loss of vision when the shutter is tripped. Capturing the decisive moment depends on the ability of the camera to respond with immediacy to the photographer’s initiative.
The Zeiss Ikon provides such immediacy in a way that very few cameras do. The delay between pressing the shutter release button and the actual firing of the shutter is only 14 milliseconds in manual mode and 20 ms in AE. This compares favorably with the Leica M6 and M7, which are reported by Leica at 10-12 ms and 25 ms, respectively. In contrast, Popular Photography reported shutter lag times of 120 ms for the Konica Hexar RF and 100 ms for the Voigtlander Bessa R, both of which are closer to delays typical of SLRs. When combined with the short travel distance of the shutter release button, the Zeiss Ikon offers an immediacy in its response that is almost unparalleled.
The fact that Carl Zeiss set such a standard for this camera demonstrates that the camera is designed to meet the needs of rangefinder photographers at the very heart of what they are trying to accomplish with their photography.
The Metering System – When you remove the lens and look inside the camera, the shutter blades look the same as what you see inside any other rangefinder camera built at a Cosina factory, but the metering pattern does not. There is only a single grey band the width of a single shutter blade instead of the solid grey wall covering all of the blades of the light tight outer shutter curtain. The metering system for the Zeiss Ikon was specifically modified to improve the metering sensitivity pattern. In my experience with both a Zeiss Ikon and a Bessa, I have found through personal experience that the Zeiss Ikon metering to be more accurate.
Like the Bessa R2/3A or the Leica M7, the Zeiss Ikon also provides AE Lock. However, unlike the Bessa version, the more sophisticated electronics of the ZI provide for “permanent” lock (20 seconds). This means that the AE Lock button on the back of the camera does not have to remain manually depressed in order to hold the setting. Thus, the thumb is freed up to provide more freedom to operate other camera functions during composition or to simply hold the camera. Like the M7, the AE Lock button is positioned midway across the top plate just below the hot shoe within easy reach of the thumb during normal shooting.
What It’s Not – The Zeiss Ikon is not a Leica. It is also not a Konica Hexar RF with its 1/4000 shutter speed and motorized film advance and rewind. Despite its electronics and battery dependence, it is a more basic – and in many ways a more spartan – camera than either of these. It is lighter and offers a less cluttered viewfinder than the Leica or the Konica while offering a higher flash synchronization speed and one stop faster shutter speed than the M7. Here is a list of ways that the Zeiss Ikon is not a Leica M7:
The Zeiss Ikon does not attempt to be what other rangefinder cameras are. It is attempting to fill a niche within the rangefinder spectrum that has otherwise not been addressed. It provides all of the basic functions necessary to accomplish high-quality photography in the rangefinder style but without many of the bells and whistles that are offered on some other models. In so doing, Zeiss and Cosina have rounded out the rangefinder spectrum so that the range of options is now more comparable to what has always existed within the SLR market.
Summary – Carl Zeiss AG entered into a partnership with Cosina to design and manufacture a quality rangefinder camera that will meet the essential needs of rangefinder photography. They have demonstrated that a high-end rangefinder camera built to meet stringent quality controls can come out of the same factory that produces an entry level version – just as is done by Nikon and Canon in the production of SLR cameras. They have done this by designing a bright, high-precision rangefinder focusing system that is virtually flare free, by designing a shutter system that responds immediately to allow the photographer to capture the decisive moment and allows for hand-held photography at slow shutter speeds and at the same time offers an accurate, sensitive metering system with autoexposure. In these designs, they have met or exceeded the highest standards of rangefinder cameras. In most other ways, the Zeiss Ikon is a back-to-basics all-manual rangefinder camera built to a price point that will keep it competitive in today’s camera market.