A One-Year Retrospective
Written Nov. 11, 2006 / Posted: March 27, 2007

Consumables

Batteries: On my third set. I should buy a fourth set soon.
Film: About 25 rolls or one every two weeks. My initial goal was a roll a week, but I have too many cameras that the Zeiss Ikon often gets put aside for several weeks at a time. It's been a mix of black and white and transparency with a couple rolls of color print.

Other things:
Filters: Took me quite a while to find some. I never was able to find new filters, and having used filters hasn't been a problem.
Half case: From Luigi Crescenzi, who by all accounts appears to be a very gracious and generous man and who takes pride in his work. Bravo.

My original intent was to include photos of the camera. That hasn't happened, so I simply will present what I've written.

One day on the bus, it occurred to me that I've had the Zeiss Ikon and two Carl Zeiss lenses for one year.

It's a good time to revisit the camera and see how much my thoughts about the camera have changed.

Let me start this off by saying that no camera is perfect. It can't be, because we as individuals have likes and dislikes that occasionally are the same as others but more often aren't. That's why there are Americans and Canadians and French and Italians and Chinese and Russians, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists. That's why my brother is a hunter, and I am not.

In the end, a successful camera can only hope to satisfy most of the photographers most of the time. It will never satisfy all of the photographers all of the time. Thank you, Abraham Lincoln, for that bit of wisdom.

Design

I didn't concentrate too closely on the design when I first received the camera, although I noticed that it was a bit different from the early prototype that was shown at PhotoExpo in 2004. The early brochures also show a slightly different camera

It wasn't a huge difference ... just some subtle changes. But that shouldn't have been surprising, because I'm sure the demo cameras that many of us saw at PhotoExpo were quick mockups so the public could get an idea of the size and general shape and layout.

When viewing the Zeiss Ikon from the top, It has an almost wide flattened "U" shape. It's an interesting design, to say the least. Not entirely attractive and not entirely unattractive. It's unique and not one that I've seen before or since. Also, the left side of the top deck is deeper than the right side. It throws off the symmetry of a camera, but then maybe it's a bit like the Zeiss Ikon Contax II, which was similar in this respect.

When viewed from the front, it looks rather square and utilitarian. When viewed from the back, it looks a bit sexy.

Being a traditionalist, I would have liked a camera that paid homage to the great designs of Hubert Nerwin with its octagonal shape or a more modern iteration of it.

I also would have liked a smaller body. For various reasons, the Zeiss Ikon Contax IIa is close to the ideal camera for me. Not a perfect camera but very close. I'm sure others will disagree.

I have average size hands, and there are times when I think the Zeiss Ikon feels too large. It's too tall, and maybe that's my thinking about this. It doesn't always feel too tall when I'm out shooting with it, but there are other days when it does. I know that sounds bizarre, but it's like driving a car. Some days, driving is effortless. Other days, getting behind the wheel is a real chore. Same thing with the Zeiss Ikon.

I'm glad that Carl Zeiss didn't mimic the shape of the Leica cameras with its rounded ends. One thing the photographic world didn't need was another Leica body shape clone.

As I have mentioned, the camera is nearly identical in physical dimension (height, width, depth) to the Leica M7. Curiously, the Zeiss Ikon is close in physical dimensions to the Contax II. It makes me wonder if Zeiss had the Contax II in mind or the Leica. Or if Leica had the Contax II in mind when it developed the M. Well, idle thoughts, obviously.

Two pieces feel lightweight although not flimsy. There is a difference. The two pieces are the film advance and the frame preview selector. Although very stiff, they feel lightweight, specifically the film advance.

The film advance lever has a nice standoff position and is easy to flip with your thumb. Because of the position of the viewfinder, left-eyed photographers shouldn't have too much trouble. In this day of highly automated cameras, it's amusing that this should even be mentioned.

There was a time when this was featured prominently in many photographic product reviews. Not so anymore, as most cameras are so simple, "even a caveman could operate them" ... borrowing an ad line from Geico Insurance.

The cap on the film advance has picked up a couple of rub marks. They aren't scratches, but they're marks that I picked up at some point. I'm not sure when. I shrug my shoulders when I mention them.

The AE button is ideally placed, and I'm glad it's a toggle (push once to turn on, push again to turn off) rather than a button that you must depress continuously while trying to focus, release the shutter and keep a grip on the camera.

The interior is nicely finished, and I continue to be grateful that Zeiss properly designed the back to block light, rather than take the easy route and stuff the back channels full of foam, which has a finite serviceable life and shortly after turns into a gooey mess that can end up on the shutter that would be the worst case-scenario.

The lenses

The single lobe on the lenses does in fact remind me of the Contarex lenses. That's fine with me. As I mentioned before, it's a nice homage to the past when quality, not quantity, was important. It's nice to know that someone still thinks that "good enough" isn't good enough. It's nice to know that a camera maker such as Zeiss and Leica believe that if you're going to build something, it's worth building the best you can.

OK, enough of pontificating. Back to work and the lobe.

I've mentioned numerous times that I don't like tabbed focusing, regardless of who makes the lens. For me, it's neither as quick nor as intuitive as ring focusing. If I had a choice, I would never select a tabbed lens.

The lobe is a bit of a compromise. I occasionally use it as a tab to fine focus, pushing or pulling slightly. But it's entirely optional and not mandatory, which is why I like it. It's there when you need it, and you can ignore it when you don't.

I must pause here and mention that one of my favorite lenses for this camera is the Rollei-branded f/2.8 40mm Sonnar. It's an ideal focal length. It's compact. And I wish it had a traditional knurled focusing ring. Instead, it's a tabbed lens.

The lenses (including the Sonnar) are nicely finished. I have the chrome versions, and I've not had any problems with the satin surface. Although I use my cameras a lot and push them hard, I'm not one to toss them around carelessly.

The lens shades attach securely to the front, and because the bayonet on the front of the lens appears to be chromed steel, a hard knock against the shade should damage the shade but not affect the bayonet. That means you would remove the shade and buy another but not have to worry about the integrity of the bayonet.

I only use the lens caps when the lenses are sitting in my cabinet. When I take them out to shoot, the lens caps stay in the cabinet. With the lens shades attached, the simply are too difficult to remove or reattach without dropping them. And that's because the finger grips should have horizontal serrations and not vertical ones.

A COMPLAINT: There is an ever so slight to-and-fro movement in the 25mm Biogon when focusing. It feels as if one of the retaining rings needs to be tightened slightly. It's not something that most people would notice, but after using the lens for a year, I do notice it.

The 50mm Planar doesn't do this, so I know that it's limited to the Biogon. The lens should probably be sent back, but I like this lens so much that I'll simply ignore it. It has no effect on the focusing accuracy, but it's annoying nonetheless simply because I know it's there.

Problems

As I reported, I had one problem with the rangefinder. It wasn't the "Cosina" alignment issue. It was a more serious problem in that when the shutter was released, the secondary rangefinder image moved. This would suggest that some part or parts of this rather complex rangefinder system wasn't properly secured.

The camera spent about six weeks in Japan before coming back to me. It was repaired under warranty, and they also replaced the plastic cap on the PC synch socket that was lost not long after getting the camera.

That has been my sole problem with the camera.

The viewfinder

The viewfinder has been a topic of some debate. At least one reviewer found the viewfinder to be too large because he was unable to visually scan the scene. I haven't found that to be the case.

I love the large viewfinder, and the framelines are always visible. Eye placement was an issue upon first receiving the camera in that the rangefinder patch would sometimes not be visible, depending on how I held the camera to my eye.

But within a short time, I found a comfortable position that always keeps the rangefinder patch visible. It's no longer something that I even consider. But it is something that first-time users need to keep in mind.

The shutter speeds are fine in normal or low light. On a bright day, it can be a struggle to see the superimposed numbers running down the left side, because they became a pale red. I once read that research had shown that as men get older, the ability to see red diminishes. I don't know if this is age or simply the inability of the LED to glow brightly enough. Maybe a bit of both.

I was thinking that if the viewfinder had a black frame, the shutter speeds could have been placed in that region. However, peering through the viewfinder shows this to be an impossibility, because looking to the extreme left, right, top or bottom shows that there is no frame nor any place to put one.

I still haven't bought a viewfinder for the 25mm Biogon and continue to use the full frame of the viewfinder. So far, no problems.

What I've learned

Nitpicks aside, I love the Zeiss Ikon and the three lenses that I have. In fact, if I were to have just one lens, it might be the Sonnar, simply because I love the Goldilocks focal length not too wide, not too long, just right the physical dimensions and the look of the Sonnar. I don't require or demand a high speed lens, so this suits me just fine.

I wish the Sonnar wasn't a tabbed lens, but the fact is that it has a tab, and I just have learned to put up with it.

That said, I feel very good with a three-lens kit. Some day, I would enjoy having the f/2.0 85mm Sonnar and perhaps the 18mm Distagon. I also would like to see Carl Zeiss revive the 135mm Sonnar -- one of the greatest lenses ever for the Contax rangefinder. That would about do it for me.

The body still feels very tight. Extremely tight and rigid. There is no flex at all to the body. It feels the same today as when I first received it. And that's a testament to a solid design that was manufactured correctly. Kudos to Carl Zeiss and Cosina.

The two-stage shutter release feels very intuitive to me. It requires just the right amount of travel to activate the meter and the right amount of pressure to release the shutter.

In an Internet forum, someone said they thought the release had a lot of wobble to it. I don't see how this is possible, because the collar that surrounds it doesn't permit side-to-side movement. Speaking of the collar, it doubles as a shutter lock/meter turn off switch. I have missed a couple of quick shots because I had locked the shutter. But it's one of those things that will happen from time to time, if you use the collar lock. I've missed shots with my Nikon FE, which require you to pull the film advance lever away from the body to unlock the shutter release.

The film advance is very smooth and effortless, maybe too effortless if that's possible. In fact, there have been times when I've had to check if there was film in the camera because of the lack of resistance when using the advance.

The one feature I would have liked was something that a couple of camera makers used in the 1970s. If the film wasn't loaded properly, the film counter never moved. It's a great idea, and I'm surprised it never caught on. Ironically, I've yet to misload this camera. In fact, I've only misloaded a camera one time in 1980 with my Nikon FE.

The Zeiss Ikon is very easy to load, although I still check to see that the rewind crank is turning as I fire off two blanks. A good habit for any film photographer

Rewinding is easy enough, although because I use a half case, it takes more time. Well, no big deal. After all, this is film photography, which takes more time.

The half case does a nice job of muffling the sound of the shutter even more. Not that it's loud, but a metal shutter likely will never be as quiet as a cloth shutter in a rangefinder.

I never use the preview lever. Ever. I have a good idea of where the frame lines are, and if I want a wider or narrower view, I change lenses.

I never think when I'm composing a shot, "Hmmm. I wonder how this would look with a 28 or 35 or 85 (all of which I do not own)." I think the preview lever is useless.

I notice that the Zeiss Ikon SW body (as shown on the Zeiss Ikon site) appears to have a preview lever. I assume that won't make it into production, because this camera has no on-board viewfinder. What would be the purpose of a preview lever for a camera without a viewfinder?

One thing that received undue criticism was the back lock. I had read that some people thought the back could be opened accidentally. I dismiss this notion. The slide must be pushed in an L pattern with a moderate degree of force to release the back. It requires intentional action to open it. I can't see this back accidentally opening by having the slide catch on a piece of clothing or the camera bag.

I'm very quick with this camera. I don't have to spend time fiddling with controls. I can pick it up, put it to my eye, and my fingers fall exactly where they should. No hunting to find the shutter release. The click-stop tension of the shutter dials lets me know with tactile feedback exactly how much exposure compensation I've dialed in.

I find that I shoot on AE about 75% of the time, using exposure compensation when needed or using manual on those rare occasions when the lighting is so difficult that I don't think the onboard AE can handle it correctly. I've encountered very few situations in which the on-board meter has been fooled.

I can remove the 25mm and 50mm lenses with one hand, but the Sonnar requires two.

The battery dependence was only a mild concern. I generally keep backup batteries around the house. Heading into my second year with the camera, I'm now on my second set. That's pretty good life.

Looking to the future

I can see no reason why this camera shouldn't still be running in another 10 or 20 or even 30 years. The only issue might be if battery makers stop making this particular cell or cells, as you can use two S76 or a single 1/3N.

The camera seems to be built with longevity in mind.

With the release of the digital Leica M8, there's been a lot of talk about what Carl Zeiss has planned for its Zeiss Ikon line.

Officially, Zeiss hasn't committed to building a digital model, although likely it's a matter of when and not if. And what we've heard it that Zeiss is interested in full-frame technology and not a sensor crop, which is fine with me.

I love the 25mm focal length, because it's 25mm and not because I really wanted to buy a 32mm (1.3x crop) or a 38mm (1.5x crop). Even if a sensor crop captures the so-called sweet part of the lens coverage, who cares? It's no longer the same lens that I bought.

Same goes for the 40mm Sonnar. My "just right" lens now becomes either 52mm or 60mm. No thanks.

Certainly, Zeiss is watching the M8 closely, particularly with some of the complaints about the M8's handling of unusual lighting situations. As a niche manufacturer serving a small number of users, it makes no sense for Zeiss to rush into this market segment simply to respond to a small yet very vocal number of photographers.

I see Zeiss introducing a body that has some staying power. One whose shelf life will be measured in years and not months. This will be a very difficult market, as the release of most digital cameras is met almost immediately with expectations of the next camera. Zeiss could never compete on this level, nor should it.

The second issue becomes pricing. Digital cameras have upset traditional pricing. Should a Zeiss digital camera be less than a Leica? And how much less? More than the Epson RD-1 but less than the Leica M8. Or if it's full frame, should it really be less? Will it be closer to the ridiculous price of the Canon 1Ds? There can be no way that it cost Canon half of that to build the camera. And I don't see many film users willing to pay that much for a digital rangefinder, even if it's full frame.

I want to see Carl Zeiss do it right the first time, rather than be drawn into this endless cycle of incremental upgrades and firmware updates. The computer mindset of just getting it onto the market and then solve the problems as you go along ugh!

The one thing that would be nice is the introduction of a non-electronic shuttered body. That is, a shutter that does not require a battery. And of course, a body that is neither as wide nor as tall as the Zeiss Ikon.

The Zeiss Ikon has served me well. It has done all that I've asked of it without making me waste my time and my energy spinning dials, pushing buttons or trying to get the lens to autofocus on some vague point in the viewfinder. It doesn't get in the way of being a photographer.

I have no problem recommending the camera and lenses to others. It's that good.