By Mike Johnston
Illustration photographs by Lee Gumienny
The Zeiss Ikon is an improved Leica.
I put it that way because it is to the Leica that the Zeiss Ikon refers, detail by detail and by its very existence. It was designed by people who use and love M Leicas, and every aspect of it is meaningful in reference to the Leica, from the similarities (in size and shape and the position of controls like the frameline lever) to the differences. More on those in a moment.
After having one in the house for a month, and mulling it over for much longer than that, I've come around to thinking that the ZI has only four flaws.
The first flaw is that it doesn't have its own name. It's called "Zeiss Ikon," which is meant to be a compliment to the new camera and to imbue it with importance and prestige, "Ikon" being one of Zeiss's oldest and proudest names, applied in the past to some of its greatest cameras. Which it does to an extent, but of course that's when you're considering meaning. When it comes to function, however, the name is somewhat inane in the new internet age because it's not a specific designation. It's literally got no distinction. There have been hundreds of "Zeiss Ikons" throughout Zeiss's history, from the Nettar to the Piccolette to the Stereofix to the Super Ikonta, and there's no way for search engines to distinguish this one from all the rest. Entering "Zeiss Ikon" in Google currently does get you to some of the right pages, but try it in eBay—no such luck. Or try looking for pictures taken with it online—not impossible, but not easy. That's because "Zeiss Ikon" is no more a name than if Chevy called a new car the "Chevrolet." So when talking about this Zeiss Ikon you have to babble on with further specifiers that plain ol' names are intended to render redundant. "The new rangefinder built for Zeiss by Cosina in Japan that takes M-mount lenses," etc. That's like having to call my son "the teenager who lives in the same house as me who feeds our dog and wears band T-shirts and..." I get around such clumsy, long-winded, and still-not-very-precise descriptions by assigning him a name. It's a good system. It works. Humans have been doing it for millennia. Alas, there is no such simplicity possible in the case of the Zeiss Ikon—the new rangefinder, I mean, the one that's built for Zeiss by Cosina in Japan and takes M-mount lenses....
Objects need names, and objects that don't have very good official names usually have more functional nicknames assigned to them by custom and usage. Thus, gradually, the Zeiss Ikon is coming to be known as the "Zeiss Ikon ZI" or just "the ZI" to try to distinguish it from all those historical Zeiss Ikons."ZI" parallels the genus name for the lenses, which is ZM. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to the camera as the "ZI," even though that's not its official name.
Of distinctions and differences
I stated at the outset that the ZI is an improved Leica. That's a problematic statement, of course. To say that the differences between the Zeiss Ikon and the Leica are improvements instantly invites disputation, and makes it seem like I'm being controversial again (I have a reputation as being anti-Leica, due to the fact that I'm not religiously pro-Leica).
According to an old story, a Rolls-Royce spokesman was once asked by an automotive journalist how much horsepower the car's engine had. After a pause he replied, "Power is sufficient."
To the faithful, the Leica is "sufficient." It doesn't admit of any need for improvement. (Or, for some partisans, any possibility of it.)
Is the ZI's vertically-running, metal-bladed, electronically-controlled shutter, accurate to within 1/12th of a stop, really an improvement? Even if it has a higher and more accurate top speed, and a higher sync speed? Not to the true believer, it isn't. The Leica's less accurate, horizontally-running cloth shutter that takes up most of the body cavity is preferable, because it's quieter (well, a little) and vibrates less (well, perhaps) and lasts longer (albeit with the requirement that its owner have it serviced from time to time).
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And I grant all these arguments. I've made them myself from time to time. I too appreciate the classic, traditional Leica M shutter for its unique virtues.
So, to get around the disputations—all of which are (potentially) valid, of course, since the desirability of any camera feature is always a matter of opinion—I'll just say that the Zeiss Ikon incorporates a lot of features that many Leica photographers have been asking for, and suggesting to Leica, for many years.
This includes one such suggestion that was implemented: auto-exposure (AE), which Leica has already adopted in the M7. AE was something that many Leicaphiles had asked for from Leica for a long time, and that Leica eventually provided for them. (A larger shutter speed dial was another, although few wanted it to turn the "wrong" way.) A number of the Zeiss Ikon's other improvements fulfill exactly the same case except that Leica hasn't seen fit to provide them on its own cameras. Or perhaps I should state that more positively from the Leicaphile's point of view: Leica has considered them and concluded either that they're not necessary or that the traditional solution is worth preserving.
Here are some of those changes:
• The aforementioned more accurate electronically-controlled shutter, with a top shutter speed double that of the Leica's at 1/2000th and with a faster flash sync.
• The ZI is lighter, about 4/5ths the weight of the Leica. I see this as an improvement; others might not.
• It's not as expensive. I see this as an improvement too, although maybe it's not one either.
• It has a swing-open back, with conventional film loading. Finally. The lack of a swing-open back, which is standard on virtually every other camera that is even remotely comparable, has always been one of the crowning idiosyncrasies of the original Leica M design. Even to the point that Leica duplicated it in the digital M8, which seemed perverse to me when I tried the M8. Even some of the diehards don't bother to defend this one. (Others have a rap about body-shell integrity, "Leica cannot make the strength of the body shell to its standards without...," spoken in the Lexus-commercial voice. Yadda, yadda. I've heard it. Whatever.)
• It has AE with exposure compensation. The control arrangement of the shutter-speed dial, AE setting, ISO settings, and exposure compensation settings (which incidentally I suspect Steven Gandy might have had a hand in suggesting—I might be wrong) is a further elaboration on that of the CLE, and similar to that on some of the Voigtländer rangerfinders, and is about the most elegant, logical control layout I can think of for these functions. I like this aspect of the ZI.
• It moves the shutter button away from the axis of the winding lever, and the PC socket from the back to the side of the camera.
• Better eye relief for glasses-wearers.
• Longer rangefinder baselength.
• Single instead of double framelines for the most-used focal lengths of 50mm and 35mm.
But it's worthwhile to keep in mind that what you're really getting here is the result of a bunch of camera engineers and rangefinder aficionados sitting down and saying to each other, "How can we make a better Leica?"
Classic design + thoughtful improvements = near perfection
In use, I found the Zeiss Ikon to be perfectly delightful, and, in fact, just about perfect, period. I liked everything about it. I liked the weight, which seemed ideal. I love the shutter sound, which is distinct but gentle. I liked the feel of the wind-on lever, which is light and only partially damped but fits the feel of the rest of the camera. The viewfinder is big and bright and easy to peer through, and all the controls fall to hand just right. The camera is a delight to shoot with. It reminded me in a daily rush why I like to shoot with small, light film cameras so much more than digital ones or big autofocus Wunderplastik SLRs. It's just more...satisfying. Simple, direct, uncomplicated.
Using the camera convinced me that all, or most all, of the changes, as the Zeiss Ikon's makers have evolved them from the classic Leica, really are, in fact, improvements. And why wouldn't they be? The designers, longtime Leica users, knew what needed to be changed and what didn't. The new camera is easier to use and less fussy than, say, an M6, lighter to carry, and more thoroughly thought-through with regard to metering. All the little incremental improvements really do add up to a significantly, if only modestly, improved user experience. Of course many people are already used to the Leica, and changes in their habits are not desired.
Two features that I thought I was going to dislike, I didn't. Namely, the bump tab on the lenses, and the rewind crank located on the bottom plate. I didn't think I was going to care for either of these, but in fact neither one bothered me. My standard for what a lens tab ought to look and feel like is the emphatic crescent-shaped one on the pre-ASPH 35mm Summicron, and I imagined the simple bump on the Zeiss lenses, being so far away from that, would annoy me. In fact I have to admit that the bumps feel and work fine when you use it to focus the lens with your thumb and pre-focus the camera by feel. The bottom-mounted rewind crank is also easy to get accustomed to, and works perfectly well.
Overall, the camera comes as close as any camera I have ever laid my hands on to embodying what has been an ideal in principle for me for many years: it does every single thing I want a film camera to do and absolutely nothing that I don't want it to do. I'm glad I lived to see this. Of course I no longer use film cameras regularly, which is the cosmic "gotcha" for me here.
The one feature that's actually part of the camera that is actually flawed—flaw number 2—is one you'll see repeated all over the 'net, namely that the shutter-speeds in the viewfinder are hard to see in daylight. I'm going to concede this as a flaw even though it didn't bother me either. If you've been a shooter for a while, you know what the light is. You're not going to be outdoors in the light with your favorite film and have a specific aperture set on the lens and not have any friggin' clue what your shutter speed is. In fact I would bet I could guess to within one stop what the shutter speed display would show me, if I looked at it, in any sort of daylight. But of course I never looked at it, because I already knew, more or less, what it would say. If you care about the fact that the shutter speeds are less than plainly visible in daylight, it's because you're a newbie—learn the light, pilgrim.
Where you need to see your shutter speeds is when you're shooting in the near-dark, and in those situations the display in the viewfinder is easily visible. No harm, no foul, I say, although the critics are right—the display can be hard to see in daylight.
Flaw #3 is that the camera takes film.
This is an almost silly thing to say about a film camera, I know, like criticizing the proverbial orange for not being the proverbial apple. My suspicion is that more people still use film than we commonly acknowledge; just because sales of film cameras are way down doesn't mean use of film cameras is down correspondingly drastically. And of course, for any one person who is a possible buyer and user of the ZI, the choice is an individual one, and she couldn't care less what the rest of the world is doing. Still, introducing a whole new film camera line at this very late date in history has a sort of retro aura around it. It seems a little...quixotic.
What people really want is an affordable digital rangefinder, not another film camera to compete with an established competitor that people already know and love. Fact is, where film cameras are concerned, we could've gotten by with just Voigtländers and Leicas and never felt any the poorer—we didn't really need anything else. The fact that the ZI is a film camera is sorta awkward, backward-looking, not forward-thinking. Film's heyday is past, after well more than a century.
Then again, consider that the vinyl LP record, which has been around since the 1950s, may well outlast the Compact Disc that replaced it. SACD and DVD-Audio haven't taken off, but the online downloading of music as computer files certainly has, and chances are that the future hard-copy digital format will be some audio variant of Blu-Ray. It would be a high irony if the LP outlasts the disc that killed it, but it really might. Similarly, it's quite possible that film may actually outlast Bayer-array CCD and CMOS sensor technology, which is now so efficiently doing to film what the CD did to vinyl. Film in the future will be a small niche, but chances are that it will be a long-lived one.
M7 or ZI?
But since it is here, what's better, the Leica or the ZI? I'll take the Fifth, the cop-out angle: they're both fine. Just fine. Overall, the Leica has more of a Teutonic feel and gestalt: solid, overbuilt, well-damped, indestructible. The ZI has more of a Japanese feel and gestalt: lighter in action, just a whiff cheap-feeling, and somewhat more delicate in its overall impression. Nowhere is the difference more evident than in the wind-levers: the Leica's feels bolted on and damped to a fare-thee-well, the ZI's feels light and exquisite and just a tad feathery.
Of course they both work.
Anyway, it's not really a competition. As the late Herbert Keppler writes in "Speaking Frankly: The Rangefinder Revolution," "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 Voigtländer quietly sold an estimated 20,000 35mm rangefinder cameras." If you're counting, that means that for every film rangefinder camera sold, there are 300 DSLRs sold. If anything, the disparity might be even more pronounced than that at the beginning of 2008. That makes the film rangefinder market less than minuscule. The whole category could disappear with a poof this afternoon and hardly anybody would notice.
In this environment, why bother with a whole new film rangefinder? Well, you have to remember that the ZI is made by Cosina, which makes the Voigtländer line. Despite the loyal following and installed base of Leica users, the Voigtländer rangefinders have been very successful (in the context of the minuscule rangefinder market), because they have filled a need in the marketplace: the need for entry-level rangefinders, a market space that Leica simply has not addressed for many years now. But the Voigtländers have a reputation for being...not cheap, exactly, because they're actually pretty nice cameras, but less than premium. There apparently seemed to be another vacant space in the market, in between the various Voigtländers and the base Leica. It's a niche Cosina and Mr. K (Kobayashi-san, Cosina's inspired CEO) evidently wanted to fill. (That's Mr. K. with Dr. Scherle of Zeiss. You'd think that between them they could have found a decent camera to take their own picture with—this one looks like it was taken with a cellphone—but whatever.) The success of the profusion of lesser Voigtländers hath spawned a greater one, that's all: flush with success, Cosina wanted to make a more premium camera that departs from the basic design characteristics shared by all the other Voigtländers. So, okay. That this is a small niche within a small niche seems self-evident, but that didn't dissuade Zeiss and Cosina from going ahead and filling it. And that's their business. I'm not complaining. For us photographers, choice is good.
If you choose to own and possibly also to shoot with a film rangefinder camera, and you haven't done so before, you will a) find it a "process" to learn to use and love it; and you will b) find it just as easy to learn to love a Leica as it will be to learn to love the ZI. Yes, they're a little different, but it's really not that big a deal. Most people would grow accustomed to either one, given time and familiarity.
This brings me to Flaw #4. (You thought Flaw #3 was outrageous? I'm glad this article is not in a print magazine, because if it were, I'd have to picture people groaning in dismay and throwing the magazine to the floor when they read this next bit.)
The ZI's fourth flaw is that it's not a Leica.
Well, that sounds doubly outrageous, but think about it. If you are going to shoot film, and if you are going to shoot film with a rangefinder, then why wouldn't you shoot with a Leica? Leica has all the history, the panache, the sprawling user base that includes so many great and dedicated photographers, the extensive lore, the big used market and the stout resale value, and on and on. It's the camera of Barnack and Eisie and Cartier-Bresson and Capa and Henry Wessel and Jeff Mermelstein and too many other greats to name. Zeiss has some history too, but it's not continuous and its connection to the Japanese-made ZI is fairly tenuous. The ZI could be branded as a replica Leica with a tacked-on nameplate, and not totally unfairly. The Leica, on the other hand, is the real deal.
It's possible that a ZI buyer might not want to spend Leica money. But if that's the case, the Voigtländers are cheaper still if what you need is to save money, and why isn't a used M6 just as good a use for $1300 as a new ZI?
I suppose it's possible that a potential ZI buyer might not want to wade into all that "Leica Culture," not convert to the Leica religion, and that might be a reason for sidestepping Leica and buying a ZI.
You could say it's just a camera, a tool, and not a fetish object. All right, but a used Leica is a great tool too. And so is a new one.
They might buy a ZI because they think the ZI is handsomer. Leicas are handsome cameras too, no question, but during the time I had it, my ZI drew envious and admiring glances from people who couldn't tell a Ricoh from a Razr. It looks really primo, upscale, deluxe, in a way the more utilitarian-looking Leica doesn't, quite.
So, it's nice that there's now a Japanese-built improved Leica with a prestige nameplate. I suppose. Did we really need it? Over the years there have been lots of pretenders to the Leica throne. Through it all, though, there's only been one Leica. I think most people, wanting to share in the rangefinder experience, would want to go ahead and experience the real thing.
So I suppose what it comes down to—the answer to the question "who would buy a ZI?"—is simply personal preference. Some people might want to spend more than a Voigtländer costs and less than a Leica costs, or they might want a swing-open back and some of the other slight improvements offered by the ZI. It might feel a little better to some people.
I can't say I blame them there. The ZI is pure pleasure to use. It falls to hand naturally and well,
its controls, once familiar, seem intuitive and sensible, and after a
while you just start to love the thing. Well, I'll speak for myself. I
really liked it. I found it not only easy and natural to shoot with,
but pleasurable, too. The delicious little click of the shutter is a
sensuous thing. You find yourself sort of looking for excuses to run
film through it. You enjoy taking it out for its walk. It's a pleasure to look at; it's a pleasure to look through. And it works a charm, and takes glorious pictures. There's nothing not to like.
A mini Rogues'-gallery of turned-out-to-be transient pretenders to the Leica throne: Top to bottom, the Minolta CLE, the Contax G1, and the Konica Hexar RF. Is the Zeiss Ikon ZI just one more of the same? The companies that made all three of these cameras have by now fled the field. Sayonara.
Accessories R Us
Normally in considering a camera I'd be talking a lot about the lenses, but in this case we almost don't need to. The M mount, since it went out from under patent protection, has gotten to be the closest thing to a Universal mount we have. Konica's made lenses in M-mount, and there are the Voigtländer lenses, and there are others here and there. You can use any of these, or most Leica lenses old or new, on the ZI. And now there are the Zeiss offerings in M-mount as well.
But you don't even need a ZI to use the ZI's ZM lenses. You could use them on a Leica or a Hexar RF, a Japanese Voigtländer or even the old CLE.
I've now used all the ZM lenses except the widest and the longest (the 15mm ƒ/2.8 and the 85mm ƒ/2, the ones made in Germany), and they're great. They're as close to perfection as anyone could want, or as even the obsessive-compulsive need them to be. True, it is possible to detect slight distinctions between them and their counterparts, but it's difficult to say that any of them are objectively or obviously "better" or "worse."
Even in this stellar lineup, however, it seems like the 35mm ƒ/2 Biogon is a particular standout. "Best" is just a value judgment, an umpire's call, a matter of taste; but there's something special about the images from this lens, which is as close to faultless as any compact camera lens of this focal length I've ever used—and I've used a whole passel of 'em. There is certainly no shortage of great 35mm lenses in M-mount (I believe Leica makes three, Voigtländer four, and there's the rare M-Hexanon for a sleeper), but the Zeiss Biogon takes its place right there in the front rank. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a Leica shooter or a Voigtländer shooter. Although plenty sharp, it's not harsh-sharp, what Arthur Kramer used to call "wire-sharp"; it has a richness, a solidity, to its rendering, almost like the "roundness" that Leica used to claim for its own lenses in the Mandler era and earlier. Color transmission is stellar—colors are rich and full-bodied, as well as subtle and variegated. I think that if anybody were to use this lens for the rest of their lives, they would never grow tired of its results.
One of the great wide-angle lens designs of all time, the Zeiss Biogon became legendary in such applications as the Hasselblad Superwide. The 35mm ƒ/2 rangefinder lens is a true example of the famous breed.
The other accessory I used with the camera was the very expensive 25/28mm clip-on finder. This, too, can't really be considered a proprietary advantage of the ZI—clip-on finders (they slide on to the hot shoe) can be mixed 'n' matched across camera lines. I have to confess I've never used one before, so I really have no standard of comparison between the various Leica-made and Cosina-made options. All I can tell you is that the view through the Zeiss 25/28 finder is glorious—big, bright, clean, clear—totally addictive. With the ZI's very nice built-in finder you don't need it at all, but I would want one. It's just too beautiful for words.
So in sum, what's the deal with the Zeiss Ikon ZI? It's an alternative where we didn't really need an alternative, an improvement over a camera that didn't need improving. It speaks to a niche within a niche within a niche, addresses a very narrow segment of a very small market.
And yet, somehow, none of that really matters. It's such a lovely thing, and such a nice experience to use, that you might like owning one even if you didn't use it that much. I could see a dedicated Leicaphile owning one. Why not? Different day, different camera. I could see a serious newcomer sinking all his money into one and never looking back. I could even see a hardcore digital SLR guy buying one just to get a taste of the classic rangefinder experience. It might be a pretender, but who cares? It's a mighty tasty one. It might not be around forever; and so what? So let's enjoy it while it is. This Zeiss Ikon encapsulates a good part of what many of us find pleasurable about the pursuit of photography.
Thanks to Lee for allowing me to use some of his pictures. You can see more of his work here. And thanks to Rich Schleuning of Zeiss for the loan of the camera, a couple of lenses, and the finder, and Stephen Gandy for the loan of several other lenses.
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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