Zeiss Ikon Camera and Biogon 35/2
Eight months ago I renewed my passion for photography after a three-plus decade lapse. When I handled some new digital SLRs, I knew they were not for me. After many hours of reading and much deliberation I purchased a Nikon F3 SLR, assembled a collection of five Nikkor lenses and never looked back. All of this cost about the same as an entry level DSLR with a couple of good zoom AF lenses.
Family, friends and strangers like my work. But the F3 is not a camera I'm willing to take with me wherever I go. It is bulky and seems to attract attention. Last fall I became frustrated because there were many times my eyes told me to stop and take a picture but the F3 was sitting at home. So, I looked at pocketable digital cameras and again rejected the digital option. About that time I began to read about rangefinders. Then a refurbished Canonet G-II QL17 popped up at a local camera store. For three months the Canonet went everywhere I went and I knew a rangefinder is perfect for my photography. A search for a camera that can take advantage of the wide-menu of LTM and M lenses began. After a great deal of thought I decided to purchase the new Zeiss Ikon Mcamera with a Zeiss Ikon 35/2.0 lens.
In an age where new digital cameras are the focus of consumers, the media and manufactuers, the new Zeiss Ikon rangefinder (ZI-M) is a surprise. The list price for Zeiss Ikon with one ZI-M lens is similar to Nikon's new D-200 with a Nikkor 18-200 lens. The ZI-M also faces obstacles from within the rangefinder market. Initially the ZI-M was attacked and slandered on several web sites. Eventually more balanced discussions prevailed and Zeiss recently reported over 3,500 units have been sold and short-term future production is sold out. This is good news for all film-rangefinder enthusiasts. But only time will tell if the ZI-M can succeed in today's market.
I selected the silver ZI-M body/lens because I like it's retro look. The ZI-M finish is sliver paint. The finish on my body is what you would expect for a $1,600 camera. The leatherette is also well done and the camera is pleasant to hold. When the back is open, the plastic film sprocket and take-up spool look very similar in quality to my Nikon F3's. The fit and finish inside does not disappoint. The lack of foam or felt in the camera back design is noteworthy. The winder is efficient to use and rapid-fire operation does not distract. The winder is smooth and it feels strikingly similar to the F3's. The rewind crank is easy to use too. The feel during a rewind is not as smooth as I expected. When you look at the back of the camera for the first time, the large size of the finder eye piece gets your attention. The finder's rubber ring is both practical and visually appealing.
The shutter-speed dial has a superior mechanical feel to the F3's. In particular it is easy to go from aperture priority mode to manual mode. Manual shutter-speed selection works well. Exposure compensation adjustments are very convenient but the dial is a bit stiff to quickly move from click-to-click.
The ZI 35/2.0 lens is beautifully finished. The aperture ring and focus barrel exude mechanical excellence. The lens is a joy to use. The one-third f-stop clicks are more useful than I had anticipated. The depth-of-field marks are easy to read at a glance. Unfortunately, this means there are no f 2.0 or 2.8 marks. The ZI lens hood mounts with precision. The lens cap is finicky to use without the hood and difficult to use with the hood in place. This lens is almost too long. The front of the lens barley intrudes on a corner of the finder framelines. The camera just fits in the small messenger bag (Mountainsmith) I use daily with the Canonet. There are several high-quality 35/2.0 lenses that would make the ZI-M a more compact unit. A slower (smaller) 35 mm lens could be better for daytime street photography. Whether or not the ZI-M lens' physical size means the camera is not practical for everyday travel remains to be seen. With my budget, I'll be using the ZI-M 35/2.0 for the foreseeable future.
Recording an image with the ZI-M is a satisfying experience. The finder is spectacular. It out shines any SLR I've ever looked through. The view is crystal clear and bright. This camera-lens combination enables quick and easy focusing. The focusing patch size seems perfect to me. The shutter speeds appear in red on the left-hand side of the finder. I found the numbers to be a bit thin and in bright light I wished they were in a bold-face font. Unlike the 28 mm frame, the 35 mm frame is easy to see. The 50 mm frame seems a bit small. While I find aperture priority automation useful, manual operation feels effortless too. The one-third F stops work well with the meter design. After a dozen frames the camera, it seemed like I had been using it for months rather than hours. The finder patch requires your eye to be centered which also feels natural. I suspect maintaining a centered view may be more important with a 28 mm lens. I found the eight seconds of meter display to be much too short. I used the thumb operated exposure lock feature a couple of times and I like it. The ZI-M manual does not describe the metering pattern and while I know it is center-weighted, this omission is inexcusable.
My first roll in the ZI-M was the film I use most, Fuji NPZ800. ISO 800 film is a poor choice to evaluate sharpness. At the same time I wanted to have a basis for comparison. I did not install a lens filter. My film is developed by high-quality, environmental controlled lab. I purchased a CD with 2940 X 1960 pixel automated scans. The automated adjustments can be annoying, but at least each negative is treated equally which aids comparison to contemporary results.
My initial thought when I viewed my first ZI-M images was, "There is something different about these, but I don't know what." Close inspection revealed the difference has to do with the grain. Somehow the grain seems smoother and more even. This is especially noticeable in shadow detail. This could be due to the ZI lens or an improvement in exposure with the metering system, or both. I revisited some recent Fuji ISO 800 F3 images from a Nikkor 35/2 AIS lens and found their grain to be superior to my Canonet's. However the Nikkor images (from my twenty year old lenses) lack something compared to the ZI-M results. This is a purely subjective observation from only one roll of film. I have a lot more shooting to do before I can say more.
I will say it is very easy to be decide upon DOF and composition with the ZI-M. Every frame in my first roll (except the one with the lens cap in place) is exactly how I envisioned it. This is somewhat disappointing because it underscores my inexperience as a rangefinder photographer. I should be able to achieve the same outcome with the Canonet. But apparently I can't. The ZI-M images may have more contrast than my other two cameras. It's to early to say much more. A few images from the first roll are in the Gallery. I can't wait to take the ZI-M to a dark restaurant and take some shots where the bokeh is apparent. I look forward to shooting some B&W film soon.
I enjoy available-light photography so I am pleased with the improvement in grain I find with the ZI-M. Using the camera seems effortless. Despite my initial positive experience, I'm not sure the ZI-M body is the best choice for me. My ZI-M will not be papmered and I'm sure it will exhibit paint rubs and nicks before long. I hope it is mechanicaly and electrically robust. Just before I ordered (thank you Tony Rose at Popflash for a great buying experience) the ZM-I, I took a hard look at a similarly priced Leica M6 with a Summicron 35/2 for sale locally. In the end I felt the Leica film-loading ritual is unnecessary, 1/2000 exposures are useful for me and I wanted a new camera. I decided to take a chance that the price premium over the Bessa R2A/R3A with a new ZI-M lens (or a mint Leica 35 mm used lens) would be money well-spent over the long haul. It will be fun finding out if that gamble pays off.
Last edited by willie_901 : 04-12-2006 at 14:14.
Reason: improve the title