Zeiss Ikon Review
Zeiss Ikon is a storied name in photographic history. Originally a company formed in the 1920′s out of four optical German manufacturers, Zeiss Ikon AG went on to create a series of great 35mm rangefinders. The company shut up shop in the 70′s but with the recent resurgence of the Zeiss brand, a modern era Zeiss Ikon film rangefinder was announced in 2004.
For the past month I’ve been shooting with the Zeiss Ikon. This is my hands on review which will detail how this modern film camera fares in a digital world.
The Zeiss Ikon uses the M Mount, meaning it can use any Zeiss ZM-mount lens or M bayonet (basically all Leica lenses). This means it has access to some of the finest glass in the world including Zeiss’ own lineup, Leica’s expensive but legendary range and also Voigtlander’s cheaper but impressively spec’d glass.
A few specs first:
- Film Format: 35mm / full frame
- Metering: TTL center weighted metering
- Viewfinder: Light bright viewfinder. 0.74X magnification, framelines for 28mm /35mm / 50mm / 85mm
- Film speeds: ISO 25–3200 with 1/3 incremental f-stop
- Modes: Aperture mode and manual mode
- Shutter speeds: 1/2000 s to 8 s in AE mode, 1/2000 s to 1 s in manual mode
- Max flash sync speed: 1/125 s
- Construction: One piece aluminium base structure. External metal covers. Tripod thread inch in base plate
- Dimensions: 138 x 78 x 32 mm (5.4”x3.1”x1.3”)
- Batteries: Two 1.5V cells type LR44 or SR44
- Weight: 500 g (1 lb 2 oz.)
(a black Zeiss Ikon with lens removed)
What’s a rangefinder?
Anytime anyone ever reviews a rangefinder, it seems obligatory to include a section on the differences between that and an SLR. So here’s my quick summary as it matters to me:
|Feature||Rangefinder advantages||SLR advantages|
|Focusing||Faster and more accurate focusing for the majority of wide and normal lenses||More accurate focusing for objects which are very close to the camera, and for telephoto lenses|
|Lenses||Super high quality lenses, usually smaller and often larger max apertures (e.g. both an 50mm f/0.95′s and 21mm f/1.4 exist on the Leica system)||Wider selection of lenses, particularly at the telephoto end. Closer focusing distances also|
|Composing||With a rangefinder, you see a fixed view regardless of the lens mounted and you compose using framelines. Some find this a more natural way to compose and like the consistency||With an SLR, you see the view of whatever lens is mounted. This has greater advantages on very wide lenses (which require adapters on rangefinders) and for telephoto lenses. You also have a “what you see is what you get” view with an SLR which means you can approximate depth of field, etc|
|Operation||Rangefinders have no mirror box and so there is no vibration (and virtually no noise) when you press the shutter. Allows for slower speeds when handholding and also near silent operation|
In other words, neither system is perfect, each has its advantages and depending on your style of shooting or the subjects you go after, you will likely prefer one to the other. For me, I’m a big fan of both rangefinders and SLR’s and will shoot with one or the other depending on the subject.
(Note that while I’ve done a lot of photography with 35mm film, I have a lot more experience with SLR’s than rangefinders. There’s no particular reason for this other than SLR’s are “what I was brought up on” and therefore what I’ve been exposed to more. I mention it here because I feel the need to call out that this review will not be a controversial blow by blow breakdown of how the Zeiss Ikon fares against the various Leica M’s at every step… I’ve simply not shot enough with Leica’s to be able to provide that (and honestly I don’t think it’s particularly relevant anyway). So instead, this will be more of an all-up view of how the Zeiss Ikon performed as a camera in my hands – as a photographic tool for creating great images (imagine that!). Where I provide references to other cameras, it’ll mostly be with 35mm SLR’s).
(Using the 28mm f/2.8 Zeiss which exhibits almost zero distortion in this shot, Kodak Ektar 100)
The rest of this review will be delivered in the following sections:
- Design and Handling
- Viewfinder and Focusing
- Other criteria
- A few words on lenses
Design and Handling
Let me start this by saying two things:
- I care about how cameras look
- I hate the modern (D)SLR design
I think modern SLR / DSLR’s are ugly, bulky and draw unwanted attention. I’ve never liked them, I’ve never liked the look of full sized bodies (e.g. Nikon D3, Canon 1D Mark III) and have never mounted a grip / extra battery on smaller sized DSLR’s for this reason. What I do like are:
- Smaller compact camera designs (e.g. Olympus E-P1 / Panasonic GF1, classic SLR design such as the Nikon FM2 and Olympus OM-1, Leicas, etc)
- Retro designs
You can probably see where I’m going – I love how the Zeiss Ikon looks. While not the most smallest full frame / 35mm camera you can buy, it is compact, solid and has a beautiful / classic design that is so rarely seen in today’s cameras. The version I used had the silver / aluminium finish which looked very cool. One of the benefits not having to house a large mirror means that even if the camera has only relatively small width / height dimensions, the depth of the body is shallow which makes it a lot easier to handle, carry, hang from your neck, etc. In terms of build, the Ikon feels very solid with zero give / creaks. The camera doesn’t have any weakpoints from a physical perspective but it should be noted that it doesn’t feel as bulletproof or solid as a Leica M3 or M7.
(Kodak Ektar 100)
When you pick up and examine the Ikon’s design and features, it’s nice being reminded at just how simple photography can be… A single dial which lets you control shutter speed / exposure compensation / and ISO … a shutter button… a winder… oh and a viewfinder. And that’s pretty much it. It’s a simple, beautiful design that lets you do almost everything that a photographer really needs. In terms of shooting options, you have either fully manual (where you set the shutter speed and aperture on the lens) or A (Aperture) mode where the camera’s metering will select the shutter speed, up to a maximum of 1/2000 s. As with all of my photography, I tend to choose the latter for 90% of what I shoot. From a handling perspective – the operations of the camera – it’s really a dream. So simple, so intuitive and it even loads film like a regular 35mm camera. One thing to note is that with one of Zeiss’ 50mm f/1.5 or 28mm f/2.8 lenses, despite their small size and weight, when attached to the camera while sitting on a flat surface, the camera tilts forwards. In other words, it doesn’t sit upright / flat when a lens is attached.
Viewfinder and Focusing
I’ll get the one negative about the viewfinder out of the way – the LCD which tells you the shutter speed – well, it doesn’t work very well in broad daylight. It’s superb at night / in low light but in certain sunny conditions it’s difficult to see and you have to reposition your eye to tell what shutter speed you have. Fortunately, most of the time when you shoot in daylight you won’t be using a shutter speed that’s too slow so no issue there, but you have to be careful when shooting wide open (e.g. f/1.5) as it’s easy to exceed the camera’s max shutter speed. If Zeiss weren’t able to fix the viewing-in-sunlight issue, it would have been nice to add an optional beep whenever the max shutter speed was exceeded (e.g. the Olympus OM-4 has this).
OK, now that’s out of the way, let me say that I love the Ikon’s viewfinder. In sunmary it’s huge, extremely bright, with uncluttered and clear framelines and focusing is an absolute dream. In 35mm film, I usually use the highly regarded Olympus OM cameras which have gigantic viewfinders for SLR’s (way bigger than a 5D Mark II’s viewfinder for example). Even with that expectation, I found the Ikon’s viewfinder to be better and a LOT easier to focus. Some may argue that very best Leica viewfinder (e.g. the 30+ year old M3) may be more contrasty as the focusing area are concerned but I’d be surprised if they’re larger or clearer (and I haven’t used one enough to comment conclusively). What I can say is that I had a near perfect focus hit rate with the Ikon and love the way that the overlaid images in the rangefinder focusing area just snap into place. It works just as well in low light too – basically if there is enough light to see the subject, there’s enough light to focus. For portraits I found it an absolute joy. I typically shoot these sorts of subjects wide open so it’s a big deal for me as to whether the eyes are in focus or not. Shooting with the Ikon left me with a level of confidence that I just can’t get with a 35mm camera (that’s not to say I can’t get the same accuracy – I can, just not as fast or with the same confidence).
(Images showing focus accuracy on portraits)
The viewfinder will show you framelines as wide as 28mm. That means for the super wides you need an attachment which sits on top of the camera. I’m not a big fan of this as you have to focus and frame differently, and think its one of the major rangefinder disadvantages for someone like me who makes a lot of use of wide angles. As I said above – there’s no one perfect system. Between the wide – normal ranges though, nothing in my SLR collection touches the Ikon for fast / accurate focusing and I’d even pick it over the vast majority of DSLR’s for low light performance.
(Fast accurate focusing with the Ikon made this shot possible, Kodak Ektar 100 converted to BW in post)
(Snapping a shot of one of my dogs running past was trivial with the Ikon’s viewfinder, Fujifilm Neopan 400)
Metering on the Zeiss Ikon worked very well. It was able to get fooled once in a while by challenging scenes such as the one below but on the whole, I was able to just put it in A mode and let it run. Occasionally I’d adjust slightly with exposure compensation but on the whole, I’d say it performed about as well as the meter in my Canon 5D Mark II (in fact 80% of the shots in this review are in A mode with no exposure compensation).
(Example of shooting straight into the sun causing the camera to underexpose – as is typical with this scene)
(The same image corrected in post production helping illustrate the wide dynamic range of film)
Just as an aside, if I had wanted to shoot this correctly in camera, there’s two ways to do it on the Ikon:
- Meter off one of the darker areas and use the AE (exposure) lock button just under the hotshoe
- Meter as per normal but exposure compensate by +1 to +2 EV
Switching topics, batteries on the Zeiss Ikon are required to operate the camera. It draws power mostly for the metering but as it requires batteries to be able to operate (unlike say the Olympus OM-1 or Leica MP which has a mechanical shutter and can operate without its battery powered meter). I found battery life to be good, working my way through a half dozen rolls of film over the course of two weeks on an already half drained set of batteries without any issues. There are some links out there on the net which will tell you exactly how many shots you could expect from a single pair. One point of note is that the camera has an on / off switch. It’s kind of awkward to use but fortunately you can just leave it in the always on position and it has a negligible effect on battery life. I left it “on” for the entire two weeks which means it’s far easier to then just pick up the camera and start shooting whenever you need it.
One of the things I mentioned earlier was that due to the lack of a mirror slap, rangefinders (and the Ikon) allow you to handhold at lower shutter speeds. I found this to absolutely be the case in practice. I have a fairly steady hand when it comes to shooting but saw at least a 1 or 2 stop improvement with the Ikon over a regular SLR / DSLR. That’s nearly as good as image stabilisation. As an example, I could handhold all the way down to 1/4 s for a 28mm lens which I can’t do without IS. The following shot was taken after sunset in rapidly fading light with a 50mm with a shutter speed no faster than 1/15s. A v nice side effect of losing the mirror.
(Shot in fading light with shutter speed at approx 1/15s, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros)
Another benefit of course is the quiet sound and operation. Rangefinder enthusiasts will be able to describe in great detail the differences between the various shutter sounds on camera models. I’ll just say that the Ikon makes a “click”. It’s very quiet which is important for many subjects such as weddings, photojournalism, street, on a TV set, etc.
(The quiet shutter sound of a Zeiss Ikon, Fujifilm Neopan 400)
On the issue of focusing and accuracy, I found the Ikon to be very accurate at all focal lengths and distances, never seeing a discrepancy between a subject I felt was in focus in the camera only to later find out it was back / front focused. That was true for minimum focusing distance also. I’m a big fan of normal lenses which focus close and rangefinder glass typically doesn’t have that feature – but you can still get close enough to shoot wide open and witness that dramatic depth of field fall off. Here’s a couple of examples of minimum focusing distance with a Zeiss 50mm f1.5
(Shot illustrating minimum focusing distance, Kodak Ektar 100 converted to BW in post)
(Illustrating minimum focusing distance and shallow depth of field, Kodak Ektar 100)
(Illustrating minimum focusing distance and shallow depth of field, Kodak Ektar 100)
A few words on optics
For this review, I used two Zeiss lenses on the Ikon – the Zeiss Biogon T* 28mm f/2.8 ZM and the Zeiss C Sonnar T* 50mm f/1.5 ZM. Zeiss has always had a reputation for excellent glass and both these lenses continued in that vein with a great combination of sharpness, contrast, beautifully rendered out of focus, etc. Generally speaking I was more of a fan of the 50mm than the 28mm just because the latter had a fairly standard aperture of f/2.8 and I typically tend to prefer my primes to be faster (and will sacrifice the extra weight that means). The 50mm has a max aperture of f/1.5 which makes it a wonderful all round street / portrait lens. The bokeh particularly impressed me – modern in its rendering of out of focus objects but not without retaining a fairly classic look. The following two images give examples of that:
(images illustrating the out of focus rendering / bokeh of the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5, Kodak Ektar 100)
Of course, being that the Ikon is compatible with any M mount lens, it opens up the selection to the rest of Zeiss’ range and also the Leica and Voigtlander offerings. As I mentioned in the comparison table, rangefinder optics are generally considered to be superior in quality than their 35mm SLR counterparts. The following are shots with the 28mm wide.
(images shot with the Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 on Fujfilm Neopan 400 and Kodak Ektar 100)
One interesting point was how the aperture ring on Zeiss glass allows you to set 1/3 stop on aperture (e.g. f/2.0 to f/2.8 is three clicks away rather than one). It surprised me in talking to some Leica owners how something as seemingly innocuous as that could stir such debate about whether you needed those 1/3 stop settings, whether it added too much complexity, etc. My point here is not to join the debate about which is right / wrong but to simply point out that things which are completely taken for granted in the digital world can stimulate heated arguments where another level of scrutiny is applied to every design decision.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
(Tracking my dog with the Zeiss Ikon in low light, Fujifilm Neopan 400)
It’s becoming rarer to see a modern film camera in today’s digitally dominated world. You can still find new cameras from some manufacturers – the MP from Leica and the Ikon from Zeiss which I covered here of course. But they’re few and far between. Nonetheless, people still are buying and using film – and in fact the major store round the corner from where I live in Seattle believes we may be seeing a resurgence for the first time in years due to all the ‘youngsters who want to shoot holgas’. Without going too far into the topic, I’d say there are a few reasons why film (and therefore film cameras) are still very much relevant:
- You get to shoot full frame. This means great image quality and more shallow depth of field. If you’re sensible with how much you shoot, you can do it at a cheaper price if you do it with film.
- Film looks different. Despite some great photoshop plug-in’s on the market, to seasoned eyes film still looks different to from what comes off a digital sensor. There are photographers who shoot film in part because it allows their work to be differentiated from the digital look which is becoming increasingly recognisable (I admit I’m one of them)
- Slowing yourself down. No immediate feedback, the challenge of exposing correctly, manually focusing, only a few shots per roll – these are the limitations you work with on film and they force you to slow yourself down. That in turn forces you to consider more carefully compositions, subjects, etc which in turn can improve your photography
- Technical merits. Film still exhibits some potential technical benefits that digital hasn’t conquered (particularly in the lower end / entry level models) such as dynamic range, tonal transitions
- Wonderful equipment. Some of the best cameras ever made are film cameras and using them is a pleasure on par with driving a classic car (at least it is for me)
- Art vs Photography. Not to say that film has a monopoly on all things artistic but just because digital is more immediate (and ideal for photojournalism, sports, etc) doesn’t mean that film goes away. Painting was often used as a means of recording history until photography came about. That didn’t spell the death of painting, it just changed it’s role. Digital is doing the same for film
Actually, that’s not an exhaustive list but they’re my motivations and answer the question why I would (and do) shoot with 35mm film cameras.
(Along the Oregon Coast, Fujifilm Neopan 400)
Now that I’ve argued for the relevance of a camera like the Zeiss Ikon, the question of course is, would I shoot with it over other film cameras? Well if you’ve read this far I think it’s pretty obvious that I loved this camera. While not flawless (LCD in bright light issue), it’s the easiest camera I’ve used as far as ergonomics are concerned and delivered me more in focus / well exposed shots that I’ve ever had before with 35mm film. It doesn’t carry a Leica badge which will be important to some for different reasons (build quality, brand, etc) but as far as a photographic tool is concerned it’s a beauty and I have absolutely no hesitation in saying I’m a big fan of it or recommending it.
(Portrait shot in late day sunlight, Fuijfilm Neopan 100 Acros)
So finally the question comes down to price and competition. New, the camera retails at around $1,618 on Amazon at the time of writing. This puts it in an interesting place (and where now I have to put the Leica comparison hat on) and if we break it down we see that:
- It’s more expensive than a second hand Leica M3 (which is fully manual, no TTL metering, etc but best viewfinder of the Leicas)
- It’s a bit more expensive than a second hand Leica M6 (which has a meter but no Aperture mode)
- It’s cheaper than a second hand M7 (which has a similar feature set) and about half the price of an unused M7
- It’s less than half the price of a Leica MP
(note that these prices are compared to a new Zeiss Ikon so it’s not an entirely fair assessment but it’s a real world one given the availability of second hand Ikon’s is low – however at the time of writing there are a couple on Ebay at about $1200 – see below for details)
So it’s a not altogether conclusive from that alone – you see there’s no question about value, it’s more about positioning. The Zeiss Ikon is significantly cheaper (and better value in my opinion) than a new Leica M7 and it’ll produce identical pictures while making use of the same great glass. Having said that it’s a bit more than a good condition M6. Actually the dilemma reminds me of when I choosing a car after first coming to the US. BMW and Mercedes come with a high brand value and reputation for excellence, but with a price tag to match it, not all of it necessarily justifiable. A Japanese luxury car maker such as Infiniti (Nissan’s equivalent to Lexus) however offers as good or better features, at a more competitive price. In my case, I chose Infiiniti which I guess says a little about where I stand on things. Would I do the same with the Zeiss Ikon over its competition? Well, if money is a consideration and I wanted a camera with automatic exposure / aperture mode then the answer is most likely yes. If money was less of a priority then the situation potentially changes. On the flip side, the M3 is also fairly compelling to me as it’s another beast altogether and you’re holding a different proposition given its deep history, fully manual / mechanical controls, will probably outlive its owner, etc. In fact, one final consideration is whether traditional film SLR’s offer better value but that’s a debate beyond the scope of this article and something I’ll address another time (but again, it’ll come down to the subjects you shoot).
Bottom line for me – the Zeiss Ikon is a great way to enter the world of 35mm film rangefinder world and comes at a price point which is more than competitive with the rest of it’s peers, while giving access to world class M mount optics. It was an absolute pleasure for me to shoot with and for subjects requiring a wide – normal set of lenses, I’ve every confidence of it being able to deliver spectacular images. It doesn’t carry a Leica badge and each individual will have to answer whether that’s important or not. What I can say is that if you just care about taking great pictures, then there’s another great option for you – the Zeiss Ikon.
Amazon / Adorama stocks the Zeiss Ikon and there are some options on Ebay also. You can buy using these links below which helps supports this site: