Recently, when I had my old M6 in the shop for some adjustments, I was without an M-mount camera for several weeks. I missed shooting with my film rangefinders, and had recently sold my M3. I decided to take a flyer on a camera I had been curious about for the past year: the Zeiss Ikon (ZI) rangefinder. A good deal came up, and I jumped on it!
I’m not a professional gear reviewer, and I don’t pretend to be. All I can do–in fact, all I intend to do–is to give my thoughts on the camera having used it for a few months now, and provide comparisons with other similar cameras I have used in the past. I also will not provide the technical specifications of the camera, as there are many other wonderful sites which will do so. One excellent review which I read, and which ultimately pushed me toward getting a Zeiss Ikon, can be found here. Many of the points are very good, but I will add onto them where I can.
When I first took the Zeiss out of the box, I was immediately struck by several things. First, the size; it’s about the same size as any other Leica M. To me, this is a positive. Secondly, the weight of the camera. It is much lighter in the hand than any other Leica M that I have held. The front layout of the camera is similar, with buttons and levers pretty much exactly as you would find them on a Leica M from the 1950s.
The rear of the camera is different, in that the back swings open as pretty much every other film camera you have ever used (expect for the Leica Ms, which have a bafflingly difficult film loading system–in practice it is pretty quick, but at first it is pretty quirky). It also allows a window so that you can see what kind of film is loaded; I appreciate this feature, as I do often forget what is loaded in the camera (black and white or color, slide or negative film, etc). Some may not care, but I like this little feature, which–again–is similar to many other film cameras anyone will have used.
The controls on the top of the camera are nice, which include a shutter speed dial (which goes up to 1/2000, a full stop better than the Leica M cameras), exposure compensation and ISO are also built into the shutter dial. It is easy to select each of the features. Naturally, the Zeiss Ikon also has automatic exposure (AE). The Leica M7 also has this feature, but costs about twice what the Zeiss does on the used market–new, the M7 costs triple what the ZI does.
Finally, the viewfinder. And…wow. The viewfinder is pretty stunning. It is larger and brighter than any Leica M I have ever used, and it is a real pleasure to look through the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon. I wear glasses, and the 0.72x magnification of the Leica M’s can be difficult for me. Not so with the Zeiss; I can see all the framelines just fine, and focusing is a breeze. I can safely say that the viewfinder is head and shoulders above any Leica M I have used to this point, which includes the M3 (0.91x), M6TTL (0.85x and 0.58x), and the MP (0.72x).
All in all, the Zeiss Ikon has a lot of things going for it. It is easier to load and change film. It has a faster top shutter speed, exposure compensation, automatic exposure, and a bigger, brighter viewfinder. In fact, I have to say that the Zeiss Ikon is quite a camera, and in actual usage, is better than any Leica I have used to this point (it is at this point I should say that I have not actually used an M7 so it is, to a minor degree, apples-to-oranges, but only in terms of the AE; everything else fits). Using the Zeiss has been a pleasure thus far.
There are definite advantages, in my mind, of the Leica M over the Zeiss Ikon. How important these are is really up to the individual. As I said just above, most people will surely find the Zeiss a better camera to actually make photographs with.
- The Leica has a far better build quality. To me this makes the Leica attractive, to a point. The Leica M is an electronic camera on the inside, and its build quality is negated by the flaky electronics inside of it, much like the digital Leicas. I’d imagine the electronics of the Zeiss Ikon and Leica M7 will wear out around the same time, meaning the build quality is no longer an advantage. For non-electronic Leica M’s, however, build quality is better than the Zeiss. This also makes it heavier, but I find it sits in my hand quite well.
- Although the viewfinder in the Zeiss is better, it only comes in one magnification. There is some advantage in the flexibility (sort of) of the Leica M (certain models).
- In terms of shutter noise, the Leica is stealthy. The Zeiss Ikon is…well, not quite so stealthy. The shutter is not as bad as the M8 or M9, honestly, but it is not as inconspicuous as the classic film Leicas. Most of the time, this is not a huge deal; admittedly however, there are times when I have been in close quarters shooting without much noise around, and the quieter shutter was a distinct advantage.
- It’s a Leica. Period. The problem with the Zeiss Ikon is that it isn’t a Leica. As the review that I linked to above also said, it’s hard to imagine someone breaking into the world of film rangefinders and not getting a Leica. It’s the classic, and for a host of reasons, the standard bearer. If you want a Leica, having a Zeiss isn’t going to quench your thirst for that Leica until you’ve had one. (My advice? Get the Leica, use it, and then get the Zeiss; most likely, you’ll be happier with the Zeiss and then sell the Leica!)
If you are interested in the Zeiss, I would encourage you to give it a shot. I really, really like the camera. Since I have gotten the Zeiss Ikon, I have used my Leica M’s less (part of that is the fact that the ZI is new, but still!); I have since sold my M6 TTL 0.85x to another owner, and have moved to a 0.72x magnification with the MP I picked up for a really good price. The Zeiss gets used regularly.
There is also a whole line of excellent Zeiss lenses, which I won’t go into too much here, but are worth a look. At sometimes just a fraction of the price of Leica-branded lenses, these use excellent optics and are real standouts. Cosina (the company which makes the lenses, and the camera, under the Zeiss name) also manufactures a whole line of cameras and lenses under the Voigtländer name. These are, in many cases, also quite good and often even cheaper than the Zeiss-branded lenses. If you are in the market, take a long look at both.
Hope you enjoyed my quick review. Any questions? Put them in the comment section below.
I’d also love to hear your comments on how the Zeiss Ikon has been for you!