REVIEW: Zeiss Ikon (ZI) Rangefinder

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

-Trevor

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16 Comments

  1. No such luck. If I had a nice M3 I would probably keep it. I have an M6TTL, an M7 and an M9. I am thinking of selling the M6TTL and the M7 and looking around for a second ZI to back up the one I have. The M9 is just too much fun to sell at this point…unless I decide to get myself a Monochrom. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Trevor,
    I find this interesting and I am currently looking at reducing my collection of M Cameras as well. However, I am considering keeping my ZI, actually adding a second if I can find the right deal. If you don’t mind, could you tell us why you chose to keep you M cameras rather than your ZI?

    Reply

  3. Trevor, thanks for taking the time to review it.
    A few months in (about 7) – what are your feelings regarding the ZI?
    I’ve got an M6 and an M3, and was considering to add the ZI as a camera that won’t break my heart if it breaks. My favourite of the two is the M3, but I spent a lot of time and money tracking down one in the great condition that it is in, and since I carry a camera in my bag going to work daily, I worry about breaking it in a silly accident, such as dropping the bag. I would’t be so upset about the ZI, though.
    Much appreciated.

    Reply

    1. I ended up selling my ZI…not because of anything wrong with it, but rather because I had too many M-bodies. I had my MP and was in the process of adding another M6TTL and couldn’t justify having three M’s. It’s a great camera, in many ways superior to the M depending on what you want out of it. I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

      If you are looking for a daily shooter to take with you to work, the ZI is a good choice. It’s lighter than the M’s are. Honestly, aperture priority is pretty darn convenient as well.

      But it’s a shame that you have an M3 that you are scared to use–they want to be used, and used hard. The M3 isn’t a colletor’s item: get out and shoot with it!

      Reply

      1. What Dan said: why did you ditch the ZI in favour of the M6TTL, when just after buying the ZI you have sold the M6?

        I’m familiar with the aperture priority – I’ve got a Contax G2, which is probably one of the best automated film cameras ever made, not to mention the fab lenses, but I prefer being forced to think and chose each time, which is the modus operandi of the M series up to and excluding the M7. The M6 perhaps strikes a balance between convenience (showing over/under exposure) and ultimate control – not taking decisions for me – but I far prefer the viewer of the M3.

        And don’t worry – the M3 gets enough action, I’m not scared to use it – but at the moment, and in the shape it’s in, I consider it almost irreplaceable. I don’t feel that way about any other cameras I have. If I had 3500 EUR to spend, I’d buy an MP with 0.85x to “replace” the M3 on coming with me daily to work and back, but I don’t have that kind of money laying around and I’m certain that the MP is seriously overpriced – less than half of that money plus lots of patience can get you a very good M3, properly mechanically revised, and the MP doesn’t do a single thing I want and don’t get from the M3, while possibly being made to the same mechanical quality standard as the M3.

        The more I think about this, the more I reach the inevitable conclusion that I should get another very clean M3… Hmm…

        Dan – are you selling an MP? Or a good looking M3? 🙂

  4. This report was well done. Thank you. I also enjoyed your review on the MP. I have the M6 and the ZI and I do enjoy using them both. I agree with you that one should really own and use both cameras before you can make any decisions regarding either of them. I really feel that the ZI is the better of the two cameras until the long term ownership and maintenance/repair issues are considered. At that point I believe that Leica probably has the advantage based on their past history.

    Reply

  5. I love my Zeiss Ikon, I feel its an amazing piece of design and the most handsome of all my cameras. I do get dissapointed though when I load film into it and am reminded of the “notchy” feeling film advance and remembering how much smoother and nicer the Leica M3 is in use.

    Reply

  6. I enjoyed reading your review. How do you compare “value” of the Leica vs. Zeiss? Is the Zeiss 20%-50% less expensive to get thana celean M6?

    Raid

    Reply

    1. The Zeiss can be had for about 30-40% less than a similarly-rated M6. For most uses and most people, the ZI is more than enough camera. The M6 does have some merits, however, and is worth considering.

      The bottom line is that prices on used film gear keep going down all the time. They are both great cameras but the Zeiss is a really nice, functional camera with features Leica can’t/won’t offer.

      Reply

    1. In the photos above I used Ilford HP5+ and Kodak Tri-X. The lenses used were the C-Biogon 35/2.8 and the Summicron 50/2 (v. 3).

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply

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