[2008-11-02] I have heard only one good argument for hunting marine mammals to extinction. It came from my friend Leo, who pointed out that mammals spent millions of years evolving from sea life – so what kind of perverse animal wants to go back to the ocean?
The idea of perversity comes to mind when people criticize current optics as being attacked as “too sharp,” “too contrasty,” or having “bad bokeh.” This seems to happen most with new rangefinder optics coming out of Leica and Zeiss.
As a preliminary matter, it is totally OK to buy a previous-generation lens because it is all one can afford (or all one wants to spend for a particular focal length). But now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the seals and the whales.
The inexorable tide of history
Query whether at any point in optical history any optical designer pulled back because a design exhibited too much sharpness, too much contrast or too little uncorrected spherical aberration. To the contrary, if Berthele, Berek or Mandler had been able to incorporate mass-produced aspherics, they no doubt have been building aspherical Summicrons and Summiluxes instead of Sonnars, Elmars or 35mm pre-aspherical Summicrons. By the standards of yesterday’s optical designers, today’s multicoated, aspherical, retrofocus wideangles would seem like gifts from the gods.
One can always dumb-down a lens that is sharp or contrasty by stopping it down until it diffracts, using a softening filter, diluting your developer, going down a grade in optical printing, changing the RAW development curve, or even simple mis-focusing. If you are consistently do the opposite of any (or all) of these, you probably really want a lens that is sharper and more contrasty. One would wager that of all of the Photoshop or Lightroom controls, the most popular are the ones that make pictures more snappy.
Some people would make the argument that lower-contrast optics maximize dynamic range on digital cameras, but this is an argument that only carries water in scenes with 500:1 contrast ratios – and even then would assume that anything of interest lay in the shadows (hint: take a look somehow how JPG compression is set up – to preserve highlight detail, which perceptually is where the interest generally is). Uniformly low-lighted scenes generally call for higher-contrast lenses because those scenes actually have a very limited brightness range.
Bokeh or baka?
If the justification for looking at old lenses is “bokeh,” question why it is even a concern. Bokeh seems to have become an end only in the past 15 years – and it is legitimate to question why it merits so much internet bandwidth. My personal observation, based on the existence of things like the Nikon Thousand and One Nights site, is that it originated in the nostalgia of some older photographers in Japan: “When I was 18, I really wanted a Nikon SP…”
But there are practical reasons to ignore the bokeh question altogether. First, most of the discussion of bokeh seems to revolve around the use of lenses 50mm and shorter (or 35mm or shorter on a camera with a crop factor) for purposes of taking close-range pictures. Many of these pictures just as easily could be taken with lenses twice as long at twice the distance (example: a portrait at a meter), Consider that:
– A 50mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2 and a meter has a depth of field of 36mm (about 1.5 inches)
– A 90mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2.8 and 1.8m has a depth of field of 50.6mm (about 2 inches). Even shot at f/2 (assuming it has that aperture), it would still have 36mm depth of field.
With a longer lens, one is not crowding human subjects or hitting their faces with the unflattering distortion that comes with short lenses. And we don’t see systemic complaints about bokeh with longer lenses (no doubt because with four or five elements they are less corrected in general), so if one has the light to use one, why not? What’s that you say? You don’t have enough light? Can’t afford a telephoto? Even if your only available optic is a short, fast, hypercorrected aspherical lens, the look of the background can be vastly improved by manipulating the relative distances from camera to subject and subject to background.
Second, many photographers appear to emphasize (and rely on) bokeh to make up for what are really severe compositional defects in photographs (point light sources in frame, relatively busy backgrounds, etc.). The use of bokeh for this purpose goes hand-in-hand with the “wide-open, close-up” school of photography that not only leans on bokeh to tidy up backgrounds but also uses shallow depth of field to increase interest in what ordinarily would be unremarkable subjects. Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise. With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.
Finally, perhaps best way to forget about bokeh as a factor is to ask oneself just how many of the great pictures in history were ruined due to bad bokeh. The answer is is, “none.” No one even thought of the concept until the late 20th century, and it is arguably more wrapped up in romanticism than anything that has ever been validated as sound photographic practice.
An action finder can be really useful for situations where it is hard to look into the viewfinder – like when you are wearing a space helmet. Or oversized Italian sunglasses. This is a picture I took with my DA-20 on a recent vacation.
This article  came about because everything I have seen about accessory viewfinders seems to have been cut and pasted from manufacturers’ literature. This article will (hopefully) help you determine whether you should use one or more of these. Remember: Nikon sold one accessory finder for every 1,000 F-series bodies. Although this is a convenient excuse for why the F6 has a fixed prism, it also should tell you that most people learn to live with the standard pentaprism that came with their camera bodies.
Action Finders: DA-2, DA-20, DA-30
The action finders are all huge and heavy (so not for wimps), but they give you some flexibility – like not having your camera jammed in your face.
In an SLR system, eye relief and magnification are closely related concepts. The higher the eyepoint, the greater the distance the entire frame can bee seen from the eyepiece. The greater the eye relief, the lower the magnification. The Nikon action finders are designed around an eye relief of 61mm (2.5 inches); the magnification is 0.6x. Contrary to popular myth, an action finder does not produce a big, “TV-like” image. It simply lets you see the whole viewfinder from a little bit further back.
Can you use an action finder all the time? Yes and no. Because it lowers magnification, the action finder makes it a little more difficult to use telephoto lenses. If you are relying on focusing screen aids (such as split-image rangefinders, microprisms, etc.) or autofocus, the lower magnification won’t have much impact. If you use groundglass focusing, life gets a little harder.
Do you need the expensive rubber eyecup? Yes. Beware of all the action finders missing this useful part. Your eyeglasses are not in danger from the action finder eyepieces; rather, the rubber eyecup keeps your eye at roughly the right distance from the viewfinder.
Every viewfinder really has only one eyepoint: the eye position where the whole viewfinder is visible. Nikon’s high-eyepoint pentaprisms are designed to focus when eyeglasses are pressed up against the eyepiece.
This means that diopter correction is relatively simple: you just pick the correction lens (or setting on an F4, F5 or F6) that works in one position. You may notice that you use different viewfinder corrections for glasses and contact lenses with the same prescription; part of this is the difference in distance from the camera’s viewfinder system.
With an action finder, your eye could be anywhere in the range from right against the eyepiece to the magic 61mm from it. Although this does not seem like a very big range, your eye works very hard to see the focusing screen as the distance increases and diminishes – much the same way that a camera lens needs to extend or retract much more when it is focusing on a close object. The rubber eyecup keeps your eye at the “right” distance: the one where the average eye can focus comfortably. If you don’t use the eyecup and press your eye up to the finder, you might find your eyes a little bit fatigued after a while. Unfortunately, the usual solution for this problem is absent: the action finders have no built-in adjustment and there are no accessory diopters.
The F3 action finder (DA-2) meters the same way that the F3 standard one does – it doesn’t. On the F3, centerweighted ambient metering and centerweighted TTL flash are measured by a sensors in the camera body. The body of the finder is made of brass. The eyecup is rectangular and snaps on over a large rectangular plastic frame on the back.
The F4 action finder (DA-20) gives you a choice of centerweighted or spot metering via a switch on the side of the prism (like the DP-20). The DA-20 outer housing is plastic. It features a normal TTL hot shoe (no locking pin). The DA-20 has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. The DA-2 provides an abbreviated viewfinder information display (the lower display is actually part of the DP-20, not the F4 itself)
|Exposure mode||Small window (left)||ADR window (center)||Focus ind.|
|P or P HI||“P” + auto-selected shutter speed||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|S||Auto-selected aperture||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|A||“A” + auto-selected shutter speed||Aperture set on lens||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|M||Shutter speed + reading of how off from normal exposure (e.g. +2.0)||Aperture set on lens||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
One variation of the DA-20 (which I assume was made for underwater work – and which I stupidly returned to KEH) has a built-in illuminator for the lens aperture ring. It comes on whenever the meter is on, so watch your batteries.
The F5 action finder (DA-30) gives you matrix (not 3D or color), centerweighted or spot via a similar switch to the one on the DP-30 (standard F5 finder). Its body is made from a crinkle-painted l.ght alloy. It has a locking hot shoe. Given its functionality, I suspect the DA-30 shares its electronics with the DP-20 (the F4’s standard finder). The DA-20 also has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. You get all of the same viewfinder information that you get with with the DP-30 (standard F5) prism.
Magnifying Finders: DW-4, DW-21, DW-31
Magnifying finders are fun. They eliminate the light loss from the pentaprism and give you a magnified (6x) view of the whole focusing screen. Distortion is very low. These have very low eyepoints and are designed to be used without eyeglasses (precisely why the Nikon magnifying finders have correction from +3 to -5 diopters built in. Once you press your eye all the way in, it’s a revelation. These have three (by my count) multicoated elements.
Magnifying finders are very useful with standard groundglass focusing (D-screen) and with astrophotography (M-screen). You can actually use them for anything with the sole exception of (1) situations where you need to keep the camera high (at eye level) and (2) situations where you lose track of left-to-right movement. The latter is related to the fact that all magnifying finders reverse the view left to right.
The DW-4 (F3) gives you centerweighted ambient and TTL flash metering. The DW-21 (F4) and DW-31 (F5) give you spotmetering for ambient and for flash. The F4 and F5 magnifying finders require the oddball SC-24 TTL cord, which plugs into an eight pin connector on the back of the finder. I am not sure why the first flash needs eight pins, since the hot shoe only has five pins (three dedicated, one hot shoe contact, one shoe). The SC-24 terminates in a standard Nikon TTL hot shoe.
Magnifying finders (and waist-level finders) seriously impede taking vertical shots.
Waistlevel Finders: DW-3, DW-20, DW-30
First it killed the Rolleiflex. Now it’s killing me. 35mm SLRs started with this type of finder; thank heavens it didn’t survive in the mainstream. The pentaprism displaced the waist-level finder – and the fact that a pentaprism shows everything correctly, right-side up and correct left-to-right, and not brightness, carried the day.
Today, the waistlevel finder has only three real uses: shooting above crowds, shooting from low angles, and shooting on a copystand. The DW-3 (F3), DW-20 (F4) and DW-30 (F5) are essentially the same thing: just a popup hood through which you look at the top of the naked focusing screen from a foot or more away. This makes manual focusing difficult and pretty much defeats any focusing aid in your focusing screen. Things are better with the autofocus cameras.
Each has a small 5x magnifier that provides a small, highly distorted view of the center of the focusing screen. While this is sufficient for copy (and some macro) work, it is pretty unpleasant for general use. This is no different from a standard Rolleiflex TLR viewfinder. The only reason people tolerated it on Rolleis was that in the olden days, medium format pentaprisms were so dark as to be useless.
Metering and TTL flash are similar to the magnifying finders. The F4 and F5 versions use the same TTL connectors that the magnifying finders do.
The principal virtue of the waist-level finder is that it is cheap, simple, compact, and lets you do a couple of unique things. If you don’t do those things, skip this type of finder.
Smithers: “They’re fighting like Iran and Iraq!”
Mr. Burns: “What?!”
Smithers: “Persia and Mesopotamia.”
[Written April 16, 2012] All over the world, there are provincial towns believed by their residents to be equal to New York City, Tokyo, or Paris. In a way, Leica M might be such a town. Leica (the company) is not so myopic in terms of technology, but for whatever reason, digital M arguably has become both a technological and a cultural backwater. As Carlo Levi would have put it, Cristo si è fermato a Solms.
The duality of Leica
As this author has observed it over a 15-year period, M culture is basically drawn from two groups (a) people who put up with Leica’s quirks and price due to a belief (often justified) that the resulting image quality is better and (b) a group of photographers cool to modern technology and suspicious of the idea that in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a system, someone might want features that make an M look more like a practical “only” camera. We can call the first group the Opportunists and the second group the True Believers.
Surmising what you can surmise about them, the Opportunists are fairly mobile between camera systems. In fact, given Leica’s cyclical appeal, this group largely abandoned Leica’s system in the early 1970s and abandoned it again when Leica was dragging on a digital body in the early 2000s (recall how lens prices fell back then). Despite claims that demand for M9 cameras and lenses outstrips the ability to produce them, production is small – and even so, the market price for used M9s has now drifted to 60% of new prices. Even new cameras are being discounted by designation as “demos” (no camera that was really used as a demo has five or fewer exposures on it). We know from this that there are definitely fair-weather fans and that they are starting to head for the doors again. When things change precipitously, we know the Opportunists are on the march. And some Opportunists march by keeping their M8s and simply supplementing their missing capabilities with D700s and X100s. The effect, however, is the same – that they stop buying brand L and begin experiencing the forbidden fruits of other manufacturers.
The True Believers – a smaller group but more influential with Leica’s management – hold that the world stopped producing useful new camera features in about 1986 (or, alternatively, in 2002 with the M7). For that reason, they believe, Leica M must be locked into a world of vestigial and functionally-useless removable baseplates, frameline preview levers, and ergonomics lazily whittled from a bar of Ivory soap. The True Believers deny that any feature a Leica M currently lacks is significant, desirable, or valid. Their faith is strong despite the fact that Leica itself has proven them wrong by introducing the very things True Believers claimed were nonessential to the M system: film backs that opened, lever winding, combined rangefinder/viewfinders, TTL metering, electronic shutters/autoexposure, TTL flash, and ultimately, digial imaging. For this group, the M9 – which emerged years behind technologically – is “enough.” In fact, it is already too much (one dares not speak of the D-Lux, the Digilux, the S1, the S2, or the DMR – all of which were actually cutting edge when released). [One would note that since this article was written, that this faction won and got the M10 into production, omitting some features that had been included in the intervening M typ 240/246.
When things run their commercial course, we can call them effectively obsolescent. Obviously, nothing actually stops taking pictures (or anything else) when it is superseded by newer, flashier products – or even products with better specs. But new products often do the same thing with more speed, better efficiency, or fewer avoidable annoyances. The world is littered with well-built, well-designed items that should have lasted forever in the market but were passed up by things that were simpler, cheaper, or more appealing to the masses. Fountain pens, for example, a durable, perfected designs that are largely ignored for cheaper, less messy Bic Biro ballpoints.
When it comes to cameras (or anything), this author would take it a step further and point out that that is not fair to judge an older product for lacking features that had not been invented when it came out (and this is being charitable where Leica did not, for whatever reason, implement technology that was available at the time). So talking about digital M, let’s leave aside things like live view and video. Let’s even forget about DSP speed, screen density, and frame rate. But it is fair to compare apples to apples: to take the core features (or selling points) of an old product and examine their uniqueness in the marketplace and whether they are necessary or desirable solutions to problems.
The five points of Leicas
Leica cameras have five big selling points: high sensor quality; high lens quality, a great synergism between the two, a superb optical viewfinder and a superlative mechanical rangefinder. Take them in turn:
1. Sensor image quality.
Image quality is really the reason why serious photographers buy Leicas. The Leica magic (at least at the body level) comes from two things: (1) lack of an antialiasing filter, which gives a perception of an additional 25% in resolving power (or the ability to up-res by a like amount) and (2) image processing algorithms that build a unique look. These huge determinants of quality do not depend on the overall build quality of the camera body; they reside entirely in a CCD sensor and a couple of hundreds dollars in electronic parts. As long as the same glass formula were put in front of this sensor, the end result would be identical, even if the body were ABS plastic and even if the lenses operated by autofocus.
A lot of things have happened in the 7 years since the basic digital M technology arrived. First, other manufacturers have caught up to the filter-free sensor (Kodak actually preceded Leica with many models in which the AA filter was absent or removable). Sigma has the Foveon sensor, which omits it. Fuji has the X-Trans CMOS sensor – which in addition to lacking an AA sensor, has a randomized color pattern that obviates the anti-moire processing that bogs down Leica’s cameras. Nikon put a weak filter in the D3 and D700, and the D800E effectively has none (as well as twice the pixel density and much better low-light performance than current Leica sensors). Ricoh is making GXR modules that take Leica lenses and have no AA filters. And the Leica “look,” while challenging to replicate, can indeed be achieved in relatively cheap software like Lightroom.
But backing up a little, the world has also moved away from CCD in favor of CMOS chips for lower power consumption, higher sensitivity, and live view capability. Sticking with CCDs constrains Leica’s sensor choices for any future digital M (unless Leica changes the imager completely) and puts Leicas at a long-running disadvantage in higher ISO performance. CCD chips do have great color, but so do a lot of CMOS chips. In the end analysis, slipping behind the sensor speed curve is a big issue; the number of megapixels, not so much.
2. Lens image quality.
Leica was an early participant in the Lens Speed Wars that started in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, you needed superspeed lenses because film was rated at a blistering ISO 12. And let’s be clear here: from about the 1960s onward, Leica was pretty much unchallenged in terms of lenses, in the build, quality control and resolving departments (and in many ways still is). But a few funny things happened on the way to the 21st century.
When the world went digital and addressed low-light situations by upping sensor capabilities, Leica instead focused on simply making faster lenses. Although this technically gets to a correct exposure in a lot of situations without upping sensor performance, it also locks users into what could be called the “Noctilux Aesthetic,” shorthand for pictures where there is a razor-thin plane of focus and often heavy shading of the corners. Some people prefer to do things with higher ISO sensitivity (rather than wider apertures) so as to have more things in focus. And if it’s the aesthetic that appeals, there is always Instagram.
Leica’s drive to make faster lenses made lenses for a compact system heavy, large, and insanely expensive (a 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, costs $7,000). An M9-P and a 24/1.4 will run you approximately $14,000. A D800E with a 24/1.4 Nikkor runs about $5,500 – and can either shoot in a quarter of the light with the same noise or the same light with four times the depth of field. Sometimes it is nice to have the luxury of choosing the method of taking low-light pictures. Although the expense is typically met with the refrain of, “it’s expensive because it’s good,” or “it’s not for everyone,” it is worth pointing out that many of the nouveau riche who buy things like Leicas did not get there by spending money just to spend money- cost/utility analyses go on all the time (albeit among much more expensive products). In units produced annually, Leica M9 production is about equal to the M6 – though the number of eligible buyers in the world has increased radically. Leica’s sales are up in China, but with flat overall volume, that means that they are diminishing in other parts of the world.
Leica M lenses have very limited options for addressing focus shift [with the exception of partial corrections like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M FLE]. All lenses exhibit focus shift when stopped down, and this can make rangefinder focusing more inaccurate than it should be. Digital has less tolerance for error, and the only ways to mitigate focus shift in fast lenses is to use floating elements and aspherics, both of which – when executed to Leica standards – cost a mint. Closed-loop focusing (in the guise of contrast-detection AF) allows things like the $600 35/1.4 Fuji X lens (for the X-Pro1) to perform comparably to the $3,500 35 Summilux ASPH. But even before that, the lowly Hexar AF was able to keep up with the legendary 35mm Summicron ASPH by adjusting its focus to account for the selected aperture.
Leica’s 20th-century lenses hold the digital M system back. Users often fixate on speed, but older, high-speed lenses are not world beaters (though many people pay those types of prices for them). The 75mm Summilux command prices that are more driven by rarity than its relatively humdrum performance on a flat sensor (or the somewhat provincial appeal of shooting a portrait with just the eyelashes in focus). Even some of Leica’s more innovative designs like the 28-50-35 Tri-Elmar are fairly unremarkable performers on a Leica digital. The standards required to make a good digital lens are far more exacting than what made superlative film lenses in the past. There are always third-party lenses, but sometimes it seems silly to attach a $300 lens to a $7,000 body.
None of these are show-stoppers, but they tend to paint Leica M into the corner of being a very specific solution to any given problem. And getting to the place where a Leica M optically outperforms the competition requires very expensive gear.
3. The synergy.
One thing about Leica M was that for a long time, you had to use a Leica body to get the Leica M lenses. This was due in part to patents on the lens mount. Even where other manufacturers made M-mount cameras (like the Minolta CLE, Hexar RF, Bessa R, Zeiss-Ikons, and Rolleis), Leica always had a little bit of an edge due to its huge and wide pressure plate. Today, though, the entire synergistic advantage of using a Leica lens with a Leica body lies in the microlens pattern on the Leica sensor glass. It is not a perfect solution, but it is currently the only way to get the Leica resolution all across the board – and on a 24x36mm sensor. All of that said, the synergy between Leica lenses and bodies really only matters if you assume a Leica M lens to be an essential part of the equation. Where other cameras are built as a cohesive unit (lens and sensor), the 80/20 rule kicks in (80% of the performance at 20% of the price). Only here, Leica’s pricing now pushes that toward a 90/10 proposition.
4. The optical viewfinder.
One of the big points of excitement about the Leica M is its big, clear viewfinder. Though Leica fields the brightest and least-distorted finders in the industry, those finders are expensive to produce and, given the mechanical nature of the framelines, are incapable of showing accurate framing except at one arbitrary distance. This tends to make shots frame looser than they should be, thereby wasting real estate on the sensor. Japanese manufacturers have not surpassed the Leica clarity, but they have managed to produce close equivalents for much less money. But the bigger issue came with the rise of hybrid viewfinders that use LED overlay displays to (a) show instant playback; (b) project a digital level and composition gridlines; (c) display a computation of the depth of field based on focal length, aperture, and focused distance; and (d) show field-corrected framelines appropriate to any focal length. This is to say nothing of allowing an instant TTL lens view as well. These features – which can universally be shut off – add a considerable amount of utility for people who want them. They don’t take away from the beauty of the Leica version, but one line of 8-segment LEDs provides no warning about running through an SD card or a battery, two conditions that did not really exist when the viewfinder was last redesigned, 10 years ago. In the end, the major compelling feature of that Leica view is…
5. The rangefinder
Part of what makes the Leica M is the rangefinder. Leica Ms will always have rangefinders, because the “M” actually stands for Messsucher (rangefinder). When the Leica II was developed, there were no small SLRs. Leica and Zeiss based their competing 35mm cameras on coupled prism rangefinders. This was, at the time, the only technology that allowed a compact camera to focus accurately, particularly with high-speed lenses.
Even when 35mm SLRs came into the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders persisted. Rangefinders were smaller in general, and it was easier to make wide-angle lenses for them. Back then – and now – rangefinders also did a better job of focusing those wide-angle lenses. Where a rangefinder system has a constant magnification and starts running into problems with longer lenses, SLRs benefit from assuming the magnification of telephoto lenses they use.
Many competitors have made runs at matching the Leica rangefinder, and the common vendor to Fuji, Mamiya, and Konica almost managed to do it. The Leica mechanism is a wonder of precision and high-end manufacturing. Today, though, it seems like a precisely engineered, laser-engraved, CNC machined, hand-honed … typewriter. The rangefinder’s competence is in focusing wideangle-to-normal lenses – but run-of-the-mill autofocus is just as good at doing that.
Aside from struggles with relevance to Opportunists at a core technology level – i.e., creeping effective obsolescence – Leica M carries a lot of baggage. The weight (all apologies to Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson) goes beyond simulating the size and weight of a camera of 1953 (the weight is, in fact, simulated – the brass covers of a digital M account for almost 25% of ite weight). It goes beyond doing things they way they have always been done – in the name of tradition. It goes beyond being accosted in public by weirdos who recognize your M8 as “an M4.” To this author, the most perfidious part of it is the cognitive dissonance that arises when one carries $10,000 in gear around his neck but fancies himself to be a photographic Zen Buddhist.
Leica used to think outside the box – not only did it popularize 35mm film photography, it also invented things like phase-detect AF, made innovative cameras like the M3, and otherwise kept up with the world (even Leica’s current S2 is technological light-years ahead of the M). Had this progressive philosophy carried over into the M series (or an updated successor), the M8/M9 would not have slavishly copied film cameras in looks, live view would have been added to stand in for the Visoflex, and it would have been Leica to introduce hybrid viewfinders. Maybe this will change on May 10, 2012 with some huge product announcement [it did not, but the M typ 240 did introduce the use of electronic viewfinders – EVFs – to Leicas].
But in our hearts, we know it won’t. The world of Leica is somewhat frustrating. The products are high quality, the resulting images are excellent, and the general solidity of the system makes all of us keep our lenses as we repetitively upgrade digital bodies (and upgraded film bodies before that). We always want to think that some vastly improved new M is around the corner, yet ultimately, we just end up settling for something that is behind the curve, for a lot of money. One could get the sense – reinforced by the rapid pace of the rest of the photographic world – that this bubble of IR filters, color vingetting, bottom-plate loading, and black paint is going to burst.When you look at things like the Fuji X-Pro1, you begin to think that perhaps it already has. Maybe the better thing would be for Leica to declare victory in 2013 after 60 years of M – after all, it outlasted Contax, Alpa, and everyone elese’s film rangefinders (and even outlasted Polaroid, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford…) – and reboot with something as earthshaking as the M3 was in 1953.
Disclosure: the author has been a Leica user for the better part of two decades and was an early adopter of the M8 [and M240, and M246].
This is the text of the page that had its debut in 2001 and (for better or worse) helped trigger Hexar-mania. Last update was late February 2018.
Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime)..”H-E-X-A-R.” Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved… and gained consciousness.
Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens and leaf shutter. Form factor is similar to a Leica M.
History: the Hexar came about in 1992, reportedly a last vanity project for the Konica engineers who worked on the FT-1. Or so the story goes. Some of the key technologies on the Hexar, such as a sealed lens barrel, projected brightline finder (zoom on some models, albeit always with fixed framelines), and tri-window AF showed up first on the 1988 models MR640 (weather resistant) and shock-resistant Genba Kantoku (“Site Supervisor”), a ruggedized camera designed for construction sites. In fact, the wind motor of the Genba K. sounds like the Hexar in “loud” mode.
Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?
Before you confuse the Genba K. with a poor man’s Hexar, understand that the lens and operation are totally different; the Genba Kantoku has a 40/3.5 (3 elements, 3 groups) or 40/3.5-60/5.2 bifocal lens (3/3 and 6/6) of completely different construction. And on the Genba Kantoku, here are your controls. All of them: flash on. Flash off. Self-timer. Manual rewind. No nonsense here.
Later models of the Genba Kantoku (the 28mm and 35mm second-generation models in 1994) apparently acquired the Hexar’s funky electronic shutter and accordingly had maximum shutter speeds of 1/280 sec.
Construction. The construction is all metal, with the exception of the top and bottom covers, which are a period-typical black chrome (or bright chrome) plated on polycarbonate. Which is a good thing because if they were brass covers, this would be a very heavy camera. Konica made a big deal about the front barrel being a heavy alloy casting to add the retention of precision in focusing.
Lens. The lens is the Hexar’s raîson d’etre. In fact, it is legendary.
The 35mm f/2 Hexar (actually, Hexanon) lens has the imaging qualities of the 35/2 Leica Summicon-M and the general design of the Nikon 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor (the rangefinder lens from the 1950s and 60s – you know, the one whose Leica screwmount version sells for $1,800 and up today). Konica won’t go further than to call the design “Gaussian,” but Nikon has acknowledged on its 1001 Nights Site that this is a Nikkor derivative. Konica’s own technical materials reflect this design intent, although they also mention a slight recomputation aimed at allowing an electronically controlled aperture and shutter to be inserted between the lens groups. The aperture has 6 blades that form a perfect circle down to f/5.6, after which point, aperture shape is not that important.
This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2L Hexanon (chrome) and its optical twin, the 35/2 UC Hexanon (black paint), both in Leica mount. These are beautiful lenses run in limited numbers (1,000 and 2,000 respectively).
The lens out of the original Hexar AF has been independently converted by many into a Leica M lens (though this takes a lot of work and frankly is not as elegant as Konica’s own ported versions). But it is a lot cheaper way to do it.
This camera featured in a Konica white paper that discussed the camera’s total control of chromatic aberration. It also posts some impressive MTF compared to the lenses whose formula and optics it replicates. Wide-open, it exhibits a very smooth falloff from the center; at f/5.6 it is uniformly great.
Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure. The front and back covers are glass, which is good for durability.
Rangefinder and limitations: It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera. The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m. It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity. If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.
That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift (also described in a Konica white paper). The Hexar’s lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller. The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes. Too bad AF SLRs don’t have this feature.
But wait. This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too. No IR marks, no guesswork.
And for the free set of steak knives, the camera’s AF system is temperature-calibrated as well.
If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back – useful for hyperfocal technique).
Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry.
The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly. You can add silent mode and a number of other advanced features to the Hexar Silver, etc. through a control sequence that you can find on the ‘net.
Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn’t think so. Some people complain that you can’t use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens’s resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.
- For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
- Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [–]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays . The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).
In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it’s digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.
Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels… good. It could use textured grips, but it’s not a big deal.
Durability: It’s a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage – and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.
Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus… shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles – and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 25 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in “loud” mode – and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150. But once you have that done, it seems unlikely that you will wear out the next switch.
Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:
- Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
- Filters: I would recommend a B+W MRC nano. Thin and repels everything.
- Case: avoid the soft case.
- Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap. I would think about a Peak Designs modular strap that can exchange for a wrist strap or a neck strap.
Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.
Is there a problem here?
Nikon packages terrible directions with the standard medium format holder for its high-end scanners. Rather than going crazy with your FH-869S and pining for an FH-869G glass carrier,* let me suggest the following to maximize the usefulness of the medium-format (“Brownie”) carrier that came with your Nikon LS-8000ED or LS-9000ED.
* There is nothing wrong with a glass carrier except dust, inconvenience, skewed negatives, expense, rarity, and a tiny amount of overall resolution loss from the antinewton glass. For some negatives (panoramic, warped, etc.), they are indispensable.
A better way to use your glassless holder:
1. Make sure the rubber grip strips are clean. This is crucial – and probably responsible for most of the complaining about the standard carrier. Clean them with a cotton swab and the alcohol that comes with a cassette tape cleaning kit (or Radio Shack “Non-Slip Fluid,” 44-1013). DO NOT touch the strips with your fingers afterward. Even your skin oil can make them too slick to work.
2. Turn the carrier so that the open-close slider is on the bottom and the end that enters the scanner is on the left side (see the picture at the top). This is going to establish the orientation that you will need for the rest of these directions.
3. Use your forefingers to open the gripper latch at the top. Position the film so that it “corners into” the end of the carrier with the two prongs and the film channel at the top. The end of the filmstrip should be fully supported. Now push the negative strip up toward the ridge at the top of the channel underneath the gripper latch. Get it as even as you can (and it should be possible to get it very, very even). Snap the latch down.
4. Make sure that the open-close slider at the bottom (the one with the “Pac Man” symbol) is in the rightward (“open”) position. Open the bottom gripper latch. Slide the bottom gripper assembly upward until the film edge uniformly contacts the ridge. Be aware that the gripper assembly can be rotated slightly around the open-close slider. You will probably not be able to get it perfect, but the beauty is that you don’t have to. When you have it as close as you can, snap down the film latch.
5. Now gently pull the bottom gripper toward you. Note again that it still pivots around the open-close slider. Get it tight and pivot it until the entire film is flat. This gives you a last chance to make sure that the film is evenly tensioned.
6. While holding the gripper assembly in position, use the last couple of fingers of your strong hand to push the slider left, to the closed position, to lock things down.
7. Run over the film with a rocket blower.
9. Stop complaining about this carrier.
A Minolta AF-C landed on my doorstep today. It’s a tiny little thing, no bigger than a Contax T, which is one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever made. Why does the f/2.8 lens have so many elements (6) for a compact? How do they run an AF system off four button batteries? How did they get this thing so small?
The thumb wheel film advance also cranks the lens backward toward infinity, against a spring. Even then, it looks like only the rear group moves. Releasing the shutter lets the lens jump forward to the position selected by the active AF. Then when you wind to the next frame, the lens returns to its “ready” position. It’s a lot like how cameras like the Konica Autoreflex T could run AE off two 675 cells – all of the mechanical work is done by springs, regulated at a place where a tiny amount of mechanical leverage can arrest great forces.
Life has many existential questions and then some simple annoyances: why is the built-in WiFi in so many cameras so terrible? My Sony a6300 requires QR codes, wireless connections, and clunky built-in applications (as well has having the even more kludgy Sony PlayMemories application on the receiving device). Sometimes the simplest solution is not proprietary, and that is where we come to wireless SD (actually SDXC) cards.
Eyefi was a Finnish company that pioneered the idea of the wifi-enabled SD card. The idea was to make a small card that had a short-range 802.11 connection that could interface to a computer. Before long, the focus became transmitting to handheld devices.
In theory, all wireless cards count on the tolerance of a camera for staying powered up until disk operations are finished. In practical terms, this means that the wifi component in the card is activated by reading or writing a certain amount of data to the card, and the camera does not go to sleep until the transmission is complete (or some number of minutes passes, and the camera says “enough is enough!”).
Eyefi was not a tremendously easy system to set up on a handheld because it installs a WiFi profile (ID and password). This required you to enter a code on the back of the box into the handheld application, have your phone install the profile, go to WiFi settings, connect to the Eyefi card (assuming it is powered on) and then activate the Eyefi Mobi application.
From there, and assuming you were out in the wild, and your handheld could not see any other networks to which it could auto-connect, it would automatically connect to the Eyefi card. You would have to launch the Eyefi app to get transfers to start.
In general, the Eyefi setup worked (and works), except for a few caveats:
- It is difficult to reconfigure the cards for a new device if you lose the activation code, and it is not straightforward to recover them (you used to have to email Eyefi customer service).
- The configuration on the pro cards (transmit raw files and video or neither) required work with the hellishly ungainly Eyefi desktop application, which was a solution looking for a problem (if you are at your computer, why would you need to wirelessly transmit data to it?)
- Eyefi cards were (and are) pretty hard on camera batteries.
- Eyefi cards never got fast enough for intolerant cameras like Leica Digital Ms, especially the Typ 240 and its siblings, which really don’t like cards that can’t do at least 60mb/sec write speed (which generally means a 90mb/sec read speed – what they show on the box as the “speed”).
The Eyefi Mobi and Mobi Pro cards were a bit easier. The orange Mobi only transmits JPGs (you need to plug it into an SD reader to get RAW), and the black Mobi Pro would transmit both. But the speed still maxed out at Class 10, still not fast enough for a Leica, where sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and when they don’t, they lock up the camera until you remove the battery.
Eyefi’s reorg, Toshiba, and Keenai
The Eyefi situation, oddly, changed for the better with the reorganization of the company. The technology end (the patents) went to Toshiba. Keenai took over the software end and designed a (free) mobile application that far more reliably connected to the card and downloaded pictures far faster. While on paper, the deal between the companies was cross-licensing, the reality is that Eyefi cards are out of print.
Toshiba took over with its FlashAir series where Eyefi left off. True to Japanese corporate form, it put out its own clunky (and frankly indecipherable) handheld application. FlashAir. To its credit, the application allows you to see thumbnails (JPG and pink boxes for RAW) that allow you to selectively pull (as opposed to having the card push) files. This avoids the usual wait for the good shots while the card pushes all of your bloopers to your handheld.
The FlashAir W-04 (the current model, for some reason only available in Asia – in the U.S., you get the W-03 – but you can buy the W-04 all day on Ebay…) is in many ways better than the Eyefi Mobi Pro.
First, it skips the activation codes and profiles and lets you just punch in an 8-digit password (which you can change via the handheld app) when you connect to its wireless signal. I would not recommend changing this password because the risk of someone in your immediate proximity stealing your images is far smaller than the risk of forgetting the password and bricking the card.
Second, on Keenai, it is zero-configuration. It sees the phone is connected to a FlashAir card, and then it goes to town downloading everything (JPG and RAW). I think the assumption is that your phone will only be connected to one card at a time.
Third, the Toshiba cards seem to eat batteries less, although the effective range seems shorter. I am still testing this, but that kind of tradeoff would not at all be surprising.
Finally, the W-04 transfers about twice as fast as the Eyefi over WiFi, and its card write speed (UHS-3, which I measure at 63.3Mb/sec write speed) is high enough even to be reliable with the finicky Leica Ms. This actually makes them useful even when you don’t need WiFi connectivity. Speeds (as tested by me through the iMac 5K’s built-in card reader)
- Flashair W-04 (64mb/sec write, 88mb/sec read)
- Eyefi Mobi Pro 32 (17mb/sec write, 19 mb/sec read)
- Eyefi Mobi 32 (18mb/sec write, 19mb/sec read)
- For reference, a Samsung Pro non wireless card (rated 80/90) runs at 64/88.
…so as you can see, “Class 10” covers a lot of territory (basically 10mb/sec and up)
There are two last annoyances.
One is that iOS devices are hostile to the idea of strict priority lists for wireless. At home or work – where your handheld would be connected to a permanent network, you would want EyeFi or FlashAir cards to trump the local Wifi when they are active (since they are only active for shooting or file transfer). This is not a problem inherent to the cards themselves, but it makes using them less fun.
Second, wireless host programs like to store downloaded images in their own purgatory rather than dumping them all directly into your iOS photos storage. This means that you end up storing two copies of some (or all) pictures, eating into onboard storage. This actually is within the province of Keenai to fix.
With the maturation of wirelsss SD card card technology and of editing programs like Lightroom CC mobile, you can now actually get more done in more places. And yes, they even work with Sony cameras.