zeiss ikon system

The new Zeiss Ikon feels right when you pick it up: the right shape, the right weight. It is remarkably easy to hold steady, too. Most people find they can hold a rangefinder camera steady for one shutter speed step longer than a reflex, but the Zeiss Ikon is even better than most. Frances, who suffers from a 'benign essential tremor' (medicalese for 'shaky hands but don't worry about it') found the Zeiss Ikon to be the steadiest 35mm camera she has ever held, worth maybe two shutter speed steps or more, and Roger found it at least as easy to hold steady as the Leicas he has used for over 30 years.

Then you look through the viewfinder. Again, it's superb: at least as good as an M-series Leica, and probably better. The long-base rangefinder makes focusing precise: thanks to the 0.74x magnification, the effective base length of the 75mm rangefinder is 55.5mm.

Camera plus three wide-angles

Left to right: 21mm Biogon (and finder); 25/2.8 Biogon (on camera) with 21/25 hood and 25/28 finder; 28/2.8 Biogon with 25/28 hood. No-one in their right mind would be likely to buy all three lenses, except perhaps a collector. Our own inclination would be to go for both 21mm and 28mm, but others see the 25mm as a perfect compromise.

between leica and voigtlander

From the price, it is clear that the Zeiss Ikon is positioned between Voigtländer and Leica, and this is pretty much born out by build quality, features, etc. The list price for the body in early 2006 was $1617 US, or in the UK, GBP 957 without VAT or GBP 1124.48 VAT paid. VAT (valued Added Tax, akin to sales tax) is of course one of the big reasons why UK and other European prices often appear so much higher than US. Discount prices are however lower: Robert White offered the body at GBP 780/916.50 with and without VAT.

It is a very much better camera than the Voigtländers in just about every way, but so it should be at around twice the price of an R2A/R3A. The greatest improvements are the very long base finder (over twice as long as the Voigtländer, which makes for greatly improved focusing accuracy) and the multi-frame viewfinder with automatically selected frames: 28/85 as a pair at the same time, 35 and 50. Although it shares some shutter and metering features with the R2A/R3A it is in almost all other respects a completely different camera: it is not merely an improved or revised version of the Voigtländer chassis.

On the other hand, it is not a Leica and does not have that 'hewn from the solid' feel that a Leica has. But then, it is about half the price. Also, it is completely battery dependent: without the battery (a single CR 1/3 or two LR44/SR44) there are no shutter speeds at all.

Square, Teruel, Spain

This was not a tripod shot, and the man on the right (who is blurred) was not moving very fast. It has been a long time since Frances could hold a camera steady enough that subject movement was a greater problem than camera shake. Kodak Tri-X, 28/2.8 Distagon, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

the lenses

The lenses announced at photokina 2004 were as follows: 15/2.8, 21/2.8, 25/2.8, 28/2.8, 35/2, 50/2 and 85/2. All save the 85/2 were supplied for test: the 85/2 was still not available in January 2006. All are excellent. At this level, you are not really paying for better image quality: it is taken for granted that this will be among the best available. Rather, you are paying for feel, convenience, durability, ease of use -- many imponderables that are impossible to quantify and can only be fully gauged with 'hands on' experience. The next best thing to this is a review by someone whose prejudices you know. With any luck, that is exactly what you are reading now.

camera body

Perhaps the first thing that strikes you about the Zeiss Ikon is its sheer elegance: it looks like a camera from the great days of rangefinders in the 1950s. It looks quite a bit bigger than an M-series Leica, but it isn't. It is actually about 3-5mm slimmer than an M-series Leica at 34mm, 115/16 inches, front to back: the variation is explained by minor variations in Leica models, especially the rear door film reminder/ASA/ISO setting dial.

Length is almost identical at 141mm, 5½ inches, just 1mm or 1/25 inch longer than a Leica, excluding strap lugs for both cameras. The most significant difference is in the height, with the ZI about 6mm (1/4 inch) taller than an M at 83mm from the two projections on the base (rewind crank and tripod boss) to the top of the eyepiece bulge. Subtract the bulge and the base projections and the body is actually shorter. It weighs 457g, almost exactly a pound, thanks to the use of magnesium alloy for the body; the body covering is a traditional-feeling black leatherette.


The Zeiss Ikon is as easy as any camera can be to operate while wearing gloves; the only thing you cannot easily do is change films with the gloves on. Frances shot this on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX using the 25/2.8 Biogon.

Like the great rangefinder cameras of the past, it has its eccentricities. The most noteworthy is the rewind crank on the bottom, a feature shared with (among others) the Leica M5 and the Rollei 35. This is made necessary by the very long rangefinder base, 75mm as already noted: this takes up a good deal of the room in the top housing. The effective base length (EBL) is 55.5mm, thanks to the 0.74x viewfinder: no other viewfinder options were announced at the time of introduction, though they are presumably possible.


The anticlockwise crank is clearly marked. The battery compartment is the usual coin-slotted type, and the rewind clutch is the usual button. The tripod boss on the right (standard 1/4 inch socket) is only just big enough to ensure a good, solid seating on the tripod. After 30+ rolls of film, with the camera very seldom switched off, the batteries were still in good condition: it certainly isn't a 'battery hungry' camera. The rewind shows the results of about a month of heavy wear and tear, including a trip to Spain, across the Pyrenees in winter, in our 1972 Land Rover.

The tripod boss at the opposite end of the body from the rewind crank is another vintage touch, and to some extent, one where function has been sacrificed to looks. The boss is only just big enough to ensure secure contact with a tripod, which must be screwed in tightly. On the bright side, we had no problems using Q-Top quick-detachable plates and the plates could be left on without significantly interfering with the functionality of the camera, which is not always the case with Voigtländers where the tripod socket is central. In any case, this is not really a camera that will normally be used on a tripod: like other rangefinders, it is a hand-held camera par excellence.

comparative rangefinder base lengths: zeiss/leica/voigtländer

In keeping with the Zeiss tradition of providing better on-paper specifications than Leica, the 75mm base length is longer than the Leica M-series (68.8mm), though is is reduced to an effective base length (EBL) of 55.5mm by the 0.74x magnification of the Zeiss Ikon. The EBL of a 0.85x Leica is 3mm longer than the Zeiss Ikon's at 58.5mm; the most usual Leica finder, the 0.72x, gives an EBL of 49.5mm and the 0.58x is a mere 40mm. Most Bessa-R series have an EBL around 26mm, though the R3A is about 35mm and thanks to a built-in magnifier and separating the rangefinder from the viewfinder, the T is over 40mm.

Lane, Daroca

The rangefinder base of the Zeiss Ikon is more than adequate for even the fastest Leica lenses. Certainly, the 75/2 Summicron, which Roger used for this shot (on Foma 200), is no problem. Ultra-fast lenses such as the 50/1 and 75/1.4 require considerable care even with 0.85x Leicas. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

rangefinder patch

The rangefinder patch is very crisp-edged and clear and can be used equally easily for coincident and split-image viewing. With the former, of course, the two images (e.g. a person's eye) are superimposed inside the patch, while with the latter, a vertical line is chosen and the displaced portion is bought into line. Split-image viewing is probably more accurate as the eye can detect quite remarkably tiny deviations in a straight line.

The Zeiss Ikon is coupled down to 70cm, approximately 28 inches. Any lens that focuses closer will have no further effect on the rangefinder patch or the parallax compensation of the viewfinder frames. For comparison, the Leica MP is coupled down to about 65cm, a bit closer than 26 inches, while the Bessa R-series is coupled down to 80cm, 31.5 inches.

Body front

Both the simplicity and the classic good looks of the Zeiss Ikon are very clear here. The lens mount is the familiar Leica M-style 4-claw bayonet, and an amusing touch is that in place of the Leica 'red dot to red dot' mounting, the dot on the body and the buttons on the lenses are in Zeiss blue. The release button has a protective collar, like old and current Leicas (but not some intermediate models) and the lever to the right of the lens mount allows the user to preview different frames in the viewfinder. The grey middle leaf in the shutter is presumably to help with the metering. The small size of the tripod boss (on the left in this shot) is very clear.

viewfinder and frames

As already noted, the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon is arguably superior to that of the M-series Leica: big (0.74x), bright and easy to use. The eyepiece to the viewfinder is rubber-armoured to avoid damage to spectacle lenses. The standard glass is -1/2 dioptre but this is user-interchangeable with other dioptre values.

Building site, Spain

There's something about rangefinder cameras that makes you take more pictures; in comparison with big, heavy SLRs they are much more like visual notebooks. Frances shot this on Kodak Tri-X with the 50 Planar. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

The parallax-compensated frames are automatically selected by the lens (or adapter) and come up as 28/85 simultaneously; 35; and 50. As usual, the frames show somewhat less than will appear on the film. They have to, because the angle of view of a lens varies as it is focused closer: it shows more at infinity than at the closest focusing distance. An intriguing comparison (which also appears for free as a mini-module in its own right) shows wide variations between different viewfinders.






Zeiss Ikon camera






Leica M2






Leica MP






Voigtländer Bessa R2





Voigtländer Bessa R3A






25/28 Zeiss finder





28/35 Voigtländer mini-finder


not tested



28mm Voigtländer finder





90mm Voigtländer finder






Russian 'turret' finder



not tested


Tewe 35-200 finder





What is really interesting is that the 85mm frame on the ZI is identical to the 90mm frame on the MP, while the 90mm finder on the M2 actually shows slightly more than the 85mm finder on the Zeiss Ikon.

Where two figures are given it is because there are two settings: either two frames (90mm Voigtländer) or two 'zoom' settings (Tewe). It is also worthy of note that the ZI settings are in all but two cases the smallest, and those cases are the 50mm frame on the MP and the 90mm frame on the R3A with its 1:1 finder.

This strongly suggests that composing right to the edges carries very little risk, but it also points up the basic truth that if you want the most accurate possible framing, you don't want a rangefinder camera.

There is a lever to the left of the lens (as you are holding the camera) which allows selection of other frames, but it cannot be locked in place: as soon as you let go, the frame determined by the lens in use will reappear.

supplementary viewfinders

With lenses other than 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85/90mm, supplementary viewfinders are needed. There are three of these (right): 15mm, 21mm and 25/28mm combined. The provision of the 28mm is presumably because Zeiss foresee the lenses being used on Voigtländers and older Leicas (and indeed in current Leicas with the 0.85x viewfinder) that have no 28mm finder.

The 25/28 finder on the right is missing its screw-in eyepiece; we only noticed it was missing when another came loose. It is worth checking the tightness of these, and perhaps using a dab of Loc-Tite or similar thread locking compound.


All three finders are among the brightest we have ever seen, and have the largest magnification of any that we have ever seen for a given focal length. They are not supplied with the lenses, and are alarmingly expensive at $491/GBP 247 VAT paid, but once you have compared them with most of the competition, especially older finders, you see why. All can be fitted with the same dioptric correction lenses as the camera body itself.

There is however one alarming feature: the accessory shoe of the Zeiss Ikon is not a very tight fit, certainly, less tight than a Leica (where the Zeiss finders are very secure indeed). We did not lose any finders, but we have lost them in the past from Voigtländers (where the shoe is about as tight as the Zeiss Ikon) and even from Leicas. Mostly we have been able to find them again but we did lose a 21mm Voigtländer 0finder altogether. A trick recommended by a camera repairer of our acquaintance is to get hold of some Plastidip and dip the foot of each finder in that. Plastidip is a clear, rubbery plastic that is designed to make tools more 'grippy'. We have not yet tried this.



Transformer station

There was something of the 1930s or even 1920s in this transformer station and its insulators and wires: something rather like the Soviet machine aesthetic of the last years of Lenin. Frances used the 35/2 Biogon on the Zeiss Ikon to shoot this, with Kodak Tri-X developed in Ilford DDX and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.


loading, film advance and setting ISO speeds

Another small but welcome eccentricity is the two-step back release, which must be pushed sideways, then upwards: a very great improvement over the usual pull-up rewind crank. The door then pops open a fraction and can be opened easily. Loading is among the quickest and easiest we have ever encountered (see below).

The all-metal wind on lever is very smooth -- so smooth and light that some criticize it, because it is impossible to make a wind-on like this as 'silky' as on many classic cameras, simply because 'silkiness' does indeed require a measure of resistance against which the lever operates. There is a stand-off of about 30 degrees, then a travel of about 160 degrees: it can be 'inched' in a series of smaller strokes.



Loading is very quick and easy, especially if you use the old photojournalists' trick of first securing the leader onto the take-up spool and then pulling the cassette over and dropping it into the film chamber (you have to pull the rewind crank down first, of course).

There is no DX coding: ISO Speeds from 25 to 3200, with 1/3 stop rests, are set inside the shutter-speed dial via the usual lift-twist-and-drop arrangement. The numbers are necessarily small and will strain aged eyes but to make life easier ISO 100 and ISO 400 are printed in red instead of the black that is used for other speeds: a thoughtful touch.

Top plate

The shutter speed dial is split between the manual speeds on one half, and the automation (and ISO setting) on the other half. You can also clearly see the exposure compensation system described below, from -2 to +2 stops in 1/3 stop rests. The red dot to the right of the shutter release button is the 'on' warning: the serrated grip that projects forward from the shutter release surround is the on-off switch, which we accidentally knocked to the 'off' position on a number of occasions. The shutter release accepts a standard tapered PC cable release thread.


Unlike most of the classic rangefinders of the past, the Zeiss Ikon offers the option of aperture-priority automatic exposure alongside manual operation. Speeds from 1 to 1/2000 second (synch at 1/125 second) occupy one half of the shutter speed dial, which is of quite large diameter: 21.6mm, 0.85 inches. The other half of the dial has a red 'A' in the middle. There is no lock between the manual and auto settings, so it is quick and easy to switch from auto to manual and back again. This seems to us an unmitigated advantage: having to depress a button to unlock automation when it has been accidentally selected is a great nuisance.

Manual speed settings are clockwise-for-faster, like all Leicas except the M6ttl and M7 and like all Voigtländer derivatives. This has a disadvantage which led Leica to change the direction of rotation with the M6ttl, as follows: if the meter indicates under-exposure, it indicates a shutter speed higher in the viewfinder (Zeiss Ikon or Bessa R2A/R3A) or to the right (older Voigtländers, all modern metered Leicas). You therefore need to select a longer shutter speed. This involves moving the shutter speed dial the wrong way, anticlockwise instead of clockwise. Most people get used to this fairly quickly and it is indeed the usual shutter speed direction, but the M6ttl and M7 changed it. Such were the cries of agony and rage from well established Leica users that they reverted to the old orientation with the MP.

The vertical-run metal-bladed shutter is different in note from the Leica, and arguably slightly more obtrusive -- more of a 'click' than a 'clop' -- but it is not significantly noisier. It is of course faster running, allowing a top speed of 1/2000 instead of 1/1000 and a synch speed of 1/125 instead of 1/50.

City walls, Daroca, Aragon

Appearances can be deceptive. This is not an extreme wide-angle shot, but a 25mm shot: the thing is that the wall actually has weathered away at an angle. Consider the tree on the centre right: if this were a 15mm shot, as it appears to be, the trunk would be leaning well to the left. Look also at the scale of the stones. With top-flight lenses like this it is feasible to shoot at f/5.6 and f/4 instead of f/8 and f/5.6, thereby allowing shorter shutter speeds -- an important consideration when you are puffing somewhat from having scrambled up the sort of hills that surround Daroca.

manual exposure metering

Like the R2A/R3A, the Zeiss Ikon has a shutter speed 'bar' on the left of the viewfinder, running from the highest speed (1/2000) down to the lowest: it is inside the 28mm frame, but outside the 35mm frame. If the meter and the set speed agree, a single speed is shown, projected as a red number of constant intensity. If the set speed differs from the speed recommended by the meter, both speeds show, the set speed constant, the recommended speed flashing. Turning either the shutter speed dial or the aperture ring on the lens can bring the two into coincidence, or of course, the photographer can choose to ignore the meter's recommendation.

Unlike the R2A/R3A, the half-pressure on the shutter release that is required to activate the meter is sufficiently positive that accidental exposures are very rare. Most reviewers (including ourselves) reported making at least one accidental exposure when trying to meter with the R2A/R3A. The display goes out automatically after about eight seconds.

the weakest point

The meter is perhaps the weakest point of the camera, for two reasons. First, the numbers can be hard to see in bright light, and second, resolution is limited to one stop. With a 'traffic lights' system (under-on-over) as used in Voigtländers prior to the R2A/R3A, and as found in the Leica MP, the resolution can be anything you like. A typical solution is that 1/3 stop out lights both the 'on' LED at full intensity and one of the others (over/under, as appropriate) at half intensity; 1/3 to 2/3 stop lights the two at equal intensity; and 1 stop or more lights only the appropriate 'over' or 'under' light.

Actually this is less of a problem than it might seem because with negative films, exposure is not especially critical as long as there is plenty of it, and with slide (transparency) films the wise photographer will arm himself or herself with an incident light meter anyway.

Fortunately, too, the AE lock and exposure compensation on auto-exposure are so clever that you can usually get away with relying on automation unless you are the sort of purist that insists on retaining manual control (which we are).

Roofs and castle, Daroca

This is the sort of 'average' subject where you can pretty much rely on the low-resolution exposure meter, though matters would have been improved by about 1/3 stop more exposure and the selection of a less contrasty and saturated film than the Kodak EBX that Roger used for this shot with (as far as he recalls) the 35/2 Biogon. The heavy shadow in the lower left would almost certainly have been (just) open enough to see some texture with 1/3 stop more and (say) Fuji Astia.


Basic exposure automation could hardly be easier. You set the shutter speed dial to 'A' and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed for the aperture in use. You can vary the aperture, of course, if you do not like the speed that the camera chooses.

The AE lock is set with a little chrome button immediately below the hot-shoe, handy for your thumb (see below). Point the camera at the area you want to meter; press the button; the chosen shutter speed is 'frozen' and 'AEL' appears at the foot of the shutter speed column. If it is not used, the AEL turns off after about 20 seconds or you can turn it off manually with a second pressure.

The exposure compensation is simple and excellent (and shared to some extent with the R2A/R3A, though the R2A/R3A has half-stop rests instead of 1/3 stop). As well as the main index for the shutter speed dial, there are six more indices on either side: -2 to +2 stops, in 1/3 stop steps. If you want to give (say) 12/3 stops extra exposure, you just move the 'A' alongside the '+12/3' index.

This is doubly useful as 2/3 stop is arguably the perfect bracket when you are shooting colour slide: you are within 1/3 stop of the optimum exposure across a range of +/- 1 stop. There is of course a free module on bracketing.


The auto-exposure lock (AEL) is the chrome button below the accessory shoe. There is a conventional film type window in the back, unlike a Leica. The large eyepiece has a correspondingly large exit pupil.

exposure compensation for negative films

As explained in the module on ISO speeds, negative film speeds are determined by the minimum exposure required to give a fixed negative density in the shadows (the darkest area of the image) while film speeds for slides are determined by the maximum exposure that can be given without 'blowing' the highlights. A moment's thought will reveal that the optimum exposure for negatives and slides will only be identical when both the shadows and the highlights fall within the optimum range for slide film, about 5 stops or 32:1. If the brightness range is greater, you must decide whether to favour the shadows (for negative film) or the highlights (for slide film). If you do it the wrong way around, and favour the highlights for negatives and the shadows for slides, you will lose shadow detail in the negative or blow the highlights in the slide.

Fortunately negative film latitude is such that you are unlikely to have a problem unless the brightness range exceeds about 7 stops or 128:1, but this happens sufficiently often in reasonably sunny weather (or with interiors, where some parts may be lit by sun coming through the window, while other parts are in murky corners) that it is worth being aware of the problem. Also, many photographers find that slight over-exposure of negatives gives better tonality.

Bridge, Teruel, Aragon

Frances shot this on Kodak Tri-X with the meter set at 320. The true ISO of Tri-X in Ilford DDx (which we used for this shot) is probably around 500 so this represented a 2/3 stop drop in film speed -- but given that the Zeiss Ikon gives a broad-area reading, this probably just about compensates for not using a spot meter and taking shadow readings. In the original print (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone) there is texture and detail in all but the very darkest shadows.

For fairly obvious reasons, the vast majority of through-lens meters are optimized for slide films, and as a result can underexpose negatives except on overcast days. We therefore habitually set slightly lower exposure indices (EIs) with negative films on ALL cameras with through-lens meters, including the Zeiss Ikon. We found excellent results with negative EIs at 1/3 to 2/3 stop below the ISO speed, the latter in sunny weather. This would mean, for example, EI 320 or 250 for ISO 400 film -- though as our favourite ISO 400 films come out at more like ISO 500 in our favourite developers, we normally just settle on EI 320.


With half a dozen lenses to look at, our testing was necessarily sketchy -- no-one would pay us enough to justify resolution tests on all six at all apertures -- and therefore centred around taking as many pictures as possible with all six lenses.

The first thing to say is that all felt very nice indeed: real top-quality barrels and mounts with smooth focusing, excellent equidistant aperture markings (with 1/3 stop click-stops in between, a very nice feature). Minimum aperture on all lenses supplied was f/22, though according to the instruction book the 85/2 stops at f/16. Obviously diffraction limitations to resolution are significant at f/22 but there are times when you can live with this in return for the immense depth of field.

Baronchely Music, Teruel

Perhaps one of the best compliments one can pay the Zeiss Ikon and its lenses was that they didn't get in the way of the pictures. All too often, when we are reviewing cameras and lenses, we miss pictures that we would have been able to get with more familiar equipment. Sometimes it's speed of working; at other times, as here, it's the way that the camera is just quick and easy to use, so you don't think, "Oh, why bother?" Roger had the Zeiss Ikon loaded with Fomapan 200, rated at 125, for this shot at twilight. With the 35/2 Biogon at full aperture, he was able to shoot an entirely satisfactory picture at 1/15 second.

All markings are proper paint-filled engravings, black/blue on silver lenses and white/red on black-finish lenses. Black or white are used for focusing distances in metres and the depth of field scale, and blue or red for focusing distances in feet and the focal length, marked on each lens to the left of the depth of field scale. The red-on-black is harder to read than the blue-on-silver but not as hard to read as the pictures below might lead you to believe. The 'red dot' lens alignment mark of Leica lenses (red dot to red dot when mounting or removing lenses) is replaced by a Zeiss-blue dot which again is a little hard to see on the black-paint lenses; we found it easiest to change lenses by touch rather than looking at what we were doing.

On all the Japanese-built lenses (21mm to 50mm) there is a little 'bump' on the focusing collar (at about 7 o'clock as viewed from the front) that serves two purposes. First, it is a way of identifying by touch exactly where the lens is focused: a very useful feature if (as many rangefinder users do) you set the focus approximately as you are raising the camera to your eye. Second, despite its diminutive size, it is big enough to use as a focusing tab, focusing the lens with a finger-tip. Roger finds this invaluable but Frances doesn't mind plain focusing collars.

Focusing is 'quick' at 90 degrees for all the Japanese-made lenses (21-50mm) but this is a matter of personal preference: we prefer 110-120 degrees but live perfectly happily with the 90 degrees of our Voigtländers; we can do the same with the Zeiss lenses. All have IR focusing marks: depending on the lens, this is at f/4, f/5.6 or f/8. These are of course used by focusing conventionally, then re-setting the lens so that the IR index is against the distance previously indicated by the main focusing index.

lens caps -- the worst feature

The lens caps are of the 'pinch' clip-in type and are fiddly and easy to drop. The really bad news is that the ridges that should make them easier to grip are moulded in the wrong direction, parallel to the optical axis instead of at right angles to it. Several times we dropped them, and it was pure luck that none went down a drain or over a wall. However, if one is going to have a 'worst feature', this really isn't too bad. They can be fitted and removed (with difficulty) with the lens hoods in place.

28mm Biogon

You can see the 'blue dot'; the focusing 'bump' (right); the external bayonet mount for the lens hood; the 1/3 stop aperture markings; the depth-of-field scale; and the wrong-way ridges on the lens cap.

lens hoods/lens shades

These are absolutely beautiful and fit on exquisite external bayonet mounts, but they are not supplied with the lenses and the prices are stiff: $127/GBP 47+VAT (52.88 VAT paid at Robert White). There are three: a rectangular hood suitable for both 21mm and 25mm, and two round hoods, one suitable for both 25mm and 28mm and the other suitable for both 35mm and 50mm. All are 'ventilated' to allow maximum visibility through the viewfinder, even though the viewfinder is used only as a rangefinder for 21mm and 25mm lenses.

Obviously there are certain compromises involved in making each hood suitable for two lenses, but as the two round ones are of the 'reverse' type (the front end of the hood reduces in diameter towards the front, instead of flaring outwards) they are more effective than you might expect. Certainly, we experienced no problems.

filter sizes

Unlike the lens caps with their unique bayonet fitting, these are standard screw-in types. To save you having to check each lens in turn, the filter sizes are 43mm (35/2 and 50/2), 46mm (21/2.8, 25/2.8m, 28/2.8), 55mm (85mm) and 72mm (15/2.8). It must have been tempting to use the 46mm filter size for the 35/2 and 50/2 as well but this would have made them quite a bit bigger and so, in keeping with modern practice, different sizes are used.

15/2.8 distagon

This is a magnificent piece of glass, but it is hard to see that it will have a very large market, given that the price is several times that of the 15/4.5 Voigtländer. Yes, there is an extra 11/3 stop in speed, and the option of using the (supplied) centre filter, which is impossible with the 15/4.5 Voigtländer (though optional with the 12/5.6 Voigtländer). On the other hand, neither lens is rangefinder coupled (a 15mm doesn't need to be, but it's still a surprise at this price) and the Distagon is seriously big, especially next to the tiny Voigtländer. Distortion (barrel) is negligible, but so it is with the Voigtländer, and both lenses have exactly the same kind of wide-angle 'distortion' (actually a perspective effect that stretches spheres into ellipses near the edge of the field of view) because this is a function of focal length, not design.

The lens shade is the 'petal' type, built in, and the lens cap is a big push-on metal cup. There is no focusing 'bump' on the mount and total focusing movement (to 0.3m/12 in) is about 110 degrees.

As far as we can see there will be three main groups of customers for this lens. First, there are those who really need the extra speed (usually for reportage). Second, there are those who really need the evenness of illumination (usually for scientific and technical applications). Third, there are those who are simply addicted to The Best, regardless of cost and (it must be said) size.

Diagonal coverage: 110 degrees Construction: 11 glasses in 9 groups  Nearest focus: 0.3m/12 inches Filter size: 72mm

Weight: 465g/17.5 oz (we weighed the one we had -- the weight is also given as 370g/16.5 oz on the Zeiss web-site and 500g/17.5 oz in the instruction book)  Length: 70mm/2.75 in  Diameter: 81mm/3.25 in with lens cap in place

Recommended retail price:  $3796/GBP 2291 VAT paid at Robert White


Wall and door, Daroca, Aragon

If you want to under-expose to 'pop' colours, the high contrast of all the Zeiss lenses can allow quite impressive effects. This is true even if you are using the 15/2.8 Distagon, as Roger did here on his Leica MP. Kodak's super-saturated Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100 might even be seen as slightly 'over the top', but Roger preferred this to the next lighter bracket which was 2/3 stop lighter. The 1/3 stop gradations on the aperture ring are ideal for bracketing slide films.

21/2.8 biogon

A lovely little lens, admirably compact for an f/2.8 -- but many modern 21mm lenses, especially for rangefinder cameras, deliver astonishingly high quality. Obviously it's a lot bigger and heavier and more expensive than the 21/4 Voigtländer but if 21mm is a focal length you use much, the extra stop in speed with no loss of quality stop-for-stop (it's better at f/4, too) makes it well worth considering.

Diagonal coverage: 90 degrees Construction: 9 glasses in 7 groups Nearest focus: 0.5 m/19 inches Filter size: 46mm

Weight: 300g/10.5 oz Length: 64mm/2.5 inches Diameter: 59.7mm/2.4 inches including 'bump'

Recommended retail price: $1307/GBP 787 VAT paid at Robert White


Ruin, Daroca, Aragon

The very steep perspective of 21mm lenses -- this is of course the Biogon -- seems to be much more acceptable today than it was when the original 21/4.5 Biogon was introduced for the Contax around 50 years ago. Until recently, we had a 21/4.5 Contax-fit Biogon, adapted for Leica, but we sold it because modern lenses are faster and (believe it or not) just as good.

Roger used Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX for this, but the lens wasn't on the Zeiss Ikon: it was on his Leica MP.

25/2.8 biogon

A focal length we have hardly used since we sold our 24/2.8 Nikkor some 20 years ago, simply because we prefer to have both 21mm and 28mm and this is too close to both. Others find it the perfect compromise between the two, and of course a single lens is smaller, lighter and less expensive.

As far as quality goes, it's all you would expect, and it's much nicer feeling and nicer handling than the 25/4.5 Snapshot Skopar as well as being 11/3 stops faster and rangefinder coupled (the Snapshot Skopar isn't). Its obvious competitor is the 24/2.8 from Leica but we've never tried that and therefore cannot compare them. The 1mm nomimal difference in focal length is a lot less significant than discrepancies between finders; variations of the kind noted above for the camera frames are equally common in separate viewfinders.

Diagonal coverage: 82 degrees Construction: 9 glasses in 7 groups  Nearest focus: 0.5m/19 inches Filter size: 46mm

Weight: 260g/9.2 oz Length: 60mm Diameter: 54.3mm/2.1 inches including bump

Recommended retail price: $1152/GBP 699 at Robert White

28/2.8 biogon

Frances uses this focal length much more than Roger: her 28/1.9 Voigtländer Ultron vies with the 50mm focal length for the most use. This is an extremely fine example of its kind, though perhaps it falls between two stools by being neither very compact (like an f/3.5) nor unusually fast. It is however a lot smaller than the Ultron and if we didn't already have the Ultron it would be hard to decide whether to go for the (cheaper, faster, bulkier) Ultron or the (more expensive, sweeter, more compact) Biogon. The Leica 28/2.8 is unfortunately beyond our financial reach.

Red Trough

Frances has a great deal more sympathy with the 28mm focal length than Roger, who can only recall one occasion in the whole of 2005 when he asked Frances if he could borrow her 28mm lens (in Chengde, in China). Choice of focal length is so intensely personal that it is virtually useless to try to give advice to other people. But if you've been finding a 35 a little too long, or a 21 rather too wide -- well, maybe 28mm will suit you perfectly. The bottom 15 per cent or so of this picture has been cropped out as it consisted mainly of dull grass and stones. Kodak Elite Chrome EBX.

Diagonal coverage:  75 degrees Construction: 8 glasses in 6 groups Nearest focus:  0.5m/19 inches Filter size: 46mm

Weight:  220g/7.7 oz Length:  51mm/2 inches Diameter:  55mm/2.1 inches including bump

Recommended retail price: $1042/GBP 628 VAT paid at Robert White

35/2 biogon

Roger's standard lens is his old (pre-aspheric) 35/1.4 Summilux, so the 35/2 Biogon was the lens he used most in our tests. It is excellent, and as already remarked, the little nub on the focusing ring serves perfectly satisfactorily as a focusing tab. The only possible criticism is that more speed -- f/1.7 or f/1.4 -- would be highly desirable, but with today's faster films this is a good deal less necessary than it was when the original 35/1.4 Summilux was introduced in 1956. Then, the fastest colour film on the market (introduced at around the same time) was High Speed Ektachrome at a searing 160 ASA.

Cafe, Teruel, Aragon

We surprised ourselves with how few pictures of people we took, but the explanation was simple enough: even in Spain, December is not very warm and these hardy souls were wearing warm jackets and fleeces. There just weren't that many people out on the streets ebjoying themselves! Roger mounted the 35/2 on his MP for this shot on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100.

Diagonal coverage:  63 degrees Construction:  9 glasses in 6 groups Nearest focus:  0.7m/28 inches Filter size:  43mm

Weight:  240g/8.5 oz Length:  54mm/2.1 inch Diameter:  54.6mm/2.1 inches including bump

Recommended retail price:  $1042/GBP 628 VAT paid at Robert White

50/2 planar

Small, light and of very high quality, this was Frances's favourite lens of the six and indeed she dropped heavy hints (which were not taken up) that they might care to lend her a body and the Planar for an extended period so that she could use them alongside Roger's Leicas. We already have two 50mm Voigtländer lenses, a 50/2.5 Color Skopar and 50/1.5 Nokton, but this is arguably the perfect compromise between the two with a useful 2/3 stop increase in speed over the slower one and greatly reduced bulk as compared with the faster one; again, the focusing nub substitutes entirely satisfactorily for the finger-grip on the 50/2.5 and is a good deal more convenient than the big collar on the 50/1.5. It is also the least expensive lens in the line-up, and the lightest.

Diagonal coverage:  47 degrees  Construction:  6 glasses in 4 groups  Nearest focus:  0.7m/28 inches Filter size:  43mm

Weight: 210g/7.4 oz Length:  51mm/2 inches Diameter: 54mm/2.1 inches including bump

Recommended retail price:  $824/GBP 499 VAT paid at Robert White


Houses and castles, Daroca, Aragon

When you have been using mostly wide angles -- and remember, we had 15mm, 21mm. 25mm, 28mm and 35mm lenses -- then 50mm can seem almost like a short tele lens. It certainly gives a very pleasing perspective here, unifying 18th and 19th century houses with the mediaeval fortress on the hills behind. Roger used Foma 200 film, developed in Paterson FX39 and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, for this shot.


We have not tried this yet but include the specifications from the instruction book (price from the importers) for information:

Diagonal coverage:  29 degrees Construction:  6 glasses in 6 groups  Nearest focus:  1 metre/39.4 inches Filter size: 55mm

Weight: 450g/16 oz  Length:  83mm  Diameter:  Not given 

Recommended retail price:  $2759/GBP 1668 VAT paid from Robert White

should you buy the camera or lenses?

As we said near the beginning of the review, the decision whether or not to buy a Zeiss Ikon is not a matter of image quality: that can be taken for granted. A camera body has to have an accurate shutter; hold the lens at the right distance from the film; and allow accurate focusing. The Zeiss Ikon does all this with the utmost ease. And the lenses have to be sharp and distortion free. The Zeiss ZM lenses are. And because they are rangefinder designs, with no need to clear the flipping mirror, it is easier to design top-flight lenses.

Rather more relevant are the following questions:

1  Do you want a rangefinder camera at all?

2  Are there any particularly good or bad features in the Zeiss Ikon as compared with its obvious rivals (essentially Leica and Voigtländer)?

3  What is the camera build quality like?

4   What are the lenses' build quality like?

do you want a rangefinder camera at all?

This is the most fundamental question. Rangefinder cameras, and still more, their lenses, are smaller, lighter, quieter and handier than reflexes. They are low-light cameras par excellence: they are easier to focus in poor light, they generally have faster lenses, and most peple find they can hand-hold a rangefinder camera for one or two steps further on the shutter-speed dial. Most non-photographers lump them together with compact cameras: they are not 'real' or 'professional' so people don't notice them or worry about them, where if they saw a big reflex they would start getting suspicious and even paranoid. For many (including us) these advantages are decisive.

On the other hand they are next to useless for close-ups: most 90mm lenses can manage 1/10 life size or a little better if you are lucky, and of course there is the Leica 90mm that goes down to 1/3 life size via a clever (but expensive) adapter. The longest lens that most people consider for use with a rangefinder camera is 90mm, and the longest currently available is 135mm.

Door, Daroca, Spain

This gives a pretty good idea of the field of view of the 50mm Planar at or near its closest focusing distance of 0.7m: about 1/12 life size. Kodak EBX (Roger)

Problems with close focusing and long lenses can be circumvented with a reflex housing such as the (discontinued) Leica Visoflex, but this merely turns a rangefinder camera into a rather clumsy, crude reflex. With the exception of the (discontinued) Contax G-series, which most purists dismiss as not real rangefinder cameras at all (because the lenses were autofocus), zooms are simply not available for rangefinder cameras though there have been a couple of lenses with two or three discrete, switchable focal lengths, Leica's 'Tri-Elmar' being the best known. Some find these disadvantages decisive.

Many (again including us) use reflexes and rangefinders side by side, reserving the reflex for those relatively few tasks it does better, and we would strongly suggest that you do the same. The reflex, after all, doesn't have to be anything very clever: we use mostly old Nikon Fs, discontinued in 1973.

Some people fall in love with rangefinders when first they try them. Many come to appreciate them more and more as they become increasingly accustomed to them. A few never get on with them, and go back to reflexes. As long as you go into things with your eyes open, you don't have much to worry about. Only if you have unrealistic expectations, usually of turning into a Cartier-Bresson or Salgado overnight, are you likely to be grievously disappointed.

how does the zeiss ikon compare with voigtländers/rolleis?

Those who have not used the Zeiss Ikon sometimes dismiss it as nothing more than a jumped-up Voigtländer. Little could be further from the truth. It is a completely different chassis; it has a much longer-base (and therefore more accurate) rangefinder; the viewfinder is very much better, and has automatic selection of frames for different focal lengths (including 28mm, seen in no Voigtländer); and -- let's be fair -- it is a good deal more idiosyncratic, especially in the layout of its bottom-mounted rewind crank. Even the shutter, though based on the same technology as the Bessa R3A and R2A, is different in that it offers 1/3 stop gradations for exposure compensation instead of 1/2 stops -- and as 2/3 stop is probably the best possible bracket for slide films, this is a great improvement.

Like the R2A and R3A, though, this is a completely battery-dependent camera. No battery: no shutter. This worries some people much more than others. The Rollei still has a mechanical shutter, so you lose only the meter if the battery dies, and it also has the 'traffic lights' meter of the older Voigtländers, which we find superior.

We have owned or used most of the Voigtländer Bessa series since they came out: L, R, T, R2, R2C, R3A. If you are considering an upgrade from a Voigtländer, there is absolutely no question in our mind that the Zeiss Ikon offers this, very convincingly. We suspect that the ideal 'upgrade' outfit is a Zeiss Ikon with (as a reduced-cost back-up) one of the Leica-M-compatible, mechanical Voigtländers (T, R2) or a Rollei -- though if you are not constitutionally opposed to totally battery dependent cameras, two Zeiss Ikons or a Zeiss Ikon and an R2A/R3A is a good idea too, because it is deeply unlikely that both sets of batteries will die simultaneously.


Railings and house, Daroca, Aragon

Old photo books talk about 'leading the eye' via a line that begins in the foreground and continues into the background. Wide-angles are often ideal for this, but you do not want them too wide. Here, Frances used the 25/2.8 Biogon: probably the ideal lens, as with a 21mm the background would have been reduced to insignificance and with even a 28mm (which would be her normal choice for such a shot) you would lose much or all of the sweep of the railings on the right. The film was Kodak Tri-X developed in Ilford DDX and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

how does the zeiss ikon body compare with the leica?

We differ on this one. It's a simple enough question on the face of it, and one that is easier for us to answer than most people. It is this. If money were no object, would you rather have a new Leica or a new Zeiss Ikon? It is easier for us to answer than it is for most people because we do, indeed, borrow the latest and the best on a regular basis. We usually have to give it back, but at least we get the chance to try it for anything from a few weeks to a few months, sometimes more. We agree, for example, that the finest 35mm SLRs and associated lenses we have ever used were a couple of Contaxes with 35/1.4, 35/2.8PC and 100/2.8 macro lenses. The fact that we had to give them back did not diminish our admiration. And such equipment as we do manage to keep on extended loan is effectively 'regardless of money' anyway: we obviously can't sell it, so it's a question of using it or giving it back. If it's no good, we don't want to use it, so we might as well give it back.

Frances actually prefers the Zeiss Ikon to the Leica MP. Not for the automation -- neither of us cares much for that -- but purely for the handling, the way it sits in her hands and the way all the controls operate. As we said above, she can hold it steadier than any other camera she has ever used, except possibly her Alpa 12 S/WA. She also finds it much easier to load than a Leica, and likes the film reminder window in the back.

Roger, on the other hand, prefers the Leica MP. Part of this is sheer habit -- he has been using Leicas for rather over a third of a century -- but there are other factors as well. The Leicavit is one: Roger uses the Voigtländer equivalent with his R2A. The meter on the Zeiss Ikon isn't as good: we agree about that. The base-mounted, 'wrong way' (anticlockwise) rewind seems to him a significant disadvantage, but it doesn't worry Frances at all. He genuinely finds it hard to believe that the base loading of a Leica is a significant problem. And the Leica sits better in his hands: it's intensely personal.

Back yards, Daroca

Roger shot this with the 28/2.8 on his Leica MP. It's not a bad shot, but as noted elsewhere, 28mm just isn't a focal length he likes much. Also, a less contrasty film might have been a good idea: he used Kodak Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100.


As against the M7 -- perhaps a more realistic comparison, given the exposure automation in the Zeiss Ikon -- the M7 has two battery-independent speeds, but the Zeiss Ikon has a less cluttered viewfinder. The 'wrong way' shutter speed dial on the M7 (clockwise for slower) rules it out for Roger, but this is purely a consequence of 35 years' conditioning.

how do the lenses compare?

As repeatedly stated, by the time you reach this level of quality, far more depends on the skill of the photographer than on the quality of the lenses, which can be taken for granted. We have to say that none of these lenses seemed consistently to exhibit the magic that is encountered with a very, very few lenses -- the 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon or 75/2 Leica Summicron, for example -- but that equally, they are superb and the 'magic' is present at least as often as not.

what is the build quality like?

This, perhaps, might be the deciding question that says which of us it 'right' -- and it's a question that is impossible to answer, given that the two cameras were designed half a century apart. The Leica M3 in 1954 was essentially an update of a hand-built camera; the new Zeiss Ikon was designed to take advantage of as much automated manufacturing as possible.

To equate 'hand built' with 'superior' is short-sighted in the extreme. For example, the fabricated brass shutter crate of the pre-IIIc Leica was a great deal more labour-intensive ('hand built') than the cast chassis of IIIc and later Leicas. Leica did not make the change just to save money. Anyone who knows anything about precision engineering will tell you the same thing: the cast chassis is superior, being more dimensionally stable and stronger. And the wonderfully retro solid brass top plate of the Leica MP is only made financially possible by the use of CNC ('automated') milling. Also, once a machine has been set to do something -- to cut a particular shape, to tighten something to a particular torque -- it will continue to do so for the rest of time, or at least until it breaks down. It cannot be distracted, or make a mistake, in the same way as a skilled craftsman.

Where the expense comes in is in inspection, quality control and finishing, and at the time of writing, it was impossible to say where the Zeiss Ikon stood on this. It was however possible to take a very good guess, not least on the basis of the extraordinarily long time between the announcement of the Zeiss Ikon and its appearance on the market. The body may not be quite as inherently strong as an M-series Leica, the more so as the M-series has had half a century on the market to refine the design, but we would be surprised it it were very far behind. The same is true, though probably to a lesser extent (i.e they are even more similar to Leica build quality), of the lenses.

28mm and 50mm lenses

The Japanese-built lenses have a real feeling of quality, but the German-built 15/2.8 feels even better. None is quite as heavy as true vintage lenses from the 1950s and before when the only construction materials were steel and brass.

On the other hand, this is a bit like comparing a first-class mechanical Swiss watch with a top-of-the-line quartz model. To be brutal, the quartz model probably keeps better time. But it's battery dependent, and less reparable, besides -- which would you rather have?

The bottom line

An awful lot comes down to money. It's a bit like buying a motor-car. Few people would choose a Ford against a BMW if someone else was paying for the car and its maintenance. Do not forget the maintenance and reparability.

In Roger's view, when it comes to the bodies, you very clearly get what you pay for with Voigtländer, Zeiss Ikon and Leica -- though he would rather have the mechanical-shutter Rollei (effectively a modified Voigtländer R2) than the electronic, battery-dependent R2A/R3A. The Zeiss Ikon has enough advantages over the Rollei, most notably the longer rangefinder base and vastly superior rangefinder with automatic frame selection, that he would put up with the absolute battery dependency.

Frances disagrees. As we have already said, she finds that the Zeiss Ikon sits so well in her hands that she actually prefers it to a Leica, to say nothing of the easier loading.

The lenses are another matter. As far as we can see, the main reasons for buying Leica instead of Zeiss are reputation -- obviously, Zeiss must do some re-establishing here, whereas Leica has never been away -- and the somewhat pedestrian specifixations of the first seven Zeiss lenses, with the exception, of course, of the 15/2.8. And our only concern would be with mechanical durability, not optical excellence: at this level, as we keep saying, you are in the realms where optical quality is taken for granted.

We have already given our 'money no object' judgements. We hope, though, that our summary of the arguments and counter-arguments will enable you to make up your own mind, even if you come to a different conclusion from ours.

Six cameras, six lenses

Perhaps this is what it all comes down to: decades of rangefinder-camera tradition. The oldest camera here is the M2, from about 1960 (top right); the newest, the Zeiss Ikon. Here is the roll-call: Front: Zeiss Ikon with 28/2.8 Biogon and 25/28 shade. Second row: Leica M4P with 50/2 Planar, Voigtlander Bessa R3A (with trigger wind base) with 15/2.8 Distagon. Back row: Bessa R2 with 25/2.8 Biogon, Leica MP with Leicavit and 21/2.8 Biogon with 21/25 shade, Leica M2 with Voigtländer shoe-mount meter and 35/2 Biogon with 35/50 shade.

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks