I finally succumbed to temptation and bought myself a rangefinder, a shiny new Zeiss Ikon with a Voigtlander 40 f/1.4 Nokton Classic. As this is the first RF I've used, I thought I'd give my impressions as someone coming fresh in from the (D)SLR world.
What I've noticed is most RF reviews are written by (and largely for) RF enthusiasts - preaching to the choir. There's precious little for those coming at it new. Thus my thoughts on the matter. All subjective, and the odd tangent. Plus, bear in mind I am an engineer so "devices" are a natural draw for me.
I've written before as to why I'm interested in a rangefinder, and what I'm going to be using it for. I'm going into this well aware of the limitations which are fine by me. It's exactly the genre's strengths that make it attractive for the sort of street photography I want to use it for.
This is really early use - I shot the equivalent of a couple of rolls before loading the first film and now I've shot a couple of rolls since. No results yet, they've not been processed. But frankly, this write-up is not about the pictures: that's all about the right exposure on the right film and any camera can cover that. This is all about handling.
The 2 things that first struck me we "wow, that's small", especially when I opened the lens box and second, "wow, that's heavy" when I picked it up. Actually, the body just seems quite heavy due to its dense, metal construction. I reality, it's not really any heavier than a small DSLR body. The lens is, however, tiny but again metal construction makes it seem heavier. I'm not going to weigh it all, I'll come back to the weight thing later.
In actual fact, it's not that small. If you're coming from small DLSRs or P&S cameras this will feel like a lump. If, like me, you're coming from the mid-sized cameras, this will seem reasonably sized, but not small. Only someone handling large pro gear, MF, LF etc would think a rangefinder small. Most reviewers seem to be in the last camp and seriously underplay the size. This is not a pocket camera.
Fiddling with levers and dials, turning the lens controls etc gives one a feeling of quality construction. This is not about materials. [An aside - high quality metal materials are generally lighter than the cheap stuff. Modern alloys have pushed up performance while reducing weight. A lump of cast iron is not going to be a quality product.] The few plastic parts feel pretty solid, using decent material. The mainly metal body feels appropriately weighty but not like a lump of lead.
The main thing that gives a quality feel, however, is fit and finish. Everything fits right. No slop or slack bits. Nothing over tight either. Just nice, smooth, clean fitting parts. The lens snaps on just so, the lens hood likewise. All the levers and dials run smoothly without any loose feeling. This is really nice in a world of loose manufacturing tolerances for mass production. Even the best Canon gear I've got seems cheaply constructed by comparison.
Holding the camera
This is a bit strange having spent so long on SLRs. I actually had to get out my old film P&S (A Konica Pop) to remind myself what it felt like to hold such a device. Without the moulded hand grip or the weight of a large lens to balance, I need to hold the camera differently, especially to focus it (more later). I don't need or want to rest the camera in the palm of my left hand - it's more a fingers around the side sort of thing. For many, this is the normal way to hold a camera, for me it's taking some getting used to. It's not uncomfortable, just different.
Carrying it around, I use a wrist strap (more on what I use in another post) and hold it my left hand. This leaves my right hand free for general use (I'm right handed) and allows me to bring the camera to eye in the least time. The reasonable size, especially the lens diameter, makes it easy to carry with my fingers wrapped around the lens. This is a pretty inconspicuous way to carry a camera. I have quite short fingers and find carrying an SLR in this manner uncomfortable after a while, even with the smallest lenses (with the DLSRs, I can't even do so they're so large). Not so here. As a result, it feels like a much smaller and lighter camera to carry around. The weight then doesn't become an issue. It just feels light and easy in the hand regardless.
I've no problem with the offset VF. I've no problem seeing everything in the VF (shutter speed, frame lines, focus patch) even with glasses on. I did notice early on that ones eye has to be aligned just so to see the focus patch but now it comes naturally.
As many note, compared to even a good SLR VF, this is big and bright and clear. Seeing things and focussing in low light is easy.
Framelines will take some getting used to. Yes, I can see things outside the frame but as a long-term SLR users, this is actually distracting at present, rather than helpful. Another thing to get used to.
On framelines, the 40mm Nokton brings up the 50mm framelines. I've taken some test shots to see if I prefer the 50mm or 35mm frames. If the 35mm frame is better, then the lens tab will need a little modifying to get the right auto select.
What a joy! I really don't much like manual focussing with an SLR (even in medium format it can be a bit tricky). It's all visual acuity. Get the wrong dioptre adjustment or look through your glasses wrong and focus can be off. With the mechanical style of focussing with the RF focus patch, I can even focus without my glasses (I get the same results with or without). Much, much quicker manual focus.
Only problem is finding a comfortable way to hold the camera so I can easily use the focus tab on the lens. The finger recess never seems quite in the right place. I'm getting better but practice is needed. This will be a lens by lens problem.
Obviously, I haven't checked any output but it's in the range I'm expecting. I ran a test against my Canon SLR and got pretty much the same results, which is good. I can then quickly know how much compensation to add in any situation, don't have to relearn anything.
With the shutter speed showing up in the VF, there is a slight problem. It only shows whole stops, while the electronic AE is continuous. Of course, plenty of latitude in film and mixed light always needs a couple of meter checks anyway. One thing I don't like (a personal thing) are the 1/3 stop compensation settings. I'm a half-stop man as I find it easier to do the calcs in my head.
Actually had to read the manual to know how to load the film. The tab slots are a little odd. Easy enough to use, just different than anything I've used before. It all very smooth and film loading is a snap.
I need to get back into the habit of winding the film after each shot. I've become so used to auto wind that I'm out of the habit. With medium format film, I'm working slower so always cock the lever just before a shot rather than just after. RF is all about speed - being ready to go.
The most disappointing thing on the whole camera is the rewind lever. It's a little fiddly, too small and feels flimsy. Actual wind feel is nice and there's a nice ratcheting sound as the film spools back. One odd thing is releasing the film cartridge. One has to pop the rewind lever down manually. even my old Konica Pop has this built into the door release mechanism. Again, a bit fiddly.
A further note on the lens
This isn't a lens review and I'm not really qualified to do that well. As long as it gets the light to the film without too much bother I'm quite happy.
I do love the small size an the tidy handling. All of that quality feel is there. Controls are plastic but good stuff and it's not a problem. Aperture stops are nice and positive but not too stiff.
The lens hood snaps on precisely and easily, with 3 working positions. It's spring loaded for release which prevents accidental release. All nice.
The lens cap is the best I've used. I'm sure I've seen criticism of Voigtlander lens caps in the past but the design has changed. The pinch tabs are curved for ones fingers and slightly raised in the middle for a firm grip. It can also be pinched from the outside, too, so it'll work any way you want. A small detail but shows the company cares about the small stuff.
These are the smallest lenses Canon makes and they are much larger than the Voigtlander, especially in diameter.
Well, I'm pretty happy. I did think long and hard about what and why for this camera. I tried my old SLR in a sort of RF manner to help me realise I needed something more suited to fast manual focus street use. Handling lives up to the reputation and I'm enjoying the RF way of using a camera for those specific tasks. It is not, and will not become, a do-all camera (no such thing). it's not an SLR, and I'm not expecting it to handle that way. As I use a variety of cameras, I'm happy to switch working & handling methods as I go. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool SLR nut, you may not like the change.
There are some aspects that will definitely take some practice to get honed but I'm sure that will come. As I'm more likely to take a camera with me if it's this nice to use, it'll get plenty of use. I don't mind the film thing. Sure, digital can be a whole lot more convenient but no one yet makes a digital RF that I'd be prepared to buy (and the Leica M8 is technically far from acceptable for me, let alone price).
Who should buy an RF? Well first, you've got to have some cash. There are some decent deals on lenses on ebay (if you avoid all the over-priced Leica) but I've not seen too many decent bodies. Seems a lot of people are buying up cheap Bessa kits, deciding they don't like it and flogging them off in short order. I would not rate the Zeiss Ikon a cheap camera, but it's pretty affordable if you run a mid-sized DSLR kit. lots of Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton Classics, probably due to disappointment (it gets the worst reviews of all the current Voigtlander line - this is why I went with the 40mm).
If you don't do much discrete, fast street photography, I wouldn't bother. If you don't like film, go elsewhere. If you are into those things, I think a rangefinder would suit you well. I don't think there is another type of camera that can do that fast, discrete thing so well. Plus, you get a fine mechanical device to play with.