Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Five years old and still not obsolete.
Let's all take a minute and think back to the beginning of 2005. It's a very long time ago: Canon has just released a follow-up to its MSRP-revising Rebel 300D, the Nikon D70 is a really big deal, the Olympus E-300 is only the second SLR in a new all-digital format, and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has just been rediscovered in Arkansas. Konica-Minolta is about to announce a technology sharing agreement with Sony, and Leica is on the verge of financial collapse. This was what the world looked like when the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder first appeared - a strange and slightly scary place, but with faint foreshadowing of what is to come.
So now we're in the middle of 2010: digital cameras are firmly established, Canon has brought out five more 'Rebel' models, and the remaining manufacturers look like they'll still be in business in the next few months. The irony, of course, is that ten years into the digital era, film photography has never been better. The Nikon F6 is the finest automated camera ever made, and Leica has both the mechanical MP and the electronic M7 available for the well-heeled purists. The diversity has dwindled and the selection has been savaged, but the remaining films and cameras are exceptional.
With the Zeiss Ikon, there's always the question of 'why not just buy a Leica'? Part of the answer has to be very simple: it's far less expensive than the similar M7, and far more capable than a used M6 for about the same money. Plus, I like it better - and it has no difficulty standing on its own merits. The aesthetics and the idea of the Ikon really appeal to me; with all due respect for Leica's sensibilities, the Zeiss Ikon is the pinnacle of rangefinder design without the undue burden of its history. Its creators clearly love photography, love cameras, and have a tremendous respect for the Leica tradition, but the Zeiss Ikon moves beyond it. It's electronic, it's much lighter than its German counterparts, and it has its own distinct personality.
In my formative years, my hobby was archery. It's a contemplative activity that depends on precise timing, and is not unlike photography in many ways. A friend of mine used a beautiful wooden longbow, and we both scoffed at the hunters with their compound bows sporting fiberglass pulleys and elaborate sights. That wonderful wooden longbow - tradition unhampered by progress - is a good parallel for the Leica, and wunder-plastik is universal, whether it's found in a weapon or a digital SLR. In a tellingly prescient move, I used a scoped crossbow. I still have it to this day, but I digress.
Take a look at the flight deck of the Zeiss Ikon. This is an inherently electronic camera that cannot function without its battery, and it's perfectly designed for auto exposure. But unlike the "Green Idiot" auto modes of digital SLRs, 'auto' in this context simply means 'aperture priority', which is always set directly from the lens. Exposure compensation can be set by moving the "A" indicator from -2 through to +2, in thirds-stop increments, with a firmer detent at the neutral position making it easy to find without looking. Whole-stop shutter speeds are also available for those who think that doing basic math is a creative endeavour. (If I wanted to make a hobby out of chasing a needle, I'd take up heroin instead of photography - but that's just me.) Film speeds are set by lifting this same dial and selecting the appropriate number, and once again thirds-stop positions are available. And unlike some rangefinders, there's a window in the back to show the film type for the forgetful.
The shutter release is electronic, with the power / lockout switch underneath it. There's a film plane mark resting demurely underneath the film advance lever, and the frame counter window is both magnified and protected by a raised metal surround. It's hard to get more elegant than that.
Aside from the previously mentioned aperture control and focus ring, both of which are on the lens, the only other photographic control is the silver exposure lock button that's located below the accessory shoe. And that's really all there is to it. The film door has a secure slide-and-push latch that can be opened one-handed, and the rewind crank has been relegated to the bottom of the camera where it belongs.
Ah, the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon. It deserves a sentence all to itself, like poetry. Bigger than on any Leica that I've tried - 5, 6, 7, 9, and MP - and far superior to any SLR on the market. The area covered by the 50mm framelines is only a little smaller than the view through the Nikons D700 and F100. With my glasses scrunched tight, I can see almost all of the 28mm framelines, but that's still not quite all of the viewable image. I was initially worried that I'd forget to use the framelines and try to compose with the full view, but that's simply not possible. It's huge and bright, with a completely different experience than the world-in-a-box of a black-framed SLR's window. My first sunny-day outing with the Ikon had me using it at the same time as the GH1, and the experience of going back to the latter camera's electronic viewfinder was crushing.
I've also used my Ikon alongside my Nikon F100, burning the same type of film in each, and come to an interesting conclusion. I've long suspected that I have a mild case of the yips, because I'll often jerk the camera very slightly when I press the shutter. It may even be my hyper-sensitive flinch reflex - I'm the youngest of three brothers - reacting to the experience of the mirror sound and blackout. Regardless of the actual cause, I found that of the 15 essentially identical images that I took with both film cameras, the Ikon's composition was stronger in seven of them, while the F100 was better in only five. The SLR should have had a much stronger showing than that, but I found that many of the SLR images show a slight rotation to the right. That was something that I had to fight with my D700 as well, but with the rangefinder's uninterrupted view, it simply isn't an issue.
The experience of film is very different from using a digital camera. Gone is the attitude of "shoot them all and let Lightroom sort it out." Exposing 36 (really, 39) images with care and consideration is as tiring and time-consuming as taking a couple of hundred digital photos, but my 'keeper' numbers remain about the same. And with the lower throughput, the cost of film is hardly an issue: exposing a full roll of film means I've had a very productive morning, but the cost of buying and developing it barely exceeds that of the lunch that I'll pick up on the way home. If I get into DIY-developed black and white films, then the cost of a roll is about the same as the round-trip bus fare to somewhere interesting - and I mean Scarborough, not Chicago.
Digital and film cameras really are in different worlds. When I'm out with my Ikon and see someone on the street with a D3x and 200mm f/2 lens, neither one of us cares what the other is carrying. Granted, I already have a D700 and a GH1, so there's no shortage of great digital cameras in my life, but now I've opted out of the whole newer+shinier=better perspective. The next big thing doesn't appeal to me any more, and it's a nice feeling.
Of course, I can hardly finish up without mentioning a couple of the points that the many other excellent reviewers have raised before me. (Johnston, Elek, Ripsher, Roger & Frances, Puts, even K'rock.) The first is the shutter speed indicator in the viewfinder. I can't see it without losing sight of the rangefinder patch, and while shutter speed is typically irrelevant for an AE camera, I would occasionally like to know ahead of time if I'm overexposed or risking camera shake. The other issue isn't with the camera, but with the people who think too much instead of taking photos: the camera is made in Japan by Cosina. Cosina, of course, also makes their own rangefinder cameras under the Voigtlander name, causing derisive air-quotes - "Zeiss" - among those who can't imagine why swing-back film loading is a good idea. As even a quick look at the battery compartments of the various Nikon Coolpix cameras will tell you, contract manufacturing is quite common. The Ikon is a beautifully built Zeiss product exactly the same way that the iPods and iPads are distinctly Apple products.
On paper, there's very little reason why I should use a rangefinder camera. I have no background in film photography to fall back on, and already have a full slate of digital gear. I'm not a 'street' photographer, don't want a fashion piece, and my current style depends on flat space, regulated geometry and active framing. But I've grown tired of the whole digital camera market, with the rapid replacement and depreciation of digital SLRs, and ever-decreasing quality of the compacts. Instead of being a limitation, having the Zeiss Ikon has been a liberation. A wise person once said: "if you don't like the answer, choose a different question." The Ikon is a wonderful step away from the pace of the digital world, is immune to (further) obsolescence, and will only get better with age.