Japan’s Heartfelt Homage to the M-Series Leica

Feb 1, 2019  By Jason Schneider
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It’s almost a cliché that Leica maketh haste slowly, and nowhere is this more evident than with built-in metering and auto-exposure systems. It took the Wetzlar Wizards 17 years from the debut of the transformational Leica M3 to bring forth the commendable but ill-starred TTL-metering Leica M5 of 1971-1975, and 2 more years to deliver the compact M-mount Leica/Minolta CL of 1973 that employed a similar metering system and was a lot more successful in the marketplace. The first, last and likely the only analog Leica M to provide aperture-priority auto-exposure is the recently discontinued, somewhat under-appreciated Leica M7 of 2002.  It requires two 6-volt batteries (that aren’t always easy to find) to power its electronically controlled shutter, and it had the misfortune of competing with the modern manual metering Leica MP, which offers the cachet of an iconic nameplate, and has a mechanical shutter that doesn’t require battery power. Whatever your views on Leica’s reticence in embracing modern auto-exposure systems during the analog era you’ve got to hand it to the Japanese for having a go at it. While none of the 3 ingenious cameras detailed below can quite equal the Leica, all are ingenious, beautifully made creations that deserve our respect and admiration, and the fact that all work flawlessly with Leica lenses makes them an attractive proposition for broad-minded Leica M users and collectors.

Minolta CLE: Minolta’s audacious CLE of 1980 was unquestionably the Japanese M-mount rangefinder 35 with the most direct connection to the Leica lineage—hardly surprising since it was the high-tech successor of the Leica/Minolta CL a compact M-mount rangefinder camera designed jointly by Leica and Minolta, introduced in 1973, and marketed as the Leica CL and as the Minolta CL in Japan. The Leica CL has a vertically-running focal plane shutter, with cloth curtains, giving ½ to 1/1000 speeds, and a through-the-lens (TTL) CdS exposure meter mounted on a pivoting “semaphore” arm just in front of the shutter, just like the Leica M5. The exposure is manual and the shutter is mechanical.

Despite its family resemblance to the CL, the CLE was a 100% Minolta project with electronic and metering components based on the then current Minolta XG-series SLRs. It’s still one of the most advanced M-mount cameras ever made in terms of exposure automation, and provides parallax-compensating projected viewfinder frame lines for 28mm 40mm, and 90mm lenses, and employs a electronically controlled, horizontally running 1-1/1000 sec plus B cloth focal-plane shutter. The 0.58x magnification range/viewfinder has an effective base length of 28.9mm and it’s extremely bright—comparable to an M-series Leica or the Cosina-made Bessa R. According to many experts the CLE’s built-in 28mm finder is the largest and best of its kind in any M-mount rangefinder 35.

The CLE’s sophisticated TTL silicon photodiode (SPD) metering system provides aperture-priority automatic and manual exposure, and also offers an automatic ambient/flash exposure system that can make adjustments during the exposure by taking readings off the film (OTF) while the shutter is open. Also, as in the then-current Olympus OM-2n, the SPD cell takes ambient light readings reflected off the patterned shutter curtain. While its high-tech auto-exposure system is a definite plus for street and casual shooters the chief attractions of the CLE are its Minolta-made lenses lenses, which are superb. They include a 7-element, 5-group 28mm f/2.8 Rokkor, a 6-element 4-group 40mm f/2 Rokkor, and a 4-element, 4-group 90mm f/4 Rokkor, all said to perform on a par with their Leica counterparts. Of course the camera will accept most M-mount lenses though you may require a separate shoe-mount viewfinder with focal lengths not covered by its 3 viewfinder frame lines. Used street price of a clean, functional Minolta CLE: $500-750, body only, $1,200-$1,500, kit with case, lens, etc.

Konica Hexar RF: Modeled on the form factor of the classic M-series Leica, with a body only slightly larger than an M3, Konica introduced this robust, high-performance rangefinder 35 with considerable fanfare in 1999 and discreetly discontinued it sometime before the end of 2003 as the digital revolution gained steam. It uses a “Bayonet Konica KM Mount,” essentially a copy of the Leica M mount, and it’s compatible with M-series lenses. However some early samples were reported to have focusing discrepancies, long since resolved, and that adversely affected initial sales. The current consensus: Konica KM and Leica M lenses, even those with longer focal lengths and wider apertures, can be used interchangeably on both cameras without problems. The Hexar RF is built on a cast aluminum chassis with titanium top and bottom plates, is finished in flat black with an easy-to-grip rubberized covering, and has a slightly raised handgrip. While it resembles the earlier autofocus Konica Hexar, it shares few if any components with that model.

The Konica RF features a swing-open back with a built-in film ID/loading confirmation window. Film loading, advance, and rewind are automatic, and there’s a top-mounted LCD frame counter, DX coding, and manual ISO override. The RF employs a digital, electronically controlled metal vertical-travel focal-plane shutter with speeds of 16-1/4000 sec and all require battery power— there’s no provision for manual mechanical speeds. However shutter speeds from 1-1/4000 sec plus B can be selected in manual exposure mode. When the end of the film has been reached (or you press the rewind button) the film is automatically rewound, with a short pause just before the end so you can remove the film with the leader out—

a thoughtful touch. The shutter release has 4 modes—off, single shot, continuous (at up to 2.5 fps when you hold the shutter button in) and self-timer (one frame shot after a 10-sec delay.)

Like the Leica M4-P and subsequent Leica M models, the Konica RF uses a combined, coupled range/viewfinder with illuminated, parallax-compensating frame lines appearing in pairs—50 and 75mm, 28 and 90mm, and 35 and 135mm—and it employs the same auto-indexing system as the lens is mounted, There’s also a manual frame line preview lever on the front of the camera, The viewfinder system on the RF is very well executed, and its magnification of 0.60x (versus 0.72x for comparable Leicas) allows eyeglass wearers to see all frames easily, including the 28mm frame, as well as a generous area around the frame. However the lower magnification affects focusing precision with longer lenses, and the overall finder is perhaps a tad less bright than those in comparable Leica models.

One area where the Konica RF shines is the metering/auto-exposure system. It has a center-weighted SPD meter, with aperture-priority and manual metering. In AE mode the automatically selected shutter speeds shown to the left of the finder. The display is very bright (too bright for some) but very effective in low light and there’s an exposure compensation warning, but no indication of the number of the amount of correction required. One great feature is the AE lock, and since exposure metering is TTL it accounts for the aperture set on the lens in use. The most common flash used on the Konica Hexar AF is the non-dedicated Konica HX-18W but alas the camera lacks a modern TTL flash system, though X sync is at a 1/125 sec.

Konica did offer an outstanding line of high-performance KM-mount lenses for the RF—a 35mm f/2 M-Hexanon, 50mm f/2 M-Hexanon, and 90mm f/2.8 M-Hexanon introduced with the camera in 1999,  a 21-35mm f/3.4-4.0 f/1.2 M-Hexanon Dual brought forth in 2002, and a glorious 50mm f/1.2 Hexanon-M unveiled in 2001 as part of the  specially boxed “2001 Limited Edition Kit” (body, lens, and flash) to celebrate the millennium. Only 2001 kits were produced, and few were separated, so the 50mm f/1.2 Hexanon-M and the kit it was part of are coveted collectibles that fetch stratospheric prices. The Konica RF has been called everything from a “grown up Minolta CLE” to an unabashed stealth copy of Kyocera’s brilliant Contax G2, but it’s a very fine camera in its own right and it’s certainly worthy of consideration by any analog Leica M aficionado looking for something different to add to his or her camera bag.

Zeiss Ikon ZM: Manufactured by Cosina in Japan for Carl Zeiss, this gorgeous all-metal, M-mount 35mm rangefinder camera has its own unique chassis and body components, but its electronically controlled, vertical travel metal focal plane shutter and aperture-priority auto-exposure metering system are the same as those used in the previous Voigtländer Bessa R and R3A/M, also made by Cosina. Officially dubbed simply Zeiss Ikon or Zeiss Ikon rangefinder, it was announced in 2004, became available in 2005, was phased out in 2012, and was available in black or chrome. Its signature feature: a brilliant 0.74x magnification range/viewfinder with a 75mm base length (longer than a Leica M7!), that provides an effective base length (EBL) of 55.5mm and features auto-indexing, trans-illuminated, parallax-compensating frame lines for 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses, and a manual frame line selector for previewing the coverage. The 28mm and 85mm frame lines are displayed simultaneously and there are no frame lines for 75mm and 135mm lenses, so you have to use an accessory shoe mount finder.

 One of the primary attractions of the ZM is its line of 12 exceptional Carl Zeiss designed ZM lenses, all of which can be used interchangeably on M-mount cameras. Ranging from the 15mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Distagon T* to the 85mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss Snnar T* ZM (both made in Germany) the remaining 10 ZM lenses are made by Cosina in Japan to a very high standard. They include an 18mm f/4, 21mm f/4.5, 21mm f/2.8, 25mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.5, 35mm f/2.0, 85mm f/4, and two normal lenses, the 50mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.5 Carl Zeiss Planar T* ZM. There are also separate accessory finders for 15mm, 18mm, 21mm and 25/28mm lenses. The shutter provides speeds ranging from 8-1/2000 sec in A (aperture-priority) mode and 1-1/2000 sec plus B in manual mode. X-sync is at 1/125 sec, there’s no DX auto film speed setting, but manual ISO settings cover an ISO 25-3200 range and there’s +/- 2EV exposure compensation in 1/3-stop intervals and a handy AE lock. Metered manual exposure is possible by turning the aperture or shutter-speed dial until the selected shutter speed coincides with the blinking metered shutter speed value.

 With its bright high-magnification 100% viewfinder, long base rangefinder, and sensitive TTL metering system, and outstanding Carl Zeiss lenses the Zeiss Ikon ZM is capable of pro caliber performance is my personal favorite among Japanese-made Leica M-mount 35mm rangefinder cameras. The only thing better is a real Leica like my beloved M6, or the top camera on my 2019 wish list, a new black Leica MP with a matching black APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH!











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