A few months ago, I sang the praises of the Zeiss C Biogon 35/2.8 M mount lens. In that earlier review, I spoke to my wife’s sixth sense and how she dealt me a whopper of an anniversary surprise in that glorious lens. I also mentioned that the lens came packed with an equally stunning Zeiss Ikon ZM 35mm rangefinder camera. I’ve been aiming to write a piece on the camera for some time, but wanted to wait a bit in order to truly familiarize myself with the camera that some consider to be the pinnacle of M mount rangefinder technology.
It’s a camera that garners a lot of window shoppers, but few of these oglers end up buying. And that’s a shame. Because the ZM is a camera that gets many things right, and delivers a shooting experience unlike anything else in my arsenal. After using this beautiful camera extensively for over a year, and experiencing many highs (and quite possibly the lowest of lows), it’s time to share everything I’ve come to know about the Zeiss Ikon ZM. Is it a Leica-killer? Of course not. Will it go toe-to-toe with any film M? It sure will. In fact, it refines the rangefinder a bit further and pushes things forward, where Leica lets off the gas.
This excellence noted, it’s also fair to say that the camera seems to be underrated amongst the average rangefinder fan, and in certain circles it’s dismissed outright due to its reliance on battery power to operate. Though many reliable sources praise it highly, its rarity leaves a lot to interpretation for those who’ve never held one. And less-than-reliable user reviews can lead to more questions than answers for those attempting to discern whether or not to buy. So let’s try to dispel some myths and clear the air.
Old World Heritage
The “Zeiss Ikon” namesake is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious in photographic history. Its origins date back to the mid-1920s when Carl Zeiss’ capital and the merger of four smaller companies (Contessa-Nettel, Ica, Goerz, and Ernemann) signaled Zeiss Ikon’s humble beginning. The history is rather long and convoluted, but by the beginning of WWII, Zeiss Ikon had established itself as the market leader in 8mm movie cameras. After the war, the company was split across East and West Germany, and later reformed in West Germany. In the mid-1960s, ZI merged with Voigtlander (already under Zeiss’ control), and to the camera world’s dismay, ceased all camera production in 1972. The remaining product know-how and equipment was used towards Contax and Yashica brands alike.
Though Zeiss Ikon as a company is no more, Carl Zeiss AG attempted to revive the brand in 2004 with the release of the camera we’re talking about today. Designed in Germany by Zeiss and manufactured in Japan by Cosina from 2006-2012, the ZM was made in black and silver and was intended to be paired with Zeiss’ gorgeous M mount ZM lens line. It also works fantastically with any M mount lens. At its core, it’s a well-refined shooters machine that takes decades of rangefinder trial and error and rolls it up into a elegant and near perfectly designed package.
In The Hands
One thing that becomes immediately clear when first laying hands on this camera is how well-balanced and lightweight it feels. One might initially feel a bit disappointed to know that many of the ZM’s internals are made of lighter weight metals and plastics; and for a camera that commands an equivalent price to the likes of the M6 (which I advise not to make a physical comparison to), it may almost feel like a let down in some ways. I can assure you, however, that its lack of heft is one of its greatest strengths.
At the heart of the ZM’s existence is a philosophy, a mindset that embodies a desire to follow and build upon great rangefinder design. Instead of stubbornly chaining itself to tradition, it aims to follow in the footsteps of innovators like Minolta (RIP), whose CLE reigned supreme for nearly two decades as the world’s most advanced 35mm rangefinder. And while some of us feel the CLE might be the best rangefinder camera around, the ZM may actually be better. That’s because it not only borrows many of the CLE’s advancements, but further builds upon them in a graceful way.
It offers full manual mode with meter assistance, aperture-priority auto-exposure, plus exposure compensation, and the biggest and brightest viewfinder of any rangefinder around. All in a tight, refined package. For a manual focus rangefinder to offer this combination of shooting modes, and (gasp) semi-auto shooting is sometimes seen as heretical. After all, the masters and their Ms didn’t need auto-exposure – why should we? But truth be told, most pro shooters prefer some degree of automation. More mental energy to focus on the craft of photography, the stuff that matters.
Rangefinder fans who haven’t shot the ZM have most likely heard the tales of its wonderfully large and bright viewfinder. If there is one feature of this machine that it should be judged by, this is it. It stands alone, unrivaled by any M body before it, and to this day is the most beautiful viewfinder on any camera, hands down. Shutter speeds are perfectly placed and illuminated upon meter activation in a vertical fashion along the left edge of the finder. Frame-lines possess minimal stroke yet are wonderfully contrasted against the world in front of them. The 35mm and 50mm lines stand alone when respective focal length lenses are mounted, and the 28mm and 85mm lines share space when either of those lengths are paired to the body. Nice to see Zeiss isolating 35mm and 50mm lines for the two most popular focal lengths.
The .74x magnification lends itself particularly well to 35mm lens shooters as it leaves just enough of a border outside the frame for subjects entering the space. 28mm can feel a bit tight at times, but isn’t so tight that the eye needs to hunt. For those requiring eye relief, the ZM’s circular finder bezel conveniently adapts Nikon diopters; readily available new at B&H.
While this finder’s accolades are well-warranted, there are two characteristics that I consider minor oversights. Because the finder is so large, the eye has a bit of room to move, and the rangefinder patch, which is well contrasted and large in its own right, can suddenly vanish from sight. Some may find this annoying when trying to nail focus on the move, but I don’t see it as a major issue since the majority of my shooting is done via zone focus anyway. Second, the LED shutter speed illumination can seem non-existent in bright light. If you’re the type of shooter who is heavily meter reliant and shoots on manual, then this may be something to take into consideration. If you’re a seasoned shooter and know your light, then this won’t matter much.
Depending on how you look at it, the ZM’s electronically controlled, metal, vertically-traveling focal plane shutter can be either a major strength or its greatest weakness. As a strength, metal shutters allow for faster shutter speeds and greater resilience. The ZM boasts a top shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second, which lends itself well to my shooting style. I’m most often exposing 400 ISO speed film at 800 ISO, and that extra shutter stop allows me to keep my lenses at my favorite aperture (f/8) in bright daylight; which for me, is a perfect balance of rendering and sharpness. In semi-auto mode, the ZM will meter down to 8 seconds, but keep in mind that the meter will display at 1 if the shutter speed is calculated between 1 and 8 seconds. Additionally, auto mode allows for heavenly stepless shutter speeds accurate to 1/12th of a second.
On the downside, metal shutters are noisier than their cloth counterparts. Certainly not a favorable characteristic when shooting in environments where keeping a low profile is key. In the case of the ZM, the shutter noise is slightly louder than any M, CL or CLE, but not by much. As a matter of opinion, I find the ZM’s shutter sound quite satisfying. If I were forced to describe it, it might sound like a gratifying thwick versus Leica’s thuck.
Analog camera owners battle their fair share of anxiety around losing their beloved machines to technical malfunctions, and the ZM makes me no less nervous. This is an expensive, complicated machine. The aforementioned weakness manifested itself in the form of a nightmare for me earlier this year when the shutter of my ZM snapped in half. I can’t recall doing anything out of the ordinary or even treating my camera any more aggressively than I typically do. It just snapped mid-roll, and that was all she wrote.
As I sat there in disbelief, a very expensive brick in my hands, I remember thinking that I needed to do whatever it took to get the camera fixed, because, well, it’s worth it. Selling it may have salvaged half of what it cost me, which was equivalent to what Zeiss quoted me to fix it. Furthermore, its sentimental value outweighs any replacement value I could place on it, so off to Germany it went. Eight weeks later, I had a brand new ZM in my hands. Zeiss replaced the entire shutter mechanism, and performed a complete overhaul on the camera; including a fresh vulcanite wrap, rangefinder alignment, and a new body cap. Knowing that I can still count on Zeiss for service definitely gives me the warm and fuzzies.
The ZM boasts a very well damped film advance coupled with a rather short throw. It allows quick shots to be rattled off without fear of a missed wind and feels quite controlled due to the knurled tip on the advance. Some claim that the advance can feel “flimsy,” “loose,” or “cheap,” and while I wouldn’t use any of those adjectives to describe it, I can say that it does find itself in the runner-up position when compared to both its Wetzlar counterparts and the CLE. Even with the recent Zeiss overhaul, the ever so slight bit of vertical play in the advance appears to be intended.
Loading film is about as easy as it gets with the ZM. A practical swing back film bay door (with film cassette window) makes cassette swaps familiar and quick, and always knowing which film I have loaded is a welcome reminder. The rewind knob sits at the bottom of the camera, which I love. Its recessed design allows the camera to play nicely on flat surfaces, and the crank is easy to access when needed, enabling a smooth and clutter-free top plate.
The top plate houses the all-in-one dial controlling ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. Like the CLE, all three controls fit nicely into a neat little disk of goodness. Adjustments are easy enough to make on the fly due to the knurled edge of the dial sitting flush against the top plate, and fall into its detents with satisfying clicks. The dial can be moved much easier than can be done on the Voigtlander Bessa line (which typically require two fingers), and rotated in a 360 degree motion. There is no dial lock to depress either, which makes finding the appropriate setting much quicker. ISO control is performed via a familiar “lift and turn” movement with a range of 25 to 3200 and common speeds of 100 and 400 highlighted in red.
Finishing off the top plate is a standard hot shoe for flash (the ZM does not have TTL flash), a standard threaded shutter release, and shutter lock. As someone who has had their fair share of “accidental black out bag shots” I have come to appreciate release locks on any camera.
One of the more widely discussed features of the ZM is the the position and functionality of the exposure lock button. It is binary by design, which means that I’m not accidentally tripping the shutter when trying to lock my exposure (as can be the case with integrated AE lock/shutter release button combos). The placement of the button, however, could have been better located a bit off center to the right so that smaller hands and thumbs aren’t required to stretch as far to access the feature. I think there are split camps on this one, but as someone who does human factors for a living, I can appreciate the adherence to good design principles.
I’d like to take a moment to encourage the camera world to stop worrying about rangefinder base-length. Yes, there are rangefinders with short base-lengths, like the Leitz Minolta CL, which makes nailing focus wide open a real chore. That is a fact. It is also fact that the ZM’s base-length is best in class (75mm base-length x .74 finder magnification = 55.5mm effective base-length). Ultimately, if you are worried about missed focus wide open with fast glass, your chances of missing the mark are greatly decreased with the ZM. In practice, the mathematics mean diddly. It’s the ZM’s massive rangefinder patch and bright finder that lend themselves well to focusing precision.
In my experience, camera accessories tend to make their way to the bottom of a drawer or to the back of the closet; never to be seen again. But the optional hand grip for the ZM compliments it quite well, and is one add-on worth consideration. It doesn’t add much weight to the camera, and as expected, only compliments the already thoughtful ergonomics. I typically walk the streets with the ZM in hand down by my leg, the strap wrapped around my wrist a few times to keep it from an ugly sidewalk death. The grip is just what I need to add a bit more comfort in that environment.
One of the greatest points of contention when deciding on an analog camera is whether to choose a mechanical or electronic machine. I find this debate exhausting and unnecessary because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. Mechanical cameras fail with the same rate as electronic cameras do. The ultimate lesson to be learned with an electronic camera is to bring an extra set of batteries with you at all times. This isn’t difficult.
Furthermore, I’ve had numerous mechanical cameras fail on me in the field. This is the only electronic camera I’ve ever owned that let me down, and the failure point was ironically mechanical. It can happen to any camera at any time, so I encourage anyone on the fence about this machine not to place that much negative emphasis on its electronic circuitry. I think it’s a topic that gets tossed around forums irresponsibly, and casts an unnecessary shadow of doubt on some of the finest photographic tools in existence.
Anyone making the decision to find themselves a premium M mount rangefinder has a lot to consider. A large part of that consideration comes in the way of holding and shooting these tools directly, but I recognize that this may be difficult; especially considering the rarity of a camera like the ZM. I’d also encourage anyone reading about my personal experience with this camera to not be dismayed. Remember, rare disasters can strike at any time – or never. The good news is that the ZM is not only a modern rangefinder (which means even the oldest copies are still relatively new), but can still be serviced professionally by Zeiss (or any competent repair person for that matter). All parts can be ordered directly from Zeiss, so the idea of a ZM living the life of a doorstop or paperweight (at least for the time being) is thankfully out of mind.
Is it the best M mount rangefinder ever made? That’s tough to say. Primarily because that’s a ridiculous question to begin with. Every camera caters to different shooters in different ways. In use, I can say that it is without a doubt the most advanced and well thought out 35mm rangefinder design I’ve ever owned. Everything from the camera’s balance in the hand, to the compatibility with every M mount lens, to its modern conveniences make it an absolute joy to use. It puts nothing in the way of the shooter’s vision.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a premium 35mm M mount rangefinder with a best in class viewfinder, aperture-priority, and marginal advantages over any Leica M, then it’s worth your consideration. I like to imagine the Zeiss engineers took everything great about the CLE, considered the repetitious design flaws of every Leica M body, and produced a camera that does the Zeiss Ikon heritage justice. Yes, it’s that good.
Oh, and if you’re on a budget, just buy a CLE.