There’s an old saying in boxing – ”styles make fights.” The most entertaining boxing matches feature complementary styles, well-demonstrated in the slugger-on-slugger brawl of Gatti vs. Ward or the brains-vs-brawn bullfight that was Ali vs. Foreman. Conversely, the worst bouts feature styles that neither clash nor agree; think the dismal Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight, in which a hyper-defensive Mayweather clinched and ran his way to victory over the hyper-offensive but badly injured Pacquiao.
The Rolleiflex 2.8D, the Nikon FM, the Pentax K1000, these have all proved to be good matches for my reviewing style, which is usually approached from a modern film shooter’s perspective. All of those cameras provide a mix of historical interest and shooting prowess, and hold differing degrees of relevance today. But recently Casual Photophile site founder James sent me a different type of machine, and for the past few months I’ve been shooting the Walter Voss Diax IIa, an obscure, hard-to-use, and just-okay-looking old camera.
The Diax IIa has been the Mayweather to my Pacquiao. It’s a match made in hell.
Let’s Get Ready To Rumble
Some context first; the Diax IIa was designed as an interchangeable lens rangefinder camera by Walter Voss Photokamera-Fabrikation & Feinmechanik, a company founded in Ulm, Germany in 1945 by its namesake, Walter Voss. The Diax line was intended as a lower cost alternative to the top shelf Leicas and Contaxes of the day. The Diax design wasn’t groundbreaking compared to its higher-end contemporaries, but offered shooters a quality camera mated to some pretty nice German glass. The line wasn’t terribly competitive in its own time, and the company folded in 1957.
The specific model, Diax IIa, exists today in the Goldilocks zone of Diax cameras in that it benefits from all the incremental improvements that the Walter Voss company made to their camera line throughout the years, while being spared the cost-cutting measures implemented later in the company’s lifecycle.
It features an advanced-for-the-time combined viewfinder and rangefinder system, an additional viewfinder for 85 and 90mm lenses, a sturdy leaf shutter that tops out at a relatively speedy 1/500th of a second, and a design brief that borrows pages from the Kodak Retina series and Leica screw-mount playbook. Even though the Diax IIa’s design doesn’t quite match up to the German heavyweights, it looks decent.
Today, the Diax IIa and its stablemates fetch a somewhat pretty penny provided they’re sold to those in the know, and exist mostly as a mildly interesting artifact of photographic history. Relevant to the modern day shooter or revered by hardcore photo geeks they are not. They’re collector’s cameras through and through, suited much more to the spotless shelves of obsessive camera geeks than to the worn camera bags of active image-makers. But that didn’t stop me from shoving one into my bag just to see what it was made of.
From the first bell, the Diax IIa hit me with the classic camera one-two punch of old-school charm and frustrating design. Fine German workmanship abounds even in a consumer-oriented camera like this, with every knob, lever, and dial being made of metal and machined to extremely fine tolerances. The result is a pretty, semi-flashy compact camera that proudly sports the obvious design flourishes of the 1950s. But even German quality can’t save an inherently flawed design, and the Diax suffers from more than a few flaws.
On most cameras, the crucial mechanical bits are naturally hidden underneath the outer shell, away from our clumsy hands. While most of the Diax’s mechanisms lie beneath the surface, a crucial part of the shutter mechanism is located externally surrounding the lens mount. It’s all too easy to trip this lever while holding the camera normally, which can waste precious exposures.
Another frustrating quirk of the Diax is the shutter cocking mechanism itself. The Diax’s leaf shutter maxes out at 1/500th of a second, but the speed is only accessible by turning the shutter speed dial before winding onto the next frame, presumably because the shutter needs extra tensioning at that speed. And if you do decide to use the 1/500th speed, the shutter dial locks itself and doesn’t let you use any other speed. Re-training yourself to set the shutter speed before winding can eliminate this problem, but this is still annoying, especially to Leica screwmount shooters who are indoctrinated to always (and I mean always) wind the shutter before setting the speed.
And finally, the viewfinder on the Diax is absolutely dismal, especially if you wear glasses. It seems that the concept of eye relief simply wasn’t a thing for any of the designers at Walter Voss, as full viewing of the viewfinder frame requires the shooter to jam the viewfinder into their cornea. Glasses create troublesome distance from the finder, so some bobbing and weaving of the head is needed see the edges of the frame, which isn’t accurate anyway because neither of the Diax’s viewfinders have parallax compensation.
From a shooter’s perspective the Diax IIa is simply disappointing. The aforementioned quirks present obstacles at critical points in the shooting process. In a roll of thirty-six exposures, about twenty-four were accompanied by my muttering an expletive in response to a misfire of the shutter or one of the other weird quirks I forgot to consider. The camera’s only saving grace while shooting is how well-made everything is, but this becomes a moot point when using the camera is a pain.
After I shot what I could with the Diax IIa, I was just about ready to throw in the towel. It had been a very long time since I’d been so frustrated when tested a camera. Because of the substandard experience when shooting the machine, I automatically assumed that I couldn’t have possibly made any images either usable or interesting in my time shooting it. The results said otherwise.
The Knockout Punch
As mentioned before, the Diax IIa is an interchangeable lens rangefinder, which is remarkable for a camera with a leaf shutter. A couple of German lens manufacturers made lenses for the Diax system, these being Isco and Laack which, if I’m honest, sound more like IKEA furniture names than the names of German lens manufacturers. But there’s one name that stands out from the rest, and the one that makes cameras like the Diax IIa worth shooting – Schneider Kreuznach.
I’d long been fascinated by the Schneider Kreuznach name. It’s not quite as well known as Leitz Wetzlar or Zeiss, but among hardcore photo geeks, the Schneider name is every bit their equal. Their lenses have most notably graced the acclaimed Kodak Retina series, Rollei SLRs, and the Rolleiflex 2.8 series. Schneider Xenotar-equipped Rolleiflex 2.8’s in particular are considered of higher quality than the Zeiss Planar versions, a remarkable reputation that’s well-deserved. But I’ve never had experience with a Schneider lens, personally, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the one mounted to this Diax IIa.
The Diax IIa was marketed with different Schneider-made standard kit lenses, ranging from a Tessar patterned 45mm f/2.8 Xenar to a Double-Gauss patterned 50mm f/2 Xenon, with a few more lenses of varying focal lengths and speeds. My Diax IIa came with the 45mm f/2.8 Xenar which, after testing, has come to be one of the best lenses I’ve yet tested for the site.
The Schneider Xenar 45mm f/2.8 is patterned after the four-elements-in-three-groups Zeiss Tessar formula. The Tessar formula is famed for its corner-to-corner sharpness and relatively high contrast at low cost, which makes it a popular choice for consumer-oriented cameras like the Diax IIa. Combine that with Schneider’s incredibly high optical standards and ahead-of-its-time lens coatings and you get one of the best lenses of its era.
The images this Schneider 45mm f/2.8 lens made are simply mind-boggling. To take a page out of fellow writer Chris Cushing’s review on another Schneider lens, this lens is punishingly sharp. I’ve shot numerous Tessar-style lenses before, but I’ve never come across one that was as sharp corner-to-corner as this Schneider. This sharpness comes with high contrast; the gradient between light and shadow (often referred to as microcontrast) is fine and nuanced, a quality that is usually attributed to the best glass from Leica and Zeiss.
Where the Schneider seems to outperform its contemporaries (and most modern lenses) is in its lens coatings. The Tessar formula is flare-resistant as it is, but the coatings go a long way towards mitigating flare, making shooting in difficult lighting conditions a breeze. The colors provided by the lens coating are also some of the most vivid and saturated I’ve ever seen.
I ran some Kodak Portra 400 through this camera, and the film’s more neutral color palette paired perfectly with the high saturation produced by the Schneider. Reds and blues are deep and vivid without being overbearing, and scenes seem to be more “alive” through this lens. The lens seems to walk that fine line between accuracy and fantasy, and the results are among the most artful I’ve urged out of a vintage lens.
The Judge’s Scorecards
The Diax IIa is a tough camera to evaluate. Functionally, the camera just doesn’t hold up to others of its vintage. At its price, which hovers in and around the $200 range, competing cameras can easily outperform it. If historical relevance is a priority then the Diax IIa is a great representative of the Diax line, but its collectibility isn’t so great, meaning that its price is low compared to other, more collectible cameras.
But there’s one thing that makes me balk at dismissing the Diax IIa out of hand, and that’s its lens. Not only can it mount the fantastic Schneider Kreuznach 45mm f/2.8 that I tested, there’s a whole system of Schneider lenses that were made specifically for the Diax, including a 35mm f/3.5 Xenagon, a 50mm f/2 Xenon and a 90mm f/3.5 Tele-Xenon. That’s a whole system of knockout lenses that can be used with the Diax, two of which can be used natively.
The lens is the best thing about the Diax, and its results nearly forgive the shortcomings of the camera itself. Even so, I can’t bring myself to say that I’d shoot this Diax regularly no matter how pretty these images turn out, and that’s frustrating.
The Diax did, however, make me pay attention to one thing – reviewing style. Perhaps the reason why I don’t react well to cameras like the Diax IIa is because I tend to evaluate cameras more as things to be used rather than things to be collected. But I know many others (including some of my fellow writers of article on this site) might not value cameras for the same reasons as I. The Diax IIa is perfect for those who collect cameras and spend time admiring old-world mechanics and design. It’s so far-removed from the modern that it sparks conversation, and its history is obscure enough to entertain the hardest of hardcore photo nerds.
I’m going to have to call this fight a draw. The styles just don’t match. Even though I got some good shots, I still don’t feel good about the Diax IIa. And I don’t think I’ll be asking for a rematch anytime soon.
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