The best M mount camera ever made was the Konica Hexar RF. Now that I have your attention, allow me to walk that claim back a bit. We can haggle about what the “best” M mount camera is, but what’s undeniable is that the Konica Hexar RF is the most powerful M mount camera there is. And I got rid of it so I could buy a watch.
What follows is a brief story of why the Hexar found its way into my life and how it found its way out of my life.
The Rangefinder Mystique
No sooner does a person enter the film photography community today than they are confronted by the cult of the rangefinder. Point and shoots are maligned as a fashion accessory, and SLRs are a dime a dozen, but the rangefinder occupies that upper echelon of 35mm gear. The mythos of rangefinders snakes its way through social media with tales of better lenses and famous photographers.
Much of the talk is true, of course. Rangefinders don’t have a mirror, which, in turn, results in a smaller flange-to-film distance, quieter shooting, and steadier shooting. Rangefinders, by definition, use a rangefinder viewfinder without any sort of prism meaning lenses can stay stopped down while composing, there’s no viewfinder darkening as a result of slow lenses or filters, and the viewfinder coverage extends beyond what the lens sees.
The flange-to-film distance and the stopped-down composing allows rangefinder lenses to be smaller and, in some cases, optically superior to SLR lenses. This is because there is no need to either clear the mirror (which means lens elements can extend further into the camera body) or house components for automatic stop-down. So on and so forth.
For me, part of the reason I so pined for a rangefinder was that mystique. Anyone and everyone can find an old Canon or Pentax SLR, but only so many walk around with a rangefinder in its svelte form factor.
The Canonet 28 scratched that itch early on for me, but after some time, I knew only an M mount camera would do. I started with a Leica CL, which lasted only a few weeks. Next I owned a Voigtlander Bessa R2 in olive green. The Bessa was fun and gorgeous, but ultimately felt cheap in my hands: it was constructed out of magnesium (a low density metal), the exposure indicators flickered in the viewfinder, the shutter release had too little resistance.
I was faced with a crisis of faith. I praised rangefinders as demigods but my affordable M mount bodies were lackluster. Was the issue the rangefinder or my budget? Having ditched the CL and the Bessa, I thought I’d add in another constraint: aperture-priority.
I laid my options out on a mental table: the Minolta CLE, the Konica Hexar RF, a couple Voigtlander Bessa models, the Zeiss Ikon, and, of course, the Leica M7. The Voigtlanders were out. The Ikon was out here pulling costs over two grand, while the M7 was even greater than that. Left with the CLE and the Hexar, my choice was easy.
Choosing the Hexar
In all the cameras I’ve loved and lost, only two, in retrospect, broke my heart: the Contax G1 and the Contax 167MT. The former left my collection due to its spotty autofocus, to be replaced by the formidable Fujifilm GA645. The latter left my collection in my pursuit of a rangefinder.
The reason why my choice between the CLE and Hexar was easy comes down to my love for the G1. Internet-hearsay suggests that the Konica Hexar RF was manufactured by the same manufacturer responsible for the Contax G1 and Contax G2, as well as the Hasselblad XPan. I can’t say with any certainty how true this is, but the cameras themselves certainly seem to confirm it.
From the matte powder coating to the knobs and switches to even the back cover release, the resemblances are striking. Couple these body similarities with Zeiss’s Planar 50mm f/2 ZM lens and you get pretty close to a manual focus Contax G1. Hence, my choice was an easy one.
I kissed goodbye the Bessa R2, and a few weeks later I met another hobbyist at a Dunkin Donuts in Canton, Massachusetts to test and then leave with a beautiful Hexar RF.
Before getting down to the brass tacks, let me address one of the two most common disparages of the Hexar (the other being its reliance on electronics): “It’s not really an M mount camera! It’s a KM mount camera!” This debate has raged on the web since the earliest days of turn-of-the-century forums and messaging boards.
I can’t definitively say that the KM mount is or is not the same as the Leica M mount. I can say that I have used multiple M mount lenses on my Hexar including at f-stops as large as 1.4 and never has my focus been off. I am but one of many, many film shooters who has never had a problem shooting M mount lenses on their KM camera.
The Brass Tacks
The Konica Hexar RF is a rangefinder film camera for the modern era. Let me quickly point out its defining modern features:
- Internal motordrive (i.e., automatic film advance)
- Easy film loading with the motordrive
- Automatic film rewind
- Capable of 2.5 frames per second on continuous shooting
- 1/4000th of a second maximum shutter speed
- Auto exposure mode with a speed range of 16 seconds to 1/4000th of a second
- Auto exposure lock mode (lock with a half-depress of the shutter release button)
- Exposure compensation from -2 to +2 in 1/3rd of a stop increments
- 1/125th of a second flash sync
- DX ISO setting
- Metal shutter
These features come packed inside an aluminum chassis with titanium top and bottom plates and a textured rubber cover on the front and back, weighing in at 560 grams. On the front of the camera, you’ll find an incorporated right-side grip in the form of a modest crag for your fingers to hold. Moving left from the grip, there’s a small lens lock release button in silver with a concentric red circle. Left further still, there’s a small lever for changing which framelines appear in the viewfinder, overriding the default framelines set by the lens.
(The frameline lever features a three-textured design: a dimpled metal, a matte metal like the body, and a high gloss metal. Of course, this design is irrelevant to the camera’s use or even general appearance, but the decision to design one tiny part with three textures speaks to Konica’s commitment to the details.)
Above that lever, you’ll find the viewfinder glass: big, multi-coated, and gorgeous. The viewfinder has framelines for the following lens lengths: 28mm + 90mm, 50mm + 75mm, 35mm + 135mm, in those combinations (meaning that when a 28mm lens is on the camera, both the 28mm and the 90mm framelines will show up). The magnification is admittedly only 0.6x, which is far from real life. Resultantly, the framelines are good for wide lenses and pretty small for long lenses. In general, I find the viewfinder to be plenty bright and very clear.
Getting to the top plate, there’s an LCD output that shows, at all times, the battery level and, when turned on, the current frame number. There’s a hotshoe, an exposure compensation dial housing a manual ISO wheel, the shutter speed dial (which locks at “AE” and “AEL,” both painted green) with a red “125,” and the on-off switch that is straight stolen from the Contax G cameras.
The rest of the camera’s external features are relatively straightforward—manual rewind button, tripod socket, mechanical shutter release, battery compartment, silver-plated brass lugs on the top front, the aforementioned door release switch. These are in addition to my favorite tiny feature, the film door preview. A small, clear, pill-shaped window allows the camera’s user to see if and what film is loaded in the camera.
Maybe the most standard aspect of the Hexar is its meter, a center-weighted TTL silicon photodiode and no TTL flash metering. Would I prefer evaluative metering and/or the option to choose spot metering? Undoubtedly. Did the Hexar ever botch the exposure in my time with it? Not in my judgment.
What you get in the Konica Hexar RF is a blazingly fast automatic camera with manual focusing.
The Hexar Experience
Shooting with the Hexar can best be described as sexy. A sleek, all black camera with a satisfying shutter snap and futuristic “zh-ghzt” film advance sound, the shooting experience is just cool. (And yes, I did spend about five minutes listening to the advance sound, imitating it myself, and trying to put it into letters).
The Konica Hexar accompanied me on hikes, a wedding, an anniversary getaway to Walden Pond, walks in Manhattan, night jaunts on the Ocean City boardwalk, and quotidian tasks throughout the 21 months I owned it.
Focusing was easy for me, the camera was hefty in my hands (a plus for me), and produced well-metered photos at the click of a button. Does it feel like a Contax G1 as I might have hoped? Not exactly, but it’s also a far cry from the clunky manualness of the Leica CL or the clickety flimsiness of the Bessa R2.
For me, it was a Goldilocks 35mm experience–just automatic enough to be easy while still feeling engrossed in the process. Of course, the host of M-mount lenses play a big part in that experience. Perhaps my favorite lens to keep on the Hexar was my 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon. The f/2.8 is the slimmest of the ZM Biogon lenses but remains to be of the utmost build quality.
Many favorite photos of mine were taken with the Hexar, but as I write this, the camera has found its way into the home of another hobbyist film photographer. Why so?
Leaving the Hexar Behind
Two predominant factors led to the Hexar’s exit from my camera collection. The first was the introduction of a Pentax camera, and the second was a renewed fervor for watch collecting. This article is not a review of either the Pentax or any watch, but I’ll briefly explain the impact of each.
Having heard of the illustrious qualities of the Limited lenses produced by Pentax in the late ‘90s, I decided to search out a pristine copy of the 43mm f/1.9. Given the lens is autofocus, I decided it needed to be paired with an AF camera. I landed on the Pentax ZX-5N/MZ-5N after dismissing the MZ-S on account of it being damn ugly and too big and too digital. Long story short, I adore this combination and it quickly became my preferred camera and lens.
Now in August 2020–five months after acquiring my Hexar RF–I found myself with a revitalized interest in mechanical watches. In earlier years, I had been content with a Seiko SKX013 and a vintage Mido Commander President Daydate. Both were solid watches, but the Seiko was no longer exciting to me and the Mido was just a bit too far on the vintage side of things. Another long story short, in September I acquired a NOMOS Club Campus Night after selling all of my other watches and some camera gear.
By August 2021, I found myself compelled to somehow get my hands on an Oris Aquis Date. I had tried the watch on in 2020, but never pulled the trigger. Looking at my poor Hexar RF sitting on the shelf having not been used since June and continually losing out to the Pentax when times came to grab a camera as I headed out the door, I decided it would have to be sacrificed on the watch alter.
So out went the Hexar and in came a beautiful Oris Aquis Date 39.5 with the so-called Mint Green dial. I have to say, as much as it pains me to say this in a Casual Photophile article, that I do not regret the swap. I suppose, after all, I really am just a casual photophile.
My camera collection is at present the smallest it’s been in years. I have just four film cameras: my Pentax ZX-5N, my Olympus Pen FT, my Fujifilm GA645, and my Hasselblad 501c. Coincidentally, as my camera collection has dwindled, my watch collection has swelled.
Part of the fun of being a casual photophile is trying lots of cameras for the heck of it. And tried many I have! But another satisfying realization for me in the past year and a half has been refining my sense of what I really want in a camera and being satisfied with that preference.
It turns out I really like SLRs and I really like small cameras. The Pentax ended up being the camera for me, and now I get to shoot it with a watch I adore around my wrist. Luckily, the Hexar is in the capable hands of Kirk, a photographer from Pennsylvania. Maybe it will be the camera for him–or maybe he’ll swap it with something he loves more.
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