The Three Year Anniversary Review
Raxeh is Hexar spelled backwards!
I bought my first Hexar RF in March, 2005. I’d just sold back to KEH the Canon 10D I’d bought a few months earlier. I’d also sold them both my Nikon FM2s and a number of lenses for a ridiculous pittance. I’d decided that what I really wanted was a rangefinder, but even with the money in hand from the sale of the Nikons and the Canon, a Leica was out of reach. Ah, but the Hexar RF, that I could afford. I already owned a Hexar AF, and Dante said the RF was a fine camera, so I gave KEH $889 for a Hexar RF and a 50 Hexanon. I was so excited that I skipped worked the day the UPS guy was schedule to bring them. A few short minutes after he left, the box was open, and I was nearly heartbroken. The shutter was too loud, so much louder than the Hexar AF was even in its ‘loud’ mode. That would have been the end of it if I hadn’t been too poor to buy the Leica. I could have sent the Hexar back, but I knew that I would just be tempted to buy that Leica that I couldn’t afford. So I kept the Hexar out of self-defense.
Fast forward three years. I’ve now got two Hexar RF bodies, three of the Hexanon lenses, but still no Leica. I could afford that Leica now, but I’ve grown to appreciate the Hexar. It’s an entirely unique camera, combining modern materials and technologies with one of the oldest focusing systems around. It’s a combination that for me works better than either an entirely manual camera or one of the button and dial encrusted monstrosities that now populate the B&H catalog.
An Iconoclastic Design
The Hexar RF’s appeal has a lot to do with the iconoclastic nature of its genesis. If the admittedly excellent Zeiss Ikon was an attempt to make evolutionary improvements on the Leica M6, the Hexar RF was an attempt to make an entirely new species of camera by crossing the unique focusing system of the M6 with the automation and controls of the Canon T90 – for those not up on their history of the modern SLR, the T90 was the ergonomic inspiration for the auto everything SLRs or the 90’s and, eventually, every DSLR you’ve ever fondled. The result was something like learning Zen archery by doing industrial time-motion studies. The Hexar RF abandoned all the ancient conceits of the Leica – clumsy film loading, peculiar metering, limited shutter speeds – while hanging onto the small size and excellent rangefinder. Along the way, the automation and modern materials led to improved ergonomics and handling. It was, and still is, a revolutionary design, which is perhaps why it ultimately failed to find a place in the market. It turned out that the photographers who still appreciated the rangefinder’s benefits also happened to be in unhappy but ultimately faithful marriages with the all of the Leica’s shortcomings.
serial photography courtesy of the motor-drive
Commercial failure aside, the Hexar RF’s unholy marriage of rangefinder focusing and modern features actually works as a photographic tool. To understand why it works, it’s first necessary to understand what the contemporary Leica did and did not offer. The Leica has always enjoyed a reputation as the fast working camera for the discrete, natural light photographer. The lack of shutter vibration – a feature of it’s mirror free design – meant that you could hold it steady at much slower shutter speeds. The rangefinder itself made it possible to focus in much lower light levels than an SLR. The quiet shutter and small size allowed photography in places that larger and louder cameras would not be appropriate. The ability to see around the edges of the frame had serious compositional benefits. What you traded for all this was ease of use, a certain amount of framing inaccuracy, a minimum focusing distance of .7m and maximum focal length of 135. The last three are inherent to rangefinders, but there wasn’t much reason for all the usability oddities of the Leica. The Leica’s cumbersome film loading, slow and inaccurate shutter, lack of AE or integrated winder were all design choices specific to the Leica.
hexar rf, 28mm hexanon, neopan 1600
The Hexar RF discarded many of those design choices. The rangefinder was retained, but pretty much everything else went. In the place of a mechanical cloth shutter with a max speed of 1/1000th was a titanium bladed electrically controlled shutter capable of 1/4000th of second. In place of the silky smooth manual advance was a an automatic winder capable of slightly better than two frames a second. In place of manual metering with a semi-spot was a center-weighted meter and shutter priority AE. In place of bottom loading and manual rewind were an automatic loading and rewind system. In place of brass and leather were titanium and synthetics.
Wine, Beer and MD 20/20
For many Leica users, these were not improvements, and I’m not such a zealot that I can’t see why. There is something immensely satisfying about photographing with a precision mechanical instrument like the Leica. It taps into some lower part of our brain, the part of our brain that recognizes that small and heavy and full of springy bits is a very good thing. The Hexar RF is still small and heavy, but it doesn’t hit the same part of the brain. If the Leica is a fine wine, the Hexar is just a really good beer (by extension the average DSLR is some sort of cheap swill like Mad Dog).
Perhaps I’m revealing my middle-class, mid-west roots, but I drink a lot more beer than I do wine. By the same token, I like my cameras to have some limitations, but not quite as many as the Leica has. I regularly use 1/4000th to keep my aperture wide in bright light. I can load my Hexar one handed while walking. The auto winder means that I’m ready when Kate’s expression changes. The auto-exposure keeps me from doing dumb things like leaving the shutter at 1/8th of second. I’m convinced I make more successful photographs because of the Hexar’s enhanced features.
Lenses and Other Lenses
hexar rf, CV 35mm F1.4 SC, TriX
Yes, the Hexar RF can focus Leica lenses and Cosina lenses and Zeiss lenses too; I know because I’ve successfully used lenses from all three manufacturers. Despite that, the Hexar’s KM mount is not entirely compatible with other manufacturers lenses. For an explanation of why these two statements are not mutually exclusive, see Hands off my flange!. This also explains why the M8 can’t focus the Hexanon lenses.
hexar rf, 90mm hexanon, provia 100f
The Konica Hexanon lenses are excellent. The 50mm in particularly is a sleeper of a lens although prices do seem to be climbing. The 35 remains somewhat rare, but I’ve never talked to someone who didn’t love it. The 90 is grand portrait lens, although framing is a bit tricky with the Hexar’s gestural 90mm frame lines. The 28 is a 28 and nobody seems to get excited about 28mm lenses. If you never used anything other than the KM lenses, you wouldn’t be missing much, but if you do want to use that Sumilux, you can as long as you are up to the challenge of focusing a fast lens on an rangefinder. It isn’t exactly an easy task, so don’t be surprised if it takes practice.
The Future of the Rangefinder of the Future
Hexar RF, CV 35mm F1.4 SC, TriX
As of this writing the Hexar RF has been out of production for five years. Konica no longer makes cameras, having sold its camera line to Sony in the great digital shake down of the last few years. There are rumors of a Sony warehouse in Germany full of Hexar spare parts, but as far as I can tell, spare parts are nearly unobtainable. I harbor no illusions that anyone will be able to repair my Hexars. That said, I’ve been able to do little things myself. When I lost the eyepiece lens on one of mine last year, I was able to replace it with an over-sized lens purchased from an optics warehouse. I’ve also repaired a sloppy winder mode selector dial and recalibrated one of the rangefinders. Neither was too painful, but eventually something is going to break that I can’t fix. I’m betting that the shutter release button will be the first thing to go; the similar shutter release on the Hexar AF has a troubled history. The only reasonable option is to stockpile Hexar RF bodies, but prices have been going up. The last one I saw at KEH was listed at $800, I think. That’s better appreciation than a Leica, but it doesn’t bode well for my future use of Hexars. When the day comes when both mine die and no replacement is available, I probably will break down and buy that Leica, likely an M6TTL – I like the that the shutter speed dial turns the wrong way. By that time I may also be drinking more wine, so perhaps its limitations will appeal to me.