Konica Hexar RF: Iconoclastic RF

The Three Year Anniversary Review

Hexar RF Review Pic 1, Konica Hexar RF & 50mm Hexanon
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.

Hexar RF Review Pic 5, Konica Hexar RF & 28mm Hexanon
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 Review Pic 2, Konica Hexar RF & 28mm Hexanon
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 Review Pic 4, Konica Hexar RF & CV 35 F1.4 SC
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 Review Pic 4, Konica Hexar RF & 90mm Hexanon
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.

Other Hexar RF Reviews and Resources:

Focus Check (04390020)

Hexar RF, ZM Biogon 35, Delta 400@250, Tmax Dev

Yep, seems to be working. I had to adjust the RF on one of my Hexars recently. The vertical alignment had drifted off by bit. It’s unclear why this happens on the Hexar, as the vertical adjustment wheel is securely stuck in place with a blob of wax. They do seem to drift, although this is true of nearly any RF. Making the adjustment on the Hexar is fairly easy. Remove a couple of screws, take off one dial, pop the top and bust out your screwdrivers. Instructions – recently updated with better pictures and text from the service manual – are available on the ever helpful rangefinderforum.com. I seem to have hit the near focus on mine, at least with the Biogon. Infinity focus might be a bit off, but it hasn’t shown in photos, yet.

As with any complicated and fragile device, you could break yours by doing this, so do so at your own risk.

Held together with wire, gaffers tape and superglue

I just made another repair on one of my Hexars; both are now officially ugly in a way that only a photographer could love. One has the replacement eyepiece lens held in with superglue and gaffer’s tape. On the other one, I’ve just finished a repair to keep the frame advance selector from moving too freely on its own. It had developed a tendency to migrate to the self-timer position when I wasn’t lookig. A bit of wire around the base of the selector and a bit of gaffer’s tape for cosmetic purposes has subdued its wander lust for the moment.

This is what happens when you use your cameras everyday. With very few gaps for digital diversions, I’ve carried one of these bodies almost everyday for 3 years. They’ve banged around in back packs, been rained on, snowed on, poked by TSA minions, slipped from my shoulder repeatedly and generally been treated like tools. They’ve never failed me. I’d consider buying another for the inevitable day when one finally dies, but prices for bodies in good condition have risen considerably since I bought mine. KEH is listing an EX grade body for almost $900. That’s 30% more than I paid for either of mine. Perhaps word has gotten out that they really are fine cameras. For that kind of money you can buy an RF for which spare parts actually exist. Unfortunately, you can’t buy anything with the same feature set of the Hexar RF for any amount of money.

Hexar RF Notes

Hexar RF, Zm Biogon 35
Commodity Apartment Geometry | Hexar RF, ZM Biogon 35, Delta 400, Tmax Dev

Just a couple of gear-head notes:

  • Reader Hanjo pointed out that you can now buy from the Megaperls webstore an adapter to allow fitting a Leica VF Magnifier to the Hexar RF . They are also offering 1.15X and 1.35X magnifiers for Leicas (and Hexars via the aforementioned adapter). These magnifiers include diopter adjustment, so they could be very useful for Hexar owners who are unable to find the rare Hexar RF diopter lenses. The 1.35X adapter on the Hexar RF gives a VF magnification of .81, which would make shooting that beautiful KM 90MM F2.8 a heck of a lot easier. Unfortunately, they won’t ship them to the US or Germany due to patent restrictions. Get them at www.unicircuits.com</a.
  • My own DIY Eyepiece Replacement is still going strong after almost a year, although I did change the mounting. The original copper mount scratched my glasses. The lens is now held in with a couple of dots of superglue. A thin strip of gaffer’s tape makes it look pretty. This solution has worked out well enough that I don’t pay much attention to which Hexar I grab of a day.
  • After almost 3 years of constant use by me – and whatever use the previous owner gave it – the drive selector dial on my original Hexar RF is starting to loosen up a bit. Other than that, it seems as mechanically sound as the day I stayed home from work to wait for the UPS guy to drop it off.
  • For anyone looking to buy a new Hexar RF, reader Dave pointed out that Leo’s Cameras still has new stock Hexars and Hexanon lenses in stock. Looks like they’ve got Xpan stuff too.
  • For anyone looking for a little inspiration, check out flickr for some of the incredible photography being done with Hexar RFs

Indispensable: Hexar RF, ZM Biogon 35

krannert_uncorked-23-edit.jpg
photo courtesy of www.anthonysnaps.com

That’s my rig. The camera I carry everyday, everywhere. It’s sitting on the floor next to me as I write this, and it’s twin with the 50 Hex is sitting by the door, ready to go. After using these Hexars for couple of years, they’ve become a part of me. I feel kind of naked without one of them, but I don’t even notice them when one is hanging off my shoulder. There’s something to be said for any camera that you can use and forget. If you’ve got one, hang on to it. There will always be time to upgrade later, but there will rarely ever be enough time to bond with another old favorite.

BTW, Kate calls pictures like this ‘camera porn,’ a term also useful for things like the KEH catalog.

DIY Hexar RF Eyepiece

Regular readers will recall that I recently lost the eyepiece for one of my Hexar RF bodies. After a couple of days unsuccessfully trolling the usual internet outlets for weird camera junk, I decided to build my own replacement eyepiece. Unlike a lot of cameras, the standard rear eyepiece of the Hexar RF is not just a clear piece of glass, it’s the last element in a reverse telescope (Note to camera designers: crucial bits should not come susceptible to random unscrewing!). Unfortunately, the diopters for the Hexar seem to work in tandem with the eyepiece, so the -3 and -4 diopters I got from KEH were pretty much useless. Using the eyepiece off my other body and a formula my dad gave me, I figured out that the eyepiece has a focal length of just about 52mm.

ep1.jpg

A little poking around on the internet located the good folks at http://www.surplusshed.com/. I highly recommend them over Edmund Optics. For one thing, they are significantly cheaper – like $4 for a lens instead of $20. For another, they have a convenient lens finder that locates your lens based on focal length and diameter. A quick search for 50mm-ish lenses around 15mm in diameter located a number of potential candidates. At $4 each I figured better safe than sorry, so I ordered a couple of extras on either side of 50mm. When my order arrived a few days later, it turned out that the 51mm was just about perfect. Next came the task of mounting it on the camera.

Once again I called on the ingenuity of my father (one of the benefits of temporarily living at home). After tossing a few ideas back and forth, he disappeared into the garage. Thirty minutes later he presented me with this:

ep2.jpg

A strip of copper sheeting was soldered into a cylinder sized to fit over the original screw threads on the body. One end was clipped and bent down to a narrow diameter in order to hold the lens in place. The lens was positioned on top of the threads. The copper cylinder was glued down to hold the whole works in place. Although dad was in favor of painting the copper, I’m thinking about leaving it shiny. Who else has a copper and black Hexar RF?

So, how does it work? Dandy. Comparing the repaired Hexar with my other one, it’s pretty clear that focusing accuracy and viewfinder brightness are undiminished. Eye relief remains the same as well. The replacement lens is not quite as flat as the original equipment. This increased curvature results in a slightly different focal length outside the center portion of the lens requiring dead center eyeball position to hold the whole field in focus. Having used it like this for a few days, I don’t notice the difference when actually photographing. I’ve always been pretty careful about centering my eye, so perhaps other users would have more of a problem with this

I’m quite pleased with this repair. It’s piqued my curiosity about the possibility of building a VF magnifier for the Hexar. A .9 VF would give me a reason to go buy that Noctilux I’ve always wanted.

Update 12/26/06: The copper sleave that I was using to hold the lens on ended up scratching my glasses. Since a couple of months of use demonstrated that the lens indeed worked, I decided to super-glue it on as a more permanent solution. A couple of drops of glue around the edge of lens seems to be holding it in place just fine.

For Want of an Eyepiece

I lost the eyepiece to one of my Hexar’s yesterday. Unlike a lot of cameras in which the standard diopter is just a clear piece of glass, the eyepiece of the Hexar forms an integral part of the RF. Without it, you can’t see through the viewfinder. Of course, only Hexar eyepieces fit. And of course, since the Hexar RF is a long out production camera originally made by a company that’s changed hands a few times now, locating a replacement part is a pain in the butt.

This is one of the downsides to using abandonware. When it gives up the ghost, you are pretty much on your own. I’ve emailed Greg Weber, the only recognized Konica repair resource in the states and asked on photo.net where, oddly enough, somone else had just lost the same piece off their Hexar. I’ve also bought up KEH’s supply of corrective diopters for the Hexar thinking that if those don’t work for me perhaps I can trade them.

If the Hexar RF didn’t have such completely brilliant ergonomics, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble, but it’s the best designed camera I’ve ever used, much better than an M in many ways. The other day I was looking over Sean Reid’s review of the new M8 and thinking how much they could have improved its ergonomics by adopting the shutter speed dial off the Hexar. Using the Hexar’s exposure compensation dial would have been a good idea as well. Heck, why didn’t they just stuff a sensor into all those Hexar bodies that Sony has got sitting in a warehouse in Germany? But that’s a topic for another day.

Update: Folks looking to replace the eyepiece on their own Hexar RF, should look at this post, in which I detail building your own replacement eyepiece. With some tinkering this could also be a good way to get diopter correction or an increased mag VF. For those wanting to buying a diopter, check out KEH and http://www.photostop.net/Hexar.html.