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Leica M7 vs. Voigtlander Bessa vs Zeiss Ikon, an Opinionated Review

Which AE 35mm Rangefinder is right for you? by Josh Root, May 2009 (updated February 2011)


As of the writing of this article (June 2009) photographers have three options to consider when looking to purchase a new 35mm rangefinder with automatic-exposure (AE) capabilities. Leica has the M7, Voigtlander has its Bessa, and Zeiss has the Zeiss Ikon (hereafter called the “ZI”). This article will compare the three choices and offer advice on which might be the best choice for someone looking to get a new rangefinder. This article only covers the cameras that are sold new on the shelves today. Older discontinued cameras are a topic for another day.

On the surface, it would seem like an easy decision as all three cameras are at different price points. If you have a lot of money, go ahead and buy the most expensive and if you have less money buy the cheapest. But in reality we know that camera buying decisions are rarely that simple. Frequently a photographer will have a specific amount in their “camera budget” that they can spend. If they buy a cheaper body, the money saved can go to more lenses or accessories. If they buy a more expensive body, there may not be enough left over to buy those lenses or accessories. It’s a debate that has raged since before there were internet forums to fill with questions.

Here are a few things to note. I am leaving the Zeiss Ikon SW off of this list. It is a fine camera and well worth your consideration. But it does not have a viewfinder or a rangefinder and therefore does not really compare well with the other cameras for the purposes of this article. Secondly, aside from viewfinder magnification, framelines and paint, the Leica specifications and info below only applies to stock “off the shelf” cameras. It does not apply to the other dizzying array of options available through the Leica “a la carte” system. Finally, I am going to consider each camera “version” to be one camera except for where specific differences need to be noted. For example, yes, the Bessa R2A and the R3A have different names. But the primary difference is the finder and framelines. The Leica M7 offers a similar choice in framelines/finder, but they just lump everything under the “M7” banner. So rather than listing three different Bessa models and just the one Leica, I’m going to group things together in a way most people will find logical. Though, as we all know, there often is nothing logical about those of us who love rangefinders.

Which brings me to a point that I like to make at the beginning of all my rangefinder related articles: This article is just my own opinion, I fully expect that others will have different opinions and I encourage you all to use the “comments” area at the bottom of the page to express those opinions. Someone who comes to this article looking for advice will be happy to get as much as they can. Also, while I know more than your average person, I am not an all-knowing Leica god. There may be small bits of Leica minutia that I get incorrect. Feel free to drop me a line and correct me. I will update the article accordingly.

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Comparison at a glance

Here is a chart comparing the features of the three AE rangefinder options. Info given should be assumed to apply to all versions of a camera unless noted otherwise. When marked in green, it is my opinion that a particular camera is the best of the options for that particular criteria. When nothing is marked in green, it is because all cameras are equal or the criteria is too varied to make any sort of useful judgment call. All criteria and my opinions about how they apply to the cameras are discussed below the chart in the second part of the article.

 
Leica M7

Voigtlander Bessa

Zeiss Ikon
Street Price

$4395 (+$180 for .58/.85 finder)

$559 R2A/R3A $669 R4A

$1408

Size 5.4 × 3.1 × 1.5″ (138.0 × 79.5 × 38mm) 5.4 × 3.2 × 1.4″ (136 × 81 × 35mm) 5.4 × 3.1 × 1.3″ (138 × 78 × 32mm)
Weight 1.23 lbs (610 g) 1 lb (430 g) 1.1 lb (500 g)
Made In Germany Japan Japan
Warranty 3yr “passport” (everything but fire/theft) + 2yr 1yr 1yr
Color Options

Silver, Black chrome, Black paint (+ $100 via a la carte)

Gray paint, Black paint (R4A black matte paint only) Silver paint, Black paint
Finder Options .72x (standard)
.58x & .85x (via a la carte)
R2A .7x
R3A 1x (1:1 life size)
R4A .52x
.74x
Framelines .72: 28/35/50/75/90/135
.58: 28/35/50/75/90
.85: 35/50/75/90/135
R2A: 35/50/75/90
R3A: 40/50/75/90
R4A: 21/25/28/35/50
28/35/50/85
Frameline Selection Automatic Manual Automatic
All Framelines w/Glasses .72: No (28mm lines) .58/.85 – Yes R2A: Yes
R3A: No (40mm lines)
R4A: Yes
Yes
Finder Display Bottom – AE: shutter speed, Manual: triangle/dot/triangle exposure guide Bottom – AE: shutter speed, Manual: set (solid) and suggested (blinking) shutter speeds Left side – AE: shutter speed, Manual: set (solid) and suggested (blinking) shutter speeds
Focusing Accuracy (Effective Baseline) .58: 40.16 mm
.72: 49.86 mm
.85: 59.1 mm
R2A: 25.6 mm
R3A: 37 mm
R4A: 19.24 mm
55.5 mm
Battery DL 1/3 N Lithium Alkaline LR44 Alkaline LR44
Operate w/o batteries Yes. Two mechanical speeds of 1/60 & 1/125 No No
Shutter Speeds AE: 32 sec – 1/1000, Manual: 4 sec – 1/1000 + Bulb AE: 8 sec – 1/2000, Manual 1 sec – 1/2000 + Bulb AE: 8 sec – 1/2000, Manual 1 sec – 1/2000 + Bulb
Max Flash Sync 1/50 1/125 1/125
Shutter Type Rubberized cloth, electronic (with 2 mechanical speeds 1/60 & 1/125), horizontal traveling Metal, electronic, vertical traveling Metal, electronic, vertical traveling
PC Plug Back of top plate Left side of top plate Left side of top plate
TTL Flash Yes No No
Metering pattern/method Centerweighted, measured off of 12mm white spot on cloth shutter Centerweighted, measured off of 18% grey shutter blade Centerweighted, measured off of 18% grey shutter blade
AE lock Half-press shutter button Dedicated button in center of rear top plate Dedicated button on right side of rear top plate
Over/under Exposure 2 stops, dial on back 2 stops, integrated on shutter speed dial 2 stops, integrated on shutter speed dial
Film Loading Bottom loading Swing-back Swing-back
DX ISO Reading Yes No No
ISO Range DX: 25-5000, Manual: 6-6400 25-3200 25-3200
Trigger Winder Capability Yes Yes No
Rewind Method Fold out lever on top plate knob Fold out lever on top plate knob Fold out lever on bottom plate, ratcheted
Off Switch Yes, under shutter button, Red is OFF Yes, under shutter button, Red is ON Yes, under shutter button, Red is ON

A bit more in depth…

Tables of specs are all well and good. But what do these numbers and facts mean for the person looking to buy a camera? Here is my take on the information presented above.

Street Price – Winner: All

There isn’t really any way to pick a better or worse price. On the one hand, you can say “Cheaper is better as far as price is concerned”. But if that were the case, we would all eat at McDonald’s and drink wine from a box (not that there is anything wrong with either of those). My point is that “cheaper is better” is only valid when comparing two things of the same quality. These three cameras are all great cameras, but they each represent different values and construction quality. The Leica is a handmade piece of equipment with design based on decades of history, the Bessa is a factory created camera built for value, and the ZI is somewhere in between. In my opinion, the best camera is the one you can afford. If you can afford all three, then the best one is the one that suits you better as far as features and specs or just overall “feel”. In all honesty, each of these cameras will make great images and each of them are enjoyable to use.

Size/Weight – Winner: All

This is one of those “hard to quantify” things. All three of the cameras are roughly the same size. But they will each feel a little different in your hand. Some people will swear that they couldn’t use one camera and swear that another is a godsend, all over the difference in a few millimeters. Are they wrong? Of course not. Being comfortable with your tools is an important part of photography. Now, the different weights of the cameras are a bit more obvious to most photographers. The M7 is simply a heavier camera than the other two. Holding the M7 in one hand and the Bessa in the other really shows the difference. How much of a difference will this make to you? Probably none at the end of the day. We’re not talking about multiple pounds here, just ounces. Though the differences are more obvious, the end result is the same as the size discussion. It’s going to be about “feel” more than anything. And it’s one of those things where, if you weren’t standing there with all three cameras in front of you, you’d probably never think about it.

Made In – Winner: All

There are some people who will go on at length about how much better the Leica is because it is made in Germany versus something made in Japan. I’m here to tell you that country of origin in and of itself is not going to tell you much as far as cameras are concerned. Anywhere that wants to can make great quality cameras these days. If there is a skilled workforce and a factory, you can get quality products if that is what you want. It’s more about what price point you are looking at. A $75 lens and a $750 lens might both be made in the same country, but chances are the $75 lens is not going to be the same quality as the $750 one. The Leica M7 is a well constructed camera because it’s at a price point that provides that sort of thing. A $75 camera built in Germany wouldn’t be nearly the same construction or quality. Bottom line, expect quality based on a price point, not on a country of origin.

Warranty – Winner: Leica

The Bessa and the ZI both have fairly industry standard one year warranties against factory defects. Nothing unusual about that and it’s what most people expect when buying a camera. However, Leica goes above and beyond with their “Passport” program. If you buy your Leica M7 from an authorized dealer (Leica dealer list here) you get three years of Passport warranty and another two years of standard manufacturer defect warranty. Under the Passport warranty, Leica will repair or fix any problem resulting from both manufacturing failure or accidental damage short of theft or fire. If it breaks because Leica screwed up when building it, they will fix it. If it breaks because you dropped it out a window, they will fix it. Pretty good, eh? But that is part of what you are paying for when you shell out the extra cash to get a Leica.

As a note, there was some confusion on Leica forums regarding the Passport program continuing past 2008. Annoyingly, there is no official webpage I can find that clarifies this situation. However the owner of a large USA Leica-authorized retailer forwarded me an email from his Leica distributor that stated the Passport program was still going. In addition, both Adorama and B&H’s webpages for the M7 list the Passport warranty and the two additional years of manufacturers defect warranty. So I’d say that it is a safe bet that the Passport program is still in effect for USA purchases.

Color Options – Winner: All

The black paint on all three cameras looks pretty good, though the R4A’s matte black is an acquired taste. The M7 stands out because it’s chrome is real chrome and not silver paint. Now, that having been said, Leica’s black chrome is not as nice as the black paint of Zeiss or Voigtlander, and Leica’s black paint is an extra $100. Finally, the gray offered by Voigtlander on the R2A and R3A is a nice change from the standard options offered over the years in the RF world. So it’s kind of a toss up as far as color options.

Finder Options/Framelines – Winner: Voigtlander

Leica did itself a real favor a few years back when it decided to offer .85 and .58 finders in addition to their standard .72. The additional finders gave eyeglasses users and tele fans something to cheer about. But it didn’t really change the game in any way, you were still looking through external finders for lenses wider than 28mm and there weren’t any new focal lengths offered. Voigtlander did a favor to all the old 40/2 Summicron users when it decided to offer the R3A with 4omm framelines. Plus, the R3A’s 1:1 finder magnification was big deal for users who like to shoot with both eyes open and something that hadn’t ever been seen on an m-mount rangefinder. But the real bomb was dropped when Voigtlander introduced the R4A, the first rangefinder with framelines for 21mm and 24mm lenses. This was a giant leap forward for rangefinder photographers who use wide angle lenses and one of the first real advances in RF finders in a long time. This isn’t to discount the ZI finder, which is a very nice finder. But it simply doesn’t offer the options that either Leica or Voigtlander offer.

Frameline Selection – Winner: Leica & Zeiss

The Bessa’s low price is a godsend for rangefinder fans on a budget. But one of the things you lose in exchange for that low price is auto indexing framelines. You have to set the framelines yourself via a switch on the top plate. It’s perfectly usable, but it also just takes one time when you forget to mess up some important images. The automatic framelines on the M7 and the ZI are a far better solution. Though, it’s a solution that comes at a higher price.

All framelines with glasses – Winner: All

All three cameras have at least one version where all framelines can generally be seen by a photographer wearing glasses. Leica’s M7 .58 & .85 finders, Voigtlander’s R2A & R4A, and Zeiss’s ZI are all generally considered to be usable. Now, your experience may differ depending on your eyesight and your particular glasses. The M7 .72 finder and the Voigtlander R3A are commonly described as having issues with their widest framelines for users wearing glasses. Again, your experience may differ.

Finder Display – Winner: Zeiss

The information displayed in the Zeiss finder is a nice combination of usefulness and visibility. In AE mode, you get the shutter speed the camera has chosen, in manual you get the shutter speed you have chosen (and the speed the camera thinks you should have chosen), and you get the focal length at the bottom of every frameline. That last one can’t be overlooked, it really is a nice feature that other RF manufacturers can and should be including. Due to Zeiss’s unique frameline mask system (mask is parallel to the window) the framelines are nice and bright as well. If there is a knock on the ZI’s finder display, it is that the shutter speed numbers can get lost in bright lights due to their being on the left side rather than at the bottom. Some users also report that the RF patch also requires more eyeball centering than other RF’s, a statement I would agree with.

The Bessa finder display is essentially the same as the ZI’s (though with the shutter speed display on the bottom and without the ZI’s brighter frameline mask system), but loses out due to the simple fact that it doesn’t have it’s framelines identified in the finder. Yeah, I like the frameline identification THAT much. The M7 shows you the shutter speed chosen in AE and gives you a triangle-circle-triangle indicator for manual exposure. It works well enough, but it would be nice to be able to know what shutter speed you had chosen without taking your eye off the meter. There are also a couple of useless dots that blink on or off depending on various things. One turns on if you have the shutter pressed halfway down for AE lock, which is odd, since you should know you if have done that since it’s your finger doing the work. More annoyingly is the other dot that blinks incessantly at you if you have the ISO manually set, have over-under exposure dialed in, etc. I don’t like things that blink constantly at me.

Focusing Accuracy (Effective Baseline) – Winner: Zeiss & Leica

NOTE: Effective baseline (EBL) is calculated by multiplying a camera’s rangefinder baseline by the magnification factor of its viewfinder. This gives you a way to compare the relative accuracy of cameras with different specifications.

One way to look at this is that the Leica M7 with a .85 finder has the most accurate focusing of any of these cameras (EBL of 59.1 mm). However that ignores the fact that the ZI is only slightly less accurate and yet still includes a 28mm frameline (and has more cushion around the 35mm frameline). It would much more fair to compare the ZI to the most common M7 finder, the .72, as they are a closer comparison. With this comparison, the ZI wipes the floor with the M7 in terms of accuracy. While the Bessa looks like it comes across badly in this area, it’s important to remember that for general photography focusing accuracy isn’t a crucial stat. It is more when you get into fast/long lenses and narrow depths of field that you should really consider EBL numbers when choosing a camera.

Battery – Winner: Voigtlander & Zeiss

LR44 batteries are easier to find and cheaper to buy than the DL 1/3 N Lithium batteries. Yes, you can pile 4 LR44’s on top of each other and use them in the M7. But that is still twice as many batteries as the Bessa or ZI need. Plus, LR44 batteries in the M7 won’t last nearly as long as the correct DL 1/3 N Lithium batteries.

Operate w/o batteries – Winner: Leica

All three of these cameras have electronically controlled shutters that rely on batteries. However, the M7 has two battery independent speeds of 1/60 and 1/125. It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing and will likely save your butt if your batteries die at the wrong moment.

Shutter Speeds – Winner: Leica

While the Bessa and the ZI both have a higher top speed at 1/2000, that only beats the M7’s top speed of 1/1000 by one stop. The M7 (AE – 32 sec, M – 4 sec) beats the others (AE – 8 sec, M – 1 sec) by two stops on the slow end. Two is more than one, chalk up a point for the M7.

Max Flash Sync – Winner: Voigtlander & Zeiss

The M7’s 1/50 flash sync is pretty pathetic. Yeah, yeah, I know. No real rangefinder shooter bothers with flash. But come on, this is a TTL camera. The 1/125 of the Bessa and ZI is much more useful for anyone who needs to use flash with their RF camera.

Shutter Type – Winner: All

The M7’s rubberized cloth shutter has the nice quiet subtle sound that Leicas are famous for. However, the metal bladed vertical traveling shutter in the Bessa and ZI allows for a high top speed and higher flash sync. It just depends on what you are looking for. For what it’s worth, I do not find the shutter of the Bess or ZI to be particularly loud in real life shooting. But that having been said, there is no substitution for that Leica shutter sound.

PC Plug – Winner: Voigtlander & Zeiss

The M7 follows Leica’s tradition of placing the PC plug where it pokes you square in the right eye if you are a left eyed shooter. Bad design that has lasted what, 50 years now? The Bessa and ZI have the PC plug off to the side of the top plate where it doesn’t injure you. However, it would be in the way for a right eyed shooter if they were trying to keep both eyes open. Still, that’s better than a stick in the eye, right?

TTL Flash – Winner: Leica

The M7 has TTL flash. The other two don’t. Even if you don’t use flash much, you’ve got to admit that the M7 wins here.

Metering Pattern/Method – Winner: All

This is one of those nitpicky categories where some people probably get all amped up about which camera is better. But in all honesty, all the meters work fine for what they are. A simple center weighted meter. Anyone who has used one before knows when it gets fooled and knows when it doesn’t, you make adjustments to account for this and you are in good shape. Who needs 476 segment matrix compu-hyper-mega metering?

AE Lock – Winner: Leica

A half press of the shutter button is such a simple way to lock the exposure. More cameras than I can count have used this system and millions of successful images have been made with it. The Bessa and ZI both have thumb buttons on the back of the top plate that allow you to lock exposure, and both are usable (though the ZI’s could stand to be closer to the wind knob like the Bessa’s). However, while usable, they aren’t really necessary. Locking exposure with a thumb button requires you to use an additional finger (thumb) to take a picture and make sure it’s in the right place at the right time. This, of course, increases the chance that something will go wrong at the wrong moment. With the half-press lock, your index finger is very likely already on the shutter button in anticipation of taking the picture. So it takes very little mental energy to lock the exposure. Thumb buttons are great on autofocus cameras, but I don’t see them as necessary on a manual focus rangefinder.

Exposure Compensation – Winner: Voigtlander & Zeiss

The Bessa and ZI both have a plus/minus 2-stop exposure compensation selector integrated into the shutter speed dial. It’s self-explanatory and very easy to use. Once you get used to it and memorize which direction is over or under, you can even operate it without taking your eye away from the finder. The M7 by comparison has an awful plus/minus 2-stop exposure compensation selector integrated into it’s ISO dial on the back of the camera. It requires a minimum of two digits to use and only by using three (one thumb to press the lock-release and your index and thumb from the other hand to turn the dial) does the operation become even vaguely quick. Overall, a horrid design that is much harder to use than it should be.

Film Loading – Winner: Voigtlander and Zeiss

Swing-back film loading has been around for 50+ years now and yet Leica keeps plodding along with it’s annoying bottom loading system. Yes, we’ve all heard the argument about structural rigidity and film plane flatness. But as someone who has had an M6 run over by a car, I can tell you that Leica’s aren’t somehow indestructible. That bottom loading didn’t help my camera when it met the wheels of an Acura. And as tens of millions of photos have been taken with swing-back cameras without the photographers sitting around saying “gosh I wish this film plane were flatter”, I’d say that argument doesn’t hold a lot of water either at this point. The Bessa and ZI both have nice normal swing-back loading. Quick, easy, doesn’t require three hands, and you can see what film you have loaded through the little window in the back. Wow, it’s just like we’re living in the 1960’s again with all this fancy technology.

DX ISO Reading – Winner: Leica

On the other side of the coin from the swing-back loading is DX ISO reading. DX coding has been around for 20+ years now. I can see why the Bessa might have had DX reading left off as a cost cutting measure. But it really seems like Zeiss missed the boat on this one by not adding it as a feature on the ZI. while not essential, DX reading is one of those camera features that makes life easier and doesn’t lose anything in the process. Kudos to Leica for including it on the M7.

ISO Range – Winner: Leica

The M7’s 6-6400 ISO selection range beats the Bessa and ZI’s 25-3200. The “6” on the slow end isn’t really that important as most of today’s photographers aren’t likely to use films slower than 25 anyway. But the 6400 on the fast end is something that will see a lot more use by low light photographers.

Trigger Winder Capability – Winner: Leica & Voigtlander

The M7 can use Tom Abrahhamson’s delightful well designed (and expensive) Rapidwinder. The Bessa can use Voigtlander’s somewhat less delightful (though cheaper and completely usable) trigger winder. The ZI can’t use either unit. This is likely because design limitations based around the longer RF base and bottom rewind made it impossible.

Rewind Method – Winner: Zeiss

Both the M7 and the Bessa have fold-out lever rewind knobs on the left end of the top plate and both are perfectly functional. But the ZI’s bottom mounted rewind system has them beat in two ways. First, it is ratcheted. This means that if your fingers slip off the tiny knob at the end of the wind lever, the rewind knob can’t backspin and undo all the winding you just did. Also, the ZI’s rewind knob/lever is slightly larger then the M7 or Bessa’s. This gives the lever a slightly larger arc of rotation and makes winding a lot less fiddly.

On/Off Switch – Winner: Leica

All three cameras have an on/off switch, all three have the switch located in the same place, (a collar under the shutter release), and all three use a red dot to indicate on/off. However, for some reason only the M7 has the red dot showing when the camera is off. This makes sense to me. Red equals “stop” for most everyone. The camera is telling you “stop” because you aren’t going to be able to take a photo unless you turn it on. I don’t get the logic behind having a red dot indicate that a camera is switched on. I suppose it could mean “caution! this camera is on!” but that seems rather silly to me.

Conclusion

So which is best for you? If you haven’t already guessed, there is no good answer that a review like this can give you. Every photographer has different needs and wants as far as camera features are concerned. Perhaps more importantly, every photographer has a different amount of money in their pocket. For what it’s worth, here is a quick summary of my opinions on all three cameras.

Leica M7

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Leica is “price”. With good reason, as Leica stuff isn’t cheap and a new M7 will set you back just under $4400. However, in Leica’s defense, the second thing that comes to mind is “quality”. These are well made cameras still put together by hand in a factory in Germany. While no company can make a perfect product every single time, the fact that Leica backs its cameras up with such a strong warranty should be a good indication of just how high quality they are meant to be.

In use the M7 is a very nice camera. It has that classic “Leica” feel and sound. It has some nice features for this class of cameras including two manual battery-independent shutter speeds and TTL flash metering. however, it also has some annoying frustrations such as bottom-plate film loading and a horrid over/under exposure dial.

But the bottom line is that if you have the money, you can’t go wrong with a M7. If you are someone who knows that they want an AE rangefinder, the chances that you will buy an M7 and end up saying “I sure don’t like this” are pretty slim.

Voigtlander Bessa

If “price” is what comes to mind for Leica, “price” must also come to mind when thinking of Voigtlander. Since the release of their first RF camera almost nine years ago, Voigtlander has steadily and continually offered the best value in RF cameras and lenses the world has seen. Since you can’t ever get something for nothing, the logical question is “Why is this camera so much cheaper than a Leica? Am I getting a piece of junk?”. The answer is, no. The Bessa cameras are all well designed and built. Millions of frames of film have been run through these cameras and great images are made every day with them.

However, there are some trade offs. The Bessa doesn’t feel like a Leica. It’s plasticky and even with its well done design, feels mass produced. Frameline selection isn’t automatic. The shutter button doesn’t feel as nice. The rangefinder patch is smaller and not as easy to use for some people. The list goes on and on. If you are someone who is picky about a camera’s “feel” you might want to get your hands on a Bessa and try it our first.

That having been said, these are great cameras. And they are the ONLY cameras available if you want something like a finder that will show you 21mm or 40mm framelines. Metering is accurate. Film loading is quick with the swing back. A $160 trigger winder is available. Flash sync is a healthy 1/125. All in all, these cameras are a great value for someone who is light in the wallet, needs one of the finders that only Voigtlander offers, or just wants an inexpensive body so that money can be put towards lenses.

Zeiss Ikon

First off, for everyone who isn’t aware, the ZI is built for Zeiss by Cosina (the company behind the Voigtlander brand). Which is why the Bessa and the ZI are similar in a number of ways. The difference is that the ZI has additional features and upgrades that the Bessa doesn’t have. It also has an upgraded price. But to be fair, it also has an upgraded “feel” as well. Perhaps it is materials, design, features, or just perception, but the ZI simply feels better in the hand than the Bessa.

The knock, of course, is that some people argue “Why am I paying more for a Bessa with different branding?” But that overlooks the ZI’s strengths. Such as its long RF base and focusing accuracy, bright framelines, ratcheted bottom rewind, auto-indexing framelines, and so on. The ZI really is a nice camera and a well thought out step up from the Bessa. It fills a market segment that didn’t exist prior to it’s existence. Plus, if you are a fan of the 85mm focal length, the ZI is your only option for a set of 85mm framelines. Like everything in life, all is not perfect with the ZI. Its bright framelines come at the price of needing a centered eye on the viewfinder (which can be annoying for some users), there is just the one finder choice (with no 90 or 135 framelines), and there is no trigger-winder availability (for those who care about such things).

Also, that previously mentioned ‘market segment’ is also one of the unintended weaknesses for the ZI. Far too many people overlook it as they are either on the “I have very little money for a body so I’m getting the Bessa” or “I have all sorts of money so I’m getting ‘the best’ and buying an M7” end of things. It’s a shame because the ZI is a strong camera in it’s own right and if it fits your needs, should be considered as a worthwhile step up from the Bessa without having to spend the $4k for an M7.

What’s the bottom line Josh?

There really is no ‘bottom line’ I can give you here. As I said before, a choice like this really depends on the individual photographer’s needs and the amount of money in your pocket. What do I like best myself? It’s hard to beat an M7 if money is no object. They are really just wonderful cameras to use 95% of the time (the other 5% being filled with the annoyance of loading film, adjusting exposure comp, using slow flash sync, etc). However, the Bessa R4A is a fantastic invention for those of us who like wide angle photography. As I rarely (if ever) shoot anything longer than a 50mm lens on a rangefinder, I find myself reaching for the R4A more and more these days. Finally, the ZI has earned a place in my camera bag by virtue of being a nice solid camera. It has a better feel than the Bessa and I don’t have to remember to manually select framelines and it does away with some of the annoyances of the M7.

Am I giving you a cop out by saying I like each camera for different reasons? Yes. But it’s also the truth. Like I said, there’s no ‘bottom line’ I can give you here.

Ready to buy?

If you have made up your mind about which of these cameras is right for you, why not consider purchasing it through one of our retail partners. With your purchase, you will be helping to support Photo.net.

Rich Pinto at The Photo Village supports the Photo.net Leica & Rangefinder forum and is an authorized Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander dealer. Also, you might hunt around and see if one of your fellow community members is offering a good deal in the Photo.net Classifieds.


Text and photos © 2011 Josh Root.

Article revised February 2011.

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Peter N , July 14, 2009; 11:21 A.M.

Thanks for the very comprehensive review. I've used the CV R4 and Leica M7, and I wish that Leica would produce a body that had 21/24mm framelines like the R4. My own choice among these is the Leica, partly for the ergonomic "feel" of their body, but mostly for the Passport warranty, which is incredible. They will literally fix anything that goes wrong during the warranty period, no matter how stupid you are. I have involuntarily been the recipient of their largesse, and I can tell you I'm very grateful for it. Leica service may lack in execution sometimes, but they do go above and beyond the call of duty, no question.

Robin Smith , July 14, 2009; 12:02 P.M.

Another plus for the Leica is the Motor-M that is the small and excellent motor drive/autowinder option that, in my opinion, is a very positive addition to the M in everyday use. Neither the Bessa, nor the Ikon have this option. If the noise of the winder is too much (it shouldn't be as it is pretty quiet), you can switch it off and use the camera with regular manual wind. The grip on the motor-M also helps the ergonomics of the camera in my opinion - particularly for portrait shots.

Stephen York , July 14, 2009; 12:52 P.M.

Another plus for the Leica, at least compared to the Zeiss Ikon, is that the rangefinder patch is very crisp. It just snaps right into focus. The ZI is more wavery (I just made that word up). This is the reason I stuck with my Leica, even though the eye relief on the Zeiss is better for my speckled eyes.

Derek Stanton , July 14, 2009; 06:07 P.M.

I had a .72 M7 and, later, a .85 M7. Now i have the Ikon. About the only think i prefered on the Leica was the AE lock with the half-press of the shutter release. I keep forgetting to use the dedicated AE lock button on the Ikon....

But, for the price of the M7, you can get an Ikon + a Bessa for backup/variety + a Leica 50mm Summilux-ASPH....

Wai-Leong Lee , July 14, 2009; 07:44 P.M.

The m7 oozes quality and feels like $1m, the zi feels like and sounds like it's made out of pressed sheet metal.

But the zi can run rings around the m7 as far as specs and features are concerned.

So the choice is one between features and form, specs and capabilities vs elegance and quality.

Donn Borden , July 15, 2009; 05:05 P.M.

Writing from an admitted deficit of information; I don't know either the Bessa or the Zeiss except by reference, I'll report that I've used Leica cameras since 1959. I now have a dozen or so and have two M7's and an MP among the current production crop. The reliability is superb. I've never required maintenance service for any of the rangefinder Leicas. I DID have some troubling moments with the M7 with regards to retaining the battery cover, but that has ceased to be a problem, and I attribute that to my lack of familiarity with the camera. I would have liked to see Leitz retain the film advance lever from the M3 (as they did on the MP). Film loading has always been an issue with the Leica. We just have to live with it. And, finally, I'm not "beating the drum" for Leitz/Leica. With the M8 there's been some gnashing of teeth here, but that's another story for another time.

Richard Williams , July 15, 2009; 06:51 P.M.

I'd say the shutter speed range is a definite win for the Bessa/Zeiss. Two stops more at the slow end on the Leica in AE mode is all very well, but I suspect it's rarely used with this type of camera. 1/2000s, however, gives you some useful room to reduce depth of field without resorting to an ND filter when you have even moderately fast film loaded in bright sunlight.

Patrick Huston , July 15, 2009; 07:27 P.M.

Materials used in construction of the ZI are aluminum and magnesium, which should be quite solid but lighter than the M7.

Bob Michaels , July 15, 2009; 09:01 P.M.

I have used two ZI rangefinders for several years. Love them. But, I never realized that the lens focal length showed at the bottom of the frame lines until Josh mentioned it. I had to pull them out and check. Sure enough, the number is there. So it appears this is not really useful info to me.

Paul A. - Los Angeles, CA. , July 16, 2009; 12:30 A.M.

Josh, Thanks for your excellent review.

In front of me is an M7 and MP. Incredible machines. These are tools you make your own.

I enjoyed the reading.

Paul

Tim Gray , July 16, 2009; 01:03 A.M.

Nice review and comparison. All three must be great cameras. The M7 is; that I know. I kind of want to get an Ikon, but before I do that, I've been thinking of medium format.

As many have pointed out, even though Leica might be struggling a bit right now and film sales are down, it's never been a better time to shoot RF than today. The films available today are amazing, there are three lines of RF cameras and lenses being sold new, and there are 70+ years of older lenses to choose from as well.

Supapong Chan , July 16, 2009; 01:13 A.M.

As an owner of both M7 and Voigt (R2A and R4A) I can tell that feelings of using both brands are totally different. M7 gives me much more assurance that what I want is precisely in focus and the vibration from the shutter mechanism will not interfere with the picture sharpness, while the metallic shutter in Voigt clearly creates more vibration, noises and harshness. One clear benefit of using M7 is exposure control with just half click on shutter release and you instantly have it locked making exp. compensation very easy at your aperture ring and that is 100% accurate. However, the pictures came out perfect in both cameras but I feel more secure using Leica. So if budget is limited, go for any RxA from Voigt and you will never feel sorry. Remember, this is the body issue only, leave all the lenses for another discussion, it will surely be a different story. Ha, ha.

Alex S. , July 16, 2009; 10:04 P.M.

Josh, this is a very well written and well balanced article. I have all three cameras and like them all for different reasons.

There is only one small thing I'll add. The Bessas are great for using Contax and Nikon to Leica adapters since you have to change the focal length frames manually.

Hannu Soini , July 17, 2009; 03:25 P.M.

Alex, thanks for the comment. Would you mind telling where to get the adapters ? With Contax you must be referring to the G series. But with Nikon you are referring to bajonette by Nikon I presume. BR Hannu

Marek Fogiel , July 17, 2009; 04:09 P.M.

Well, I think you have really skipped one important factor: the viewfinder brightness/size. It is obvious for anybody who has these cameras, that the Zeiss Ikon viewfinder gives you a brighter and BIGGER vision, than the Bessa, which is marginally better than the Leica. Since the rangefinders are mainly about the available light shooting, this makes a big difference in low light. I have the 0.58 and 0.85 M7's, a Zeiss Ikon, and the Bessa R3a and R4A, so I have the 1.0, 0.85. 0.74. 0,58 and 0,52 magnification viewfinders this way. However, if Zeiss made all these different viewfinder magnification versions, I would not think a second to replace my Leicas and Bessas with Zeiss Ikons. An additional advantage of the ZI, is that the "core" 35 and 50mm frames are single, (and continuous) thus creating a very clear view for composing. On the other hand, many complain that the focusing patch of the ZI is less contrasty than that of the Leica - I find it a matter of getting used to position your eye at the center of the viewfinder.

You have also passed over the fact, that the nicely silent cloth shutter of the Leica can be made useless by half a second distraction if you point your lens against the sun - this is a very serious drawback for such an expensive camera, and a big point in favour of the metal shutters of the Bessa and Ikon. Similarly, I disagree that Leica's shutter is better because it goes up to 32 seconds - rangefinders are 99% handheld devices, so it is actually much more important to have the faster speeds available - I wish the Ikon had the 1/4000th of the second speed available too.

There are finally a couple of my personal dislikes about the Bessas: the main one, is the nasty backward tilt of these cameras, with all but the biggest and heaviest lenses. This is awkward, uncomfortable, stupid looking and also impractical, as dirt and rain can get more easily into the lens. Another little bug, is that the rewind crank can be quite loose ( it is on my R4A), and if you shoot with one hand and rewind with the camera in vertical position, the crank gets spun off by the centrifugal force, and blocks the film advance.

The last disagreement with your opinions regards the weight. I often use 2 rangefinders and an slr, or 3 rangefinders on a daily walkabout in a new place. If you hang 2 M7's on your neck, with say, a 28 and a 50mm, at the end of the day your neck will need an urgent massage treatment... This does not happen if I carry the R4A and the Zeiss Ikon...

Andre Noble , July 18, 2009; 12:42 A.M.


Voigtlander R2A with Zeis 35 Biogon F2

I own a modern Voigtlander Bessa R2A - it is the only rangefinder I have ever owned.

It is rapidly becoming my favorite camera of all time.

For the price of under $600 the build quality is outstanding. It feels great in the hands. I use it with a Zeiss Biogon 35 F2. I am able to take it places I could never bring my Nikon N90s, F100's or D300.

My main complaint is the momentum and loudness of the shutter.

I intend to get a Voigtlander Bessa R4A body solely for use with the Zeiss 21mm 4.5

I would like to own a Leica M7 one day. But with the Bessa's out on the market, owning a Leica M7 is not a "things to do before I die" type of desire. Plus that Leica cloth shutter that can burn in the sun - not very enticing.

For the price of a new Zeiss Ikon, it makes more sense to me to pony up another few hundred bucks and get a mint M7 instead.

Joe Walsh , July 20, 2009; 11:02 P.M.

"I now have a dozen or so and have two M7's and an MP " Any photographers out there wondering why they can't afford a Leica to actually shoot with?

Anyone want one of his "or so" cameras? Well, sorry, they cost 3 times what they're worth because of "dozen or so" collectors.

Andrew Kaiser , July 21, 2009; 11:51 A.M.

WONDERFUL aritcle. This is a very interesting time to get into the rangefinder game as photographers have the choice of some excellent new bodies and of course a wealth of used equipment as well.

As was pointed out in the article, all three cameras have their strengths and drawbacks. One thing is very clear though, all three cameras are built with photographers in mind. They do everything you need them to do quickly and easily and nothing you don't. I really wish more companies would adopt this way of thinking.

For my part I own a Bessa R3a. I'll admit, if I had a bigger budget I'd go with a Leica MP or M7 but since I don't I went with the camera that would leave me room to spend extra money on lenses. I have no regrets about that decision and I can say with absolute confidence that my Bessa feels great in my hands and is a joy to use.

Jaime Campusano , July 22, 2009; 11:24 P.M.

What do you think of the camera Konica M hexanon ??... Why this cameras are so similar to the Konica ?..

Daniel Bayer , July 30, 2009; 11:14 P.M.


Josh Root in Building 38 / Kodak

Hmmm, Looks to me Josh prefers a combo of a Leica M7, Zeiss and a Lumix G-1.

Michel Leclerc , August 12, 2009; 10:53 A.M.

Great article but there is also a cheaper alternative in a used Konica Hexar which known to have a really good 35mm f/2 lens and is also auto focus. Almost silent and was coming with a little handy flash.

Ray Price , August 25, 2010; 03:52 P.M.

This is an excellent review and provides a balance for the 3 makes of cameras included. I have not used a Bessa so I cannot comment on this. I have however previously own 2 M7's and a bag full of Leica lenses. I don't own them anymore for reasons that I won't go into here other than to say that the gain does not alway equal the pain - try loading one at 4000 meters with mittens on! I now own 2 Zeiss Ikons and a 35, 50 and 85mm lens. This is my standard kit. You can load them at 4000 meters with mittens on and a host of other advantages against the Leicas that this review highlights. Except for one thing. I used my black Leica M7's extensively and when I went to sell them they were easily described as 'mint-'. I have had my Zeiss Ikons for a lot less time than the Leica and they have yet to be exposed to the same conditions. On the contrary they have so far been rather pampered. Which is probable a good job because already they are showing signs in wear in the black paint work far beyond anything my Leicas ever did. In truth the finish is substandard, easily chipped or damaged and not what you would expect from a camera of this price. I have Nikons with less marks after years of use. The end game is that the Zeiss will lose value simply because it cannot hold it's cosmetic appearance and exposing them to daylight is enough to bring out another ding or scratch.

Daniel Piscina , September 13, 2010; 11:20 P.M.

I haven't been able to hold a Bessa R4A. Could someone tell me if the body is made of plastic? Does it feel like a cheap, plastic camera? Or is it comparable to a Leica M? Thanks!  

Barrett Benton , September 14, 2010; 12:36 A.M.

Daniel Piscina writ:

I haven't been able to hold a Bessa R4A. Could someone tell me if the body is made of plastic? Does it feel like a cheap, plastic camera? Or is it comparable to a Leica M? Thanks! 

The Short Answer: The Bessa R4a is constructed of metal, including the top and bottom plates. It certainly does not feel "cheap."

The Somewhat Longer Answer: There's the old saying that goes "It's not what you do, but how you do it." Leicas, as the legend goes, are built to a standard, not a price. CV Bessas are built to a price, but not relentlessly so. Thus, a modern Bessa won't be built out to the degree that a Leica M7 or MP will be, but hardly a low-end standard. You want Leica-standard build quality? Reach deeper into your pocket for a Leica. Otherwise, a Bessa R4 is quite the respectable example of a contemporary rangefinder film camera.

 

- Barrett

Melanie Wolf , December 17, 2010; 12:59 A.M.

FABULOUS ARTICLE and comments.  Wonderful photo of you, Josh, that shows your warmth conveyed again and again in your writing. 

Jerome Krumsick , May 19, 2012; 12:52 A.M.

I don't own a Leica.  I shoot photos on the subway in New York.  I don't have enough money for the Leica... well I do but I don't want it to get stolen... And I think I would be afraid to shoot with it on the streets... not like the voigtlander.

Lawrence Jones , November 02, 2012; 11:52 A.M.

A note on the red dot for "on" instead of "off".  In firearms red is often used on safety switches indicating when the unit is in a state where it will fire. If the off switch is thought of as a safety that keeps you from inadvertently firing the camera then the use of red in this manner makes more sense.


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