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Sunday, October 7

Hexar AF - a dilemma


A simple shot of some sandbags - but look at the way the Hexanon has
drawn the scene.

There was an amusing (to me) comment the other day on Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer with regard to another wunderplastik computer with a lens out front, otherwise known as a Sony RX1. The commenter asked whether the Sony might be "the digital Hexar AF I've oft dreamed of????". I can sympathise with this view as I used to think like that as well a while back. Even when I was using digital the cameras still left me cold and I was always for looking for a digital version of one of my favourite 35mm film cameras.

Now, I can't help but wonder why, if the commenter has such a hankering for a Hexar AF, he doesn't just buy one and shoot film. As Ken Rockwell is fond of pointing out, if you shoot colour print film, have it developed and high resolution scans made, you end up with digital files anyway. Mike's commenter could save himself a lot of grief - and a lot of money, too, as the Sony is likely to cost a small fortune - by getting the genuine article instead of some cheaply-made digital clone. Anyway, that was a long-winded intro to something I wanted to say about my own Hexar AF, a camera that has vexed and pleased me in equal measure.

Hexar AF - The film version of my dream digital camera? Don't make me laugh!

I bought it a couple of years ago thinking it would make the perfect street shooter - it's quiet, can be set up precisely as far as exposure and focusing are concerned and has a 35mm f2 lens that's not only sharp but has great bokeh as well. How can you improve on that combination? Just about everyone who's tried or owned one speaks highly of it praising not only the lens but the camera's build quality as well.

What I wanted was a smallish, not-too-heavy camera that I could wear discretely under a jacket. Sometimes, when out with my family, I feel a bit conspicuous wandering around with a camera in my right hand and the strap wrapped around my wrist. At the back of my mind, however, was the fact that I much prefer SLRs to rangefinders. I own a couple of the latter and have used a Leica M2 and M3 in the past but composition is everything in photography and rangefinder viewfinders are too imprecise for my liking.

The obligatory coffee shot - this time a cafetiere brewing in my kitchen.

My first impressions weren't overwhelmingly favourable. I found a few things annoyed me just about right away. The viewfinder is quite bright but the woolly framelines still didn't inspire confidence. Parallax correction is motorised with the upper left corner of the framelines moving down towards the bottom right as the focusing distance decreases. However, this doesn't provide you with a new set of accurate framelines but just moves the top left portion inwards to show how much would be cut off if you didn't reframe. In other words, the field of view outlined by the framelines simply shrinks - and quite markedly.

The parallax correction kicks in when you depress the shutter button half way. What you have to do is compose the shot within the framelines, half press the shutter release, watch the parallax correction make it's adjustments and then compose again. You can't compose after the half press because the framelines are much smaller. This isn't conducive to good street photography.

Maggie

Another gripe was the fiddly buttons on the top of the camera and the combinations of presses and switch-turning that are needed to change settings. Want to dial in some exposure compensation? Then set the main switch to P or A, press the select button to bring up the exposure compensation display on the LCD panel and then dial in what you need using the up or down buttons. Want to lock focus? Press the shutter release half way down and press the MF button. Now this might sound simple enough but the MF and select buttons measure just 3mm or 4mm in diameter and I find it impossible to do any of this with the camera to my eye.

Finlay and Freya watching TV in Finlay's bedroom with Molly
doing what she does best - soaking up/dishing out affection.

A year ago, I was so disappointed that I was all for getting rid of the Hexar but it was the lovely fixed 35mm lens that kept me swithering. I really didn't think I'd be able to get on with such imprecise framelines and the button pushing fandango but the Hexanon seemed to impart a distinctive look to a scene. Wide open, there's some fall-off which I love and the bokeh is very nice. However, as I continue to mull over the herd thinning I'm still undecided about whether to sell the Hexar or keep it. If I were to keep it, I'd probably use it exclusively for indoor and night photography with Tri X rated at 1250 ISO and developed in Diafine - a combination I like a lot. But for general photography I'm not so sure.

I hoped I'd learn to appreciate the 3D-look imparted by that Hexanon, it's nice bokeh and sharpness whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to its little idiosyncrasies. But I was out a couple of days ago with it and stopped to take a shot of a graffiti-covered underpass (yes, it was a very hackneyed idea) and found myself wishing I had a 35mm SLR with me. It was the woolly viewfinder again that was getting in the way. And that's the problem: I'm just not a rangefinder-type of guy.

12 comments :

Neal said...

Hey Bruce.
I find the exact same thing with my Konica Auto S1.6. it's a fixed lens rangefinder, all manual controls with the ability to shoot in shutter priority mode. it has a meter on the top too so you can be set for your scene even before the camera comes to your eye.

it's the hexanon lenses that I find astounding, they are really beautifully made, so sharp and contrasty and in sucky light.

nice review there mate, I wrote up a little review of my Konica here http://www.thorleyphotographics.com/?page_id=63

cheers
Neal.

Tassilo von Parseval said...

Nah, you keep it of course. It's clearly a camera that produces great results in your hands. That little bit of friction using it that you are describing may later turn into an upside.

I have plenty of gripes with all of my favorite cameras and yet I very much prefer them over those nondescript ones that don't really seem to be doing anything wrong.

As for rangefinders, that's an acquired taste. I hated them at first and they can still be infuriating sometimes. They also lead to certain center-happy compositions due to the rangefinder patch being smack in the middle of everything. Last year I made a one-week trip to Chicago and took only my M3 with a Summicron 50. There were situations where a traditional SLR would have made things easier but in the end it turned out to be a formidable companion.

Matt said...

I suppose only you can know if the lack of precise framing is a deal-breaker. It isn't for me, but I have other cameras that I use for shots where I care precisely about framing. I've occasionally thought about getting rid of my Hexar in my own herd thinning process, as I also have a Rollei AFM35 which plays a similar role. However, I keep coming back to the Hexar lens, and the fact that it's one of the few 35mm camera/lens combinations I've owned that gives me something of the same tonality and transition between in and out of focus that I get from medium format cameras. Also, framing aside, I find the handling to be excellent.

Thomas J. Webb said...

I probably never would have even tried out rangefinders if my wife didn't happen to have one (a Voigtländer Bessa R) that she got for her photography class in college. I ended up using it when I suspected there was something wrong with my SLR (there wasn't; it was my scanner). It's a fun camera to use and I like to use it for street photography but I, too am an SLR guy. Not just because of the imprecise framing but because I can't see the depth of field (although my Canon EOS K2 also lacks a depth-of-field preview button, all my other SLRs have it). I'm also find it hard to focus, but I'm practicing...

thebanana said...

I had one of these for a few years but sold it because I found the lack of manual control frustrating at times. It was one of the nicest lenses I've ever used though, especially in what was essentially a p&s.

Paul Glover said...

I'm having something of the same dilemma with the Yashica T4 Zoom I acquired a couple of months back.

I love the results from that Zeiss vario-tessar, it's certainly convenient and easy to carry, and it offers some limited control; not much, but enough to make it livable with.

But the viewfinder is kind of pokey and fussy; the lens, while excellent, is terribly slow; the response time in every aspect is awful and the settings all reset on power off (which happens automatically after 2 minutes). Plus I shoot black and white mostly and it has no provision for filters.

All of which I'd happily live with, except the difference between what I paid and what it's fetching on the used market is significant. Like "sell the T4, buy the RB67 I really want" significant.

Yet I keep coming back to the results it provides, which are excellent and make my resolve to sell it wobble. Also, it *would* be an ideal companion to a big camera like the RB.

Oh, the dilemma.

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

It would be a much easier decision if the Hexar's lens was merely good. I'd have no qualms about selling it then. Accurate framing is vital for the type of stuff I do. If I took more people shots, where framing can often be much looser, then I'd probably make better use of the Hexar. If it wasn't worth £300 it would be an easy decision as well: I could keep it in a drawer and give it the occasional outing. But £300 buys a lot of film camera. Would I rather have the Hexar than an F2 and 40mm Voigtlander lens? Definitely not. What about a Contax RX? Yes, please! Or £300 worth of film and paper to put in the freezer. See what I mean?

David c.h. Brown said...

Hi Bruce,
Just a note to say thanks for this excellent blog. I stumbled upon it a couple of days ago. Like you, I am returning to film photography, and am glad that I had not invested too heavily into digital gear. I dug out my Bessler Cll enlarger from its box in the garage, and assembled it last weekend. However, I think I will have to build a nice armoir to keep it in as my better half is not too eager to see it brought into our little retirement home. So it is time to dust off my Minolta Maxxum 9, XE-7, and Mamiya RB 67, and get back to some real photography again. Keep up the good work. Dave

BRUCE ROBBINS said...

Thanks, Dave. I hope you enjoy returning to film as much as I do!

Unknown said...

not seeing depth of field is an advantage too, as you can always judge the whole scene and change framing accordingly. Same is true for seeing outside the frame lines.

horses for courses, I use RF for reportage where this works well, and SLRs for most other stuff.

Al Denholm said...

Owning two rangefinder cameras, I have to say I'm also one who gets a lot of enjoyment from using them,the framing was a little harder at first,but once I became accustomed to it, I think this has only increased my awareness of whats round the edges of the frame lines,when I switch over to my SLR,life becomes much simpler,yes,but I'll always have a soft spot for those Rangefinders cameras that force you "at times" to work a little harder.

Anonymous said...

Hexar AF = Fuji X100s ;)