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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Konica Hexar RF: A Great Pretender

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

When an e-mailer asked my opinion of the Konica rangefinder camera a few weeks back, I brusquely told him I had reviewed it many years ago and that, nice though it was, autofocus pseudo-rangefinders weren't my cup of tea.

Oh, it was nicely made, I said, with good glass – damn good glass. In a class with the Nikon 35Ti, another very nice camera that briefly held my attention years ago.

But as "rangefinders" go, I confidently told my correspondent, the Konica was not in the same league as the Leica M6.

Segue ahead a few weeks, time enough for me to wash the egg off my face. My reader, I later discovered, wasn't asking my opinion of Konica's old Hexar camera but rather my opinion of the new Konica Hexar RF, a genuine, honest-to-goodness rangefinder camera that Konica snuck in under the photo radar with precious little fanfare, even though the camera had won a slew of awards in Europe and Japan as the greatest thing since, well, the Leica M6.

Needless to say, this Leica lover had to get hold of this pretender, run it through its paces, and expose it for the cheap imitation it surely had to be.

When the package arrived from Konica, I knew right away this wasn't going to be easy. Fresh out of the box, you could tell that this was a serious machine – encased in a titanium-aluminum body that had the kind of agreeable heft I have come to expect in all of my top-of-the-line equipment. It's a kind of weight and feel one gets when handling gear that has been designed by serious engineers, with no bean-counters looking over their shoulders asking them to cut a corner or two in the name of the bottom line.

The Konica Hexar RF, and the super-sharp 35mm f.2 Hexanon lens that accompanied it, got in my face immediately and dared me – dared me! – to compare it to the Leica M rangefinders, whose excellence, quality, precision – not to mention astronomical pricing – has become the stuff of photographic legend.

It's not nice to mess with a legend. And, truth to tell, the Hexar, though a hell of a camera, fell significantly short of Leica on a number of important fronts.

But price wasn't one of them. Consider: I'm about to run you through my own highly personal tests, that put the Hexar RF head-to-head and lens-to-lens against my own Leica M6 and 35mm f.2 Summicron. I'm about to tell you about differences that mean a lot to me, but which may not be worth a hill of beans to someone else.

In other words, close calls; judgment calls.

But there is no judgment call on how much the Konica camera costs compared to the Leica.

Less than half.

You hear that in the back row? Less than half the cost of the Leica. [For the body alone, we're talking about less than a grand for the Hexar, versus $1650-$2350 street for the Leica, depending on the model.]

That means that right off the bat, since the Hexar was designed to be compatible with Leica lenses, the Hexar weighs in as a logical second body for the Leica-loving photographer who does not have money to burn but who would like to have another body to conveniently carry, say a 50 or 90mm lens, especially if the shooter is working on the fly. [Note: there remains some question as to just how compatible the Hexar RF is with Leica glass. For now, though, and based on my own tests, I weigh in on the side of those who find no real problem with the intermarriage.]

So, what about these cameras?

First, the fairest comparison between the Hexar RF and the Leica should be with the brand-new and gorgeous Leica M7. [See "A Leica for the 21st Century," 4/26/02] That's because both cameras have electronic shutters and aperture priority. Both cameras have high-speed flash sync. Both cameras have film DX-coding.

[Note: I should add that while both the M7 and the RF are electronic, only the Hexar turns into a paperweight when the batteries die. In an ingenious bit of retro design, a juiceless M7 still offers a manual 1/60th and 1/125th second.]

Only the Hexar has a built-in motor drive, but it's a mixed blessing because it obscures the camera's fairly quiet shutter release with a whiny whirr. With the M-series cameras you advance the film with your own noiseless thumb.

And of course, both cameras have the same bayonet lens mount. As in identical. The patent on the famed Leica M-series lens mount expired and Konica was quick to copy it. Which is fine, but in a cheesy bit of PR, it also claimed the mount as its own, calling it the "Bayonet Konica KM mount."

There is a whiff of disingenuousness about a lot of Konica's PR. For example, rather than simply come out and say that it now has a camera it will put up against Leica, the blurb for the thing crows that the Hexar "competes admirably against other, perhaps more familiar, rangefinder brands."

For the record: in traditional 35mm photography there are no other rangefinder "brands." There's really only one other brand and, of course, Konica knows it.

In my own tests, the Hexar handled like a world-class machine and, if I never had worked with the M6 or the M7, there'd be no question that I'd give the camera highest marks. Even Leica lovers probably will look enviously at the Hexar's hinged back – nothing special to every other camera user in the world, but a big difference between the Hexar and the remove-the-entire-baseplate-to-change-film Leica M's.

But what keeps the Hexar from knocking out the champ – or even drawing a lot of blood, in my view – is this:

1. The comparative dimness of the Hexar viewfinder.

2. The comparative superiority of the Leica glass.

And these are two major deficiencies, affecting both how an image is made and how it ultimately looks.

I find I am not alone in my criticism of the Hexar RF's viewfinder. It is noticeably darker than the famed Leica version, meaning that, in low light especially, the RF may disappoint. At least two other professional colleagues reported the same problem when they used the RF – each noting how with the Leica finder things seem to "snap" into focus.

"Snap" also figures into my comparison of the pictures I actually got from each camera. In every series of pictures I made – indoors, outdoors, different lighting conditions – I felt the Leica glass produced a print with noticeably more contrast, more "snap." Mind you, not a dramatic difference (you don't see them reproduced here because the differences are so small) but a difference nonetheless.

All other things were equal: exposure, sharpness, ease of handling.

I just liked the Leica pictures better.

And, when you get right down to it, and if you are serious about your photography, that's really all that counts.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


© Frank Van Riper
Quick, find the Leica. It's obviously no accident that Konica's new Hexar RF (right) is meant to be a Leica clone. It feels like a Leica; it focuses like a Leica, and it sure doesn't cost as much as a Leica. Is it a great camera? Yes. As great as a Leica? No.


ORDER FRANK VAN RIPER'S
TALKING PHOTOGRAPHY
.

Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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