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The M Files (21): Zeiss Ikon SW, a very unusual camera for Leica M-Mount

Our series about non-Leica M-Mount cameras, lenses and accessories continues with an unusual camera. In Part 21, Jörg-Peter takes on the Zeiss Ikon SW. Its striking feature is… the absence of a viewfinder.

Product image shows Zeiss Ikon SW camera

It is a camera that even many enthusiasts have never seen or even used: The Zeiss Ikon SW was a short-lived product that is unique in many ways. Is a camera without a finder any good?

It was supposed to be a less expensive alternative to the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder camera. This modern rebirth of a 1950s classic, simply called Zeiss Ikon, was introduced in 2004 and had the potential to become a serious rival for the Leica M7. It had Auto Exposure, a modern and fast metal-blade shutter and a stunning viewfinder with excellent size and clarity. But the Zeiss Ikon was expensive, and for focal lengths under 28mm, an additional external viewfinder was in any way necessary.

The idea of a finder-less camera was not invented for the Zeiss Ikon SW

So, the old idea came up: A camera which omits the expensive viewfinder with its complicated optics and mechanics. Leica had such cameras with the designation MD in their range for decades, meant for scientific use (on a microscope) or as a body for the old Visoflex which transforms the analogue Leicas into a kind of SLR camera. This, obviously, was the model of the Zeiss Ikon SW. SW meant “super wide” according to Zeiss. After all, their medium-fast super-wide 21mm, 18mm and 15mm lenses offer generous depth of field, so a rangefinder seemed to be dispensable.

The Zeiss Ikon SW shows the company’s strategy in the 2000s

So, the history of the Zeiss Ikon SW is another proof that Zeiss hat the clear goal of pushing their lens sales by providing more affordable cameras. Remember, the Ikon cost a fraction of an M7 in the early 2000s. In Germany, the Ikon SW was introduced at a price of €929 including VAT in October 2006. This was €500 less than the rangefinder model. In common with the fully-featured Zeiss Ikon, the Ikon SW was produced by Cosina. There are parallels also to the Cosina-made Voigtländer Bessa models, but the Zeiss cameras are certainly cameras in their own right.

Exposure control is excellent, as with the regular model of the Zeiss Ikon. Playing with depth of field, however, is risky. But the super-wide lenses the camera is designed for have not much to offer here anyway. Scenes near and on the Säntis (2502m) in the Swiss Alps. All images with Zeiss ZM Biogon C 21/4.5 on the (rather grainy) Kodak ProImage 100.

Auto-exposure: something special for the Zeiss Ikon SW

The Zeiss Ikon SW is unusual in that it offers auto exposure. Lacking a viewfinder in which the shutter speed could be displayed, it uses an unconventional approach. There are three LEDs at the back. Depending on which ones are lit, the user sees the shutter speed the camera is about to apply. For example, the red LED alone means “under 1/15 sec”, the red and yellow combination means “between 1/15 and 1/30 sec”. Green on its own represents “faster than 1/125 sec”.

In practical use, this works well, and all images I obtained from the Zeiss Ikon SW were well exposed. The three LEDs can also be used to manually adjust the exposure. Correction in the range between -2 and +2 EV is possible. And after reading the manual carefully, you will even find the AE lock function. It uses the lever that normally serves to select the frame lines in the rangefinder.

The Zeiss Ikon SW has the same form factor as the regular Zeiss Ikon rangefinder camera. However, it has no viewfinder, and due to this, also no focusing tool. You just have to estimate — which gets the more difficult the longer the focal length of your lens and the wider your aperture. It does, however, mean that the Zeiss Ikon SW is ideal for slow wide-angle lenses, and these lenses are ones for which you need an external viewfinder anyway (on Zeiss or Leica M).

Not only for precision fanatics, the double cold shoe is a useful feature

Another special feature is the double cold shoe. This means that you can attach both an external viewfinder and a spirit level. The latter is particularly important for use with ultra-wide angle lenses. Even the most sophisticated of them are distortion free as long as the camera is not tilted. If you don’t use Leica’s Frankenfinder with its built-in spirit level, it is a good idea to get one from a third-party supplier. If you are keen to learn more about attachable viewfinders, feel free to visit episode 17 of the M Files.  

What more needs to be said about the Zeiss Ikon SW? It has the same, Bauhaus-inspired, design as the regular model, created by the Henssler&Schultheiss company in Germany. The manufacturing quality appears to be great as well, and it shares all the virtues of the Zeiss Ikon. Among them are easy film loading, excellent haptics, a precise and relatively silent shutter and no-frills ergonomics. It also shares the film rewind lever on the bottom, which means you have to rotate it “the other way round” (an arrow prevents you from a disaster if you, unlike me, care to observe it).  

Yes, the Zeiss Ikon SW had a long life – on the dealers’ shelves 

The Zeiss Ikon SW was discontinued around 2011, even before the regular Zeiss Ikon rangefinder camera. It appears that the SW was not a commercial success, which may party be due to the digital shift in the early 2000s. But then again, it is also limited in many respects. For many amateurs, the Zeiss Ikon SW simply offered too little in comparison with other cameras. It is thus no surprise that you can find new old stock items from time to time. At about €1,000, it nominally costs no more than it did in its heyday. A source I can recommend is Jo Geier Mint&Rare in Vienna, Austria – helpful and very knowledgeable people!

All in all, a somewhat exotic camera and only a short episode in the history of M-Mount cameras. But I think the Zeiss Ikon SW is worth being remembered and, more important, being used. You can take superb images with it, but the way to success isn’t the easiest.

An unlucky camera in some ways, but it has its place in the range of M-Mount cameras for sure: The Zeiss Ikon SW was probably too special… but it brought me many keepers from the banks of Lake Vänern in Sweden and the top of Mount Säntis in Switzerland. Both images made with Zeiss ZM Biogon C 21/4.5 on Kodak ProImage 100.

The M Files: Get in-depth knowledge of M-Mount lenses, cameras and suitable accessories

The M Files is an ongoing project on Macfilos that focuses on photographic equipment with or for Leica M-Mount, made by companies apart from Leica or which are otherwise not part of Leica’s M system. It follows a more or less encyclopaedic approach without being scientific. The focus is always on the real-life use and usability of cameras, lenses and other items. Products covered by The M Files include cameras, lenses, viewfinders, light meters and more. Brands on the growing list include Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer and Zeiss. 

Click here for the M Files Navigator, which gives you easy access to all articles and reviews by product type and brand.

Die M-Files: M-Mount-Objektive, -Kameras und passendes Zubehör jenseits von Leica M

Die M-Files sind ein Langzeit-Projekt, das sich auf Foto-Ausrüstungsteile mit oder für Leica M-Bajonett konzentriert, die von anderen Firmen als Leica hergestellt wurden oder die nicht zum M-System von Leica gehören. Es verfolgt einen mehr oder weniger enzyklopädischen Ansatz, ohne wissenschaftlich zu sein. Der Schwerpunkt liegt immer auf der praktischen Nutzung von Kameras, Objektiven und anderen Produkten. Zu den in den M-Files besprochenen Produkten gehören Kameras, Objektive, Sucher, Belichtungsmesser und mehr. Einige der Marken auf der wachsenden Liste sind Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer und Zeiss. In deutscher Sprache erscheinen die Inhalte auf www.messsucherwelt.com.

Hier geht es zum deutschsprachigen M-Files Navigator, der einen einfachen Zugang zu allen Artikeln und Reviews nach Produkttyp und Marke ermöglicht.

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  1. .
    Hi J-P ..I bought the Cosina-brand Leica screw-fit version of this (many years ago) with a Voigtländer 12mm lens on it. One didn’t (doesn’t) need a viewfinder or rangefinder: just choose your distance – set it on the lens – and pretty much everything will be in focus.

    The really important thing is to hold the camera perfectly horizontal ..otherwise, of course, any vertical lines will become diagonal, as the extreme wide-angle lens tilts everything if the camera’s not dead level.

    But it’s easy to get the hang of it ..and to shoot just by looking, instead of looking through a ‘finder!

    • Dear David, I know how well you master this intuitive way of taking images. I am seriously in awe. The Bessa L (screw mount, no finder) is similar to the Ikon SW but lacking auto exposure. I will try to practice this style of photography, but I think I will use a digital camera for this for economic reasons :-). Best wishes! J-P

  2. Hi Joerg-Peter, many thanks! It is/was a handsome device, but it seems extraordinary that a manufacturer would produce a camera that had no viewfinder and no means of achieving an accurate focus. What were they thinking? I can understand the motivation to produce a less expensive offering, and that omitting the complicated rangefinder mechanism would be an obvious way to cut cost, but the result seemed to be a camera that was only viable for the super-wide end of the focal length spectrum.

    I thought the article gave us yet another fascinating glimpse into the M-Mount world, and will be a valuable addition to the M-Files series, even though the camera did not turn out to be a commercial success. Thanks again, Cheers, Keith

    • Dear Keith, thank you for your feedback and encouragement. The Zeiss Ikon SW is an exoctic camera for sure, and I added it to the M Files mainly for the sake of completeness. I think, it was just no brilliant idea to design and produce such a camera because the target group was too small from the start. We can see this also from the (for the M Files series) unusually low number of comments. But never mind, there is so litte to read about this camera that it is good that at least we can proivide something. Best wishes, J-P


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