Film Friday: Zeiss Ikon SW

There are few truly magical names in camera design and Carl Zeiss is certainly one of them and conjures up an image of optical perfection with cameras that are built to a standard not a price point. Back in the 1950s when I was dreaming of making photographs with a camera that was more precise, more German, than my Argus C3, Zeiss Ikon cameras were already known for their innovative design, excellent build quality and superb lenses.

The Zeiss Ikon SW offers the same build high quality as the company’s rangefinder camera but lacks the rangefinder and is slightly more affordable. An accessory shoe atop the camera and directly above the lens accepts a viewfinder that matches the lens’ focal length. As an aid in composing your shot, these viewfinders also show the area that surrounds the final image. So where does a camera like this fit into today’s digital photography world?

Traditional photography is far from dead; it’s alive and well because tools such as the Zeiss Ikon SW give us ways to create images that suit how we like to work. To be sure, I’m not going to soup any film shot in the SW in a special developer and lock myself in the darkroom making prints. Nope, the film is lab processed, scanned, and manipulated in the digital darkroom just like all my other digital image files. The only thing that’s changed is the method of capture.

The camera’s main structure is a single aluminum die cast part and the lens bayonet and focal plane shutter are attached to it. Film aficionados might think of the SW as a 35mm version of Hasselblad’s legendary Super Wide and it is similar in operation in many ways. One big difference is the Zeiss SW has an electronically controlled metal shutter offering speeds from 1/2000 to 8 seconds in automatic exposure (Aperture Priority) mode and 1/2000 to one second plus Bulb in manual mode. The fastest flash synchro speed is 1/125 sec. Talk about details: The lower part of the shutter is painted light grey to optimize light metering.

The Zeiss Ikon SW while traditional in design is not a technological Luddite. The camera has LEDs on it’s back indicating shutter speed and over/under exposure warning. Three LEDs specify over exposure (blinking green LED), underexposure (blinking red LED) and shutter speed (various combinations of illuminated, red, green and orange LEDs.) It’s a system that’s easy enough to understand once you remember that as the colors get warmer—orange, then red—shutter speeds are increasing.

Is the Zeiss Ikon SW camera old fashioned? Yes. But this kind of breathtaking build quality whether it’s the ultimate road car such as the Bugatti Veyron or a 35mm camera like the Zeiss Ikon SW never goes out of style.

PS. As of April 2011, the The Zeiss Ikon SW (Super Wide) rangefinder is listed as “no longer available” but you should be able to find bodies on eBay or other resources for used camera, such as KEH and Adorama’s Used Department.

Author: Joe Farace

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