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“Bones, there's a... thing... out there."
"Why is any object we don't understand always called "a thing"?!”

Konica Hexar Black

Last update: May 22, 2011.

Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime).."H-E-X-A-R." Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved... and gained consciousness.

Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens modeled after the 4th-generation Leica Summicron (actually, it's a variant of the 35/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens design, but Summicron more accurately describes the look of the images); about the size of a Leica M6 with 35/2 lens. A heavy little beastie, all metal. Black phosphate finish on alloy body.

Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure.

Rangefinder and limitations:  It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera.  The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m.  It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity.  If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.

That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift.  The Hexar's lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller.  The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes.  Too bad AF SLRs don't have this feature.

But wait.  This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too.  No IR marks, no guesswork.

If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back - useful for hyperfocal technique).

Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry. The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly.

Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn't think so. Some people complain that you can't use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens's resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.

  • For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
  • Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [--]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays [0]. The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).

In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it's digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.

Well, you can get away with shooting a Hexar in St. Peters. Do you think you could have focused and exposed this shot in the 2 seconds before the Swiss Guard came for a visit? It turned out one was a camera buff and wanted to know what it was. F/2 and 1/15 sec.

Lens: The lens is the Hexar's raîson d'etre. This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2 UC Hexanon, in Leica mount. This new lens in Leica mount is definitely better than the original. Back to the camera at hand: the 35/2 Hexar lens is nominally 7 elements in 6 groups. It is designed around the basic parameters of the 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor rangefinder lens - with some modifications to accommodate a leaf shutter assembly.  The end product mimics the last pre-aspherical Leica Summicron in terms of its drawing on film. The lens has 6 aperture blades that form a pefect circle down to f/5.6. After that, you don't need the aperture to be circular (because there is nothing out of focus)- you need the auto-aperture unit to stop down quickly! The only MTF reports I have seen on this camera shows the Hexar lens as equal to the Leica pre-ASPH Summicron - and far beyond its Nikon forebearer. In terms of real-world performance, it's as good as you would expect to see with any 35/2 lens on the market. And think — this camera costs less than half the price of the used Leica lens alone.

. .

Shot at f/5.6; Right, a 40x enlargment of the right eye.

Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels... good. It could use textured grips, but it's not a big deal.

Durability: It's a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage - and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.

Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus... shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles - and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 20 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in "loud" mode - and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150.

Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:

  • Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
  • Filters: I would recommend a B+W Multi-resistant KR1.5.
  • Case: avoid the soft case.
  • Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap.

Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.