In certain forums, people like to joke that a bessa l makes a good rear cap for one of those super wide voigtlander novelty lenses. It would be a funnier joke if the bessa l wasn’t actually such a crummy camera. The Hexar AF, on the other hand, makes a great rear cap for the super sweet Summicron-killing lens to which it’s permanently affixed.
hexar af, tri-x in diafine
The hexar af’s heritage seems to go back to the time before af point-n-shoots, back to the days when compact fixed lens rangefinders were what you bought when didn’t want the complexity of an SLR. It shares many of the same design conceits; it’s smallish, ruggidish, has automatic and manual controls (better than most of it progenitors), and an absurdly good lens for the price.
Features and Controls
hexar af, tri-x in diafine
The hexar af is a compact 35mm camera with a leaf shutter, active af, manual controls, parallax correcting frame lines, and a fixed 35 f2 lens. I’ll rant about the lens below, so let’s consider just the body for the moment. Controls on the hexar af are well thought out and easy to use. There’s a very usable knurled aperture control wheel on top, a pair of lefty/righty switches, an on/off mode dial, select and manual focus buttons (both slightly recessed), self timer button and a deeply recessed (poke it with a pen point) rewind button. You can pick it up and take great pictures without ever reading the manual. And with just a bit of use, you can manipulate the hexar without looking at the controls. However, there’s a lot of neat stuff hiding under those straight forward controls. Like an old Nintendo game, mashing just the right sequences of buttons on the Hexar will turn on special features. It’s essentially a user programable firmware. Here’s a few of the most salient features:
- Total manual control of both exposure and focus.
- Manual and auto-aperture flashmatic operation with the ability to put in the GN of whatever flash you want to use (Nikon’s SB 30 with it’s multiple manual settings works well on the hexar). The flashmatic mode is essentially fool proof if you know the real GN of your flash. You tell the camera the GN, it takes the distance from the active af mechanism, and picks the right aperture for the exposure. No mucking about with subject reflectivity, just good exposures.
- Rear curtain flash synch up to 1/250th. This in combination with the flash matic mode makes the hexar af a sleeper of a camera for a wedding or event photographer. You can do fill flash in daylight and drag shutter shots at the reception with ease.
- The meter switches to spot in manual mode. Sweet.
- Silent mode. Short of a blimp, this is about as quiet as camera’s get. And yes, it’s quieter than a leica.
- User programmable firmware. If you mash the buttons in just the right order (documented in the photo.net review) you can add the silent mode and various other neat things to the later models of the hexar. This is just too cool.
- Selected aperture bias in program mode. In other words, with the mode dial set to P, the camera will try to set the shutter speed from 1/30th to 1/250th to match. If it can’t, it will adjust the aperture appropriately.
- Super secret shutter priority mode; you change the lowest shutter speed the camera will select in P mode. So if you know you can hand hold at an 1/8th (you can, believe me), you can set the minimum at an 1/8th. Of course this also means you could set it at 1/250th if you really wanted. Neat!
- Supremely accurate midroll rewind; you can change film midroll without wasting a shot. Nice feature.
The Lens: Summicron Killer, not Summicron Copy
Piles of debased Summicrons with sloppy aperture rings and off kilter hoods beg for mercy in front of the Hexar AF’s lens.
Rampant internet rumors aside, the lens in the Hexar AF is not a summicron copy. It’s obscene that you can buy a hexar af for $300-500 because the lens is worth far more than that. It rivals the three dimensionality and smooth bokeh of the most notorious leica 35′s. It’s a sharp as any lens has a right to be. It’s fast enough to allow shooting in absurdly low light levels with fast film. With the active AF system, you can shoot the hexar af in light levels that would make manual focussing darn near impossible and would throw most passive af slrs into a hunting tizzy. The lens does vignette slightly wide open. I’ve come to like this in a lot of lenses. It gives a very subtle in camera edge burn that works well for portraits. And it’s gone by 2.8, so if you don’t want the vignetting stop down.
Complaints real and otherwise
The hexar af is not without its oddities and limitations:
- You hear a lot of whining about the hexar’s top shutter speed of 1/250th. This is why they make ND filters folks. It’s also why they make fuji acros BTW.
- The fixed 35 doesn’t suit everyone. I’m kind of ambivalent about 35′s. When using a fifty I usually want something wider. When using a 35 I usually want something a little narrower. In my mind, 35′s are good for people I know really well or groups of people that I’m really not a part of. If you can’t find your own way of using a 35, pass on the hexar.
- Although the framelines are parallax corrected, the focus aim point is not. Focusing isn’t through the lens but with a sensor to the right of the lens. I’ve missed focus on a few shots where I was trying to focus on something tiny in the foreground. A few worked in spite of this, but it’s a frustrating design limitation.
- The manual focus is purely manual; you gotta use your brain to figure out how far away the subject is. So what good is it? Use it to preset focus in situations where you are counting on DOF to do most of the work.
When I owned my Hexar AF, I wasn’t nearly a good enough photographer for it, so it’s probably best that I sold it when I did, altough I sometimes wish I still had it. It was a great camera for shooting in bars; after a few too many pints, that active af system starts to seem like a really good idea.
Other Hexar AF Resources
For more coherent points of view on this camera, see these fine reviews:
- Silvergrain Wiki Hexar AF page (includes an interesting explanation of the af system and notes on fixing problems with the shutter release)
- Dante Stella’s Hexar AF review (enteraining, but not that much more coherent than the review you’ve been reading)
- CameraQuest Hexar AF page
Lost Hexar AF Commands
|selecting flash GN||turn off, turn to P while pressing Self|
|turning on silent mode||turn off, turn on while holding MF button|