Meet the Camera: Hexar AF Rhodium

And now for something completely different….

Part of the fun of the gear aspect of film photography is finding a great deal on a piece of equipment. The flip side of this, naturally, is envy of other photographers who have managed to stumble across some bargain that you could only dream of. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a fair few noteworthy deals over the years – my Rolleiflex Old Standard was $30 in a junk shop, for example (and looked every bit the part) – but the deal I’m about to relate may just top that, so prepare to be jealous.

I recently acquired a Konica Hexar AF Rhodium. The Hexar AF is something of a cult camera from the early 1990s, and the Rhodium edition (I’m not used to cameras that came in “editions”) was limited 1,200 units, at least according to the only source I could find that gave a number. This one is in excellent cosmetic shape, with very few indications of actual use beyond a few tiny bright marks and a little light wear on the protective plastic covering the base plate (yes, it still has the protective plastic on the base plate). The lens is pristine. And the price I paid for this limited edition cult camera in astonishingly good shape? Cost of shipping, which was about $20.

Before acute apoplexy sets in, please consider one small fact that may temper your rapidly rising hatred for me: the camera was completely and totally dead, and I knew it. No signs of electronic life whatsoever. Bleeding demised. Gone to meet the choir invisible. Pining for the fjords. An ex-camera.

Clearly, if you’ve read anything at all of my previous broken camera adventures, I am not one to shy away from a challenge, especially when the buy-in is low. I figured worst-case scenario, I extricate the lens from the body and convert it to LTM so I can use it on my screwmount cameras. Not much to lose, really, except perhaps destroying a limited edition cult camera. But is desecrating a corpse really so wrong?

Once I knew the camera was coming, I began doing some research on it and potential sources of the problem. Apparently the shutter button is prone to failure due to poor contact, but this is easily resolved and wouldn’t kill power to the camera. Eventually, I found a blog post from last year describing a similarly dead Hexar AF and, miraculously, the story of its resurrection. The author described in detail the nature of the problem – a failed solder joint on the flexible PCB in the bottom of the camera – and how it was rectified with a simple jumper wire. I hauled out my multimeter and started testing to see if my problem was similar, and indeed all signs pointed to the very same failure. Having little to lose, I jumped the PCB as described, and lo and behold, the camera rose from the dead (it might well have been on the third day of my ownership, but I wasn’t keeping track).

While I was very satisfied with my successful repair, particularly given that my expertise is far more developed when it comes to mechanical rather than electrical repairs, I must admit I felt a small twinge of disappointment. The idea of converting the lens over to LTM was always in the back of my mind as the most likely outcome, and while I could still do it, the thought of extracting the lens from a fully functional camera – especially one this rare – seems blasphemous. It’s like someone harvesting your organs while you’re still using them. Having just resuscitated it, I couldn’t very well ask the poor Hexar for its liver, now could I?

So now I have a lovely Hexar AF. I’m not really sure what to make of it yet. It’s a nicely finished piece, and feels solid in spite of some plastic bits. The Rhodium color scheme – metal finished in a slightly pinkish shade that I can only assume is what rhodium looks like, with brown synthetic grip material – is attractive and unusual. The controls feel reasonably good, the aperture dial moreso than the minuscule rubber buttons.

The Hexar AF has some electronic party tricks, as designers of cameras in the 1990s were wont to include. Most famously, it has a “silent mode” which is of course not truly silent, but does render the camera very, very quiet. There are ways to focus and set shutter speed manually, adjust exposure compensation, and such as well, all using the tiny buttons on top. It uses DX coding, but ISO can be set manually up to 6400. Exposure is determined by an offset metering cell, not through the lens; it’s located close to the grip, so it’s important not to block it with an errant fingertip. LEDs in the reasonably bright viewfinder show over- or under-exposure and focus lock, and there’s a focus distance indicator that’s mostly useless due to its small size and vague reading. It also has a data back, which allows you to imprint the date on your photos – why you would want to do this I’m not sure, but someone in the 1990s though this was a good idea – I can’t prove it, but I suspect they may have been drunk at the time.

The biggest fault in the design is the inexplicably limited fastest shutter speed of 1/250. I’m sure the engineers had a reason for this, but it’s really rather annoying for someone who prefers faster film. Sure, a neutral density filter can mitigate the problem, but this somehow feels like an imposition that could have been easily avoided. The lens stops down to f/22, so there’s some help there, but there’s still not much to work with in bright conditions with fast film.

It’s definitely not the sort of camera I usually adopt – autofocus, LCD displays, little buttons, “modes”…it’s all just electronic voodoo. I prefer chromed brass, dials, knobs, and making my own decisions (the Hexar’s manual mode is so unwieldy as to be utterly off-putting). The lens is reputedly wonderful – the design is similar to the Nikkor 35/1.8 – but I haven’t had a chance to do more than run a test roll through it, so a proper assessment of that claim will have to wait. The camera is quite pleasant to hold and use, but the whirring noises it makes are still jarringly unfamiliar; the “silent mode” helps, but it’s still not the reassuring instantaneous thunk of a Leica mechanical shutter.

I don’t know what the future holds for my relationship with the Hexar AF. Perhaps it will grow on me, especially if I like the images the lens produces, but it may also turn out to be one of those cameras that stays a while but ultimately moves on to the greener pastures provided by a user who appreciates its considerable virtues, rather than instinctively questioning its technology (I’m old, sue me). But regardless of what happens, at least it’s back in the realm of the living.