Camera Followup: Hexar AF

It’s been the better part of a year since I got my Hexar AF Rhodium, and as it is so different from the sort of equipment I normally favor, it seemed appropriate to offer a bit of a followup. Readers of the initial piece will note that I was rather uncertain about how I would get on with the Hexar, openly speculating that its time with me might well be short. Well, it’s still here – time to address why.

Put simply, I’m really enjoying using the camera. I don’t really know why, but I am. It fits my hand well, it’s very easy to use, and the results are very, very good. I took it on vacation last summer, shot a friend’s band’s gig in a dark bar, and used it extensively this past fall as I burned up some of my old expired color film stockpile. I’ve shot maybe a dozen rolls of film with it – B&W (some of it pushed to 1600), color print, and slide – and it’s handled everything nicely. The metering spot-on. The autofocus is startlingly competent. There’s really been nothing to dislike.

Konica Hexar AF, Kodak Gold 200 (expired)

I’m growing more accustomed to the 35mm lens. In spite of having a few lenses in this focal length, I haven’t tended to use them a lot. It’s proven a useful in-between for when I’m only carrying one camera (I’m finding myself tending more toward the 50/28 two lens kit when I travel, so 35 splits the difference). It stills requires more conscious attention than when I shoot 50, but that’s just me. The speed of the camera itself helps to offset my own slowness in framing and composition.

The quality of the lens is well-documented, but I feel a few words are necessary nonetheless. The rendering is somewhere between modern and classic. It captures fine textures very well without feeling overly sharp, and the fall-off into the out-of-focus areas is gloriously creamy. Contrast is again more than you would see with lenses from the 1950s and 60s (let alone uncoated ones), but not the biting contrast of truly modern glass. While it definitely produces more modern-looking results than most of the lenses in my collection, it strikes a nice balance that makes it clear it is not something calculated by unfeeling machines and churned out in the last decade.

Konica Hexar AF, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

In spite of all this, there’s still some cognitive dissonance. Relying on a partially automated, battery-dependent camera partially made of plastic sticks in my craw. The whirring noises bug me. Where’s the damn advance lever? Even though it’s given me exactly zero reasons to doubt it, my own predilections leave me feeling every-so-slightly suspicious that it’s going to melt or explode or whatever modern cameras do when they fail.

What I plan to try next is to use it for some street photography. Rather than allow the camera to just do its thing, I’m going to lock the focus at 3m, the aperture at f/8 (or f/5.6, depending on the light), and go from there. I may even set the shutter to 1/125, but chances are I’ll at least let the Hexar control the speed via its Program mode (which is a sort of smart Aperture Priority), in part because I don’t want the little electronic elves to feel spurned and go off pouting and letting the smoke out. When I shoot manual cameras in the street I use the settings above in most cases, so it will be interesting to see how the Hexar AF compares in similar circumstances. I have a feeling it will be fine.

So what’s the verdict? Well, I’ve been happier with the Hexar AF than I expected to be. In spite of knowing that I could probably sell it easily and for a fair sum (certainly more than what most of my cameras would fetch), I’m keeping it for now. Will it continue to impress me favorably, or will it crap out and leave me annoyed at my misbegotten faith in it? Who knows. I like it enough that I think I’d be genuinely saddened if it failed in a way I couldn’t fix, and that’s not something I would have expected to find myself writing when I first laid hands on it.

Postscript: I followed through with my plan a few days ago. As intended, I set the aperture at f/5.6 (it was mostly cloudy) and let the camera settle on a shutter speed, but I left the autofocus on for the most part. I’m not sure why – I think the idea of setting the focus manually seemed contrary to the nature of the Hexar AF. I mean, it’s got AutoFocus in the name, for crying out loud! (Before you nitpickers get all wound up, I know the official name is “Hexar,” not “Hexar AF,” but what does everyone call it? So there.)

So how did it do? Fine, in that it didn’t cause me any problems, and was as compliant as I expected it to be. As for the photos, well, they’re what I expected from the lens in technical terms, but they also confirm that I am more a natural 50mm shooter, especially in the street. Several times I felt like I wished I had the longer focal length, and the photos reflect that my framing with the wider lens is looser, and in my eyes less refined. It just feels sloppy, or perhaps uncontrolled. I know a lot of people prefer wider lenses for street shooting, and I definitely found it useful in certain circumstances, but it never felt as instinctive as a 50mm.

So the Hexar is not likely to supplant the Leicas for street work, but that doesn’t change my feelings about it. It’s still a very good general purpose and travel camera; like every camera, you have to learn and work within its limitations, but first you have to find them.


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.