Hands on: Zenith M review

The Zenith M will be designed in Russia but made by Leica

What is a hands on review?
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It’s not the first of April – we had to double-check – and Leica and Zenith really have collaborated on a new camera. Leica directed our enquiries to the Zenith stand where we were able to get the full story and try out the new camera.

It’s based around the Leica M240 rangefinder, we believe, so it has a full frame 24MP sensor behind a focal plane shutter. It’s a rangefinder camera, so there’s no autofocus system or even through-the-lens viewing (except in live view mode).

It’s a full frame mirrorless camera (yes, another one) but not as we know it nowadays. You focus by turning a ring on the lens and lining up a semitransparent rectangular ‘ghost’ image with your subject in the viewfinder.

Zenith is a name associated long ago with cheap, crude and effective film cameras, none of which applies to the Zenith M. It will cost €5500 when it goes on sale next year as a body/lens kit.

The lens is the other intriguing part of the equation. We’re told by Zenith that the Zenith M will be made by Leica in its Wetzlar factory, but that the lenses will be made in Russia.

The lens being sold with the Zenith M is a Zenith 35mm f/1.0. No, we haven’t missed a digit, this really is an f/1.0 lens a full f-stop faster than the fastest f/1.4 optics out there.

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Build and handling

Not surprisingly, the Zenit M feels like a Leica – its a long, long way from the tractor factory feel of the old and much loved Zenit E SLR of the 1970s. The exterior panels have been slightly reshaped and the logo is changed, but Leica users will immediately recognise the minimalist controls and unadorned rectangular design.

The Zenith 35mm f/1.0 feels just as good as the camera body. Its focus ring has a very long throw (there’s no Leica style quick-action focus lever on this lens) and is slightly stiff for the amount of focus movement needed, but that’s just a quibble. The overall build quality, feel and that f/1.0 maximum aperture are impressive. It’s a lens that feels like it belongs on a camera of this class.

We looked at a second lens – a Zenith 21mm f/2.8 – which looks just as interesting and is a whole lot smaller than the 35mm f/1.0 but Zenith was not yet able to quote a price.

Performance

The camera we were shown was a pre-production model so we were unable to take sample images, but we have to assume that if the Zenit M is based on a largely unmodified Leica body the image quality will be first rate. We definitely want to try out the two lenses as soon as production samples are available.

The viewfinder is bright and clear and the rangefinder focusing works smoothly. The long focus travel makes re-focusing over big distances slower, but it does give the extra accuracy needed for the super-shallow depth of field at that f/1.0 maximum aperture.

The bad news is not confined to the hefty €5500 price tag – there will be a limited run of just 500 cameras when it’s launched, so if you are tempted by this blast from the past, you’d better get your name down quickly.

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What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.