Konica HEXAR: A Stealth Camera for Special Ops. | Alexander M. “Sandy” Noble

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What?  What’s that you say: “The HEXAR is too big to be stealthy”?  

Tell that to the robust members of Seal Team 6 or to members of any special operations force around the world! They tend to be big and they can be very stealthy, when necessary. Like the SEALs, the HEXAR is substantially built and ready to complete the specific mission assigned. And, like special operations forces, it is not always the best tool for every mission.

The HEXAR is unique.  It is not a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Nor is it a MILC (Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Camera). And, it’s not like Fuji’s excellent X 100 series Fixed Lens Digital Hybrid Window Finder Cameras  It is a Fixed Lens, Auto Focus, Variable Sensor, Range-finder Camera.  Photographers can change the ‘sensor’ by using a different film stock.

The HEXAR is designed to make hand-held, available light, candid images, particularly in low light.

Fuji ACROS exposed at ISO 64

Fuji ACROS exposed at ISO 64

The HEXAR is equipped with a fixed, auto focus, Hexanon 35mm f/2.0 lens. comprising 7 elements in 6 groups. Some of the cognoscenti believe that this lens is a copy of Leica’s Summicron 35mm f/2.0 lens but, in fact, both the Leica and Hexanon lens designs are derived from the W-Nikkor 3.5 f/1.8 design. (* Source: Silver Grain Labs 5/20/11 report on the HEXAR translated from Japanese.)

This history may be of interest to collectors but this story is about what a special image making instrument the HEXAR is.

“Hexa” means “of six” and HEXAR’s designers included six features to help achieve high quality available light candid images:

Fast, 35mm F/2.0 lens produces superb image quality;

Kodak T-Max 400 exposed at ISO 250

Kodak T-Max 400 exposed at ISO 250

Very accurate active auto focus system.  HEXAR uses a center-only infrared spotlight and left & right “eyes” to overcome focusing errors that occur in difficult situations.  Images are tack sharp. This thing can “see” like a bat! It doesn’t use echo-location like a bat, but the HEXAR’s simple IR system will enable the camera to focus even when it is too dark for the photographer to see the focus point in the finder.  Try that with your ultra sophisticated Canikon! I did and my Nikon D 810 was “blind”!

Kodak T-Max 400 at ISO 250

Kodak T-Max 400 at ISO 250

For infrared film photographers, focus correction can be made for both 750 and 850 wavelengths.  The process for setting IR focus correction mode is a bit fiddly, as are many adjustments on the camera, but effective and convenient once set. If there is a downside to this system, it is the HEXAR has difficulty focusing through glass.

Leaf shutter enables steady hands to make sharp images at 1/15 second or slower, depending on the age, temperament, and coffee consumption of the photographer. As an aging warrior, I’ve learned that often a tripod is important to my making the very sharp low light images that I require for my work.

The leaf shutter proves to be a blessing and a curse.  It enables flash sync speeds up to the maximum shutter speed of 1/250 second but, too often, 1/250 second shutter speed requires an f stop higher than desired, frustrating efforts to separate subjects from their backgrounds. 

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

Can set Camera Shake Critical Speed in Program mode.  However, the process for setting it is not intuitive.  It requires the camera to be in Program Mode; pressing the Select button for a few seconds; then using the Up/Down adjustment to set the desired speed.  But once done, the setting will remain until changed by the photographer.

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

A small, inconspicuous, plain, black, unmarked body, which has a low emotional impact on potential human subjects, especially compared to the current crop of DSLRs with thermos bottle sized 24-70 zoom lenses. 

A “Silent Mode”.  This really sets the HEXAR apart from other cameras.

Kodak T-Max 400 at ISO 250

Kodak T-Max 400 at ISO 250

When in Silent Mode it is more than just quiet, it is barely noticeable.  You may even think that you have not taken a shot, because the auto focus, shutter and film advance are all covered by the silent mode. And, if your shooting environment requires the ultimate in stealth, the film advance can be delayed after taking a shot by holding the shutter button down.  Moving the camera behind your back before releasing the shutter button will assure the camera is not heard.  Leica shooters know how quiet those cameras can be, but the HEXAR even trumps them.  In keeping with the stealth mission, flash function is disabled when the camera is in the Silent Mode.

After a steep and sometimes frustrating learning curve, the HEXAR is an absolute delight to use.  Once understood, the simplicity of the controls and features offered enable the photographer to focus on vision and craft.  The camera ‘gets out of the way’ while the photographer makes images.  

Hexa –“Of Six”– there are only six camera controls:

  1. Mode: Program, Apeture priority and Manual
  2. Apeture
  3. Shutter Speed (Fiddly rocker Up/Down switch)
  4. Select Button (ISO, Exposure Compensation, Minimum Shutter)
  5. Manual Focus (Useless, except for locking focus set by Auto Focus)
  6. Self timer

The HEXAR’s silicone photodiode exposure meter is center weighted in P and A modes (15 degrees) and a spot meter in M mode (4 degrees). The metering cell is on the front near the traditional self-timer location. Care must be taken not to block the meter with errant fingers.  While I use a hand-held meter when time allows, the HEXAR’s center-weighted and spot meter readings proved invaluable and very accurate when I was on the run.

While shooting the HEXAR for this article I thought more about relating to subject, the light, composition and artistic tension.  I thought more about how to tell a story with each image being made. The constraints of one focal length, one ISO (per film change), no menu considerations and ...no “chimping”, were liberating.I was able to focus on setting, character, relationship and action to create a sense of story that would, hopefully, engage the imagination of the viewer. Working within the self imposed constraints by selecting the HEXAR, I was able to stay in the zone while making the images but more importantly, I was able to stay with and relate to the subject more completely.

I did challenge the HEXAR by pressing it into service for a studio portrait and for an environmental portrait made in a darkroom.  

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

It did yeoman duty, resulting in some satisfying, high quality images but it pushed back.  

Regardless of design or manufacturer, rangefinder or window cameras, all with parallax errors, are not the best tools for precision framing.  There is no PC socket on the HEXAR.  However, the camera performed flawlessly using Pocket Wizard III transceivers.  

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

Portra 400 exposed at ISO 250

A cable release cannot be attached to the HEXAR and the focus and recompose required by the single central focus point proved to be awkward when mounted on a tripod.  The HEXAR is not for everyone. It is not the right tool for every assignment and does not have the universal application of an SLR.  Some of the controls are finicky and the camera can frustrate those who don’t want to take the time to understand how to make best use of it.  But used within its design brief, the HEXAR is a liberating, superb image-making instrument that is a joy to use.  


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Film photographer Alexander M. "Sandy" Noble  is a teller of stories. He strives to make compelling images that engage and challenge the viewer. Photographing with purpose, he makes intimate portraits that address universal themes, with the hope that viewers of his images will reflect on what those themes mean to their lives and about the world in which we live.

You can see more of Sandy’s work at his website.  Sandy and his wife live in in a farmhouse built in 1783, in Bernardsville, New Jersey,.