Koni Omega Rapid M (200)

The Koni Omega Rapid M (later in black as the 200) : a weighty choice as the best medium format for the dollar and among the best at any dollar.  Unfortunately, that sentence is literal and figurative.

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Though I said the Koni would be the first of the systems I would be writing about, I very nearly started with the Mamiya Universal Press.  That actually says a lot about both cameras, and a bit about the the way I use them.

When I go out, there is always at least one camera with me – and almost always it is one that can record video, given past personal experiences, not to mention recent events in the news.  This usually means film cameras (wait -snip- rant moved to its own post) are a companion piece – even if I intend to use them as my primary tool that day.  In turn, this often leads to somewhat amusing (and somewhat distressingly long) internal debates as to what to “wear” that day.

I should add that it isn’t uncommon for me to have three cameras on me; usually the supplimental ones are film in varying formats.

Then a free form calculus takes place – weighing things like negative size, interchangable backs, available light, whether I can use the biggest format lenses on other systems with me, actual weight, bulk, and the impression the equipment carries among normal people.

Here’s how the Koni measures up.  My Koni Omega is a Rapid M.  Same as a 200 other than cosmetics.  I only use (and have) the 90mm. I would prefer the 135mm for the 6×7 format, but it’s very rare.

The Koni is an interchangeable lens, interchangable back 6×7 rangefinder designed for press use, derived from a series of American 1950s military cameras.  Off the bat, you know this camera is heavy for its size, useless at under 4 feet, poor for telephoto work, questionable for precise composition, and damage resistant.  I’m assuming you’ve read a review or have used a rangefinder in some format, so none of this should be news.  Here’s what they don’t tell you.

Ergonomics.  One recalls that map of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign as being described as the most effective portrayal of data – ever.  At first glance, a map with vector lines all over the place would seem to defy that statement and call into question the sanity of anyone making that claim.  But once you understand that the width of the line shows the proportional size of his army – dwindling to toothpick proportions at the end of the return leg, you understand.  This camera is exactly like that.  Three cold shoes.  Side focus knob.  The infamous film advance.

This camera is a dream to handle.

Left hand first: the left handed grip feels great to my hand with a very natural angle.  The angle is adjustable. It also puts my hand in such a place that I can use either forefinger or thumb to trigger the shutter.  The thumb’s trigger placement is adjustable.  The thumb rests at the base of the release mechanism, allowing you to lock the cable.  Similarly, the forefinger can also operate the body shutter release lock.  All without changing your grip.

Right hand does pretty well too.  The base of the palm cradles the straight bolt advance’s handle providing weak hand support to the camera and requiring little motion to go from focusing and shooting to advancing.  If you use your ring finger and pinky to grasp the handle, it requires no movement whatsoever.  The focusing wheel is big and covers the system lenses that RF couple.  I do a fair amount of precision hip photography – i.e. wide open with 50 deg and narrower angles of view so I cut a strip of white gaffer tape and copied the 90mm focus marks at a 90 degree offset so I can look straight down.  Gaffer tape also often improves the grip on focusing wheels (Graflex 4×5 Super D, I’m looking at you).  The right hand also falls such that back changes could be quick – of course, there is a darkslide interlock and you have to pull the slide from somewhere – but putting a new back on leaves you in a ready to work grip. Fortunately, the Koni backs have a place to store the diminutive darkslides. Why it took Hasselblad and Mamiya decades to add this is beyond me.

Photographic aids abound.  3/8″ and 1/4″ tripod sockets on both the base and left hand side of the camer.  Interlocks that actually serve their purpose without getting in your way. GN and DOF scales. Aperture and Shutter speed dials can be turned together in accordance with reciprocity.  You can see this camera was not only used (and refined) by  generations of photographers, but designed for them – maximal function in minimal space.  The cold shoes are recessed, adding nothing to the profile of the camera and allowing you to use the eyepiece cover (tape this in place, though) an external VF, and a small flash at the same time.

The camera is, however, heavy for what it is.  The build quality and linkages are good; the RF stays reasonably in place and is much less annoying than a Mamiya Press to adjust.   I don’t worry too much about this camera in the rain – teardown is pretty straight forward.  The grip can be removed, at the cost of some of the advantages above, but suddenly the camera isn’t much different in size from a Mamiya 7 and is comparable in width and  height to a gripped 5DII.   Still heavy though.  Also, it’s difficult to pack because the focusing stage is built into the body.  It just takes up a disproportionate amount of space – it’s a pyramidal shape trying to live in a cuboidal world, specifically, my photo sling bag.  I’ve experimented with a few approaches, most require the removal of the diminutive 90mm, which of course doesn’t do much.  Expect to keep this one slung on your body.

Image – 6×7 is the start of where I am happy with negative sizes;  frankly, anything less and I don’t think – especially after spotting, whether by ink or cloning – there is a fundamental technical reason not to use a 20MP+ Barnack sensor, especially in low light color.  6×6 is passable but a compromise – I don’t recall when I’ve used the 6×6 (let alone the 6×4.5 backs) I have.  So the Koni satisfies, but doesn’t give me what I feel 6×8 and 6×9 do.  That said – as many others have said – there is nothing to complain about here.  I have the great name glass, exotic glass (like an Olympus 250mm/f2).  If I take a photo with the later 90mm/3.5  I don’t find myself later regretting not having used something else – glass or format wise.  I also know that certain formats will preclude you from getting a shot in the first place – so grimacing because you didn’t use your 8×10 with an f/9 lens to photograph Brooklyn kids running in the spray of a hydrant at dusk – while standing in the spray yourself – is a more than a bit silly.

However, while I might never regret using the 90/3.5 it wouldn’t be my first choice.  For me, 90mm is almost too wide to be acceptable at all – I’ve found that a 37 degree horizontal angle of view is my “normal.”  As I said, the 135 would be more my speed, but I don’t have one.  And speaking of speed, the fact that the system goes no faster than f/3.5 is an issue for me but a leaf shuttered 135/2 6×9 exists only in my dreams. (Mamiya Universal, close.  Next writeup.)  I know this is par for the course with medium format RF, but having a 2.8 lens available may lead to take the RZ67II (esp with a teleconverter), the C330s, Pentax 6×7 or the Kiev 60 with me instead.  It may not sound like much f/3.5 vs f/2.8 (or 2.4), but it matters for my needs.

As far as lens construction – the mechanism – goes, it’s ok.  The interlock and cocking system work wonderfully, double exposures have to be made intentionally, but can be done swiftly, allowing you to recock the shutter after an accidental release (or ND, for you shooters) with the lens cap on.   However, the lenses are fired with through a linkage arm near the rear element inside the camera, so don’t expect to easily move these lenses to your Horseman or Mini Speed Graphic.  (It has been done, of course.)   Nor does this system lend itself to taking glass.  You could get them on to a broken lens assembly and fire them, but certainly not while remaining able to use any verifiable and accurate means of focus. There is no ground glass option (which would be nice for RF calibration).  I could be ok with all this, treating this camera as a fixed lens affair, but then it seems I’m carrying around mechanical weight – which doesn’t pack well – for no benefit.

Which also relates to my final, and expected critique of the system.   Ask anyone about Konis, anyone who used or who knows someone who used them and you’ll likely get this:

“Great glass. I/he used them for weddings.  But the film advance goes.  And it’s loud.”

So yeah, everyone kind of likes these except for the back.  It’s hard not to like a camera which can be bought for $100 that provides unsurpassed optics, solid construction, and good handling.   Now, if you don’t know what they’re talking about, and you didn’t read a review of the Koni – and somehow made it to this point – I’ll explain quickly.  In normal use, Omega RF cameras advance the film and cock the lens shutter by pulling a metal rod with teeth across gears (advancing the film) and which also pushes a lever in the camera box (which pushes the shutter cocking arm).  That’s why they call them “Rapid.”  There are two issues here.

It is pretty damn loud, especially for a leaf shutter camera.  It’s hard to do this without people noticing.

By not pulling with a firm even stroke, you may not advance the film completely or at all.  On the other hand, slamming the advance with too much force can result in advance problems, especially when you get crap in the gears.

If sound is an issue, then you have one.  Nothing to be done.  Don’t try and use several smaller strokes or to gently work the advancing arm back into the back.  You’re going to overlap your images.  For unnoticed street work, your best bet is to play the disinterested tinkerer.  Play it off like you are having an issue. For removable back cameras, take the back out, reach inside the camera and play with the interlocks and then turn your attention to the back, advancing it outside the camera.  For the insert only models (Koni Omega Rapid, Koni Omega 100) just cap the lens and play with the shutter cocking lever and shooting while pointing the camera at yourself.  Then advance the arm.

The advance issue really isn’t one.  Spend some time with an unloaded back.  Watch the arm and spool gear interact.  You will learn exactly the right amount of force to apply.  All mechanical links break or fall out of alignment at some point, but learning the proper stroke and committing it to muscle memory makes the Koni as reliable as just about anything out there.  Next, the advance is all part of the back, and the back insert seems to be fairly interchangeable between all Konis.  Bad advance? Get another insert.  eBay prices are such that BIN backs/inserts are idiotically priced; often the cheapest way to pick up a new back is to buy another camera, especially broken ones.  Parts cameras are a good thing to have.  Lastly, you can have this fixed and you can even have a go at it yourself.

I should also point out that while I went out of my way to get a Rapid M, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.  Most of my cameras can take Graflex 2×3 backs and it’s not uncommon for me to start a roll on a Mamiya Universal and finish on an RZ67 (with their respective G Adapters).  I can even use some of them on my 4x5s with a reducing back. Because of that, I prefer to stock up on those backs over the unique-to-system Koni backs.  They also pack smaller, which is a huge deal.  The Koni back magazine is HUGE.  Bigger than a 6×9 folder huge.  Pointless to carry more than two huge.  I only own one (though I have a spare back insert).  It does have a cool darkslide holder – but that’s part of the insert common to all Konis.  I’m not unhappy I have the Rapid M over a Rapid or 100, but in the end, I treat this camera as if it didn’t have interchangeable backs, so perhaps I’d save some weight in using one of those by not carrying around the gears and plates of metal that let me pull my back mid-roll. (I told you this was related to useless weight.)

In short -

Composition – Good, excellent for a RF.  Not the brightest, but very usable RF.  Parallax and frame width correction. Film memo tab at center of film plane allows for more precise recomposition.  Long focus throw (a plus for me).

Ergonomics – Fantastic.  A photographer’s camera.

Format – 6×7.  Nothing to complain about.

Packing – Lousy.  The camera is as wide as a gripped SLR – before accounting for the left hand grip.  It’s also as long as an RZ67+110mm without the back.  Removing the grip is a pain and removing the lens does nothing.

Weight – I’m all for overengineering, but this is a bit much.

Low Light – Leaf shutter and grip are pluses. The RF and maximum 3.5 aperture makes it difficult though.  Nearly useless interchangeable backs means you’d better be done with your Efke 25 before nightfall.

Rain -  All mechanical, no bellows, no helical screws to suck in mosture and dirt.  Really hard to get the film wet, body strips down easy.  Other than the Universal or my 4×5 point and shoot, it’s as good as it gets.

Polaroid – None.  If you are using them pictorially, use a Universal or a Graflex 4×5.  Use digital for exposure check. (or scotch tape for film plane preview).

Backs – Pointless system. 6×7 only, heavy, huge.  Protruding mechanisms which are critical for operation are exposed.  Good flatness and darkslide holder, though.  No groundglass option.

Interchangeability – Backs are not Graflex 2×3 compatible.  Lens shutters are nonstandard type (but Copal 0 width) and triggered internally.  Unlikely  to transfer to another system cleanly while in the field.

How and When – when I don’t need more than one film stock (and the camera is empty or has it) and I don’t need the added metering, speed, and SLR advantages of an RZ67; when I have at least NYC ambient street light at the Houston St at night level and when I don’t need to hide it or break it down into a bag.  In short, an easily justified guilty pleasure which can go out during the day and remain generally useful at night.  On the other hand, a GF670, though not remotely in this price range ($1400 used, $1700 new) would probably supplant this camera entirely.   That’s actually a hell of a compliment when you think about it.  Average use is about 5 days a month.

Value – Incredible.  Remove the grip and it’s a mechanical Mamiya 7 at the cost of AE, weight, but with with actual build quality and an interchangeable back (of questionable value).  A complete body and lens can be had for $100-$200.  Basic maintainence can be done at home.  The best deal in film, bar none, and for 6×7 a justifiable choice against any medium format camera for optical quality.

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Comments

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One Response to “Koni Omega Rapid M (200)”

  1. ektarama Says:

    Hi there,

    I enjoyed reading your Rapid Omega review. Something that could be added is that the backs are very sophisticated in their design, which is part of why they are large, but also it’s important to note that they aren’t larger than the body itself, (except for the cocking lever, that is) which is also in common with most medium format cameras with interchangeable backs. The Horseman 900 series backs are gigantic, too, and they are not as sophisticated.

    Not only does the back, when functioning properly, insure very accurate film spacing through a fairly arcane advance system connected to the well known ka-chang lever, but also because the 90, 135, and 180mm lenses are basic coated Tessars, the back, which has a full surface, active film plate design, that pushes the film right up against the rails in the body at the moment of exposure, keeping the film absolutely flat, is a major reason why photos from the Rapid are so amazingly sharp. I haven’t seen anything like it in any other camera. I have nothing against Tessars at all and some of my Kodak Tessars are pretty incredible, but the photos I get from the Koni are as sharp as the RB (well almost), and it’s got some ergonomic advantages over the RB even though they are an apple and an orange in comparison.

    It’s also got the cool little 3 dot thingie inside, where the photographer can put a little code onto the film edges.

    The huge rangefinder window and dead-on focusing were way ahead of their time when these cameras were introduced, and still are impressive in the 21st century.

    I like the Konis a lot and it just continues to amaze me at just how cheap they are. High quality and durable medium format for $100. I keep buying them when I see a good auction, thinking they have to go up someday, but they seem to be the black sheep of medium format. Maybe I’ll start an analogue photography studio someday and use them for the basic camera.

    Best,
    Curtis

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