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Contarex I

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The first Contarex, also known as the Contarex Bullseye and the Cyclops, is a 35mm SLR camera first shown in 1958. It was Zeiss Ikon's contribution to the professional photographer, meant to cater for any photographic task whatsoever. It is extremely heavy and beautifully made. It weighs almost net 1.2kg, and is so complicated that it requires a skilled person even for the simplest repair. Even the removal of the top cover is a major task involving removal of several complex assemblies. The mechanism involved winding the film back into its cassette has two gear trains and three axels in order to avoid the internal meter movement. Still, gear damage is likely due to insufficient axle support.

The Zeiss Ikon AG, closely associated with the renowned Carl Zeiss lenses, was once the world's largest camera maker. ZI, always aiming at making cameras for every kind of customer, had little concern whether each investment actually made any net returns, and the Contarex is no exception. Despite the fact that the Contarex cameras never sold in any appreciable quantity, a huge selection of lenses and accessories were made available, including the Contarex Special and the fixed lens Contarex Hologon cameras. Everything made to the highest specifications.

A little more than ten years after the introduction of the King of 35mm SLR cameras, both the camera and the manufacturer were history. The reason being the multitude of cameras on the market from the land of the rising sun, which in not much more than a decade had developed reasonable priced camera systems for both amateurs and professionals alike.

The first Contarex was generally available in 1959, the same year as also Nikon and Canon introduced their 35mm SLR cameras. However, the Contarex came with a built-in external exposure meter, and it was coupled to the aperture wheel by means of an aperture simulator, as well as to the shutter and film speed settings. In just a few years TTL full aperture metering was introduced by Topcon and the race was on.

The camera body is clutter free and quite easy to use, once it is realised that the lens aperture is set using the aperture wheel to the right on the front and read off a scale on top of the camera in front of the accessory shoe. There is no aperture ring on the Contarex lenses. The shutter speed dial is at the hub of the wind-on lever. The wind lever is short, and the load increases noticeably for the last third of the 180° travel, from the point the mirror and lens iris joins the cocking operation. The shutter release at the top of it, is rough and difficult to press smoothly. It is surrounded by a frame-counter dial, which rotates forever. A serrated black index ring must be turned to the red mark on the dial when film is loaded, or to the frame number shown on the film magazine frame-counter if that is loaded. The rewind knob is at the left-hand camera top. The rewind release is engaged by turning the right-hand camera-back lock-key at the base a bit. It is marked "R". The dial surrounding the rewind knob is a film reminder with three film-type indexes, one of these are set against tiny numbers on the edge of the rewind knob, assisted by a tiny stud at the dial. The large serrated outer knob is for easier camera grip. It does not rotate. On the front of the camera is on the left-hand side the sync. contact and the lens release button. On the right-hand side is a small self-timer lever. It is released by the shutter release.

The selenium meter cell is in the Bullseye, at the front of the finder housing. It has a wide acceptance angle corresponding approximately to the standard lens. The meter movement is visible in an aperture to the right in the viewfinder, and also in a small window on top of the camera. All exposure parameters are couplet to the meter, even the lens aperture. This is accomplished using an aperture simulator. It is an iris replicating the lens aperture setting, placed in front of the selenium meter cell, and operated by the aperture wheel. To set correct exposure, an appropriate shutter speed is selected, and the aperture wheel turned until the meter needle is centred at the meter index mark. If no needle is visible, a different shutter speed might help, or possibly too little light is available.

The shutter speed dial has speeds engraved in thin numbers from 1 through 1000 and a green B on the rim of the serrated chrome dial. The speed is set against a protruding black triangle on the edge of the wind lever. Flash synchronisation is automatic, provided the correct speed is set. The speeds on the shutter speed dial is colour coded for correct synchronisation:

Black 1 - 1/30 sec. and B for fast M-bulbs.
Yellow 1/60 sec. for electronic flash.
Red 1/125 - 1/1000 sec. for slow FP bulbs.

The dial is difficult to read if no bright surface is reflected in it to contrast the numbers, and the colour coding is hardly visible for anyone not having acute vision.

The film speed dial is below the shutter speed dial. To set the film speed, the shutter speed dial is lifted and the thin serrated ring under it rotated until the correct number appears opposite a black triangle at the edge next to the number "2" on the shutter speed dial. Note that setting the film-speed to anything else than the green mark at the beginning of the ASA scale will limit the range of speeds available. In consequence, shutter speeds between 1/1000 and 1/15 sec. is available for the 100ASA setting. In low light, a second meter range is available by removing the light-baffle in front of the meter and using the Yellow index mark instead of the black triangle, in which case 1/1000 to 1 sec. is available for a 100ASA film.

The finder is extremely bright and clear with a split image rangefinder in the centre, surrounded by a very fine micro prism collar. The rest of the area has fine Fresnel rings. To the right is the meter index window, but the pointer is only visible when settings are very close to correct exposure. There is no way to tell where the pointer is without trying other settings. When the camera is wound, the lens is wide open, while after exposure it is closed to the preset aperture. Here is a quite remarkable thing: Even when the lens is closed down to F22, the screen is just as bright as many contemporary low cost SLR camera finders at full aperture. There is actually no way to make believe this, but to experience it.

The standard lens is the Carl Zeiss Planar 1:2 f=50mm in bright aluminium finish with a chrome 49mm thread filter ring and an outer bayonet for ZI filters. The latter tends to be too loose and it might easily be lost. The lens focuses to 30cm, which is closer than usual. The focusing helical is remarkably smooth and precise. There is no aperture ring on the Contax lens itself. It is set on the camera aperture wheel.

The removable back is replaceable with an accessory film magazine back with dark slide, enabling mid-film change. The camera back is released by turning the two keys at each side at the bottom and pulled off downwards. Each magazine has its own frame counter. Using the magazine requires the proper procedure and it is best explained reading the user manual.

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