|Contax I from Zeiss collection image by U. Kulick (Image rights)|
The Contax I was a high end 35mm rangefinder camera made by Zeiss Ikon to compete with Leica models. It was released in 1932. The Super Nettel was based on the Contax I, with the same kind of shutter, but a folding body, a fixed lens and a short based rangefinder. It was intended to be a cheaper alternative.
The Contax I was Zeiss' answer to Leica's offerings in the 35mm market, one Leica effectively controlled since it helped create it in 1925. An examination of the Contax I points to a perhaps frantic company rushing a technically superior product to market. It had a large number of technology advantages as compared the Leica. It had a longer effective rangefinder triangulation base for better focusing. It had a bayonet lens mount (see Contax rangefinder lenses) instead of Leica's screw mount. It also had a removable back for loading film instead of Leica's blind hole film loading system. To go up against Leica's horizontal travel fabric shutter (max. speed 1/500th), the Contax had a vertical travel articulated metal shutter (max. speed 1/1000th). It was less vulnerable to sun burn as well.
Unfortunately, the Contax I lacked in fit-and-finish, and it suffered from many reliability problems. This is evidenced by its heavy weight, and because of its harsh corners and box-like shape, as well as the various revisions that indicate a frantic company trying to manage its reputation.
From its introduction in 1932 to 1936 when the Contax II was introduced, the Contax I was a work in progress. There are no fewer than six iterations based on external features only. This is actually an underestimate. There were also many non-visible internal changes such as the location and physical layout of how the angular displacement of the lens couples to the rangefinder system. Other changes were meant to make the rangefinder system stay within specifications better. Later versions actually provided better focusing feedback to the user. These were not small changes, and many of the still-working models are actually later revisions. These revisions were incorporated in the Contax II, a much more reliable camera that went through fewer iterations.
|Contax II image by Tomas Haande (Image rights)|
The Contax II was released in 1936 and was the successor of the Contax I. It was the first camera with a rangefinder and viewfinder combined in a single window. Its chief designer was Hubert Nerwin. The Nettax was meant to be a cheaper alternative, it was a derivative of the Super Nettel with a rigid body and interchangeable lenses with a specific bayonet and a very limited range of lenses.
The Contaflex was a derivative of the Contax I. It was a 35mm twin lens reflex with the same kind of shutter and a built in exposure meter. It was an extremely expensive camera, that tested some of the features that would later appear on the Contax II and III. It had interchangeable lenses with a specific lens mount.
|Contax III (1939) w/ collapsible Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f/2 daveelmore (Image rights)|
The Contax III, also released in 1936, was a Contax II with an exposure meter. It was one of the first cameras with a built-in exposure meter.
After the war, the Soviet Union captured the tooling and drawings of the Contax as war booty, and transfered them to the city of Kiev, where they began the production of the Kiev rangefinder camera, as such a continuation of the Contax.
At the same time, the Western part of the Zeiss Ikon company, based in Stuttgart, completely redesigned the Contax and launched the Contax IIa in 1950 and Contax IIIa in 1951.
With the Contax IIa, Zeiss Ikon introduced a brand new 35mm Range Finder camera, to replace the aged and somewhat trouble prone Contax II/III. The Contax IIa/IIIa line of cameras were an engineering tour de force, with many new features such as flash synch, and a shutter that could be set to any speed with the curtains either tensioned or un-tensioned. Gone were the failure prone silk straps of the previous camera, in their place were nylon cords for opening the first curtain, and driving the flash synch, and heavy nylon strapping to drive the second curtain, and slow speed retard. Also, gone were the straps running through a hole in the first curtain, which was the cause of most strap failure. New was the fastest shutter speed of any 35mm camera on the market, of 1/1250. This speed was chosen by the designers for the sole purpose of having a speed faster than the Leica IIIf of the day, but in reality was not of much use, as it was 1.5 f-stops faster than the previous 1/500. This line of cameras could use any of the common film canister systems of the day, with one canister, or two, or could be used as a conventional shoot to the end, rewind style camera. The back and bottom of the camera came off to give easy loading, while the take up spool came out for easy connection to the leader. Many Believe that the Contax IIa/IIIa are in terms of built quality, the finest camera line ever built (ZeissIkonRolleiRepair.com).
The range finder was similar to that of the II/III however the base was reduced, and through the high tolerance of the parts, it still coordinated well with the longest lenses (180mm) of the day. Bright by the standard of the day, the finder seems to be dim today because it used a prism that was completely half mirrored with gold, which gives a rather green cast to the image.Early cameras had the shutter speeds all painted black and are referred to as "Black Dial" (BD) cameras, and later models had the speeds from T-1/25 painted black, the 1/50 painted chromate yellow, and the speeds 1/100-1/1250 painted carmine red. Later Cameras are often referred to as Color Dial (CD) cameras. The colors were to remind the photographer that the speeds from T-1/50 were all flash synced, while those above were not--hence the stop light red color. On the black dial cameras there were two flash synch cords available one for use with flash bulbs (Z.I. Number 1361), and one for the strobe (Z.I. Number 1366). On BD cameras the shutter curtains had a built in delay, so they needed no bulb delay, while with strobe the attachment cable had a delay, so the strobe would fire, at the appropriate time; this attachment cord was adjusted by the user, for their individual camera. With careful adjustment, strobe could be used at speeds of up to 1/100! A speed unheard of in those days, for a 35mm focal plane shuttered camera. Leica by comparison, had the ability to only be synched at the 1/25 of a second setting, and accidently bumping the delay dial, would cause the flash to not synch at all.
As with previous Contax cameras the 5cm lens went inside the lens mount and the other lenses went on the outside bayonet mount. One drawback to the new design was the smaller body would not accept pre-war wide angle lenses, so only the early 50mm and longer focal length lenses were truly interchangeable.
Lenses available for the IIa/IIIa were considered by many to be the best lenses of the era, and are still sought after by users today. They included:
- 2,1cm f:4.5 Biogon (at the time the widest lens available for any 35mm camera)
- 2,5cm f:4 Topogon (Carl Zeiss Jenna (CZJ))
- 3,5cm f:2.8 Biogon,
- 3,5cm f:2.8 Biometar (CZJ)
- 3,5cm f:3.5 Planar
- 5cm f1.5 Sonnar
- 5cm f:2 Sonnar (CZJ)
- 5cm f:2.8 Tessar (CZJ)
- 5cm f: 3.5 Tessar in collapsible mount
- 7,5 f:1.5 Biotar (CZJ)
- 8,5cm f:2 Sonnar
- 8,5cm f:4 Triotar
- 11,5cm f:3.5 Panflex Tessar
- 13,5cm Sonnar.
Flectoscop, Flectometer, or Panflex mount only:
- 18,0cm f:2.8 Sonnar (CZJ)
- 30,0cm f:4 Sonnar (CZJ)
- 50,0cm f:8 Fern (CZJ)
It is of interest to note, that today there are many suppliers for Contax lens to Leica thread mount (LTM) and M mount adapters, but none supplying LTM, or M mount adapters for the Contax! In todays market, the most sought after lenses are those made in West Germany, in chrome mounts, while the East German C.Z. Jenna, aluminum mount lenses are not much in demand.
With this line of cameras Zeiss Ikon had hoped to finally put an end to E. Leitz's Leica, but Leitz introduced the M line, and the rest is history.
|Contax IIIa c.1956,color dial w/ Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 50mm f/2 image by Süleyman Demir (Image rights)|
See also the article Contax IIIa.
Contax IIIa is the same camera as the Contax IIa with an uncoupled light meter. Compared to the prewar Contax II and III, the IIa and IIIa used the same lens mount with a completely re-engineered shutter mechanism, new body, and much improved chrome finish.
On earlier version IIa and IIIa cameras, all the shutter speeds on the dial in were black, and they are commonly called Black Dial, similarly to the Leica IIIf black dian and red dial cameras. Later model Contax IIIa cameras had the speeds 1/25-T painted black, the 1/50 painted chromate yellow, and the speeds from 1/100-1/1250 painted red. The Color Dial Cameras were in production longer than the Black Dials, 1954-62 vs. 1950-54 The earlier black dial Contax IIa and IIIa have two seperate flash synch cords, one for use with flash bulbs (no built in delay) and one for use with strobe (Vacublitz) with a variable delay, to allow the flash to be timed to the individual camera.
The Contax IIa and IIIa were/are a professional quality 35mm Rangefinder camera system, with a large system of lenses and accessories, that some considered the best 35mm lenses produced during the 1950's. The Contax IIa and IIIa also has superb mechanical fit and finish, many believe better than even the legendary Leica M3, and vastly superior to the Screw Mount Leica, or the many copies. None the less the Leica product won the Rangefinder war, and the Contax ceased production in 1960, and was replaced by the Contarex SLR.
- Barringer, C. and Small, M. Zeiss Compendium East and West — 1940–1972. Small Dole, UK: Hove Books, 1999 (2nd edition). ISBN 1-874707-24-3.
- in Frank Mechelhoff
- in Contax IIa-IIIa serials
- in PhotoForum
- Zeiss Ikon Contax Rangefinder Lens Information Guide
- Biography of Heinz Küppenbender, chief developer of the Contax at The Zeiss Historica Society
- Contax I and Contax II/III at Cameraquest
- Contax I at Camerarepair.com
- Repair notes in Rick Oleson's website:
- Contax II listed at number 16 in Jason Schneider's Top 20 Cameras Of All-Time on Shutterbug.
- Lionel's Zeiss Ikon Contax II overview at 35mm-compact.com
- Zeiss page at www.collection-appareils.com by Sylvain Halgand
- Archiv Zeiss / Exakta by Mori Ryōsuke (with some English)
|Zeiss Ikon Classic Cameras|
|Contax | Contaflex (TLR) | Super Nettel | Nettax | Tenax II | Tenax I | Ikoflex | Super Ikonta|