Zeiss Ikon Contax IIa

2009/05/04

Since I just recently used this camera while I was back home on the East Coast, this seems as good a place as any to start. The Zeiss Ikon Contax IIa was a 35mm rangefinder camera manufactured by Zeiss Ikon AG starting in 1952. [1] The camera itself uses a bayonet mount for its lenses, which are coupled to the rangefinder mechanism via the bayonet mount. [2] Rather than restate historical information that is available elsewhere, I will focus my thoughts WRT using the camera; if you are interested in the historical information, see the links below. [3][4][5]

Below is an photo of the camera itself, along with the lenses that I have for it; unlike the contemporary Leica rangefinder cameras, the Contax models were designed from the outset to use interchangeable lenses.

ContaxIIA

The lens on the camera itself is a Zeiss Opton Sonnar 50mm f/2; to the left is the wideangle lens, a Zeiss Opton Biogon 35mm f/2.8; to the right is the telephoto lens, a Zeiss Ikon Sonnar 135mm f/4. As for the camera itself, the film advance knob is on the left, while the rewind knob is on the right (as seen while facing the camera). The shutter speed settings wheel is located below the advance knob, while the exposure count is located on the top of the advance knob, and the shutter release button is in the center of the exposure count wheel on the advance knob. Confused yet? It actually isn’t so bad, once you’re looking at the camera itself; the consolidation of controls makes the camera body fairly clean (eventually, I will write a post for the Contax’ primary competitor, the Leica, and you’ll be able to see the differences). There is also a film speed reminder dial on the top of the rewind knob, but since there are different types of film available now than those that were available at the time of the production, this dial is mostly irrelevent today. In the center of the camera top is the accessory shoe – note that it is not a hotshoe, such as modern SLRs use for attachable flash units; there are no electronic components in this camera. The two prominent windows on the upper front of the camera body are the rangefinder windows, which are the critical components of the rangefinding mechanism. The rangefinder and viewfinder windows are combined in the right-hand window (the large one).

As for using the camera, first, some downsides. There is a small focusing wheel above the smaller rangefinder window that turns the bayonet mount, allowing you to focus the normal (50mm) lens. This actually makes it a little difficult to use the normal lens, since the wheel is small; I suspect that it would be easier for someone with smaller fingers than mine, but I’m stuck with what I’ve got. Also, if you’re a woman with long-ish fingernails – or a lazy man who doesn’t trim his nails in a timely fashion (like me) – you may want to be careful with this wheel; it has small teeth on it (no, they aren’t sharp, so you won’t cut yourself), and it could be painful if you get a nail caught in the trough between teeth. It takes some getting used to, but it is the only way to focus the normal lens, so you’ll have to get used to it, even if you don’t like it. The combined viewfinder / rangefinder window was also a prime selling point at the camera’s debut, but it is also something of a liability when you’re using the camera. Since the rangefinder and viewfinder images inhabit the same frame, the rangefinder image cannot be magnified; as the viewfinder window is still (relatively) small, this makes it difficult to dinstinguish between the two rangefinder images when you’re trying to focus. It has been claimed that the relatively long distance separating the viewfinder and rangefinder windows makes the rangefinder mechanism very accurate; in practice, I have not noticed much of an advantage, as far as this claim is concerned. The bayonet mount is also a bit fussy, both in design and in practice; the mount has both inner and outer mounting surfaces. The normal lenses mount within the inner ring, while the wideangle and telephoto lenses have components that mount outside (and cover) the mount itself. With careful coordination, it is not too difficult to switch out lenses, but it is not quite as easy as, say, the Nikon F Mount.

On the positive side, with enough practice, the bayonet mount allows relatively fast switching between lenses. The consolidation of the camera controls also leads to an uncluttered interface, making it fairly easy to locate and manipulate the various controls. The camera itself is noticeably smaller than modern SLRs, making them easier to carry around. Additionally, while the camera and lens bodies are all made from metal pieces, the smaller size makes them substantially less heavy than a comparable SLR set (i.e. body and wideangle, normal, and telephoto lenses). Even though the Sonnar 50mm I use is not a collapsible lens (the earlier Contax normal lenses were), when mounted, the entire camera and lens combination is still substantially smaller and lighter than an SLR. Shutter speeds are also fairly generous, with a minimum of 1s, and a maximum of 1/1250s. [6] As indicated above, the lenses are also relatively fast, and, with the shutter speed range, the camera can be fairly versatile in a wide range of lighting conditions. Loading and unloading film is also very easy, since the entire camera back and baseplate can be removed; if you’ve loaded a manual SLR, you can easily load film in one of these, as well. An interesting note is that Kodak designed the standard 35mm cartridge to fit (without modification) into both Leica and Contax cameras. [7]

Generally speaking, I enjoy using the camera, and I have been able to produce results on par with even the more modern SLRs I own; not bad for camera whose origins begin over 70 years ago, and which was manufactured over 50 years ago! Below is an example of a photo that I shot with this camera. To be fair, I did adjust the contrast to some extent in post processing, and I also dodged the primary sunbeam to accentuate it, but these adjustments are ones that I would perform in a darkroom, so these do not bother me.

Sunset001

If you’re interested in additional information regarding how to use the camera, or additional photographs I’ve shot with this camera, please see my Flickr site, where I have two sets devoted to this camera and its operation. [8][9] Okay, to be fair, I could insert more images to this post, but I’m already paying for the Flickr subscription, while I’m availing myself of the free service here at WordPress; economics, my friends. The Flickr photos are also slightly higher resolution than the images here, so they will likely look a bit better. Enjoy.

Notes:

[1]: History available here at Camerapedia.org.

[2]: Simple explanation: when you focus the lens, the rangefinder moves at the same time, in proportion to how the lens mechanisms are moving. In the early 1930s when these kinds of cameras were first introduced, the coupled rangefinder was a major innovation, as previous cameras relied on a separate rangefinder (or visual estimation of distance), meaning that one needed to determine focus on the rangefinder, then transfer the distance information to the camera lens. Using a built-in coupled rangefinder required extremely complex mechanisms, but also consolidated the focusing actions, making it easier and faster to use the camera.

[3]: Fairly extensive history and description available here, from Cameraquest website by Stephen Gandy.

[4]: Biographical information for Dr. Heinz Küppenbender, designer of the original Contax camera, available here, from the Zeiss Historica society website.

[5]: An interesting event in the history of this camera is that the Soviet Union “appropriated” the factory and all the manufacturing equipment from the Dresden production facilities after World War II. They took these items back to Kiev, and restarted production at the Arsenal factory, under the name “Kiev.” The first Kievs were rebranded clones of the original pre-war Contax II cameras; since they had also appropriated all of the spare parts that were in the Dresden factory at the time of capture, the very first Kievs were Contax II’s, but with Cyrillic letters spelling out Kiev, in place of the Contax brand name. More detailed information available here (from the Zeiss Historica Society website) and here (from the Communist Cameras, by Nathan Dayton).

[6]: The 1/1250s shutter speed was a highly publicized feature, but in reality, I doubt there is much difference between this speed and the 1/1000s maximum shutter speed on the contemporary Leicas.

[7]: History of the 35mm (Kodak format 135) still film available here (Wikipedia article)

[8]: Flickr set with additional photos here.

[9]: Flickr set with operation instructions here. Please let me know if there are any confusing steps in this set.

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