Contax vs Leica

2009/07/08

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of photography (probably most of you, but that’s not a bad thing, as it makes little difference to those who are not photographers), the Leica and Contax rangefinder cameras were competitors to each other when they were first introduced, and the rivalry continued during the decades they were manufactured. Posturing aside, both cameras were actually quite similar in many regards: both were system cameras designed and produced to exacting standards, both were marketed primarily towards professionals, both had built-in coupled rangefinder mechanisms and used the 35mm film format, etc. It is unlikely that the “conflict” between these two cameras will ever be resolved, but regardless, I’ll mention a few thoughts about my experiences using both cameras.

ContaxIIA

LeicaIIIf
[1]

Film Loading:

Obviously, this is the first step in using any camera, and the methods employed by each camera are remarkably different. In my experience, the Contax is substantially easier to load and unload than the Leica; as mentioned in the Contax post, the entire back of the camera may be removed, which makes it fairly simple to load film into the camera. This can also be something of a liability, since the entire back comes off and the take-up spool is fairly loose inside the camera; as such, the spool can fall out unexpectedly, and it is not easily replaced, if you lose it; additionally, one must put the back cover somewhere while loading the film, so this can be a minor annoyance. On the other hand, loading film into the Leica must be done blind, by removing the baseplate of the camera, and (very carefully) sliding the film canister and take-up spool into the body; later models (the M series cameras) incorporated a door in the back of the camera body that could be used to coordinate loading the film, but the Barnack cameras did not have this feature. I find this a little odd, given that many contemporary cameras in other film formats (particularly the medium format “pocket” cameras) had hinged back covers that permitted easy access to the film chambers; I suspect that this may have been a protective measure for the (relatively) fragile fabric shutter curtains, but I have not seen any documentation to support this supposition. Additionally, as mentioned in the Leica post, one must also custom modify the film leader for each roll loaded into the camera, and again, this feels like an unnecessary complication; of course, one cannot necessarily argue that this was a failing on the part of the Leitz designers, as Kodak standardized the 135 format after both the Leica and Contax cameras were designed and produced. It is also worth noting that Kodak designed the 135 daylight loading canisters to fit in both Contax and Leica cameras, an indication of how popular these cameras were at the time.

Lens Mounting & Swapping:

Both cameras feature interchangeable lenses the fit within a standardized mount on the camera body. The Leica used a rather unorthodox threaded barrel on the lens and receptor on the camera body; meanwhile, the Contax used a bayonet mount that is much more familiar to modern users (and, in point of fact, the later M series Leicas used a bayonet mount, as well). In this case, there really is not much of a difference from a usage standpoint; while the Leica screwmount takes some getting used to, the Contax mount is rather complex, involving inner and outer mounting surfaces for the different lenses. This has the effect of making the mount much more complicated than it needs to be, and while it is not too difficult to switch lenses, the wideangle and telephoto lenses, both of which use the outer mounting surface, can sometimes be disconcerting, since the base of the lens covers the entire mount; there is a red dot on the lens base that aligns with a corresponding dot on the mount, so this is not necessarily a major issue, but there is no denying that the mounting scheme is more complicated than it needs to be. That said, I’m not sure that either camera presents a truly superior scheme; in both cases, lenses are easy enough to mount and dismount.

Camera Settings:

Strictly speaking, the Contax has a nominally faster shutter than the Leica, but the difference is mostly academic; the 1/1250 sec. setting is not much different than the 1/1000 sec. setting on the Leica. I highly doubt that any person could tell the difference between the two, and given the state of technology at the time, it is also unlikely that the 1/1250 sec. setting was really as accurate a setting as Zeiss Ikon designers claimed; of course, they still got to market their camera as “faster,” so I suppose it was worth the effort. The shutter speed settings on the Contax are consolidated into a single ring around the film advance knob, meaning that it is relatively simple to select the desired setting. On the Leica, the fast shutter speeds (1/60 sec. and faster) are set using a dial on the top of the camera, while the slow speeds are set using a dial mounted on the front of the camera body; it can be a bit confusing at first, but eventually, I got used to it. Aperture controls for both cameras are located on the lenses for each, and in both cases, the adjustment rings are a bit loose (though this may be a result of aging, and not design). In both cases, the wideangle lenses featured the most difficult aperture adjustment control: in the case of the Leica, this is set by a very small tab located on the front face of the lens (of course, if your fingers are smaller than mine, this may not be an issue for you; for me, well); in the case of the Contax, this is set by turning a raised ring, also on the front face of the lens. I’m not entirely sure why such an inconvenient control was required for the Leica lens; the wideangle and normal lenses are focused by turning a tab at the base of the lenses; it is more understandable in the case of the Contax lens, as the lens barrel is very short, and the available space around the lens barrel is already taken up by the focus ring.

Focusing:

Much has been said about the relative merits of the rangefinder mechanisms for each respective camera, and while I understand the claims on both sides, in practice, I have found that the strengths and weaknesses of each method tend to balance each other out. The Contax has a wider spacing between the rangefinder windows, and this is claimed to make it a more accurate mechanism; it also has a combined rangefinder/viewfinder viewport set into a large viewing window, with a superimposed view from the ranging window for focusing purposes. The Leica, meanwhile, has separate rangefinder and viewfinder viewports, with a magnified view inside the rangefinder viewport; the rangefinder windows are closer together, making the mechanism more compact. In practice, the separate views for the rangefinder and viewfinder in the Leica takes some getting used to, since you’ll have to switch between the two to focus and compose a scene; this can be a liability during action shooting, since you cannot focus and compose within the same view, as one would do with a modern SLR. On the positive side, the magnified view in the rangefinder window is definitely helpful, since it makes focusing on specific parts of a given scene much easier, especially if you’re using a shallow depth of field. Since the viewfinder window is located above the lens, the only parallax you’ll have to worry about is vertical parallax, and it is generally not much of a problem, unless you’re focusing on something relatively close to the camera. As for the Contax, the larger combined viewport is a definite advantage in terms of speed, but this is somewhat tempered by the fact that the rangefinder patch is very small within that view, and it is unmagnified, so it is difficult to isolate specific parts of a scene. In addition, since the viewfinder is located to above and to the right of the lens, the view suffers from both vertical and horizontal parallax; again, this is not as much of an issue with distant subjects, but it can produce some unexpected results if your subject is close to the edges of the view through the window. While I appreciate the larger viewport in the Contax, I also appreciate the magnified view in the Leica; honestly, I’m not sure which one I prefer (if I have a preference at all).

Optics:

This is likely to be the most subjective aspect of both cameras. Honestly, I can’t say that I have noticed much of a difference between the two. Both produce excellent results, and I haven’t noticed any inherent superiority on either side. Eventually, I intend to perform a compartive shoot with both cameras side-by-side, using the same film and subject matter, but I suspect that the results will do little to differentiate each camera. Again, the optics for both cameras are of very high quality, so it is difficult to argue that one is superior to the other.

Conclusion:

Overall, I enjoy using both cameras, and in all fairness, my usage of each has been about equal, so it appears that, for now, I don’t have much of a preference between either. Both are very high quality cameras, and reliably produce excellent results (assuming, of course, that operator error does not interpose itself). Of course, this post was never intended to specify a preference for either camera, so I suppose this is not surprising. Below are two additional images taken with these cameras (Leica image first):

ElmStAlley002

MetalMan001

If you’re interested in seeing additional examples of shots I took with this camera, see the respective sets on my Flickr site. [2][3] I also have sets devoted to the operation of these cameras, so if you are interested in using either one (or both) yourself, feel free to check them out; [4][5] please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding the operation guide. Enjoy.

Notes:

[1]: Note that the sequencing of the two above images is not indicative of any preference between the two; they are presented in alphabetical order.

[2]: Flickr set with additional photos taken using the Contax IIa available here.

[3]: Flickr set with additional photos taken using the Leica IIIf available here.

[4]: Flickr set with operation instructions for the Contax IIa available here.

[5]: Flickr set with operation instructions for the Leica IIIf available here.

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2 Responses to “Contax vs Leica”

  1. cherokeebydesign Says:

    Interesting.

    Raven
    http://cherokeebydesign.wordpress.com/

  2. Michael Says:

    I also use both the Contax IIa and the Leica M2. I agree they are both equally good cameras. I find there are quite clear differences in the look of the pictures I get from the Sonnar and Sumicron lenses. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, just different moods. The Contax pictures have a cooler, flatter and sharper look to them, which I think suits more overcast conditions. The Leica images tend to be lower contrast but with warmer and fuller colours, giving a more 3D look.
    I must say that when it comes to using them I prefer the finer feel of the Contax over the more rugged workhorse feel of the M2.


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