Zeiss Ikon Contaflex

I have been after a Contaflex for while now. Zeiss Ikon put a lot of thought into the design of their cameras and all that I have come across have been a joy to hold. The Contaflex is no exception.

After WWII with the partition of Germany, Zeiss Ikon became two concerns.  Both continued to use the Zeiss Ikon name and initially produced the same range of cameras.  After litigation, East German Zeiss Ikon were not allowed to use the Zeiss Ikon name outside the Warsaw Pact countries – their products became Pentacon and Pentax.  West German  Zeiss ikon continued as much as before as they could.  Both Zeiss Ikons developed Zeiss Ikon’s flagship camera – the Contax.  This article is concerned with the West German Zeiss Ikon’s development of the Contax into, amongst others, the Contaflex.

The Contaflex is actually a completely new camera which owes little to the Contax.  Zeiss Ikon continued to use elements of the Contax name – Contaflex, Contina.  Zeiss Ikon needed to produce a camera to compete with East German Zeiss Ikon’s new range of SLRs – the Pentaprism Contax.  They took a different route and used a between the lens leaf shutter rather than a focal plane shutter.  This proved to be a developmental dead-end but continued in use for a decade or so. Initially, several manufacturers followed suit – Voigtlander, Kodak – but now just about all SLR’s follow East German Zeiss Ikon’s (Pentacon, Pentax) lead with a horizontally travelling focal plane shutter.

The Contaflex was aimed at the serious amateur market.  It is very well made and very heavy.  The quality of both design and build is evident in that they still work just fine  fifty-plus years after they were made.  The cameras were introduced in pairs – I & II, III & IV, Alpha & Beta and so on.  The pairs either did not have a built-in exposure meter (I, III, Alpha) or did (II, IV, Beta).  Up to and including the Beta, the meter was not coupled and offered nothing over a separate hand-held meter and had the disadvantage of being attached to a very heavy camera making it harder to use than a separate hand-held meter would be.

The shutter is a between-the-lens leaf shutter rather than a focal-plane shutter. This is a superior design in several ways. Firstly, the shutter moves radially and so confers little in the way of vibration to the camera. This is, unfortunately, offset by the need to close the shutter, lift the mirror, open the secondary shutter and then open and close the main shutter again. The result is a very firm shutter release and a respectable “clunk” when the shutter is fired. Secondly, the shutter and flash can be synchronised at any shutter speed. Thirdly, the shutter does not distort moving objects in the way a focal plane shutter must.  Usually, the shutter was a reflex version of a Synchro-Compur shutter, but the Alpha and Beta models has a Prontor Reflex shutter (the Super has Synchro-Compur shutter).

The main (only) drawback of having a leaf shutter is that the lens is difficult to replace. Zeiss Ikon overcame this by having the front element replaceable to give wide angle and telephoto versions. This was not as big a drawback as it might seem as in the 1950s and 60s it was rare for amateur photographers to use anything other than the standard lens that came with the camera. Collections of lenses had to wait for modern design and manufacturing systems and cheap lenses. The strangest part of Zeiss Ikon’s shutter design here is that the mirror does not return automatically after the shutter is fired. It is hard to understand why Zeiss Ikon did this as there is no great technical problem with having the mirror return automatically.  In the Super, the action of the shutter has been improved by angling the secondary shutter to sit just behind the mirror so it has less far to move before the primary shutter can open.

In the Contaflex I, II III, IV and Super, the lens was the renown Carl Zeiss Tessar f2.8 lens.  The Alpha and Beta models had the cheaper three element Pantar lens, with front element focussing.  The filter size is 27 mm.  In the Super, the Tessar lens focusses by moving the entire lens.

To load the film, the camera is opened by removing the base and the back as one. I was a little nervous of this technique initially as the only time I have come across this before was with my Ukrainian FED 5. With the FED 5 the fit is loose to say the least and it leaks light. The Zeiss Ikon version works well, fitting together reassuringly well.

As I mentioned earlier, the lens in the Alpha and Beta focuses by turning the front element.  With this camera, there are two drawbacks to this. The first is common to any camera and that is that the performance of the lens drops as the front element moves relative to the rest of the lens elements. It is much better to focus by moving the whole lens. This is difficult with the shutter in the middle of the lens so front element focussing was easy option in the lower priced models.  The second drawback is that the front element can be removed to allow a replacement element to give either a wide angle or telephoto lens. There is a small lever below the lens that needs to be depressed to remove the front element and this lever gets in the way whilst focusing. Apart from that niggle, focusing is easy as the viewfinder has a split-image microprism circle in the centre. The viewfinder is certainly bright enough to see what you are doing.

With the Super, the whole lens moves and has two ‘knobs’ attached to the focussing ring which makes focussing much easier – in fact, only one finger is required for fine adjustment.

There is also an exposure meter which is not a TTL meter.  With the Beta, it is not coupled and gives you an exposure value which you set on the Prontor shutter.  The meter covers film speeds from 12 to 33 DIN and 5 to 650 ASA.  Unfortunately, this is old style ASA where 21 DIN equates to 40 ASA rather than to 100 ASA as the new style ASA standard would have it (new style ASA is the same as ISO).  The ASA range was adjusted in the late 1950s to be a more “sensible” range.  This makes using modern films with old exposure meters fraught.  Personally, I rely on using the DIN scale which has remained constant since its introduction.
With the Super, the exposure meter is still not TTL but is coupled.  It has an indicator in the viewfinder which makes using this version much easier.  It also uses the modern ASA range and so can be used with modern films easily.  This is a shutter priority system – you set the required shutter speed and then turn the front meter-setting knob until the meter needle in the viewfinder points at the central notch.  Turning this knob moves the aperture ring on the lens to an aperture that matches the shutter speed for the required exposure.  If your initial setting of the shutter speed was inappropriate, it will not be possible to set a suitable exposure and it will be necessary to change the shutter speed accordingly.

 

Busker, Lincoln Stonebow

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