Contax Rangefinder and my 'New' Contax IIa

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by jdm_von_weinberg, Jul 12, 2013.

  1. In some cases of obscurity or rarity, it makes sense to collect information about a classic camera or lens into one place. However, for other cases of considerable fame or notoriety, there is little point to it.

    The Contax rangefinder camera is one of the latter cases. Its fame and influence is well documented and a simple reference to a Wiki summary at is enough to lead to many hours of good reading.

    So what I will document here is my long-term and on-going interest in the camera with a few reminders about things I personally find interesting. It is just too bad for you that this still does not result in a shorter post.

    So a few facts and the reason for this post.
    The Contax was Zeiss's response, of course, to the Leica.
    It was introduced in a fairly basic, all-black form as the Contax (I) in 1932. To increase its attractiveness, a Contax II model was introduced in 1936. This model and the version with a built-on (not in) meter, the Contax III, were available only in the then more chic nickel/chrome finish. So far as I know, most, perhaps even all, Contaxes of these times in black are the result of re-branding the early Kiev models that were built on the original machinery, often by the original workers, and sometimes with original Zeiss parts.

    Here, on the left, is a rare, all black Contax II - must have come to Kiev, whence I bought it, as war booty.~ On the right is what it eventually evolved into -- a later model Kiev 4AM.
  2. The story of the long march across the steppes to Kiev is told in a Zeiss Historica Article . This article has some sound discussion of what happened in the confusion of the end of WWII in Europe. It also has pictures of original Contax face plates stamped out and re-engraved with Kiev.

    Under the ruling of the Allied Control Commission, German pre-war patents and intellectual property was made pretty freely available to every one, including Germany's wartime ally, Japan.

    The Nikon rangefinder ( ) is a pretty close copy of the Contax II, but with a Leica-style horizontal, cloth shutter rather than the vertical metal shutter of the original Contax II. Other Japanese cameras seem to suggest the Contax II, without actually directly copying it ( )

  3. The influence was not limited to rangefinders either.

    Zeiss Ikon in Jena redesigned the Contax into what is arguably the worlds first eye-level, pentaprism SLR (or at the very least the first one of market significance). Look at the shape of the body here to see where it comes from. The post-war Contax S (S='Spiegel'=mirror).

  4. And, naturally, given the intense similarity (even to the mount) of the Nikon rangefinders to the Contax II, it is hardly surprising that the Nikon F is similar to both the Contax and the Contax S.
  5. However, the most genuine tribute to the pre-war Contax rangefinder cameras was paid by those who left Dresden with the Americans, instead of the Russians and went to the old Zeiss Stiftung plant for the Contessa, I think, in the Allied-Occupied Zone (ABZ).

    Since they had no access to plans or machinery, the western Zeiss technicians re-created and improved the original design into what by some (Mark Hansen, anyway, )
    " is considered by many to be the finest camera ever made"

    In any case, while I will someday get an original Contax II, the problems of buying one right now is made so problematical by the common practice of repairing old, original Zeiss Contaxes with Kiev parts. Like a rare stamp, you really need some kind of authentication before you plop down your hard earned PayPal dollars.

    So, after getting a lovely Nikon S2, I figured I really needed to go back to fill in another lacuna in my "looks like a Contax, clicks like a Contax, …." collection, Namely, this "best of all" Contax IIa.

    So the rest of this post is about how the Contax IIa, out of the Western Zeiss, stacks up against the Japanese and other copies.

    The Contax IIa

    When I got the Contax IIa, I looked it over closely, mounted a lens on it, and the focus was very stiff and 'screeched' when turned.
    Obviously I needed to check this out before giving feedback and the images below are the product of that.

    Here is the camera

  6. Here is the back of the camera removed, showing the metal 'venetian'-blind shutter - the Ur-Quelle of the modern type. The back shows proof positive of it being a Zeiss product - the Zeiss "bumps" under the leather cover. :)

  7. I looked over the mount and determined that there are brass threads on the inside of the lens mount that engage other threads on the focus system. This was what was stiff, so i first cleaned the threads with a soft brush -> better, and finally added the most minuscule drop of high-quality camera oil to the threads. The turn became more smooth and after a day became very smooth and easy. Aside from some dust and grime on the exterior, which I brushed and wiped off, everything worked fine. So to not delay in case a return was necessary, I stuck a lens on it and went out to shoot at my default venue -- the very-often-photographed-by-me Lake on the Campus.

    The Pictures
    It was a lovely summer day (low 30s, but with lower than normal humidity and a nice breeze.

    This shows the 'progress' being made on the conversion of the former campus beach into an ornamental part of the path around the lake.

  8. Testing the rangefinder for close up - the temporary fence around the construction.
  9. Sadly, another change for the worse - some years ago there was a geodesic dome here put up by the head of our Design department, the very Buckminster Fuller himself. Also sadly, the originals have not proved all that durable and only a few survive on or off campus.
  10. I even caught some wildlife who were astonished to see someone shooting with anything but an iPhone.
  11. There are still lots of lake-oriented activities available - kayaks, canoes and other gear can be used by students.
  12. The film was Fuji 200 C/N.

    All of the shots were made with this setup. For the first person to tell me here on this post what is wrong (not with the photo) but with the mechanicals shown in this photo, I will give, post free to anywhere in the USA (sorry, custom declaration is a pain) the Kodak film can in the inset - it is no great prize, with a few dents, but can be positioned for a nice item of scale in your classic shots, if you like.
  13. The camera was a delight to shoot with. Everything worked correctly after the cleaning up, the shutter speeds were exactly right. Is is heresy to admit that I actually like the Nikon S2 better (except for the shutter; I'm 'double blind' in that regard:) ?

    That's it for now . :p

  14. By the bye, in rereading, but too late to edit, I discover the bane of re-working things. My apologies for the several verb agreement errors above. As a former editor, I don't like this sort of thing, myself.
  15. Looks like the diaphragm on your Sonnar isn't closing down.
  16. No, that's not it. Sorry.
  17. It it that the Sonnar is the "5 sm" (sentimeter) version?
  18. The lens specification ring on that sonnar looks goofy. The engraving is all wrong. 5 sm?
  19. JDM, I like the pictures, the colour and the sharpness. I do not perceive visible difference between your pictures posted with the Kiev and this one. Where do you perceive the difference? Is it mainly in the handling, mechanical smoothness and the like of the two cameras? Thanks for the post. sp.
  20. That's close enough, and since I didn't say no second tries, Gordon has the film can. Gordon, email me your address (click on my name to make the link to my email).
    Of course, the "Sonnar" is in reality, like the black Contax II it came on, bogus. It is one of the Soviet lenses made for the Kiev that has been "rebadged". It does seem to be f/2 in fact, but I'm not sure if it even a Sonnar type (Jupiter 8 in the Soviet version).
    The "s" in the sm, is of course a sort of reverse error. In Russian, I think, centimeter is spelled "sentimeter". The Cyrillic character for "s" is cyrillic "c" so I think that when the lens was "translated" into Roman characters, the engraver of the new bezel simply made the engraving sm. This may have been done on purpose, since we know that the ex-Soviet modifiers have a highly developed sense of humor.
    It is, however, more sophisticated 'conversion' that makes the purchase of Contax lenses on eBay and other venues at least as difficult as finding a "pure" Contax II. In this area, a price that is "too good to be true" may very well be too good to be true. A high asking price on the other hand is no guarantee of authenticity, either.
    Fortunately, however, the quality of the Soviet lenses is usually excellent regardless of the name on them.
  21. SP, actually my Kiev as Contax works exceptionally well, but so does my Kiev 4. There's perhaps a little edge in smoothness to the Contax IIa, but sometimes the mind will expect such things to be true.
    Of course, since the lens IS a Soviet lens, the quality here would be the same, but I don't think the IQ in the originals is any worse than from the genuine Nikkor on my Nikon S2.
  22. I guessed so, JDM; thanks again. sp
  23. Sacre Bleu!!.. you like the Nikon S better.. you should be banned. Interesting that your Kiev is comparable in smoothness in feel etc to the Contax IIa. I have a 4AM the feels like a coffe grinder winding and the Contax IIA is like a fine watch. The Kiev has a capping problem, the IIa is intermittent with the speeds. I don't know which is is worse.
    Your results are very nice. I really really wish the inexpensive Jupiter 12 would fit.... it doesn't... Schade!
    Rick D has featured a few "near Contaxes from the Far East ... this is definitely an imitated model.. but the Leica wins the most imitated RF while The Contax S is probably the most imitated SLR.
  24. Thanks for the offer, JDM, but I already have way too much stuff, including the older style aluminum film cans. Perhaps Marco would like to have it, or keep it for the next quiz. After all, it did take me two tries...
    Lately, I've been a little out of control, adding mostly 1950s rangefinders to my collection. With a recent acquisition, I now have at least one each of the black and color dial versions of the Contax IIa and IIIa. Now I need to find the time to run some film through them. Zeiss cameras, pre- and post-war, are quirky buggers. Unfortunately, I like quirky which is why I can't stay away from them.
    The Contaxes I acquired that were well cared for have very quiet shutters and silky smooth film advance. It's clear, though, that periodic cleaning is needed to maintain these qualities. It's surprisingly easy to remove the top cover of the IIa to clean the slow speed gear train and lubricate parts of the shutter and winding mechanism. The IIIa's meter makes it a slightly more complicated process. Rick Oleson's Tech Notes have been invaluable and probably the reason why it's hard for me to pass up a IIa/IIIa that's undervalued because of a balky shutter.
  25. Great post and photos, JDM.
  26. I have also found Rick Oleson's notes invaluable.
    It is a shame that the Jupiter 12 won't fit on the Contax IIa. It works fine on my Kievs, of course, and on the Nikon S2.

    The longer Soviet lenses seem to work fine. My favorite is the Jupiter-9 85mm f/2, but the Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 is also very nice. Mine looks nearly identical at a glance to the Nikkor-Q 135mm f/3.5 I recently got, but is only about 3/4 the size of the Nikkor.
    I am still looking for a Zeiss Sonnar 5cm f/1.5 or a f/2, but my most recent candidates may not be entirely what they seem, I worry.
  27. Thanks for the post. Excellent as always. I've had great fortune with a Kiev 2 and Kiev 4-maybe best value for dollar in all of vintage 35mm. The Aires RF (like the IIIL) also bears a strong resemblance to the Nikons posted.

    That Ricoh 500 is an excellent camera. Not everyone feasting on the niche Ricoh digitals knows about the Ricoh 500 or Ricoh Diacord G, one of a few TLRs with as good a baffling system as the Rolleiflex.

    My favorite user-collectibles are the post-war, Japanese fixed-lens, pre-exposure meter 35mm RFs. The Japanese measurably improved on the viewfinder/RF patch/in some cases parallax and also there is variety in 35mm RF compared to SLRs or TLRs: Ricoh, Konica I, Konica II, Petri, Ricoh, Aires, etc.
  28. Like the Contax II and III, the initial IIa and IIIa had a really awful pea-green viewfinder with a pink rangefinder spot, no doubt to increase the contrast and improve focusing. I don't know how anybody could shoot color with it.
    Fortunately, in the last batches the VF was plain, non-colored glass.
  29. Nice pics, JDM, and a fine potted history of the breeds. While, as Chuck noted, the Contax is usually the better built and smoother, a good copy of the Kiev is just about up to the same standards, and the images from the different lenses are virtually indistinguishable, to my eye. In fact, I think my copy of the later Helios 103 takes some beating in the quality stakes. Only recently did I discover that it's design is very similar to that of the esteemed Summicron...
  30. Great read JDM, thanks for that. My adventures with the various Kiev's has not been grand and I passed by a few copies before I found a working example. Like Chuck, the coffee grinder like wind sort of put me off, while my Contaxes (seem to have 3 now) all are as smooth as silk.
    Likewise with the Jupiter F2, my first example was er, interesting, and another much better, although not as good as the post war Sonnar in my humble opinion. I'm just trying a 50mm 1.5 Jupiter 3 on the Contax, let you know how that goes.
  31. Yet another great write-up indeed. Congratulations!<br><br>One note though: care should be taken to attribute "intense similarities" too much to 'lineage'. Not all similarities arise because one manufacturer 'copies' what another manufacturer did before. There is a very strong influence of that "form follows function" thing.<br><br>A couple of silly for instances: the shutter release button appearing where it does - front right or right top, not lower left back or bottom - is a simple bit of ergonomics. The mirror housing and with it viewfinder being in the middle is the result of having to run film past the shutter, which has to be behind the mirror, so the feed part has to be on one side, the take up bit on the other. There are many more of such thingies, explaining why cameras of a particular type (rangefinder, slr, tlr) largely look the way they do.<br>The Nikon F resembles the Contax S. But does it really, as in: how much of it is because there is no other way to arrange things on a SLR? If you'd ask me: a lot. I don't see a real similarity, beyond the one from necessity, between the two cameras.<br>The same goes for how rangefinders had their controls and bits aranged (the finder moved to one side and not in the middle above the lens, for instance, is not the result of a free design decision, but necessary to make most use of the space in order to get a long enough base for the rangefinder) and how the slrs the builders of those rangefinders later also made have their bits and pieces distributed over the camera.<br>Form follows function.
  32. Q.C.,
    I agree in general on the "form follows function" argument; but, at the same time, Nikon themselves have acknowledged that the F is an S2 with a prism, as did Zeiss on the Contax with a prism status of the Contax S.
    Look at some early M39 Soviet SLRs, for another example, of RF Zorkis ("Leicas") converted into SLRs. In that case the Leica heritage is as clear as the Contax history in other SLRs.
    Round ends or 'octagonal' ends, how the film loads, and a lot of other continuities are features whose form is not dictated so directly by function.
  33. JDM,
    This has been a fine series of posts. I like the way you have covered the various clones from various companies and from various countries. One could spend a lifetime searching through all the material.
    I found an ad for the Contax I in the Nov. 1932 issue of American Photography.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  34. Marc,
    I love the "oh, I'm so refined" pinkie held out in the ad - as we here know, not to show status, but to keep from obscuring the rangefinder window.
    The long RF base was very nice, but Nikon's S2 moves it in to where you can hold the camera and still have a rangefinder.
  35. Mark, thanks for posting that ad. Seems AF was around back in 1932, the rangefinder "automatically focusing" the lens.....ha!
  36. I cannot find an ad for the Contax II but I did find an ad showing the various models available.
    This is from the Mar. 1937 issue of American Photography.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  37. Here is a May, 1951 ad for the Contax IIa from Popular Photography
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  38. JDM,
    Nice ad. I didn't realize the Contax IIa went back that far. I was thinking mid-fifties. Well that is what I get for thinking.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  39. For the record, here's an offering from the Columbus Photo Supply (NYC) in the October, 1950, Modern Photography.

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