Leica IIIf vs Contax IIa

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by john|15, Oct 6, 2004.

  1. These days most of my photography is done with an Olympus Stylus Epic
    or a Rollei 35. I don't want to become a classic camera collector as
    I'm afraid it would become another expensive addiction but I am
    intrigued by the functionality, build and general esthetic appeal of
    small mechanical cameras. I am especially attracted to the Leica
    IIIc/f and the Contax IIa for the above stated qualities as well as
    their compactness. It seems that either would make a good traveling
    or carry-anywhere camera. I would like to get some knowledge of the
    pros and cons of these two cameras and other factors that might help
    me choose one over the other. BTW, I am aware of the squinty
    viewfinders of these cameras and I would probably fit the appropriate
    C/V viewfinder.
  2. These are both excellent cameras with comparable optics. The Leica IIIf is more compact, but the Contax IIa has a better viewfinder/rangefinder. While I use Nikons as my primary cameras, I sometimes carry a Leica IIIf for its portability and convenience. With its collapsed lens it will fit almost any pocket of my clothing.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  3. I don't own & have never used a screw-mount Leica (held 1 once, a IIIf I think), but do have a couple Tower 45's (aka Nicca 5L's, see http://cameraquest.com/nicca.htm) which are approximately the same size as the Leicas, & a bunch of Contax IIa's. I generally agree w/Alex's assessment, particularly re: the VF/RF, but I would say that the size difference isn't that significant IMHO--the Contax IIa is not a big camera (e.g., it's smaller than a Leica M) & there are collapsible lenses for it, too. I personally favor the Contax as easier & quicker to use in the field.

    Speaking of lenses, they might be a factor if you ever decided to eventually build a system, w/the edge going to the Leica if you wish to buy a screw-mount (incl. Canon RF) or M camera . . .
  4. Well the Contax gear is certainly cheaper. Either will probably require some $200 worth of TLC to get them back to spec. The Contax is tougher to repair though there are some experts that specialize in them.

    Not a IIA but you could try an older Kiev before investing too heavily in the Contax system. I have a nice 1960 Kiev 4A that I CLA'd myself and a CZ Sonnar 50/1.5 of late vintage. I will have a Contax IIA at some point! (just waiting for the right one)
  5. John & Mike: a quick plug--if you can live w/less than perfect examples, I can sell you 1 of my Contax IIa bodies & lenses . . .
  6. The Leica IIIf is a very compact camera. Its construction is first rate. My IIIf has the Summitar, which can be focused using the lever or the serrated edge. The image in the rangefinder window is magnified to help compensate for the short-base rangefinder, and so your eye must refocus slightly as you shift your eye from rangefinder to viewfinder and back again. There is a diopter adjustment lever for the rangefinder but none for the viewfinder.

    The shutter speed dial spins when the shutter is released, so you need to be aware of that if you're wearing thick gloves or if you tend to hold the camera with two fingers on the top deck. Zeiss-Ikon enjoyed pointing out in its Contax owners manual that no dials or knobs spun when the shutter was released.

    The body seems remarkably thin and wide, yet it's easy to hold. The shutter release is located toward the back of the camera. You need to readjust your grip slightly, if you're coming from the so-called traditional camera.

    I've found the Summitar to be an excellent lens with very good contrast and sharpness. The front element is deeper set, as are the filter rings, which are 36.5mm. Good luck finding filters for the Summitar. I was lucky enough to come across a set several years ago on eBay for about $15. (No, I'm not selling them).

    The Contax IIa is a very different camera. Although physical dimensions are roughly the same, shoulder to shoulder, the Contax IIa sits a bit higher, even though maximum height, width and depth for both are about the same.

    The Contax uses a much wider base rangefinder, and it has a unified rangefinder/viewfinder. Like many postwar Zeiss-Ikon cameras, the viewfinder has a green tint with a yellow rangefinder patch. On my IIIf, the rangefinder window has a slight blue tint, while the viewfinder is neutral.

    All Zeiss-Ikon Contaxes had infinity locks. I've used mine so much, that my middle finger automatically goes to the infinity lock. Zeiss lenses use traditional focusing rings. There is a focus dial to the rear of the infinity lock, but I rarely use it with the 50mm lens and never use it with any other lens (in fact, you can't really).

    The Contax IIa has a self-timer. The Leica IIIf may or may not have one, depending on the model.

    Loading either camera takes time and moreso with the Leica. Most people trim the film leader on the Leica, though I've read of some who don't. You also have to force the film leader under a small flap on the takeup spool and then insert both into the camera. Not a big deal, and I'm sure if you do it often then it's second nature.

    Some Contaxes had small leaf springs that held the takeup spool. For most of us, the spool falls out and rolls under the car, down a hill or into a pool of water, which probably explains why I've seen so many chipped Contax film spools.

    To load a Leica, you have to remove the bottom of the camera. For the Contax, you remove the back. It's best if you have a spare pocket or three arms. Most of us don't have three arms, so a pocket works best.

    To rewind film on a Leica, you turn a small lever and crank. For the Contax, you hold in a button and crank.

    On a Leica, it's best to change shutter speeds after you cock the shutter. The dial rotates when you cock the shutter, and the shutter speed marks are correctly indicated only after you've cocked the shutter. For slower speeds, you need to turn the main dial to one setting and the front-mounted dial to your desired speed.

    The Contax IIa uses a lift-and-turn dial that always correctly displays the indicated speed, and all speeds are available on one dial -- another feature that Zeiss-Ikon liked to point out in the manual.

    As to which is better? Well, that's a debate that's been going on for decades -- probably since the 1930s when the Contax and Contax II arrived. And the Leica is still in production, while the Contax went out of production around 1960, and Zeiss-Ikon folded up shop in 1972. (Note that the new Zeiss Ikon is on the way).

    It's safe to assume that both cameras will require servicing, particularly if you're buying from eBay. At one time, I owned eight Contax II's -- down to four currently (a special anniversary model, a Color Dial, a low-serial number Black Dial and the first one I bought, which I should retire because the shutter is tired).

    As far as lenses, there is the Zeiss look and the Leica look. And that leads back to the Leica vs. Zeiss debate. There are good lenses on each side. I can speak on the Zeiss lenses and say that the 5cm Tessar, 50mm, 85mm and 135 Sonnars and postwar 35mm Biogon are excellent lenses.

    Make sure you check out the lens of any camera, if possible. Some owners were overly enthusiastic about cleaning the front element, leaving a lens with many, many fine scratches that affect image quality.

    You can get excellent photos with either camera. Handle each and shoot one roll with both. Then make your judgment from there. Both are well made cameras, and both have their own feel to them.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  7. Sadly, I'm a Kiev owner rather than a IIa owner, but I do find the Kiev view/
    rangefinder (which is of course copied from the Contax ii/III) much easier to
    use than the Leica IIIf. <p>
    It seems easier to get a good Sonnar 50mm lens for the Contax at a good
    price, than the equivalent Leica; the 50/2 collapsible Sonnar seems to crop up
    quite often. And of course, you might want to try Russian glass for your 35 and
    85mm lenses - the Contax mount ones are generally regarded as far superior
    to the LTM ones. Although, of course, the C/V lenses are great value for
    money, and there's a far better choice of those in LTM.
  8. The Contax would be an easier to use camera. Loading, and focusing are far easier.
    I agree that the Kiev copies give a lot of bang for the buck, and if you drop one in the river, shooting that reflected fall foliage from midstream (as I did just last week)---hey, it only cost $45.00 with 35mm lens.
  9. Sorry, shouldn't have mentioned the Russian 35mm lens in the context of the
    COntax IIa - the Jupiter 12 will only fit the COntax II (or Kiev). Kievs are great
    value for money (I've seen 1959 examples which look good, for $25 on the
    'bay) - but it might be postponing the inevitable, as you will probably end up
    buying a Contax anyway.
  10. Paul T: No need to be sad about the Kiev. They can be very nice cameras especially after they get a decent overhaul.
    My 1960 Kiev 4A
  11. Hello,
    the Leica screw mount and Contax rangefinder cameras are different systems. The beginning from shutter, rangefindersystem( mirror - or prismen rangefinder)screw mount or bajonett mount,the rangefinder base from Contax include 1o,5cm and so is bigger to Leica M 6, 7,and MP today, and last not detail moved on the top from Contax etc.
    The Contax camera system started later to Leica and any details have included more modern elements. The importend thing is the united viewer and rangefinder from the Contax camera. The Leica and include the III f have a separeted look for Viewer and rangefinder.
    Lynn tell it problems right with film start cut for Leica, and the Contax have not this problems the backfront from Contax is removebel.
    A other problem are Leica prae-war lenses the are uncoated and in resolution under the performence to the Zeiss lenses.
    I sell all my Leica lenses on a collector(have only hold the Leitz Elmar 1:3,5/50mm a good lens) and work with my Leica III only with russian lenses like Zeiss or canon screw mount lenses.
    Ok the Leica camera body is a hand hold flatterer very well, but the Contax are other designed.Zeiss say the contax design are scientific developmend.
    However this two cameras have a importend wrong detail:the viewers are not include a parallax compensation (only with external turred finder on attachment shoe).Only up on Leica M3 includes a perfect parallax compensation.

    Don't for get the Contax IIa and IIIa from Stuttgart West-Germany are in details other cameras to prae-war Contax from Dresden.
    The glassprism made from Rodenstock are shorter and the Rangefinder window too. The shutter are different, and the time exposed weel, the reason is the size from body is near to the Leica screw mount cameras, and the weel for normal lenses 5cm go to other way turn around.
    Last not least the West-Germany production from Contax cameras are a very short time. Leica and Kiev rangefinder are longtime runner again.
    Is my personal opinion only to have all this cameras, I liked and work more with my KIEV rangefinder. The KIEV II produced under Zeiss workers control.This KIEV II are made from 1955 with 3 engraves on attachment shoe, an export model and work today excellent and very fine, the cosmetical condition is fine too.

    Mike thank's for your very interesting Contax IIa side, but I have notice any littel details over Zeiss lenses are wrong,but this littel details destroyed not the civilisation in the world.

    In personaly summit I can answere: I liked my screw mount Leica III without Leitz lenses.I work with the Contax/Kiev rangefinders too. In system for photographic to day work many more with the Kiev/Contax and lenses and I prefered.My last buy is a Jupiter 9 like Zeiss Sonnar 1:2/85cm an excellent lens, thats Leitz never have and can't beat with Leitz Elmar 1:4/9cm

  12. Mike, it was perhaps after seeing your 1960 Kiev 4a that I cruelly dumped my
    1978 '4 - and bought a 1960 4a, with a 1952 Jupiter 8, for $24. The prices of
    these cameras positively urge you to be promiscuous! Oh, and did I mention
    the 1950 Zorki Sonnar 50/1.5, AND a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5! <p>
    I do of course have your overhal page bookmarked and will probably come
    blubbing to you when I have a few spare bits left over after reassembly...
  13. gib


    I can offer a page on the web about the IIIf my IIIf page
    I have no experience with the Contax IIa, but some with Kiev. You should be able to get good photos from either choice.
    You might also want to look at cameraquest.com which is currently selling an attractive package of the Bessa R with CV 35mm f2.5 classic lens, almost as compact as the IIIf, brighter viewfinder. Non-classic but compact and very usable. Price is very low from where it has been.
  14. Wow! Lots of very thorough and thoughtful responses! But I'll add my two cents anyway.

    I own a Contax IIIa color dial, which is the same as the IIa but with an uncoupled meter tacked on. It's a wonderful camera, once you get used to "the grip" needed to keep from obstructing that long rangefinder. It's an easy camera to use, and the optics are spectacular. I like it so much that I sold off all of my Contax N1 gear to free up cash for more lenses (35 Biogon, 50/1.5 Sonnar, 135/4 Sonnar and currently searching for an 85/2 Jena Sonnar). So, I guess it's fair to say that I really love the Zeiss look.

    I bought my camera from Henry Scherer. He has a "program" in which he locates and acquires a camera for you at cost. There is no fee, but you must agree to have him overhaul the camera. Well, Henry found me a near mint camera and restored it to perfection. He disassembled the camera and cleaned it with solvents in an ultrasonic bath. He then spent a week reassembling and adjusting it until it worked perfectly. I can not imagine that anyone could have done a better job.

    I can't comment on the Leica, other than to say that I like the photos that I'vs seen produced from Leicas.
  15. I face a similar choice - which camera to take on a trekking
    holiday. I have a Leica IIIa and a Contax IIIa. Both take great, but
    very different, pictures. The Summar lens on the Leica is softer,
    whereas the sharpness and contrast of the Sonnar 1.5 on the
    Contax is almost too intense.

    I've chosen to take the Leica for two reasons:

    1. It is smaller and just feels more natural to use than the more
    bulky Contax.

    2. I feel the Summar 50mm lens is more suitable for portraits
    than the Sonnar. I just prefer the look. (I'm taking a Yashica T4
    with a Tessar 35mm lens for
    wider angle stuff).

    Yes, the Leica is a pain to cut film leaders for, and the viewfinder
    isn't as great. But at the end of the day it is the pictures that count
    - and I just prefer the feel of the Summar over the Sonnar.

    Having said that, the Contax is still a great camera, and cheaper
    than a Leica.
  16. Henry Scherer's site also notes that the Contax cameras are more "precision instruments" than the Leica. This means that rough handling is more likely to put them out of order. No tossing it on the seat in the car. The shutter mechanism has far more parts, and they are built to very fine tolerances. (Indeed, Henry notes that many were never debugged into proper operation in the first place.)

    The Leica IIIf, by comparison, is a much simpler design, and somewhat more rugged. Far more manufacturable.
  17. I've never owned a Leica, but from severnal experiences of handling LTM cameras and borrowing a couple on occasion, I feel that the Contax II(a) offers distinct advantages over the Leica III-series cameras.

    First, the entire Contax back slides off, allowing for easier (though not the most convenient) flim loading. Loading a bottom-load Leica is really an excerise in patience, having to cut the film leader and drop it into the tiny loading channel. Even though both Leica and Contax viewfinders are squinty, the combined range/viewfinder on the Contax is much more convenient than having to switch between two seperate eyepieces. In addition, the Sonnar (and Russain Jupiter, if a good example) lenses are very high-quality optics capable of producing sharp, contrasty pictures that compare very favorably with much newer glass.

    Lastly, I find that the fingerwheel on the Contax II is very handy in adjusting fine focus once you've gotten within the desired range of your subject. For people portraits, with a quick turn of the wheel, you can adjust for changes in posture (i.e. leaning forward, turning, leaning back) while having a firm grip on the camera. Just shift your finger to the shutter button when the picture looks right and fire away. True, the Leica has a quieter cloth shutter, but there's always a danger of the sun burning through the cloth if the camera is pointed at the sky for too long - something that can never happen with the Contax metal shutter slats.

    Hope this helps.

  18. the IIIf makes a nice travel camera because of its small size and the collapsible 50mm lenses. the summaron 35mm lens is very very small. losding becomes (almost) easy after a while if you trim your leaders in advance

    i flicked a leech off my arm in Tasmania with my IIIf ;)
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  19. Trimming the leader for the Barnack Leica is a non-issue if as Quiche and others, as well as myself have determined. I go one step further, learned from an old time Leica hound: obtain as many extra Leica take-up spools as you can find or afford, trim your leader and clip it into the take-up spool, then wind the slack back into the cartridge and wrap each load in aluminum foil. Then all you have to do is unwrap, pull out enought leader, and drop the load into the camera. I have done it for many years and it is second nature, but it takes me about the same amount time as loading my M6. <p> As for Contax and Kiev, though I think the rangefinder is the best I have encountered -- I particularly like the rotating wedge system -- I have never gotten used to the location of the right RF window. It's not bad on the IIa but the one on the old pre-war Contaxes and the Kievs is a real PITA. Neither do I like the finger wheel and the automatic infinity lock. It is a stumbling block for a left-hand focuser. <p> I have a collapsible Sonnar that fits the Kiev but I have never tried it on a Contax IIa. Can anyone explain the incompatibility?<p> From the over-all ergonomic standpoint I prefer the Leica, but it is probably because I have been using one for nearly sixty years, hoping some day to find a good deal on a Contax IIa.
  20. (Ok, OT rant, I guess...)

    I have read the responses, and just as minor side-note to discussions of the "better" useability of one camera versus another, I'll just point to my own experience of the Rollei 35.

    For about as long as I've been interested in photography, I've heard the argmuents about that camera. You know, "quirky handling", "flash shoe on the bottom", etcetera. So I simply avoided the camera, based on other, presumably more experienced, people's opinions.

    Some time ago, I was able to get a Rollei 35 (first version) in my hands. And boy, did it work well! It all made sense, all the "quirky" controls functioned really well, given the limitations of a viewfinder camera.

    Why? I think it is because of my earlier experience with Rolleicord TLRs. To me they work in a similar manner. Real life and opinions don't always go together. :)

    (Rant mode off)
  21. Harry, there is no incompatibility. The only possible incompatibility to look for would be for the pre-WWII (& post-WWII Jena/Jupiter) version of the 35/2.8 Biogon, which has a large rear element that doesn't fit in the smaller IIa/IIIa. The collapsible 50/2 Sonnar collapses fine when mounted a IIa or IIIa.


    "I have a collapsible Sonnar that fits the Kiev but I have never tried it on a Contax IIa. Can anyone explain the incompatibility?"
  22. Excelent answers above. I never made up my mind in that issue, and I use both a Contax IIIa and a Leica IIIc as travel companions. If forced to take just one, I'd bring along the Contax. Reasons? Loading, and the 21mm Biogon, which must be THE travel lens in my book. IMHO Leica's only real advantage is its size.
  23. I have them both, and considet the IIa the most beautiful camera ever made. Feature by feature it outperforms the Leica, and yet I prefer the IIIf when it comes down to actually photographing. I think that Zeiss cameras were designed by committee, whereas the Leicas were designed by potographers. Unfortunately, they're both severely dated and are far better as playtoys for admiration and fondling than for street use. If you're really going to buy one, then the repair situation of the Leica makes it the run-away choice.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  24. I like Peter's answer best. You simply must own them both! Leica IIIc or f is also on my radar screen...
  25. Bill

    I use my Contax regularly. It's for use, not for admiration! The lenses are superb, and the camera has been completely reliable. It would be a shame to buy it for display and fondling.
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  26. Jimi, I agree with you completely about the Rollei 35. I bought a Rollei 35T within days of my arrival in Germany in 1979. I bought it with no preconceptions, and I found the camera extremely easy to use. I think I figured out how to operat it within minutes and never found it to be cumbersome. I probably took about 50 or 60 rolls by the time it was lost in 1993. One of the nicest cameras I've ever owned.
  27. Lynn, no offense taken! I had to re-read your post to figure what the insult would have been. :)

    The advice to own both a Leica and a Contax is good. Just have to find a telephone booth and switch into my bankrobbing gear first... ;)
    Fiddlefye likes this.
  28. Thankyou all for your thoughtful and knowledgeable replys. The thought of buying a camera nearly as old as me is intimidating: the cost of repairs, finding parts when repairs are needed, frequent CLA's. I have a Nikkormat that I have been using for more than three decades and it has suffered the knocks and dings of adversity including a trip to the bottom of a rushing stream after the canoe it was riding in was capsized by my wife, with never a CLA in its long and useful life. It would probably make sense to follow the suggestion made in one of the replys and buy a Bessa R and 35mm; a real bargain to be sure. But there is just something about these old rangefinders; they have that special je ne sai quoi that is unobtainable in today's modern cameras except, perhaps, the Leica MP which cost a great deal more than I could ever justify spending on a camera. In short, they are simply drop-dead beautiful and we will never see their likes again. Maybe the new Zeiss-Ikon?.....Best, John
  29. If you are leaning toward a Leica, also consider a Soviet FED or Zorki. There are numerous models. Zorkis certainly have their fans, but I happen to like FED 3s and 5s due to improvements over the Leica II/III series such as lever wind, removeable backs (no leader trimming), geometric shutter speeds 1-1/500+B and integrated viewfinder/rangefinder. The FED3 is quite aesthetically pleasing in its own right, if no Leica clone. The FED5 is unquestionably uglier but adds a hot shoe, rewind crank and sometimes an uncoupled selenium meter.

    The Industar I-61 is usually an excellent normal lens, and its L/D variant is incrementally better. If you want something pocketable, bid on a collapsable Industar-10 or -22 which are Elmar clones.

    Of course Soviet quality control had its good and bad days. The trick is to buy from a reliable dealer over there who tests, CLAs and guarantees, some of whom charge standard EBay prices, probably around $50 with shipping. Visit the Russian camera forum at www.beststuff.com for suggestions on good and bad dealers. With only a little luck you will end up with an excellent camera (if not quite a Leica) that you won't hesitate to take anywhere and everywhere.
  30. The problem of guess-focusing with the Rollei 35 is that the distance markings are so obscure. It's only okay outside with the lens stopped down and lots of DOF.

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