Contax rangefinder

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The 1930s Zeiss Ikon Contaxes

The Contax I is a high end 35mm rangefinder camera made by Zeiss Ikon to compete with Leica models. It was released in 1932. The Super Nettel was based on the Contax I, with the same kind of shutter, but a folding body, a fixed lens and a short based rangefinder. It was intended to be a cheaper alternative.

The Contax I was Zeiss' answer to Leica's offerings in the 35mm market, one Leica effectively controlled since it helped create it in 1925. It could be argued that it is technically superior to the Leica, but let down by being rushed to the market, Zeiss being eager to catch up. The Contax has a number of technological advantages over the Leica. It has a longer rangefinder triangulation base for better focusing. It has a bayonet lens mount (see Contax rangefinder lenses) instead of Leica's screw mount. It also has a removable back for loading film instead of Leica's bottom-loading system. To go up against Leica's horizontal-travel fabric shutter (maximum speed 1/500 second), the Contax has a vertical-travel articulated metal shutter (max. speed 1/1000); this is less vulnerable to sun burn as well.

However, the Contax I lacks in fit-and-finish: it is heavy and boxy with sharp corners, and suffers from many reliability problems.

From its introduction in 1932 to 1936 when the Contax II was introduced, the Contax I was a work in progress. There are no fewer than six iterations based on external features only. This is actually an underestimate. There were also many non-visible internal changes such as the location and physical layout of how the angular displacement of the lens couples to the rangefinder system. Other changes were meant to make the rangefinder system stay within specifications better. Later versions actually provide better focusing feedback to the user. These were not small changes, and many of the still-working models are actually later revisions. These revisions were incorporated in the Contax II, a much more reliable camera that went through fewer versions.


The Contax II was released in 1936 and was the successor of the Contax I. Its chief designer was Hubert Nerwin.

The Contax II is among the most well-known 35mm cameras ever made. It is difficult to overstate the level of quality that Zeiss achieved with the Contax II, and equally as difficult to overstate its pivotal role in the future development of all 35mm cameras that followed. At the time of its introduction, the Contax II had only one peer in the world that would be considered of the same importance: the Leica III.

The standard of quality achieved by Zeiss extended from the fit and finish of the camera to the unsurpassed imaging capability of the lenses and system equipment available. Many photographers consider the 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar lens to be among the greatest lenses ever made. The Contax II was widely used by photojournalists and other professional photographers throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and continues to have a strong following to this day. Variants and derivatives of the Contax II were made by other companies up until the late 1980s (see below).

The shutter system of the Contax II was completely changed from the Contax I, eliminating much of the notorious unreliability of the earlier camera. The Contax II was the first camera to incorporate a rangefinder focusing system into the same viewfinder that was used to compose the photograph (earlier built-in rangefinders such as was used on the contemporary Leica required the photographer to first focus with the rangefinder and then switch to a separate viewfinder to compose the photo). The broad rangefinder base (distance between rangefinder windows) also allowed more accurate focusing than other contemporary cameras. The Contax II famously included a top shutter speed of 1/1250th of a second, besting the rival Leica’s top speed of 1/500th of a second, and being one of the first cameras to achieve a top shutter speed above 1/1000th of a second.

Like the Leica, the Contax system equipment range was extensive and grew to include a wide array of available lenses, many specialized accessories, and equipment developed for specific industrial, scientific, medical, and commercial purposes.

Together with the rival Leica III, the Contax II set the standard for all rangefinder cameras to follow, including the first rangefinders from Canon and Nikon, as well as later developments of the continuing line of fine Leica rangefinder cameras.

The Nettax was meant to be a cheaper alternative; it was a derivative of the Super Nettel with a rigid body and interchangeable lenses with a specific bayonet and a very limited range of lenses.

The Contaflex was a derivative of the Contax I. It is a 35mm twin-lens reflex with the same kind of shutter and a built-in exposure meter. It was an extremely expensive camera, that tested some of the features that would later appear on the Contax II and III. It has interchangeable lenses with a specific lens mount.

The Contax III, also released in 1936, is a Contax II with an exposure meter. It was one of the first cameras with a built-in exposure meter.


Ukrainian relaunch as Kiev-2 by Arsenal

After the war, the Soviet Union captured the tooling and drawings of the Zeiss factories as war reparations, and transferred them to the city of Kiev, where they began the production of the Kiev rangefinder camera, which is therefore arguably a continuation of the Contax.

West-German relaunch by Zeiss-Ikon AG

At the same time, the Western part of the Zeiss Ikon company based in Stuttgart redesigned the Contax and launched the Contax IIa in 1950 and Contax IIIa in 1951.

Bibliography

  • Barringer, C. and Small, M. Zeiss Compendium East and West — 1940–1972. Small Dole, UK: Hove Books, 1999 (2nd edition). ISBN 1-874707-24-3.
  • Dechert, Peter. The Contax Connection. Historical Camera Publications, 2007. Available for download in PDF at Peter Dechert's Corner (archived)

Links

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Zeiss Ikon Classic Cameras
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