The Contax S is a 35mm SLR camera introduced by the East German VEB Zeiss Ikon in 1949. Plans for such a camera had certainly existed at Zeiss Ikon since the late 1930s, and the development of an eyelevel viewfinder using a pentaprism would soon become a key element of the project. However, the WWII prevented pursuing these ideas, and when resumed after the war, the plans had to be adjusted to the deficiencies prevailing in the immediate post-war Dresden factory.
Despite the practical difficulties, a new camera was developed under the direction of Wilhelm Winzenburg. It was an innovative camera, with a fixed eyelevel pentaprism finder showing the image correctly. The new situation allowed the use of a simple cloth focal plane shutter, and the camera has the 42mm screw lens mount that was just introduced on the Praktiflex, a mount that would become practically an industry standard. Unfortunately, the construction of the Contax S is not too robust. The internal gears, stamped from thin mild steel sheets, wear easily. All Contax S family cameras takes the 42mm screw lenses.
Together with the Rectaflex and the Alpa Prisma Reflex, these cameras share the distinction of being the earliest pentaprism SLRs. They would define the shape of the SLRs for the years to come, and even in the digital imaging realm of the high-end DSLR the concept is still the same.
The optic supplied with the camera was the black anodised Biotar 2/5,8 T Carl Zeiss Jena lens. The most notable feature of this first model, apart from the finder prism, is the placement of the sync contact, situated in the tripod socket at the camera base. In 1952, the camera was replaced by the Contax D, identified by having the sync contact at the top plate, next to the rewind knob.
Contax D and Pentacon
| Contax D|
image by Peters Cameras (Image rights)
| Contax D|
image by gianlukalta (Image rights)
| Pentacon, export model of the Contax D|
image by Paul Olegario (Image rights)
The next model was called the Contax D, and was more the result of gradual evolution than a radical change.
In 1948 the two branches of Zeiss Ikon, East and West, were finally separated. In a series of lawsuits the Eastern branch would lose the right to use the historical names, like Contax. They continued to use the Contax name in the Eastern block market, but adopted the name Pentacon for the export to other countries. Pentacon comes from Pentaprism Contax, but is unanimously qualified as an unfortunate choice. Maybe something like Pentax would have been a better idea!
There were many minor variations in the engravings of the Contax D model. Some had the Zeiss Ikon logo, with or without VEB written underneath. Others had the Pentacon logo representing the Ernemann tower of Dresden, that is the company's headquarters building, with or without the addition of the engraved letters ZI (for Zeiss Ikon).
Contax F, FM, FB and FBM
| Pentacon FM, export model of the Contax FM|
image by Marino M. (Image rights)
|The Contax F is the successor of the Contax D, released in 1956, with:
It was also called Pentacon F.
The Contax FM is a variant, introduced in 1958, with a split image focusing aid in the viewfinder. It was also called Pentacon FM.
The Contax FB is a Contax F with an exposure meter, like the Contax E. The Pentacon FB is the same camera.
The Contax FBM is a Contax FM with the same exposure meter. The Pentacon FBM is the same camera.
The Contax D has been sold on some markets with fancy names. The Hexacon, Super D, Astraflex 35 or Cal-flex names are just plates glued or riveted on the face of the camera. The Consol name is engraved. According to some legend, the Consol models, being made for export to the Western market, specially the US, were of better quality and more controlled. It seems that it is not true and that they were just normal models with another marking.
At last, there were some bodies that were sold with no engraving at all, nicknamed the "No-Name" Pentacon or "No-Name" Contax. Of course they are different from the Kiev rangefinder bodies sold with no engraving, also called the "No-Name" Contax or "No-Name" Kiev.
There was also a name variant of the Contax F called the Ritacon F.
image by David Sides (Image rights)
image by Rick Oleson (Image rights)
Japanese and Chinese copies
The Japanese Altair, announced in early 1955, was closely inspired by the Contax D but incorporated a quick-return mirror. It remained at prototype level only.
The Tian Chi was a Chinese near-copy of the Contax F, of which only ten were made.
A user's point of view
The Contax S family of cameras all have excellent ergonomics and are pleasant to hold.
The finder of the first models, before the F, is really small and only shows an insufficient portion of the image. The finder of the F, with the bigger mirror, is improved.
Before the F, you have to shut down the diaphragm manually before each exposure. It is not too difficult, and anyway the camera is quite slow to use so that does not make much difference. However at the beginning it is likely you will forget it for a couple of pictures.
Sadly the materials these cameras were built with were not up to the quality of the design itself. All the cameras of the family are prone to shutter curtain deterioration and even if the curtains look good, they are likely to be full of pinholes and you will have to get them repaired. With a camera with pinholes in the shutter curtains, you will have spots of light on some of your pictures, some of them might even be beautiful but the effect is completely aleatory and is more likely to spoil your shots. Today some reputable eBay sellers do sell fully cleaned, lubricated and adjusted bodies, with the curtains replaced. It is probably the surest way to get a working one.
Links are to pictures of equipment, at Yves Strobelt and Marco Kröger's zeissikonveb.de:
- 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 S camera family. Yakima (Washington): Historical Camera Publications, 1991. ISBN 1-879561-10-8. This book is available in pdf form in Peter Dechert's Corner at Songofsnow
- Matanle, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic Cameras. London: Thames & Hudson, 1986. First paperback edition, 1992. ISBN 0-500-27656-0.
- Matanle, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic SLRs. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. ISBN 0-500-01726-3.
- St Denny, Douglas. Cameras of the People's Republic of China. Leicester, UK: Jessop Specialist Publishing, 1989. ISBN 0-9514392-0-0.
- Schulz, Alexander. Contax S, A History of the World's First 35mm Prism SLR Camera. Stuttgart: Lindemanns, 2002. ISBN 3-89506-236-7.
- Contax S with sample pictures at westfordcomp.com
- Contax / Pentacon models at praktica-collector.de
- Contax S (1949) listed at number 13 in Jason Schneider's Top 20 Cameras Of All-Time on Shutterbug.
- The development of the modern small format SLR camera, an article in Frank Mechelhoff's camera site, featuring the Praktiflex, Contax S, Exakta VX and original Pentax
- Contax und Pentacon page at zeissikonveb.de
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