Contax rangefinder

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Contax are a range of cameras with a proprietary bayonet mount made by Zeiss Ikon. The first Contax rangefinder camera, launched in 1932 as a response to Leica, was aimed at professionals and journalists who needed a reliable and precise instrument. It was accompanied by a large variety of lenses and accessories to comprise a complete system of photography.

The 1932 Contax camera had a large share of problems, and in 1936 it was superseded by the Contax II, which is one of the most important cameras in history. After World War II the rebuilt Zeiss Ikon relaunched the camera name with modified cameras that were produced until 1961. The camera saw life for a longer time under the brand Kiev after the Zeiss Ikon factory was moved from Dresden to Ukraine as part of war reparations. It was produced in large numbers until 1986 and sold all over the world.

The Contax lens mount

Contax introduced a new mount for their line of high-quality lenses. This mount was revolutionary at the time, as it coupled the mount with the rangefinder and required only a single viewfinder window.

The mechanism is in fact a complex combination of two bayonets:

  • Internal bayonet: A focusing helical is built into the camera body, and standard lenses mount directly into that focusing ramp by means of an internal bayonet. A small wheel at the top of the camera is used to turn the helicoid. This allows standard lenses to be more compact, not needing a focusing ring.
    Lenses in the internal bayonet rotate with the focusing helicoid, so the distance scale is engraved on the helicoid.
    An infinity stop tab is added for storage and lens changing.
  • External bayonet: Wide-angle lenses and teleobjectives, which include their own focusing ring, mount on an external bayonet. Rangefinder coupling is done by means of the lens body's focusing mechanism, which overrides the focusing wheel used with the internal bayonet.

While this mounting system was revolutionary at the time, by today's standards it is overly complex, requiring patience and care. Both the camera body helicoid and the lens must be set to infinity before the lens is mounted on or taken off the camera.

In the 1950s Nikon adapted this mount for their line of RF cameras and lenses. In 2002, as a tribute to the Contax, Cosina built a modern camera that uses the same mount: the Voigtlander Bessa R2C.

The 1930s cameras

Contax I

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 had effectively controlled since it helped create it in 1925. It could be argued that the Contax I concept was technically superior to the Leica, but it was let down by being rushed to 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 (90mm) for better focusing and a bayonet lens mount (see Contax rangefinder lenses) instead of a screw mount like the Leica's. It also has a removable back for film loading instead of Leica's bottom-loading system. To go up against Leica's horizontal-travel fabric shutter (maximum speed 1/500 second), the Contax I has a vertical-travel articulated metal shutter (max. speed 1/1000); this is less vulnerable to being burned by focused sunlight.

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

From its introduction in 1932 until 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 alone. However, many more variations exist as a result of many internal changes, such as the location and physical layout of the rangefinder coupling system. Other changes were meant to make the rangefinder system stay within specifications better. Later versions actually provide better focusing feedback to the user, improved shutter reliability, and better control layout. These were not small changes, and many of the still-working models of the Contax I are actually later revisions. The lessons learned were incorporated in the Contax II, which became the cornerstone of design for rangefinders and was a much more reliable camera that went through fewer versions.

Contax II

After all the woes of the Contax I, Zeiss assembled a team, led by chief designer Hubert Nerwin, in a more focused effort to create a high-quality product. The Contax II was released in 1936.

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 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 that of 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 that used on the Contax I and on contemporary Leicas, 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) of 90mm 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 Contax III, also released in 1936, was identical to the Contax II but with an uncoupled light meter added to the top plate. It was one of the first cameras with a built-in exposure meter.

Other cameras influenced the Contax II:

  • 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.

West-German relaunch by Zeiss-Ikon AG

After World War II the Western part of the Zeiss Ikon company, based in Stuttgart, made a complete redesign of the Contax cameras and launched the Contax IIa in 1950 and Contax IIIa in 1951. These cameras maintain the high-quality fit and finish of the prewar models and saw a few iterations as systems were improved.

Contax IIa
Contax IIIa (Carl Zeiss Jena lens from prewar camera)

The IIa and IIIa cameras had several improvements over the prewar models:

  • Smaller body: A II body weighs 21 oz (610g) and measures 3 3/8" x 1 11/16" x 5 1/2" (85.7 x 42.9 x 140mm), while a IIa body weighs 18 oz (520g) and measures 3 1/16" x 1 11/16" x 5 5/16" (77.8 x 49.9 x 135mm). Side by side, a IIa looks about 20% smaller than a II, though the weight difference is only 3 oz (90g).
  • Improved Shutter: the cloth connecting straps of the II/III shutter curtains were replaced with gears in the IIa/IIIa. Painted aluminum slats replaced the brass shutter slats of the II/III.
    • The IIa/IIIa shutter sequence is T, B, 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250, 500, 1250.
      From 1954, the shutter speed dial was marked in different colors, so that version is called the color-dial Contax, in contrast to the earlier black-dial version.
    • The use of aluminum changed the reliability and sound of the shutter, but also the slats needed to be thicker, making the postwar Contax incompatible with the prewar Biogon 35/2.8, as the rear element would touch the shutter blades and damage the rear element of the lens.
  • Flash sync was added: 1/25 second.
    • Black-dial cameras have a proprietary flash socket, which requires use of a separate synchronization adapter when using later PC flashes. The socket was replaced by a standardized PC cable socket in the color-dial cameras.
  • The shutter speed dial was moved on the IIa/IIIa from the advance knob to a concentric on the advance knob. While the II/III could change shutter speeds whether the shutter was wound or released, it could not change speeds if the shutter was only partially wound, which the IIa/IIIa can do.
  • The manually set film counter moved from the back of the top plate to the top of the film advance.
  • The rangefinder length was reduced from 90mm to 73mm.
  • The viewfinder of the IIa/IIIa was made 1mm longer and wider than that of the II/III, giving the user a larger image.

The Contax IIIa, like the III, included a bulky uncoupled selenium lightmeter on its top plate.

These cameras were made until 1961, when Zeiss stopped production of rangefinders to concentrate on the Contarex system.

The Kiev rangefinder cameras

After World War II the Soviet Union captured the tooling and drawings of the Zeiss factories as war reparations and transferred them to the Zavod Arsenal (Завод Арсенал) factory in the city of Kiev, where production began of the Kiev rangefinder cameras. These cameras, basically copies of the Contax II and III, stayed in production until 1987, making this arguably a continuation of Contax production for over fifty years.

The first Kiev models were made from German parts and were called Kiev II (unmetered) and Kiev III (metered). Further refinements such as flash synchronization were introduced in the Kiev IIa and IIIa. Later, the Kiev 4 (metered) and 4A (unmetered) were produced, with a final model called Kiev 4AM/4M.

Contax bayonet lenses were also made in the USSR using the original Zeiss designs and sold as Jupiter or Helios brands.

These cameras were sold worldwide in large numbers (over 1 million) and are found easily.


  • 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)


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Zeiss Ikon Classic Cameras
Contax | Contaflex (TLR) | Super Nettel | Nettax | Tenax II | Tenax I | Ikoflex | Super Ikonta

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