My stepfather was a professional photographer, as had his father before him, at the beginning of the last century. His father did mainly family and events photography, where during the war my stepfather served in the British Army in Egypt, decoding aerial photographs and drawing maps. After the war, armed with a camera, he roamed all over Europe gathering the survivors and the displaced to bring them to the promised land.
My stepfather was a Zeiss person, Zeiss was the cat’s whiskers. That was his equipment, adoring its technology, hardware, and glass. With a single exception to that. In the later years, the ’60s or so, once he had settled down to become a photography teacher, he attired himself with a Nikon F. At the time I could not understand why. It took until today to see the reason.
I have on my desk five Zeiss Contaflex cameras, I, II and IV. All look and feel like a photographer’s dream. Solid, compact, fitted with all available technology of the time. In style, they resemble the Kodak and Agfa compact SLRs of the ’50s. Serious, no-nonsense hardware. The Contaflex is not a pretty camera, it reminds me of a Pug puppy; stout, heavy, with a snub nose.
Attempting online research on the Contaflex models, there is an interesting phenomenon. Being such a well-known model, made by an industry leader, there are precious few articles about it. Google does return many results, but it seems that authors lost interest, as most links end up dead. Further, of the few that exist, most are kind of miserable. Badly edited and published. The one worth reading is the article about the Contaflex line by Mike Eckman. It is centered around the Contaflex Super but refers to the entire lineup.
Contaflex I and II
The Contaflex I and II are similar, save for the light meter hatch and the paraphernalia around the rewind knob. It is compact but heavy, at 640gr. for the I and 710gr. for the II. it is over what you would expect of a smallish camera. Indeed, it is contributed to the camera’s solid build – no plastic. The winding knob is positioned at easy access so no fingernails are penalized once winding. The prism bulge proudly projects above the body, at immaculately clean lines. The slide-off back is released via two turnbuckles, typical to the German cameras of the time, allowing easy loading. At the bottom, three tiny legs brace the camera, another evidence to the thought invested her. Other SLR cameras tend to fall on their nose, while this one stays put. Similar two protruding bots are on the bottom of the back cover, so the body will not rattle once on its back. The hard-featured lense base is fitted with a groove on the sides and bottom, to accept a lens accessory. I have a ‘Periskop‘ 1.7 magnifying lens, that snugly fits into the grooves and looks like a giant squid eye. Could be other accessories as well. Deep grooves on the body accept the back cover, no light baffles. On the II’s back, as well as the IV’s, just under the rewind knob, there is a protruding circle that does not seem to do anything, could be just a finger rest. No mention in the manual.
The mirror locks up upon actuation and winds down by turning the film winder, just at the last lap. As common in the German equipment of the early ’50s, it is equipped with a leaf shutter. A fixed lens doesn’t allow much flexibility, save for the add-on lens mentioned above. Bright viewer with a split image focusing ring is easy to view. View, not handle.
Here is where it goes amiss. It takes getting used to handling the camera controls. All are on the barrel, none intuitive or set where expected. The focus dial extends little past the speed selector, leaving the fingers to stumble to get a purchase on it, inconveniently close to the front glass. One level back is the speed dial. As with the focusing dial, it does not naturally fall into your finger. Thereafter, almost flush with the body, rests the aperture dial. It has a short movement and needs to be released by pressing an innocent little lever that hints anything but ‘press me’. It looks like a mere finger rest to ease the turning of the scale, so it could be a practical joke by the designer.
A thought about metric cameras. All cameras known to mankind use mounting bushing of 1/4 x 20 thread, guess inherited from the BSW, later converted to the NC standard once the BSW became obsolete. There are no imperial or SAE-based cameras anymore, all are metric. Yet the legacy 1/4 thread is here to stay.
The Contaflex II comes equipped with a non-coupled selenium light meter, nicely covered with a neat metal cover, released by pressing the proud hinge extension. The meter reader and controls come in two flavours. An early version and thereafter a version shared with the Contaflex IV. I wasn’t sure if it is a normal variant so the good people on Facebook set me straight. The settings are as unintuitive as only the German could contrive, so it deserves a dedicated section:
Light meter settings
A. Contaflex II, early version, ‘green’
- Set the film speed by the middle dial, around the rewind knob. Setting display in ASA and DIN, although not really correspond. DIN 21 is set to ASA 80, where I am used to ASA 100.
- If light abounds, leave the meter lid closed. It will read via the two tiny crevices on the lid.
- The needle will indicate a numerical value. Set that value on the green part of the outer dial. Hint – the green mark on the closed meter cover is a reminder to use the green dial.
- On that dial, the values in red are full seconds in the absence of B.
- Good that you ask about the two red values, 2 and 4 on next to the black mark on the dial. It is to compensate for filters, assume colour filters.
- The middle and the outer dials now respectively represent the aperture and the shutter values. You may set a high or low shutter and keep with the matching F value, or vice versa, You may also over / underexpose by cheating on the settings.
- If little light around, open the meter cover and transfer the reading on the black part of the outer dial.
- Guess that the breaking point between sufficient and insufficient light is when there is no reading with the meter cover closed.
- I am not making this up. As the old adage goes, design by a committee.
B. Contaflex II, later version
- Set the film speed.
- Open the meter cover. The needle will point somewhere.
- Turn the outer dial so the lollipop will align with the needle.
- Shutter and aperture settings are now paired.
Contaflex III and IV
The III and IV are similar to the I and II respectively, where the settings guide on the Contaflex IV is the same as on the Contaflex II later version. In these versions, the settings are mounted on a nicely protruding lens barrel, much practical than on the early pair. It is heavier at 820gr.
The focusing dial is closest to the body, supplemented with a bulge on each side, easy to control with right or left hand. Thereafter come that aperture dial and the shutter speed dial, stuck together like teenagers in love. To change the aperture value use the catch on the bottom right of the outer dial, once set they fall in love again and move in concert.
Here there is a B setting marked in green, followed by full seconds values, green as well. I tried to get past the B and failed. If I correctly read the manual these values are for reference only, so speed should be set to B and thereafter count the seconds accordingly. I could be wrong but have never seen a camera with a shutter speed of 125′.
The front lens element is set on a smallish bayonet mount. To remove press the red dot lever under the lens’ front. Can be substituted with other lenses from Zeiss’ dedicated lens arsenal.
All the five cameras on my desk look immaculate. Not a scratch or a dent. Glass is blemish-free. Regrettably, none fire as they should. I wonder if it is a known malaise or just bad luck. This could be the reason for the camera’s cheap current value. To one of the cameras, I have a note attached by the original owner who loved it dearly. The note is typed by a typewriter which may hint to the writer’s age.
After all said, I now understand the reason for switching to a Nikon F.
|Model||Contaflex I||Contaflex II||Contaflex IV|
|Weight||640 gr, Body with lens||710 gr, Body with lens||820 gr, Body with lens|
|Class average weight||760 gr, Body with lens|
|Lens mount||Fixed lens||Fixed lens||Bayonet|
|Light meter||None||Selenium, external||Selenium, external|
The Contaflex SLR line current value
Contaflex S Black
Contaflex S Bundeswehr
Contaflex Super B
Contaflex Super BC
Contaflex Super B – BW
Bottom and back are common to models I – IV.
Contaflex IV, front lens removed
The Periskop is described with four short lines in the user manual. It multiplies the existing lens’ focal length by 1.7. To install unscrew the Periskop lens from its mount, pressing the catch at the bottom of the assembly. Mount the adapter from the bottom while pushing the levers on each side till it clicks in place, and screw back the lens. To remove, same in reverse.
The focusing is done by the Periskop ring. I am not sure how to set the main lens, there is no mention in the manual. There is a note that for general shooting set the distance to 20′ (6m), so I would assume this applies to the Periskop as well.