Zeiss Contaflex

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Zeiss Contaflex

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’
    1. 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.
    2. If light abounds, leave the meter lid closed. It will read via the two tiny crevices on the lid.
    3. 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.
    4. On that dial, the values in red are full seconds in the absence of B.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. If little light around, open the meter cover and transfer the reading on the black part of the outer dial.
    8. Guess that the breaking point between sufficient and insufficient light is when there is no reading with the meter cover closed.
    9. I am not making this up. As the old adage goes, design by a committee.
B. Contaflex II, later version

  1. Set the film speed.
  2. Open the meter cover. The needle will point somewhere.
  3. Turn the outer dial so the lollipop will align with the needle.
  4. Shutter and aperture settings are now paired.
  5. Phew.

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.

List number 29471 29472 29474
Brand Zeiss
Format 35mm
Model Contaflex I Contaflex II Contaflex IV
Introduced 1953 1954 1956
Country Germany
Type SLR
Body material Metal
Mode Manual
Weight 640 gr,  Body with lens 710 gr,  Body with lens 820 gr,  Body with lens
Class average weight 760 gr,  Body with lens
ASA range NA 5-640 5-650
Kit lens 1.28/45 1.28/45 1.28/50
Lens make Tessar
Filter size 27mm
Lens mount Fixed lens Fixed lens Bayonet
Mount size NA
shutter Leaf
Light meter None Selenium, external Selenium, external
Winder Knob
Lock No
Speeds B-500
DOF preview No
Exposure lock No
Exposure compensation No
Shoe Accessory, cold
External sync X/M
Sync speed NA
Timer Yes
Battery None
Integral flash None


Zeiss Contaflex I user manual
Zeiss Contaflex II user manual, early (green) light meter version
Zeiss Contaflex II user manual, late light meter version
Zeiss Contaflex IV user manual

The Contaflex SLR line current value

Contaflex I
Contaflex II
Contaflex III
Contaflex IV

Contaflex Alpha
Contaflex Beta
Contaflex Prima
Contaflex Rapid
Contaflex S
Contaflex S Black
Contaflex S Bundeswehr
Contaflex Super
Contaflex Super B
Contaflex Super BC
Contaflex Super B – BW
Contaflex 126

Contaflex I


Contaflex II

Bottom and back are common to models I – IV.


Contaflex IV

Contaflex IV, front lens removed



Zeiss Contaflex Periskop add on lens for models I and II

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.


11 Responses

  1. Thanks for the kind words on the Contaflex review. Im glad you found it useful! Great info here too, especially the info about the various versions of the camera. I actually do have an original Contaflex with the clip on telephoto lens, but the shutter on that one doesn’t work. As soon as I can find one in working condition, I hope to update my review with my thoughts on it too.

  2. Thanks Mike. Just added the Periskop lens. Should you have a Contaflex III you may provide the information missing on the comparison table.

  3. Hello.
    I recently bought a very nice condition Zeiss Ikon Contaflex TLR camera,
    unfortunately the camera missing the taking lens completely.
    I like to know if there are any chances that I can find a 50mm F/2 or 1.5
    lens for this camera? Please let me know. Thanks.

    • I don’t think you’ll find a lens assembly for this camera on its own. Best to look for that camera marked for parts on eBay or alike. There are many offered and reasonably priced.

  4. Good morning from Zurich! Can you pls tell me what the little chrome pin plug in the upper left back of the contaflex II used for? I have tried to remove it but I can t. (pic 3 and 5 on your web page).
    JC Behar

    • Thanks for your message. The said pin is on the Contaflex II, III and IV. I also wondered what it is for and couldn’t find any reference to it. A wild guess – a finger rest.
      After having visited Zurich twice a year for two decades in the 80′ and 90s, been there again last year, it has changed a lot. The Bally flag store on Bahnhoffstrasse is now Zara and the Armory restaurant by the Paradeplatz has changed. Schade. The Seidenhof got better, so there is still hope.
      All the best from Canada.

  5. I have been a photography hobbiest since age 12 when Uncle Jim taught me to take photos and develop them in darkroom. Here I am at eighty five and still fascinated by photography and cameras. A little slower perhaps, but still at it. Last year I was able to purchase my first Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super and am completely awed by it. Whereas I have also been into repairing cameras for years (mostly Konica T3 which has been my favorite since 1970’s. Rollie and Nikon is my other stable. This Contaflex Super amazes me. I am learning to do CLA using junk example and find it quite interesting and challenging to learn. If I were younger I would do nothing else. Thank you for your great article. I read often, but this is the best article I have found,
    Tom Higgins, Florida

    • Thanks for your note. I believe we are in the same boat, age and interest wise, though I am a tad younger. Greetings from freezing Toronto.

  6. Hi,
    thanks for sharing your views on the Contaflex and the excellent overview on the Contaflexes. I have bought an early Contaflex II some 12 months back – in mint condition. It was used by a dentist who died in 1965. The camera was idle till last year when I found and bought it. It is a wonder of German fine mechanics and it is said that the accounts must have been on leave when the engineers constructed it. A highly complex and complicated mechanic has been built in there which almost ruined Zeiss Camera Wetzlar. As this camera had also a winder offered many reporters were using it – but the camera’s fine mechanics did not like the quick shooting and Zeiss had (within their warranty) to replace the cameras. The camera needs to be handled with some care – set the values slow, forward the film slow – if one puts his/her ear to the camera when setting the times etc you almost hear that felt 100 other small wheels inside are turning with it…not suitable for quick and fast shooting. Not sure what history your cameras have…but they may not work properly any more because of that reason? I use this camera regularly – mostly for landscapes and architectural shots or street photography but I take my time to prepare and set – and I do not use the winder. The set of the three Tessar lenses (35,50 and 115) are perfect lenses and the 50mm provides a beautiful Bokeh when open (from 2.8 to 5.6) and when going out for a photo trip I more and more grab the Contaflex instead of Nikon……

  7. Hi everyone,
    I have a problem with a Contaflex Super I’ve just bought – very cheaply, I must admit. When it arrived, the shutter fired at all the speeds I selected. After I removed the back to check the interior, it would not wind on, and consequently it would not fire the shutter.
    Have I done something wrong, or is this a pure consequence?

    • I don’t have a Super but have I to IV. Could not replicate this issue. You may get a better opinion from Facebook’s vintage camera collectors group, there are some 15,000 members so trust someone could lend a hand.

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