The Zeiss Contarex Super
Guest blog by Jason S. Ganz
I can’t really figure out, as a Leicaflex guy, where to start with this camera. On the one hand, it’s arguably the peak of manual camera nirvana along with Leicaflexes and ALPAs, but on the other hand was responsible for the destruction of Zeiss Ikon as a camera maker. I’d initially wanted a Contarex, but was scared away by their complexity and perceived usage difficulty. I managed to find one at a garage sale, bought a lens locally, and had a Zeiss Contarex of my very own. However, whereas with every other camera, my first move was to go out and take pictures… I spent a lot of my time reading the Contarex Super’s instruction manual and zeisscamera.com to learn more about the beast I had received. I soon understood why the Contarex destroyed Zeiss Ikon as a force in the camera industry.
Receiving my Contarex Super, I was told “DOES NOT WORK”. The first thing I did was read the manual, and decided to dig for the battery. Finding the battery holder is under the mirror, requires cocking the shutter, and hitting a quasi-mirror-lock-up switch was the first sign this was NOT going to be a professional camera in the vein of tough-as-nails Nikon F’s, or bozz-eyed Leicaflexes and its more angular SL and SL2 successors. Whereas the Nikon F and even the Leicaflexes were more than willing to work around your style and operational methodologies, the Super was a “my way or no way” camera. You learned to work how it wanted, or your experience paid dearly. Thankfully, once the battery was correctly inserted, the meter woke up and read favorably compared to both my Nikon F3HP and Pentax 645N cameras.
On the surface, the lens aperture does not fully open until the shutter is cocked. If you try to focus and then advance the shutter (as I typically do so as not to have the shutter under tension longer than necessary), you will be greeted with a very dark view. The only way to prevent this with an uncocked shutter is to open the aperture via the on-camera aperture wheel to the lenses maximum aperture. That’s right, the lenses do not have aperture click mechanisms; the on-camera aperture wheel allows for fully stopless aperture. Want f/2.8? Turn the wheel to f/2.8. Want f/3.1415926535897? You can get that. Want f/10? that’s doable too… so are an infinite number of aperture positions on this camera. I like to work with this by composing the image, setting the shutter speed, cocking the shutter, and then bringing the aperture to the desired spot.
Another quirk of this camera is that the rewind shaft is not a direct shaft, but a series of gears and smaller shafts that feed into a shaft. While this makes rewinding incredibly smooth, it also means that the rewind mechanism is INCREDIBLY delicate. Jostling the camera, sudden movements, etc., can all cause serious damage. To make matters worse, rewinding does not do anything for the film counter, and the only way to reset the counter is manually. The counter, also counts down from 36 to 1, unlike many cameras that go from 1 to 36. The first time the camera is explored, the buttons are pushed, the dials and wheels turned, one wonders if the Contarex line was construed and updated when all the accountants were away and the engineers had free roam of Zeiss Ikon. Oh, and be careful with film, if you load it incorrectly, there is enough torque to potentially tear film in half. I had this happen to a roll of Cinestill 50D. I wound it, there was no undue resistance, and RIP! I opened up the back, and the mechanism was fine… but the film itself ripped clean in half. Cinestill is a thin film stock, but it shows that the Contarex’s winding mechanisms have a healthy amount of torque to them.
So then why have I fallen in love with this camera the same way I’ve fallen in love with my Leicaflexes… when it’s a mechanical nightmare and not particularly “user-friendly”? The answer is twofold: One the viewfinder is unbelievably bright. From what I have read, Zeiss used an aerial condenser viewfinder to make the viewfinder incredibly bright, and this is helped by a split-image viewfinder with a fresnel ring around the split-image center. Focusing on a subject becomes incredibly easy, and the sharpness of the Contarex lenses are considered unrivaled even to this day. The second reason is that the sensory experience is just unreal. Whereas my Nikon F3HP goes “clack!” and my Leicaflex goes “THONK!” the Contarex shutter combines THONK with the sound of a clockwork mechanism running frenetically to open and close the shutter in the desired time frame. In fact, everything sounds like clockwork, the rewind dial, the advance lever, the shutter, even the mirror-lock-up to access the battery, make sounds that give the impression that every shot is a great, Bresson, Adams, or Salgado-quality moment in photography… even if what you’re shooting is street photography, family members, or other cameras in your collection.
The lens I use with this camera is a 50mm f/2 Planar whose serial number, per Zeiss, dates it to 1957. I found this odd since the first Contarex, the Contarex Bullseye, did not enter production until 1959, and was not mass-marketed until 1960. It is a clear, razor-sharp, lens that is both contrasty and punchy, in strong contrast with the Leicaflex counterparts that are clear and razor-sharp, but favor a more “natural” tonality over punchiness. That being said, even with Ektar 100, a film known for making humans unnaturally “Cheez Doodle” in color, there is no “crushing” of details. Anything you see, providing you focus sharply and ensure both the split-image and micro-prism center focus are both sharp, will be sharp to a fault. The only time I found this to fail was using Fuji 400 film; I got noticeable grain, but I’ll chalk that up to using consumer film rather than professional film… feed the camera what it likes, and it will reward you.
So if the Contarex is so great, why then is Zeiss Ikon no longer in existence, and why does Zeiss no longer make cameras? The strongest answer I could find was from Henry Scherer, owner / operator of http://www.zeisscamera.com. Mr. Scherer, on his page covering the Contarex, states as follows:
“The reason for this was the very high return rate of Contarex cameras for warranty service. The service centers were overwhelmed with returned by their professional owners. The service centers were overwhelmed and they could not solve the problem of the cameras producing over-exposures.
This is all there can be with this camera because most of them were very hard used in professional service, then when they became worn to the point they were not reliable enough to produce income for the professional owner they were sold onto the amateur market where they have circulated for decades up until now. Zeiss made the exterior of the Contarex to be extremely resistant to the effects of use, wear and aging and so it is impossible to tell how restorable one may be from an external examination. It is only when most of the work has been done on servicing a camera and the final adjustments are being made that the degree of performance restoration that the camera is capable of becomes evident.”
The short version is that while the Contarex was built for a professional audience, Zeiss never took into account that professional cameras need to be easily repairable. This may be one of the reasons why the Japanese camera companies such as Nikon ultimately won over professionals. Cameras such as the Nikon F were tough enough for professionals, but were just “crude” enough to be repairable. Additionally, Nikon F’s were EXTREMELY modular, with prisms, backs, and motors easily interchangeable to better suit the professional’s needs, and if one was destroyed, it was approximately one-third to one-half the price of a Contarex; easier to replace if run over, dropped, or worse.
Exacerbating the problem for the Contarex is that there are no new parts available. Whereas Leicaflexes have a parts supply – Leica has begun working on Leicaflexes again – and Nikon only recently stopped repairing the venerable F3 – Zeiss going out of the Camera business means that old Zeiss cameras can only be repaired by cannibalization. My goal with mine: use it enough that it stays limber, but take care of it so that it will hopefully outlive me. I don’t want to have to think about “what if it needs repairs” as each Contarex that gets cannibalized means one fewer one to shoot film and enjoy photography with.
Please don’t let the previous two paragraphs put you off from trying out, and potentially owning a Contarex. While they redefine “complexity” with stopless aperture, a rewind dial that operates by a clockwork of gears rather than a direct shaft, and the potential to rip thin-emulsion films in half, the Contarex sounds like something from nightmares. It really isn’t. It just expects that you work around its rules, rather than work in haste. It also expects that you care for it and not just jostle it about with disregard for keeping its meter, winders, and adjustments in spec.
Some tips I’ve learned in my search (and from speaking to Henry Scherer at Zeisscamera.com)
- A Contarex Super is better than a Bullseye. The Super has a more modern meter and is better suited to higher ISO “modern films.” The Bullseye was designed more for ISO 16 shooting, and primarily to meter and shoot at wide open.
- Contarexes are unpredictable. It can look pretty on the outside due to the amount of chrome on it, yet be wrecked internally.
- A working meter is a VERY good sign that it was not abused. If the one you look at has a working meter, that’s a good start.
- Avoid the Super Electronic. While it is the most modern SLR Zeiss made, there is no mechanical shutter. Everything runs through soldering and batteries.
Jason is an avid fan of old Leica and other vintage SLRs. He likes shooting architectural and street photography, and enjoys vintage 35mm SLRs from the 1960s and 1970s. His dream SLR is a Contarex or a Pentax 67. When Jason is not shooting, Jason enjoys reading and writing, listening to Jazz, debating politics, playing guitar, and beta-testing racing games. Check out some of Jason's work at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ganzonomy