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Return of the Contax...

The 1930's sci-fi camera that almost made it...

Contax II and III attempt to defeat evil Lord Leica…

It didn’t take long to read the writing on the wall for Zeiss to realize that the Contax wasn’t going to dethrone the Leitz. Initially the management at Zeiss-Ikon had hoped that the Contax’s superior optics, wide base rangefinder and high-tech metal shutter would win the day but this was not proving to be the case. The Contax had originally been designed at a time when the Leica was a simple scale focus camera but Leitz had introduced their new improved Leica II with a coupled rangefinder in the very same year the Contax first went on sale. Enthusiastic fans and new buyers welcomed the Leica warmly and it was proving to be very successful. It was gaining ground and firm footing in the photographic community as 35mm became accepted as a suitable medium for journalism, documentation and travel photography. In that role the Leica’s simple operation and fine ergonomics gave it a decided edge.

So even as the Contax I was in full production, wrestling with reliability issues and battling for critical sales and attention. The executives at Zeiss-Ikon huddled together to plan a new corporate answer to the Leica. Zeiss had too much at stake and had invested too much time, effort and resources in developing their 35mm format lenses. They didn’t intend to shelve those lenses simply because the supporting camera wasn’t selling well. Common sense also dictated that a camera could only be as good as its lenses… and as far as Zeiss was concerned they had the best lenses in the world.

It was obvious they needed a completely new camera because the Contax I for all its apparent modernity was actually more firmly rooted in 1920’s press cameras technology than most users realized. Essentially its shutter was a miniaturized focal plane shutter not unlike that found in say a 1920’s Thornton-Pickard Ruby Reflex. This was especially apparent in the Contax’s vertical travel, adjustable slit shutter and to some extent the awkward controls. True the Contax had simpler controls than a press camera, which had separate controls for slit width and curtain speed, but it had been awkward none the less. Another area that needed attention was the elimination of its boxy corners in exchange for something more streamlined...

The British Supermarine, 1931 Schneider Trophy race winner which later evolved
into the 1936 Spitfire fighter…

There’s something particularly appealing about the Contax that’s hard to describe. A certain indefinable something which takes you back to an era filled with tall proud bridges, huge floating Zeppelins, big ocean steamships and racing seaplanes competing for the Schneider trophy.

The answer was revealed to the public in 1936 in the form of the all new Contax II and III. It completely wowed every one who saw it. It was obvious that if the original Contax had been designed by a large committee, then the new Contax was, at the very least, designed by a smaller one. Everything on the new camera was completely redesigned and having learned from past mistakes Zeiss had made it sleeker, easier to use and just plain sexier. Gone was the black lacquer paint, boxy corners and inconvenient forward mounted wind knob.

All the exposed metal on the camera was, with the exception of the little folding foot under the camera, chrome plated. It might seem common enough today but at the time this was considered extremely chic, modern and expensive. The chrome helped the Contax exude a sense of luxury and style. If the original Contax had been a stogy Victorian duchess in an old fashioned black frock then the new Contax was an elegant satin chrome princess…

The sleek lines of the new Contax caught some Leitz users by surprise…

Along with the good looks and better manners the real news was inside and out of sight hidden from the eyes of the public. The shutter had been completely redesigned and the combination wind knob/ shutter speed knob drastically simplified and moved to the top of the camera. More importantly the camera now had a modular design that allowed the entire shutter to be removed for easier service and in the case of a major failure, to be replaced. This did away with the unfriendly, fiddly, bits and pieces approach of the original. In fact the entire camera could be broken down into five major subassemblies consisting of the camera back, top cover, film gate, shutter and the frontal portion of the camera. Disassembled, this gave repairmen relatively easy access to the rangefinder, the self-timer, the lens mount and of course the shutter. In fact if you know what you’re doing a Contax II or III can be divided into its major sub-assemblies for inspection within a very short time. (Reassembly takes a bit longer but not terribly so assuming no parts have been changed or settings altered.) This must have come as a real relief to the exhausted repairmen at the service centers.

The new improved Contax II

Contax III, the same camera but with a meter on top...

The folks at Zeiss-Ikon were so proud of their achievement that in their 1936 catalog they flatly stated:

“We will content ourselves by saying that Contax II represents the most advanced miniature camera design and construction of the present day." 

That’s quite a statement and it was quite a camera. Not content just to get a leg up on Leica with the Contax II, Zeiss also introduced their top of the line Contax III which sported an uncoupled selenium light-meter on top of an otherwise identical camera. It was a powerful one-two punch directed at the competition. Here now was finally a camera that matched the quality of the Zeiss lenses while retaining the engineering approach and unique look that was so typical of Zeiss-Ikon pre-war products.

Some of the features of the Contax II & III included:

  • A newly improved vertical travel shutter featuring brass curtains impervious to being burned by hot sunlight accidently focused on it through the lens. ◦ Simplified, more reliable and easier to use combined wind/shutter speed knob (which unlike the Leica didn’t rotate when fired).
  • Shutter speeds including “B” and ½ sec – 1/1250th (plus the ability to expose for approximately 1 second by combining the self timer with the B setting.)
  • The widest, most accurate, 90mm rangefinder prism to have ever been fitted to a 35mm camera.
  • Combined viewfinder with a rangefinder spot centered in it. (Very similar to the finder on the improved Zeiss Super Ikonta B introduced in 1937.)
  • Precision die cast chassis (four years before Leitz introduced the die-cast Leica IIIc in 1940)
  • Removable back which made loading film easier and more importantly allowed the use of various accessories such as mat glasses for precision focus & positioning and glass plate negatives. (Features that are not to be underestimated in an era when 35mm slr’s were largely non-existent. Additionally glass plate negatives were and still are used in critical scientific photography because of its excellent flatness and stability compared to normal film.)
  • Quick release, bayonet mounted lenses
  • Fine Moroccan leather covering (rather than the synthetic vulcanite covering used by Leitz)
  • Satin chrome finish that projected a luxurious and chic image in a period that many cameras were simply painted black.
  • Folding foot under the camera for more stability.
  • The first commercially successful camera with a built in a photoelectric light-meter. (Well kind of… but only if you don’t count the Zeiss Contaflex, a 35mm TLR which didn’t sell well.)

These specs though not earth shattering by today’s standards, were very significant in 1936 and came across as nothing short of a revelation. The Contax’s performance coupled combined with the superb Zeiss lenses lead to press organizations and government agencies world wide preferring the Contax for serious 35mm photographic work. The Contax camera was so highly regarded, that in the United States the Contax was specified for use by 35mm photographers working for the WPA in a vast program to record the Great Depression of the 1930’s in America. On the other side of the Atlantic the German Navy, equally impressed with the performance of the camera, often issued the Contax III for use on ships and submarines as part of their standard gear.

Perhaps more historically significant, the combination of Contax and its rival Leica helped pave the way for the universal acceptance of 35mm film as a valid, serious medium. It’s possible to argue that without either of these cameras (and the Kodak Retina who 35mm film cassette was cleverly designed to also fit both Leica and Contax) 35mm film might have ended up just being a historical foot note along side many other obsolete films formats such as 828 roll film.