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The Pre-war Contax II Review Part I

Part One

Hands on experience with the Pre-war 1936 Contax

If you’ve never handled a pre-war Contax before, the first thing you notice is that the feel and weight of this camera is fairly substantial for a pre-war camera. It has a pleasing heft to it that conveys a sense of purpose and reinforces an overall impression that it is a very capable camera. The second thing you notice is that it’s very well finished. The rich Moroccan leather has a pleasant texture to it which contrasts nicely with the silky feel of the satin chrome beneath your finger tips. The engraving on the various dials are clean & crisp and with the possible exception of the exposure counter dial, all of the engravings appear to be exactly that, fine engravings rather than stampings. The edges of the knurled knobs are also well executed and have just the right amount of texture to make them easy to turn without an excess of “sharpness” which would irritate your fingers during extended use. Although that sounds like a minor observation it’s actually important because instead of a wind lever, the Contax relies on a knob to advance the film and cock the shutter. This knob also doubles as a shutter speed selector. When holding the camera in its natural position, the wind knob is located on the upper right hand side. This is the same location that the Leica II has its wind knob as well but unlike the Leica the Contax requires more effort to wind because of its considerably more complex shutter.

The Contax II and the light meter equipped Contax III were originally introduced to the general public in 1936. In the 1930’s 35mm cameras were quite novel and innovative because the “cinema film” they used had of course been originally developed for the motion picture industry. Even though the format had been doubled to create a larger 36x24mm negative running lengthwise on the same 35mm film stock, the overall size of the negative was substantially smaller than other cameras. As a result of this 35mm cameras were generally referred to as “miniature cameras”. If you read the hardboiled detective novels of 1930’s and 40’s by writers such as Raymond Chandler you’ll also occasionally come across this reference.

In an era that considered 6x6 on 120 roll film to be “small film format” the “miniature camera” label is of course quite understandable. However the Contax may be many things but it is certainly not a miniature. So its overall size and weight must have come as a bit of a surprise in 1936 to new buyers handling one for the first time. This would certainly have been the case if their previous experience with 35mm had been a light weight cameras such as an Agfa Karat or a Kodak Retina. Even my Leica II feels petit and almost toy compared to a Contax II or III.

However from the perspective of modern users the over all dimensions, weight and shape does not seem unreasonable or unfamiliar. If you’ve spent any time handling or shooting 35mm cameras from the 1960’s or 70’s then your hands will recognize the overall feel of a pre-war Contax as familiar, solid and confidence inspiring. In fact it feels similar to the original Nikon F with a smaller lighter plane prism finder attached to it. There is a pronounced angular feel to the Contax body and just like the Nikon the camera back flexes slightly when you apply pressure to it with your thumbs. Though initially disconcerting if you’re not used to it, the reason it flexes is because the entire back can be removed to ease loading and allow the use of various accessories.

Just to toss some numbers at you and give you a better idea of its weight and how it relates to other cameras, I’ve weighed some of my cameras for you:

The pre-war Contax III body weighs 755 grams
a post-war Nikon F body (with plain finder) 696 grams
a pre-war Contax II body 596 grams
a post-war Leica M2 body 580 grams
a pre-war Leica II body 403 “ 403 grams
a nearly 60 year newer Contax G1 body (with batteries) 510 grams

Ready to shoot with film, take-up spool and a 2.0/5cm Sonnar, the Contax II weighs 775 grams and the Contax III weighs 930grams.

Interesting in this comparison is the fact that the loaded weight of the Contax III with 2.0/5cm lens is identical the loaded weight of a Nikon F with a 2.0/50mm Nikkor-H. Additionally the Contax III body (without a lens) weighs exactly the same as the Contax II with 2.0/50mm lens….

As far as size goes, with a body size of approximately 7.5cm x 13.5cm (ignoring the knobs on top) the Contax II is also very similar in size to the Leica M2 and the Nikon F (excluding the Nikon’s prism of course).

What all of this boils down to is that if you’d feel comfortable with a Leica M sized rangefinder camera, than a Contax II is well within your comfort zone. Of course it’s advisable to realize that a Contax is not a Leica and vice versa. Although people who know nothing about cameras are genuinely surprised to learn that a Contax II is a product of the 1930’s (most think the camera is at least 40 years younger) it’s important to keep this in mind when you actually use one. The fact is it’s a 70 year old design and to use an analogy, you wouldn’t expect a 1930’s “antique car” to meet the same criteria of the fuel injected, digitally controlled and airbag equipped car sitting in your driveway…

The same principle applies to the Contax and even though it looks like a product of the 1970’s, you can’t in all fairness directly compare it to a much younger camera and do it justice. To do so is to simply forget that the Contax was one of the pivotal cameras designs that helped determine the course of 35mm camera development. The general look, layout and expectations we have of cameras in general originated with this camera. Even now, some of its design elements are still clearly visible in modern retro-designs.

The major difference lays in the design, function and operation of the Contax shutter. It is above all the shutter that makes this camera unique. It’s a remarkable early exploratory design but one that reached a Darwinian dead end in 35mm cameras primarily due to its complexity. Open any prewar or wartime Contax, wind the shutter and then watch the shutter curtains while it fires and the deviation from the norm becomes apparent.

On any “normal” 35mm camera with a focal plane shutter, the first curtain will “pop” away quickly from the film gate (to allow light onto the film) followed by a second “pop” as the second curtain arrives to close the film gate. The length of the exposure is controlled by simply varying the amount of time between the two “pops”. A longer exposure simply requires slightly more time between “pops” and a shorter exposure requires slightly less time. However, regardless of how you set shutter speed, the first curtain will always disappear with the same crisp “pop” and the second curtain will arrive with a second crisp “pop”. That’s because (and this is important) the travel speed of the curtains never varies and consequently the duration of the “pops” themselves never varies.

On a Contax however this is not true… in a Contax shutter both curtains can often be seen moving together at the same time. Not only that, the Contax curtains also move at a noticeably slower speed than in a “normal” shutter. In fact this deviation from the norm is so apparent that many inexperienced owners often assume there is some thing wrong with their camera

That’s because the Contax shutter depends on a slit (or gap) between the two curtains. This precisely controlled gap moves across the film gate and exposes the film. Although unusual today, this type of shutter was state of the art at the time and commonly found in the better professional press cameras of the 1930’s 40’s and 50’s. In fact it can be argued that the Contax shutter is a clever highly miniaturized version of these shutters.

Within its original design parameters and historical setting the Contax II was a superb design and an excellent camera. However if we ignore the historical connotations, the myths, the sizzle… and simply look at the steak, we see that its basic technical approach is pretty simple. It’s a light tight box which holds and advances film in a dark environment, its bayonet mount allows you to fit various (excellent) lenses to it, there is a coupled rangefinder which aids focus and has a shutter and diaphragm to control light and depth of field.

In use there are a total of five operating controls, a wind knob (which doubles as a shutter speed control), a shutter release button (lockable for long exposures), an exposure counter dial, a focus dial, an aperture ring and a self timer lever. In a nut shell, using this camera is a study in simplicity and a clean approach to looking at the world.

Its approach more often than not, appeals to purists, collectors and artists. These are people who have a pretty good idea of what they want and are willing to take the time to get it. Set everything right on the Contax, use the camera correctly and the results can be quite impressive. You’ll also be able to take all the credit. Get it wrong and you have no one to blame but yourself… Personally I like the inherent refreshing honesty. In that respect a Contax with a good lens is very much like a fine musical instrument with a lovely tonal quality. The music that ultimately comes out of it is up to you…

If you enjoy this level of honest creative control (and the look and the pre-visualization involved in 1930’s-40’s photography) I can certainly recommend a Contax to you. A Contax in skilled hands is a fine instrument capable of touching something that transcends era just as Bach’s Goldberg variations, Chopin’s nocturnes and Miles Davis’s blues all transcended theirs… Ultimately great art always touches something profoundly human and timeless.