Hands on experience with the Pre-war 1936 Contax
With a loaded Contax II in hand and ready to shoot, there are a few things that stand out especially if you’ve never used one before. The first is the lack of a wind lever that inevitably has you thumbing thin air the first few times you try to advance film. The second is the fact that the film advance wind knob on the upper right hand corner of the camera is also set up to function as a shutter speed selector. The third the third is that the combined rangefinder/viewfinder window may be a bit darker than you may have expected. And fourth item is that there’s an odd little serrated wheel that can be also used to focus the camera if you don’t feel like turning the lens itself.
At the time of the its original introduction in 1936, knob wind 35mm cameras were state of the art and all things considered they were pretty damned fast since they stopped automatically when the film was wound far enough and on professional cameras such as the Contax and Leica this also automatically cocked the focal plane shutter. Additionally the ability to shoot 36 frames on a single roll of 35mm film was a very welcome feature since this saved considerable time loading and unloading the camera. Roll film cameras had never offered more than 16 exposures per roll (and more often than not shot only 8 or 12 exposures per roll).
Some people may have scoffed at the seriousness of the “miniature” 35mm format but a new generation of enthusiastic artists and photojournalists were quick to realize the potential of a small camera that could be carried anywhere. They appreciated the fact that the Contax was considerably faster than plate and roll film cameras. On top of that, even though roll film cameras could be wound quickly, most cameras of that era used red counter windows on the rear of the camera to reveal the exposure numbers printed on the backing paper of the film. In practice this meant that winding was slow to avoid over-shooting the exposure numbers. It also meant that the camera had to be lowered to see the counter windows and then raised again to shoot...
From our perspective nearly 70 years later, a knob wind 35mm camera isn’t considered fast since you obviously can’t shoot frame after frame as quickly as you can with a lever wind or a motor drive… but speed isn’t really an issue. I don’t think any one using a camera like this today is interested in speed. However knob wind cameras like the Contax do have an interesting effect on your shooting cadence and rhythm which reacts to the rate of imagery you can record. My own experience is that it slows things downs to a more relaxed, introspective state and creates an atmosphere in which I’m more inclined to think about what I’m shooting, why I’m shooting it and how I’m going to shoot it.
In many respects it reminds me of smoking… and the distinct difference between the process of rolling your own cigarette while you’re looking things over. Or just simply shaking out a factory made example from a box and popping in your mouth… Since I used to smoke and roll my own cigarettes and used a 1930’s Leica, the transition to using a knob wind Contax was not a big deal.
Sam Spade (as played by Humphrey Bogart)
“… Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumb and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue flicked the lap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their ends while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth...”
The Maltese Falcon”, 1930 Dashiell Hammett
This doesn’t mean that winding a Contax is identical to winding a Leica III. (Any one who’s done both will know what I mean.) Because of the considerably more complex shutter, the Contax has a lot more gears, springs and internal resistance to being wound. You can wind a screw mount Leica quite easily with your finger tips. You can do the same with a Contax but it requires a bit more effort and because the wind knob is larger in diameter (for more leverage) there’s more travel involved. This travel is especially noticeable when the Contax shutter is set to its slowest speeds.
That’s mainly due to the fact that theContax regulates exposures by varying both the slit width (gap) between the first and second shutter curtains AND the shutter curtain speed. In order to do all that the shutter has long curtain ribbons, various speed reduction gears and escapements. If you’re familiar with cars, you can think of if it as having a miniature transmission in this camera. When needed the shutter shifts through various gears for you. At fast speeds the shutter moves around freely in neutral and depends on simple variations in slit widths. In slower shutter speeds, various gears are selected and these simply spin along, slightly slowing the curtain speed. In the slowest shutter speeds escapements are engaged and are used to slow the gear train further. (Escapements are basically serrated gears driving a very short weighted pendulum which slows down the rotation while creating a typical buzzing sound.) It’s this arrangement of gears, levers, springs and escapements that create all the various interesting mechanical sounds that the Contax is known for. Sounds that vary between a click, a sneeze and a buzz…
Generally speaking I prefer to use a Contax at speeds between 1/50th and 1/500th. This range requires the least amount of effort and has the lowest amount of knob travel. It also coincides nicely with the most frequently used speeds for most photographers. Slow speeds require more effort because you’re winding up more ribbon, more springs and engaging more gears. It also sounds like you’re winding up an old alarm-clock (but it’s actually gears moving the slow speed escapements and it’s normal for this design).
If you work regularly with a Contax you’ll also discover that winding works easiest and fastest if move the body as well as the wind knob in apposing directions. (Much in the same way that a knob wound Hasselblad camera is used.)
The Contax shutter speed selector is built into the wind knob and basically all it does is limit how much you can wind the shutter. The less you wind it the faster the speed and conversely the more you wind it the slower the speed. Technically it doesn’t matter whether the shutter on a Contax II or III is cocked or un-cocked when you set the speeds. Either way will work but it’s easiest and more obvious that it’s correctly set, if shutter is cocked.
If your camera hasn’t been serviced for many years or you’re using an example you just acquired and you don’t know its history, then there is a chance that the shutter curtains don’t always lock together as they should. (This is a relatively common occurrence if the shutter’s been neglected for a long time or the adjustment is off.) In that case, it’s often better to set the speed before winding to avoid problems. Premature curtain release can result in “blank” or strange overexposed frames. This is due to the shutter curtains releasing unintentionally, sliding apart and allowing light (from the lens) to wash over a newly advanced frame of film during speed selection.