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Zeiss Ikon Contaflex 35mm SLR

I use medium format because of the quality, and (in the case of the Rolleiflexes, also because they are gorgeous things and very choice). But I also like 35mm, because of the convenience, economy, and versatility, and because a lot of my 35mm stuff is cool, pretty, rare(ish) and delivers better quality than you might expect, anyway.

I’m a vicarious lover of film cameras and have examples made in Japan, USA, Germany and USSR on hand. My first love is probably the great German names during the GDRs golden era of the 1950s to 1960s. For me, that means Zeiss Ikon, Rollei, and Voigtländer, usually with a Zeiss, Schneider or, of course, Voigtländer optic.

One of my favourite 35mm camera types, (and one of the least commonly used today) is the Contaflex single lens reflex, manufactured by Zeiss Ikon from 1953 to 1971.

Introduced in 1953, Zeiss Ikon’s Contaflex SLR has the distinction of being the world’s first 35mm SLR offered for sale fitted with a leaf, or lens, shutter. A specific version of the well established Synchro Compur shutter was developed for Zeiss Ikon.

Today, many photographers would question the wisdom of fitting a lens shutter to a 35mm SLR. After all, decades of SLRs have been made using the much more common focal plane shutter design, which is an inherently simpler configuration, able to achieve much greater effective shutter speeds, and capable of unerring reliability as demonstrated by Canon, Pentax, Nikon, Minolta and many others. Indeed I own examples of most of these myself and without exception they’re superb pieces of kit.

Back in the 1950s, however, the situation was quite different. Focal plane shutters were in most cases made of fabric, the two curtains being cut to size and light proof by way of several layers or made of rubberized material. The instant return mirror you take for granted now was yet to appear. Reflex mirrors only returned to the viewing position after an exposure, when the photographer wound the camera for the next shot.

1950s focal plane shutters were not the paragons of reliability the type evolved into in the 1960s. At that time, problems with curtains tapering (changing curtain gap from side to side across the film gate, causing uneven exposure) were far from uncommon. Even Leica’s rangefinders weren’t completely immune to this as their shutters aged. Worse still, whenever the camera lens was pointed towards the sun there could be a risk of burning holes through the curtain fabric, the lens acting exactly like a magnifying glass exposed to the sun. Leica owners in particular were afflicted by this problem due to their rangefinders absence of a reflex mirror in front of the curtains. However in the absence of instant return mirrors, many SLRs had many holes burnt through their second curtain fabric, with depressing results on the film (fogging).

Indeed, I recently received an order of top quality curtain fabric I will need to persuade an Exakta Varex SLR (a top quality 1950s 35mm camera) back to full working condition, as both its curtains are full of pinholes.

The alternative metal foil curtain approach had its disadvantages. Even Hasselblad’s first attempt at a medium format SLR, the 1600F, suffered from notoriously fragile metal (titanium) curtains, the reliability of which improved with their subsequent 1000F model but which was never really bulletproof. (Not that this stops me from wanting a 1600F at all, they are magnificent, gorgeous pieces of exquisitely made kit).

In the context of the period, you’ll appreciate that Zeiss Ikon had very good reasons for trading some additional design complexity for the bombproof reliability and light proofing of the lens shutter. Compur had a long history of making reliable very high quality shutters that were the top choice for many of Germany’s finest cameras for decades.

In order to adapt the Synchro Compur to an SLR, modifications were necessary. The shutter had to be able to stay open while the user viewed through the camera lens (that is after all, how an SLR works). Therefore a secondary shutter, or capping plate, was fitted ahead of the film plane similar to where a focal plane shutter would be situated. This secondary shutter prevented the film from being fogged while the main shutter was open for viewing through the viewfinder. When the photographer depressed the release button a complex series of events followed: the main shutter closed; the aperture stopped down to the pre-selected f stop; the reflex mirror retracted out of the way of the lens, followed by the rear shutter. Then, and only then, did the main shutter open and close to make the exposure.

Despite the considerable additional complexity and components required in its mechanism as a result of the lens shutter design, Zeiss Ikon achieved their usual standards of reliability and high quality construction and standards of finish. Not only did the Contaflex achieve high standards of reliability: it was fitted with a Carl Zeiss 45mm Tessar f/2.8 lens of considerable quality. And as in any other camera type the lens shutter offered full electronic flash synchronisation at all shutter speeds to its 1/500 maximum—something some new cameras still can’t boast today.

In fact, so successful was the Contaflex installation, that none other than Hasselblad elected to run with the same type of Synchro Compur leaf shutter for its new design conceived to replace the superb, but flawed F series of SLRs. The lenses designed for its new 500C were all fitted with Synchro Compur leaf shutters. The rest is history!

The initial Contaflex of 1953 spawned an entire family of 35mm SLRs that remained in production throughout the 1960s, ending with the final Contaflex S of 1971. Along the way, the initial fixed 45mm Tessar of the original 1953 design became a 50mm Tessar (still with maximum f/2.8 aperture). Interchangeable lens components by Carl Zeiss became available in focal lengths from 35mm to 400mm. Light meters of various types were fitted, with a CdS battery powered TTL type being installed in the final types. Most unusually of all, from the late 1950s until their demise they were able to be fitted with interchangeable film magazines that provide the ability to switch films at will, mid-roll, without losing a single film frame. They truly were miniature Hasselblads in spirit and execution.

In 2013 my Contaflex kit is possibly the 35mm system I tend to use most of all. Given that cheaper, more readily available—Ie. Japanese—SLRs, with more features are, in fact, sitting in my cabinet as I write this, why would I choose to work with the all manual Contaflex with no instant return mirror? Well, I have a few reasons for this, and, I think they are good reasons.

1. They’re German. West German, more specifically. And made by Zeiss Ikon, which means that, decades after they were built, they have chrome that’s immaculate, leather that looks near-new, and are, quite simply, beautifully made. I like using well made, high quality instruments. They make me feel good, and, if I feel good, I’m more likely to make better images.

2. I’m a self taught camera repairer. Many Japanese cameras are surely able to be repaired, if necessary, but West German 1950-1970 cameras, particularly the best ones, were made to last decades, and, if they stop working, can be dismantled, cleaned, adjusted, and put back together, and, except for the very worst instances of abuse or wear, will work just like they did when they were new. I like using equipment I know I can dismantle and fix myself if and when I have to. It inspires confidence.

3. Although there were cheaper models offered with still reasonable (but inferior) Pantar lenses, all my Contaflexes (or, Contaflice, as the Zeiss Ikon illuminati refer to their plural) have the Carl Zeiss Tessar lens. And I really like Tessars. A lot.

4. The range of lenses available for the later models, whilst not extensive, is still sufficient to handle 90% of general photographic activities. There may be times I wish I had a longer lens, or a wider one, or one that’s faster, but, for the imaging I do it’s rarely a concern. And the Pro Tessar lenses Carl Zeiss made were designed specifically for the Contaflex and are better quality than many anticipate. Together with my set of Carl Zeiss Proxar close up dioptre lenses (again, formulated by Zeiss specifically for the Tessar) I can photograph anything from landscape to portraiture to near macro.

5. The lens shutter means that if I need to, daylight fill flash is possible in lighting conditions and with films many other cameras wouldn’t be able to manage because of their limited sync speeds.

6. I try to produce the highest quality images I’m capable of. To this end I like to use the best technique practicable. One of the ways to generate maximum quality with 35mm is to use the slowest, finest-grained modern films available. If you’re going to this much trouble, using a tripod, cable release and mirror pre-release are all worthwhile too. Hence, I hate vibration that softens sharpness, in any form. Given the chance, I’ll take a Compur leaf shutter any day. They possess a smoothness no focal plane shutter—even the renowned Leicas—can match. Set the timer of a Contaflex, and the camera mechanism releases everything in the camera, except the shutter. Ten seconds later, when the exposure happens it is as smooth as you can possibly make it. Is it any surprise that my favourite medium format cameras are my Hasselblad, and my Rolleiflexes: both designs that have Synchro Compur shutters? Or that my favourite SLRs fitted with a focal plane shutter feature a mirror lockup system? But even with their mirrors locked up, their focal plane shutters cannot match a Compur, for silence or total absence of vibration.

7. Perhaps most compellingly, I’ve procured three of the Zeiss Ikon film magazine backs. This means I can spend a day shooting black and white, colour negative, or transparency, with one camera body and complete flexibility. The whole kit makes for a very compact, comprehensive, system that’s portable and practical. You also get a lot of positive comments from the general public and other photographers, which helps photo opportunities arise instead of hindering them.


Contact me if you would like to obtain copies or the use of any text or images for publication elsewhere.


  • reflexio
    reflexioabout 1 year ago

    You have an astounding knowledge of this domain. Great journal.