Flexibility in the fifties: Zeiss Ikon Contaflex

There are very few camera manufacturers who were as keen on flexibility as Zeiss Ikon. In the fifties, the Contaflex became a unique series with interchangeable front lenses. The rear lens and shutter remained on the camera and the very high quality Tessar Pro lenses could be alternated at the front. From wide to Tele. Welcome to the wonderous world of Zeiss Ikon.

Contaflex Super
Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super (1959), a heavy, but versatile SLR.

The first Contaflex SLR was introduced in 1953 as one of the earliest 35mm SLR cameras equipped with a leaf shutter. Again, it was a complex design, which was as always more of a challenge to the East German camera builder than a potential drawback. It was a success and many models became available in this series, the Contaflex I-IV, the Contaflex A and B, the Rapid and the Super. The popularity was mainly due to lower prices because of low manufacturing costs, the compactness of the camera and flash synchronization at all shutter speed which ranged from 1s to 1/500s. The main differences vary from a fixed to interchangeable lens, or models with or without a selenium light meter. Our example is the Contaflex Super from 1959 that had a limited range of interchangeable lenses were available.

Contaflex Super
The interchangeable Pro Tessars, 35mm, 85mm and 115mm.

The camera has a removable back wall for placing the 35 film. There are also special film backs available so you could take several rolls in multiple backs on photo adventures. Inserting and locking is easy. The film indicator is located on the transport handle. On the left is the rewind knob, which can be unlocked by turning the right back knob underneath the camera a quarter turn to the left. The rewind knob also serves as a film type indicator. At the front, the strikingly placed rotary knob stands out in the upper right-hand corner. On it are the ASA markings, but in fact the wheel mainly functions to adjust the aperture. Nothing is simple with Zeiss Ikon. Shutter speed and aperture have to be set in combinations on the Contaflex lens. The right combination depends of course on the right amount of light that can be measured with a silicon cell on the front of the camera. An needle on top of the camera body shows under-, over- or the correct exposure. With the dial on the camera body, the aperture values can be chosen exactly, after which the combinations on the lens are also correct. As an example, 125s/4 and 250s/2.8 are correct combinations. The shutter speed/aperture ring makes all possible combinations by turning left or right. Shutter speed preference is in the same way also possible, as the correct aperture is automatically selected.

Contaflex Super
The back of the Contaflex can be totally removed to insert the film.

Focussing is easy since you determine focus by rotating the focussing wheel with the two big knobs at the rear of the lens. Not a usual place and sometimes confusing. On the lens there are also the release buttons for the front lens part and the flash and self-timer slider at the bottom of the lens. The V stands for the self timer, the X and M for the manual or synchro flash. The smaller front lenses can be changed via a bayonet mount. There are four well-known lenses available. The standard Tessar 50mm/F2.8 supplied, the wide angle 35mm Tessar Pro in both an F4 and F3.2. version and the 85mm/F4 and 115mm/F4 lens. All these lenses are of exceptional sharpness, especially the wide angle. Our test with the 35mm did indeed produce surprisingly good photos, sharp from corner to corner, although the colour rendering is somewhat variable. For black and white shots, the lenses seem better suited. All lenses come with their own distance scales for manual settings.

Contaflex Super
The aperture ring on the Contaflex looks like an ASA setting knob. It interacts with the front lens for shutter and aperture combinations.

The Contaflex is compact, very, very sturdy but heavy. At the same time, you get used to this special camera very quickly, only focusing is not intuitive because your hand searches all the time for the focus ring on the front of the lens. Still, we are very pleasantly surprised by the very good quality of the test shots with a Kodak 160 Portra film roll. The camera does not tend to underexpose or overexpose, but knows how to choose very correct combinations that guarantee well-exposed and sharp shots. The Contaflex is a very solid camera that is still a lot in circulation on Ebay due to the high production numbers. Someone who is looking for an affordable vintage SLR from the 50’s cannot escape this Zeiss Ikon. Make sure you also get the accompanying 35mm Pro Tessar which is one of the best wide-angle lenses of its time.

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