About a year ago, some Austrian friends handed me a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super B that they brought with them to America after World War II. They said it no longer worked, and if I got it going again, I could keep it.
Anyone who’s ever held a Contaflex knows it’s a gorgeous— but heavy– little machine. It’s also so complicated that most repair shops won’t touch one today. So… hey… why not take a stab myself? What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, nothing… I got off easy on this one!
I first burned a roll of Fujicolor 200 to test the camera and its Pro-Tessar 35mm f/3.2, 50mm f/2.8, and 115mm f/4 “supplementary” lenses.
NOTE: They may look and feel like “real” lenses, but these “supplementaries” are lens elements that bayonet-mount in front of additional elements that are built into the camera. This approach let Zeiss create a between-the-lens leaf-shuttered SLR. But the split-lens design also makes it effectively impossible to adapt Contaflex “lenses” for use on today’s digital cameras.
Sadly, the 35mm “front element” had languished for years in a humid Florida basement… and suffered from serious fungus:
And the fungus could infect other cameras that came anywhere near it. So I’ve put the 35mm element into isolation until I figure out how to disassemble and clean it (a procedure that isn’t at all obvious). If it turns out that I can’t, I’ll reluctantly trash it. But even if I succeed, its internal elements may be so badly etched that they’ll never again achieve sharp focus. (I’d keep it, though, as an artistic soft-focus element.) Fortunately, the camera– and its 50mm and 115mm fronts– didn’t suffer the same fate.
A Strange Test Roll
I brought my test roll to Walgreens (along with a roll from a Yashica T4 yard-sale find). It had been a while since I’d used drugstore developing, and I assumed that I’d get negatives in return. Foolish me. The drugstore’s laboratoire du jour sent back a Photo CD of scans.
The Yashica photos were beautiful (I’ll write about them too). But the Contaflex images were so strange, that I doubted the lab was responsible. Over and over, one shot would look great, while the very next frame (taken of the same view immediately after the first) was surreal. Like this pair:
If that had happened with a digital camera, I’d throw it out. But the Contaflex is a jewel-like marvel, and I decided to examine it more closely.
Some Surprising Engineering
Removing the 50mm element from the bayonet mount revealed an element behind it in the camera’s throat:
Unscrewing the conical cowling and its attached glass, I could see five shutter blades poking slightly into the cavity in front of yet another element:
I watched this shutter through several activations, and every time I wound on and pressed the shutter button, the blades didn’t move. But every time, a second set of blades (hidden behind these frozen ones) quickly closed down and then popped back open. But they never closed completely.
It was a surprise, and I surmised that the moving blades were the camera’s aperture iris— which fully opens for focusing, and quickly snaps back to the preset aperture for exposing film. It participates in a complex mechanical ballet with the frozen shutter and a reflex mirror in the film chamber (as described as follows on this web page):
“When the Contaflex SLR takes a picture, a number of things have to happen perfectly. The shutter must close before the mirror swings up. Then the aperture must close before the shutter opens and then the shutter must open and close. There are a large number of very precise complex parts provided to accomplish all of this complex synchronization.”
And the nonfunctional shutter must therefore control exposure times. But since it’s currently frozen open and the aperture iris never fully closes, the film behind them was probably being “flashed” by incoming light. The extent of this flashing would vary with the preset aperture, and I think this might have caused the bizarre coloration of the camera’s alternating shots. (Not sure how that would actually work, but it’s my theory for now.)
And a Surprisingly Easy Fix!
Then, to see if anything would happen, I very gently touched one of the frozen shutter blades with a toothpick… and all five blades briskly snapped shut. Dust may have actually locked them open for years! And when I shot a second roll, the camera behaved itself nicely:
I told our Austrian friends that as far as I knew, their Contaflex was working again (though its meter may not be accurate). I also offered to return it. After all, they had given the camera to themselves as a gift– after surviving Nazi refugee camps during the war. But they graciously declined to take the camera back, and wished me happy days with it.
Sometimes, a camera’s story is greater than the device itself. I’ll continue to use their lovely Contaflex until it– or I– pass on. It wouldn’t feel right to do otherwise.
FINAL NOTE: I did not process the Contaflex photos beyond slight cropping.
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19 thoughts on “Fixing an Ailing Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super B SLR – By Dave Powell”
It’s wonderful that you managed to sort the Contaflex out easily, as working examples are a joy an stand up well cosmetically. Surprisingly for a camera that could hardly be said to be aimed at the pro user, the last models could take a film back which looked exactly like its bigger brother the one for the Contarex. One of my three Contaflexes actually came with the back, but it did not include the standard back. Nice to have, but a bit of a pain had I wanted to use it, where the standard back would be preferable. Incidentally, if you ever do see a back for it, make sure it is complete with its darkslide as interlocks prevent the back from working without it.
Your camera was made from 1962/3 so whilst a nice story, the 17 years since the end of WWII seems to me to be just a little long for the association that it was brought to America after WWII.
Thanks for the info about backs and darkslides, Terry! And you’re right about the chronological issue. I’ve emailed our friends to check what they told us earlier about that timing. (Thanks to New England’s weather, they’re living in Florida now!)
Whilst they certainly operate in the same way, the magazine backs for Contarex and Contaflex are not exactly like each other. The Contarex magazines are noticeably longer than those made for certain Contaflex SLRs, and it is impossible to use either type, with the other model. They just won’t attach.
I’m fairly sure that the shutter must have been closing, although I’d need to look at one of mine to be sure (‘one of’ isn’t as bad as it sounds: I have two, the second of which I only bought because it had all the auxiliary lenses which the first, nicer, one didn’t).
The reason I think this is that if the shutter was not closing the only thing protecting the film from the light is the mirror. And the mirror on those cameras stays up until you cock the shutter next time. So unless there is some secondary focal-plane shutter which I don’t think there is (but its possible, given the rather heroic engineering of these things), then once it’s up, and if the shutter doesn’t close, the film is seeing light until you cock the shutter again, which is probably at least several tenths of a second: you’d get pictures which were catastrophically overexposed.
Much more likely is that it was just really sticky, I think, although the exposure mechanism of these things must be pretty hairy (shutter-priority automatic exposure … with no battery), so I’m not sure.
In any case this was really interesting, and these are lovely cameras though I’ve never really got on eith mine (too big, I think).
I could swear that I replied yesterday, but don’t see it now. So let’s go again! The shutter definitely wasn’t moving even a millimeter until I touched a blade and it sprang to life. And though it’s closing now, it has been progressively slowing. So perhaps it WAS stickiness that froze it open. I’ll give the blades a gentle cleaning and test again!
However, when you mentioned the camera’s possibly hairy “shutter-priority automatic exposure … with no battery,” it triggered an additional thought. As a longtime Sunny-16 user, I had “automatically” used the camera in manual-exposure mode. I just tried putting it in Auto mode, and the meter immediately sprung to life. So my next tests will be done in Auto mode.
Still, I don’t understand how shutter stickiness would cause exposures to alternate between “good” and “slightly off-color.” I still think it may have been an artifact of how the camera’s complex internal dance dealt with a shutter that remained constantly open. But I’ll have to analyze those movements more to see if that’s possible. I’m not sure either.
So stay tuned for an update in these comments. It may be a while, though!
Re the colour issue, there can, IMO, only be two causes. Either a intermittent printing lab fault or severe under or over exposure. With colour negative film the three colour layers are only linear in their response over a specified range of lighting, and outside this range the layers can diverge considerably and will result in false colours. This will be easy for you to check simply by comparing the negatives. Gross over or under exposure will result in very dense or thin negatives. So if the offending image is either of these then I’m fairly confident that this was the cause with the auto printer not being able to cope. But if they look very similar, then I’d conclude definitely a processing error.
Thanks for the added info Terry! Sadly, I didn’t receive negs with the Walgreen’s scans. It’s not deterministic, but Hamish will soon post a 5-frames piece I did about shooting a Yashica T4 on a very rainy day. And that roll went to Walgreen’s with the Contaflex one. The fact that the T4 scans were all gorgeous leans in favor of camera-exposure issues as opposed to processing/scanning. (Though that’s not certain.) A couple of my local photography friends have switched from Walgreen’s to CVS because CVS apparently does a better job AND can return both scans and negs. (When I inquired at Walgreen’s, they confirmed that they will not return negs.) So after I give the shutter another clean, I’ll send another test roll through CVS… and see what happens!
Dave. Strange situation regarding your negatives. Out of curiosity, was this something that they made you aware of beforehand? Film itself isn’t cheap for you to not get them back. I’d certainly be looking elsewhere.
Actually, the photo drop-off I used hasn’t changed in a good long time. And when one goes to pick up film, either the front checkout lady or the pharmacist has to leave their station. So I did the same self-service deposit as in the past, used the same familiar envelopes, and checked off that I wanted one set of prints. The CVS that I’ll now use is a bit out-of-the-way, but it apparently has a full-time photo person, who answers the phone and says that they’ll return both scans and negs. I’ll confirm that when I go!
Whilst there have been a few 35mm leaf shutter SLR designs over the years which relied on the mirror to shield the film fully prior to exposure, (for the most part), the German manufacturers preferred to install a dedicated rear flap or shutter adjacent the focal plane for this purpose. Kodak (Nagel), Voigtländer—and Zeiss Ikon—all opted for this with their models. Zeiss, in period, referred to the Contaflex part as a “capping plate” (see Eg early user manuals for actual instances of the term by the maker). Hence, the reflex mirror, whilst it certainly will deflect much light away from the film plane when descended, does not actually ensure adequate film shielding during Eg focusing. The capping plate seats flush around its seat ahead of the film rails, and is vital to achieving total light exclusion.
You are right : the contaflex super is a jewel-like marvel, i agree to 100%.
Alone, the Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm is able to produce marvellous pics, both with b&w or coloured film.
Thanks so much Jens! I really liked the look of its good images… both before and after my “adjustment.” It’ll get a LOT more use now that it seems OK. I also received a couple more comments that call for some “historical” research… so stay tuned!
A couple of days ago Bob James posted an article on switching parts out of a Konica and now you plunge into the shutter of a Contaflex. Brave. I’ll stick to building a garden shed and let others delve into the innards of my gear. 🛠+📷=👍.
Perhaps a wise strategy, Dan! As you’ll see from other comments and replies, I’m still plunging!!
Wonderful story and outcome. It’s nice when a fix isn’t too intrusive!
I definitely agree Gil. As you can see from the Comments, the shutter has started to slow up again… so I’m going to give it another careful, non-intrusive clean. By careful, I mean that I’ll hold the camera upside-down to give the shutter blades a gentle acetone “roll” (one should never swipe across shutter blades). That will help to keep acetone away from the inner elements or the surrounding escapement… at least at this stage. Though the camera itself is a technical horror show even for experts, at least Zeiss made the shutter fairly easy to clean!
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“Real” or otherwise, the Contaflex lenses are capable of outstanding results. They are sharper than most people expect such a system to be, but it is worth noting period magazine reports found them to give at least acceptable performance, verging to or achieving excellent at some apertures. That’s all very well; but the real key, I believe, must be connected with the coatings Zeiss applied. Because no other vintage glass that I have ever used (and I’ve used a lot) can surpass the contrast and colour saturation I’ve seen from transparency exposed through them. Black and white results are pretty decent, too.
The installation may be less conventional than other types of camera, but the Synchro-Compur shutters fitted to these are not so very different to non-reflex versions. Granted, they have automatic aperture stop down. But that doesn’t add a lot of extra complexity in itself, and most—not all—of the internal components are identical to those found in rangefinder or scale focus designs using the same size and class of shutter.
There were many iterations of Contaflex from the earliest Contaflex (retrospectively the Contaflex I) through to the last S variants. Not to mention those cheaper Pantar lens models equipped with Prontor reflex shutters (or the 126 Contaflex). Working on each type has its own variations. Timing the shutter/aperture/meter/ASA calibration on the original Super model is arguably one of the most tedious processes. By comparison, shutter work on the Super B, auto aperture notwithstanding, is generally less trying, because uncoupling/coupling the shutter to the camera body uses a more modular approach than the gear mesh EV arrangement the first Super was fitted with.
The Super B is a reasonably reliable camera. I say “reasonably” because, whilst there are certainly still examples that may be found with 100% working, accurate, meters—it’s not surprising that some selenium cells may no longer be fully functional. The problem all these SLRs have (Bessamatics, Retina Reflexes, Contaflexes) is everyone talks about how complicated they are; but nobody—almost, anyway—actually services them, fully. Thus, shutters stick, focus jams, etc and they’re written off as “unreliable”. I don’t think they are that bad to work on *mostly*. When a Contaflex has actually received a similar level of attention more frequently bestowed on Eg a Leica, Rollei, Canon, Nikon et al from the same period—it will work very reliably for a long time. Unfortunately, that does take a bit more than twitching the shutter blades with a toothpick—but good on you Dave, for at least, taking a look. It’s further than most owners will dare to venture. 😉
Wow… Thanks so much for all the detailed info, Brett… And Happy 2023! After Hamish posted the article, the shutter blades started to freeze up again (probably due to oil). And now that the holidays are behind us, I’m going to give the blades another careful acetone wipe. And I will continue trying to keep that lovely machine working!