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.