Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super SLR
Repairs & Cleaning

Fixing an Ailing Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super B SLR – By Dave Powell

November 9, 2022

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!

Oh Nooooooooo…Fungus!

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:

Shot with "fungussed" lens adapter

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:

Adjacent good and bad exposures

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:

Camera after first lens element is removed

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:

Frozen exposure-time shutter

DIY TIP: The cowling and glass that I removed to reach this point were screwed in very tightly. And for a reason. The tolerances in there are so close, that the cowling/glass unit must be tightly replaced. If it isn’t, the lens “fronts” won’t seat in the bayonet mount. (At least that was the case with this camera.)

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:

Shot after camera possibly fixed

Exterior shots had a lovely vintage feel. (As you see, this all happened over the winter.)

Closer interior shots after repair

And the 50mm “lens” even handled interiors fairly well. On the left is a light fixture in our condo stairwell. And on the right is a Christmas tree on the landing below it. (With my eyesight, I could have used focus magnification here!)

Epilogue

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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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Terry B
    November 9, 2022 at 11:13 am

    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.

    • Reply
      Dave Powell
      November 10, 2022 at 7:37 pm

      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!)

  • Reply
    Tim Bradshaw
    November 9, 2022 at 11:20 am

    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).

    • Reply
      Dave Powell
      November 10, 2022 at 7:24 pm

      Hi Tim,

      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!

      • Reply
        Terry B
        November 11, 2022 at 8:23 am

        Hi, Dave.
        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.

        • Reply
          Dave Powell
          November 11, 2022 at 6:39 pm

          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!

          • Terry B
            November 12, 2022 at 2:10 pm

            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.

          • Dave Powell
            November 12, 2022 at 6:04 pm

            Hi Terry,

            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!

  • Reply
    Jens
    November 9, 2022 at 4:40 pm

    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.

    • Reply
      Dave Powell
      November 9, 2022 at 8:43 pm

      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!

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    November 10, 2022 at 12:27 am

    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. 🛠+📷=👍.

    • Reply
      Dave Powell
      November 10, 2022 at 2:30 am

      Perhaps a wise strategy, Dan! As you’ll see from other comments and replies, I’m still plunging!!

  • Reply
    Gil Aegerter
    November 14, 2022 at 2:25 am

    Wonderful story and outcome. It’s nice when a fix isn’t too intrusive!

    • Reply
      Dave Powell
      November 14, 2022 at 7:28 pm

      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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