Contax iia
Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

Contax IIa review – Chasing that Classic Look with an Unaccountably Affordable Vintage German Rangefinder – By Phil Calvit

June 15, 2021

Like most of you good 35mmc readers, I’d love to own a classic Leica. And like most of you (unless you’re a more posh lot than I’d assumed), I’ve been unwilling to make the life sacrifices (unheated house, unpaid cell phone bills, kids skipping college, etc.) necessary to actually buy one. But I have good news to share today in the form of my recently-acquired Contax IIa with a 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar, which may actually be the Leica’s equal as a picture-taker. I’m only a couple of rolls in, but I’m fairly ecstatic with the early results from this less-renowned, but certainly not lesser, 1950’s German rangefinder.

To be clear, I’m not saying a Leica isn’t, and wasn’t, worth every penny: I’m just saying that I can’t afford one. I like eating too much. And remaining married.

But man, you flip through books of the photos that constitute our collective visual history, and guess what cameras shot those pix? Rolleiflexes, certainly. Hasselblads. Various large-format boxes. Nikon F’s. And Leica after Leica after Leica. Cartier-Bresson? Duh: Leica. Robert Frank? Leica. Fred Herzog, Gary Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Harry Gruyaert—Leica shooters all. William Eggleston? Literally 300 Leicas.

Am I going to shoot like these folks? I’d never be so presumptuous. But might I dream of creating the occasional photograph that can at least evoke the vision of say, a Saul Leiter? I like to hope so.

Over the past few years I’ve obtained a modest collection of classic film cameras, because I love the photos they make, and because I find them almost impossibly beautiful objects. The fact that an entirely mechanical camera from the 1950’s can yield more beautiful results (aesthetically, if not necessarily technically) than a modern example with its onboard supercomputer reassures and amuses me. I love the fact that my Rolleiflexes, my Olympus XA, Mamiya 645, Rollei 35S, etc., have their shutter buttons, aperture rings and film advances scattered all over the place. I like picking up a camera and having to remind myself where its various dials and widgets reside. I enjoy shooting without a meter, either by eye or with an iPhone meter app, and I also enjoy the ease provided by the linked meters on my 1970s SLR’s.

But until a bag of money falls from the sky in front of me, no Leica M3 double-stroke for Phil.

In the course of reading and learning about these wonderful photographers and cameras, however, another brand kept popping up: Contax. It was a Contax II that Robert Capa took ashore in Normandy. According to several web sources, the pre-war and just-post-war Contaxes were every bit the Leica’s equal. Some swear that the Zeiss lenses on the Contax even surpass Leitz glass of the same era. The very informative (and opinionated) Mark Hansen discourses on the subject in some detail, and maintains that the Contax IIa is the finest camera ever built, and he’s intimately familiar with the inner workings of pretty much all of them.

And here’s the crucial bit: despite the fact that far fewer Contax rangefinders were produced than Leicas of the same era, and that a IIa at the time commanded about the same price as a Chevy sedan, these cameras today are waaaaaaaaay cheaper than a similar Leica—and I’m probably missing several a’s in  “way.”

A quick eBay scan will show you Contax IIa’s and IIIa’s (without meter and with meter, respectively) starting at $350—with lens!!! Now I was born many thousands of yesterdays ago, so I don’t believe any of the “EX++++!!” ratings on eBay. And with a good CLA going for $400-$700, I wasn’t going to take a chance on a camera I couldn’t easily return if it didn’t work as advertised. So, no, I wasn’t going to roll the dice on an eBay “deal.”

I’ve had good luck with my local Facebook marketplace, though (a dinged but shootable Rolleiflex 3.5 MX-EVS for $150, a pristine Olympus OM2n for $25), so I kept an eye peeled on that. I kept tabs on KEH where I’d bought my Rollei 35S. And I kept checking in on my own marvelous local Minneapolis resource, National Camera Exchange. NatCam had a couple of IIIa’s available, but each had its various ailments. And besides, I preferred the Contax IIa, without the bulky—and almost certainly useless, after all this time—selenium meter on the IIIa.

And then one day on the NatCam website appeared a Contax IIa, described as “average,” with the certifiably legendary Zeiss Opton Sonnar 50mm f1.5 lens, for $199. I immediately emailed. Is the shutter good? Is the glass clean? Any other nasty surprises? Yes, yes, and no, I was told. Hold it for me, I said. I’ll be right over. 

Contax iia back

I wonder why they call them “Zeiss bumps”?

 

Contax iia top

The top plate, showing that I have the “black dial” version made from 1950-54.

I frankly don’t know what my friends at National Camera were thinking with that price point: my new/ancient Contax IIa won’t shoot at 1 second or bulb (I was never going to shoot it at 1 second or bulb), and the 1/1250 is a little sketchy (my Nikon FE and Olympus OM2n are my only other cameras that even shoot at 1/1000, so no big loss there, either). It has the characteristic “Zeiss bumps” under the leather on the rear cover, but I consider that just additional character. Other than that…this thing’s a beauty! It’s the “black dial” version, which dates it to 1950-1954, a period during which Contax held a decided advantage over Leica in that the viewfinder and rangefinder were offered in a single window, as versus the Leica’s two side-by-side (this discrepancy was corrected with the M3, in 1954, which seems to have begun the Contax rangefinder’s slide into irrelevance. By 1962, Contax had discontinued their rangefinders, while Leica of course makes them to this day).

Fit and finish on my Contax IIa are extraordinary. I’ll sit in a chair and just heft it in my hands and click things. Every knurl is knurled precisely as it should be knurled. The body feels as dense as a neutron star. Merely as a physical object, the Contax IIa is a piece of art.

I was pleasantly surprised with the Contax IIa viewfinder. I was kind of expecting a fuzzy little hole. But this finder, if not quite brilliant, is far from dim, and the rangefinder patch is big and unmissable. Furthermore, the rangefinder base on the Contax is super-wide, making for super-accurate focusing. In fact, I have to say that nailing focus with the Contax is easier than with any of my other manual cameras. I usually focus with the lens ring on the Contax iia, rather than the little wheel in front of the shutter release, and once the finder patch and the subject snap into agreement, I’ve achieved superlative results.

Contax IIa, Zeiss Opton Sonnar f1.5, FujiFilm C200. Bandwidth considerations make this considerably less sharp than the original scan.

My oh my, this lens! It’s only been two rolls, and there are a lot of types of shots that I haven’t yet attempted, but this Zeiss Sonnar is absurdly sharp. Colors pop; there’s not a hint of vignetting. I can’t wait to run more rolls through this puppy and see what it can do.

With the Contax IIa in hand, I had to decide what film to put in it. Most of the photographers that I hope to (however ham-handedly) emulate used long-discontinued Kodachrome, of course. But I wondered: shot through this gorgeous old glass, could a cheaper modern “consumer” film give me some of that saturated, wonderfully “vulgar” (Walker Evans’ word) quality of Kodachrome? Not the same, but in the same time zone?

I picked two rolls to experiment with: Kodak Gold 200, and FujiColor C200. I shot both of them in pretty short order, because I wanted to confirm that the camera was a workable shooter, and because I was really anxious to see if I’d achieve the look I was after.

Kodak Gold 200

For those shots that I properly exposed, I’m over the moon. Those shots I just missed exposure on, I’m still happy with (a lot of iconic photos have funky exposure and/or focus, after all). And those I completely missed, hey, it’s cheap film, and I’m on a learning curve. Focus was razor-sharp on everything; the rangefinder system on the Contax IIa is a marvel. And the Zeiss Opton Sonnar 50mm f1.5 justifies all the plaudits. Mine is one of the West German ones, I’ve learned: production and patents got complicated by the Iron Curtain. It’s already my second-favorite lens, behind only the otherworldly Xenotar on my Rolleiflex 2.8C.

As I said, I raced through these two rolls of film, so I have a limited library from which to pull my highlights (I guess that’s my apology that the highlights aren’t higher). You’ll notice that I seem to be in a “storefront” phase, possibly because I’ve had a Fred Herzog book at the top of my coffee table stack for the past few weeks. He had the luxury of shooting in the impossibly-photogenic Vancouver of the ’60’s and ’70’s, of course, home to a fabulous jumble of signs, and men in hats, and, to modern eyes, gorgeous classic cars (he also had the advantage of being prodigiously talented and hard-working). My experiment was: could a similar camera and film lend a kind of timeless patina to observations of the role of color in our modern world? Would it be interesting to view 2021 through 1954 eyes?

Rug store, hence the little camels. Kodak Gold 200.

Based on this initial, humble exploration, I’d have to say, yes. I like a few of these images very much indeed, especially considering they’ve been culled from just two rolls of film shot over 8 days. There’s a sort of silken garishness (my runner-up description was “honeyed vulgarity”) to the colors that makes me smile, and this absolutely miraculous lens, with its easy-to-achieve tack-sharp focus, helps keep them out of the realm of throwaway “snapshots.”

All from a $200 camera. With cheap film. I can’t wait for the next few dozen rolls from the Contax IIa.

FujiFilm C200

 

I dropped the blacks a bit ’cause the exposure was off, but I like the results an awful lot. FujiFilm C200.

 

Color rendition? Bam! FujiFilm C200.

 

FujiFilm C200

Phil Calvit is an advertising writer and classic camera enthusiast in Minneapolis. See more of his work at instagram.com/philcalvit

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Phil Steelandt
    June 15, 2021 at 11:37 am

    Hi Phil, nice post !
    I like your “love affair” with the Contax and the way you share it with us 😉
    I have the same feeling with my 1937 ContaxII.
    Everything fits well on the Contax: 1 speed dial, 1 combined viewfinder, accurate focussing, easy film-loading…and a beautifull “Bauhaus-style” design.
    I have to confess that I prefer to shoot with my Contax than with my 1951 Leica IIIc (although this is a fine camera too)

  • Reply
    John Tarrant
    June 15, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    The Contax is aware thing o beauty and was widely used by many photographers in the “golden age” of street photography and amongst amateurs provoked strong “identity wars”. The Leica M3 of course stole much of the Contax’s thunder but the ultimate loss was the removal of production to the Ukraine so that the continuity of the brand was lost. Possibly the other problem was the over complicated shutter mechanism compared to the Leica. Nonetheless the Contax remains a jewel of a camera and the Zeiss lenses are wonderful. I remain in the Leica camp but use a Sonnar f1.5 on my M3

    • Reply
      James T
      June 16, 2021 at 2:01 pm

      Indeed. While Ansel Adams is not exactly known for 35mm photography, when he did use small format I believe the Contax (and later Contaflex) was his camera of choice.

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    June 15, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    Hello Phil, Great article and beautiful abstracts. I’m first and foremost a musician and second, a photographer who believes there is a tipping point whereby the cost/benefit analysis does not warrant the spending of a ‘surplus’ four figure sum on a camera. Instead, I would have no hesitation on splashing the cash on a new Fender or Martin guitar!

  • Reply
    MIchael Jardine
    June 15, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    Great purchase- and I’m glad of the disclosure that you’re an ad writer by day! The article and your pics are especially interesting as I’ve had a bit of a flirtation with the Kiev-4 of late. The Kiev is a very capable camera and I love the Jupiter-8 take on the Sonnar but the whole thing is a teeny bit agricultural and some days you don’t want to fight with your kit in the way it seems to require. I must redouble my efforts to find someone with the Contax to be able to make a rational comparison. Happy shooting.

  • Reply
    David H Thurman
    June 15, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    Loved this! Wonderful colors from the Kodak and the Fuji must have been the second roll because it all got even better!

    Awesome lens!

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    June 15, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    There is a simple explanation for the lower costs of collector Contaxes: They are very complex and difficult to repair and service

    These days we use them far less and such issues don’t pop up as much, but not TOO long many of us used old cameras pretty regularly

    Whenever I feel the need for the Contax experience I grab a Russian copy – keeping the originals unstressed but for the occasional light exercise

  • Reply
    Bud Sisti
    June 15, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    Congratulations on the Contax, Phil! Anyone who has ever held one can appreciate your infatuation. They are exquisite!
    However, I take issues with your priorities. House too cold? Put on another sweater. Kids hungry? They can forage. And college educations are way overrated (I’m proof). Get your priorities straight and get the M3 DS.

    • Reply
      Phil Calvit
      June 16, 2021 at 3:50 am

      Bud, good points all, but you forgot the part about me wanting to remain married. My priorities could certain progress however.

  • Reply
    Clive Shepherd
    June 15, 2021 at 9:07 pm

    ” I enjoy shooting without a meter, either by eye or with an iPhone meter app, and I also enjoy the ease provided by the linked meters on my 1970s SLR’s.” Why?

    Film, unlike digital, costs money and you seem to be budget conscious. There are so many excellent used meters available for next to free. It will take no time for the unwasted shots to pay for the meter. It is a vital part of the kit for serious photography.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 15, 2021 at 9:18 pm

      Why does photography need to be serious, and what does serious actually mean in this context?
      Photography can be just enjoyable where the fun is in not worrying about perfect exposure. Everyone’s process is different, as is everyone’s reason for partaking in photography. I understand the thoughts behind the question – but the answer to that “why” is simple: that’s just the way Phil enjoys working

    • Reply
      Dismayed
      July 25, 2021 at 3:20 am

      Sunny 16 is easy and it works. And there’s no need to meter more than once when the lighting is constant.

  • Reply
    Adam Singer
    June 15, 2021 at 9:20 pm

    I Loved your Pro Contax article. Good to see Contaxs getting deserved attention. Pre war Contaxs were more expensive than Leica’s , a cost boosted by among other things a shutter made complex to circumnavigate the Leitz patents. Arguably Contax lenses were not equalled by Leica till well into the 60s. The Contax ll came out in 1936, and the Leica M3 came out in 1954. (Yes Pre and Post war Contax lls have different innards but in use are the same camera, its a complicated story but lets keep this short ) Thus I would say the real Leica comparators were the screw thread Leica llls not the M3. By 1954 Zeiss were developing their Contax “replacement” the Contarex SLR, that came out in 1958. Worth noting that the early Russian Kievs are Russian ‘Contaxs’ built on the same machines and plant taken from the Zeiss factory in Dresden which made the pre war Contax lls. So Kievs are not so much a copy but a ‘continuation’ of the pre war Zeiss Contax. if I had to choose M3 or Contax ll, tough call, I love both, and if I was restricted to just early M lenses would probably take the Contax, Those Zeiss lenses are wonderful. If allowed later M lenses would take the M3. If you would like to see shots taken on pre and post war Contaxs then go here … Post war Contax shots https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157684208944435 Pre war Contax shots https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157679468525336

  • Reply
    Jim
    June 15, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    While I have a vintage Leica IIIG, I also hankered for a Contax IIa or IIIA. I found a pristine IIIA (with meter) and it has no Zeiss bumps. Not only that, the meter works and is off only a little bit. The meter adjustment screw is tiny and easily overloked. My Contax is fitteed with the Sonnar f/2.0 rather than the f/1.5. The Contax IIA/ IIIA is a precision masterpiece. You wrote an excellent article.

  • Reply
    Charles Embrey
    June 15, 2021 at 9:59 pm

    Camera doesn’t matter. The film stock used does. The look of a photo is determined by the film used—I despise grain therefore I used Panatomic X instead of Tri X. My most liked modern film is Kodak BW400CN.

    BTW the original Nikon F used a copy of Barnack’s Leica shutter.

    BTW2 in the USA you can buy a Leica M3, with a warranty for less than $500 U S Dollars

    • Reply
      Phil Calvit
      July 27, 2021 at 5:47 pm

      The camera doesn’t matter? Seems you’re on the wrong website, Charles. Also, what a ludicrous assertion. You’re still using a pinhole, I assume? And if you can show me a $500 M3 from a reputable seller anywhere in the US I’ll walk from Minneapolis to buy it.

  • Reply
    Steve Macfarlane
    June 16, 2021 at 12:42 am

    Thanks for the post, Phil! I went down the Contax IIa path a several years ago, and greatly appreciate these cameras as things of beauty as well as good shooters. My IIa did suffer a broken shutter ribbon, which resulted in a stay at Henry Scherer’s spa. After an overhaul, the camera is working perfectly. As for lenses, the Zeiss Opton Sonnar 50/1.5 deserves its reputation as one of the best 50s ever made; the f2.0 version is very nearly as good. If and when you do get a Leica M, there are adapters out there that will allow you to mount your Zeiss Sonnar on a Leica M camera. When your budget allows, and assuming you want to stick with your Contax, you might try the Carl Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8. It’s a lens with stunning resolving power and, like the Opton Sonnars, is especially brilliant with color film. Enjoy!!

    • Reply
      Phil Calvit
      June 16, 2021 at 3:57 am

      Steve, yeah, I’ve scoped out the 35/2.8. I’ve already got a couple of lenses of that or a similar focal length that I like a great deal, and I’m trying to keep my outfits relatively simple, so for now, it’ll be on the “some day” list.

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    June 16, 2021 at 12:48 am

    Thank you Phil for a good read. I particularly enjoyed your subjective viewpoint which is entirely in keeping with the way Hamish approaches many of his experiences. I say that because I read your piece as your experience with this camera rather than a review of it.
    I like the iia too. It isn’t as easy to use as a Leica M but it is smaller and let’s face it Zeiss lenses are better than Leitz. The finish is not Leica quality but as you said it is a very solid and satisfying camera to use. I agree with you that the iia is preferable to the iiia as a selenium meter that old is more a hinderance than a help. I use a small Sekonic analogue meter with mine but guesswork is a fair approach if that floats your boat.
    Anyway keep up with enjoying your photography, keep feeding your family. Don’t force your kids to go to university but encourage them to follow a vocation.if that’s where their skills are better employed. Most Leica cameras are sitting in glass show cases but your Contax is being used !

    • Reply
      Phil Calvit
      June 16, 2021 at 4:00 am

      Jeremy, appreciate it. Yes, I was writing a piece about how much I like this camera and my results from it, not a scholarly piece, which I am wholly unqualified to write. Glad you liked it.

  • Reply
    Peter Grey
    June 16, 2021 at 2:40 am

    Okay, I want a Contax II2 now too. An interesting and funny write up. Cool pictures as well!

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    June 17, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    Great review and some Interesting test exposures. Gorgeous camera, as well. As for maintenance, is Mr. Scherer the only alternative in USA now?

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