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