Medium & Large Format

Zeiss Ikoflex III (1939) – Atoning For GAS By Doing A History Project – By Stefan Wilde

February 21, 2022

When I first bought and tried a Rolleiflex I fell in love with TLRs. They are by no means perfect, but very quirky and eye-catching. I love that. Yes I am that kind of person. I could say that I also love the way the cameras operate and how they involve me more in the process and all these things. But that’s not an excuse for buying another one. I own a perfectly good Rolleiflex 2,8 F, overhauled and in great working condition. This is arguably one of the finest TLRs out there. So if it was about the photography, there would hardly be a reason to get more TLRs.

It is GAS, pure and simple. It had me rummaging through the internet again only weeks after my Rolleiflex purchase. And the Zeiss Ikoflex III caught my attention with its weird Albada viewfinder. I believe it is not the only TLR to feature one, but this feature is definitely rare in TLRs. The Ikoflex III is largely forgotten today, so a wordy introduction is uncalled for but here it is anyway:

Behold the mighty Ikoflex III – beautiful and really quirky

Zeiss Ikon was a conglomerate of four camera makers that was formed in 1925. They had a very broad range of products from humble boxes to cameras that were to rival and better the best in class. They challenged Leitz with the Contax II and III, featuring a real rangefinder for framing and rangefinding in the same window  (Leitz only introduced that with its Leica M-Series) and a faster shutter speed (1/1250). Some say Zeiss lenses were also clearly superior.

When it came to TLRs, Rollei was the company to beat. And they wouldn’t make it easy for the competition. In 1937 Reinhold Heidecke of Rollei won the prestigious Grand Prix at the World Fare in Paris for the Rolleiflex Automat. This little marvel would transport the film and cock the shutter in a single, swift crank action and you wouldn’t need to look at a small red window to find out about the frame count. No Sir, all taken care of by mechanics. That was about as far as automation would go, but it was really far by the standards of the day. Zeiss Ikon of course rose to the challenge and responded in 1939 by releasing the Ikoflex III. Well, actually they already had released an Ikoflex III in 1938. But with my countrymen being efficient, logical and larger than life in general when it comes to photographic equipment, they decided to call the up-to-that-point model III the II/III retroactively and release the new model as the III. Makes perfect sense. I just don’t know to whom.

A sailing cutter on the “exterior Alster”. A glorified mill pond (quite nice though) in the center of Hamburg. Just about large and deep enough to sail on.

View of the exterior Alster from Krugkoppelbrücke looking south. It is extremely popular for water sports of all kinds and notorious for being crowded and for its everchanging winds. If you want to learn to sail a dinghy, do it there. If you can make it there, you´ll make it anywhere.

Anyway, Zeiss Ikon tried to beat Rollei so hard the effort was almost comical. Most obviously, they gave it a pretty hefty lens, a Zeiss Tessar 2,8 80mm. That was not the fastest TLR taking lens in the market, the Foth-Flex II had an f 2,5 taking lens. But it was certainly faster than the Zeiss supplied Tessar in the Rolleiflex. Eat that, Reinhold. They also gave it a hideously complex transport and cocking mechanism which could do the same as the Rollei mechanism, but with a shorter rotation of 180 degrees only. What do you say to that Mr. Heidecke?

Winding Crank with folding knob and rather beautiful frame counter

The Albada Viewfinder was admittedly dimmer than a Rolleiflex Sportsfinder (which is merely a cut out you can open in the viewfinder hood – it has no glass in it and is perfect for zone focus picture taking), but it featured a parallax correction mechanism coupled to the focusing knob. Well, that´ll teach you, Rollei.

View through the Albada finder to demonstrate parallax correction: Left: Focus to infinity. Right: Set to minimum focus distance. Innovative, but ergonomically challenging. To focus, you would look into the finder from above. To control the framing, you´d have to look into the finder from behind.

The Ikoflex also has a neat indicator to tell you that it is loaded with film.

The F in the red field tells you there´s film in the camera

It has another indicator which is even better because it will show you a black disk when the shutter is not cocked. It will then show you a red disk when it is cocked. You´ll want to know that because you can’t lock the shutter release button which is really light to trigger. Finally, it will show you a white disk when the self-timer is activated which is also handy as the self-timer lever will move back into position after actuating it.

Black: Shutter not cocked – Red: Shutter cocked – White: Self Timer set

Oh yes, and it of course has a Compur Rapid shutter going up to 1/400th of a second. The instructions tell you not to force the 1/400th AFTER cocking, it´ll break the shutter. And it has a body of magnesium alloy to keep the weight down. So. There you have it. Give up Rollei. Zeiss Ikon is getting ready to walk all over you. All that could be bought for 320 Reichsmark which was ludicrous money for a camera. This is like Ford taking on Ferrari with the GT… But it was not to be. Few cameras were made (~ 8.500) and then WWII started only shortly after production of the Ikoflex III had begun. A chapter of its own…

I had to have one, obviously. Obvious to anyone who suffers from GAS as well. I found one on ebay which was advertised as “working”. The model III is not a very common  item on auction websites. 3 out of 4 will not be in working condition. My copy had a lot of dings and dents as they all had when I was looking. And most of it seemed to work, except the 1/400th and the focusing, which was extremely stiff. It would turn, but I was afraid of breaking something, it was so stiff. So I gave it to one of my trusted shops here in Hamburg  (Foto-Wannack). They feature a fine selection of second hand gear and cooperate with a seasoned repair guy. Who opened the camera and let me know it was going to be his masterpiece. It was the most mechanically complex camera he had ever seen. Then, sadly, he fell ill for some time and was unable to work. When he returned he let me know that the stiffness of the focusing knob was caused by corrosion in some obscure bearing of some rod in the focusing mechanism. He literally said “there is metal blossoming” probably meaning that something like Magnesium alloy does not do something as mundane as rust. And that there was a 1:5 chance to break the camera terminally when trying to remove that. You will find that this is a frequent issue with the model III.

I took the chance, it didn´t break and it finally came back. It works fine now, but the lens board has some play (I “fixed” that with a little bit of felt). It was then that I discovered another Ikoflex III on the internet – compared to mine, it was pristine and was advertised as fully working. Which it was as I found out when I bought it at a very reasonable price… Don´t call me an idiot. My better half has done that for you already.

A family happily canoeing along on the exterior Alster

A nice little Café on the exterior Alster, where you can also hire boats for a trip. Mind you, you will need a license for hiring a sailboat, more specifically a license for interior waters. That is because a) we are Germans and you have to have a license, b) you still don´t get it, do you, we are GERMANS so not just any old license but the CORRECT one and c) the people renting out the boats are tired of towing “unexperienced sailors” off the banks of the Alster who merely know how to cross the Atlantic.

I like to have excuses for my more obvious stupidities. In the case of cameras, I usually go for a project that I make up after the fact. Here, the camera lent me a hand with the year of its release: 1939. Anyone living in Europe will recognize its significance. So the project is the following: I will try to find the traces of the year 1939 in my home town of Hamburg and will take pictures using this very Ikoflex and materials which would be like those available at the time.

Historically, that is not quite as simple as it sounds. There are things that happened in 1939 in Hamburg that are well known and documented. WWII in Europe starts, of course and affects Hamburg. But before that, the odyssey of the “St.Louis” begins in Hamburg. Look it up, it is worthwhile finding out about it. The Neuengamme concentration camp becomes operational… The battleship “Bismarck” is launched in the Blohm & Voss yard. But I wonder… Of course these are very important things that left traces and must form a part of the project. But there also must have been something else. People in Hamburg were not just engaged in genocide and wars of aggression, they also had a life like most of us have today, which makes it all the more crazy and sad. There is next to nothing about that on the internet. So I will dig in local newspaper archives to see what that other part of life was like, the not being a Nazi, committing crimes and making war part. And of course there are people who were born in that year and some of them will still be around today. Maybe they should be in the project, too?

Technically, some research seems to suggest that Fomapan 100 is comparable to films available in the 1930ies, although it is obviously faster than the standard films of the day. I´m open to suggestions which film stock comes closer to what they had in the day! Rodinal certainly was around in the thirties. Buying that is simple. Using it expertly is not. I have last developed a film 38 years ago and even then only a few rolls of 35mm. This piece shows the results of my initial trials with Fomapan 100 and R09 one shot developer (a Rodinal derivative) and as you can see there’s dirt and artefacts and I´m not sure about the quality of the development and the scans. I believe the pictures are nowhere near as good as they would have been in the day: The Ikoflex III was intended for people willing to spend a lot on a camera, so they´d either have known what they were doing or had access to someone who did. I, on the contrary, have to yet start mastering the basics of film development and handling. Btw, scanning was done with a digital camera and manual macro lens and post processing was done in GIMP. I´m pretty bad at all of that, too. A long way to go!

Before I close this off, just a few experiences with this camera I´d like to share. It has a really short focus throw. Because of that, I don’t much like to use the 2,8 aperture because even with the in-built magnifying glass (a beautiful piece) it is not simple to focus precisely.

Here´s a short focus throw for you

The screen is a little bit dim. I don´t know if that is due to deterioration of the mirror over 82 years. The ergonomics are not all optimal. The shutter release is positioned high up on the right side of the body and you press downwards. That gives me the feeling that I`m also tilting the camera in the process. So for optimal sharpness, as always, use a tripod and a cable release. The lens has no coating and is prone to ghosting. Use a hood.

A lightship on the river Elbe. See what I mean when I say ghosting?

Up: button to open viewfinder hood. Below: button to open the camera back. Do not confuse the two. Do not ask me why I tell you not to.

A view of the Krugkoppelbrücke. I honestly don´t know what went wrong here. Anyone got a clue?

So, the Zeiss Ikoflex III is a quirky TLR that I bought – twice – despite the fact that I already have a much superior TLR. But it has a project going with it which I need time to learn the necessary facts and skills for and that is good because every minute spent on that project is not spent on hunting for more cameras. What’s not to like?

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Steve
    February 21, 2022 at 10:31 am

    Re the bridge shot, circle of confusion maybe???
    Steve.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for having a look! I had to look the circle of confusion up and Wikipedia says: “In optics, a circle of confusion is an optical spot caused by a cone of light rays from a lens not coming to a perfect focus when imaging a point source. It is also known as disk of confusion, circle of indistinctness, blur circle, or blur spot.” I´m not sure if that fits what I see in the picture. I guess a point source would be a source of light, such as the sun or stars? Anyway, with this old camera I find myself in a circle of confusion sure enough 😉

      • Reply
        James T
        February 21, 2022 at 1:57 pm

        It looks like an internal reflection from some bare metal in the inside of the lens barrel.

        • Reply
          Stefan Wilde
          February 21, 2022 at 5:35 pm

          Possibly, there was an issue with an aperture blade. Adrian (see below) points to a light trap issue – I´ll have that looked at.

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        February 21, 2022 at 3:29 pm

        re. circle of confusion – see: https://www.ilfordphoto.com/zone-focusing/
        What do you call a bunch of photographers sat around a table talking about depth of field…? 😂😉

        • Reply
          Stefan Wilde
          February 21, 2022 at 5:09 pm

          😀 I guess there are many more circles of confusion and they overlap…

  • Reply
    Nick Lyle
    February 21, 2022 at 10:56 am

    There is nothing like a TLR. I love working with them, and often love the images made with them. A friend gave me a Rolleiflex Automat EVS MX, which got me started in the right foot. Next I found a fully working Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex 1C in a thrift store. This is a much simpler machine than your earlier model, with the least absurd film advance of any Ikoflex model. I was even able to clean and lubricate the focus mechanism myself. Even the light meter is still accurate, though the shutter runs slow. In any case the Novar triplet lens on this camera is truly wonderful; in some ways I like it better than the more contrasty Tessar on the Rollei. Then an old man from Germany supplied me with the lovely little Deco Rolleicord from the early 1930s. This tiny camera has a dim taking lens and a fading mirror, but still works fine. I like wide angle lenses, so recently acquired a Mamiya C220 with a 65mm lens. This camera is a joy to use, with a bright sharp viewfinder. I have to dispute your suggestion that only GAS compels a person to collect more than one TLR. Each of these cameras produces quite different images. I do have to admit that the Rolleiflex is the most impressively clever machine, and overall the easiest to use, but the others are certainly not redundant.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      Hi Nick,

      thanks for your comment, although it triggers my GAS again! You have a very interesting collection of TLRs! I´ve been very interested in the Mamiya TLRs as well for the same reason. What is your experience – do they work hand held?

      • Reply
        Scott Gitlin
        February 22, 2022 at 10:06 pm

        I’ve used the C220 hand-held with a porro-finder up top which allows you to view at eye-level via prisms. My porro-finder has a built-in CDS light-meter – kind of a lollipop that swings into the center of the frame for a reading.

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/sgitlin/6783364630/in/album-72157628687960963/

        • Reply
          Stefan Wilde
          February 23, 2022 at 8:49 am

          Hi Scott, that´s interesting information! So Mamiya TLRs can also be used hand held. I didn´t know there is a porro finder for the Mamiya. I have one for my Rolleiflex, but I didn´t use it a lot because of the added weight. I like using the sports finder and leave the rest to zone focussing, but of course that works for touristy snaps and not if you want to place your focus carefully.

          • Terry B
            February 24, 2022 at 2:04 pm

            Stefan, I used the C330, first model and pre- the f model, for many years handheld without any issues, despite the weight. Often for picture taking, the weight of a TLR is far less relevant than with heavy 35mm systems where the arms always carry the weight when composing and taking the picture. With my TLR cameras, starting with my first Yashicamat in 1963, right up to my present small collection of 6×6 TLR cameras comprising of a Rolleiflex 3.5f, Rollei Magic II, Yashica 24, and the last Mamiya, the C330S, I always carried them on a neck strap. I could walk around all day and not notice the weight.

            The neck strap was as short as practical and which only required a small upwards movement to bring the waist level finder for focusing. And an even shorter movement when the cds magnifying hood was being used. For still life indoor shots, or outdoor closeups, the camera was better suited to being tripod mounted as the chances are the bellows would be in use and critical focusing would be problematic if these images were attempted hand-held.

            A C330 is certainly more versatile than a conventional fixed lens TLR and if its close up bellows capability grabs you then in the field of TLR’s it’s King. Parallax will always be an issue with a TLR, but Mamiya solved it with its Paramender, at least for static subjects and closeups where it comes into its own, and does a far better job than the Rollei closeup lenses where the viewing optic contains a prism. Placed between the camera and tripod head, viewing/framing is carried out as normal, and then by a quick flip of a lever the whole camera is moved vertically by the precise amount equal to the displacement of the lenses. It works a treat.

            Could I recommend a C330 series to you? Yes. Could I wholeheartedly recommend it to you? No. Only you can decide. So here’s me sitting on the fence!

  • Reply
    Adrian Cullen
    February 21, 2022 at 1:07 pm

    Lovely article on a neglected but unreliable classic. I have no other camera that has required more attention from my local technician. The insanely complicated shutter cocking, interlock and frame counter have been a constant source of frustration. Whilst the lens is really beautiful anyone considering one of these has to take into account the likely bill to keep it going.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 1:18 pm

      Hi Adrian,

      Thanks for your kind reply! I´m afraid you´re quite right to warn against reliability issue. My second Ikoflex III was acquired from an old collector. He´s a retired school teacher like his father was. His father also used to repair cameras for local photography stores and he caught the virus and learned the skills. Since writing the article, it has been back with him two times now. First, the slow speeds needed an overhaul and then the self-timer jammed leading to the camera being totally incapacitated. The lovely gentleman, 85 years of age, repaired both issues for free. However, had I taken it to a workshop it would have been a different story. I´d really love to pay this gentlemen a visit to have and see if he can teach me a thing or two.

  • Reply
    Peter Roberts
    February 21, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    Thank you for a wonderfully entertaining article, Stefan. It had me chuckling out loud in places.
    The photos I found evocative. Hamburgers messing around in boats? I don’t suppose that has changed much since 1939.
    In my experience having a project to justify an attack of GAS can be counter-productive, sometimes I think a have as many projects on the go as I have cameras. Could this be termed PAS I wonder?
    Gruß aus London!

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 5:12 pm

      Hi Peter,

      glad you enjoyed it! As for PAS, I´m afraid I don´t suffer from that as much, I just have two ongoing projects – which is quite enough as I don´t have as much time as I´d like to spend on photography. But I´d love to know what´s on your list!

      • Reply
        Peter Roberts
        February 21, 2022 at 9:57 pm

        Thanks for your interest Stefan,
        Projects on my list include:
        Two based around local history, always a useful starting point,
        A then and now series using my images from the seventies and eighties with as near as possible the cameras I used at the time (hence GAS),
        As you mentioned WW2, a project on Battle of Britain memorials which will be as non-partisan as I can possibly make it,
        And then there’s the big one: teaching my wife film photography!
        None of these may ever be completed let alone see an appearance on 35mmc, although I wouldn’t rule out the occasional 5 Frames post. But they do give my photography a purpose: collecting cameras is one thing, using them to create meaningful images is quite another.
        Your article has also reminded me that sitting in my cabinet is a Rolleicord. It’s currently fitted with a Rolleikin 35mm adapter making it more quirky and awkward to use than it was in it original state. I really must give that another outing sometime.
        All the very best and stick at it.
        Peter

        • Reply
          Stefan Wilde
          February 22, 2022 at 5:04 pm

          That is an impressive list indeed! I would love to see the then / now pictures! With regards to teaching your wife – my better half isn´t really interested in the technicalities of photography, but she runs rings around me as an artist. It would be difficult to say who´s teacher and who´s student… I agree, a sense of purpose in photography is crucial. It keeps one going! Looking forward to seeing 5 frame posts from you going forward!
          Stefan

  • Reply
    Terry B
    February 21, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    What a wonderful article, Stefan. And who says Germans don’t possess a sense of humour!

    Zeiss Ikon has always appeared to me to be a somewhat schizophrenic company. They spot a good idea – Leica 35mm, Rollei TLR, and later slr, and somehow manage to cock things up in trying to better them or be the best. Sometimes they succeed but have also produced cameras so complicated that servicing or repairing them can be a nightmare, such as with their highly complicated Contarex cameras. With Leica, they had to overcome Leitz patents and so came up with the vertical shutter and unusual film winding/speed setting knob on the front of the body in the Contax 1 and somewhat prone to failure. Fortunately, they put matters right with the superb Contax II and III.

    The images lack a lot of contrast, IMO, but this is very unlikely to be caused by an uncoated lens. I mean, look at all those images taken before coated lenses, such as those from Atget, for example. I suspect it is a developer/film issue. Quite what happened here, I don’t know as I never used, nor liked images developed in it. Have you tried something like Kodak D76/Ilford ID11? These may be a better match.

    Re your last image, this is very unusual to say the least. Has it only happened once? I can’t conceive of it being developer related, more likely a camera issue. But what? Looking into the light area the leaves beyond are well defined so it seems part of the negative has received additional exposure. But why tangentally, and with a clearly defined defined cut off towards the centre. A wild guess is one of the leaf shutter blades wasn’t moving as fast as the others thus allowing more light to pass through the arc it covers. Or a victim of shutter “bounce” where the blades return to their closed stop position but rebound a little before finally settling to the fully closed state. Could this be happening with just one blade? Wild conjecture on my part, so it would be interesting to hear from othere more knowledgeable.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 5:26 pm

      Hi Terry, thanks for your nice comment! Yes, Zeiss Ikon seemed to be a bit obsessed with being technically leading and if the Ikoflex III is anything to go by, they tended to get ahead of themselves. Leica and Rollei on the other hand seem to have doggedly pursued refinement of the same ideas over and over and only tried fundamentally new things when it couldn´t be avoided – and when it was too late. Reminds me of Volkswagen sticking to Diesel engines. I wonder how businesses develop these different cultures.

      As for the lack of contrast, yes, it could be the developer, but it also could be my digitalizing. I will work on both!

      As for the last picture, yes, that has only happened once. Indeed there was an issue with one of the apperture blades which is now sorted out. Adrian Cullen (see below) has a suspicion it is an issue with light traps – I´ll have my repair man look into it, as the camera undoubtedly will be in his workshop again soon enough…

  • Reply
    Bill Brown
    February 21, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Stefan, a lovely portrait of this gentleman, shot with this camera and in his repair shop. If there’s an existing photo of his father that could be positioned into the new photo also? Then a nice 8×8 print.

    I’ve never owned a TLR but they have such an iconic look to them.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 5:27 pm

      Well, here is a brillant idea, thank you!

  • Reply
    Adrian Cullen
    February 21, 2022 at 2:36 pm

    The fogging in the final image is probably due to deterioration of the light traps inside around the aperture and SS sliders . I had the same issue.

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 21, 2022 at 5:28 pm

      Hi Adrian, sounds convincing, I´ll have them looked at!

    • Reply
      Terry B
      February 22, 2022 at 10:27 am

      Adrian, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. My one big reservation about my thoughts on shutter bounce or a faulty shutter blade is that I couldn’t explain away the sharply defined central ring. As even if there was an issue with one blade it occurred within the lens and as such would affect the image overall. Your highlighting a light leak occurring around a circular part of the structure more readily explains the circular effect in the image. Many hand torches exhibit a bright outer circle of light with a darker centre and your suggestion somewhat emulates the effect seen in the image.

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    February 21, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Nice article- thanks. Circle of Confusion has to do with Depth of Field. and has nothing to do with the internal reflection in your shot. (I also had a short-lived band called Circle of Confusion – no photographer ever commented on it, much to my disappointment)

  • Reply
    Stefan Wilde
    February 21, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    Hi Kurt,

    thanks for reading! Circle of Confusion can be related to so many things; a round about in Lübeck where I used to live, the German government, the choir I last sung in before the pandemic… I guess even photographers will have so many associations that they were excused for not joining the dots when it came to the band name. However, as a band name I find it very appealing!

  • Reply
    Jens
    February 22, 2022 at 1:10 pm

    Habe erst vorhin auf Flickr herrliche Bilder von Steve Mitchell angeschaut, der auf einer Ikoflex mit 75er Tessar in Neuseeland fotografiert.
    Aber Deine Bilder und Infos zur Ikoflex hier sind auch wunderbar !

    • Reply
      Stefan Wilde
      February 22, 2022 at 5:02 pm

      Wow, der kann es aber! Da hab ich noch einen langen Weg vor mir… Vielen Dank für deinen netten Kommentar!

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