5 frames with...

5 Frames with a Zeiss Ikon Contessa – by Thomas Bell

May 24, 2018

My name is Thomas Bell. I’m a hobbyist photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia. I come from a film crew background, so Im used to the mechanics of photography, but until I picked up analog still cameras I had only shot true celluloid film a handful of times. I picked up the film habit just under a year ago, when I was presented with my late Grandfather’s pristine Zeiss Ikon Contessa (2nd Version). This camera probably hadn’t seen the light of day in 30 years, but I cleaned off the lens, popped in some expired Ultramax 400, and one week later I was one roll into a healthy celluloid addiction. 

The Zeiss is a really solid camera. It just feels well made. Im just lucky this one is still in good condition. The Zeiss Tessar 45mm f/2.8 is relatively sharp, especially when you stop it down. It’s a little difficult to get exact focus and tack-sharp while wide open. The lens folds out with a nice, firm click and holds steady, while the gear-like focus  feels smooth and quick. One of the real surprises is that the meter still works. I exposed the first few rolls using nothing but the meter and they all came out wonderfully.

The (few) Grievances: I wish the viewfinder was a little bigger, the shutter speed dial doesn’t fully reach the 1/500th mark, and the film loads backwards, meaning that your scans come back upside down from the lab.

Its a fun, solid, no-frills rangefinder, and I’m a lucky man.
More on my instagram

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  • Reply
    Terry B
    May 24, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    Lovely camera, Thomas.
    Your comment about the 1/500 second setting set me thinking. I don’t have this model, but on some of the early compur shutters with 1/500 you will find that you have to push harder to set it, there is a noticeable resistance to be overcome. Also, you may find the 1/500 speed probably needs to be set before you cock the shutter. Hope this helps.

    • Reply
      Thomas Bell
      May 25, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      You’re totally right about the resistance, though Im terrified I might break it if I try. It is a 60 year old camera after all!

  • Reply
    Martin south of France
    May 24, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    Stunning photos. I had one of these fine fine cameras but sold it during hard times……how I wished I still had it!! Great write up and thanks, many thanks!!

  • Reply
    May 24, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Dude. Your Improbability Drive is exceeding 42. “True celluloid” (the highly flammable nitrocellulose film base) went out of use in the early 1950’s, and you’re most likely shooting a cellulose acetate film. It’s Film, nevertheless, and you do it proud. Those old Zeiss Ikons are beauties, solid little gems of German engineering, and the Tessar shows no lack for its 50++ years. Lucky man, indeed.

    • Reply
      Thomas Bell
      May 25, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      One cannot exceed the Answer, only find a different way of asking. DEEP.
      I think that might be the nicest internet correction I’ve ever received! You’re right, we currently shoot on cellulose acetate. The term ‘celluloid” became sort of a catch-all nickname for motion picture and still film, or at least in the circles I ran in. Thanks for the kind words about the Zeiss!

  • Reply
    Kathleen Johnson
    May 24, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Welcome to the 35 mm Film world……..Looks like a fun camera. I inherited my Grandfather’s Argus Brick. Similar complaint about the view finder and focusing. But somehow our ancestors coped.

    • Reply
      Thomas Bell
      May 25, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Indeed they did. The world is a better place because of their terrible burden.

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    May 25, 2018 at 2:49 am

    What a beautiful piece of optical & mechanical engineering. It just must be so such fun shooting with the camera. I would imagine it’s a ‘people magnet’ and you’ve met some interesting people while out shooting.

  • Reply
    November 18, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Hi Thomas, 6 months have passed since you posted these pictures. How is the Contessa working out for you? And did you need to have the camera overhauled or professionally cleaned? Cheers from Mississippi.

  • Reply
    Thomas Bell
    November 22, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    I recently took the Contessa with me so I could shoot some Foma 100 while on a trip to Fort Worth. When I got the pictures developed I found that the focus was off on EVERY picture. The focus was consistently feet or tens of feet farther than where the rangefinder said it was. Im not sure what happened in the months between the last roll I put through the Contessa and this one, but I think the time has finally come for a true CLA. Like I said in the article, I hadn’t done anything but clean the lens previously. Its possible this camera hasn’t been serviced in decades. Hopefully a full CLA will get this sucker shooting soon!

  • Reply
    Rudolf Borgardijn
    April 14, 2019 at 2:45 am

    Hi Thomas, what a sad story about the focus being off on EVERY picture. I recently acquired a Contessa at an auction (Catawiki) and I’m very happy with this beautiful machine. That’s why your story touches me and prompts me to think along. Thinking of the problem the unreachable 1/500 jumped into my memory. Indeed you have to turn the knurled ring with a decent amount of force because it has to overcome the strong spring that takes care of the 1/500. Likewise, when opening the camera, some force has to be applied on the front cover in order to let it overcome some resistance and let it click firmly into the fully opened position. Open your camera without this click and see that the angle between front cover and body is less than 90〫 . The lens, though parallel to the film plane, is not fully extended, it is focused way beyond infinity. Some 2,1 mm too close to the film plane, equalling some 3/32 in. Now apply some brute force downward on the front cover until you hear a firm click and, lo and behold, the angle between body and front cover shows a proud 90〫 ! And the distance between lens and film plane is as it should be.
    I am curious: maybe there is some vignetting, caused by the front cover, visible on the bottom of all the pictures?
    My own Contessa: at first quite unhappy. There was a film in the camera, as advertised, but the shutter couldn’t be released and the film could neither be advanced nor wound back. A few hours ago I removed the film from the camera and tried all of its functions. It proves to be fully ok now.
    My more or less educated guess: probably nothing serious happened to your Contessa in the past months. Just be sure the front cover is fully down.
    Giving it a thorough CLA is a wise decision anyway. Mine will be CLA’d quite soon. Happy shooting! Rudolf
    Naarden, Netherlands April 14 2019

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