I don’t know what I was doing or even where I first got my first glimpse of a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex SLR but I do remember in that moment I had to have one. I’m not sure how to describe its “look”, but to me it harkened back to a time long past; a time when craftsmanship was a true priority.
The Contaflex didn’t present itself to me as a “professional’s” camera. I envisioned it as traveling on vacations and being a vital participant in family holiday celebrations. It seemed to be surrounded by a quaint charm of nostalgia. Then there was the name, it was a ZEISS.
For the next number of days my discretionary internet time was spent researching and reading everything I could find on this seeming jewel of a camera. Everything I read confirmed for me that I just had to have one. Thus I immediately found myself on a quest for one, but it had to be the RIGHT one.
From I what I had read, their shutters had a tendency to become sticky and slow or even completely non-working over time. It was also critical (to me at least) that it still had the original take-up spool inside which I had read tended to get lost a bit easier than I would have imagined. It was also my desire to get an earlier rather than later production model.
Within a couple of weeks of first becoming infatuated with the Contaflex line of cameras, I found one that seemed to be “right”. The seller confirmed as best they could that all functions worked as they should, the original spool was present, and (apart from an inscription engraved on the back of the camera by a previous owner) was in pretty much pristine condition. With a cost of $40 (free shipping) I clicked the “Buy” button and it was on its way!
From about 1953 until the very early 1970’s I believe 13 different variations of the Contaflex were produced by Zeiss. Mine was to be the Super (first model Super) made in late 1959 or early 1960 based on the serial number.
When it arrived it was everything I had hoped for and more. It was quite compact yet had substantial heft due to its mostly metal construction. The articles I read did not exaggerate the exquisite viewfinder. It was amazingly bright and very easy to focus and compose with.
Winding and firing the shutter gave the impression of being made like a fine Swiss watch. The rewind mechanism was so smooth and precise that it just begs to be used. In addition to the beautiful workmanship and operation, the Contaflex is uniquely charming in the quirkiness of its operation.
The space and the purpose of this article prevent me from going into detail regarding its operation (besides, there are plenty to be found in a basic internet search) but suffice it to say that setting the aperture and shutter speed are not necessarily intuitive, yet they are simple to master. This camera is not designed for fast action but rather for a more contemplative or intentional style photography. My copy, thankfully, also had a perfectly functioning light meter though it is quite capable of being shot in full manual mode.
When it came time to put my first roll through my new German-engineered camera I thought what better film to shoot in it than Berlin Kino 400(that I had ordered on a whim). Honestly, it was a natural connection; a famed German brand combined with a film so named after the famed German city. Perfect!
When my Contaflex arrived it was winter here on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska where I live but couldn’t fathom waiting for warmer or sunnier weather so I loaded the Contaflex and headed out into the cold to shoot. The camera was an absolute pleasure to carry and shoot as I wandered the snowy city where I call home. In retrospect though, I wish I would have chosen a film such as my favorite Ilford Delta 400 as the conditions and context I don’t believe suited the strong points of the Berlin film.
There was a bit more grain and less contrast than I was expecting, but then again, the light and compositions were working against what I believe its strengths are, sadly. Someday I would like to give Berlin Kino another shot under better conditions. The Zeiss Contaflex, though, was a joy to shoot with. While I don’t ever believe it will replace my Nikon FM or Yashica-Mat TLR as my “go-to” film cameras, I do look forward to having it in the rotation to be shot on a regular basis.