I am a fan of square format images. The square format can certainly present compositional challenges, but it has some benefits – since the sides of the image are of equal length, the choice of portrait or landscape orientation no longer exists, which to me simplifies matters. Compared to rectangular image formats, the square format also fits better in (and therefore makes more efficient use of) the image circle of lenses. But ultimately, my fondness for this format is not based on logic, physics or optics – I just like it! And seeing the outstanding work of photographers (for example, Michael Kenna) who shoot predominantly or exclusively in this format only feeds my enthusiasm for it.
My introduction to square format photography
After shooting 35mm digital and then film cameras for some time, I felt the urge to try medium format, having read about the advantages of larger negatives, shallower depths of field at any given aperture etc. I managed to satisfy two desires (trying medium format and using a twin-lens reflex camera) with my first 6×6 camera, a Yashica-Mat. The detail and 3-dimensional quality that I saw in the images from the first roll was a revelation, and I also discovered my love of square images (and of 6×6 twin-lens reflex cameras, but I digress!).
How I got my Zeiss Ikon Taxona
Being aware of square format only in the context of medium format cameras, I was intrigued by a recent thread in a photography forum in which 35mm square format cameras (such as the Zeiss Ikon Tenax II) were being discussed. Unfortunately, the Tenax II is relatively expensive, and not terribly common. Sensing my disappointment, one of the forum members from Germany suggested that I try the Zeiss Ikon Taxona, a simplified version of the Tenax. She very kindly offered to buy one for me in Germany and to send it to me, which she duly did a few days later.
A brief history of the Zeiss Ikon Taxona
In 1938, Zeiss Ikon introduced the Tenax II, a square format camera that used 35mm film and produced 24mm x 24mm negatives. The Tenax II was a beautifully made camera with a coupled rangefinder and interchangeable lenses. The following year, Zeiss Ikon launched the Tenax I, a much simpler version with a fixed lens and a folding viewfinder, and lacking the rangefinder. After the war, the East German Zeiss Ikon continued production of the Tenax, modifying its design in 1953 to include a fixed viewfinder and a revised chrome-tipped film advance lever; as the East German company lost the rights to use the West German Zeiss Ikon’s trade names, the camera was renamed ‘Taxona’. The film advance lever tip was made black in 1954, and the camera was produced until 1959.
Overview of the Taxona
The Zeiss Ikon Taxona is a scale focus 35mm square format 24mm x 24mm camera with a 37.5mm f3.5 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar lens. Minimum focus distance is ~0.8m. Shutter speeds range from bulb to 1/300s, and are set using a lever at the bottom of the lens. A sturdy black-tipped plunger on the left side advances the film and cocks the shutter, while the shutter is fired by depressing a lever on the right side of the lens.
The camera is small (~110mm wide, ~70mm high and ~50mm deep) but feels solid and has a decent heft to it. On the right of the top plate, there is a frame counter that must be manually set upon loading film; a 36 exposure roll of film yields 50 square 24x24mm frames. Film rewinding is accomplished using a knob on the left. My camera lacked a film take-up spool, but a spool from any Zeiss camera of the post-war era will work (I pilfered one from my Contaflex, and it worked perfectly).
A walk in New York with the Taxona
My Taxona arrived, neatly packaged with a lovely handwritten note wishing me “good pictures”! The following Saturday morning, I loaded it with a roll of Kentmere 400 black-and-white film, and hit the streets of New York.
My impressions of the Taxona
I carried the camera in one hand and used either the Sunny-16 rule or a small light meter (Voigtlaender VCII) intermittently when I was unsure of my estimation. For most situations, I set the camera to focus at ~6m, which using an aperture of ~f6.3 gave a depth of field extending from ~3m to infinity. Taking a picture then boiled down to previsualization, estimating/metering the exposure, putting the viewfinder to the eye to confirm framing, and making the exposure; in many instances, I found that I could accomplish these steps very quickly. As a result, most people around me were unaware that I was photographing, which was no doubt also aided by the small size of the camera and the extremely quiet shutter.
After each exposure, the film is advanced by a satisfying depression of the film advance lever with the left index finger. I operated the shutter release lever with the middle finger of my right hand, while the index finger rested on top of the body – this allowed maximum stability of the camera, and I was able to shoot easily at 1/15s with no adverse impact on the image. This diminutive camera may be a little difficult to handle for people with very large hands, although I did not have an issue, as long as I wrapped my fingers around the body; with a little practice, I found the ergonomics and shooting experience to be very comfortable.
I’m quite happy with the quality of the images from the Tessar lens. To my eye they are sufficiently sharp and show a good tonal range. Ultimately though, my Taxona will always carry with it the heartwarming memory of the generosity shown by the kind German lady who went out of her way to procure this lovely little camera for me.
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