The Contax I and Leica of 1932
In 1925 Ernest Leitz began commercial production of the Leica, a camera which revolutionized photography. Able to take pictures on 35mm movie stock of high enough resolution to permit enlargements to be printed of acceptable quality, the 35mm format was accepted for serious work. The camera sold well in the later years of the 1920's, and Zeiss took note. In 1930, Zeiss released a simple 35mm camera, the Tenax, which took 24x24mm images. By 1931 they had a prototype ready of the Contax. In 1932, they went head to head with Leitz starting one of the biggest rivalries in Photographic history.
The cameras have their similarities. Both are full frame (24x36mm), 35mm rangefinder cameras using the same basic film cassette. Both are backed with spectacular lenses, and an overwhelming number of accessories to enable the user the maximum versatility to cover virtually any given situation. Both are built to the highest standards, with impeccable fit and finish. The layout, with the coupled rangefinder on top, and with focal plane shutters, are the same.
But they are different more than they are alike. The Leica is a simple design. And through it's simplicity, it gains reliability and ease of service. Zeiss looked for the optimum qualities the camera should have, and worked backwards, unafraid of building something complex. It was a pattern Zeiss would keep to the end. The Leica has a simple cloth shutter running horizontally. That means the shutter slit travels the long dimension of the film. Zeiss felt it would be better to have it run the short dimension, and so designed it to run vertically. This requires additional gearing as the wind motion has to be carried in two different directions, for the film and shutter movement. Zeiss also felt the shutter would be better made from metal panels, like those on a garage door.
The Contax has a longer rangefinder base, which in theory would make it more accurate. The Contax has a focus wheel on the body, and the focus helical built into the camera. The back and baseplate remove for ease of loading. These were all features that gave the Contax an advantage. But the Leica had it's following as well.
Both sides made improvements to their cameras, adding features and refining their designs. In 1936 Zeiss introduced the redesigned Contax line, featuring two models, the Contax II and III. The cameras were cosmetically very different from the Contax I. Finished in satin chrome, they lost the blocky, rectangular shape to a more sleek design that fit better in your hands. The viewfinder and rangefinder were combined for quicker shooting. The shutter had all of the speeds on a single dial that did not rotate when the film was wound or the shutter fired. The camera also had a self timer on the front.
The Contax II and III were essentially the same except for one major difference. The Contax III had a selenium light meter built on top of the camera. While the Contax and Leica were locked in a struggle for supremacy, both were highly regarded and sold well
Then there was a war.
While war is often cited with being good for industry, it often carries a price. As the German government increased hostilities, markets were lost. Raw materials and then even production was appropriated. The Leica was chosen for use by the air force. Both the Leica and Contax were used by other branches. Zeiss had developed the coating of lenses. This technology was shared with Leitz. Zeiss was required to build lenses in Leica screw mount.
An example of the 50/1.5 Sonnar in Leica mount
When Germany surrendered, Zeiss was in shambles. It's factories were spread across a country divided by occupying forces that disliked each other even more than they disliked their common enemy. Somehow the US managed to round up the key personnel and spirit them to the western half of the country. The Russians packed up the prestigious Contax production line, and all of the available fabricated parts and hauled them to Kiev. They built a series of cameras, the Kiev, which is a true extension of the pre-war Contax, until the late 1980's.
Back in Stuttgart, the personnel at Zeiss were faced with a series of dilemmas. The patents they had held before the war had been made public as part of the terms of the surrender. The fruits of their research on lens coating was made public before they could even profit from it. They had started a small amount of production, but the plant at Dresden had been mostly destroyed in the firebombing, and with it, the plans and drawings of the Contax. They were forced to start over.
And if that wasn't enough, the West German Zeiss found itself at odds with the East German Zeiss, culminating in a series of legal battles, one of which was over the name Contax, which the East German Zeiss (soon to become VEB Pentacon) used on a revolutionary new SLR the Contax S.
Keeping the basic layout and lens mount, they redesigned the Contax line from scratch. The new cameras weren't ready until 1950 (the Leica had re-appeared on the market in 1947). They were smaller and lighter than their predecessors, and had flash synch available via a special cord, but otherwise they broke no new ground. The battle resumed, but this time there were four opponents instead of two. Nippon Kogaku, an unknown company from Japan was marketing a camera called the Nikon, and Canon was marketing a series of cameras mainly to the US servicemen through the PX stores. Neither make remained obscure for long.
The new Contax cameras were dubbed the IIa and IIIa, the IIIa being a IIa with a selenium meter attached to the top. They can quickly be differentiated from the earlier models by the rangefinder, which has a shorter base. The II and III have their rangefinder window further away from center than the focusing wheel. The IIa and IIIa both have the rangefinder window centered in the focus wheel.
In 1954 they changed the flash synchronization to accept a standard PC cord. They painted the shutter speeds different colors on the speed dial. These cameras came to be know as "color dial" cameras, the older version as "black dial". But it wasn't enough. Faced with competing against Leica's M3, the Nikon SP, and Canon's P and VI series, in 1960 they through in the towel. They had already made the move toward the SLR with the Contaflex line aimed at amateurs, and the new Contarex line aimed toward professionals.
Although they are overly complex machines, prone to problems that are difficult to fix, they are a mechanical marvel, and joy to hold.
It should be noted that Zeiss, in an irritating old habit, recycled the name Contax in the 1970's for use, first on a line of SLR cameras built in Japan by Kyocera, and later a series of upscale point and shoot cameras.
Contax II and III
Contax IIa and IIIa
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