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Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35

Discussion in 'Classic Models & Marques' started by AlexMonro, Jan 9, 2014.

  1. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35 533/24 1950-1955

    To anyone familiar with cameras designed in the last 50 years or so, the word
    unconventional might well occur quite frequently on first sighting an example of
    this lovely little camera. However, most of the design decisions are pretty
    logical, and result in an instrument that is quite pleasant to use in practice,
    once you get used to the idea that things are different.

    Firstly, it's a folding camera, a design style that's gone distinctly out of
    fashion, despite the fact that it gives a very pocketable form. Also, when
    folded, the lens, shutter, and most of the more delicate components are fairly
    well protected, so a case might not strictly be necessary, and strap lugs are
    mounted on the top sides of the camera body, allowing a strap to be secured
    directly to the camera.

    Next, the contra rotating prism optical coupled rangefinder - a standard feature
    of all Zeiss folding rangefinders such as the medium format Super Ikontas - that
    elegantly solves the problem of how do you couple the focussing distance from
    the lens focus control to the rangefinder patch in the viewfinder, when the lens
    has to be able to fold up relative to the body - it's all done by prisms,
    directly linked to the rotating front (focussing) lens element. The prism
    housing above the lens does give an unusual Cyclopsian appearance to the opened

    The large shutter release knob on the top (photographer's) right of the lens
    standard is also unusual, as is the fact that i's pressed sideways rather than
    inwards to fire the shutter. In his excellent book "Collecting and Using
    Classic Cameras", Ivor Matanle describes this location of the shutter release
    as a disadvantage for the user, but I find it very usable in practice, although
    it does prevent use of a cable release. The shutter needs to be cocked by a
    smaller lever just in front of the release, and a contemporary review in AP
    26th July 1950 cautions that you need to be careful not to catch the tensioning
    lever when it returns as the shutter is released - something that I soon

    Finally, the film advance is by knob rather than lever - common for the time -
    but less common, and distinctly odd for the last 30 years or so is that it, and
    the rewind knob, are on the bottom of the camera. The knobs on the top
    plate are the match needle readout for the uncoupled selenium exposure meter on
    the photographer's right, and a very basic film type reminder on the left.

    Moving on from the camera itself, the case is also slightly different to what
    you might expect. The large knob on the bottom, which you might think is the
    head of a screw that secures the case to the camera body, is in fact a film
    advance knob, coupled to the advance knob on the camera by two prongs inside
    the case which engage with two holes on the camera knob. The case is actually
    secured by two spring loaded sliding catches on the sides which have loops that
    hook over the camera body strap lugs, and also incorporate the case strap lugs.

    The light meter is a dual range type, with a perforated cover
    which cuts the light reaching the cell in bright conditions, where exposures are
    read from the green scale (there's a green marker on the top of the hinged cover
    which is only visible when the cover is closed, as a reminder). The meter is
    calibrated from 5 ASA to the dizzy heights (for 1950!) of 400 ASA, and mine
    still appears to be reasonably accurate, after allowing for the redefinition of
    exposure scales in the early 1960s, though sadly it seems to have an
    intermittent contact somewhere.

    The Tessar 45mm f/2.8 lens stops down to f/22, and focusses down to 3 feet, and
    AP's 1950 review described it as being "of first rate quality, giving high
    resolution even at full aperture", and my somewhat limited experience suggests
    that mine hasn't got much worse over the years.

    The shutter is an F Deckel Synchro Compur, with speeds from 1s to 1/500s and
    Brief Time (as "B" was understood to mean in the 1950s) It has flash
    synchronisation for M (slow bulbs) and X (fast bulbs and electronic) with a
    standard 3mm PC socket on the right side of the shutter housing - it seems to
    work very well with a modern Metz 36 C-2 electronic flash. Unfortunately,
    there is no delayed action (self timer) - and no tripod bush either, so
    definitely not a camera for self portraits!

    There is full interlocking to prevent double exposures and blank exposures -
    you can't fire the shutter if the film hasn't been wound on, and the wind knob
    is locked until the shutter has been released. This is controlled by two small
    sprockets inside the back below the film gate. Unfortunately there seems to be
    no way of deliberately creating double exposures should you wish to.

    Incidentally, anyone who says that you can't fire the shutter on a Contessa or
    similar vintage 35mm camera without a film loaded is ill informed - it's easy to
    fool the mechanism by advancing these sprockets with your fingers, Despite the
    film advance being by knob rather than lever, it's actually quite easy and

    Film loading is also fairly easy, at least compared to some vintage cameras.
    There's a hinged fully opening back, with the cassette chamber on the right, and
    the (non-removable) take up spool on the left. The take up spool has a large
    spring clip that you slide the film leader under, and a small hook that engages
    with a perforation. You then lay the film over the gate, making sure the
    sprockets engage, drop the cassette in, tension the film by turning the rewind
    ("R") knob (to make sure it doesn't spring away from the sprockets), close the
    back, make sure the frame counter (in the middle of the baseplate) is set the
    the "diamond" loading mark, and turn the advance ("A") knob until it stops - the
    frame counter should read "1"

    When you see a subject, open the front by sliding the release catch at the top
    centre of the folded up baseboard downwards, then pull the baseboard down until
    it clicks firmly in place. A quick meter reading, set shutter speed and
    aperture (aperture is the rearmost serrated ring on the shutter housing, shutter
    speed on the front, with scales for both along the top of the shutter), then
    focus with the viewfinder to your eye and left fingertip on the focus ring at
    the front of the lens - only 90 degrees from infinity to 3'. There is a depth
    of field scale around the top of the lens. The rangefinder patch is a smallish
    circle, and has a slight pink tint, which the 1950 AP review says makes
    focussing very easy - I certainly find it so.

    Tension the shutter with your right forefinger, then move your fingertip up
    slightly to the release knob, When you've taken the shot, you can quickly wind
    on with your left hand, and close the camera by squeezing the side plates that
    link the baseboard to the lens standard, then press the baseboard up until it
    clicks home. There's no need to set focus to infinity, unlike some other 35mm
    f folders, so it's very convenient for zone focus street shooters, for
    example. Then just slip it in your pocket - a large trouser pocket will do!

    When you reach the end of the roll (I usually get 38 or 39 shots from a
    nominal 36 exposure roll - Fuji seems to be slightly longer than Kodak!) press
    and hold the rewind release button in the centre of the advance knob, and turn
    the rewind ("R") knob until you feel the leader pull through into the cassette.
    About 2/3rds the way through, you'll understand why folding rewind cranks were
    invented (I think by Voigtlander on the Vitessa of similar vintage, but that's
    another story). However, at least there aren't any sharp protrusions to catch
    your fingers on, unlike some other vintage 35mm cameras.

    Overall, a fun camera to use, especially if you appreciate quirkiness. It
    probably wouldn't be a bad choice for street photography, where its easy
    pocketability and ability to preset zone focus would be useful. Writing back
    in the 1980s, Ivor Matanle seemed to think that Cointessas were fairly pricy
    due to collector's interest, but these days, on Ebay, they seem to be broadly
    in line with prices of other similar specification cameras such as Kodak
    Retinas - around £60 - 70 for a usable one with dodgy meter, to a couple of
    hundred or more for mint condition.
  2. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    Really enjoyable read -- seems very similar to my 1950's Zeiss 'CONTINA' with that Tessar lens and same film winder at base of case. I have done some good photos with my Contina-- some 16x12" B&W prints are sharp !
  3. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Yes, the Contina (folding version 522/24) was the same basic body design, without the exposure meter or coupled rangefinder, though there was a Contina with an uncoupled rangefinder (524/24). The Continas also tended to have lower spec lenses and shutters (Novar 45mm f/3.5 in Prontor SVS 1-300), and although McKeown's does list them having the higher spec Tessar 45/2.8 in Synchro Compur as in the Contessa, I've never seen one.

    The non-rangefinder folding Contina was first sold as the Ikonta 35, with the same catalogue number 522/24, from 1949, the name changing around 1952.

    Yes, I do have examples of all of these, and articles on them will probably appear in due course. If I get really organised, there may even be accompanying photos.

    Glad you enjoyed the article.
  4. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Here's a shot taken with the Contessa:


    Fore St Exeter, just before Christmas. Agfa Vista 200 £1 a 24 exp roll from Poundland, dev & scan by Boots. Exposure something like 1/50s @ f/5.6. The built in meter was having an intermittent off moment, so I used my rather newer Sekonic 208. A bit of perspective correction, saturation boost, and local contrast enhancement in Gimp - it was late afternoon of a fairly dull day.

    I actually know the bloke in the yellow high vis vest, but I don't think he noticed me! Leaf shutters are wonderfully quiet compared with a (D)SLR's mirror slap, that in normal city background noise, I usually can't actually hear it.

    Street photography isn't normally my thing, but the Contessa seemed so well suited for it that I thought I'd give it a go. It was fun - I might try some more.
  5. gray1720

    gray1720 Well-Known Member

    I have one of the Contina you mention, with the uncoupled rangefinder (a very odd idea - just makes scale focusing take twice as long!). It's nice, but distinctly fiddly.


    One thing I do like is that the never-ready case has a winder knob in it with two lugs that fit the cameras winder - very neat!

    Unfortunately the last roll of film I put through it came out looking as though it had been developed in Kamepa's drain, very flat and with all manner of weird halos in the sky. Must try it with my "spare roll" and develop a couple of frames in a tray to see if it;s the camera or that roll...


  6. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    looking forward to the review of the CONTINA please !! My one says on the ER case : Zeiss Ikon AG Stuttgart ,Germany 1216/24 and has 524/24 and B 37525 stamped in the black covering. It has the 45mm f2.8 Tessar and Synchro=Compur to 1/500th .
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2014
  7. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Ah, the Contina II model 524/24. I have one too, with the same cobination of Novar 45/3.5 in Prontor SV. I agree that an uncoupled rangefinder is not nearly as useful as a good depth of field scale - even with my coupled rangefinder cameras, I find myself using the DoF scale as often as the RF.

    I hope I can get my "camera portrait" looking as good as yours. Unfortunately, that might be a while. My "studio" is the kitchen table, and while it gets very nice natural light on summer afternoons, it's a bit trickier this time of year. My lighting kit is distinctly limited.

    The case mounted wind knob is great - I also have a Contina I ( the folding model without the RF, sometimes called Ikonta 35) that came with a case that doesn't have a coupled wind knob, so you have to take the camera out of the case to wind on! A right faff about...

    Is yours also the uncoupled rangefinder version? That would normally be the model 524/24. The non-RF basic folding Contina is the 522/24, also known as the Ikonta 35. If yours has the Tessar Lens, it sounds like the higher spec version than mine and Adrian's

    Incidentally, I think I've actually discovered some logic, or at least consistency, to Zeiss's model numbers. The 524/ prefix seems to denote an uncoupled rangefinder, in line with the medium format Mess Ikontas, 524/16 (6x6) and 524/2 (6x9). Of course, to be completely logical, it should be called Mess Ikonta 35 rather than Contina II! There is similar consistency in the numbering of the Super Ikonta BX 533/16 and the Contessa 533/24, which also has a coupled rangefinder and selenium exposure meter, and should by rights be called Super Ikonta 35. Still, Zeiss's strong point has always been quality photographic equipment rather than consistency... :)

    It might take me a little while before I do the review, I feel I should put at least one roll of film through it first. At least I've extracted it from the storage box. so it'll be next on the list. (As long as it wasn't the non-RF Contina you want to read about. That appears to be in another box (deduction from not finding it in the box I looked in :) ), but I'm not sure which other box...

    I sort of got a bit carried away with this vintage camera game back in the summer - for a while I was buying 2 or 3 a day! In retrospect, I wish I'd kept it to 2 or 3 a month, I'd've been better able to keep up with properly evaluating and getting to know each one. Let this be a warning to anyone else who catches the vintage camera bug! Still, I've got plenty to keep me occupied now...
  8. Malcolm_Stewart

    Malcolm_Stewart Well-Known Member

    I suspect my life long interest in things optical could well have been started by those "magical" Zeiss Ikon prism rangefinders. I imagine your Contessa was described in the relevant issue of the BJP Annual when I was using our under-stairs cupboard as a darkroom in my teens.

    And what did I buy for myself last Xmas? A vintage spectrometer, and at its heart is a prism.
  9. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Yes, there's something elegantly simple yet almost Heath Robinsonish about the Zeiss prism rangefinders. I think they are the essence of the charp of the cameras such as the Super Ikontas, Super Nettel, Tenax, and of course the Contessa that make them some of my favourite cameras, not necessarily for picture taking (though the Contessa and the Super Ikonta BX are that too), but as works of art in themselves.

    I haven't seen them described as "optically coupled" anywhere else, but to me it emphasises one of their main advantages - it gets round the main problem of how to link the lens focus mechanism to the rangefinder viewing patch through the complexities of a folding lens standard with the minimum of moving parts subject to wear - i.e. just the teeth in the gear train between the front focussing cell and the prisms.

    A spectrometer sounds like a wonderful toy!

    As someone with an interest in optics, you may like this article on LensRentals.com http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/12/iceland-spar-the-rock-that-discovered-optics, if you haven't already come across it.

    By the way, I've realised I made an error in my original article. The Contessa does have a tripod bush (1/4"), but in keeping with the unconventional theme, it's located on the front door - which is conventional for many folders, I suppose, but not ideal for balance, though very close to the nodal pint of the lens, so good for panoramas!
  10. gray1720

    gray1720 Well-Known Member

    I think the Contina has one in the same place, hidden under a little screw with a knurled head - which must be incredibly easy to lose when you've unscrewed it!

    (hadn't thought about the nodal point. Hmm!)
  11. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    [pedant mode]There's no such thing as "the nodal point of the lens" - a lens has two nodal points, and neither of them has anything to do with the no-parallax point for panoramic rotation, which is actually the position of the entrance pupil.[/pedant mode]
    Terrywoodenpic likes this.
  12. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    Re: Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35 ( Darkroom Under Stairs)

    I too used to use a 'Cupboard Under the Stairs' in East Ham, London -- my Mum would hold up a blanket over the door while I loaded a film into my 27/6d Austrian-made developing tank ( all Bakelite !) and my Dad would come home from Liverpool Street Station where he was a Porter and get told " one minute Ernie, the boy is in the cupboard, be careful of the light ! "
  13. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Yes, it was when I was looking at my Contina II that I realised that's what the strange knob on the door was. A close inspection of all the Contessas / Continas / Ikonta35s in my collection shows that about half are missing the blanking screw. I imagine that if they haven't been used for a while, they might get difficult to unscrew, although surprisingly I didn't find that with the ones I tried.
  14. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    As someone with a bit of a tendency to pedantry myself, I thank you for pointing that out.

    The annoying thing is, I now have dim recollections of you having pointed it out before, which I'd forgotten until now.

    Must try harder in future! :) (Quick edit of master file of the Contessa article...)
  15. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    Re: Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35 - Pictures of the Camera (7 photos)

    OK, if I'd been a bit more organised, I'd've included these with the original article. Probably not great photos (taken on kitchen table with natural daylight on a very cloudy afternoon, Pentax K20D and Tamron 90/2.8, mostly f/16 and exposures up to 25s) but at least they give some idea to people who haven't seen ove of these lovely old cameras.


    Front view in case, with front door (lensbed) closed, showing the tripod bush, which is directly in line with the entry pupil of the lens when the camera is unfolded.


    Front view of the camera when open, showing the rangefinder prisms above the lens, which give it a very distictive Zeiss look.


    Top view, showing the main controls, The built in exposure meter has two ranges, for dim and bright light, selected by opening the hinged cover over the selenium cell. When closed, four small holes in the cover allow approximately 100th of the light to reach the selenium cell, and a green mark is visible on the hinge of the cover, to remind you to use the green aperture scale. When opened, all the light reaches the cell, making the meter 100 times more sensitive, and the black aperture scale is used.


    Rear view, showing the retractable Support Foot that allows the camera to stand level on a flat surface (something else I forgot to mention in the original article :( )


    View of the interior of the camera, showing the sprockets that control the double exposure / blank exposure prevention interlock system. The only coupling between these sprockets and the the Advance (wind) knob is the film itself.


    View of bottom of the camera, in its case, showing the cutout that enables viewing of the frame counter, and also the Advance knob on the outside of the case that allows you to wind on without having to take the camera out of the case. This knob is coupled to the camera by a couple of prongs which engage in holes in the camera's advance knob. (see below)


    Bottom view of camera out of case showing the Advance and Rewind knobs, and the holes that engage with the prongs on the case Rewind knob. The Rewind Release button in the centre of the Advance knob is also shown. (I've just noticed the interesting spelling of "Advance" - think of it like the deliberate mistakes in Persian carpets! :) I don't think there's enough time to edit again... :( )
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2014
  16. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    You have done an Excellent Job with these photos -- never SEEN a 'Contessa'. I must ask my Kids HOW to put on 'Labels' onto a digital File as you have done ( the Boy also is the 'Technical Wizard' for my Wife and I at Sainsbury's 'Do It Yourself' Checkout --
  17. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    I used Gimp. The Text tool to place the text in a suitably contrasting colour and size, and the Pencil drawing tool, constrained to straight lines by using the shift key, to do the lines. I was thinking of putting arrowheads on the lines, but I couldn't find an easy way to do it, and I think it's quite clear as it is.
  18. gray1720

    gray1720 Well-Known Member

    Very nice, Alex! Quite obviously the big brother to my Contina, there's so many likenesses behind all the extra bells and whistles.

  19. Malcolm_Stewart

    Malcolm_Stewart Well-Known Member

    I imagine that this will seem a small point to many people, but all my film SLR cameras and range-finder compacts had the film travelling from left to right, and it looks as though the Contessa reversed this. Some of the very compact zoom models are similar to the Contessa, but in a weird way, I think I'd feel uncomfortable with film travelling from right to left. (in a serious camera!)

    Somewhere I still have an Eos EFM (film SLR) which took EF lenses, but has manual focusing and in this the film is pre-wound before shooting takes place. In the event of the camera back being opened before the film is finished, most of the exposed frames will be safe in the cassette. The reversal of the edge numbering against my notes didn't endear it to me!
  20. AlexMonro

    AlexMonro Old Grand Part Deux

    I did the photos of the Contina II in the same session, so I should be ready to post the review (with pictures included!) hopefully sometime in the next week or so.

    I think that for the definitive "portrait" of the Contina, I might have to refer people to your shot, though!

    I guess to complete the series, I should do the Contina I / Ikonta 35 (the basic non rangefinder unmetered version) at some point... And then there's all the non-folding Contina / Contessas... :)

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