Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2006/05/30

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Subject: [Leica] Re: Contax use
From: msmall at (Marc James Small)
Date: Tue May 30 11:48:12 2006
References: <> <>

At 11:34 AM 5/30/06 -0400, Lawrence Zeitlin wrote:

>I feel your pain. I struggled with Contaxi for years.
>The Contax shutter featured in the earliest boxlike Contax I and the  
>Contax II is a vertical focal plane shutter which uses thin metal  
>slats to get flexibility. Sort of like a venetian blind or roll up  
>bamboo blind. The slats are kept in line and driven by two fabric  
>tapes threaded through holes on the ends of the slat. Unlike the  
>Leica shutter which only varies the slot between the first and second  
>blinds to set higher shutter speeds, the Contax varies both the  
>spacing and the rate that the shutter moves by means of a gear train.  
>When the Contax was introduced in the 30s, Leica already had patents  
>on the easy way to do things so Zeiss was forced to adopt a more  
>complicated and costly mechanism. The shutter cannot be replaced as a  
>unit since so much of the mechanism is integrated into the body of  
>the camera.
>Typically what goes wrong on a Contax shutter is that one of the  
>shutter tapes wears or breaks. The camera must be opened and a new  
>set of tapes threaded through the slats and anchored to the driving  
>spools. In an emergency, you can use nylon dental floss tapes. The  
>complex gear drive should be cleaned and oiled at the same time.  
>Parts for these early cameras are unavailable so if anything breaks  
>except the tapes, parts must be taken from junker cameras. Some of  
>the Russian Kiev parts may fit since they were made on the same  
>machinery. Instruction manuals for Contax camera repair are available  
>on the internet.
>The Contax IIa of the 50s uses a redesigned and simplfied shutter  
>mechanism that is much more reliable than the shutter used in the  
>older cameras. Most good repair shops will still fix this camera.
>The Contax II of 1936 was the first truly modern 35mm RF camera.  
>Leica did not duplicate its features until the M3 of 1954. When  
>introduced, the Contax theoretically had shutter speeds to 1/1250  
>second, the Leica peaked at 1/500 second. The Contax had a wide base  
>rangefinder using the swinging prism system, integated into the  
>viewfinder. The Leica had a less precise moving mirror rangefinder  
>viewed through a tiny peephole and a mediocre adjacent reverse  
>Gallilean telescope viewfinder. Speeds were set on the Contax by  
>lifting and turning the winding knob. The Leica had a seperate knob  
>for setting speeds and an auxiliary dial for slow speeds. The Contax  
>could be loaded by opening the back. The Leica had needle threading  
>bottom loading. The Contax had a bayonet lens mount. The Leica had a  
>screw in mount. Finally the Contax had excellent Zeiss Sonnar lenses  
>with apertures up to f1.5. The Leica had the f2.0 Summar.
>I don't mean to bash Leica. I'm a Leica fan myself. But in its day,  
>the Contax was regarded as a superior photographic instrument. When  
>Nikon copied the German cameras after WW2 they used the Contax as the  
>model for the S series, substituting only the more reliable Leica  
>shutter mechanism for the complex Contax shutter. This was the camera  
>that established the reputation for Japanese quality during the  
>Korean War.
>My suggestions for using the excellent Contax lenses, either scrap  
>the old Contax cameras, sell them to some sucker on eBay,  or give  
>them to a collector. Get yourself a late model Contax IIa. These are  
>available for far less than the price of having the lenses adapted to  
>Leica mounts. The camera is smaller, lighter, and much more reliable.  
>It will fit all the older lenses as well as many Kiev lenses.


For starters, the accepted plural for Contax is Contaces, to follow
Ikoflices, Ikarices, Contaflices, and Contarices.  Straight Latin, it is.

Second, the Prewar shutter is quite a bit tougher than the Postwar IIa and
IIIa shutter, which was regarded as a disappointment by Zeiss Ikon and
which never won the reputation for durability in the marketplace.  It is
important to bear in mind that the Contax II was the accepted rough-country
35mm camera of the 1940's and 1950's and was by far the standard 35mm
camera used by combat photographers in the Second World War  -- Capa, for
instance, switched from Leica to Contax following the Spanish Civil War due
to reliability problems with the Leica.  The IIa and IIIa never enjoyed the
sort of reputation that the II and III enjoyed..

The Prewar shutter is much better built from quality materials, while the
Postwar shutter was built by a company without much access to quality
materials by a company operating on an extremely thin shoestring.  The
Prewar shutter was designed to accomodate 100,000 exposures between
services, while the Postwar shutter was only designed to last for 10,000
and rarely made that in practice.  The big killer for Contax shutters, as
with Leica shutters, is lack of use.  A regularly used Contax II or III
will outlast a Leica by a matter of years.  Yes, the tapes do break but
this is much more common with a camera that has been sitting on a closet
shelf for forty years than with a camera enjoying regular use.

There are virtually no parts available for the Postwar shutter, production
of such parts having ceased a third of a century back, while parts for the
Prewar shutter abound -- the Arsenal plant in Kiev continued to produce
repair parts well into the 1990's, and these are readily available today.  

One of the greatest myths of the camera world is the old chestnut about
Leitz holding patents on its shutter.  This simply is not true, and Zeiss
Ikon and its predecessors had been producing LF cameras with focal-plane
shutters very much akin to the Leitz shutter for years by the time the
Contax first appeared in 1930.  The design of the Contax was intended to
trump the Leica by producing a more flexible, reliable, and rugged design
and, by the time of the Contax II, they certainly had achieved their goal.

All in all, a Contax II is the best of the breed and has the best VF/RF
ever used in a RF camera.  

Cha robh b?s fir gun ghr?s fir!

Replies: Reply from don.dory at (Don Dory) ([Leica] Re: Contax use)
In reply to: Message from lrzeitlin at (Lawrence Zeitlin) ([Leica] Re: Contax use)