After spending about two weeks kicking around Boston with the Zeiss Ikon Ikomatic A, it’s clear there’s something special about this camera. The number of people who commented on it was staggering. Perhaps that’s because it looks like nothing else out there, vintage or modern. Without question, it looks nothing like modern DSLRs or their smaller contemporaries, the super-compact point-and-shoots. With its clear and concise design, highly reflective body, and virtually featureless layout, this is one machine that really distinguishes itself in a crowd.
Looks aside, this incredibly simple camera (it has only two buttons), does something that a majority of far more capable cameras often fail to do – it makes people smile. I don’t mean subjects saying “cheese”. Rather, when people notice or shoot with this camera they invariably smile, sometimes laugh, and nearly always comment on it. People seem to be drawn to it. This phenomenon is fantastic to witness, and makes it easy to remember what the hobby of photography is all about; that is, connecting with people through a camera.
The Ikomatic is a viewfinder camera manufactured between 1965 and ’67 by the German company Bilora for Zeiss Ikon. It was produced in three variations; the Ikomatic CF (flashcubes), the Ikomatic F (flash bulbs), and the Ikomatic A (automatic aperture and hot shoe). The Ikomatic A, covered here, uses a Color Citar 40mm lens with a 1:6.3 aperture, shooting at speeds 1/30 of a second with flash, and 1/90 of a second with automatic aperture. The aperture is controlled by a selenium photo cell with an estimated range of 1:6.3 to 1:16.
I’m obligated to list the specifications of the camera, but in truth, they are rather irrelevant. The merits and weaknesses of this machine don’t stem from the numbers. No one interested in this camera is going to be comparing spec sheets, or nitpicking the sharpness of the lens. The beauty and charm of this camera is in its simplicity and its ability to overcome its own limitations to create simple, joyful moments.
Last weekend I took the Ikomatic out for a walking date with my wife through Boston’s North End and Waterfront. In reality, I was using my DSLR, but my wife wanted a camera to shoot a few shots so I handed off the Ikomatic. After a tutorial that lasted all of one minute she was ready to go, and the result was surprising and wonderful. Every time she took a picture, the shutter release noise was accompanied by a laugh or a smile, without fail, for 20 exposures. My wife isn’t typically a photophile, so this reaction was even more remarkable.
At a restaurant a few hours later, the Ikomatic was sitting on the table as the waiter came by with the bill. He spotted it, and I saw a look of intrigue pass over his face. After handing off the bill he gestured toward the camera and asked, “Is that a camera?”. My wife told him it was, and that it was from 1965. Pure astonishment washed over his face, and he remarked “It’s from 1965 and it still works!?” A little later some tourists visiting for the Boston Marathon asked me to take their photo for them. Inevitably they spotted the Ikomatic and another brief conversation followed. Everywhere we went the camera brought out smiles and interactions that we’d likely never have experienced, had we been carrying a pair of DSLRs.
The camera uses the now-ancient 126 film cartridge format. These cartridges can be bought through eBay, Etsy, etc. as expired examples. They still work, for the most part, if they’ve remained unopened and been stored in a reasonable environment. I’ve shot three rolls from various manufacturers and had decent results when developing as black and white (even with color film). Additionally there are enterprising souls who’ve gone through the effort of retrofitting 126 cartridges to run 35mm film, yielding interesting results. It should be noted, however, that at an average of $2.00 per exposure, a 126 cartridge camera hobby can get expensive quickly. The solution is to not worry about cost, carefully plan your shots, or use the Ikomatic as one would use any other archaic format camera; as a fun diversion.
Loading the camera is easy, and makes one remember a key selling point of 126 film. Simply press the film compartment release button, drop in the cartridge, and close the camera. Actuating the film advance lever a handful of times will set the film into its ready position. From there, simply point and shoot.
The camera feels well-built, but lightweight. Coming in at around 250g, it’s an easy camera to carry around, with or without the included leather case. To select focus range one simply rotates a bezel on the front of the lens to select near and far (represented by a head and a mountain). When looking through the viewfinder, a ridiculous red dot will appear to indicate both too much and too little light. Armed with this spartan information, the photographer can adjust accordingly. When ready to snap a photo, wind the film advance lever a few times until it locks into place, and then press the shutter release button, which will reluctantly depress with a rather sad little sound. It’s all incredibly pathetic (in a charming way), and one can easily start to think of this camera as an underdog, born with so few tools or talent, trying its best to make people happy.
When a roll of film has been finished, wind the lever numerous times until the display back no longer shows exposures or arrows through the viewing window. Open the camera and remove the film. When developed, the Ikomatic yields perfectly acceptable photos with lots of room for interesting anomalies and creative flights.
Essentially, the Ikomatic is a brick that takes photos. Indeed, a brick would show nearly as much photographic sophistication. That’s not to say the Ikomatic is a bad camera, it’s not. But it’s also not a very excellent camera. If the Ikomatic could speak, though, I think it would say that it doesn’t care about any of that.
The strength of the Ikomatic is its ability to make people happy, regardless of technical prowess. It looks good, is one of the easiest cameras to use, and through its archaic charm has the ability to enhance the day of whoever comes into contact with it. This camera is pure fun, and certainly that’s more valuable than a spec sheet.