When shooting vintage cameras there exists something of a sweet spot- a kind of “Goldilocks zone” that only a certain number of cameras occupy. For most photo geeks, a camera needs to be old enough to have the vintage appeal we’re pining for, yet it can’t be so old as to be prohibitively slow and archaic in its operation.
We’ve seen it before. If a camera’s too ancient it becomes too alien, and would-be shooters are turned off. Because of this, many excellent cameras go unappreciated and unused. Think of the folding cameras of the 1950s or even TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras like the Minolta Autocord. The result? People may never experience the joy of ground glass viewfinders, the calm of shooting a fully manual camera, or the exceptional image quality of larger format machines. It’s a shame, really. But just because a camera’s very old, doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun, everyday shooter. These are exceptional machines capable of taking amazing pictures, and they’re pretty easy to use once you’ve done a bit of reading.
Take the Zeiss Ikon Contina II that I’ve been shooting for the past few weeks. It’s more than six decades old, smells like a dusty old goat, and looks like it belongs in a museum. But guess what? It takes great pictures! Sure, it’s not as quick or as sexy as your Sony A7R, but you still love your grandma even though she’s no Hannah Davis. So cut the Zeiss some slack.
If you’re looking for a beautiful, antique, 35mm folding camera that’s actually usable, the Contina II may be it. There are some issues, but they won’t be a deal breaker for those willing to work. If you’re ready to find out what Germany had to offer photographers of the early 1950s, read on.
Prior to 1951, the 35mm folding Zeiss had been known as the Ikonta 35, and when the Ikonta eventually became known by the name Contessa, a less expensive model was developed and released alongside. This more affordable folding 35mm camera became known as the Contina, and it would see continual production in various forms for the next 15 years. And even though the various models released in this period look wildly dissimilar, the core design of the Contina remains the same throughout its run.
All Continas are small, well-built, 35mm film cameras usable by both amateurs and enthusiasts alike. They feature compact lenses in either rigid mount (later models) or in a collapsible folding apparatus (earlier cameras). They use leaf shutters capable of Bulb shooting and speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/250th or 1/300th of a second (dependent on shutter model). The bells and whistles customary to the era are all here, such as frame counters, rewind knobs, self-timers, and variable apertures.
Our review version is the Contina II, made between 1952 and ’53. It’s especially notable for having a rangefinder focusing mechanism (something the rest of the Continas lack), so if you’re looking for the best Contina this is likely the one to own on account of the raltive ease of focus afforded by the rangefinder, as well as its sophisticated folding. It’s true that other Continas offer light-meters, but for my money a focusing mechanism is more valuable than a light meter.
As if keeping track of all the options available within the range of Continas isn’t demanding enough, there exists within the model itself a choice to be made. The Contina II offers fitment of either an Opton-Tessar 45mm ƒ/2.8 lens, or the Novar 45mm ƒ/3.5 seen on our version. Both lenses are good, with the Tessar having a better reputation for overall quality. Whether or not this reputation is deserved is debatable, but we’ll get deeper into the lenses a bit later.
Aesthetically, the Contina II is a stoic, austere machine. It’s a no-frills, dour camera, though that’s not to say it’s unappealing. When one studies the Contina II, one begins to imagine that the designers were compulsively obsessed with symmetry. Those of us who share a certain penchant for symmetrical machines will appreciate the measured placement of its various knobs, viewfinder and rangefinder windows, and even its fastening rivets.
The chrome plated castings top and bottom are nicely chamfered and finished with an almost satin sheen. The body is bifurcated by a wide band of black grip material which possesses a very fine, almost canvas-like, texture. Even after all these decades it shows its durability. The material covering the film door is stamped with an indicator of the camera’s maker and point of origin; Zeiss Ikon – Made in Germany – Stuttgart.
It’s a well-placed yet subtle reminder that we’re shooting a camera from the cradle of world-class optics, and it’ll give Zeiss fanboys a small thrill to see the world-famous logo every time they raise the camera to their eye.
Functionally the Zeiss is a bit of a paradox. It feels great to use, like a mechanical wristwatch, but it can also be a trying experience, like a mechanical wristwatch that you have to wind every day.
Shooters accustomed to modern machines or even vintage SLRs will suffer a few stumbles out of the gate. Everyone learns at different speeds, but it took this reviewer nearly thirty frames to begin to feel comfortable. In short order it was pretty clear that the Contina is a camera from an era that required photographers to be meticulous and patient. Exhibit these traits and the Contina II will reward you. But I can’t ignore the fact that some photogs will certainly be frustrated to Hell and back by the sluggish approach to photography that the Contina.
For the most irritable photographers, the real sticking point will stem from the rather lengthy process involved in taking a shot with the Contina II. Not sure you can handle the demands of this ancient machine? Read on, and try to imagine you’re holding a Contina. You want to take a shot. Okay, let’s do it.
First, advance the film with the winding knob on the bottom of the camera, then cock the shutter via the tiny lever on the top of the lens. Now spin the ring that sets the shutter speed to your desired setting. Then spin the ring that sets the aperture to your desired setting. Do some quick estimation to determine if the set values will result in a proper exposure (this can be based off of an external light meter or the photographer’s knowledge and experience). Next, look through the tiny rangefinder window on the rear of the camera and spin the focus knob on the top of the camera body until the rangefinder patch aligns with your subject. Lowering the camera from your eye, look to the focus knob that was just turned and observe the distance that the tiny indicator arrow is pointing to. Now transfer that distance value to the focusing ring positioned on the front of the lens, aligning it to the same value as indicated by the focus knob. Compose your shot with the viewfinder window and release the shutter.
Congratulations. You’ve taken a photo.
It’s easy to imagine how one would get a little mixed up and forget their place amongst that tangle of tasks, and the first roll of film will find any shooter clumsily wondering why the shutter hasn’t released, why their shots are coming out blurry, or why the exposures are off. Operation naturally becomes more fluid as experience grows, and while the camera never operates as smoothly as a coupled rangefinder or classic SLR might, for me the glacial pace is never frustrating to the point of exhaustion. Just don’t try to shoot a wedding with this thing.
There’s no denying that the Contina II is slow camera that’s difficult to accurately focus. Even with the rangefinder, you’ll miss a handful of shots in a roll, and shooting any kind of fast-moving subject is strictly out of the question. This is a camera for casual, leisurely shooting. If you’re looking for a camera with which to photograph an F1 race, or even a pot-bellied pig race, this is not your camera.
Luckily there are ways to mitigate the issue. To help ensure your shots will be focused, try zone focusing. Quite happily, Zeiss has included a seriously proficient focus scale complete with inverted numerals for effortless reading. Simply set your aperture, glance down at the lens, and set your focus ring to your subject’s distance. There’s also implementation of the famous “Zeiss Red Dot” guide. Align the arrows on the aperture and focus rings to the red dots and everything from about 8 feet to infinity will be in focus. Just remember to set the shutter speed for the available light and you’re good to go. Easy as zwetschgenkuchen. Which is a pie made in Germany.
The only other notable problems with the Contina II are the laughably tiny viewfinder and rangefinder windows. These things are so amazingly small that one could be forgiven for thinking it to be a screw hole from which the screw had fallen out. And I’m not being hyperbolic; just take a look at some of our earlier shots. The inner diameter of the strap lug is larger than the rangefinder window. Hilarious. Except it’s not that funny. You’ve got to really press your eyeball flush to the window, and those of us with glasses will have an even harder time focusing and composing a shot. This, again, brings the camera to the very cusp of excess frustration, but once again it’s not enough to be a total killjoy.
Why are these glaring functionality issues not enough to ruin the Contina II? Well, because it’s a fun camera that makes great images. This is thanks in large part to the exceptional build quality and the ability of the lens to make very nice photos.
As we touched on earlier, my review model uses the Novar 45mm Anastigmat ƒ/3.5. For the uninitiated, an anastigmat lens is a lens that’s completely corrected for optical distortion such as spherical aberration, coma, and astigmatism. These days corrected lenses are pretty common (though no less important), but when the Contina II was released it was a really big deal to have a corrected lens.
Image quality with the Novar is pretty good. Sharpness takes a hit when shooting wide open, and vignetting is pretty noticeable, but stopped down the lens is quite capable from edge to edge. It’s not going to produce the kind of sharpness expected from today’s machines, but we’ve already covered that. This is your grandpappy’s camera, remember? The lens resists flaring very well, which is noteworthy due to the lack of touted coatings. Black and white images come out deep and contrasty. Color rendition is superb.
In short, the Novar is a perfectly acceptable lens that possesses certain indefinable qualities that make it ideal for those who love nostalgia. It’s an old lens attached to an old camera, and it makes images that present as delightfully old. It’s a lens that’s not obsessed with fidelity, and it lends itself well to artistic representations of the captured world.
I’ve not yet tested the Opton-Tessar equipped Contina II, but many experienced users profess that it’s a superior lens to the Novar. I can’t weigh in until I get one in my hands, but if it’s truly superior then I’m already impressed.
Should you rush out and buy yourself a Contina II? Well, that depends. If you’re an impatient shooter who has little interest in the past, then perhaps this is one camera worth skipping. But for shooters who love antique machines, love the history of this hobby, or love Zeiss cameras, the Contina II is certainly a camera worth owning.
It’s a wacky machine from one of the more interesting periods in the German company’s long and storied history. It’s accessible, yet aloof. It’s both foreign and familiar at the same time. It’s affordable, and uses one of the most common and varied film formats around. It fits into a pocket, looks like nothing else out there, and makes very respectable images.
Yes, the arguments for ownership are many, but possibly the best thing about the Zeiss Ikon Contina II is that it’s unique. It’s so unique, in fact, that most people have never shot anything like it before. And that’s a real shame.