Contax IIa – Zeiss Ikon’s Best Classic Rangefinder Reviewed

Contax IIa – Zeiss Ikon’s Best Classic Rangefinder Reviewed

2400 1350 James Tocchio

In 1944, Allied invasion forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in France. With the first wave of troops was a young combat photographer named Robert Capa. In his hand was the Zeiss Contax II, then the finest 35mm film camera in the world. With it, he shot his Magnificent Eleven, eleven captivating photos of the D-Day landing. Six years later in 1950, Zeiss released the Contax IIa, a major update to this incredible rangefinder, and nearly seventy years later it remains one of the best cameras ever made.

A 35mm film rangefinder camera, the Contax IIa continues a line of machines that stretches back to the original Contax I of 1932, and is the last of the non-metered Contax rangefinders (the IIIa, a version with a built-in light meter, debuted in 1951). It offers the greatest degree of sophistication in the smallest and most ergonomically pleasing package of all Zeiss rangefinders, and provides the shooter with mechanical perfection paired with what was once the best glass in the world. It is, rightfully so, a legend among photo geeks. Take one look, and you’ll begin to see why. 

Aesthetically, the Contax IIa is beautiful. This assemblage of aluminum, brass, steel, and glass is a stunning example of the high craftsmanship that occasionally exists on this planet. At once elegant and utilitarian, it’s a camera of juxtaposition. Those muscular, oversized dials; the finely stepped chamfers; the polished accents – they all combine to form a camera that’s gorgeous, even to those who couldn’t possibly care less about cameras. Side-by-side, a friend once described the Contax G2 as a beige Toyota Camry, before marveling over the beauty of the IIa. 

This beauty noted, there is one big wart. Its leatherette covering leaves a bit to be desired. Compared with the vulcanite that wraps the rangefinders from that other German brand, the stuff here seems cheap. With less of the bounce compared with Leica’s wrapping, the IIa’s covering feels more temporary and fragile. 

In the hand, however, things are blissful. The IIa is mechanized, industrial jewelry. At a minuscule 7.7 x 4.4 x 13.4cm and 18 ounces, it’s approximately twenty percent smaller and three ounces lighter than the Contax that came before it. This substantial weight in such a compact form factor creates a feeling of delectable density. Its chrome finish exudes a brilliant yet subdued luster that’s as easy on the eyes as it is on the fingertips. Fit and finish is excellent. On examples that have been well-kept (these are old cameras, after all) the machine work is unmatched.

For proof, look to the intelligently-integrated shutter release, film advance knob, shutter speed selector, and film frame counter, positioned on the right top plate. It in itself is a marvel for those of us who appreciate mechanical things. The individual knurling of the dials, the lathe-turned shutter speed selector, the finely drilled cable release and the perfect engravings (painted, on this color-dial version, in three shades); these touches are as deftly worked as any mechanism this side of a Swiss clock. 

Open the camera by removing the entire rear via two knobs on the underside and reveal the incredibly impressive shutter. Made of aluminum slats and actuated through gears (as opposed to the breakage-prone cloth strap system of earlier Contaxes), this shutter is capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1250th of a second. That’s faster than the maximum shutter speed of Leica’s M3, and while this truthfully makes little practical difference, a maximum shutter speed of 1/1250th of a second was very impressive in 1950. It should also be noted that bulb and timed exposure modes are available for long-exposures. Actuate these speeds with a shutter release cable.  

The IIa’s viewfinder does only one thing; it provides a 50mm field of view with a large and contrasty rangefinder patch for accurate focusing. It uses tinted glass and displays its focusing patch with a gold cast. The optical rangefinder, with its massive base length of 73mm, is far easier to focus than its contemporary competition. In use (and when mounted with a 50mm lens) the IIa’s viewfinder does its job; it’s effective enough to go unnoticed.

Despite this, the viewfinder of the IIa has often been described as limited, claustrophobic, and dark. To some degree, all of this is true. But these are retrospective comparisons. In 1950, when the IIa debuted, it offered one of the best viewfinders in a 35mm rangefinder. The Barnack Leicas couldn’t compete, nor could the rangefinders from Canon. It wasn’t until the Leica M3 was released in 1954, with its massive viewfinder and selective frame lines and parallax correction, that the IIa viewfinder showed its weakness.

In use, the Contax is a mix of pure pleasure and minor foibles, most of the latter show when we’re rushing things. The film advance knob isn’t as rapid or pleasurable as a film advance lever (like the kind found on the later Contax-copied Nikon rangefinders or Leica’s Ms). With practice, advancing frames does become second nature, but first nature is to flick a lever. 

The camera’s somewhat unique index finger focus methodology can also be less than ideal, for two reasons. First, it can be slow. With such a small gear, it takes numerous finger swipes to travel through the full range of focus. Since a free hand can be used to focus the lens directly this isn’t a massive inconvenience, and in some cases the single-handed operation is, in fact, of benefit. An infinity lock also helps ease the burden. 

Worse than this, however, is that for the gear-driven focus methodology to be workable with a single finger, it’s necessary that focus action be loose. This means that changing the aperture setting via the lens-mounted aperture ring creates so much torque that the focus of the lens is adjusted as well. A way around this is to hold the finger-focusing gear in place while adjusting aperture. A light touch on the gear holds things steady enough that we can adjust aperture without adjusting focus, but it’s another thing to think about when shooting, and in shooting situations that require rapidity it can lead to missed shots. 

But once we get over these quirks, the beauty of the IIa’s core personality shines through.

Twist the film advance knob and listen as the clock-like ratcheting of gears and levers and springs tells of a twisting take-up spool and a shutter drawn to ready. Frame the shot; face pressed against the chilled metal as the scent of old leather fills the nostrils. Focus; watch the rangefinder and its magical optics draw two versions of the subject into singular clarity. Fire; the shutter release presses deliberately with perfectly sprung resistance, the heavy, metallic thwick of shutter curtains rocketing along their track.

That’s one exposure. Repeat the process thirty-six times and just try not to fall in love.

Lens availability is the equal of any system rangefinder of the era, with lenses spanning focal lengths from 21mm Biogon (which at the time of its release was the widest 35mm format lens ever made) to 500mm telephotos (with reflex housing), and everything in between. But it’s not enough to simply offer a wide range of lenses. For a camera to be special, its lenses must be special. And the Contax’s lenses are special. 

The Carl Zeiss Opton Sonnar 50mm F/1.5 shot for this writeup has made some of the most beautiful and characterful images I’ve yet made. With sharpness, bokeh, and depth to match anything produced by my Leitz DR Summicron, it’s a world-class lens. Build quality matches that of the camera, and its iris is an eye-popping assembly of blades. If the Sonnar 50mm is anything to go by (and it is), expect stunning images from any of the Contax rangefinder lenses (we’ll have in-depth lens reviews of this system as time progresses). 

Though flawed in some ways, the camera is a joy to use and shoot. It’s about as pure a photographic experience as one can have. 

If this reads like the IIa is an incredible camera, and it should, this last part might come as a surprise – things didn’t end well for Zeiss and their Contax. As Leica and others iterated on the rangefinder to create new and ever-improved models, Zeiss did not. By the end of the 1950s they’d ceased production and distribution of the Contax IIa and IIIa and shifted focus to developing a next-generation SLR. A smart decision, poorly implemented. 

While the single lens reflex camera would be the dominant camera in sales over the next thirty years, the German brand could never compete with the low-cost, high-reliability SLRs of Japanese brands. Zeiss’ Contarex, the professional SLR replacement for the Contax rangefinder, was a commercial disaster. Overly complex and superbly expensive, buyers who had loved the Contax rangefinder weren’t impressed, and those who wanted an SLR simply went Japanese. 

Today, Contax IIa’s are incongruously inexpensive. For those of us in-the-know, they’re among the best values in classic rangefinders, often costing just a third the price of a Leica. For a camera that’s the Leica’s equal in build and image quality, finish and performance, that’s a damn good deal. 

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
32 comments
  • Wilson Laidlaw June 1, 2018 at 7:40 am

    I have my father’s Contax IIA. Because he had a lot of trouble with it in period, I suspect an original manufacturing or assembly fault on the shutter, made worse by indifferent repairs in the UK, it has had very little use. He bought it new in around 1953/54 but by 1956, it was sitting in a drawer and he had reverted to his Super Ikonta B for black and white photography. About 10 years ago, I decided to “bite the bullet” and get it sorted really properly. There is one well known Contax repairer I will not use, so it was not easy to find someone to do a 100% correct job on it. I was very lucky in the end and found an ex-Contax engineer in Phoenix AZ, who was about to retire but agreed to do one last camera (I don’t know how many more “one last cameras” followed mine). He did a first class job on it and for the first time in its life, it now works properly. Given its lack of use, it is cosmetically near perfect and has an immaculate Opton Sonnar 5cm/f1,5, which is an extraordinarily good lens for the period and makes my contemporary Leica Summarit 5cm/f1.5 look primitive.

    So, given what a beautifully built camera it is, with a brilliant lens, I must use it a lot. Afraid not. I just cannot get my head round the very low geared reverse direction focusing on the lens, with its awkward infinity lock and the coupled, knurled metal focusing roller on the body will strip the skin off my finger in less than an hour’s use. The combined viewfinder/rangefinder is small and rather dark. My father always regretted he did not buy an M3 and 50 Summicron in 1954, instead of the Contax, to use along with his Leica IIIa and coated Summar (always filled with Kodachrome). When some time later he gave me an M4 for my 21st birthday and saw what an excellent VF/RF it had, he was even more disappointed in his Contax IIa. If only Zeiss had updated the viewfinder after seeing how good the M3 was in comparison, it could have extended the life of the IIa and IIIa beyond the late 1950’s. I suppose they wanted to sell people their Contaflex and Contarex “carved from a battleship” cameras instead.

    Wilson

  • If only Zeiss hadn’t given up on the Contax as soon as they did but instead built something like the Nikon S2, SP or even something superior to those …

  • Virtually anyone who knows true Contax, can talk about it endlessly. I’ll just say that being relatively poor of a chap and from FSU country I have its crude copy with Cyrilic “Kiev” inscribed. My sample is from early fifties and doesn’t suffer from simplification and cheap looks that are a deadly giveaway of later machines. I find my Kiev reliable, only drawback being shutter curtain ribbons which I had to replace (on my own).

  • Well I’ll be dipped, these *are* reasonable on the used market. Maybe this is how I finally dip my toes in the interchangeable-lens rangefinder waters.

  • “This shutter is capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1250th of a second. That’s 1/250th of a second faster than the maximum shutter speed of Leica’s M3.”

    That’s… not how fractions work. 1/1250 is only 1/4000 of a second faster than 1/1000. More useful to say that it’s 2/3 of a stop faster.

    Other than that, great review! From my dad’s description, I’m pretty sure my grandad owned a Contax IIa, so it’s a camera that I’ve wanted to find more info on.

    • Dustin, Josh and I had a great discussion about this. After some math and explanation, I’ve adjusted the article for clarity.

  • I’m sorry, James, but you’re wrong. The finest Contax of all time is unquestionably the II. The ribbons of the II/III do need replacement periodically, that’s true. But they should last a decade or more if the correct pure silk material is used. And when they are replaced you won’t need to change the curtains, unlike some other makes of German rangefinder.

    I commend Zeiss for re-commencing rangefinder production in the new GDR with their new design as quickly as they did under the circumstances. When you consider the context of the times, it’s true, the II/III was a great result. But their new rangefinders featured a shorter physical base length, and lower finder magnification and it was inferior to that used in the II/III. Worse, it can also suffer from difficult to fix misalignment problems.

    In contrast it’s not unusual at all to purchase a II or III whose rangefinder is still factory perfect. They have what is, technically, the highest quality rangefinder system that has ever been made for a 35mm camera. Compared to most other designs, the post war Contaxes have rangefinders of excellent quality, but after the magnificence of the pre-war version, watering this down was for me, unforgivable. But I don’t mind you talking up the post war Contaxes if it distracts potential buyers away from the II. I have three myself but I’m not done buying, yet. Just do me a favour, please, and lay off the lenses? 😉
    Cheers,
    Brett

  • The main thing that puts me off trying a Contax rangefinder is that they don’t seem intended for the 35mm focal length. I’d need a separate viewfinder and the only feasible 35mm lens would be a Jupiter-12, as the Zeiss Biogon on which it is based seems uncommon and expensive. Even then, by choosing a Biogon / Jupiter-12 you must rule out the Contax IIa as the protruding rear element will only fit in a pre-war Contax II or III. You’re missing out on all the improvements the IIa made if you buy a II. The rock-bottom prices mean I’m still tempted despite my Canon P + Jupiter-12 being more than adequate.

    • Improvements? What improvements? Flash sync and some better quality chrome playing is about it.

      • Smaller body, some comments above suggest the shutter was made more durable.

        • Nup. The post war shutter is well known for tapering or calling it’s faster speeds. It’s much more conventional than the II/III shutter with independent actuation of each curtain. That might be a good thing if the mechanism wasn’t so prone to running inaccurately. Yes, the pre-war II/III shutter uses those silk ribbons which will eventually fail. But they are not that hard to replace (I have done 3, personally) and they should last at least a decade or two. And they are almost the only thing that ever goes wrong. Bonus is a superior, more accurate rangefinder, more reliable mechanism, ability to use any Contax lens, pre or post war, Jena or Oberkochen.

          If a couple of ribbons really were that big a deal people would stop using vintage Leicas. The entire curtains will need replacing on those, and yet, people pay to have it done even though installing new ribbons into a Contax is probably easier and quicker. Rick Oleson has some great information and observations on his site and he is spot on with his comments. Don’t accept the popular wisdom about the superiority of the post war cameras without critical analysis of it—the pre-war shutter (not the original Contax, that’s reserved for collectors and/or masochists) may be an unconventional design but it’s very reliable once CLAd and re-ribboned.

          • What is is with effing iPhone dictionaries? “Capping” above—not “calling”…

    • Am I missing something. I have a f2.8 Biogon that fits the IIa perfectly. Coated Zeiss Opton.

      • Zeiss Opton so it“s post war These were new constructions smaller to fit in the also smaller postwar cameras. The original Biogon has a massive rear lens.

  • Plating, above, not “playing”.

  • I work on these cameras – in fact they are the first cameras I actually “mastered” when it came to repairing. This was at first out of necessity because so few people can repair them, and then out of sheer fascination with the mechanical technology of them.

    The leather covering on these is, in fact, very durable. It can wear over time and lose some of its texture, but rarely do I ever see it cracked or torn like some Leica vulcanite. Furthermore, it is actually very easy to remove and reattach when repairing. The biggest issue with these cameras are the infamous “Zeiss bumps” – caused by a reaction with the copper in the rivets.

    You do mention the 1/1250th shutter speed, which was groundbreaking at the time. The reason the camera was capable of this is even more important in my mind: it used a vertically traveling shutter. Which then became an industry standard among many cameras, and is still used to this day.

    Contax also pioneered the first pentaprism SLR with the Contax S.

    • Not really. It was Italian “Rectaflex”. It had an eye-level pentaprism back in 1948 (with all due respect I don’t believe claims that Zeiss had a design “long before 1949” or “long before the war”).

  • I shot a IIIa for 10 years without a fault. Alas, age has gotten the best of them. They are now inexpensive because the shutters are failing and very few remain to repair them.

  • James, thank you for another great review and history lesson on a classic. I enjoy shooting all my classic rangefinders, including my Contax IIa, for the exact reasons you cited in your article. I cannot help but feel humble knowing that great photogs of the past used these all mechanical (no batteries included) wonders to produce truly amazing and inspiring work without the benefit of multi-coated lenses or autofocusing or TTL exposure. Keep up the great work and happy hunting!

  • William Sommerwerck June 3, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    For what it’s worth… Robert Capa was Hungarian, his birth name Friedmann Endre Ernő. He picked the name “Capa” to suggest “Capra” (as in Frank Capra), the popular film maker,

    • Gerda Tharo suggested the name Robert Capa saying “it sounds good anywhere”. Another case of jewish guy needs another name to survive? Seems so.

  • William Sommerwerck June 3, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    Excellent article.

    I was fiddling with my OM-4T this morning, thinking about how much more compact and elegant it is than any DSLR. Which raises a point about rangefinder cameras. Would a modern 35mm RF, designed to do perfectly those things a rangefinder does well, and with (say) a half-dozen premium lenses, be successful?

    By the way, there’s nothing wrong with multi-coated lenses.

    • I’m sure you know this, so maybe it’s not what you’re thinking about, but Leica still makes the M-A and M-P. These sound like what you’re describing. At a premium price, of course. The other writers here and I have talked (dreamed) about Canon recreating the Canonet. But I can’t really comment on whether or not a modern RF for 35mm film would actually perform well in the market. I doubt it, or someone would be making it.

  • Totally awesome review. I want one. I have plenty of Leica gear but never looked into Contax because of reliability. How do you find reliability on these Contax James?

    • Much like most cameras, find one that’s been taken care of and it’ll work well for you. The IIa is the most reliable of the early Contax cameras for sure. Hope this helps pal!

  • I have a Contax III (obviously the selenium meter no longer works) but I haven’t really got on with it. It didn’t have a lens when I got it and so I purchased a Kiev version to get me going. The shots I took are fine but using the camera seemed like too much work. I put it on the market hoping that someone else would find pleasure in it but so far no takers; maybe I should give it another go and see if I can fall in love with it. I have too many other RF options though at the moment and should probably clear the decks somewhat plus I am looking forward to a Voigtländer Prominent to land in my post box which I think will be my preferred RF going forward…

  • I love my Contax rangefinders, II/III and IIa/IIIa, My III is in nearly mint condition and the meter still works. I got it two years ago from a trusted ebay seller in Germany. The s/n dates it to 1942, so I wonder where it has been all these years to have survived like it has. This one has an uncoated and unmaked f1.5 Sonnar.
    I acquired the IIa first, in the late 1970’s, with the coated f1.5 Sonnar and immediately fell in love with it, even though I already had an M3. I’d only ever intended to add it to my burgeoning camera collection and never expecting it to supplant the M3 in my affections for my b/w photography.
    The main issue with buying a classic Contax today (and this can apply to other brands) is we tend to overlook just how old these cameras are today (the youngest will be approaching 60 years old) and almost invariably their history will be unknown. And with photo dealers knowledgeable in these old cameras being in very short supply, mostly we have to rely on acquiring these cameras over the internet, and unless you trust the seller you could easily be buying a pig in a poke.
    In use, I adopted a slightly unusual focusing method in that my index finder hovered over the shutter release button and I focused using my middle finger. This felt very natural to me.

  • Can’t locate a Contax Iia which is in proper working condition, where the seller has run proper speed tests and revealed the results. I have a shutter tester so I know the sellers have them 🙂 I cannot find a reputable repair person who can do a CLA in a reasonable time. There is nothing as useless as a beautiful and expensive paperweight. I have several Kiev’s which are quite adequate but still looking for a Conta Iia that I can actually use.

  • I too have been considering a 111 or 11a or 111a. I have a Leica 111 (1935) and two M3 (1955 & 1960).
    The Contax fascinates me, there’s something ‘quirky’ about it. While the 11a is neater, the rings of numbers on the 111 and 111a add a sense of expertise? I can imagine having it on a strap around my neck and somebody wondering what all the dials a rings with numbers are all about. Not a camera that would be owned by a Chav miind you

  • A few years ago,I bought a iia and Sonnar 50/1.5 from Peter Loy, a classic camera specialist in London. He gives a comprehensive rating in terms of both cosmetic condition and working order. I’ve bought a few things from him and been delighted with all of them, not least the beautiful iia.

    Yes it is quirky and while the build quality is fantastic, the finish is not quite up to Leica standards. The shutter, though nice and smooth, is not as quiet as the Leica. However it is a smaller camera than the Leica M’s and that Sonnar lens is in a class of its own.

  • I picked up a Contax iia, black dial w/ 50mm f2 Sonnar on ebay. When I got it things we re bit stiff, and there was a small dent on the lens rim. Slow shutter speeds did not work. I got it CLA’d (Ross Yerkes) and ran a roll of Ektar 100 through it- generally beautiful. Still a couple of shutter hick-ups. Ross took it back, played with it, adjusted the shutter and now I am shooting again. He did say that after a CLA, the lubricant starts moving through the camera so it is not unusual to need another shutter adjustment (it was a small adjustment, he did right in front of me). Lens is pretty much fixed (some small thread damage, but I can thread a 40.5mm filter on it ). It is a really fun and satisfying camera to shoot. I have a Nikon finder to frame, and I prefer that (mainly because of eye relief and my glasses).

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio