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.