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Zeiss Contax IIa and IIIa

Postwar Precision 1950-61

The Zeiss Contax was arguably the best 35mm rangefinder made before WWII, with a larger range of faster and sharper lenses than Leica.   Many considered the pre-war Contax the "professional" 35mm camera, while the Leica was for amateurs.  While Leica remained relatively intact after the war,  Zeiss postwar recovery was made infinitely harder by being split into two separate competing West and East German companies.   After W.W.II West German Zeiss introduced the modernized Contax IIa and IIIa in 1950.   Compared to the prewar Contax II and III (without and with meter), the IIa and IIIa  used the same lens mount with a completely re-engineered shutter mechanism, new body, and much improved chrome finish.   Many believe the post war cameras are more dependable, but others will argue the point.   Contax offered a complete system approach, including a broad range of lenses, viewfinders and close-up devices. Competing against the likes of the postwar Leica IIIf, Nikon S, and Canon IV,  the Contax IIa and IIIa were very competitive designs in 1950.

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The Contax IIa and IIIa were beautifully made cameras -- many will argue better finished and with sharper lenses than even the legendary Leica M3.

Unfortunately for Contax, their competitors improved with time and Contax didn't. When discontinued in 1961, the Contax bodies was totally outclassed in features by the likes of the Leica M3, Nikon SP and Canon 7.    A number of interesting prototypes were made and shown at various shows, but their improvements never made it to production.  Although sales figures are unknown, apparently sales were not sufficient for Zeiss to invest in updating the Contax, as Zeiss allowed their star Rangefinder to be killed by the new improved features of its competition.

New Features of IIa / IIIa compared to II / III

In practical terms, the IIa and IIIa were modified and improved versions of the pre-war II and III.  Notable improvements on the same basic design were a new smaller body, flash sync, much improved chrome and machining, and some say a more reliable shutter.     The shutter on a well adjusted IIa and IIIa are very quiet,  almost as quiet as a Leica M.  The chrome and leather of the post-war Contax IIa and IIIa  was much better than the pre-war Contax II and III.    The IIa and IIIa were basically the same camera, except the IIa had no meter and the IIIa had a bulky selenium meter.    Generally the IIa is more popular and sells for more than the bulkier IIIa.     The IIIa selenium cell is usually dead and the uncoupled (to either the shutter or the lenses) makes for awkward time consuming use.   Worse, a working IIIa meter is probably not going to be accurate because the selenium cell is slowing losing its response to light.    Finding anyone with replacement selenium cells is not easy. 

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Notice the wide spaced rangefinder/viewfinder windows.  Contax had the longest rangefinder base of any of the classic  Big Four rangefinder systems (Leica, Contax, Nikon, Canon)  -- translation: the most accurate.  Zeiss also used an expensive optical rangefinder arrangement which could not go out of alignment.   Like the prewar II / III, the IIa / IIIa used a combined rangefinder/viewfinder window.  Unfortunately, it was not particularly bright and had no built in brightline frames or parallax correction.  Notice the shutter speed dial.  The IIa and IIIa separated the shutter speed dial from the advance knob, so it was easier and faster than previous Contax to change shutter speeds.  Also notice the red and yellow shutter speeds in the pic, on a "Color Dial" version introduced in 1954.    Earlier version IIa and IIIa cameras had all the shutter speeds in black, and were called, would you believe, "Black Dials."  Even though the Color Dials were in production longer than the Black Dials, 1954-62 vs. 1950-54, Color Dials were produced in few total numbers and are harder to find, in my experience to a ratio of about 3-1 on the West Coast on the US where I am based.

The earlier "black dial" IIa and IIIa have a peculiar flash sync connection which is a real pain.  Not only do you have to use a special Zeiss plug, you also have to use different connectors for flash bulbs(1361)  or electronic flash(1366)!  Today these little connectors are hard to find, and worth about $50 in mint condition.   The later "color dial" IIa / IIIa  had the incredible improvement of   a standard PC connection.  They are recognizable by the PC, or by the red colored high speeds (shown above).   Look closely on the shutter speed dial.  That's right, it does say 1/1250th.  Not much faster than Leica's 1/1000th, but still faster to provide a  bragging point  in the great "Leica Contax" debate.  

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See that little wheel near the shutter speed dial?  That's the focusing wheel which allowed focusing of the normals and wide angles with the index finger.   Behind the focusing wheel is the infinity lock -- push it down to release the lock. The focusing mount is quite interesting because the focusing helical for the 50mm lenses is built into the body rather than the lens.  This design has the benefit of making very small 50mm lenses, but had the disadvantage of what some say is an overly complicated mount. The inside mount is for 50mm lenses, whiles the outside bayonet is for wides and Teles.  In use I don't consider it any more trouble prone than the Leica system, since any focusing mount whether it is in the lens or the body can still tighten up and need re-lubrication.

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While the Contax shutters are much more complicated than Leica shutters, they about equal in service, with a tradeoff of features.   The post war Contax continued their pre-war shutter tradition, with vertically traveling metal shutter curtains.     Both  Leica M and Contax IIa / IIIa shutters are relatively dependable.    On both, slow and inoperative slow speeds are usually the first thing to give trouble.   Both shutter designs show the need of a cleaning  by inoperative slow speeds.     It is not unusual to replace the Leica's cloth shutter curtains -- something that is practically never done with the Contax metal shutter.   


Post War Contax Lenses

Zeiss aficionados usually insist that Zeiss makes the best none. While the bodies may have lagged behind their competitors,  Contax lenses were absolute world class.    Zeiss and Leica lenses have a different look to the shots, the easiest way for you to understand it is to shoot with both yourself.    All post war Contax lenses are coated.  Earlier West German lenses are engraved "Zeiss Opton," later lenses "Carl Zeiss."  East German lenses are labeled Jena and are   "T" coated.   The West German lenses have noticeably better workmanship and finish -- and sell for more.   All West post war lenses from 21 to 135 have nicely finished chrome barrels.    The East German 25 to 135 Jena lenses are typically mounted in not so well finished aluminum barrels.    The more expensive black 180 to 500 Jena reflex housing lenses were noticeably better finished.   Early Contax lenses for the early 1930's  Contax I  have black trim.  

To make things MORE complicated for the Contax lover, the 180 and longer lenses sold in West German Contax catalogs  were EAST German lenses (with their Jena engravings) !   East German 50's were sometimes  sold with   West German bodies in order to lower the selling price.   It seems East met West quite often in Contax land.

Russian lenses made for the various Kiev Contax copies offer the lowest priced lenses for your Contax.  They are mostly copies of pre-war Zeiss designs.  While quality can be inconsistent, the better ones are capable of fine performance.  The first two digits of the serial numbers indicate the year of production.   So far as I know there is complete interchangeability, except for the Russian 35/2.8 which has too large a rear element to fit on the post war IIa and IIIa.

21mm f/4 Biogon, West -- hard to   find, outstanding reputation. See Profile

25mm f/4 Topogon,  East, extremely rare  See Profile

35mm f/2.8 Biogon, West and East.    Post war West German lens with new optical formula has outstanding reputation.  East Post War lens was a coated version of the pre-war formula.  Also made in uncoated pre-war version.  Note:  35 Biogons  with the pre-war formula do not fit the Contax IIa and IIIa, but the post war West German 35's will fit either pre-war or postwar cameras.

35mm f/2.8 Biometer, East German,   will fit post war IIa / IIIa

35mm f/3.5 Planar, West German

50mm f/3.5 Tessar, West and East. collapsible and rigid versions East versions.  Rigid West version rare.     Also made in uncoated pre-war Jena version.

50mm f/2 Sonnar, West and East, excellent reputation.  Also made in uncoated pre-war Jena version (black or chrome).   West German version has nicely finished chrome barrel,  East German version has OK finish aluminum barrel.  West German post war versions include: chrome nose with "Zeiss-Opton" engraving, black nose with "Zeiss-Opton" engraving, black nose with "Carl Zeiss" engraving.  

50mm f/1.5 Sonnar, West and East, outstanding reputation.   The 50/1.5 Sonnar is generally considered one of the best normal lenses ever.  It is one of the few examples of a faster lens generally outperforming its slower f/2 counterpart.    Also made in uncoated pre-war Jena version (black or chrome).   West German version has nicely finished chrome barrel,   East German version has OK finish aluminum barrel.  West German post war versions include: chrome nose with "Zeiss-Opton" engraving, black nose with "Zeiss-Opton" engraving, black nose with "Carl Zeiss" engraving.   

75mm f/1.5 Biotar, East German, extremely rare See Profile

85mm f/2 Sonnar, West and East, outstanding reputation.   Also made in uncoated pre-war Jena version (black or chrome).

85mm f/4 Triotar, West, low priced portrait lens with so reputation.

115mm f/3.5 Tessar, West, rare close-up lens for Panflex mirror reflex housing

135mm f/4 Sonnar, outstanding reputation.  Made in pre-war uncoated Jena version (black for the Contax 1, chrome for the Contax II & III), coated West German Zeiss Opton or Carl Zeiss version, and coated post war  East German Jena version.

180mm f/2.8 Olympic Sonnar, East German, but sold in the West German catalog! for Reflex Housing, interchangeable rear mount  See Profile

300mm f/4 Sonnar, East German,  but sold in the West German catalog! for Reflex Housing, interchangeable rear mount

500mm f/8 Fern Tessar, East German, but sold in the West German catalog! for Reflex Housing, interchangeable rear mount

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Leading the way of Contax lens design was the legendary 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon.  It was, and is, an amazing lens.   When introduced in 1954, there was literally no other super wide competitors.   See Profile.

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85/2 Sonnar, Post War West German, notice the lens lock built into the side of the barrel


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West German Contax Zeiss Turret finder.  The finder rotates to give different views.  Depending upon version, the widest lens was either 21, 25 or 28, combined with finders for the 50, 85, and 135.  Parallax correction at rear.   A wide variety of other finders were also made.

        Do you notice a similarity between the Contax and Nikon Rangefinders?  Nikon copied much of the Contax concept in their Nikon One.

Nikon and Contax similarities include:

  1. ALMOST the same mount.     Although very similar, there is a very slight  difference in back focus and helical turning rates.  The wides between both systems will interchange easily.  The longer you go over 35, the more accuracy focusing problems you encounter.

  2. Focusing wheel for wide angle and normal lenses

  3. Similar squared off bodies

  4. Combined rangefinder and rangefinder windows

  5. Removable backs with double locks

  6. Since the wide angles easily interchange, a combination Contax and Nikon Rangefinder outfit is not a bad idea.

Nikon opted for the simpler and less expensive Leica type shutter and rangefinder.  Frankly, after the war Nikon probably didn't have the industrial capacity to built Zeiss type shutters and rangefinders.  See Profile.

What to Look for in Buying the Contax IIa or IIIa

Contax IIa and IIIa Rangefinders are very under priced in today's collector's market compared to the likes of the Leica M3, Nikon SP, and Canon 7sZ.   If you value incredible workmanship and sharp lenses, the Contax IIa / IIIa are well worth considering.   Be prepared to search long and hard for all the lenses and accessories, however -- they are hard to find.

The later Color Dial versions are rarer and more in demand by collectors, often selling for twice as much as the Black Dials in the US and Japan.    The earlier Black Dial cameras with the funny  flash connectors are the best buy for users.  Russian made lenses for their post war copy of the pre-war Contax II, called the Kiev, also provide a budget priced lens source.   

Voigtlander R2C: The most advanced design production Contax mount Rangefinder

Strangely enough, until the new Voigtlander Bessa RC arrived with TTL metering arrived at Photokina 2002, the most advanced Contax RF to see the light at the end of the production line was the Soviet made Kiev 5, produced from about 1967 to 1973.  It has a shutter coupled selenium meter, lever advance, the largest eyepiece in a classic Contax camera, a nifty lever rewind built into the side of the camera, and wonder of wonders, a projected non-parallax corrected brightline finder, complete with Contax outer bayonet mount and Contax type vertical metal shutter.     The 5 did not use the internal helical for 50's, having its own special 50 with a built in helical.  The other Contax mount wides and Teles will fit it,  even if regular Contax normals do not.  Some believe the Kiev 5 was influenced by West German Zeiss prototypes which never made it to regular production.   Alas, the Kiev 5 is hard to find, and not particularly well made --  or reliable.  The lever film advance is a weak point.  If you want one as a reliable shooter, think again.

To date the ONLY classic Zeiss Contax mount rangefinder mount camera with TTL metering EVER sold to the public is the Cosina made in Japan  Voigtlander R2C.   Not content with just a new camera body without new lenses, Cosina's CEO Mr. Kobayashi also produces a new line of modern optics with multi-coating.  While the  SC Voigtlander 21/4, 25/4, 28/3.5, and 35/2.5 lenses are technically are made to Nikon Rangefinder mount specifications, real world shooters found out long ago the wide angle lenses between the two systems could be interchanged.  Using the Voigtlander FS adapter, dedicated Contax RF shooters can also use the Voigtlander SL 12/5.6 and 15/4.5 -- the widest lenses ever for their classic Contax.   With the new line of Voigtlander wides and even a TTL metering Contax mount camera, Contax fans have more options now than ever -- amazingly enough four decades after the classic Zeiss Contax  was officially discontinued by Zeiss.

The fabulous Japanese made Zunow 50/1.1 mounted on a Contax IIa with a 50/1.5 Sonnar. 

Voigtlander Nikon/Contax Rangefinder Related Products

Voigtlander Bessa R2S R2C Rangefinders in Classic Nikon or Contax Rangefinder Mounts

Voigtlander Bessa R2S  50mm f/3.5 Heliar S NHS Commemorative in Classic Nikon Rangefinder Mount  

Voigtlander SL 12/5.6 and 15/4.5 Aspherical  widest EVER for NRF

Voigtlander Nikon Rangefinder SC Mount Lens Intro 21/4, 25/4, 35f/2.5 intro

Voigtlander Nikon Rangefinder SC Lenses: SC 21/4, SC 25/4, SC 28/3.5, SC 35f/2.5, SC 35/1.2 Prototype, S 50mm f/1.5, S 50f/2.5, S  50mm f/3.5, S 85mm/3.5

Voigtlander VC Meter II small compact silicon meter with LED readout for Nikon Rangefinders

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Revised: September 13, 2017 Copyright  1998-2003 Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.