The Contax S was developed by what was left of Zeiss Ikon in the Soviet zone of Germany immediately after World War II. There were sketches and projects for a Zeiss Ikon 35mm SLR during the war but they were destroyed by the aerial bombings of Dresden. All the development started again from scratch in 1945 under the direction of Wilhelm Winzenburg. In the meantime the top engineers of Zeiss Ikon had gone to Western Germany, where a new Zeiss Ikon company would finally emerge in Stuttgart.
The new single-lens reflex camera was presented and production began in 1949. It was an innovative camera, with a fixed prism allowing direct viewing from behind, not reversed. In the same year production of the Rectaflex began in Italy; the two cameras share the distinction of being the first pentaprism SLRs. They would define the shape of the SLR for the years to come, and in today's digital SLRs there is still something of the Contax S.
The new camera also introduced the 42mm screw lens mount that would meet great success. All the bodies of the Contax S family can take 42mm screw lenses.
There were many little variations during the first years of production. The latest ones have a little D engraved under the Zeiss Ikon logo.
Contax D and Pentacon
| Pentacon, export model of the Contax D|
Picture by Popitz.
The next model was called the Contax D, and was more the result of gradual evolution than a radical change.
In 1948 the two branches of Zeiss Ikon, East and West, were finally separated. In a series of lawsuits the Eastern branch would lose the right to use the historical names, like Contax. They continued to use the Contax name in the Eastern block market, but adopted the name Pentacon for the export to other countries. Pentacon comes from Pentaprism Contax, but is unanimously qualified as an unfortunate choice. Maybe something like Pentax would have been a better idea!
There were many minor variations in the engravings of the Contax D model. Some had the Zeiss Ikon logo, with or without VEB written underneath. Others had the Pentacon logo representing the Ernemann tower of Dresden, that is the company's headquarters building, with or without the addition of the engraved letters ZI (for Zeiss Ikon).
The Contax E is a Contax D with an uncoupled exposure meter on top. It was also called Pentacon E.
Contax F, FM, FB and FBM
|Pentacon F, export model of the Contax F|
The Contax F is the successor of the Contax D, released in 1956, with:
- an automatic diaphragm release, that is a linkage between body and lens that closes the diaphragm when the shutter release is pressed. The Contax F was the first camera to have this device.
- a bigger mirror
- bigger winding and rewind buttons.
It was also called Pentacon F.
From the Contax F onwards, production was transferred to Kamera Werke in Niedersiedlitz.
The Contax FM is a variant, introduced in 1958, with a split image focusing aid in the viewfinder. It was also called Pentacon FM.
The Contax FB is a Contax F with an exposure meter, like the Contax E. The Pentacon FB is the same camera.
The Contax FBM is a Contax FM with the same exposure meter. The Pentacon FBM is the same camera.
The Contax D has been sold on some markets with fancy names. The Hexacon, Super D, Astraflex 35 or Cal-flex names are just plates glued or riveted on the face of the camera. The Consol name is engraved. According to some legend, the Consol models, being made for export to the Western market, specially the US, were of better quality and more controlled. It seems that it is not true and that they were just normal models with another marking.
At last, there were some bodies that were sold with no engraving at all, nicknamed the "No-Name" Pentacon or "No-Name" Contax. Of course they are different from the Kiev rangefinder bodies sold with no engraving, also called the "No-Name" Contax or "No-Name" Kiev.
There was also a name variant of the Contax F called the Ritacon F.
Japanese and Chinese copies
The Japanese Altair, announced in early 1955, was closely inspired by the Contax D but incorporated a quick-return mirror. It remained at prototype level only.
The Tian Chi was a Chinese near-copy of the Contax F, of which only ten were made.
A user's point of view
The Contax S family of cameras all have excellent ergonomics and are pleasant to hold.
The finder of the first models, before the F, is really small and only shows an insufficient portion of the image. The finder of the F, with the bigger mirror, is improved.
Before the F, you have to shut down the diaphragm manually before each exposure. It is not too difficult, and anyway the camera is quite slow to use so that does not make much difference. However at the beginning it is likely you will forget it for a couple of pictures.
Sadly the materials these cameras were built with were not up to the quality of the design itself. All the cameras of the family are prone to shutter curtain deterioration and even if the curtains look good, they are likely to be full of pinholes and you will have to get them repaired. With a camera with pinholes in the shutter curtains, you will have spots of light on some of your pictures, some of them might even be beautiful but the effect is completely aleatory and is more likely to spoil your shots. Today some reputable eBay sellers do sell fully cleaned, lubricated and adjusted bodies, with the curtains replaced. It is probably the surest way to get a working one.
- folding sports finder, for 35mm and 58mm, attached to the finder eyepiece
- Barringer, C. and Small, M. Zeiss Compendium East and West — 1940–1972. Small Dole, UK: Hove Books, 1999 (2nd edition). ISBN 1-874707-24-3.
- Dechert, Peter. The Contax S camera family. Yakima (Washington): Historical Camera Publications, 1991. ISBN 1-879561-10-8. This book is available in pdf form in Peter Dechert's Corner at Songofsnow
- Matanle, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic Cameras. London: Thames & Hudson, 1986. First paperback edition, 1992. ISBN 0-500-27656-0.
- Matanle, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic SLRs. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. ISBN 0-500-01726-3.
- St Denny, Douglas. Cameras of the People's Republic of China. Leicester, UK: Jessop Specialist Publishing, 1989. ISBN 0-9514392-0-0.
- Schulz, Alexander. Contax S, A History of the World's First 35mm Prism SLR Camera. Stuttgart: Lindemanns, 2002. ISBN 3-89506-236-7.
- The development of the modern small format SLR camera, an article in Frank Mechelhoff's camera site, featuring the Praktiflex, Contax S, Exakta VX and original Pentax
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