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Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Contax IIIa - it's pretty - but does it perform...?

Ok, I suck.
I promised the next two posts were going to be about photography and photos taken with classic cameras - and here is yet another post about recently acquired equipment...

But it was just so hard not to post something about this camera..hopefully you'll see why.. :)

First of all - why did I even get a new camera? Counting my small collection of fixed-lens rangefinder cameras I have about 30 cameras already and some of them are - in my eyes - the best cameras available: Leica M3, Leica III (F), Olympus 35SP/SPn/UC and Hasselblad 500C/M.

So why invest in a brand 'new' camera and lens?
Insanity comes to mind - as does the RFF infamous 'Gear Acquisition Syndrome' (GAS).
Regardless of what the underlying reason might had been - I have had my gear-hungry eyes set on a Contax IIIa for quite some time. Years actually. The 'need' to get one came and went in phases. Sometimes I forgot about the camera for a long time and at other times I was happy with the equipment that I was still trying to master. Then one day for about three weeks ago I was aimlessly browsing eBay and happened to come across what looked like a perfect deal for me: a Contax IIIa (with working meter), recently cla'd - and with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5 that is rumoured to be an excellent performer. It even came with the original leather case - but more about that one later.

I ended up winning the auction and four hundred pay-pal'd dollars and a week later a package appeared at the office. Later in the day as I opened it up I was amazed at the condition it was in - not a scratch or dent anywhere and no Zeiss bubbles under the leather covering. Beautiful!

My Contax IIIa and lens is by the way from 1954-1956 which makes it about 50 years old.
More information about the Contax II/III and IIa/IIIa

As pretty as it was I had not bought it only for its looks. All my favorite cameras seems to have two things in common - I find them to be very attractive and they are great users. The Contax had passed the first of these two tests - next: How does it handle and perform.

Initial thoughts on using the Contax IIIa

The body is a bit thicker and 'edgier' than the Leica M's. There's a lot of chrome and the finish is really nice. I have read that some people consider the finish on the IIa/IIIa to rival the M3 but owning both cameras I must say that the finish on the Leica wins hands down. Not to say that the IIIa is cheap looking in anyway - it's very far from it - but the Leica has a certain feel and look to it that no other camera has come close to - at least not a camera that I have come across.

The camera version I got is a IIIa which is a post-war model with a built-in selenium meter on the top of the body. Some people find the meter ruin the look of the camera and prefer the II/IIa bodies but I must admit I deliberately searched for a IIIa as I liked the look of it more. The meter in these cameras are often dead or not to be trusted but it turned out that my meter was in decent shape and once adjusting for the 1.5 stop it was off it seems to be within acceptable range.

Using the meter is quite an ordeal as it's not coupled in any way. You adjust a ring on top of the camera until you have the correct exposure and then you transfer the aperture and shutterspeed combination you want to the lens (aperture) and the shutterspeed ring (on the top of the camera).
I found it very easy to forget to transfer these settings but once again..newbie mistakes.

The viewfinder was the first surprise. There are no framelines. None. The viewfinder matches the view you would get when using a 50mm lens and I am curious to see how accurate the framing will be when I get back the first roll next week.
The built-in finder is fairly bright - once again not as bright as an M3 which will be my primary reference throughout this - but bright enough to focus well with in a dimly lit coffee shop (I know as I am in one as I write this, it's 10:54pm and I just tried it) and the rangefinder patch is contrasty and easy to use.

The lens the camera came with was the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5 and focusing it one has two options - either using the lens barrel or the focusing wheel located right above the rangefinder window on the right side of the camera. It may be an acquired taste or a matter of practice but I find myself focusing by twisting the lens barrel almost all the time. Turning the lens is not as smooth as say a Summicron on an M3 but once again not an issue at all.

The shutter surprised me a bit as well as it's quite a bit louder than I had expected but it's a pleasant metallic 'click' that doesn't bother me - but it might bother people should I ever for some reason decide that I wanted to take a photo in a church. Then again, I've never had the urge to do that previously so odds are church goers in my area will be safe.

Film loading was a pain but I will put that down to user mistakes and inexperience.
You open up the film body by turning two locking-rings on the bottom plate and then slide the camera back off by moving it downwards. The film end is attached to a proprietary take-up spool and then put back into the camera. You can't advance the film before the back is replaced.

Initial impressions bottom-line: Not quite Leica M-class in terms of easy of use but different doesn't always has to mean bad. I have high hopes that I will grow into using this camera the way it deserves to be used.

Accessories:

* Case.
The camera came with the original never-ready leather case. I'm a fan of using just a half-case but just like the M3 case the Contax case does not detach. So - I did what any camera-posing-gear-fetish-prone person would do: I bought a beautiful case by Luigi.
As expected it looks and feels great and is a great addition to this camera - fully recommended.

* Viewfinder
The built-in finder is somewhat small and dim so I decided to get an original Zeiss Ikon 50mm external finder as well to see how/if it would improve the handling. I managed to buy a very rare 421 finder for 50mm lenses - and this finder can be adjusted for the IIIa to compensate for the height that the built-in finder adds to the body. Too early to tell what I will end up using - built-in or external but so far I enjoy to have the options.

Initial ratings:
Looks: 8.5 out of 10.
This is an extremely attractive camera. In some ways even more so than the M3.

User: 6 out of 10.
These are very initial thoughts and I'm likely to revisit this in a few weeks.
The film loading, viewfinder, shuttersound and focusing are not up to par with the M3 (my reference point). Even though the built-in meter is a nice bonus - the need to transfer the settings manually questions its value.

Performance: (Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50/1.5): ? out of 10
Hoping to get the first one or two rolls developed nex week...

Below are some 'camera porn' photos of the camera kit for now :)



4 Comments:

Anonymous michael said...

Nice review - echoes many of my feelings when I first acquired a Contax IIa.Unlike you I didn't like the meter aesthetics so I sold it and got a IIa and had it reworked by Henry Scherer. Look forward to seeing your photos with the Sonnar.

May 30, 2006 6:05 PM  
Blogger RPA said...

Gorgeous camera, Rich, and a great review, too. That's what you get for "browsing" ebay: a new toy! Enjoy it, and let's see some pics taken with it!

May 31, 2006 10:35 PM  
Blogger Vic Stewart said...

I have one just like yours with the f:1.5. It's a great camera, but like you I have an M3, some Nikon F cameras and a couple of Rollei TLRs. It's too hard picking a favorite! I, too, need to stop. I agree that Harry Scherer is your man. He's at www.zeiss-camera.com. He did my camera and lenses and he's GREAT! You're going to LOVE the Sonnar! Vic

October 28, 2006 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Dave Nussbaum said...

When I was 16, my uncle gave me his Contax IIIA. The Sonar 1.5 was not coated and had tiny bubbles in the glass, but took superb photographs, tack sharp. Alas, it was stolen from me and over the years, I, like you have wandered back and forth with the burning desire to once again have a IIIA back. Well, I just mailed away payment for a beautiful 'mint condition Contax IIIA which I hope to have in my hands by next week. I also own Leica's, M6 and M8 pluse Olympus E-3 with a full compliment of lenses. But it's always been the Contax that I have coveted. I presently am employed by a major international photo agency. Still a film addict.

July 22, 2008 3:14 PM  

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