Contax IIIa Review

Well, I was lucky again. 🙂

This time not on a local flea market, but on the world wide web. I’m usually browsing kleinanzeigen.de (something similar to craigslist) for good buys on Leica, Minolta and Contax gear. I’m a collage student, so my funds are very limited, but sometimes I manage to broaden the heard.

Then, I was browsing at the university and not paying attention once again, it struck me like a lightning: someone was selling his complete Contax IIIa Outfit! Included where the Contax IIIa Body, three Carl Zeiss lenses (Sonnar f1,5 5cm, Sonnar f4 135mm and Biogon f4,5 21mm), a multi-focal-length-revolving viewfinder, a beautiful Leather Bag and leather ever ready case. The Pricetag: 400 EUR – complete for the whole package! This guy clearly didn’t know what he was selling – so yes, I contacted him immediately. After mailing forth and back for 5 minutes, we agreed on 300 EUR (shipping included) – a bargain, no – a steal to be fair!

contax outfit review

I was amazed on arrival. I never really had the Contax IIIa or any other rangefinder like the Leica’s on my radar since I prefer SLRs – both for operation and price – but man, the professional grade of engineering that was put into this piece of machinery – you just have to fall in love with it!

Handling:

It’s heavy – no doubt about that. And some operations are more quirky than I would have ever expected. But it’s indeed a fine machine, comparable to watches in complexity – no way to just pick it up and understand it right away.

Focusing:

So the first thing that buffled me was the easiest thing of all: focusing!

The Sonnar 1,5 5cm lens barrel has clear markings for distance engraved but wouldn’t rotate. I didn’t want to just check the interweb so I tried my best – it’s just focusing after all! I gave up eventually and my girlfriend picked it up, tried for a minute and then explained to me (she’s an engineer). So thats how you bring your composition into focus:

Right underneath the shutter dial on the right hand side of the camera body, there is a wheel that might remind you of an aperture dial seen on modern (D)SLRs but instead is a dedicated focusing wheel for your right hand forefinger. Its a pain to use and slow in operation but might just need some lubrication. The advantage you get by having a dial like this: you can compose and focus with your right hand only – no need for a left hand on the lens barrel. But since the camera is on the heavy side, I doubt I will ever use this novelty. The barrel itself can be rotated as any other lens can, but needs to be unlocked first by either using a switch on the right hand side of the lens mount or by pressing a button just behind the focusing wheel near the shutter dial. As soon as you pass infinity by a bit, it will lock again – as I said before: quirky at least!

contax iiia review focusing wheel

The aperture of the Standard Sonnar 1: 1,5 5cm is a marvel for itself. Just rotate the aperture ring and the 11 blades dance around a stopless growing and shrinking almost perfect circle. Be sure that your subject will notice and pay you off with sparkling eyes – exciting portraits are guaranteed.

The Viewfinder:

The focusing screen and viewfinder are somewhat dim. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s usable if you want to get the shot – and it was good enough for no one less than Robert Capa. He used the exact same viewfinder of the Contax IIa in China, Spain and during operation overlord in France where he swam ashore with the second assault wave on June 6, 1944 at Omaha Beach – broadly known as D-Day. But compared to the nice and bright viewfinder and contrasty split screen of the Canonet QL 1.9 and a Leica M6 it just bites the dust. Those both cameras are from later generations of course, but the only systems I can compare my Contax IIIa to.

Metering the light:

The only difference between the Contax IIa and the Contax IIIa is the build in selenium light meter. Its not coupled to the shutter or the aperture by any means – so how does it operate? You read the measurements first and then manually adjust aperture and shutter accordingly. To read the correct settings, you open the light meter blind by pressing a button – now the needle reacts to incoming light and you try to bring the needle in correspondence with the rhombus symbol by using the dial on the left side of the accessory shoe. According to the DIN number of your film (e.g. DIN 27 for ISO 400 speed Film) you read the correct shutter speed for the desired aperture and translate your readings manually to the aperture ring and shutter dial. It’s slow and not meant for street photography – but I tell you: It’s beautiful. 🙂

contax iiia review light meter

Here’s the bummer. Since the Contax IIa/IIIa‘s where built in the late 40s until the mid 60s (mine was built between 1955 to 1956), the selenium cells themselves are mostly corroded by now. They just won’t meter correctly – so don’t make any adjustments according to the build in light meter – it’s lying or confused at least! My takeaway on this: I sure would have preferred the more streamline Contax IIa without the light meter, but since I do play the cards I am dealt with, I won’t switch the body. Maybe I will let the meter be serviced – maybe I won’t, but I will keep my Contax IIIa and, when the time and light is right, enjoy playing around with the light meter.

Advancing the film:

The Film advance is operated by a nob, not a crank lever as standard to all modern film cameras. The nob on the Contax IIIa is advancing and cocking the shutter at the same time, so nothing exciting here. But the frame count just took my breath away! First I thought I had to set the frame count manually, until I was cocking the shutter for my next picture. Before my eyes, the mechanics of my Contax Rangefinder where again, dancing for me:

Fit and finish:

At first glance, I’m sure I would have confused the Contax IIIa with any other standard and mass produced rangefinder of that time. But it’s a different beast of camera and you notice that instantly by just picking it up. There is not a millimeter of an unnecessary width between the parts assembled. The chrome used is of premium quality, the leatherette holds up to this day as it was wrapped around the body yesterday and the shutter is a satisfying climax of metal curtains.

contax iiia review front b

contax iiia review front

At this time, I cannot make any judgments on the quality of pictures produced by this machine. But example shots of the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 1,5 5cm I saw on flickr are promising, I will blog my thoughts on that lens as soon as I get back my first roll of Ektar 100. Until then: I’m happy to have a new companion.