Wednesday, April 8, 2020


By Heinz Richter

As a Leica owner it is easy to consider oneself as being on top of the heap as far as cameras go.  That is not incorrect.  As  a whole, cameras and lenses, nobody currently makes anything better than Leica, but they are not as alone as many of us like to believe.

I have written is the past about a few cameras that were definitely equal to the Leica, like the Alpa or the short lived Kodak Ektra, for instance.  But nothing has ever been able to match the Zeiss Contarex Electronic.  Not that is was capable to outperform the Leica cameras that were made at the same time, but in overall capabilities, nothing ever matched that camera.

Many of us are familiar with the Leica Reflex cameras, starting with the original Leicaflex from 1964.  It evolved to the Leicaflex SL and finally the Leicaflex SL2.  All were extremely well made cameras with an outstanding line of lenses.  As far as overall results go, nothing could perform any better.

Leicaflex Standard

Leicaflex SL

Leicaflex SL2

One of the main reasons for the overall performance capabilities of Leica equipment is the extremely tight tolerances that Leica has always applied in the manufacture of their cameras and lenses.  While no camera and no lens will ever be able to be as good as the theoretical ideal, it is necessary to try to come as close to that ideal as possible to assure the best overall performance.  In this regard there is very little that can compete with Leica.

© Somerville

The Zeiss Contarex cameras were such a line of camera.  They applied the same or similar tight tolerances to their cameras and lenses as Leica did.  The crowning achievement of Zeiss cameras started with the original Zeiss Contarex 1 from 1960.

It was the so-called Cyclops model, characterized by the external ligthmeter, mounted above the lens.  It was a big, heavy, extremely well made camera, and until the Leicaflex Standard was introduced in 1964, it was without question the Best SLR camera available besides the Swiss made Alpa.

That camera evolved to the Contarex Super in 1966 with the main difference being the through the lens metering system.

The final version was the Contarex Electronic.  The development of this camera started at the time of the introduction of the Contarex Super and both cameras remained in production until 1974 when Zeiss ended camera production.

At its time, there simply was nothing that could match the overall capabilities of the camera.  Besides standard features like through the lens metering, the camera also offered interchangeable focusing screens, motor drive, even a 250 exposure back.  While these are features that were also offered by other manufacturers, one exclusive were interchangeable film backs, not unlike what was standard with may medium format cameras.

While no SLR at that time offered automatic exposure control with through the lens metering, the Contarex super Electronic did offer an external metering unit which could be added to automatically control exposure of the camera in an aperture control mode.  It would meter the light intensity though its own lens.  The unit was attached to the camera with a cable.

These exclusive features resulted in me selling the most sophisticated camera system ever to the University of Minnesota.  One of their departments contacted me with a special request. 

They often had guest lecturers which used slides during their presentations.  The idea was to copy the slides while they were being projected during the lecture without any interruptions.  That required automatic exposure control to compensate for different densities of the slides.  They modified a projector and devised a beam splitter which allowed the camera, equipped with a 50mm f/2 Zeiss Planar and a bellows to focus directly on the transparency while it was projected.  However, the automatic exposure control unit could not be part of the ligthpath.  Instead it was positioned close to the projection screen and connected via a cable to the camera.  A 250 exposure back allowed a large number of exposures to be made without the need to reload the camera.

Another claim to fame for the Contarex Super was that it was the first camera to be used in outer space.  Several cameras, including Leicas had been used inside the space craft during orbit, but none ever outside in open space.

This occurred during the first American spacewalk by Ed White.  He had been given an experimental maneuvering device which consisted of a propellant tank attached to a handgrip and a crossbar with small jet nozzles at each end.  The camera was mounted in the middle, on top of this device.  The maneuvering unit turned out to be a failure, but the camera functioned flawlessly.

With all of the Leica equipment that I have owned and used over the years, I still miss the Contarex 1 that I owned for a few years.  The only reason why I sold it was the unfortunate fact that Zeiss decided in 1974 to leave the camera market.  The Zeiss labeled cameras that followed were all made in Japan buy another manufacturer.  While those were very nice camera in their own right, none ever approached the overall quality of the Contarex line of cameras.

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