Zeiss Ikon’s Contina Ic is everything I love about vintage cameras. Functionally elegant, mechanically sophisticated, simple; its the kind of camera that works, sounds, and feels like clockwork. It’s a tangible link to a romantic past and an older continent, evidenced by the Swiss retailer’s identification seal found inside my example’s film compartment – Photo House, Amrein-Graf, 27 Quai des Bergues, Genève. Most important of all, it’s a machine that’s entirely capable of making excellent photos more than sixty years after it shipped from the factory.
Don’t get me wrong, this camera is not a camera to replace the average digital photographer’s mirrorless or DSLR. With its weak maximum aperture, a painfully sluggish top shutter speed, and a complete lack of focusing aids, this small, metal camera is inferior even to the film SLRs of the 1970s. What it is, however, is pure tactile joy. Like the gated shift lever of a European sports car, or the mainspring of a hand wound mechanical wristwatch, the mechanisms of this Zeiss are supremely satisfying in a way that many people simply won’t understand.
I just called the Contina inferior to a certain class of cameras from a later era. That’s obviously true, but it’s not the whole story. Judged through the lens of the period in which it was made, the Contina Ic was a wonderful photographic tool for users who’d bother to read an owner’s manual. And as hinted, it remains just the same in 2017. Spend some time learning its sometimes quirky methodology and the camera reveals itself to be a simple one.
Essentially, the Contina Ic is a German-made compact 35mm viewfinder camera with a fixed lens and a leaf shutter. We could end the spec list there and not be faulted. There’s not much else going on here. There’s no light meter, there’s no rangefinder, and there are no electronics. For those high-tech accoutrements you’ll need to buy a higher-spec Contina (there were plenty made with all this and more). The Contina Ic’s bells and whistles amount to a flash sync port, an automatic frame counter, a film speed and type reminder dial, a tripod mount and a shutter release cable socket. But despite this simplicity (and possibly as a direct result of it) the camera does what it does extremely well.
The viewfinder is a reverse Galilean type, which provides a very slightly reduced size relative to actual size, but the frame is simply massive. This allows ample room on all sides of the absolutely gorgeous frame lines, which seem to glow with inner light. This system will feel familiar to users of Leica’s M series or similar rangefinders in which the unused space surrounding the actual image area can be an effective tool for staying aware of our surroundings and for composing images just the way we want them. It’s a bright, fantastic viewfinder that’s hard to beat, and users who’ve never shot a camera of this type will be immediately impressed.
Its lens is a 45mm Pantar lens with a maximum aperture of F/2.8. At first blush, this maximum aperture would seem sluggish. But when we realize that the camera’s maximum shutter speed is an equally contemplative 1/300th of a second, we start to see why a faster aperture may not be necessary to the creation of great images. This is a camera that’s less concerned with shallow depth-of-field, favoring instead the “F/8 and be there” sensibility of travel and family oriented snapshot makers of its day. In this capacity, the lens and shutter work together very well.
This cohesive identity in the two components that make up the core of any camera’s capability, shutter speed and aperture, becomes even more apparent when we understand the camera’s operational intent. The Contina uses the exposure value shooting methodology that was deeply in favor back in the day. By taking a light meter reading with an external meter, we are able to set what is known as EV, our exposure value. Using this value, the shooter can set the shutter speed and aperture to the appropriate settings, at which point they will become linked via a locking mechanism on the aperture ring. Once this has been done, changing one value (aperture or shutter speed) will result in an automatic change to the other. This means that exposures should always be correct as long as the available light remains somewhat the same. For extenuating circumstances or for shooters who prefer greater artistic freedom, simply depressing the locking button allows us to change aperture or shutter speed individually.
Focusing is accomplished via our brains and our eyes, with only superficial help from the camera. Gauge the distance to subject and spin the focusing ring on the front of the lens to the corresponding distance (or near enough). The depth-of-field scale shows immediately how our selected aperture will effect focus. For rapid fire shooting and to more closely embrace the “F/8 and be there” ethos, there’s a “red dot setting” with which Zeiss shooters will be familiar. By setting the focusing ring to the red dot and setting the aperture to the red painted F/8 mark we ensure that any subject from approximately 8 feet away to infinity distance will be in sharp focus.
If this list of features doesn’t set the average photo geek’s world ablaze, no fault there. It’s decidedly modest. But the Contina Ic is a camera that, clichés be damned, is much greater than the sum of its parts.
To start, every inch of this camera is machined perfection. Design flourishes are refined and intricate, a testament to its designers’ attention to detail. The body’s satin chrome finish is smooth and subtle, with polished levers and accents contrasting beautifully as seen on the camera’s accessory shoe. The incredibly fine knurling of its dials is just stunning, and provides both functional grip and visual delicacy. And when we begin actuating these dials things become even more exceptional.
The film advance lever ratchets with all the right noises and haptic feedback that is so delightfully mechanical. This action advances the film, cocks the leaf shutter, and advances the frame counter all in one throw. While this is far from unique in the world of vintage cameras, the directed action of the lever, the sounds that it makes, and the final thwick when all gears, levers, and dials have locked into place is just magic. Admittedly, this magic will be lost on plenty of shooters. But anyone who appreciates the incredible intricacy of mechanized things will immediately fall for the Contina after one actuation. Anyone who’s actually tried to build something will be even more impressed.
All this said, amazing mechanisms are useless on a camera if that camera can’t take good photos. The Zeiss avoids this critical failure by making mostly beautiful pictures, pictures that may be even more remarkable in 2017 than they were in its own day. I could describe shots from the Contina as retro, but this simplifies and diminishes things. The 45mm Pantar lens renders in a unique way that’s hard to assert. Images are sharp, but not clinically sharp, giving photos an almost painted aesthetic. Shots don’t just look old. They look artistic. They’re brushstrokes, not pixels; they’re pastel, not vivid; they’re etched, not sharp. Shots made through the Contina’s lens are rendered nearly as if we’re seeing a scene through the fog of memory. Sometimes things look better and sometimes things look worse, no matter what, things always look interesting.
There’s minor vignetting when shot wide open, some chromatic aberration when shooting high contrast scenes, and general sponginess on the corners of the frames. This is not advanced or technically excellent glass, but neither is it trying to be. When focusing at minimum focus distance and shooting at maximum aperture, it’s possible to get some fairly decent background blur (though nailing focus is a bit of a challenge). Is it gorgeous, creamy bokeh? No way. But it doesn’t have to be. Flaring and ghosting happens when shooting directly into the sun. In spite of all these objective flaws, this lens has charm.
But is charm all a camera needs, or does a camera have to be “the best” to warrant ownership? For me, the former. The Zeiss Ikon Contina Ic is far from the best camera I own; it’s old-world in all the best and worst ways possible. It’s a bit sluggish, a bit clunky, and a bit quirky. But it makes gorgeous photos, rewards the senses with every shot, and feels utterly fantastic in the hands. It’s not a camera to replace my digital or more advanced film machines, but it is the kind of camera that reminds me of why I shoot classic cameras in the first place.
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