Forgotten Gems of Yesteryear: The Contax IIIa

There have been many vintage cameras that made themselves stood out throughout the history of camera-dom, but there have also been several that sparked for a good period of time and eventually died out of popularity due to either technical inferiority or reasons unknown to people.

I have decided to write about my personal experiences with some film cameras that I think deserve more respect than they are now gathering in the age of digital domination. So obviously this means no to Leica M rangefinders. No to Nikon/Canon SLRs, and also no to Hasselblads and Rolleiflex TLRs.

 

I think it'd be most fair if I kick this off with a well-known, yet unsung gem of the post-WWII era: The Contax IIIa.

I'm not a historian nor a specs-guy, but bear with me here. The Contax IIIa was released after the WWII, as a refined version of the Contax III. Like the Contax III, IIIa had a light meter, but it was said to be more accurate than that of the III. Utilizing what's known as the Contax rangefinder mount today, there were several beautiful lenses made specifically for the Contax rangefinders, many of these lenses made by Contax's mother company, Carl Zeiss.

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The unfortunate war known as the WWII today spawned many legends that surrounded the Contax rangefinders even till today. Carl Zeiss split into two, creating Zeiss Opton and Carl Zeiss Jena, which were two of the same company, basically, split-apart in the post-WWII era. Topics like "which version of the Sonnar 50mm F1.5 is better" and "why Contax RFs eventually succumbed to Leica RFs" still boggle the minds of photography enthusiasts today.

I'm not here to answer all that. But I've come to a few of my own conclusions after using the Contax IIIa for over 3 months.

 

To be quite frank, I am not totally in love with this camera. It definitely has been a love-hate relationship between the Contax IIIa and me. I do like the design of this camera, though. Personally, I find it to be quite sexy. I especially like the light meter built-in on top of the camera, but that's just me. I know a few that are more fond of the design of the II-series more than that of the III-series.

It surprised me when I first saw that Contax IIIa's shutter speed tops out at a whopping 1/1250s. The majority of cameras in my vintage film camera collection don't even go that high, let alone Screw Mount Leicas, which were Contax IIa and IIIa's main competitors after the war.

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One cannot talk about the Contax RFs without mentioning the beautiful Zeiss glass that were specifically made for these cameras. Not to sound too cliche here, but these lenses were so good that the Soviets basically ripped them off to make their Jupiter-copies. Coated with Carl Zeiss's T coating or not, these optics can produce gorgeous images, with a good deal of character. 

I'm not a big proponent of Zeiss's optics, but I would have to say, to my eyes, I find images from both the Sonnar 50mm F2 and Sonnar 50mm F1.5 on my Contax more to my taste than those I took with either the Summar 5cm F2 or Summarit 50mm F1.5 mounted on my Konica Hexar RF.

 

Historically, not only did Carl Zeiss beat out Leica (Leitz at the time) to create the world's first 50mm (5cm) F1.5 lens, these Zeiss glass are also quite contrasty wide-open.

The Sonnar-twins can also be found in better condition, most of the time, than that of the Summar and Summarit. Later iterations of the Sonnar 50mm F1.5 also had better coatings, which made them less prone to ghosting and flaring than the easily hazed-up Summar and Summarit.

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That being said, I think that these lenses, no matter how gorgeous they can be, were also the downfall of Contax RFs. 

You see, there are just too few of them made. Not much variety can be found besides ones made by Carl Zeiss themselves or cheap copies from the USSR. Sure, there were others who cashed-in on this mount, but Contax was not gathering the support like what the Leica got from various manufacturers overseas.

It didn't hurt when Leica eventually moved to the M Mount, which proved to be a superior mount design than the old generations of camera mounts.

Even Nikon went on to create a similar mount to the Contax RF Mount, the Nikon S Mount, which was practically identical in design to the Contax but still different enough to make many lenses incompatible for accurate focusing on Contax RFs.

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The Contax IIIa has a few quirks to overcome when one first get in-touch with the camera.

First, like many old RFs, the Contax utilizes a spinning thumbwheel instead of a film advance lever. This is a pain in the bum. Big time. Not only is this a bummer, the frame counter on top of it doesn't reset on its own when attempting to unload and reload new film. I would usually spin-and-shoot 20 or 30 times just to get the counter right on-the-money on 0 before loading new film into it.

The infinity lock & the focusing wheel mechanism-combo is also a joke, IMO. I hate how it locks on infinity and needs me to hold a button to release its focus at infinity. Already a slow camera to shoot with, this mechanism only makes the Contax IIIa more of a downer in practical use. Oh and I don't think anyone would bother using the wheel to spin for focusing, too.

Did I mention the viewfinder? I think it's bright enough, for its time at least. It combined both focusing and framing in one window unlike the Barnack Leicas, which was a breakthrough in technology for its time. I respect that, but the magnification is too damn low for me.

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Other than those downsides I mentioned above, I find the Contax IIIa quite a fine camera. Sure, it's slow to focus with a lock at infinity and a small viewfinder window, but with a good viewfinder base length, one can achieve focus with a normal lens accurately on the Contax.

The body is also not too heavy, even when compared with modern day RFs. It's not a Minolta CLE for sure, but it's also not a clunky beast. The shutter is a vertically-traveling metal shutter that is very quiet, though not as silent as a cloth shutter on a M Mount Leica that came later than the IIIa.

 

Combining beautiful lenses with a usable light meter and a body in good condition, one can certainly get good pictures out of the Contax IIIa. I cannot get myself to overlook, however, the fact that its a hassel to focus with, and that the rewind-reload process is also painful to conduct.

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I want to love the Contax RFs so much, seeing that they are way cheaper than Leicas; however, they are cheap for a reason, I suppose.

It's not the best camera to begin one's journey with rangefinder-type cameras, but it also should not be forgotten as a camera with historical significance.

Try it out yourself. Maybe you'll like it more than I do :)

 

Camera: Contax IIIa

Lens: Carl Zeiss Sonnar 50mm F1.5 / Zeiss-Opton Sonnar T 50mm F2

Film: Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros / Fujifilm Pro 400H / Kodak Portra 400

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