Classic Cameras Friday! Zeiss Ikon Contax S – 1949

Hello there!

Busy week, got relatives in town and time is running like Water over the Niagara Falls. Here is my selection for this friday: the Zeiss Ikon Contax S ~ 1949, a superb piece of photographic technology. Now some facts:

  • First SLR with pentaprism
  • First with 42mm screw mount
  • $475 with f2 lens in 1950 ($4298 in 2010 dollars)

At the end of World War II, the main Zeiss Ikon facility at Dresden was taken over by the Soviets. The top engineers fled to Stuttgart, in the West. Much of the Dresden factory had been bombed, and much of what was left was removed by the Soviets to Kiev. But somehow the remaining staff created the Contax S, the first SLR with a pentaprism viewfinder. (But see my comment on the Rectaflex, below.) At that time both the Stuttgart and Dresden operations called themselves Zeiss Ikon, but the company in the East eventually called itself Pentacon.

The S stood for Spiegel (mirror), to distinguish this new model from the Contax rangefinders.

While the Contax S does indeed provide through-the-lens viewing, it has no rangefinder or focusing aids of any kind, and the screen is coarse, so it’s difficult to focus. Worse, there’s no preset diaphragm, so if you’ve stopped down to, say, f8, it’s even harder to focus. (The Contax S didn’t have an instant-return mirror; no German SLR did in 1949, and the Japanese weren’t even making SLRs.)

Note the price: $475 in 1951 is equivalent to about $4300 today. In 1951 a Nikon rangefinder with f1.4 lens was $349, and a Leica IIIf with f2 lens was $385. It seems that the Contax S was priced much too high to be successful. Maybe that was some sort of trial price, because the successor camera, the Contax D, was selling for less than $200 from the New York mail-order companies in 1954.

The Italian Rectaflex, also with a pentaprism, came out about when the Contax S did, but had a later patent date.