The Incredible Contarex and Contaflex Film Cameras

Plus, Why Did Zeiss’ Cameras Stop Selling

4 min read by Gavin Lyons.
Published on .
Taken with Zeiss Ikon Contaflex on Kodak Ultramax 400.

In this article, I talk about my father-in-law’s Contaflex camera and how looking for a wider-angle lens led me to discover the Contarex. I also talk about the reason why I think Zeiss lost its top market position in the 1960s.

I’ve recorded my dialogue on this topic while riding bikes and taking pictures in Vienna in-between the lockdowns. You can watch it here.

Zeiss Ikon.

Taken with Zeiss Ikon Contaflex on Kodak Ultramax 400.

Zeiss Ikon, the brand under which Zeiss made film cameras, has a long history, all 121 years of it. It made tons of cameras, especially if we are to count related companies, such as Voigtländer and Cosina.

My first Zeiss is an Ikon Contaflex that my father-in-law gave me. I didn’t pay much attention to it, expecting the camera to be something cheap, like a bargain Agfa.

Eventually, I took a closer look and discovered the f/2.8 Carl Zeiss lens, attached to Zeiss Ikon Contaflex, Super Edition — a camera at the top of its range. This stirred my interest.

Expanding my field of view.

I picked up an inexpensive lens adapter from Carl Zeiss, which turned my 50mm Contaflex into a 35mm camera. An avid lover of wide-angle glass, I wondered if I could find a 24mm lens for my Contaflex to get the shots I want.

Taken with Zeiss Ikon Contaflex on Kodak Ultramax 400.

On eBay, I found something that sounded familiar but not quite the same: a 24mm Zeiss lens for a Contarex camera. I placed my bid and waited. Having been overbid sometime before the end of the auction, I increased my bid, thinking I can snag it for 400 Euros. Alas, it went for 525€, way out of my budget.

Why was it so expensive; what’s so special about Contarex lenses? As a package, they go for over 1,000€ — an average market price on eBay.

The Contarex.

Turns out that Contarex was the last “hurrah” of the Zeiss high-end camera production. An incredible feat of engineering. Contarex is a pro-grade tool with supreme glass specs and a beautiful design.

A camera packed with innovation, craftsmanship, and engineering that ended the Zeiss line. Was its astronomical price or the competition from the other side of the world that spelled the end?

The end of Zeiss pro camera line.

I figured it must be both. Build for professional photographers; the Contarex seems to have failed their objective of having a reliable instrument to do the job.

Contarex cameras were hand-assembled complicated machines. They are difficult to take apart and fix, which yields expensive repairs and long service wait times. Overengineering caused the demise of the Zeiss camera line.

Contarex is an amazing instrument, but it is a collector’s piece rather than a daily shooter. They seem to be too valuable and too delicate for casual use. Not suited for the active lifestyle many pro field photographers must deal with. This is, however, my opinion; I’m curious: what do you think? Perhaps we can chat about this on Twitter or Instagram.

Taken with Zeiss Ikon Contaflex on Kodak Ultramax 400.
Taken with Zeiss Ikon Contaflex on Kodak Ultramax 400.

Contarex is a seductive piece of equipment, but I wager that Contaflex is a better shooter — if you want a Zeiss camera and Zeiss glass.