By Nigel Haycock

This is the first in Kosmo Foto’s new series of guest camera reviews – thank you Nigel for sending this to me.

I have had this Contax III for a little over a year now. At first I was excited to discover it. The seller obviously had no idea what it was and totally mis-described it saying it was an SLR rather than a rangefinder. Luck had me spot it, and being how badly it was described I was the only bidder and got it for a good price; assuming it worked, which it did.

I bought it as a body only and not wanting to invest too much on what was an unknown quantity I followed up with a 50mm 2.0 lens made by Kiev.

When I got it all together everything worked pretty much as it should at least the parts that I worried about, the self-timer was defunct but other than that, good. The condition wasn’t great but nothing of great concern.

As far as I can tell this is an authentic Contax though it is no museum piece, and it might have even been two separate cameras at some point.

Quick history: The release of this and the previous Contax rangefinder coincided with the war and after the war when Germany was divided. Russia took much of the Contax tooling and many of its key workers. The Contax name stayed in the West and Russian ‘copies’ appeared under the Kiev brand, though quality dropped significantly over time; the Kiev versions of this camera can be hit or miss.

The Contax brand itself continued but the rangefinders gave way to SLRs and compacts etc. and their close competition with the likes of Leica faltered.

But those early rangefinders really were good and due to their comparative rarity became pricey. Of course anywhere there is value there is money to be made and if you can pick up cheap Russian versions and re-present them as Contax originals then stumbling across a ‘fake’ is not that difficult.

I’m no expert but my research led me to believe that this is a real Contax III. The tell-tale signs that it was a modified Kiev were not there, and the typical signs that make it a Contax were. Having said that I don’t believe it is 100% original as the serial numbers for the body and the back don’t match.

The camera with its detachable back plate (Pic: Nigel Haycock)

I took it for a spin with some expired Kodak colour film and all worked as it should; but I didn’t like it; I really wanted to like it but just didn’t.

The focus, which is adjusted predominantly via a small wheel close to the shutter release, was just too awkward; my finger scrolled left and right moving the lens to where it needed to be. It just felt wrong and not instinctive at all. You can release the lens and turn it in the conventional way but that’s not quite the point and it locks back at infinity anyway. It’s not that I am not open to changing my operational practices, I have other rangefinders (from Voigtlander) and they use left hand focusing via a knob on the top (where rewind is) and somehow I can cope with that better.

Not a Zeiss lens, but a Soviet copy, courtesy of the USSR’s Arsenal plant (Pic: Nigel Haycock)

The other problem I found was that the rangefinder (which has the longest effective base length of any camera) is right where my finger wants to be and so when I bring it up to my eye I see my finger and then have to adjust my grip accordingly.

The whole experience was just disappointing. But then the pictures…

I was very pleased with a couple of these; the lens had made lovely warm and soft images on the old film.

But I just couldn’t face the clumsy operation and consigned the whole thing to the ‘for sale’ shelf; at least I shouldn’t struggle to get my money back on selling it.

Technical specs

  • 35mm rangefinder with a vertical focal plane shutter
  • Shutter speed of B through to 1/1250
  • Built in selenium meter (the first camera to have one)
  • Effective base length: 90mm to 73mm
  • Kiev 50mm Lens w/ Aperture: F2 -22

After a few months of it not being sold (partly down to sellers who changed their minds) I read an article on its slightly more attractive cousin the Contax II. Again I saw the enthusiastic raving about how wonderful this camera is. Admittedly the II is a more attractive camera being as it doesn’t have the exposure meter planted on its top but other than that it is essentially the same camera. Okay, I thought, let’s get it out of the box and give it another try.

In went a fresh roll of Ilford FP4 and off I went into the strong California sunshine.

The experience was better this time but the same issues prevailed; spinning that little wheel to focus just takes forever and again my finger blocking the rangefinder window which is right on the right hand edge. Nope I just don’t think I can get used to this. Comparing it with the Voigtlander Prominent (which I had recently acquired) I felt the Prominent wins out on useability. They both have their quirks but the Prominent I found easier to get used to.

Ugh. Then I get the pictures back and they are stunning; well the composing might not be great but that isn’t the cameras fault. The images though look great and that was based just on the standard shop scans I had done.

I am in sort of a dilemma; ultimately I don’t like the camera it is clunky and awkward to use.  Also I have plenty of other cameras (more than plenty) and I don’t really need this. The image quality is impressive though and I don’t think I will ever own another like this.

I think that as I am mostly a Voigtlander collector this must go to someone else who will enjoy it more than I.

You can see more of my cameras and posts at https://carrotroom.wordpress.com/ or www.carrotroom.com.  You can also see my pictures on Instagram @thecarrotroom and of course Flickr.

Want to review a film camera for Kosmo Foto? Every review published gets two rolls of Kosmo Foto Mono. Drop me a line at foto.dowling@gmail.com with the subject “Kosmo Foto camera review”.

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[…] I am in the mood for self congratulations and promotion; I just had a camera review posted on Kosmo Foto about my Contax III.  Stephen put a call out for contributions this week and it came at an […]

Brett Rogers
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I suggest persevering with the III, Nigel. It can take some getting used to for sure. But the results are definitely worth it. I’m astonished you managed to buy one that has survived a couple of rolls without ceasing to fire correctly. The II and III were built to high standards and can be very reliable, however after around 80 years their ribbons will not handle many cycles before failing. It’s not that hard to replace those: fiddly, yes, but not hard per se. I invariably prick my fingers once or twice sewing the replacement ribbons into position, but, it… Read more »

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[…] The Kiev 4 follows the pattern of many Russian made cameras of the 1950s and 60s in that it is a copy of a highly prized camera made in Germany – in this case the Contax III. […]