Contax III review

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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”.

3 COMMENTS

  1. 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 reflects my lack of sewing expertise, more than anything else! I suspect the ones in yours must have been changed at some point for them to have survived a couple of films successfully.

    One correction: the II/III indeed do have a gargantuan physical rangefinder baselength and effective baselength, however the flawed but fascinating Kodak Ektra 35mm rangefinder probably wins the guernsey for the longest ever. Due to the use of approximately four times more precise swinging optical wedges, instead of conventional mirrors, in their rangefinders, the Contax II/III is probably still, (by far) the most precise rangefinder installation ever used in a production 35mm camera. Also the most stable: generally when I examine one, its patch will still be factory perfect in every plane.

    In my humble opinion it is worth the price of admission for the calibre of the rangefinder and lens optics these cameras feature. There is a reason so many Leica owners persist in fitting the Zeiss Contax lenses to their new digital Ms to this day, in preference to more prosaic Leitz lenses…so stick with it.
    Cheers,
    Brett

    • Hi Bret
      Thanks for your thoughts, I understand what you are saying but now you give me more worries about keeping the camera. I am concerned now that if I use it again the ribbons will break and then I have to get it repaired. I already have a number f cameras that need some sort of attention so it will end up in a box for some time I expect if this happens. I agree on the quality of the Zeiss Contax lenses I only have the Kiev copy so to get the most out of this camera I would need to invest in the proper lens.
      I appreciate what you are saying and yes if I didn’t have 40 other cameras this would be a great one to take forward; but I see further investment required and I am actually liking my Voigtländer Prominent more and that also has excellent glass along with a very reliable leaf shutter.
      Thanks again for your thoughts.

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