Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spotlight: Contax IIa

A few weekends ago at the Photorama camera show, I picked up a Contax IIa to play around with. The Contax IIa is a 35mm rangefinder, and was introduced in 1950 by Zeiss. Coming out a few years before the legendary Leica M3, the IIa was more advanced than any Leica on the market, and was considered to be the 35mm camera for reporters and enthusiasts alike. One of the best features on the IIa was the fact that the rangefinder and viewfinder were in the same window (Leica cameras at the time required you to look through two windows-- one for focusing, and one for composing). This made shooting with the Contax a lot faster and less straining on the eyes.

The IIa is pretty tiny: noticeably smaller and lighter than any M-Mount Leica. Mine came with a collapsible 50mm lens, which made it even easier to carry around! The build quality is great, and feels rock solid in your grip. No plastic on this camera. Loading is easy: twist two fold-able tabs on the bottom plate, and the back pops right off. The take-up spool is removable, so take care not to lose it like I did! (I had to steal a take-up spool off one of my Exaktas-- luckily, it fit perfectly!)

The camera is pretty fun to use, but there are some things about the IIa that you'll have to get used to. You can focus by either rotating the lens barrel with your left thumb and index finger, or by turning a small knob that sits close to the film advance with your right index finger. Use this smaller knob only for fine adjustments, as it takes many turns to make it through the entire focusing range. If you're rotating the lens barrel, you'll notice that the image in the rangefinder will move in the opposite direction that you twist the barrel. I found this to be completely disorienting, as every other rangefinder I've ever used has focused the opposite way (the correct way). But, I only shot one roll with the camera, so you'll probably get used to it in time. Composition is a little tough, as there are no frame-lines in the viewfinder. What's in the finder roughly shows the 50mm field of view, so all other lenses must use an external viewfinder to show the correct frame. On my collapsible 50mm f/2 Sonnar lens, it's difficult to change the aperture without turning the lens barrel.

One funky thing about the IIa is that the maximum shutter-speed is not 1/1000th, but rather 1/1250th of a second. You also have to lift up on the shutter-speed selection dial in order to turn it. The frame counter is located around the shutter release on top of the film advance knob, and must be set manually (It won't reset when you open up the back of the camera).

Here are some photos I made with the Contax IIa:

Thanks for looking!

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