Leica’s First Real Competitor

Aug 20, 2020  By Jason Schneider

The Leica II & lll vs. the Contax l: You can’t always judge a camera by its spec sheet

When Leica announced the Leica l (model A) in 1925 few would have suspected that this Spartan, brilliantly engineered, innovative machine would, in short order, create its own vibrant new marketing segment—the luxury 35mm camera.  Although it sold at the then princely price of $75 (nearly $1,105 in 2020 dollars!) and only had a scale-focusing non-interchangeable collapsible lens and basic shutter speed and aperture controls, it created an instant sensation, and was immensely successful in the marketplace. Amazingly, the original Leica didn’t have any serious competition until 1932, when E. Leitz Wetzlar unveiled Oskar Barnack’s ingenious successor, the new Leica II (model D). It was the first Leica with a built-in coupled rangefinder, interchangeable lenses via a standardized 39mm screw mount, and a more convenient pull-up rewind knob.

The unprecedented success of the Leica I and the announcement of the sensational new Leica II did not go unnoticed by Zeiss Ikon of Dresden, a large and formidable German conglomerate that had been formed in 1926 with the merger of four great German camera makers, Ica, Ernemann, Goerz, and Contessa-Nettel, plus an infusion of capital from Zeiss. Even before the Leica II appeared, Zeiss Ikon was determined to produce the best 35mm camera the world had ever seen, something that would far surpass the upstart Leica and dominate the emerging 35mm still camera market. The result was the Contax l, a camera that was far more advanced than the Leica II of 1932 or even the Leica III of 1933, which had added a slow-speed dial on the front.

The Contax I remains one of the all-time classics among interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder cameras, and it debuted many features that weren’t incorporated into rangefinder cameras and SLRs until decades later—such as a vertical-travel metal focal plane shutter. It has a much longer rangefinder base than the Leica—about 90mm according to most sources, which enhances focusing accuracy (although its effective base length or EBL is in the same ballpark as the Leica II or lll). Its ingenious metal roller-blind focal plane shutter has burn-proof curtains, and because it runs vertically it can achieve a top shutter speed of 1/1000 sec, twice as fast as the simpler horizontal cloth focal plane shutter in the Leica II and III, which topped out at 1/500 sec. In addition, the Contax offered bayonet-mount lenses for quicker lens switching (although the Contax system is not the last word in speed or convenience,) and it had a removable back, which made loading film somewhat faster and far less fiddly than bottom-loading a screw-mount Leica.

On the debit side, the interlocking black finished brass slats of the Contax I’s shutter curtains are held together with specially fabricated silk ribbons, which are strong, but subject to wear and hard to fix. The Contax is also noticeably heavier than the Leica, and its boxy, cut-corner contours do not confirm to one’s hands nearly as well as the svelte Leica’s rounded ends. And while the Contax l is well made, it doesn’t quite equal the Leica in terms of fit, finish, and finesse. But the Achilles heel of Contax I is its shutter, which is notoriously unreliable. Most Contax experts agree that at least 90% of the Contax I’s offered for sale on various auction sites have shutters that are either totally or partially inoperative, and that’s why most are sold As Is, strictly as collector’s items. Without doubt the greatest glory of the Contax l (and the Contax II for that matter) is the superb line of (uncoated) Carl Zeiss Jena lenses which were unsurpassed in their day, even by such standouts as the brilliant 50mm f/2 Leitz Summar and the iconic Elmars. However, unlike the Leica II (model D) and the Leica III (model F) which are still great user cameras, the  Contax I is, with a smattering of notable exceptions among Contax aficionados, basically a showcase collectible that can be admired for its distinctive front-mounted film-wind knob with integral shutter speed dial and its technical audacity.

Some experts have conjectured that the cutting-edge Contax l did not live up to its expectations because it was rushed unto production. Whether that’s true or not, the engineers and designers at Zeiss Ikon in Dresden were well aware that the Contax I of 1932 had a number of deficiencies and the camera was in a constant state of evolution throughout its 4-year production run. There were 6 distinct iterations, and actually many more if you count unseen internal changes aimed at upgrading the rangefinder to a full rotating prism arrangement and others to improve shutter reliability. According to Contax experts, later versions of the Contax I are much more likely to be found in working condition, and the improvements built into these cameras were incorporated into the landmark Contax II of 1936, a much more reliable camera that had a long base combined rangefinder/viewfinder and a top shutter speed of 1/1250 sec.

In contrast to the audacious Contax l, the Leica II released in 1932 was a far more conservative and evolutionary design. Oscar Barnack’s genius was such that he substantially advanced the capabilities and flexibility of the Leica while retaining its classic “miniature” form factor. By incorporating  a tiny short base, high magnification precision rangefinder on top, a standard 39mm screw mount on the front, adding a cam at the back of each interchangeable lens, and a spring-loaded coupling arm inboard of the lens mount to transfer distance information to the rangefinder mechanism, he created the classic screw-mount Leica, a design that endured from 1932 to 1960 when the last Leica IIIg finally rolled off the line. True, all these magnificent machines had separate rangefinder and viewfinder eyepieces, but with an actual rangefinder base length of 39mm and a magnification of 1.5x they provide an effective base length (EBL) of 58.5mm. This exceeds that of most rangefinder 35s (except for the Contax II and the Leica M3), and delivers sufficient focusing accuracy to focus any coupled lens in the line. Finally, while the Leica’s traditional cloth focal plane shutter was improved by using more modern shutter curtain materials and has ultimately been superseded by modern metal focal-plane designs, it was Leica’s effective and reliable mainstay for well over half a century, and far more dependable than the shutters in any classic rangefinder Contax, including the last of the breed Contax IIa and IIIa that were phased out in 1961.

Bottom line: The Contax I came in with a superior spec sheet but ultimately the Leica II and III won the competition based on their superior real-world performance. 

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