I am a long-term Leica user, but have always admired the Contax aesthetic and Contax users were usually as enthusiastic about the Zeiss product as Leica users were about the Leitz products. So I recently took the opportunity to acquire fairly elderly Kiev-4a camera and prepared to enjoy the Contax experience.
The Kiev-4a is sometimes referred to as a Contax II clone. Since the Kiev cameras were manufactured in Kiev using the original contax tools (and some personnel!) “liberated” by the Russians from the Dresden factory, they are surely Contax cameras in all but name.
When it arrived, the camera felt solid in the hand and looked good. However the shutter speed markings were tiny even by early Leica standards. Did folk in the 30s and 50s have better eyesight than today? Anyway the camera seemed to function well and having the rangefinder patch inside the viewfinder felt distinctly modern compared to Barnack Leicas!
So off I went with a roll of my favourite ILFORD FP4 PLUS loaded into the camera and my trusty Weston master iv exposure meter. I like to rate FP4 PLUS at EI 100 and I develop in Microphen: a combination that usually ensures an excellent negative. I varied exposures in good light between 1/125 sec at f/8 and 1/500 sec at f/4 and shot one or two interiors at 1/50 at f/2.8. This I thought would give the lens and shutter a chance to show their paces.
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Taking the film out of the developing tank the negs all looked well exposed and consistent density suggesting exposure and processing to be good, but the frame lines were not as consistent as I am used to, about half the film had much wider spacing than the other half. The worst thing was that on examination many of the pictures were wildly out of focus. Those where I had focussed by scale (I regularly use a Leica M1, so I am used to scale focusing) were much sharper. Immediate conclusion: lens OK, but rangefinder or focussing mechanism was still highly suspect!.
I have since put more film through this camera and the rangefinder is pretty hopeless, it seems always to align the images at two metres regardless of the actual distance of the subject from the camera, but with care, the camera is capable of good results. It is also very nice to look at so not all is lost, but I won’t be abandoning my Leica any time soon!
Whilst out and about shooting with the Kiev at least two people approached me to suggest that they recognised the camera as a Contax that they remembered elderly relatives having used! So it would seem that the Contax is as well ingrained into social memory as the Leica!
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