There are far too many cameras made by Zeiss from the last century, which is to be expected with a history that goes back over 110 years. While they have recently released their first digital camera, the ZX1, this a little story about why Zeiss stopped producing film cameras.

First off, I myself, am not a collector of cameras, I much prefer to load them up and shoot film. So this is where my story begins. I’ll share some images taken along in Vienna the way with my Zeiss Ikon Contaflex camera.

I recently discovered a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex from my father-in-law. At first, I took no real notice of it. I thought it was another cheap Agfa or Voigtlander camera from a time ago. I guess about a year later while the camera hung by its leather “ever-ready” case in my make-shift cellar. Which I use as a weekend darkroom. I thought it might be interesting to look at it once again. On closer inspection, it wasn’t a bad camera at all.

Noticing the lens had an aperture of f/2.8, it was branded by Carl Zeiss. A name synonymous with making fine glass for cameras. The camera in question turn out to be no other than the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex – the Super edition. Top of the range. Admittedly I was impressed, this wasn’t a typical flee market type camera at all!

This is how and what got me started on this path. I was familiar with the former east block medium format beasts such as Pentacon Six and Kiev 60. Both these machines shared, Carl Zeiss Jena lenses using the same Pentacon 6 lens mount. But I was shooting mainly 35mm these days and not 120 medium format film.

I wanted to go wide

I was enjoying using my Olympus OM-1 immensely, I had started now shooting with the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super. I picked up an inexpensive lens adapter, a Carl Zeiss no less, which turned my 50mm Contaflex into 35mm field of view.  Very familiar in fashion to the way the modern digital Fujifilm X100 series lens adapters works.

I like the 35mm focal length but I do prefer going wider. I went on a search for a 24mm option as I really enjoy shooting 24 for some reason, probably it’s how I see when combining both views from left and right eyes.

Vienna - Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super
Vienna – Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super

I found a 24mm Zeiss lens and a camera similar to the Contaflex called the Contarex. I bided on the auction from a private seller on Ebay. It was over a couple of days. I increased my bid now and then to keep ahead. Thinking maybe the camera and lens would go for a mere 400 euros. I bid up to 525 euros until I had to let go. Certainly, I was glad I hadn’t won as it was a bit too rich for me.


Back to the subject of this article and in regards to the new Zeiss ZX1, I asked myself why Zeiss stopped making cameras? I talked about the incredible Contarex and its failure and the Contaflex too. The video is a point-of-view-style story with film images taken while bike riding around Vienna between lockdowns here in Austria. Pictures are taken with the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex with the 35mm adapter on Kodak Ultramax ASA 400 35mm film and self-developed.

The Last Camera – Contarex

This got me thinking about why did this camera and lens reached over 1000 euros. In fact, the sold price of the auction seemed reasonable in comparison to other sales of the Contarex with or without the added 24mm Zeiss lens when I started researching into the matter.

It seems that Contarex models were the last real camera that Zeiss ever made.

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An incredible feat of engineering. A camera for professionals with supreme glass. A beautiful design and functioning camera. So why was it Zeiss’ biggest failure? Was its astronomical price that keep advanced users away? Was it the competition from the other side of the world, such as Nikon and Canon?

Actually, I figured it was a mixture of both — why Zeiss stopped making cameras. Unfortunately, I believe the main reason was professionals. They couldn’t afford to have their camera failing.

The Contarex is handmade with thousands of pieces. It is extraordinary in operation and extraordinary in construction. The difficulties in disassembling and assembling the camera lead to costly repairs and wait times. The world’s fine camera and lens suffered from uber-engineering. The end effect was to be the demise of Zeiss’ camera business in 1971.

The Contarex is an amazing instrument however it’s not something you would use on a daily basis or even on a weekly basis. It’s a collector’s piece unfortunately not a camera to shoot film. It’s simply too valuable and delicate to use.

By the way, if you are shooting with this camera regularly, I would love to know your experience and thoughts on it.

The Conclusion

While the Contaflex was kind of the forerunner to the Contarex. The Contaflex might well be a better choice if you want a Zeiss Camera with Zeiss glass without the worries.

If you wish to avoid the high costs and heartbreak that could happen when the Contarex does fail. That being said a Contarex is an awesome camera as well as the Contaflex. I still don’t have a Contarex to review or more importantly to shoot film with it. At the end of the day – shoot film on whatever camera works that is the moral of the story here.

~ Gavin


Camera Wiki Contrex I and Contaflex

Mike Eckmann Contarex Bulleye

Bernd K. Otto

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About the author

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Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1972, Gavin Lyons is an award-winning landscape and nature photographer who is self-taught. After living in Italy and France for a couple of years, it wasn't until settling in Austria that he became more serious about using a camera....

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  1. I also have a Contaflex Super. It’s work of art. Camera Porn. But you can’t get it repaired. In a word: both the Contaflex and Contarex were over engineered. Too many pieces, moving parts. But they look gorgeous in a glass display case, both the handsome leather case and the camera itself.

  2. Thanks for the reading. One very important reason why Zeiss (as well as many german companies) went under is because japanese cameras where getting very good and attracted a lot of market share. Profressional where using Nikon and started to notice Canon and Pentax as well. Also, labor cost in Germany was higher than asian countries. That is why Rollei invested and moved much of its operation to Singapour, although handcraftmanship quality was not in there so it failed.

  3. One of the good things about visiting my dentist is I get to see him use a beautiful Zeiss viewer. He can show me what he’s doing in my mouth, in exquisite detail. It looks like it has a Planar lens. I think one reason that Zeiss stopped making cameras is that they had alternate businesses with customers willing and able to pay for German engineering and manufacturing. Sure, Nikon, Canon, Leitz, Fujifilm also have alternate businesses, but we’re not sure how much longer they’ll continue making cameras. Once you’re a public corporation with shareholders and a board, your operation has to perform well. I don’t know much about Linhof, but could it be that camera companies that stay small, are sometimes able to weather changes in the mass market?

  4. Gavin, Gavin, Gavin.. about that time you bid a Contarex up to 525 euros and had to let it go. You need a lesson in ebay bidding, my friend.
    Here’s the problem: “I increased my bid now and then to keep ahead.” Simply put, by increasing your bid, you encouraged the other(s) to increase theirs. YOU drove the price out of range. In an ebay auction, nothing matters but the price at the moment the timer runs out. “Keeping up” only increases the price.
    Think of what happens if you don’t bid, and just leave the other guy on top. The price stays at, say, 300. Your competitor gets confident. Complacent. He doesn’t increase his bid to what its really worth because he’s already bid 50 or 100 above what shows on the bid. You, on the other hand, sit there waiting, waiting for the end. You figure out what its worth to you, the absolute most you can afford to spend on it, and then add a little bit. You bid THAT amount at the very end, in the very last *seconds*. For you, that was limit was 525. You bid that at the end, and you might win it for … maybe 400.
    Of course, the other guy may outbid you. That’s ok–you did your best. If there’s multiple people bidding, they may push the price over your limit. That’s fine.. that’s their fault, or a reflection of the items true value. But if there’s no other bidders but one, you may, might, possibly .. take advantage of your competitor’s confidence that nobody else is interested.
    Bid to open, then bid to close. Never another.

    1. Regarding the Contaflex. Don’t dismiss this as being unrepairable. Usually any issues are related to the leaf shutter and it failing to work correctly because it has oil contamination, just like any other leaf shutter. However there is a risk that if the camera is forced with a jammed shutter, you WILL do serious damage to the camera where it is linked to the lens. Strip anything there, and you are down to hoping someone can find parts from a scrap body. The Contaflex is definitely more robust than the similar Retina Reflex and Voigtlander Bessamatic, particularly with the instant return mirror and coupled meter on that camera’s later versions.

      The Contarex is a different beast entirely. It is a nightmare to service, and I have never attempted to do so, and would turn down any request to attempt it. From what I have read, it requires 54 parts to be removed just to lift the top-plate, compared with a general average of about 15 for other SLRs. These cameras were beautifully made, but poorly understood by those assembling them, so many were returned by the professionals ( usually) who sent them back under warranty for rectifying. Couple that with superb Zeiss lenses that also have their fair share of focus and diaphragm issues, the latter even when new, and you are going to need a deep pocket to have one serviced and sorted. Missing that ebay camera was probably the best piece of luck you will ever have!
      A camera to be admired from afar as a piece of misguided art in engineering form.