This post has been a long time coming as well. Seems as though I have a backlog of ideas to work through, so bear with me.

I’ve always had some sort of junk box camera kicking round for decoration, and the few times I’ve used them the results have been a bit of a joke so had never paid them any serious attention. I’m the sort that tends to research to eliminate boredom in down times, so on a mid-century kick I looked further past the plastic lensed detritus found in thrift shops. The top of the heap has a familiar name and a decent pedigree: ZEISS. But good luck finding one, right?

I dismissed the idea for a while until I found a site called Marktplaatz in the Netherlands, where there is a glut of cheap European cameras, and I happen to have a good friend willing to act as middleman. Trans-shipped that week was a Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 56/2 with leather case and manuals.

So what is it we have here, and whats so special about it?

Zeiss made a range of holiday cameras from the late 20’s right up until this beauty was introduced in ’53. It boasts a bunch of features that were unheard of in basic cameras. Three aperture values are available, F/9, F/11 and F/16, by way of siding plates behind the lens. Three focus ranges are available by way of auxiliary lenses inside the camera, 1-2m, 2-8m and 8m-infinity. Advance is by way of ruby window, but the shutter cocks automatically on advance. Don’t worry about accidents, though, Zeiss includes a shutter lock and a standard screw-in for a cable release.

Doesn’t sound much like your granny’s Brownie Hawkeye, right? It doesn’t make photos like her old Kodak either. The Tengor has a cemented Goertz-Frontar Achromat all-glass Triplet lens instead of your usual box camera plastic cataract.

First thing I did, of course, was completely disassemble it to see what makes it tick. It’s well made inside, reliable and simple. Q-Tips and some vodka helped clean off six decades of Western Europe and make sure everything was smooth and functional.

I had the good fortune to get an expired lot of ILFORD PAN F online somewhere and this is the camera it was meant for back in the day. The shutter speed is fixed somewhere between 1/30 second and 1/45, so Pan F for sunny days will work just fine. I’ve run ILFORD HP5 PLUS on dim days, and the results are respectable.

My go-to subject when there’s testing to do is my daughter, Grace. She’s occasionally an enthusiastic photographer and enjoys coming out on adventures with Dad when it suits her. She’s a sport and let me take some photos of her with her camera, a Pentax ME Super.

The Tengor makes a 6x9cm frame on 120 film, so no respooling and fiddling with nail clippers. Granted, this is a flatbed scan of a very large negative, but the Tengor makes no excuses about being a real camera with no qualifications about being a box or an OAP.

I also opened the lens up and adjusted it to the closest focus distance to see its character, often times old cameras get psychedelic when shot this way. The Tengor shows a distinctive out-of-focus rendering, but I don’t mind it.  This combination will make for a classic look in daylight portraiture, playing to its strengths. The sharp area is SHARP.

Box of Magic - Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 56/2

And of course it works fine stopped down at infinity, as it should in its role as a vacation snapshot machine.

Box of Magic - Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 56/2

Overall, this camera was a pleasant surprise to me, I’ve been happy to run some film through it on two different outings. In fact, the first time I had it out, I bounced it off the sidewalk in a less than gracious lesson on box camera ergonomics. The hardly noticeable mark on the corner stands as a testament to the build quality and resilience of this machine. In typical vintage Zeiss fashion, overbuilt and under appreciated.

I’d use this camera a lot more if I could bring myself to put the Rolleiflex down. It’s true mid-century beauty, and a great conversation starter.

Monotone images in this set are courtesy of the Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 56/2, F/9 Goertz-Frontar Achromat loaded with ILFORD Pan F. Processing and scans are Ilfosol 3 and Epson Perfection 3200 Photo. Color images are Apple iPhone 4S.

~ Matt

Note: This article originally appeared on Matthew Thompson’s Twin Lens Reflux blog and has been recreated here as part of a digital archive of that website.

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  1. Matthew,
    Thank you for the article! I just purchased one, waiting for it. The lens apparently has some fungus on it. You mentioned taking the camera apart…… So I was wondering if this will be something easy for me to do, cleaning the lens.
    Appreciate any help or comments. I can only hope to take images as wonderful as yours!
    Thank you

  2. Hello Mathew, lovely review.

    I used this camera on a two month family trip to Mexico and Guatemala. Apart from some glitches with an incompatible cable release and the occasionally inconsistent double exposure preventor (I just needed to read the manual thirty times and practise a lot and still failed), it worked lovely. Made many great pictures, about one film a day for eight weeks, which meant a lot of drum shaking back home. They were printed on contact sheets and still await contact printing on vintage sepia paper and mounting in an original Kodak album.
    The camera is beautiful and of course was always a conversation starter with the wonderful people we met everywhere. But what was best, it stopped me from taking thousands of digital pictures and made me think, look, and walk again first, and then press the button. And you instantly loose that “technik-angst”. Getting used to its way of taking photographs and its obvious limitations took a while but that was exactly what I had been looking for, a really slow and conscious process that only cars for the image and which even an old tlr would not have delivered.
    I used the camera with FP4 and HP5 to get some flexibility with lower light (cloudy days and indoors!) and even brought a yellow and a red filter to the trip. The vintage pocket tripod and the cable release were of no use though and turned out to be mere ballast in a world that provides 16 billion hands to hold a camera and press a button.
    Overall it is fairly reliable, very sturdy, and suprisingly light. Will be my first choice again for the next backpack-trip overseas. Bringing such a camera gives you ease of mind and stops you worrying about breaking it, loosing it, or having it stolen. You only worry abot your exposed rolls.
    What really helps though, is a better and slightly more flexible leather bag. The original stiff, cheap-leather bag is way not sturdy enough for backpacking and the stiches always fail miserably. Apart from that you only need a little notebook and a watertight bag for your 50 rolls of film and you are all set. And don’t even think about bringing a light meter!

  3. Matthew, I have a strange case of deja vu. Haven’t I seen this review and images before?
    Anyway, as you said, a so-called box camera way above what we would normally expect. The King of box cameras.