Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK


Being good at guessing how far away things are is a mighty useful skill when you’re a camera collector and a cheapskate like me. A vintage camera with a rangefinder, which takes the guesswork out of focusing, always costs more than the same camera without a rangefinder. Sometimes a lot more. Not having to guess your subject’s distance is apparently worth a lot to collectors.

Zeiss Ikon is one of those names that makes camera collectors go weak in the knees and part with large sums of money. Those sums seem large to me, anyway, given that the most I will pay for a camera is $50. Zeiss Ikon’s optics are said to be worth tall stacks of bills, and so of course I have long been curious. Hoping to catch a price break, I started looking for rangefinderless Zeiss Ikons – and almost immediately stumbled across this one.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Unbelievably, I was the only bidder. I got it for $10. Woot!

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKZeiss Ikon produced a series of 35mm cameras with this basic body in the 1960s. This one, the Contessa LK, was made from 1963 to 1965. It is packed with good stuff. It features a highly regarded Carl Zeiss lens, a 50mm f/2.8 Tessar with, naturally, four elements in three groups. Its mechanical Pronto LK shutter operates from 1/15 to 1/500 second. Film speed can be set up to 800 ASA. The lens focus scale is in meters, from 1 to infinity. On the back is a big, bright viewfinder and a sweet single-throw winding lever.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKThis camera also boasts an uncoupled selenium light meter, returning information about light you can use to set aperture and shutter speed for a good exposure. Selenium meters have the advantage of requiring no battery, but the disadvantage of wearing out. I hear that selenium meters last a lot longer if they stay covered when not in use. My experience bears that out – among my cameras equipped with selenium meters, those that arrived inside a case or a bag still responded to light, and those that didn’t, didn’t. My Contessa LK came in a case.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKEven though the Contessa LK’s light meter is uncoupled, it’s easy to set aperture and shutter speed for proper exposures. At right is the view through the viewfinder. The photo’s a little crude, but it’s a testament to the viewfinder’s size and brightness that this photo was possible at all. At top center is an oval with a notch at the top. The light meter is connected to the needle within. For correct exposure, it’s a simple matter of twisting the aperture and shutter speed dials on the lens barrel until the needle is nestled in the notch.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKAnother exposure indicator sits on top of the camera, next to the accessory shoe. Exposure is right when the needle rests between the two red triangles. I suppose this is useful when you shoot from the hip, as you might in street photography. Maybe I need to find the guts to go downtown and try it out! I can’t figure out why you’d need this otherwise.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKTo rewind the film in the Contessa LK, you first press a button on the camera bottom. The rewind lever then pops out and you crank until the job is done.

When my sons and I traveled to Tennessee a few weeks ago I packed my Contessa LK and a couple rolls of film – one color (workaday Kodak 200), and one black and white (Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros). It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of this camera. Except for focusing, I was able to do everything with the camera at my face – set exposure, snap the shot (the shutter button has a nice short throw), and even wind to the next frame.

This lens has character. This is my favorite photo. I love how you can count the rings in that first post.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

It’s interesting to compare this photo of the bridge over Byrd Creek with a similar photo (see it here) that I took a few minutes later with my Canon PowerShot S95. The S95 captured much more vivid blues, but the Contessa LK really brings out the texture of the bridge’s stone face.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

The shadows were crisp one morning.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Cumberland Mountain State Park boasts a restaurant. When the weather’s warmer, you can dine on the terrace.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

As I researched this camera, I read a couple comments praising this lens’s warmth. I think that comes through in this shot – well, except at the bottom where it’s washed out. I’m impressed with the detail captured in the stone wall and in the chair’s woven seating surface.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Are you wondering why I haven’t shown you any of the shots from my black-and-white roll? I shot a 36-exposure roll of the Neopan 100 Acros, but rewinding was labored and difficult. About halfway through, the film tore apart. I discovered it when I opened the camera and fogged the film still wound around the takeup spool. I was depressed for the rest of the day!

Otherwise, I had a great time with my Contessa LK, and I’ll use it again one day soon. I’ll just stick with 24-exposure rolls of film.

Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

19 thoughts on “Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

  1. Mike

    Nice write-up of that camera. You can’t beat the Tessar for quality results, even though the design is over a century old now. I’ve followed the $50 rule in amassing my rather large collection, and for most I’ve paid only half that.

    1. Jim Post author

      One of my favorite aspects of collecting cameras as a hobby is how it doesn’t cost me arms and legs to do it. I came to this as a child — I bought my first old camera for a quarter when I was about 8 — simply because all the works inside that simple Brownie Starmite II fascinated me. That’s still what drives me, and through this I’ve come to learn a few things about taking good photos and am now enjoying that process too.

  2. ryoko861

    Wow, hard to tell the difference between the Contessa and a regular digital. I think the Contessa has a better picture! Love that shot of the trestle!

  3. Aaron Moman

    Again, I prefer the old film camera to the digital. I’m sensing a trend here in my opinions. Nice shots. You are tempting me into a new hobby and this is not the first time. Stop being so interesting! :-)

    1. Jim Post author

      Well, try to remember that cameras take up space and have to be lugged along on every move! For a guy who travels light, perhaps gardening is a better hobby!

    1. Jim Post author

      Bargain hunter – check. My sons know that when we’re out shopping that they need to direct my attention away from the clearance rack, or we never make it home!

  4. sibokk

    Ah, you’ve got the Contessa.
    I’d like to try another Zeiss Ikon camera some day, especially a rangefinder as I’m not good at guessing distances yet.


    I bow down to your mastery of the craft of bidding!

    1. Jim Post author

      I got lucky on the purchase price! A quick survey of eBay shows completed listings for this camera ranging from $15 to $80.

      I’m not good at guessing distances either. I tend to stop down so that depth of field helps correct that.

  5. Ailyn

    This may seem like a stupid question, but how do you wind to the next frame? I’ve only worked with pentax cameras but I’ve managed to get a good deal with this one and I’m picking up this camera tomorrow. Also, do you have any tips on shooting portraits with it? Love the write up and the shots by the way.

    1. Jim Post author

      Ailyn, John has it right. It’s been two years since I shot this camera, so I can’t remember if the wind lever moves without film in the camera.

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