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.
Unbelievably, I was the only bidder. I got it for $10. Woot!
Zeiss 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, starting with 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
a sweet single-throw winding lever and a big, bright viewfinder.
This photo’s a little crude, but it’s a testament to the viewfinder’s size and brightness that it 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.
Another 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.
The Contessa LK judges exposure with a selenium light meter, coupled to either the aperture or shutter speed depending on how you set the black lever on the lens barrel. 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.
I deeply appreciate the giant film-rewind crank on this camera. It makes rewinding so much easier. You press a little button on the camera’s bottom and it pops right out.
By the way, if you like cameras like this you might also enjoy my reviews of the Agfa Optima (here), the Voigtländer Vitoret LR (here), and the Kodak Automatic 35F (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
On a trip to the central Tennessee hills 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.
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.
The shadows were crisp one morning.
The Contessa LK did a reasonable job on this portrait of my son, who needed a haircut.
As I researched this camera, I read a couple comments praising this lens’s warmth. I think that comes through in this shot.
I had serious trouble with the black-and-white roll, 36 exposures of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros. Rewinding was labored and difficult, and 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!
Much later I tried again with black-and-white film, this time some Kentmere 100 — in a 24-exposure roll. I’m not a fan of this film. Of all the cameras I’ve ever shot it in, the Contessa LK is the only one to get decent work from it.
Just dig that great detail — it looks like you’d feel the bark’s texture right through your screen.
I also shot some Ultrafine Extreme 100 on another outing. It performed very well. This just might be one of those cameras that likes any film.
I was pleased with how easily the Contessa LK handled. The controls feel good under the fingers and I quickly adjusted to their locations. Except for having to move the camera away from my eye to set focus, using this camera felt smooth and easy.
To see more from this camera, check out my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK gallery.
The Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK is a winner. You may not find one for ten bucks like I did, but you should be able to get one for under $100, have plenty of fun shooting it, and get good results every time. Here’s hoping the trouble I had with that one roll of 36-exposure film is not common to this camera.