Camera Reviews

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

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 LK

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.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

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.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

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.

Fence

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.

Bridge and dam

The shadows were crisp one morning.

Tree shadow

The Contessa LK did a reasonable job on this portrait of my son, who needed a haircut.

Damion

As I researched this camera, I read a couple comments praising this lens’s warmth. I think that comes through in this shot.

Please be seated

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.

Wet Matrix

Just dig that great detail — it looks like you’d feel the bark’s texture right through your screen.

Golf course trees

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.

The State Theater

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.

On Meridian Street

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.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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32 thoughts on “Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

  1. 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.

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    • 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.

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  2. ryoko861 says:

    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!

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  3. 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! :-)

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    • 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!

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    • 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!

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  4. 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.

    $10?!

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

    Like

    • 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.

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  5. Ailyn says:

    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.

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  6. David Nunn says:

    I have just bought a Contessa LKE, I am in awe of it — so far. It cost £25 ($38.80) from the German eBay site. The build quality seems far superior to the many digitalis I use. The LKE has a rangefinder that I have now gotten used to. For me this camera is turning the clock back 35 years, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. HOWEVER, I cannot yet comment at all on the camera’s photo-taking ability, I am waiting for the results of the first film that I’ve put through the camera.

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  7. I just found this camera at a yard sale. A Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK It came in a box along with a few other items.It has a set of four close up lenses, looks like different magnifications. It also has the flash attachment and remote cable trigger. It looks in almost perfect shape, no scratches and came in the hard brown leather case. Even the owners manual. Also in the box there were several light meters and a couple items I am not sure what they are. It seems to be in good working order, it even had a roll of film in it. Unfortunately, I opened the camera. I shut it quick and was in low light, but I expect I ruined what was already exposed, but there still seem to be some pictures left that might come out. I guess they hadn’t made them with locks to avoid that yet. Also in that box was another camera, an old Eastman Kodak NO. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawk Eye Model C. It was an interesting find. It also is in good shape and functional. Does anyone know if the Kodak is collectible, and who might be interested in it?

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    • You are very fortunate to have found such a complete Contessa LK outfit!

      As for the Kodak: they’re very common, and while there are collectors, I wouldn’t call it a collectible. If you want to unload it, eBay is your best bet.

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  8. Bill Barry says:

    I have one of the older Contessa folding models, and have had similar problems with jammed/torn film. It has happened only when I tried Fugi film. Never with Kodak films. I might be imagining it, but Fugi 24exp feels thinner than Kodak 24exp. Both of my ZI cameras feel kind of stiff when rewinding so I stick with Kodak. Film limitation aside, the Contessa and Comtaflex IV are an absolute joy to shoot. Every time I take one out, I get at least one compliment from strangers on that “interesting Camera”.

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    • So glad to know it wasn’t just bad luck on my part, Bill, but that this camera doesn’t take well to some films.

      I haven’t shot my Contessa LK in a long time; maybe I should get it out again. With Kodak film!

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  9. I’m so glad you posted about the camera. My husband and I just bought this one yesterday. You should take it out again and start shooting. We are a little nervous about inserting the film and rewinding it and setting the right speed and distance and stuff (see I don’t even know the technical terms). I once bought an Instamatic camera and figured that one out. It was a lot of fun, but the film could only be developed some random place in Oregon. Anyway, do you have any advice for us? The way you explained rewinding seems simple enough. And putting in the film should be easy, I think??? You have to click the button at the top that you use to take pictures to get the film moving after you’ve inserted it a few times and then a number shows up instead of a black line??? I sound clueless!

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  10. Ziga says:

    Hi. Nice article and sample photos! I would just like to correct you a bit: The camera isn’t a rangefinder – it’s a viewfinder camera. There is no rangefinder to aid with focusing. Additionally AFAIK the built in light meter, as you are describing, is coupled. “Coupled light meter” term is used for the meters where aperture and shutter settings of the camera directly influence the reading. Uncoupled meter is, for example, on Zenit E camera, where you match the needle with a light meter knob, read out the shutter/aperture setting combination from the light meter and set your camera to that values.

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    • So you’re right about the light meter, but wrong about the rangefinder – not that this is a rangefinder camera, it isn’t, but that I didn’t say it was! I’ll fix the wording around the light meter, thanks for fact checking me.

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  11. Pingback: How to be Internet famous in film photography | Down the Road

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