A THREE-DAY STRUGGLE WITH A CONTAFLEX SUPER BC


This is the story of a failure. I was going to write an article about trying out an old camera I'd been given for nothing. I'm not sure how many I have, but there are several. Some I couldn't find, so I chose the prettiest that came to hand: my Zeiss Contaflex Super BC.

It's chunky but very, very pretty in glossy black paint (it was one of only three models of Contaflex that were not exclusively chrome) and resplendent with white- and red-filled engravings; it has interchangeable lenses and interchangeable backs; it was the first ever 35mm camera to have through-lens metering and auto exposure (1965). It weighs 31 oz. (near enough 875 g.) and it sits in the hand like the fine piece of German engineering that it is. And it's a disaster area. I couldn't even be bothered to put a film through it (though I tried). It is a perfect example of why the Japanese took over high-end camera manufacture from the Germans, and provides lots of lovely examples of how the good old days weren't necessarily always that good after all.

When the original fixed-lens Contaflex was introduced in 1953 it was the first production SLR with a leaf shutter. The concept was beginning to look very old-fashioned even half a dozen years later when the Nikon F came out, let alone a dozen years later when the BC Super was introduced. Adding TTL metering to such a dinosaur, let alone exposure automation, was a bit like putting a six-speed automatic gearbox in a Model T Ford.

Although interchangeable lenses had been added in 1956, they were a (bad) compromise with a common rear group and interchangeable front groups. This places severe constraints on lens designs. The ridiculously slow 50/2.8 Tessar was the only 50mm option and the Pro-Tessar front elements were 35/3.2, 85/3.2, 115/4, and macro 1:1. There was also an adapter for an 8x30 monocular giving an f/14 fixed aperture 400mm lens. There was no fast 50mm option: when you are constrained by feeding the lens through a leaf shutter and sticking with a common rear group, this is a step too far.

Although the shutter speed range of 1 second to 1/500 was common enough at that time, more and more cameras with focal plane shutters were offering 1/1000 and even faster, and the lens choice and shutter speeds are not the only drawbacks, because the shutter itself has to be fantastically complicated. It is open for viewing; closes just before the exposure; re-opens for the exposure; then stays closed (no wonder!) until you wind on.

Yes: it stays closed. You can't see anything. When you take a picture, the screen blacks out until you wind on, which also cocks the shutter (the clue as to why it doesn't matter that the mirror is up) and winches down the mirror. Not convenient. Lack of an instant return mirror was a woeful omission even in 1965. The shutter itself works beautifully, even half a century on: near silent, still accurate. There's a lot of mirror noise beforehand, though: I found it reminiscent of a vintage motorcycle.

The film counters are subtractive and manually re-set: "counters" because there is one on the body and one on the back. The former is big, clear and easy to read; the latter is tiny and requires good eyesight or glasses (or a monocle). In order to set the aperture, via a tiny tab on the lower side of the lens mount as viewed from the front, you have to press in an even tinier tab 180 degrees away on the upper side of the mount. This ring is also used for what appears to be selecting flash guide numbers.

The back, with the dark-slide pulled out. The slot on the right-hand side of the back is for blocking removal of the back: the tiny straight button on the back itself is the release, via a simple spring-loaded lever

This tiny button, operated by a stud on the dark-slide (barely visible), is where the rewind is on a normal non-interchangeable-back Contaflex

The battery is a mercury cell, which you can replace with a zinc-air cell, but I decided not to bother until I had got the thing working without a meter. This was just as well, because for reasons which will become clear, I'd hate to have wasted the price of a battery on it. To a very large extent my failure is down to the back, which is one of the most needlessly and fiendishly complicated things I have ever seen on a camera. Before we look at that, though, let's look at prices.

PRICES THEN AND TODAY

In its day the Super BC was a high-end camera. Wallace Heaton were probably the most famous London dealers for decades, and Royal Warrant holders. From 1949 to 1972 they produced a catalogue called the Blue Book, which is quite fascinating. According to my 1968-69 Blue Book (the camera ran from 1965 to 1968), the new price in the UK with 50/2.8 Tessar was £158:6:9d, which was near enough $380 at the exchange rate of the day. Using a rough inflation factor of 16 that would have been rather over £2500 in 2016.


For comparison a Leica M4 was £217:17:7d with an f/2.8 Elmar (well over $500 then) and a Zenith E was £41:10 :0d or just under $100. Perhaps surprisingly, a Nikkormat FTN was £10 more expensive than the Contaflex; and a Nikon F (admittedly with f/1.4 lens) was £247:3:2 with a plain unmetered prism or £292:2:9d with the huge, ugly Photomic TN head.

In other words, many cameras (including this one) were vastly, even insanely, more expensive in the Good Old Days. Even just the (n)ever ready case for the Contaflex was £11:1:4d, near enough £175 today. Consider, though, what the prices are like now. As I say, I was given the Contaflex, though in all fairness a collector might well pay £100-200 for it ($300+) because it's a last-gasp German-made Zeiss "classic". You'd be lucky to see an M4 with an Elmar for under £400 and £500-600 might be more realistic; £1000 or more if it were in the same condition as the Contaflex. The Nikkormat would likely go for under £100, complete with an f/2 lens, possibly well under, and today, a good, plain Nikon F prism is worth as much as a good, plain Nikon F body at maybe £100 each: the meters in the Photomic prisms have mostly died of old age, leaving orphan bodies behind.

HANDLING AND SPECIFICATIONS

Until I tried to put a film in it, I was looking forward to using the Contaflex. The viewfinder is bright, with a horizontal split-image "rangerfinder" and concentric microprism ring. Minimum focus is 2.5 feet or 75 cm (mine came from the USA and is marked only in feet). The wind-on is about 180 degrees, auto-return, and cannot be "inched": you have to push it all the way to the stop before the film is wound on, etc., though it will fly back at any point.

True, there are lots of unexpected and sometimes tiny controls and interlocks. I've already mentioned the one on the aperture control, but there's another one on the back of the collar around the rewind crank to set DIN/ASA speeds (9 to 30 DIN, 5 to 800 ASA), and another above the eyepiece (no dioptre adjustment) that operates a tiny sliding shutter to blank it off. Then there's the lock on the dark-slide, and a tiny button beside the eyepiece to check the battery. The front lens group is removed by pushing a little tab upwards (not back, as it looks as if it should be) and twisting the front knurled ring anticlockwise.

Operate everything in the right order, and the results are incredible for a piece of precision machinery that is around half a century old: butter-smooth (well, not counting the nail-breaking locks) and still giving accurate shutter speeds. Ideally, you would not just read the manual: (a copy is available from from Mike Butkus): you would also sit a two-hour written exam on it afterwards, plus a half-hour practical. Unfortunately some people fail to appreciate the need for doing everything right, and force things; which often breaks them. With a 50-year-old camera you cannot necessarily tell whether something has already been broken.

THE DEAL-BREAKER: THE BACK



Yes, it's a second-hand film: one I never finished and which became irrelevant. Scrap films are always best for testing the basic operation of an old camera. You can see here how the film is fed under the rails.This was my second test film.

Wind on. The back won't come off otherwise. Push in the dark-slide. The back won't come off otherwise. Undo the two keys, one at either end of the camera base - and off it comes! Then life gets complicated.

There's a good set of pictures on the Camerapedia Contaflex site, just before half-way down, but you need to know a little more than it shows you. There's a copy of the instruction book just for the back on the Mike Butkus site and if you can read German fluently I'd heartily recommend you go to it (and send him $3) but you'd need to be more fluent than I, and I can generally understand German camera instruction books.The sequence is as given below. I have asterisked the things you don't need to do with any normal camera, or indeed with Contaflexes with non-interchangeable backs.

*1 Remove the dark-slide (remember the locking catch on the back)

*2 Remove the half-cover on the feed chamber (another tiny catch beside the cover)

*3 Rotate the cover on the take-up side by pushing gently on the ridged part. It will not open if the dark-slide is in or if the locking tab on the take-up side is closed. In fact if you inadvertently close the locking tab, or close it deliberately to see what happens, the cover on the take-up side will close and lock and you will not be able to turn it back to unlock it unless you put the dark-slide back in.

*4 Holding the pressure plate down, feed the film through the feed slot and then the take-up slot

*5 Take great care to slide the edges of the film under the rails at the edge of the pressure plate. If you do not, the dark-slide will hang up on the film and crumple it. Sliding it under the rails provides numerous excellent opportunities for damaging the film well before this.

6 Engage the leader on the take-up spool. This is where three hands would be useful.

*7 Holding the film down, push the dark-slide back in. It will click into place.

*8 Replace the half-cover on the feed chamber. Do not lose it or forget it!

9 Put the back on the camera and turn both keys to the lock position

10 Set the film counter

11 (Optional) Set DIN/ASA reminder: : 9-33 DIN, 5-1300 ASA and film type reminder

12 Fit back on camera. this automatically closes the take-up chamber.

13 Set film counter on camera. Use the red diamonds to allow for the 3 frames before the first unfogged frame

14 Set ISO speed on camera (if you're using the meter)

*15 Remove dark-slide and put it on its storage clip, which neatly covers the reminders for film speed and type.

16 Wind on three frames (you can't fire the shutter with the dark-slide in)

17 You can now swap backs in mid-roll. They apparently known for light leaks but you can only find this out by putting a roll of film through.

18 Rewinding the film is the point at which I gave up. There is no marked rewind clutch. I think (but don't know) that you can only rewind with the dark-slide inserted; the camera wound on; and the base-lock on the take-up side twisted open. Mine rewound that way, but I don't know if I did it the official way and the instructions are hopelessly vague: "Rewind in the normal way". If there's no interchangeable back, there's a rewind clutch on the bottom of the camera, just where the dark-slide interlock is on non-interchangeable backs.

DOES IT WORK?

You already know the answer by now. Yes, sort of. The trouble is, it's about as far from convenient as you can readily imagine, though Exaktas come close and 35mm Alpas are pretty weird too with their rangefinder-plus-reflex designs and their "backwards" wind-on levers (the modern roll-film ones are great). As Frances said, "Pity the poor guy who had to demonstrate it in a shop and try to sell it."

This was the first test film. I didn't get it all under the rails properly and the dark slide chewed it up. This meant I couldn't push the dark-slide all the way in, so I couldn't get the back off. The solution was to remove the dark-slide and push in the centre of the rewind button (see third picture on this page) with a wooden skewer to release the interlock.

If you want to use a Contaflex, whatever you do, DON'T get one with an interchangeable back. It was a ridiculous solution in search of a problem that didn't really exist. Interchangeable backs and magazines are one of those bright ideas that everyone has sooner or later, but which are simply not practical for 35mm cameras, even though there have been several examples (Adox, Rollei 2000/3003, Contarex "Cyclops", to name but three and a half). They make the cameras too big, too heavy and too complicated. It was and is far quicker and easier to buy and (above all) far quicker and easier to use two separate cameras, which is what professionals started to do pretty much as soon as they started using 35mm. The rigmarole of loading these backs is ridiculous, and far outweighs the savings of being able to swap backs (fairly) quickly. Life is just not long enough.

With any elderly film camera it makes more sense to look at condition and whether it's working or not, rather than worrying about precisely which model or even marque you get. Personally I approach old cameras from one of two directions. One is to buy a camera that is well known for its reliability and reparability, even if it costs a little (or a lot) more than some of the "bargains" out there. I'd back a Nikon F or a Leica, but many Canons are apparently pretty good.

The other is to take whatever you are given, or can get for next to nothing, even if it's weird like the Contaflex. The middle ground just isn't to my taste. There's too much risk of something going wrong, and even if the camera is reparable, the cost of repairs is likely to exceed its value. Who, after all, wants a perfectly reliable, beautifully functioning cheap camera that cost a small fortune? Unless, perhaps it's a beautifully functioning once-expensive camera that only turned out expensive this time around because of the repairs.

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