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.