THE ZEISS IKONTA 523/16: EXERCISE AND TOLERANCE


There it was, at a vide-grenier, looking lonely: a Zeiss Ikonta 523/16. It was  one of the last Zeiss folders, with 12 6x6cm exposures on 120 film. I asked the price. It was 4€: at the time, a bit over £3 or a bit under $5. It had a coated 75/3.5 Novar-Anastigmat 3-element lens set in a flash synched (M and X switchable) Prontor-SV shutter speeded from 1-1/300 second + B  with a self timer, and it nestled in a typically Zeiss ever-ready case, saddle-stitched leather, red plush lined, stamped Zeiss Ikon AG Stuttgart-Germany, 1230/16. At that price, I couldn't resist it. Even though I haven't collected cameras for years, every now and then I'm given one (like the Zeiss Contaflex Super BC) or find one I can't resist; like this one. 

I have to admit that I don't know why I bother. The Novar is quite good as triplets go, and really very good if you stop down a bit, but front cell focusing does it no favours and red-window film advance is pretty tiresome with most modern films because the backing numbers are hard to see. The shutter was sticking on the slow speeds, and the double exposure prevention (which locks the shutter release until the film is partially wound on) worked only intermittently. This is where the exercise comes in.



Yes, well, the camera is over 60 years old, and there are those who would simply have it apart, but instead, I went back to the principles I learned in the 1960s. Most leaf shutters are incredibly reliable, and will free up with exercise. You begin with the slowest of the fast speeds, the ones before the slow speed train is engaged. It's 1/25 second on this shutter. As you twist the shutter speed dial back and forth, you should feel a slight resistance as the slow speed train engages. 

Fire it at this speed a few times; better still, a few dozen.Then drop to the next lowest speed, in this case 1/10. Repeat. Listen. The escapement should whirr smoothly, rather than going chirr...pause..chirr... pause...chirr click! When it's running reasonably smoothly. move on to a still slower speed: 1/5 on this shutter. Repeat at 1/2 second and 1 second. If it actually jams, by all means assist the cocking lever a little with your finger. I didn't need to do it with this one, and it's not Recommended Best Practice; but with a cheap old camera it's probably at least as good an idea as trying to strip the shutter down and losing what little spacing and alignment the lens may have. In theory and indeed in practice you are increasing the wear on the shutter by doing this, but equally, I'm not planning on putting hundreds of rolls through the thing so I'm not going to worry too much. 

As with all classic Zeiss Ikon cameras, the model number is stamped unobtrusively on the leather.


Even after plenty of exercise, though, 1 second was still sticking quite badly and variably at maybe 5-10 seconds; 1/2 second was 1-3 seconds; 1/5 second was 0.84-1.5 second (finally short enough for my ZTS shutter tester to get a reading); and 1/10 second was about 1/5-1/8 second. Then, after getting off the slow speed train, 1/25 was spot on, 1/50 was 1/40; 1/100 was 1/80 second; and 1/300 was 1/200 second.

Next question: how much do I care? The ISO standards, as far as I recall, are +/- 1/3 stop (usually + because few shutters run fast) up to 1/500, then +/- 2/3 stop thereafter. Across the normal hand-holding speeds I'm looking at spot on; 1/3 stop slow; 1/3 stop slow; and 2/3 stop slow. I'm OK at 1/10 second (take it as 1/8 second), though there's a gap between 1/8 and 1/25. For anything much over 1/8 I can just use B. No, it's not ideal, but it's not much work or expense.

Besides, the penalties for overexposure on medium format with a triplet lens are minimal. A stop makes effectively no difference; two stops, very little; and even three stops will be usable if you are wet printing, though some scanners may not be able to dig through a negative that dense. With increased exposure, grain goes up, and sharpness goes down, but the triplet limits enlargements to maybe 3-4x anyway at anything wider than f/8 if you want maximum quality, so overexposure won't matter at a stop or two. If you want better quality, use a better camera! Or at least, buy one with a Tessar.

The sticky double exposure prevention was less of a problem, as it soon stuck almost permanently on, and when it occasionally did decide to work, twisting the wind on about 1/3 turn immediately freed up the shutter release. Again, a perfectionist might decide to get inside the top plate, which doesn't look very difficult, and again, I don't really care very much. 



Results? About what you'd expect. Excellent tonality (especially with generous exposure) and very respectable sharpness up to about 8x10 inch, though by 12x16 inch (30x40 cm) you start to see the shortcomings of the Novar as compared with a Tessar, except perhaps at f/8 and smaller.

For those who like their history, the Zeiss Ikonta line was launched in 1929; the Zeiss Nettar line was the second string, launched in 1934. As time went on, though, the difference between a top-of-the-line Nettar and a bottom-of-the-line plain (not Super) Ikonta grew increasingly hard to see. For example, the 1949 Nettar 518/16 had a 75/4.5 Novar Anastigmat 3-element lens and was available with either the Prontor SVS or the significantly cheaper Vario with only 1/25 to 1/200. The very last models even had a similar double-exposure interlock to the Ikonta's, though the very earliest Ikontas, pre-1938, had no double-exposure lock, and before 1937 they didn't have a body release either. By the 1950s, therefore, the only real differences were the choice of lenses and shutters and the presence of a body release. What appears to be a body release on Nettars is the release button for the front standard. 

Also, of course, there were the famous Super Ikontas, coupled-rangefinder versions of the Ikontas. Super Ikontas understandably command much higher prices than plain Ikontas, with the lordly 6x9 Super Ikonta 531/2 (discontinued 1953) at the top of the tree. On the other hand, Super Ikontas have more to go wrong and out of alignment, and at least in my experience tend to be in worse shape than plain Ikontas, probably because they were used harder by enthusiasts. Good ones are incredibly expensive. But then, Voigtlander Bessas (I, no rangefinder, II, rangefinder) are nowadays very expensive too, though they are even better made and are usually equipped with even better lenses. I'd rather have a 1950s Bessa myself. 


On the topic of prices, I was surprised at some of the prices being asked for plain Ikontas like mine on eBay: typically over $100, sometimes well over. Collectiblend  gives a minimum of $140 for "average" and a maximum of $340 for "mint", which is roughly £105-250 or 120-220€. Even the case goes for $20 or more, which equates to £15 or 18€. 

So maybe it was worth bothering after all, and if I can get that sort of money, it's probably going to go. I could clean up the shutter and the double exposure prevention myself, but I think it's probably a better idea to sell it untouched. The man I bought it from said it had been his father's camera, and I don't think it's ever seen the inside of a repairer's workshop. Yes, I'll get a bit less for it, but if I were buying for that sort of money, I think I'd be happier to get a camera with known faults, that I could fix myself or have repaired or simply leave as it is, rather than one that had been repaired by an amateur.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016