Zeiss Ikon Contax II 1936-42

Tomei Collection


The Contax II was introduced in 1936 following a rather unimpressive market reaction to the original Contax I model which was plagued with problems.  This along with the Contax III were the product of Hubert Nerwin's efforts that had begun with his effort to salvage the original troubled Contax design (see Contax I 1932-36).  Beginning in the decade of the 1930's, there existed a growing and intense competition between ZI and Leitz particularly with respect to their Contax and Leica models.  The Contax I proved to less capable of competing with the Leica II(D) and III(F) models due in part to the comparatively unreliable Contax shutter, unsatisfactory rangefinder design, and the difficult ergonomics.  These and other problems were addressed by Nerwin at ZI and the Contax II and III models introduced in 1936 were to become very successful.  The new design continued through 1942 and reappeared after WWII as the improved Contax IIa and IIIa which were sold through 1961.



Rangefinder Improvements

Among the most notable technological advances that appeared in the Contax II was the "sliding wedge prism" design of the rangefinder.  The earliest Contax had used a pivoted oblique mirror combined with a beam-splitter to create the two reference images in a rangefinder window.  In 1934, this was improved in a new design used in the later Contax Ie and If  variants as well as the Super Nettel that utilized a pair of closely coupled  cylindrical optics that had been cut on a bias to create a pair of prisms.  Instead of a pivoting mirror, the cylindrical wedge prism rotated a full 180 degrees from infinity to the minimum focal distance of 3 feet.  However, this design did not lend itself well to the body of the Contax II and III.

Nerwin and ZI wished not only to further improve the accuracy of the rangefinder, but also to eliminate the need for a second window.  In order to use a single window incorporating both the viewfinder and rangefinder images, the field of view would necessarily need to match that of the normal lens.  The new "sliding wedge prism" design accomplished this goal and it was introduced in 1936 in the Contax II and III models.

It should be noted that the design of the Contax rangefinder was not inherently superior to the design used by Leitz in the Leica cameras.  However, it did permit ZI to avoid conflicts with Leitz dominant patents.




 The Contax II was built with a die cast aluminum body covered with heavy leather.  The front, top, and bottom were chrome plated brass with a velvet texture similar to that used on the newly introduced Leica cameras, a feature that Nerwin preferred over the "old fashioned" black enamel of the Contax I.  The selection of lenses were now chrome plated and increased from the ten available in 1934, to 14 including the new wide angle 3.5cm f/2.8 Biogon.



Here is a Contax II, number B32823, that is considered to be a later model since it has the 1/125 and 1/250 shutter speeds dating it to some time in late 1936 or early 1937.  The Sonnar 5 cm f/2 lens is number 1828056 and dates it to some time in 1936.  Many consider this model to have been superior to the contemporary Leica cameras.  However, I suggest that anyone interested in the history of these cameras carefully consult the experts on the subject.

There was always a keen competition between Leitz and Zeiss for supremacy as the finest camera.  These were hard working tools of many professional photographers for the next thirty years.  Robert Capa used the Contax II and later the IIa throughout his career until his death in Viet Nam in 1954.


This improved design incorporated essentially two lenses, a fixed one and a closely coupled sliding one mechanically linked to the lens (see above Fig. 4.84 from Lipinski, 1955).  By moving the sliding lens a variable angle prism was thus created.  Compared with the original pivoted mirror, this design provided for a 4x increase in mechanical rotation from infinity down to 3 feet.  This could have resulted in a relaxation of gear tolerances but ZI kept the same precision machining which produced a significanly more accurate rangefinder.

This design not only permitted even more accurate distance measurement, but also produced an image that matched that of the lens' field of view thus eliminating the need for two windows.  This feature was in the prototype stage at Leitz but a single viewfinder window combined with the rangefinder image would not appear until 1954 in the Leica M3.


Contax Design Lived On

There were real Contax II and III copies produced by Kiev Arsenal, Ukraine, soon after WWII.  These were made directly from Zeiss parts in 1947.  These were not original designs simply based upon that of the Contax models but rather direct copies with little evolution through 1987.  The quality of these cameras never rivaled that of the Contax, though.  Much is already written about these Kiev cameras.

On the other hand, Nippon Kogaku in Japan designed the Nikon S models with sufficient independence to warrant their being considered separately.  The ergonomics took cues from the Contax II but the shutter and rangefinder were the product of the Japanese designers and engineers.  Emulation of other camera designs was solely a jumping-off point for the Japanese and they took the Contax design forward to evolve a truly original series of exceptionally fine cameras.  Please see Nikon S3 2000 Commemorative Model.