Mistakes were made.
Pulling back the curtains here at the offices of Mike Eckman dot Com, I can imagine at least a few readers of this site believe there is a vault filled with a never-ending supply of mint condition, perfectly working cameras, glistening under hi-powered LED lights, much like how you might see fine works of art displayed in a museum.
The reality is, I’m just a guy who likes cameras, has a 9 to 5 job, a house, a wife, two kids, and a cat who writes camera reviews in his free time (the cat doesn’t write the reviews, I do).
When I decide which cameras to review, I try to select ones I think are interesting enough for a review, but more importantly, they have to work. On the occasion that I want to review a dead camera, they often are part of the Cameras of the Dead series, but sometimes I get a model that’s somewhere in between. A model that came to me in some various state of disarray, in poor condition, and barely working, but not quite dead. If a camera is important enough and I think I can work around it’s faults, I’ll still give it a go.
This is what happened in March 2018 when I reviewed the Zeiss-Ikon Contessa 35. This was a camera that didn’t work when I got it. The shutter was frozen, the viewfinder was very cloudy, the lens had fungus in it, and it stunk. I was able to sufficiently get the shutter apart and cleaned enough to where it fired, and I was able to clean off the exterior haze making the viewfinder a little better, but it was still pretty bad. I couldn’t do much about the lens fungus as it was in between elements, and as for the stench, I could live with it. Thankfully, no one has come up with a “Smell-O-Vision” WordPress plugin, so you readers were safe.
I knew the Contessa had issues, but I felt I could look past them so that when I made my opinion known in the review, I could still be fair and see the camera for how it should be, rather than how this one really was.
I didn’t care much for the Contessa 35. Sure, I knew Zeiss-Ikon made great cameras, and the Tessar lens should be capable of great images. This was Hubert Nerwin’s response to Nagel’s Retina, and it matched it pretty fairly feature for feature, but I didn’t care for the ergonomics. I found the location of all the shutter controls to be cramped. I didn’t like the very narrow focusing ring around the lens either. But my biggest complaint was what looked to be a trapezoid shaped viewfinder window that was difficult to frame. Why would Zeiss-Ikon make a camera like this?
In the years since that review was posted, a few readers pointed out my mistakes. They said that the viewfinder on that camera was clearly missing a piece as there should be a frame inside that retains an accurate rectangle shape, and that my rangefinder was off, throwing off my focus, and that the poor condition of my example unfairly impacted my review.
I responded to those readers saying thanks for the comments, acknowledged that they were probably right, but without a second Contessa to compare to, I shrugged my shoulders and vowed to do better on future reviews.
Then, one day I received an email from a reader named Peter Paar who was so confident that I would like the Zeiss-Ikon Contessa 35 more if I had a better example, he offered to send one to me that worked perfectly. I agreed, and the camera arrived a week or so later, ready for it’s redemption. Unfortunately, this happened in March 2020, the exact same time the world shut down due to COVID-19, so the camera sat on my shelf, delayed before I could shoot it.
Things got better later that summer and I was able to make inroads into my backlog, including the Zeiss-Ikon Contessa 35, so I loaded in a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and went shooting.
After having a chance to use Peter’s Contessa, I absolutely agree with his and my other reader’s assessments that my original review wasn’t fair to the camera. Zeiss-Ikon cameras are up there with some of the best ever made, and the Zeiss-Ikon Contessa 35 is no exception. Peter did not say whether or not his camera had a recent CLA, but based on the condition and smoothness of all of it’s controls, I can’t imagine that this one has gone this long without being serviced at least once.
The viewfinder was bright and easy to use with a crisp and contrasty rangefinder patch, and had the piece needed to make a proper rectangle image. The lens was crystal clear, the shutter worked at all speeds, and all of the camera’s various controls, from the film advance to the focus, shutter speed dial, and aperture control was smooth, without any grit or unnecessary resistance. Even the meter worked!
Based on this example, when found in good working condition, I am confident in my declaration that these cameras are every bit as well built and capable as any Retina that ever came out of Stuttgart.
One of the complaints from my original review remains. No matter how nice this camera was, I still didn’t love the ergonomics. The controls around the shutter are very crowded. Focus is changed by straddling the door with your left hand and gripping a 2mm thick ring around the lens, changing shutter speeds can only be done by gripping the equally narrow shutter speed ring on opposing sides of the shutter and rotating it between your index finger and thumb, aperture is changed via a 1mm thick textured ring right up against the lens mount, and finally cocking the shutter requires pressing down on a smaller version of the shutter release barrel that’s so tightly squished in there, that it is actually cut in half in a semi-half-barrel shape.
Don’t get me wrong, it all works, and none of these controls make the camera impossible to use. I’ll concede that with time, a regular user of this camera would likely get used to these controls and not be bothered by them, but the issue I still have is it never needed to be this complicated in the first place. Looking at other German folding cameras like the Retina and others by Voigtländer, Certo, and Balda none of them have controls that are this cramped and awkward to use.
To Peter and the other people who emailed me with their disapproval at my earlier Contessa review, hopefully you’re not too disappointed that I still don’t overwhelmingly love the Contessa, but the ergonomics on it just aren’t for me. That aside, I do believe I did the camera an injustice in that original review by forming an opinion in a less than optimal model. When found in good working condition, the Zeiss-Ikon Contessa 35 is as smooth and precise as any camera out there, it has an excellent Tessar lens that delivers great images, and maybe for someone that’s not me, this camera’s ergonomics are more compatible with your shooting style.
Thanks Peter for letting me borrow your camera, I may still not love it, but you were right, it was definitely deserving of a second look!