Camera Geekery: Zeiss Ikon Contarex “Bullseye”
The Zeiss Contarex, affectionately dubbed the “Bullseye” in the U.S and “Cyclops” in the UK, is a camera not to be taken lightly, both literally and figuratively. This big @$$ 35mm SLR camera debuted in 1958 and was produced until 1966. The C’rex was manufactured by Zeiss Ikon to take on the dominance that Leica rangefinders enjoyed in the professional 35mm camera industry at the time and no expense was spared in its production. The result was the pinnacle of OG German Zeiss Ikon’s engineering. After that production moved to Japan.
The Contarex was first shown at the 1958 Photokina and became available to the public in early 1960 as a set including the 50 mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Planar standard lens for a whopping 1,450 Deutsche Marks. For reference, in those days the price of a two-pound loaf of bread was 1 DM, a tram ticket was 0.50 DM, and average monthly apartment rent was 80 DM per month.
They really swung for the fences to make the most advanced camera possible. The Contarex was designed by Edgar Sauer and is made of machined metal and is solid and quite hefty, clocking in at 1.2kg. It is composed of over 1200 individual parts and requires almost 4000 different operations to assemble. Apparently it takes something like 42 steps to even remove the top plate!
In case you were wondering, the Contarex’s “Bullseye” moniker stems from the distinctive selenium cell light meter located on the front of the camera.
Extra care went into the lens mounts, with the helical barrel ground by hand, something which would be inconceivable and prohibitively expensive today.
That old German mentality of f*** the cost, f*** the weight, and f*** the ergonomics, we will build a heavy, blocky beast with a beautiful finish and lustrous chrome to show off our engineering skills and use only the best glass possible is reminiscent of the design concept behind my beloved Rolleiflex SL66. And just like that medium format beast, the Contarex was vastly outsold by its competitor. In this case the Leica M3 outsold the Contarex 225,000 to 32,000.
To get an idea how bling this beast was, in Germany around 1962-1963 the Contarex was advertised at 1450 DM including the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2, the Leica M3 with Summicron 50mm f/2 (1080 DM), Kodak Retina Reflex III with Schneider Xenon 50mm f/1.9 (730 DM) or Exakta Varex IIa with Exakta Pancolar 50mm f/2 (691 DM)
While a technical masterpiece and ahead of its time in many aspects, the Contarex was a commercial failure and contributed to the collapse of one of the world’s most storied manufacturers of cameras. The overwhelmingly complex design and unusual form factors that differed dramatically from the products of every other manufacturer made it too eccentric for the masses. Let’s take a closer look.
- shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1000 sec plus B
- focal plane shutter
- instant-return mirror
- focussing at full aperture
- exchangeable backs
- wide choice of accessories for scientific and macro photography
- ‘data strips’ for including written data on the negative
- exchangeable focussing screens with the later ‘D’ series
- dimensions with Planar lens: 155 x 100 x 105 mm
- weight with Planar lens: 1,300 g (3 lbs !!!)
There are no aperture rings on the Contarex lenses. Aperture is not controlled by a ring on the lens barrel but by this wheel on the front of the body and the readout appears at the top of the selenium meter. Interesting design choice and takes some getting used to.
Film counter, shutter speeds and film speed settings are all controlled on one beautifully machined dial on the right. Film speed is only in DIN!
The film winder on the opposite side is equally beautiful in its finish and sweet retro design.
The selenium meter is gorgeously made and the honeycomb grill can be removed for more accurate readings in low light.
View through the finder. To the right is the meter index window, but the pointer is only visible when settings are close to correct exposure. When the camera is wound, the lens is wide open, while after exposure it is closed to the preset aperture.
Also an interesting point is there is also another meter window visible from the top plate of the camera between the film winder and hot shoe.
Love how well the engraving looks on lush chrome
The removable back is replaceable with an accessory film magazine back with dark slide, enabling mid-film change. The camera back is released by turning the two keys at each side at the bottom and pulled off downwards. Each magazine can also have its own frame counter.
Legendary lens that needs no intro, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm 1:2 in a bright aluminum finish with a chrome 49mm thread filter ring and an outer bayonet for ZI filters. The lens focuses to 30cm, closer than most other optics of the time.
- Diameter: 65mm
- Length: 44mm
- Filter Diameter: 49mm
- Number of Aperture Blades: 9
- Elements/Groups: 6/4
- Close Focusing Distance: 30cm
- Mount: Contarex
The following images were taken with Cinestill 50 and 800 and scanned on a Plustek OpticFilm 8200i.
Will you get great images from the Contarex? Absolutely. The lens, while prone to flare due to old coatings, is beautiful. The workmanship of the camera is something to behold. Nowadays with the everything retro is cool phase, its distinctive looks is bound to be a conversation starter. But the weight and awkward ergonomics will take some getting used to as an actual shooter. While the selenium meter is only meh in accuracy, certain film speeds will also prohibit certain shutter speeds. Case in point, using iso 800 or DIN 30 film such as Cinestill won’t allow you to use shutter speeds slower than 1/60th. Yeah, exactly…what? Better to just use a handheld meter and set the camera to DIN 12 that allows you to use all shutter speeds. Still a worthwhile camera to have in a collection, if not for its historical significance but the beautiful craftsmanship of days long gone that just don’t exist anymore.