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Adventures in Photography | Contax and Zeiss

My new favourite toy… the Contax 645 coupled with perhaps one of the most incredible lenses I’ve ever gazed through: the Zeiss Planar T* 80mm f/2!  This is a seriously smooth lens… I used it for the first time this weekend and I think I’m in love!

As some of you will know, I’m a bit of a history buff and I love to know the story of objects and how they came to be.  So, in the spirit of self-indulgence, I’ve done a bit of research about the history of the Contax/Zeiss collaboration and yes, I’ve recorded my findings…

contax 645

It seems the story of the Contax begins in mid-19th Century Germany, when Carl Zeiss was designing and manufacturing optical instruments for microscopes, and later for cameras (once the world had caught up with him and invented them!).  In his small workshop in Jena, he and his team of craftsmen became exceedingly skilled at producing high quality lenses which were “wide open”, or in other words had a large aperture range resulting in very bright images.

In 1872, after six years of work producing new types of optical glass with Dr. Ernst Abbe, an incredible physicist and mathematician, Zeiss succeeded in producing a compound microscope of unparalleled quality.  This instrument is the progenetor of all modern compound microscopes in use today.

One year after beginning the manufacture of the Carl Zeiss compound microscope, Abbe released a scientific paper describing the mathematics leading to the perfection of this fantastic invention.  For the first time in optical design, aberration, diffraction and coma were described and understood.   Abbe described the optical process so well that this paper has become the foundation upon which much of our understanding of optical science rests today.  As a reward for his efforts Carl Zeiss made Abbe a partner in his burgeoning business in 1876.  He was a gifted problem-solver and a talented inventor.

The third member of the team involved in creating the Carl Zeiss company was invited by Abbe, in 1879, to join him and Zeiss in their continuing effort to improve the microscope.  Freidrick Otto Schott was investigating the use of lithium in a new type optical glass and he wrote to Abbe describing his progress.  Abbe tested the glass, returning high praise to Schott for his development.  The two met and quickly formed a bond that would last for the rest of their lives.  Schott produced the glass exclusively for the new Carl Zeiss microscopes and in 1884 a full scale factory was established.   It was owned by Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Freidrick Otto Schott, called the Schott & Genossen Glass Works. Schott developed over 100 different types of optical glass and additionally, many types of decorative and functional glass.  Jena glass became the most famous glass in all the world.

schott abbe zeiss

Left to right: Friedrich Otto Schott, Dr. Ernst Karl Abbe & Carl Zeiss

Upon his death, Carl Zeiss bequeathed his enterprise to his son, who sold it to Dr. Ernst Abbe one year later.  Abbe was concerned with social improvement and in 1989 he created the Carl Zeiss Foundation.  This foundation established a new group as the owners of Carl Zeiss.  The greater portion of the assets were deeded to the University of Jena and the balance of the estate was donated to the employees of Carl Zeiss.  This humane treatment of workers was indeed unusual at the end of the 19th century.  Abbe also prescribed statutes for the employees to follow and benefit from: paid vacations, sick pay, the eight hour day, invalid and old age pensions for workers and their families, representation to management, banishment of racial discrimination, religion, politics or mode of domestic life and others were mandated by Abbe’s gift.

In 1890, the Carl Zeiss Foundation began the development and production of camera lenses.  In 1896 Dr. Paul Rudolph developed the legendary Planar lens, still on the cutting edge of optical performance today.  The Planar solved the problem of spherical aberration and astigmatism perfectly by employing a symmetrical optical configuration.   It is one of the most copied lens formulae in the world.

Ernst Abbe died in January 1905, by which time the company had grown into an industrial giant.  In 1919, Frederick Otto Schott donated his share of the Schott & Genossen Glass Works to the Carl Zeiss Foundation.  Now, the entire operation was under the ownership of the Foundation.

In 1925, the E. Leitz Company created a world-wide sensation with the introduction of a 35mm camera.  It was innovative, small and instantly popular.  The Carl Zeiss Foundation reacted to the success of the Leica a year later by buying four small camera manufacturing firms; Ica, Contessa-Nettel, Ernemann and Goerz, and merging them to form Zeiss Ikon AG.  Zeiss Ikon produced cameras of many types during this period but none of them could rival the Leica.

contax I

Finally in 1932, forty four years after Carl Zeiss’ death, the first Contax Camera was launched in Germany.  It was designed exclusively for use with Zeiss lenses, designed by the young Ludwig Bertele.  It can be said that with a few exceptions, Contax lenses were superior to equivalent contemporary Leica lenses for more than twenty years.  In 1936, Zeiss engineers began work on a new kind of camera.  It was to be a reflex viewing 35mm design, but sadly all the Contax SLR prototypes were lost during the Second World War.

The Dresden camera works were destroyed by Allied bombing in February 1945.  This bombing ushered in a difficult time in the history of the Carl Zeiss Foundation; after the war both the Jena and Dresden workshops fell under Russian occupation, taking almost the entire Carl Zeiss Foundation with it.  Luckily, the withdrawing U.S. Army had recognized the technological importance of Carl Zeiss’ work in optics and assisted in the removal of 126 key management and crafts-people from what was to become East Germany.  These Carl Zeiss employees, including the entire board of directors were relocated to the Contessa manufacturing facility in Stuttgart, West Germany.  Thus the Carl Zeiss Foundation, along with the rest of Europe, was split in two.

In the Eastern Bloc, the Russians claimed reparations across the board and dismantled 94% of the remaining Carl Zeiss Foundation tooling and factories.  But despite the pillage of both the Dresden and Jena workshop facilities by the Russians, the first component of the Carl Zeiss operation to be revived after the war were the original factories in Jena.  They introduced a small series of cameras labeled Carl Zeiss Jena.  These were assembled from parts remaining and all proceeds from their sale was confiscated as reparations by the U.S.S.R.


Surprisingly, it was the manufacturer’s in Dresden who, at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1949, produced the world’s first 35mm SLR camera body with a built-in Pentaprism, called the Contax S.  Reports claim that it was poor quality, which, given the limited resources available to the designers, is not surprising.  Nevertheless, this was a massive achievement given their desperate lack of available funds in comparison to their friends in the West, who were still concentrating their efforts on modernising features on the pre-war Contax Rangefinder.

The Contax D, successor to the S was again unveiled at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1952.  The D appeared on the camera body and was meant to signify Dresden, so as to differentiate this camera from Zeiss Ikon AG Stuttgart.  Eventually, the Contax cameras of East Germany became the Pentacon, meaning PENTAprism Contax.

It wasn’t until 1953, when Zeiss Ikon AG Stuttgart introduced their first SLR, called the Contaflex which was the first SLR to incorporate a behind the lens light meter.  In 1958 they began producing the Contarex, nick-named the “Cyclops” because of the positioning of its metering cell at the centre of the camera in front of the pentaprism.  The Contarex was the world’s first exposure meter coupled, focal plane shutter camera.  It also incorporated the highly sought after interchangeable film back, meaning users could save time changing rolls of film by having several film backs pre-loaded.


The Contarex was a superbly crafted camera, but sadly it was not a success.  By this point the Japanese were flooding the market with far less expensive equipment… an onslaught of Japanese innovation and practically priced equipment followed.  By the late 1960s it was becoming obvious that Carl Zeiss could no longer compete if they continued to manufacture cameras in Germany.  Retail prices soared against the tide of less expensive products from Japan.

The solution to this problem was found in a partnership with Yashica; an electronic camera manufacturing giant with tremendous production capability.  Carl Zeiss would continue to design and produce superb optics for camera bodies constructed in Japan.  As a result of this partnership, and with important ergonomic design contributions from F. Alexander Porsche Group, a new line of SLRs was produced, starting with the Contax RTS (Real Time System) in 1975.

contax RTS

The RTS was traditional in construction yet its features were on the cutting edge of 35mm photography.  It was an entirely electronic camera with aperture preferred and manual exposure modes and a bolt on optional five frame per second motor drive.  For the first time a stepless electronic shutter was used with up to 1/2000 second shutter speed.  The RTS was also the first camera to incorporate exposure compensation.

I appreciate this is digressing into technical gobbledygook, but these are revolutionary camera features which are completely taken for granted on modern SLRs!

Numerous innovative camera designs succeeded the RTS including medium-format reflex cameras, rangefinders, compacts and digital cameras.  Kyocera took over Yashica in 1983 and continued to manufacture products under the Yashica and Contax brands.

The Contax 645 autofocus medium format SLR system was introduced in 2000 and featured an array of high quality Zeiss T* lenses plus interchangeable film and digital backs.  This camera addressed the fast-moving migration towards digital photography whilst still catering for its loyal film customers.

Sadly by 2002 the company’s film camera products were declining in sales, and its newer digital camera products had failed to make serious inroads into the digital photographic market.  In 2005, Kyocera discontinued all photographic equipment manufacture, including the Contax brand, thus bringing the Contax story to a close.

The German Contax cameras represented the finest craftsmanship and design innovation.  It can be argued that the partnership of Contax and Zeiss paved the way for the modern SLRs of today.  Understanding more about the history of the brand definitely gives me a much greater appreciation of my Contax 645 camera… just like my Leica IIIa and my Holga 120GN, it feels like a piece of history.  My first roll of 120 film is being developed this week and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results!!

  • Ria

    Hi there, just to say thanks for sharing this information! im just at the start of my photography adventure and love learning about the older style cameras. In fact im still at the ‘clueless’ stage and learning all about aperture and depth of field etc. My hubby has found his old Yashica film SLR from a good few years ago so I will be using that soon. This stuff excites me so much (geek, moi?!)ReplyCancel

  • Ria

    ooh ps where do you find your older cameras, is ebay any good?

    • Victoria

      Hi Ria… pleased to meet a fellow geek! : )

      To be honest I have bought most of my secondhand cameras on eBay and haven’t had any problems as yet *touch wood! You just need to be careful who you buy from, keep it british if possible and make sure you ask lots of questions. Hope this helps, V xReplyCancel

  • Hi Victoria, nice to find another film lover!! Making to move to film myself 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Phil Cruttwell

    Hello Victoria and others
    very interesting and encouraging to read about film cameras. Ten years ago I started my move to digital but with the drop in prices for film cameras I have treated myself to a Bronica ETRSi (6×45).

    Plus Points – It would have been well beyond my reach before but prices have tumbled and now I am the delighted owner of an amazing piece of equipment. The camera is beautifully engineered and offers really good optics.

    Negative points…maybe? – I live in Bulgaria and I have had a real job finding a lab to process 120 size film (C41). But now I have my first films in for processing… I’m very excited! Procesing only costs about one pound per film and high-res scanning is 3 pounds. So price isnt a problem!

    It is changing how I think about taking photos…I’m much more thoughtful about composition. Now I want to try it for studio portraits… I cant wait!

    Happy shooting to all “filmophiles”.ReplyCancel

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