Meet the Camera: Zeiss Super Ikonta C 530/2

Regular visitors will have noticed a slowing of the equipment-related posts here in the last six months or so. It’s mostly down to the fact that I’ve apparently reached a sort of gear stasis; I’ve got more cameras than I can use, but more importantly, I’ve got cameras and lenses that really cover anything I’m interested in doing. I built out what I think is my ideal 35mm travel kit: one or two of several LTM bodies with 25, 50, and 100mm lenses. I have medium format options in 6×4.5, 6×6, and 6×9; I have TLRs and folders. I have toy cameras and pinhole cameras. I even found a digital camera I like. Unless I decide to explore large format or alternative processes – which doesn’t seem terribly likely at this point – I can’t imagine needing much beyond what I already have.

So of course this means I bought another camera. And of course it duplicates the format of something on the shelf. But I have my reasons, which I will explain presently.

The new addition is a Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a 6×9 coupled-rangefinder folding camera, and indeed the one by which others are measured. This particular camera is an early version, a 530/2 in Zeiss’s obscure nomenclature, which means black enamel rather than chrome, a regular Compur shutter rather than a -Rapid or a Synchro-, and an uncoated Zeiss Tessar 105/4.5. From what I can figure out, the camera dates from 1933.

As the photos clearly show, this camera was not purchased and tucked away somewhere. Like my Rolleiflex of similar vintage, this thing was USED. There is not a painted surface that doesn’t show significant wear, and the leather is rubbed almost flat in the areas that you would expect from regular handling. But for all that, it doesn’t appear to have been abused. The glass was hazy when it came to me, but other than that it was remarkably good. The bellows seem quite solid, and the shutter even timed well right out of the box. I can’t think of too many complex mechanical things made today that will be still going strong after 80+ years.

So why exactly did I feel the need to get this thing when I have a pristine example of the Voigtländer Bessa II? My real motivations for buying this particular camera were two: the Zeiss folders have acquired a near-mythical reputation, and I wanted to see what they were about, and more specifically, the uncoated Tessar hanging off the front of it. The pre-war Tessar is a lens for which I have great affection. Experience with my Rolleiflex and Ektar made me realize that it is just about the perfect combination for the sort of color film look I often want, and I’m starting to move more and more toward medium format for my color work (I struggle getting consistent results from 35mm color, probably due to insufficiently rigorous technique and imperfect scanning).

Truth is, though, I’ve had a bit of trouble settling in with the Bessa. Part of the problem was poor initial results due to the film plane not being aligned properly to the lens (I’ve sorted that out now – while the lens standard is quite solid, the lens mounting plate was misaligned), but also because the ergonomics are challenging and unusual: left-handed shutter release on the door, focus by body-mounted wheel on the top left, small viewfinder. It’s the sort of camera that I think I’d need to use a lot more often to get comfortable with. I figured maybe the Super Ikonta would offer a more natural experience.

To a certain extent it does, but it’s not without its own quirks. The pop-up viewfinder is larger, and this being a very early model, is nice and clear glass, as opposed to the slightly later ones, which used a plastic Albada finder that offered brightlines but have not aged well. The rangefinder is not integrated, however, so that adds a step to the process; not a big deal, at least for someone who happily uses bottom-loading Leicas. The right-handed shutter release is up on the shutter mounting plate – I haven’t decided how I feel about this yet, but it’s definitely different from the Voigtländer arrangement.

The lenses, while superficially similar – both are four-element, three-group Tessar-types – are in fact different in detail. The Voigtländer Color Skopar is coated and unit-focusing, while the Tessar is uncoated and focuses with the front element only. I haven’t shot color with either camera, but I have with other examples, so I have at least an idea of the way they render it, which is quite different. In monochrome, the Tessar is lower contrast and has smoother transitions into the out-of-focus areas, while the Color Skopar feels like it has higher overall resolution (no, I have not done ultimate resolving power tests, nor do I intend to). Purely subjectively, the Tessar produces results that feel older, which is not in any way surprising.

There are broad differences in engineering philosophy that are apparent once you examine the cameras side-by-side. The Voigtländer is elegant; the Zeiss is functional. The shutter release is a case in point. On the Zeiss, it’s a simple plunger made of a thin metal pin with a single bend on one end and a round button on the other. When actuated, it slips down and rotates slightly in its mount, the bent end engaging the standard Compur release arm on the shutter. It’s very simple and it works. Voigtländer’s version is quite different. It begins with a sculpted and polished lever that automatically folds out when the door is opened. This presses downward via a black-painted sprung sliding plate, which in turn moves one end of a long zinc-coated pivoting arm, the other end of which is carefully shaped to fit up around the standard locking mechanism. The arm terminates in a separate sprung arm (necessary to allow the camera to collapse) which presses upward on the release arm, which is completely different from the usual Compur shape, far longer and containing a long pin, all of it polished chrome. Where the Voigtländer has four moving parts with three different surface finishes, three pivots, a sliding plate, and two springs, the Zeiss has a single sliding pin. These sorts of differences are seen throughout the cameras. The net result is that the Zeiss feels like a tool, while the Voigtländer feels more like a big mechanical watch that takes pictures.

I find these mechanical details fascinating. Seeing how rival companies’ designers approached similar engineering problems gives some insight into their respective priorities, and what sort of compromises they were willing to make. Observing how they’ve held up many decades later offers the opportunity to assess the validity of their choices from a perspective they never had. Regardless of these successes and failures, however, the workmanship in most of the cameras of this era is a joy to behold, and a reminder of a very different time not so long ago.

How I will get on with the Super Ikonta remains to be seen, but initial impressions are good. Of course it’s a slow process to shoot with any medium format folder, but that’s not really any more an issue with the Zeiss than any other camera of this sort. I like the mechanical feel of the controls – not as well-damped as the Voigtländer’s, but solid nonetheless. In spite of the separate rangefinder and viewfinder, it somehow manages to feel less fussy than the Bessa II does. It’s hard to explain the differences without experiencing them side-by-side, which perhaps is why I found myself buying another camera.

Semi-Random Photo for 20 February 2015

I lost my head there for a little bit. Back to serious photography. Sorry for the interruption.

Voigtländer Bessa II, Color-Skopar 105/3.5, Ilford Pan-F+ in Caffenol C-M(RS)
Voigtländer Bessa II, Color-Skopar 105/3.5, Ilford Pan-F+ in Caffenol C-M(RS)

Meet the Camera: Voigtländer Bessa II

Most of the cameras I buy are targets of opportunity. I troll through antiques stores, junk shops, occasional garage and estate sales, and if I see something interesting at a good price, I’ll usually grab it whether I need it or not, or even if I’m not sure what it is. This is not one of those cameras. While I did stumble across it in an antiques store, the Bessa II is a camera I’ve long been aware of. The only thing that kept me from buying it on the spot was the price tag, but after a brief discussion with the proprietor on a return visit a few weeks after our first encounter, the price tag ceased to be an obstacle and the Bessa was mine.

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The Bessa II sits at the top of the 1950s Voigtländer food chain. Fitted with such accoutrements as a coupled rangefinder and unit focusing, it’s extraordinarily well-made, with some of the smoothest controls I’ve ever encountered in a camera. The finishing is top-notch, and the condition of this particular camera suggests is was little-used before I got my hands on it. The front standard, a weak point on the Bessas, is rock-solid. All it required was a through cleaning to bring it back to near-perfect cosmetic condition. I CLA’d the shutter just to be thorough, but it was working fine.

That said, it does have a few downsides. First, it’s big. Just because it folds up does not mean you’re going to be able to stick it in a pocket. The one feature it lacks is automatic frame spacing, so you’re reduced to the very pedestrian act of peering through a red window to advance the film. The shutter release – a clever fold-out lever on the door – has a very long throw, which takes some getting used to. Did I mention it’s big?

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My Bessa II is the most basic model, probably produced in 1951 and fitted with a Compur-Rapid shutter mounting a coated four-element/three-group Color-Skopar 105mm/3.5 lens. As far as my research shows, the only option on the Bessa II was the lens – in addition to the Color-Skopar, buyers could get a Color-Heliar or the fabled APO-Lanthar, the latter of which drives the price today into the stratosphere (think five figures in USD).

While the other lenses appear to deserve their lofty reputations based on the photos I’ve seen, I’ve always been more than satisfied with Voigtländer’s Skopars, coated and uncoated. They’re really nice examples of Tessar-type lenses, right up there with Zeiss in my book. Based on the limited sample of results I’ve gotten from my Bessa, I have no reason to alter this assessment.

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In film photography, as in so many other aspects of life, size matters. In this particular case, we’re talking about the size of the negative. The Bessa shoots 6×9 frames on 120 film. So what, you ask? Well, if you do the math, you’ll figure out that this gives a negative with over six times the surface area of a 35mm frame. It’s huge, and in all that space there is room for lots of information. Short of sheet film or panoramic cameras, 6×9 is about as big as you’re going to get. True, you only get eight frames per roll, but this is not the sort of camera one shoots rapidly.

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For those who haven’t shot medium format in general, or 6×9 in particular, the point of the exercise may be hard to discern. After all, why mess with huge cameras that only give a few frames per roll? Once you get a look at photos, it starts making sense. Medium format film, even in toy cameras like Holgas, Dianas, and Brownies, offers a lot of detail on the negative, but once you put it behind a really good lens, things start to pop. Only when you see it do you realize how much detail is missing from the typical 35mm negative, and how different the photos can look when the radical differences in depth-of-field between normal lenses in the different formats come into play.

This is not to say that 35mm doesn’t have its place – of course it does. It didn’t become the preeminent film format for half a century by accident. 120 became a specialized format when 135 took over, and that’s what it remains. Most film users don’t want the hassles and limitations of medium format. But for those of us willing to deal with them, the results can be spectacular. If I can manage to do my part, this glorious example of mid-century design is a very capable tool for producing very special photographs.