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Zeiss Ikon Contaflex - 1953
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• First SLR from Zeiss Ikon (West)

• First leaf-shutter 35mm SLR

• $169 with f2.8 lens in 1954 ($1370 in 2010 dollars)

This was Zeiss Ikon's first SLR. That is, Zeiss Ikon West; the other part of the company, in what was then called East Germany, also used the Zeiss Ikon name for a while, and subsequently was called Pentacon. The Easterners had been making SLRs for years.

All during the 1950s the West German camera manufacturers believed in leaf shutters. And for good reasons: they had been putting them into rangefinders for a long time, and focal-plane shutters of the day were unreliable. (Exakta was an exception.) In fact, the Contaflex was the first 35mm SLR to have a leaf shutter. It was in the lens, between lens elements, which meant that each interchangeable lens had to have its own shutter. Not a problem for the original Contaflex, though, because its lens was fixed.

There was a worse problem: The shutter had to be open for viewing and focusing and then at the moment of exposure the shutter had to close, the mirror had to swing out the the way, and then the shutter had to open and close again for the exposure. Winding the film lowered the mirror and reopened the shutter. Complicated and hard to get right, but, of course, Zeiss Ikon was able to pull it off, as was Kodak with the Retina Reflex. Numerous other SLRs had leaf shutters, too, but few with reliability to mach Zeiss Ikon and Kodak. (Years later Topcon used a leaf shutter in the Auto 100. Japanese makers often used leaf shutters in their cheaper cameras.)

A couple of models later, with the Contaflex III, Zeiss Ikon went to a removable front element like the original Retina Reflex, which provided a degree of lens interchangeability. These were supplementary lenses, since the bulk of the lens stayed on the camera (see the photo on the Retina Reflex page).

No Contaflex ever had a behind-the-lens leaf shutter to allow completely interchangeable lenses, as Retina Reflexes did.

Leaf shutters were probably a good idea in the mid-1950s, but by the end of the decade the Japanese had perfected focal-plane shutters and thereby realized the benefits: no need for the complicated open-close-open-close cycle to allow viewing and shooting; complete freedom for lens designers, since the shutter isn't in or just-behind the lens; and much faster shutter speeds. (Leaf shutters have a faster flash-synchronization speed, though.)

What's strange is that lens maker Carl Zeiss originally started Zeiss Ikon to build cameras so as to increase the market for its lenses. It would seem that more effort into focal-plane shutters would have created cameras that could sell more lenses. My guess is that few Contaflex owners bought additional supplementary lenses. And even if they did, a supplementary lens could never sell for as much as a complete Carl Zeiss lens.

Zeiss Ikon ContaflexAd from [Popular] Photography, April 1954

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