Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35

I think this folding 35mm rangefinder may just be the coolest looking camera I own.  I found this on Craigslist recently, and was surprised to hear that the first guy interested in it had changed his mind because the light meter doesn’t work.  Fortunately for me, the first guy wanted a perfectly functioning camera, so I was able to buy it.  I felt it was underpriced, so I gave the seller more than he was asking.  I just didn’t feel right paying him too little for it, and I was still getting a very good deal.  This good karma came back to me when he contacted me shortly after that to see if I was interested in a Contaflex and a Kodak Signet, both of which I ended up also buying (thanks again, Charlie!).

This camera was made by Zeiss Ikon AG in Stuttgart, Germany between 1953 and 1955. The feature that I think gives it such a unique look is the rangefinder ‘eye’ rising above the lens.  This contains a rotating wedge prism that rotates as the front lens element is rotated.  The rangefinder window sightline goes right through this prism, showing a circular rangefinder area at the center of the viewfinder.  The rangefinder seems accurate on my camera, based on simply comparing the physical distance focused to the markings on the lens ring.  I haven’t shot the camera yet, so it hasn’t been tested.

The shutter mechanism needs a good cleaning on my camera, as the shutter speeds are very, very slow, so I have a bit of work to do before I use it.

I can’t wait to get it working and shoot some film in it.  This camera has a top-quality feel to it that gives the Retina IIIc a real run for it’s money.  I look forward to seeing if I like shooting it as much as the Retina.


8 Comments on “Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35”

  1. wlewisiii says:

    Good site. I found it looking for Rollei III info and started poking around. Once you get the shutter serviced (and in this case, it’s worth paying for) you’ll find you own a copy of the single finest fixed lens 35 mm camera ever made. By anyone. Really. It is that good. The ergos are a bit weird to get used to but the quality of the images blow any of the other 35 mm cameras you have listed totally out of the water.

    The Electro comes close; the Retina comes closer; but the Contessa? I rue the day I sold mine. Stick a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 in and, if you nail the exposure (for a neg film it’s as fussy as E6), you’ll be amazed.


    • Rick Schuster says:

      Thanks. I’m sure looking forward to shooting it.

    • James Patterson says:

      I think I found just the person I was looking for. I have a Zeiss Ikon Cotenssa that my dad got in Germany during the war. When not freezing and earning a silver star in the battle of the bulge he took quite a few photos. It is in a leather case with the top missing. It needs to be cleaned. I don’t think the light meeter works. Let me know if you haven’t replaced yours. Thanks, Jim

      • Rick Schuster says:

        Hi Jim. I hope you try shooting the Contessa. That’d be great to use a camera that your dad used during the war. I wouldn’t bother trying to fix the light meter — it’s easy enough to guess at exposure or use a hand-held light meter or even a smartphone app light meter.

  2. eppaar says:

    You may be disappointed with the Contessa. The lens is superb, the camera itself is beautifully built, but the ergonomics are dreadful. Winder and counter inconveniently located on the bottom plate, focus, speed and aperture controls awkwardly placed and hard to read, shutter cocking and film advance separate operations — A magnificent camera ruined by disastrous operational design.

    There is one other camera that was built to compete with the Retinas – the Voigtlander Vitessa. There were three models, the Vitessa (no meter), Vitessa L (with meter) and the Vitessa T (interchangeable lenses). I have a L with the ƒ2 Ultron lens. The ergonomics are different than any other camera that I have ever seen, but they work. However, I would have to rate the lens behind the Retina IIIc and the Zeis Ikon Contessa. If you can find one reasonably priced, I would suggest adding it to your collection. Here is a more detailed description:


    • Rick Schuster says:

      Yeah, that’s why it’s still sitting on my shelf. I shot a roll or two with it and learned that it’s not nearly as easy to use as the Retina.

      > >

  3. Jim Foy says:

    Ah…’…sitting on the shelf.’ That’s a shame. Like a previous poster, I also own a Contessa 35 handed down to me from my Dad. He purchased it ca. 1955 and took great care of it, and it’s become somewhat of a family heirloom, which will eventually be handed over to my daughter – who already loves it! A few years ago, I had it CLA’d and then started shooting. Yes – it is quite quirky when it comes to general ergonomics, but that also adds to the enjoyment of using it (for me anyway). But let me clarify – I don’t use it on a day-to-day basis by any means, and in that regard, it does spend alot of time ‘sitting on the shelf.’ I usually break it out for family occasions, or when the ‘bug’ hits me on a beautiful weekend day, when I’ve no other plans. The quirks with this gem do require the exercise of one’s memory and patience, which at my age (64) can always benefit from the exercise! Memory for remembering to cock the shutter before advancing the film, while also remembering NOT to cock the shutter before setting the shutter speed to 1/500, otherwise, you’ll break the shutter mechanism! That’s quite a ‘quirk.’ Luckily (or perhaps not), I hardly ever use that setting with the Contessa. And Patience to handle the process before taking each and every photo. But, as with any film camera, the experience also reinforces the care one should take with setting or finding the proper exposure in general, regardless of what kind of camera is being used (as compared to the general experience with digital.) It’s kind of similar in a way to swinging a weighted baseball bat while in the on-deck circle, and speaking for myself, I always need the practice. Meanwhile, I have two other film cameras in addition to the Contessa (and three digitals – Canon 50D, Olympus OMD EM-5, and Panasonic Lumix DLC-LX7), and they are the modern (if sadly discontinued) Zeiss Ikon ZM Rangefinder by Cosina, and an Olympus OM-10 SLR, both of which are used much more often than the Contessa. Yet having and occasionally using the Contessa is a constant source of joy and contentment (and the selenium light meter still works!) I am in constant fear that film will eventually disappear entirely.

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Well said, Jim. There certainly is a joy in using a camera like this, regardless of (or in some ways because of) the ‘quirks’ in using it. Thanks for sharing your story. Now I want to put a roll of film in the Contessa and shoot with it.

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