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Contax Vs Leica: the great pre-war 35 debate

the Artist's Camera vs. the Optical Instrument

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Leica II with 50/3.5 collapsed Elmar alongside  Contax III with 50/1.5 Sonnar

Before W.W.II Leica and Contax were the only two widely available professional system 35's.  Each had advantages and disadvantages.  The photographer's choice said as much about their personality as it did about their photography.

It's very interesting that these cameras were so different.   I can't escape feeling the Leica is more of an artist's camera designed by an individual (Oskar Barnack) for picture taking convenience, while the Contax is more of an optical instrument designed by committee to combine as many features a possible.    While the Contax I of 1932 was too unreliable to really offer Leica competition, the Contax II and III offered some advantages over Leica.    It was no longer simple choice.   Either system, of course, would give absolute top notch results.

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Contax II/III  Vs Leica IIIa

the big pre-war 35 debate, advantages in bold

Smaller and lighter, easier to carry larger, heavier
Better quality chrome and body covering OK quality chrome and body covering
39mm Screw Mount Twin bayonet mount, inner and outer mounts.  Zeiss claimed their bayonet was faster, in truth the Contax's complicated bayonet was no faster than Leica
Focusing Helical in Each Lens 50mm Focusing helical in Body, helicals in wides & teles
Focusing 50mm by turning lens barrel with left hand Focusing 50mm with index finger of right hand
Short 2" Base Coupled Rangefinder Long Base 4" Coupled Rangefinder -- twice the accuracy
Rangefinder using moving mirror Rangefinder using more accurate moving prisms
Separate Rangefinder and Viewfinder Windows Slightly larger viewfinder with combined RF and VF
No Built-in Exposure Meter Contax III had built in meter
Rounded Body Squared Body
Hard to Load with bottom film Loading Easy to Load with Removable Back
Separate low and high speed shutter dials single shutter dial
rotating high speed shutter dial Non-rotating shutter dial
Speeds 1-1/1000th plus B Speeds 1 to 1/1250th plus B
top mounted advance and rewind knobs top mounted advance and rewind knobs
Reliable horizontally running cloth shutter Reliable Vertically running metal shutter
Cloth shutter curtains Metal shutter curtains
no self timer Self Timer
Tripod mount unbalanced on end of camera Tripod mount better balanced in center of camera
Infinity lock for 50mm on lenses Infinity lock on camera body
No Flash Synchronization No Flash Synchronization
Manually set film counter Manually set film counter
Ground Glass focusing not possible Ground Glass focusing possible for plate exposures
Extensive system of accessories Extensive system of accessories
widest lens 28/6.3 RF coupled widest lens 28/8 scale focus
fastest 35/3.5 fastest 35/2.8

fastest wide angle f/3.5

fastest wide angle 42.5/2 Biotar
Fastest lens 50/1.5   Xenon Sharpest super speed lens  50/1.5 Sonnar
Fastest Portrait lens 73/1.9 Hektor Sharpest fast Portrait lens 85/2 Sonnar
Longest RF coupled lens 135/4 Hektor Longest RF coupled lens 180/6.3 Tele-Tessar
Fastest 135 lens: 135/4.5 Fastest 135 lens: 135/4
Fastest longer than 135 tele: 200/4.5 Fastest longer than 135 tele:  180/2.8 Sonnar
Longest lens 400mm Longest lens 500mm
Mystical "Leica" lens quality Probably the sharpest Lenses overall

The smaller Leica simply has a better feel in your hands, at least to most photogs.  Of course, the Zeiss lover will retort it's the lenses, not the box, that takes the pictures!

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1936 saw a new entrant into the battle, the also German made Kine Exakta, the world's first production 35mm SLR.  Exakta quickly expanded to a 40mm to 500 mm lens line up by 1938.

AFTER WWII, a new top 35 rangefinder manufacturer emerged, Nikon Kogaku and their "Nikon."   Not too surprisingly, the Nikon One was a combination of features between Contax and Leica. 


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Revised: November 25, 2003 Copyright  1998-2002  Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.