Tag Archives: leica

Tales of Glass and Ceramics, Pt. 1

When the E. Leitz Company introduced the first practical 35mm camera in 1925, it was an instant world-wide sensation. The Leitz Camera — Leica –, paved the way for a completely new way of creating photographs. At that time the Carl Zeiss Foundation of Jena, Germany, was already a well-established company with almost 50 years of optical history behind it. It had begun producing camera lenses in 1890, but was not able to respond to the success of the Leica by offering a comparable product. To do so, Zeiss acquired four small camera manufacturers and merged them into the Zeiss Ikon AG, based in Dresden and Stuttgart. Even so, it took several more years to develop and produce a match for the meanwhile dominant Leica camera. This was the Contax, Zeiss Ikon’s top of the line rangefinder camera, presented in 1932.

Postcard of Carl Zeiss in Jena around 1910
Carl Zeiss in Jena around 1910

The first Contax did not manage to fully live up to its ambitions. It was a very sophisticated and also complex little device and soon became known to suffer from a lack of reliability, especially due to its complicated shutter. Hubert Nerwin, Zeiss Ikon’s camera designer par-extraordinaire, picked up the pieces from the first unreliable Contax designs, and re-designed it to one of most famous and desirable 35mm cameras ever to have been produced; the Contax II. In 1936 it was brought to market with many revolutionary improvements, such as a combined viewfinder and rangefinder. In terms of features, it beat the comparatively primitive Leica hands down. Not resting on its success, Zeiss immediately started working on the next generation, the Contax III. But another ambitious project was already lined up beyond it — the Contaflex twin-lens reflex camera (TLR).

Zeiss Ikon Contax I, image courtesy of Tomei Collection
Zeiss Ikon Contax I, image courtesy of Tomei Collection

The second world war saw the cities of Jena and Dresden become the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. The production facilities were damaged and everything salvageable was relocated to Kiev in the Ukranian province, to provide the Soviet Arsenal conglomerate with the means to construct a world class camera called the Kiev, initially entirely from leftover parts from Germany. Prior to the handover to the Soviets, the withdrawing US Army had recognised the significance of Zeiss and facilitated the relocation of over 100 key personnel, management and engineers to West sectors. This chapter alone is a fascinating period of Contax history and many papers and books have been published trying to establish on what exactly happened under the Russians’ control and what cameras where built at what location.

Like Germany itself, Carl Zeiss was now divided into East and West. In the West, Zeiss continued working on improving the classic II and III series rangefinder cameras, whereas in the Soviet sector work concentrated on developing the single-lens reflex. In 1949, at the Leipzig Spring Fair, an industrial showcase, Zeiss Dresden (East) released the Contax S (for Spiegelreflex [reflex mirror]. Due to increasing disputes around the Zeiss trademarks, which occupied German courts for 15 years, Zeiss Dresden renamed their cameras to Pentacon, derived from the combined words PENTAprism CONtax). It was the one of first 35mm SLR film cameras featuring a pentaprism allowing direct viewing from behind without a reversed image.

Contaflex ad in National Geographic, January 1958
Contaflex ad in National Geographic, January 1958

The era of the rangefinder camera started drawing to a close and the SLR’s rise began. Carl Zeiss (West) released their first SLR in 1953, the Contaflex. Unlike its pre-war TLR namesake, it was a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) it featured a leaf shutter and but unlike the TLR only at a later stage was it equipped with a built-in (selenium) exposure meter. The follow-on model was called the Contarex and showed German engineering at its best: the world’s first exposure meter-coupled, focal plane shutter camera; it even sported interchangeable film backs. Despite its sophistication, the Contarex and its follow-on models were not commercially successful. While it was superbly crafted and packed with innovation, it was an engineer’s camera, which is to say ugly and heavy. Its selenium metering cell in front of the pentaprism gave it the name Cyclops or Bullseye. Production of the renowned Contax rangefinders IIa and IIIa (the a distinguishing them from the pre-war models) was ceased in 1961.

Meanwhile Japan had risen from its own ashes and started the onslaught that would leave the German camera industry practically wiped out (except for, ironically, the more and more archaic seeming Leica M). The Japanese practical design and not least pricing of cameras like the Nikon F simply could not be matched. Nonetheless, Zeiss continued to deliver in its cameras many world firsts that are taken for granted in today’s cameras: electronic auto-exposure, attachable motor drive and the technical feat of an electronically driven and vertically travelling shutter (a shorter travel distance means that shorter shutter speeds became possible). Undoubtedly SLR cameras would not be the same today if it wasn’t for the continuous innovation by Zeiss in their Contax cameras. The economic perspective was different, however. Zeiss simply could not continue to produce cameras in Germany alone, facing the fierce Japanese competition.

Yashica Electro 35 GSN, image courtesy kenrockwell.com
Yashica Electro 35 GSN, image courtesy kenrockwell.com
The key strategy was to find a strategic partner in Japan. Initially talks were held with Pentax, but efforts abandoned. The Pentax K is one remaining legacy of this attempted co-operation. In 1973 the alliance between Zeiss and Yashica commenced, a partnership that would hold for over 30 years. Yashica was founded in 1949 in Nagano prefecture and made a name for itself by producing high-quality 35mm and TLR cameras. The Yashica Electro 35 was a very popular rangefinder, said to have sold over 5 million units, and the Yashicamat a very reputable TLR. Yashica’s expertise in building electronic cameras paired with Zeiss’ excellence in producing optics seemed a promising formula for success.

Perhaps it was the experience of the cyclops that prompted the addition of another ally: the F. Alexander Porsche Group. Industrial design was still in its infancy as a concept or product development consideration, yet Zeiss and Yashica must have recognised its importance and potential. Porsche Design were a pioneer in ergonomics and consulted on appearance and human interface design. The fruits of this collaboration were introduced at Photokina 1974 — the Contax RTS SLR.

Contax RTS
Contax RTS
The RTS (Real Time System) once more introduced a fireworks of innovation: a wholly electronic camera with aperture priority and manual exposure modes, optional five frame per second motor drive with intervolometer (selectable frame per second rate), 5-flash-per-second electronic flash capability and two frame per second winder. The totally stepless electronic shutter had a maximum speed of 1/2000s. Exposure compensation was found for the first time on any camera. The traditional maze of mechanical levers, rods, cams and gears, common to most shutter release systems had now completely given way to electronics and electro-magnetics. All timings in the body were now governed electronically; the follow-on RTS II had adopted quartz to ensure precision timing. A slew of other models targeted at different types of photographers followed and Yashica also continued to manufacture cameras under their own brand, which shared the Contax mount (C/Y mount) so that lenses were interchangeable between them. Zeiss concentrated on producing their fine SLR lenses.

Read in Part 2 about how ceramic kitches knives from Kyoto helped Contax to remain on the cutting edge, tackling the challenges of auto-focus and the looming age of digital…

Ginza Classics

Text and images by Barry Kawa for Japan Exposures

At most train stations in Tokyo, there are still film stores that can develop a roll of film in 45 minutes or less, so you can stop back and pick up your pictures on the way through, and enjoy looking at them on your train ride home. In the Japanese photography magazines, many articles are still devoted to film cameras each issue, although digital camera coverage is starting to pull way ahead. (There are even some dedicated magazines catering only to digital shooters.) Nonetheless most of the camera store ads in the front or back pages still list a huge selection of used film cameras and lenses for sale. These are now referred to as “classic” cameras.

Used camera shops like Sankyo Camera Co. [ map ], in the heart of the Ginza, Tokyo’s prestigious shopping district, located just off the famed 4-chome intersection, still offer shelves of Canon and Nikon rangefinder cameras and lenses for sale to film camera junkies like myself. In a store that is a throwback 20 years into the past, there aren’t any digital cameras for sale here.

At lunchtime, I have just enough time to walk up to Sankyo to see what’s new on their shelves since my last visit. Since I’m there, I can’t pass up the chance to stop by three other adjacent camera stores in this four-corner area of the Ginza that is a landmark for film camera buffs. My weekly “fix”.

There are actually two Sankyo camera stores within a half block, one specializing in Nikon and Canon rangefinders as well as other Japanese camera models, and another shop specializing in Leica cameras, although the window has a nice eye candy collection of Rollei 35mm, Rolleiflexes and Rolleicords for sale.

Across the busy street, there’s a Miyama Shokai Nikon branch store [ map ] that sells new and used cameras, mostly Nikon, but also enough used medium-format, rangefinder and other gear to take a look at. And just a few doors down is Katsumido [ map ], the ultimate store for Leica collectors who want everything in mint condition — and have the credit line to pay for it. This store also has a changing collection of highly priced and highly desirable cameras and lenses of all types in the window, with everything in near-mint condition.

I’m also not going to be able to afford any of those line of Leica M3s or M2s on display. They know it, and I know it.

But the stop I enjoy the most is at the Sankyo Camera store with all the Nikon and Canon rangefinder gear, managed by Hiroatsu “Hero” Akizawa (call him Hero-san). At most Tokyo camera stores, the language barrier is difficult. There’s also the snobbery factor, as in stores like Katsumido, where the staff is aloof, and I’m too self-conscious to even ask a question, knowing that they are going to have to find somebody to talk to me in English, if there is anyone.

I’m also not going to be able to afford any of those line of Leica M3s or M2s on display, starting from 200,000 yen (about $2,200) and up. They know it, and I know it. So, I nonchalantly make my way over to the display case where cheap Nikon, Canon and Sigma auto-focus lenses are for sale, kept apart from the Leicas.

When I stop by Sankyo Camera, however, I’m greeted by Hero-san with a smile and in English. It’s the same relationship I first had with the now-closed Ohba Camera, which was located about a 10-minute walk from the Ginza near Shimbashi Station [Now a standing sushi bar — Ed.].

Sankyo Camera
The rangefinder section at Sankyo Camera

The store manager at Ohba was friendly, spoke English, and since I was a good customer, always gave me a discount. If I brought back something I had bought there, he would always give me at least 80 percent in trade. That kind of service instills customer loyalty, since in most of the Tokyo used camera shops I’ve visited, I’ve been offered pennies on the dollar on my trade-in gear.

When Ohba was closing last April, one of the clerks asked me, “What are you going to do now?” They would see me stop by at lunch and sometimes after work, on my way to the station, to see what they had got in. When they closed, I went through withdrawal pains. Sankyo has stepped in to help ease the pain. The store has treated me well, offering me good trade-in prices, and usually knocking a little off the price of anything I’m interested in buying as well.

My first time there, I brought in some Nikon binoculars I wasn’t using, an old Nikon P camera and some Canon lenses to trade, Hero-san looked, and then grabbed a calculator to show me what he was offering. The price was very, very fair. Since that time, I’ve been a regular customer, wandering in off the street each week to see what’s in the display cases.

Prices are not cheap, and bargain hunters in the States still can get better buys on eBay or through their local Craigslist site, although the condition can be a craps shoot. But at Sankyo, there are good buys to be had on cameras and lenses that are impossible to find in the States, and usually in excellent condition.

One glorious day, there was an Olympus XA4 macro model, no strap, but I turned it over, and there was the extremely rare quartz date back on it. The price? 8,000 yen, or about $70. “I’ll take it,” I said. Hero-san smiled and nodded. I also traded in a Canon rangefinder cameras and some lenses one time for a Canon 7SZ with a 50mm 0.95mm lens, in fair condition, but a steal at under 90,000 yen (about $800).

Happiness is finding a mint black Canon lens case for your 35mm F2 for a 100-yen coin.

Other days, there have been cameras like a rare, heavily used black Canon P (gone the next day, when I couldn’t get it out of my mind and went back for a second look), and lenses like the Avenon 21mm and 28mm models don’t stay on the shelves very long. Sometimes, in front of the store, there are boxes filled with old lens cases and camera cases, selling for 100 yen (about a buck). Although I feel like a homeless person foraging through a garbage can, I still can’t resist jumping in.

Sankyo Camera
“Most Japanese like the Nikon”

Happiness is finding a mint black Canon lens case for your 35mm F2 for a 100-yen coin, which I embarrassingly hand over to Hero-san, my “purchase” for the day. But these days, business is slow at Sankyo, Hero-san says. On this Saturday, there’s a steady stream of customers looking, but few are buying. “Now, it is very slow, slow, slow,” Hero-san says. The reason? Of course, it’s digital cameras. Hero-san says it’s understandable, with how easy it is to use a digital camera. In the future, is there hope for stores like Sankyo to survive? A resurgence in film cameras?

“Sometimes, the person wants to do the shutter timing, aperture… maybe, I hope,” he laughs. Looking around at all the shelves of Canon and Nikon rangefinder cameras, I marvel at the selection, and ask Hero-san where they are from. Surprisingly, Hero-san has attended many camera shows in the United States, buying cameras and returning them to the country where they were made, to sell to collectors. He said the Pasadena show in particular, is a good place for them to buy rangefinder cameras and lenses in great condition.

“The weather is good, dry, the condition is better than in Japan,” Hero-san says. “In Japan the weather is very wet – sometimes the lens gets mold, the shutter time gets very long – not so good.” So, Japanese collectors are drawn to stores like Sankyo Camera, to buy the cameras that were exported to the U.S. back when the exchange rate was at 360 yen to a dollar.

Hero-san said Nikon cameras and lenses, particularly Nikon Tokyo Olympic models, are his store’s best sellers. Although the store has a display case full of Canon rangefinder cameras and lenses, the Nikons outsell the Canons. “Canon (prices) are going a little down,” he says.

Hero-san points to all the Nikon collectible books, and says this interest has helped fuel the collector market. “Most Japanese like the Nikon, I think,” he says. “Then, also, the Nikon mechanical system is better than the Canon – Canon changes their mount, very quickly – and the old ones are very hard to use.” Himself, he still likes the Nikon F camera. He was born in 1946, (“after the Second World War,” he laughs) so he always wanted the Nikon F when he was in high school, but it was too expensive. So, he started off with a Pentax camera, then later got his Nikon F. I compliment Hero-san on his store’s friendly customer service, and generous trade-in offers. “Ah, so,” Hero-san laughs. “If it is quick to sell, I buy.”

In this digital world, leave it to the nostalgic Japanese to keep a flickering candle lit for the world of film cameras.


Barry KawaBarry Kawa was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Clearfield, Utah. He has worked as a reporter, bureau chief and editor at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, Times of Gainesville (Ga.), Charlotte Observer, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Dallas Morning News before moving to Japan in 2001 with his wife, Yumiko. He now works at a Japanese newspaper, and has become an avid camera enthusiast and collector.    

MS-MAG x1.15 magnifier for Leica M sold out

As we noted a while ago, the production of this magnifier by MS Optical has been discontinued and it is now sold out. A lucky gentleman from Australia will receive the last item we had in stock (too bad, as I wanted to keep one of those for myself :).

There is still hope for a re-release as MS Optical indicated to me that they are contemplating manufacturing it again.