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Zeiss Ikon Ikonta – Lost and Found, a 70 Year History – By Conor O’Brien

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My Dad was always a keen photographer. When he bought his Zeiss Ikon Ikonta in the early 1950s, it would have been a substantial outlay for him as a civil servant.

While he didn’t opt for the Super Ikonta, he paid for a few optional extras; a leather case, the 75mm 3.5 Tessar lens and Compur shutter which had a blindingly fast 1/500th maximum speed! In those days, the purchase of a camera was a once in a lifetime buy and intended to last until the end of your days. That’s the way a lot of things were built back then and given the issues we face today in terms of resource use and sustainability – maybe we should be looking back in that direction again. When I look at cameras from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and then look at my Nikon D750 – I’m fairly sure that it won’t be  functioning 70 years from now. I recently wrote an article about the Minolta XE1 – this camera and others from the same era were built to last generations.

Not that many people had a good camera in the 1950’s and 60’s and my Dad quickly became the family photographer; shooting weddings and family get-togethers. When he met my mother shortly after buying the camera, he moved his attention to photographing his future wife. When I discovered a folder full of 120 negatives and scanned them, I was stunned at the quality of some of the photos that he had taken and the fact that the negatives had survived so well for over 60 years.

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Photo of my Mum taken in the early 1950’s – recently re-discovered and scanned.

Photography was part of my upbringing in the 70’s. My Dad and my eldest brother were keen photographers and being the youngest of five boys, I would look on in wonder at my Dad’s Zeiss Ikon Ikonta and the processing and printing equipment they used. When I get a whiff of photography chemicals these days, it still brings me back nearly fifty years to the alchemy that went on in the living room that was temporarily blacked out and set up for a processing and printing session.

I was five years old when my Dad died. It was devastating to my mother and brothers – I was too young to realise what was going on and while a lot of things got turned upside down in our lives, photography remained part of the make-up of our lives with my eldest brother taking over my Dad’s Zeiss and processing/printing equipment.

As a kid, I couldn’t wait until I got my hands on a camera and at the ripe old age of 10, I persuaded my mother to give me her Kodak X15F for a school trip. It took a 126 film cartridge and  I shot a roll of truly awful photos – but was absolutely hooked. A few years later, when I was 15, my brother decided to move on to an Olympus SLR and he handed over the Zeiss and the film developing equipment to me. The camera was literally a family heirloom and the only item I had that had belonged to my father. It was over 30 years old at this stage, but was still in pristine condition. I learned how to use the camera and my brother showed me how to process and print my own photos – I was on my way.  I used the Zeiss for the next 8 or 9 years, but its usage waned when I got my first SLR – a Minolta 7000AF  – the contrast with the Zeiss couldn’t have been any greater.

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Taken on Ilford HP4+ in St. Annes Park in Dublin

While the Zeiss remained a very precious item to me, it spent the next 2-3 years of the early 90’s carefully stored with a Weston Lightmeter in a drawer. In the early 1990’s shortly before getting married, our home was burgled and I had not only lost my Minolta 7000, but to my horror, the thief had also stolen the Zeiss Ikon. All the other items that were stolen that day paled into insignificance in comparison to the Zeiss; it was irreplaceable. I was imagining the camera being chucked into a bin as the culprit realised that the ancient folding camera in the leather case was not worth selling on.

Over the following years, I regularly thought about the camera and how it might be replaced. I looked in 2nd hand and charity shops to see if I could spot a similar camera. With the advent of the internet, I started to check eBay on a regular basis to see if I could get my hands on something at least close to my Dad’s Zeiss. While there were plenty of Zeiss Ikon folders for sale, I didn’t see that many Zeiss Ikonta 523/16’s with a 75mm 3.5 Tessar lens in an acceptable condition. I also kept an eye on the local, Irish online selling platform but rarely saw anything close to what I was looking for.

So – fast forward to 2021, seventy years after my Dad bought the camera and twenty-six years after it was stolen from my home, the rebirth of film had taken off a number of years earlier and by this time, I had developed a squirrel like obsession in collecting old film cameras. One day, while browsing the local online site, I see a Zeiss Ikon Ikonta for sale. When I went into the ad to look in a bit more detail, I see that it is a 523/16, it has a Tessar 75mm 3.5 lens and the Compur shutter. It also has a beautiful leather case. My heart starts beating a little faster as I realise that not only is this very similar to my Dad’s camera – it could well be the actual camera!

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Shot on Tmax100 – Sutton, near Dublin

The seller had a price of €1 on the camera, which meant that he was open to offers. The camera looked in generally ok condition but I didn’t really care – I was buying this camera regardless of price. Much to my horror, while I was dithering over how much to offer, a bidder offered €40 for the camera and I immediately counter offered with €100 waiting to see if there would be a further counter bid….after a few minutes of manic refreshing of the page, all remained quiet….too quiet. You are able to see when the bidder was last online and I could see that they hadn’t been online since either bid. About every five minutes I returned to the page to see if the seller had been online or if there was going to be a counter-offer…..nothing. Eventually, a full day later, the seller accepted my offer and the following weekend I went to collect the camera. The minute I got it in my hands and opened it, I felt that it in my bones that this was the actual camera – there were giveaway signs like the DOF gauge being loose and the leather case gave me certainty that this was the one. The seller wasn’t able to offer any history of  the previous twenty-six years, but I didn’t care – I was delighted to have it back in my hands; hardly able to believe my luck !

It was one thing getting the camera back, the next question was would it work? There was only one major problem that I could see – the shutter was stuck with the cocking lever on the lens stuck solid, other than that, it was cosmetically a little worse for wear with chips in the black enamel paint but generally not too bad.

I initially thought that just finding the camera would be enough, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get the camera fixed and to use it again. I briefly (and naively) thought that I might repair it myself, but watching a few YouTube videos quickly dispensed with that idea; once I realised that my non-existent skills, deteriorating eyesight and banana fingers were going to struggle and likely finish off the camera for good. I was astounded at the complexity of the 70 year old machinery in the behind the shutter mechanism. I had to find someone to repair it for me and started to look online for who might be able to take it on. I saw one or two places in London, the US and Germany that specialised in vintage camera work and I even got a recommendation from Zeiss themselves who sent me a list of approved repair agents (I wasn’t even expecting a response, never mind a helpful one – very impressed!). In the end, I couldn’t bear to send it in a box out into the ether of the post/courier world only to possibly lose the camera again. I needed to get it repaired locally if possible and eventually I found a guy based in a small workshop in the south of Dublin who, much to my surprise, was willing to take it on. Over the next six weeks, there were a few nervous phone calls where the patient went in and out of ICU and it was definitely touch and go a few times, but eventually I got a call to say that the camera was in the post-op recovery room and I could collect the Zeiss.

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Shot on Ilford HP5 with Yellow filter

Now that the camera was functioning, I had to remember how to use it! I have spent the last twenty years being spoilt with digital cameras with variable ISO, auto-focus and increasingly forgiving dynamic range. The Zeiss Ikon Ikonta 523/16 is an entirely manual camera that takes 120 roll film, with no lightmeter and has manual focus – without a rangefinder or any visual means of setting focus other than through the use of the focus scale on the lens.

I located an online copy of the original manual and worked my way through the instructions to re-train myself on how to use the camera.

Once I had got my hands on a roll of 120 film, I had to figure out the negative format and how that worked. 120 roll film cameras can generally accommodate negative sizes of 6×4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm, 6x8cm, and 6x9cm depending on the camera. My Zeiss shot in 6x6cm which meant that I would get 12 shots out of a roll of film. What I was struggling to understand was how the negative numbers printed on the backing paper lined up with the little red window on the film door (that tells you when you have wound on the film to the next shot correctly) – in other words, how did the analogue camera connect with the analogue film backing paper to tell it what format it was shooting in ??  A little more research answered this for me and I discovered that the window was set on the film door according to the type of format you were shooing in – i.e for 6X6 format, the window is set in the middle of the film door. If my camera shot in a different format, the window would be located in a different place on the door and would line up with a different set of numbers on the film backing paper.

So simple, and yet such an elegant solution that involved zero technology.

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Shot on Ilford HP5 – could have done with the Yellow filter to get some contrast in the Sky !

My next issue was how to set the exposure correctly and I had a number of options – use my DSLR, rely on sunny 16 (which I had never heard of before starting back with film), purchase a standalone light meter or use an app on the phone. I would love to have used my Dad’s Weston Meter, but despite trying to revive it by leaving open in gentle light for a few days, the selenium based mechanism was no longer functioning. I discounted use of the DSLR for pure convenience reasons and also discarded using Sunny 16, because I didn’t trust it (down to a lack of experience).

I then started looking  at light meters and oh boy, there’s a rabbit hole to get lost in.

I looked at vintage combined light meters and range finders, modern 3-d printed shoe mounted meters, hand-held meters – both modern and vintage and also started looking at ones that could attach a spot-meter for landscape photography – and on and on and on……..I’m still looking at them ! To get going I went with an app called “Light Meter – Free”, which as the name suggests is available for €0. This is an excellent little app and I have managed to get pretty accurate exposures with it – I would highly recommend trying it before buying a meter (or as a prelude to buying a meter). You can even customise the setup for your particular camera to restrict to the particular apertures and shutter speeds available on your camera and save this as a profile in the app.

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Shot on Tmax100 – Wicklow Gap, near Dublin

 

Now that the exposure conundrum was resolved, I turned to how to focus the camera without any visual means or rangefinder. Of course, you can maximise the depth of field by closing down the aperture and the manual helpfully points out that you can use the “Zeiss red dot setting” which “enables the IKONTA III owner to take rapid snap shots. Set the diaphragm lever and the distance setting mark on the red dots and everything from 13ft to infinity will be rendered sharply” . This would be fine, except, I wanted to really test out how sharp the lens might be wide open and I started using a tape measure to gauge distance between the film plane and the subject and setting the aperture to the maximum f3.5. This gives an insight to my over attention to detail and obsession with sharpness in my photography (which unfortunately often exceeds my pure enjoyment of the art and just taking shots for the sake of it). It gets worse unfortunately – I then got my hands on a laser distance measure (cheap and cheerful one) and started using that to set the focus. I’m happy to report that a few films later, I have gotten over myself and now just guess the distance and give myself some latitude with the exposure.

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Focus and Aperture set at “Red Dot” setting

Now that I had extracted myself from the exposure and focus rabbit holes and shot a few rolls of film, I then went straight down another one looking at the accessory infrastructure available for the Zeiss.

I wanted to get my hands on a yellow filter to improve contrast for B&W and a lens hood to minimise flare.   Googling “filters for Zeiss Ikon Ikonta Tessar”, you might think that there couldn’t be too many options (if any!) that would satisfy this criteria? Actually there are – because like today’s lenses, the different Zeiss lenses had different filter diameters and some were screw-on while others were push-on. I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out which type I needed and I even contacted Lee Filters to see if they might manufacture an adapter ring that I could use with my set of 100 system filters  (because they say they consider bespoke requests on their website), but no luck on that front. After a good bit more research I eventually landed on trying out a Zeiss “model 353” – 35.5mm screw on yellow filter.

What puzzled me the most about this was that the lens did not appear to have any threads to receive the filter and only after a bit more research did I discover that Zeiss used an ingenious method of attaching filters. On inspection, the end of the lens looks slightly milled, but actually, it is designed to also accept filter threads. This was to allow easy grip of the lens to focus while still being able to attach filters. I was getting more and more impressed with the technology, design and engineering of these cameras. I then started looking at the lens hood I needed, which was a model “1111” 32mm push on hood – not the most elegant looking thing, but nevertheless – I wanted to try one out. There were one or two available online, but I wasn’t willing to pay the money that sellers were looking for – between €50 and €100.

After looking for a while, I eventually came across a lot on eBay that included a 35.5mm screw on yellow filter, a “Proxar”  close up lens (available in different magnification options, they enable a closer focusing distance than the 3.5ft….. and yet another rabbit hole opens up!), an Icoblitz flash, a “1111” lens hood in its leather case and, oh yes I nearly forgot, a Zeiss Nettax 120 film folding camera from the late 50’s in close to mint condition with its original box and receipts – all of this cost me €50 !

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“1111” Lens Hood

 

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353 Yellow Filter

I have shot about 5 rolls of film on the Zeiss and am only now starting to get used to it. It is not an easy camera to use by any means but with a bit of practice, it can be mastered.

To load the film, it would be handy to have a 3rd hand, or even a 2nd pair of hands as you wrestle with trying to get the film and backing paper to catch on the take-up spool.

Rolling on the film requires opening the little silver film window cover on the film door and then carefully winding on the film while watching for the next number on the roll to appear in the dark red window. More than once, my ailing eyesight has led me to wasting one of my 12 shots as I roll past a negative by mistake. Accidental double exposures are prevented as the camera has a “built-in shutter release locking mechanism” – this is handy except for the fact that if you wanted to try multiple exposures, the camera won’t allow you.

More than once, I have completely forgotten to focus the camera, which sounds basic until you remember that according to the viewfinder, everything is in focus ! On the subject of the viewfinder, it is a tiny square window through which to view the subject and does not represent exactly what you get on your image because of parallax issues. This requires you to ensure that you leave a bit of latitude in framing the picture to ensure you get everything in.

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First Picture I took with the recovered Zeiss – shot on Portra 160

Lining up leading lines into the corner of the frame is an interesting challenge !!

Ok – so the camera is not all that easy to use, but I don’t care – the positive experience of using the camera far outweighs its limitations and in fact, drive me to use it more and more because of the challenge of getting a good shot. People talk about moving back to film because of the different experience to digital. Moving further back in time with one of these cameras is a whole different experience again. There’s really no such thing as taking a snapshot. Yes – you can use the “red dot” setting to maximise depth of field and in consistent lighting, you can probably get away without checking the exposure….but, I have found that you need to spend time on each shot to get good results out of it – and that is the whole point of using this camera in the year 2022. I might go out shooting with just this camera for a couple of hours and still be on the same roll of 12 shots when I get back home and that’s absolutely fine with me!  Even taking care with each shot, I’m happy to get one or maybe two decent shots out of a roll. Processing the negs myself is a further enhancement of the experience as you are responsible for the output from cradle to grave. You need double the chemicals to process one roll of 12 shots vs a 36 shot roll of 35mm film, but the quality of the negatives you get at the far end is worth it – yet another factor that forces you to take your time when using this camera.

I haven’t gone back to darkroom printing (yet!). I still have all my Dad’s equipment – enlarger, trays etc, but they remain in storage for the moment. Instead, I’m scanning on an Epson V600 which scans 120 as well as 35mm negs and does a pretty good job on it too. Colour processing is also a step too far for me at the moment and I use a lab to process and scan these for me.

If you are interested in trying out medium format photography but don’t want to make the significant investment required to buy one of the more recent medium format cameras – Mamiya, Pentax, Fuji etc , and you can deal with the challenges I have detailed above, I can highly recommend trying out one of these Zeiss cameras. There’s still plenty of them out there and provided you don’t go for a “Super Ikonta” , there’s good value to be had – provided you do your research on the model you want and check out the condition of the camera and lens before you buy.

I hope you have enjoyed (or even made it to the end) of the meandering history of my Zeiss Ikon Ikonta and re-booting my use of the camera after a 27 year gap.

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