My Father’s Zeiss Ikon

When I was young, I remember my father’s Zeiss Ikon (model 521/16). The dark brown leather case. The black body with silver knobs and trim. Pressing one button would (usually) open the front and expand the bellows and lens. Beautiful. I always saw it on his dresser, and one day, I bravely picked it up and looked at it closer. Then when I was a little older, I had become so brave that I thought I might clean the camera. Upon tinkering with the camera, I accidentally damaged the lens. I never told my father that I was the one who did it. He was so fond of the camera, I just couldn’t bear to tell him. Thankfully, this happened as the digital age was beginning, and he never actually tried to use the camera again. He bought the camera in 1954 when he was stationed in Japan after being in Korea for several years during the Korean conflict. My father has been gone since earlier this year, and I am now the owner of his Zeiss Ikon. It’s nice to have something that was his, and has some nice memories attached.

The case of my father’s Zeiss Ikon
The front of my father’s Zeiss Ikon. You can just barely see the damaged lens – chipped on the left side.

I remember looking at the lens. It has the words “Novar-Anastigmat” printed boldly on the front. And “Prontor-S” along the bottom – the type of shutter employed in this model. The craftsmanship was amazing, and it’s a work of art to look at. It functions so smoothly – well, the shutter is jammed now as well as the lens being damaged – so it’s not currently working so smoothly. The mechanisms in these cameras were very precise, however they are a bit fragile. I’m surprised how well they work, when they work, but they can jam. I still always thought it was very cool!

Well, even though I damaged his camera, the events surrounding it caused me to have a special fondness for my father’s camera, and a special fondness for Zeiss-Ikon cameras in general. Since then, I’ve acquired several Zeiss-Ikon cameras, and a few other similar cameras from the same period.

As I write about a couple of my Zeiss Ikon cameras, I thought it was appropriate to first explain why I had this special fondness, so you know a bit of the backstory.

These folding cameras are pretty compact and easy to carry – and the lens and mechanical parts are very protected when the cover’s closed. I like the 120 film size, and specifically the 6×6 format (which most of mine are). These folding cameras employ a bellows to allow them to fold and close. I always thought the bellows was a bad idea – I mean how long could a folded piece of paper/cloth last without breaking or getting a hole punched in it? The bellows can be damaged if you’re not careful, but they actually can last an extremely long time, and take quite a bit of use. That being said, if you find one of these cameras, and the mechanics of the lens and shutter are working, the bellows is probably the other part you need to check. They can be repaired (I’m not exactly sure of all the options) and they can be replaced. I’m sure there’s a YouTube video out there telling you how to build your own bellows to replace your damaged one. I’m not sure it’s really worth going through all that… but, if I like the camera enough, I may attempt replacing.

Another 521/16 – the same as my father’s, however this one works, and has a faster lens!

There were several versions of Ikonta and Super Ikonta. The Nettars were (as far as I know) simpler models, and the Ikontas and Super Ikontas were more advanced. Some Ikontas (like the model above) had no focusing aids – you simply set your distance on the lens, but you had no way of knowing how accurate it was aside from bringing a tape measure. Ikontas like the one at the top of this post had uncoupled rangefinders. Super Ikontas seemed to be a bit more advanced with features like coupled rangefinders and maybe better/faster optics.

The 524/16 (pictured at the top of this post) features a rangefinder, however it’s not coupled to the lens. You need to find the distance with the rangefinder, then look at the distance and set the lens based upon that. As I study these old cameras, it’s amazing to construct a timeline of the technological advancments from the late 1800’s through today. Things like rangefinders were developed because of a need – a very specific need – a need for a better way to determine the distance from you to your subject. You can learn to estimate pretty closely to the actual distance, but it’s usually just a close estimate. The SLR eventually replaced rangefinders because of the need to view and compose your subject through the same lens that you photograph through, and easily change lenses for different needs, and eventually to meter through the same lens, etc., etc. SLRs (and DSLRs) eventually gave way to mirrorless, which allow rangefinder type optical designs – where the lens can be as close to the film or sensor as the designer chooses since there’s no mirror in between the lens and the film/sensor plane. So, technically, lenses for our modern mirrorless cameras can employ simpler optical formulas, which should result in superior image quality than we had with lenses for our SLR and DSLR cameras (in theory).

So what’s it like to use one of these classic folding cameras? Well, let me first say, it’s interesting to try to do things the way our parents and grandparents did. Photography is so simple today that it can almost be thoughtless – I’m guilty of taking many photos with my phone without even thinking, so it’s nice to be forced to slow down and think about what I’m doing when using one of these cameras. I have to remind myself to do all the steps – measure my light (or estimate), and set my shutter speed and f-stop. Focus, with the help of a built in rangefinder if available. Make sure my film is advanced and my shutter is cocked – remembering if you already advanced the film, or not – since some of these early cameras don’t prevent double exposure, or advancing past a frame without taking a photo at all. Then you compose and take your shot. It’s sometimes a lot – and I forget if I’ve advanced the film or not, or I use the rangefinder, but forget to set the lens to the measured distance. I think it’s good for my brain to think about these details – maybe we’re hurting our mental capacity, our mental sharpness, and memory, by allowing computers to remember everything for us.

A photo taken with my 521/16 in Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas. Taken on Kodak Ektachrome 100 film.
My dogs doing what they love – lying in the grass! Shot with my 521/16 on Ilford FP-4.

I think these cameras can produce some very sharp, and nicely exposed photographs – however, since you have to manually adjust the focus and the exposure, not all of my images look that great (as you can see in the last 2 examples). I also have a Super Ikonta; a 532/16 model (very nice review here). This camera has a rangefinder coupled to the lens, more like traditional rangefinders that you’re maybe used, so it’s easier to focus in one step (and I don’t forget to set the distance on the lens manually).

My 532/16 with linked rangefinder focusing.

The 532/16 has a pretty ingeneous, double exposure preventing, film advance mechanism. When you first load the film, it seems to allow you to keep winding until you see the “1”, through the little red window in the back of the camera, indicating your first frame (although I sometimes miss it and start at frame “2”). Once your film is at the first (or second) frame, you adjust the frame counter on the top of the camera to the number “1”, and then you can close the little door on the back covering the red window where the frame number on the back of the film backing paper is visible. You don’t need to worry about those numbers anymore, the camera stops when it’s at frame “2”, “3” and so on. When you get to the end of the roll, you need to release the shutter and wind until it gets past frame number “11” on the counter – then you can just wind until the film and paper is all wound on the take up spool, and open the back to remove your used film. It’s a bit confusing at first, but once you see how the frame counting works, you won’t have a problem with it.

So coupled rangefinders solve the problem of having to manually set the lens for the correct distance. Now if we just had some way of measuring light directly through the lens… that’s for another blog post – and that wouldn’t happen for a few years after these Ikontas were sold. The 532/16 was made betwen 1937 and 1955, and TTL metering cameras were not really seen until the 1960s. Most of these folding cameras, that had meters, had their meters mounted on the outside of the body above the lens, next to the viewfinder. They basically measured light in front of the camera and gave you a good average meter reading.

Let’s take a look at a few more photos from these Ikontas. I shot some Kodak Gold 200 with both the 532/16 and the 524/16 – so let’s see how I did… and how the cameras did.

These are just random shots – but I like the sharpness. Once you learn to master the rangefinder, and be patient, you can make some very nice images.

Image with my 531/16 – my focus is not so good. I actually forgot several times to focus after using the rangefinder to determine distance. One more reason to like the Super Ikontas with coupled rangefinders. At least my exposure is good!

All-in-all, these 75 year old cameras work well. I like (and they work much better) the Super Ikontas, especially the 532/16, that’s one of my favorites. I think the Tessar glass is sharper than the Novar lenses, and honestly, once I used a Super Ikonta, with coupled rangefinder, and double exposure prevention, my picture taking experience went much better – much smoother and fewer mistakes (none really).

I’m very happy that neither the 524/16 nor the 532/16 had any light leaks. The bellows on each was apparently sealed and light-tight, after all these years. It’s amazing how long a bellows will last if not abused.

So, if you’re lucky enough to find one of these in a yard sale or estate sale, and it seems like it still functions, I say give it a try. I’m pleasantly surprised by the results I got.