Thursday, June 2, 2011

Guest Cameras - Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta A 531

If there is a name that every vintage camera lover should know and revere, it is that of Carl Zeiss. Even today, this name stands for ingenious optics discoveries, finest German craftsmanship and top quality lenses. Zeiss was, in its heyday before and after World War II, a huge conglomerate that dominated (and almost monopolized) the camera and optics market for decades. Zeiss's camera division produced cameras under the brand Zeiss Ikon.

Recently I had the chance to run a roll of film through one of the finest cameras ever produced by Zeiss Ikon, a Super Ikonta, which my mother-in-law received as a present from an acquaintance that did not want it to get lost when she died, and that my sister-in-law is beginning to use these days.

guest cameras - zeiss ikon super ikonta A 531
(EOS 350D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 1/13, f/5.0, ISO 800)

The Super Ikonta A 531 is a medium format folder camera that takes pictures in 6x4.5 format on 120 roll film. It sports a Carl Zeiss Tessar 75mm f/3.5 lens, which is also a legendary lens designed by Paul Rudolph in 1907 while working for Zeiss. The Tessar lens design was copied by virtually every lens maker for years and years. The Super Ikonta 531 was produced from 1937 to 1956. The exemplar that I used was made between 1952 and 1956, since these are the only Super Ikontas with a Synchro Compur leaf shutter.

(Super Ikonta A 531, Fomapan Creative 200, ISO 200/24°)

The most ingenious feature of a Super Ikonta is its coupled rangefinder (in fact, this is exactly what makes it a Super Ikonta instead of a regular Ikonta). A rangefinder is a device that allows measuring the distance to the subject so that you can set the focus right on the lens. To operate a rangefinder, two superposed images have to coincide on the subject you want to photograph. With an uncoupled rangefinder, the photographer should transfer manually the reading from the rangefinder to the lens; with a coupled one the focus distance is automatically transfered to the lens. In the Super Ikonta, a small auxiliary lens pops up from the lens itself and moves forward and backward with the focusing of the lens. The image going through this auxiliary lens has to coincide with a second one in the rangefinder by means of turning the focus ring on the lens. There is no need for a complicated mechanical transfer from the camera body to the lens: light, optics and genius are enough to do the job.

Having a new old camera in your hands is a real joy, because you have to figure out how to operate it, and in this process you come closer to the clever minds that conceived and designed it. It makes you realize what a long path camera development has already left behind, how many standard features we assume without questioning. The shutter release of the Super Ikonta, for example, has to be operated with the left hand instead of the standard right hand operation of today's cameras. Of course, it takes a while to get used to.

(Super Ikonta A 531, Fomapan Creative 200, ISO 200/24°)

Like in most medium format folder cameras, the film has to be advanced using a red window. That means a little window opens on the back of the camera and the film has to be advanced by turning a knob until the next frame number appears in the window. 120 roll film has a paper back with guide frame numbers printed on it for the different formats it can take, namely 6x4.5, 6x6 and 6x9. Other cameras have a more modern film advance mechanism that automatically blocks the spool when the next frame is in place.

On the Super Ikonta, the film advance knob has a double exposure prevention mechanism as well, that blocks the shutter release until the film has been advanced. In this exemplar, though, the mechanism got jammed from time to time and did not unlock the shutter release even though the film had been correctly advanced to the next frame. But this is not a real problem when using folder cameras, because there is always a direct release on the shutter itself, which is activated more or less cleverly from the shutter release on the camera body. For some of the pictures I had to press a small lever at the bottom of the shutter, but that's also part of the fun.

electricity sunset
(Super Ikonta A 531, Fomapan Creative 200, ISO 200/24°)

The Super Ikonta I had the honor to use is a really well preserved exemplar (considering it was made more than 50 years ago!), and even though the Tessar lens could use a thorough cleaning between the elements, it still produces astonishingly sharp pictures. All shutter speeds seem correct, even the slower ones, and except for the occasional jamming of the double exposure prevention, the camera works with a smoothness and precision one can only marvel at. Once again, I wonder how would any of our fancy dSLRs perform in the year 2060...

Maker Zeiss Ikon
Model Super Ikonta A 531
Type Folder
Lens Carl Zeiss Tessar 75mm f/3.5
Shutter Synchro Compur 1 - 1/500 + B
Film type medium format (120), 6x4.5
Year 1952-56
Country West Germany

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