Ikonography: The World of Zeiss Folders

After decades of shooting with cameras like Minolta and Canon, I have finally taken some photos with a certain well regarded camera whose name ends in "ikon" and thus far, it has been a really wonderful experience.

From the shooting ergonomics to the actual looks of the camera, I am definitely liking this new acquisition of mine.  Have a look!

Okay, maybe you were thinking of a different camera line with a name ending in "ikon." While I certainly have not a thing against the certain highly regarded manufacturer of 35mm and digital cameras, my esoteric tastes as of late have been to that of medium format film, and of the durable beasts of decades past that are still very capable in capturing images on that film stock.  And this is definitely one of them.

I had not even mailed off my initial rolls from my Agfa Billy camera acquisitions, when I spotted an ebay listing for one Zeiss Ikonta 521/2 camera, a 6x9 folder similar to the Agfa cameras, but with enough subtle differences that I could talk myself into being interested.

First of all, the camera was listed on a "Buy It Now" listing for just $29.00, and it was listed as functioning and film tested.  There was just not much in the way of financial risk. As well, the Zeiss name has a exceptional reputation for quality, and while the camera was honestly noted as having brassing and paint missing that kept it from being a "showpiece display," it was still very much a thing of beauty.  Besides my purpose for considering it was to actually shoot film rather than a display item, and it had the slight upgrade of being equipped with an f/3.5 Novar lens, slightly faster than the f/4.5 and f/6.3 lenses that the Agfa cameras sported.  The recently listed camera had already gotten a couple of "watchers" so once I'd had a little time to brew it over, I elected to go ahead and take the modest plunge, and add this Zeiss Ikonta to my collection.  

Upon the arrival of "Ike," I was very impressed with the weight and finish of the camera.  It feels slightly more utilitarian that the Agfa "Posh Billy" but substantially more robust than the Agfa "Austere Billy" camera.  It has a top-of-camera shutter release like the high grade Agfa, but in unusual departure from the standard cameras produced today, it is on the LEFT side of the camera.  Even as a left-hander, I have a little trouble adjusting to this, and have mistakenly hit the folding release button a few times when I meant to capture a photo. Oops. It's one one facet of the ergonomics that takes some getting used to.

The camera is functionally very similar to the high-end Agfa of my previous purchase, being equipped with an identical Compur shutter with speeds ranging up to 1/250 second, and helpful features such as a double exposure prevention mechanism.  One feature of the Billy Compur that is not present on the Ikonta is the lack of the "squeeze trigger" below the lens to fold the camera body back up.  One must actually depress both of the hinge points simultaneously to initiate the process of folding the camera back into the body carefully. And I do mean carefully.  Shortly before I was going to load this camera with film, I was folding it back up only for the lens to fold in at a very sharp angle and jam the entire folding process.  I spent much of an afternoon dreading that I had broken this antique gem as I tried repeatedly to release the bellows from their jammed position, only to finally have it suddenly clear after a little back and forth. I now know how to carefully retract "Ike" back to the folded position, and do so without force, but just some gently guided coercion.  

Once I'd become comfortable with the camera, I set out to use it for the purpose I'd intended, shooting film!  I've shot two rolls of Fuji Provia 100 and a roll of Ilford Pan F 50 through it, and below are some of my results, with some comments.

My first challenge for which I have to adapt is that of framing.  I find that I am over-compensating for parallax error with the viewfinder by lifting the camera higher when I don't have to.  Above is my very first shot taken with the Ikonta.  I've sacrificed the bottom of the steps of the store while gaining some unneeded amount of blue sky.  Obviously, not being digital, I couldn't know I was doing this as badly as I was until I saw these results.

Since the camera has a lens with an f/3.5 maximum aperture, I definitely wanted to put this to some use to test bokeh to some degree.  Here, I focused deliberately on the closest contrasty object, the license plate of the truck, set the aperture wide open, and got this encouraging result!  I like how the background gets nicely muted. 

Color and detail rendition in low or dreary light is nothing spectacular, but is quite passable, especially considering that this ca.1935 beauty was assembled at a time when color photography was quite embryonic and hardly a sure thing. 

On sunny days however, Ike can produce a vivid and brilliant image, with good detail and definition throughout.  By this roll, it seemed I was somehow doing a better job of not overcompensating for the viewfinder.  

An image in Carroll County, Maryland that looks reminiscent of many decades ago, taken using a camera assembled many decades ago, yet with all the punch and beauty of the cameras taken today.  The camera is very well suited to landscape scenes. 

As much as I'd like to believe that I can guess the subject distance precisely enough to use the camera wide open at f/3.5 to get a sharp subject offset against a soft backdrop, I may have to concede and be willing to at least stop down to f/5.6 to allow myself some latitude. This gas lamp in Westminster, MD is mushy in focus.  

The lens handles contrasty scenes like this image of McKinstry's Mill in Carroll County fairly well, though there is some washout to the highlights on the wall of the mill.  All told, I do like the retro feel emitted by some of the images taken with this camera, as there is nothing in this image that spells out that it was taken just a few weeks ago.  

To think that at one point I had read photographic forum boards warning against the use of color film in older cameras with uncoated lenses, and considered taking such warnings to heart.  With only modest post processing to mostly control contrast in this bright scene, the results are quite impressive! 

Stopped down to f/22 and set for a 3 second bulb exposure on Ilford Pan F 50, the camera produces some extremely sharp images, while allowing one to have a little bit of fun on a rainy day.  

The camera handles Ilford Pan F 50 pretty well, producing images like this taken at an overcast day at Glen Echo Park in Cabin John, Maryland.  I actually underexposed this by about a stop by accident, but the result is just fine in my book.  

Despite having a double exposure prevention mechanism, one can deliberately double expose by using the shutter release below the lens for the second exposure.  That is not what I'd intended here, instead thinking that the shutter release had been depressed while in the bag when in actuality, I had not wound the film.  Still the odd montage of an old Mustang with an abandoned roadway bridge creates a rather interesting juxtaposition oops.  

Always game for a comparison, I took both Ike and Austere Billy along on the same day for photos, and snapped these two shots of Uniontown, Maryland to compare the two using the same settings.  The only difference is that the Agfa is using Velvia 100 while the Ikonta is using Provia 100.  Palette differences aside, the Ikonta does a better job of rendering the scene than the Billy.  Also, despite both lenses having the same focal length, the Zeiss "Ike" clearly covers a wider viewing area.  

A crop of both the images can be seen here.  The Ikonta image crop is above with the Agfa Billy image crop below.  Details and sharpness are significantly better on the Zeiss Ikonta image than that on the Agfa Billy.  

But the story doesn't end there.  As I looked over my newly acquired bargain buy, my curiosity got the best of me, and I kept looking online at the different cameras that made up the Ikonta line.  One of the few places to discover such information coincidentally happens to be one of the riskier places to explore that information, namely, ebay. Not only could I learn, but I could acquire, at a price. 

My experiments with the 6x9 folding cameras had taught me two things: that I was decidedly partial to rectangular formats over the square format of TLR cameras, and that the 6x9 format, with the large image area, glorious as it is, chews through a roll of 120 film in a heartbeat.  With this in mind as I explored the listings, I spotted a tantalizing option in a Zeiss Ikonta 521A.  

This little gem is particularly compact for a medium format camera in part because it shoots in the 6x4.5 format, half the size of 6x9, and thus allowing 16 exposures on a roll of 120 film compared the the mere 8 exposures possible from the 6x9 cameras.  In addition, the model I spotted boasted an f/3.5 lens of the higher end Zeiss "Tessar" lineup as well as a Compur Rapid shutter capable of speeds up to 1/500 of a second.  With an opening auction bid of $39.99, I set it on my watch list, ultimately electing to make the opening bid near the end, and expecting someone to swoop in and grab it.  But the snipe never happened.  I was now the owner of another Ikonta camera that I could easily envision as a handy take-along.

Advertised "as-is" and "untested," the 521A presented an obvious risk, but the potential reward was valuable as well.  If this camera proved workable, I could in time save what it cost me in using less film.  I awaited my package with fingers crossed.

Views of "Ike Junior" in comparison to an Olympus E-PM2.  One is a medium format film camera while the other is a compact micro 4/3 sensor digital.  The two cameras cover almost identical widths, with the Ikonta about 3/4 of an inch taller to accomodate the film.  Folded up however, the Ikonta 521A takes up much less space than the Olympus with any lens attached.  

The good news upon the arrival of "Ike Junior" was that the camera worked.  The bad news was that the shutter hung open and had to be helped at any speed below 1/500.  The bellows also folded a bit unevenly, giving me some concerns it might impose greatly on the image.  I set about to clean the camera and glue a piece of loose leather back on, and then ordered a film type I hadn't used in ages in order to test this camera: color negative film.

I've generally shied away from color negative films because I've been partial to the look and color of transparencies.  However, C-41 film has appreciably more exposure latitude than transparency film, and for the purposes of testing film in a camera with a potentially unreliable shutter, it seemed the best way to get usable images with which to judge focus and sharpness.  Since the only shutter speed I was able to use was 1/500, and I'd suspected it may be closer to 1/400, I decided to give a try to a well regarded film from Fuji, Pro-400H. If I got some good results, I'd consider sending the camera off for a full CLA treatment.  

One sunny weekend, I set about to give this camera a try within the confines of its limited functionality, and mailed off the film to Dwayne's.  A week later, I got some amazing surprises when the results came back.  Even with one arm held behind its back, this little Ikonta 521A can deliver some fantastic results!  Below are just some of my results from the one test roll of Fuji print film.

The seeming smile of a horse brought a huge smile to my face when I flipped through my prints to find this gem among the results from the Ikonta 521A.  The detail in the hair combined with the soft focus in the background definitely spotlight this as a capable portrait camera for more than simply equines.

Another favorite image of the bunch, this one taken north of Mount Airy, Maryland shows a slight issue with light leakage that only this frame shows.  Regardless, the sharpness and color of the image are a real treat from this 1946 vintage classic.  

Images taken on the 521A are aligned horizontally with the film, so the viewfinder is of a portait orientation.  What is rather fascinating to me is how the color renditions of this color negative film using this camera appear rather similar to 1950's era Kodachrome after scanning and increasing contrast.  Given this, I have the feeling that my use of Fuji 400H is hardly a one shot deal!  

The actual prints the lab produced from the roll of film had a bit of a yellowish hue in some photos, as evident both here and on the first image.  This can be softened to some degree, but is still evident in the sky.  Despite shooting somewhat into the sun, the lens exhibited no real issues with flare.

Lucky shot in the parking lot! I'm not likely to ever accidentally stumble upon a nostalgic shot like this again any time soon.  Though I had some similar framing issues as with the 521/2, I'm still very pleased with the outcome of this image that really does look at first glance like something taken in the 1960's! 

My bokeh test.  Using 400 speed film, it was tough to find a situation where I could open the lens up to f/3.5, but I managed.  This capture definitely shows promise, even if I don't get "bokeh balls."  

One final image from the 521A.  So do my results lead me to want to get the camera serviced to restore its full functionality?  Absolutely!  But I've got a weekend coming up, and want to give one more workout of Ike Junior before sending it off! ;-)  Besides, in exercising the shutter, I've gotten the 250 and 100 speeds to work!  I see sixteen more shots in the near future for this capable Zeiss!