A (somewhat less than) Super Ikonta

All told, I'd had a lucky streak when it came to picking up cameras from ebay.  I had picked up a very capable TLR in the Yashica 12, as well as over half a dozen medium format folding cameras.  While I had encountered a few letdowns along the way, I came away from each initial test roll of a new camera with usable photos as well as some valuable insights on what situations for each camera would be useful.

In early December, I stumbled across a very attractive auction listing for a very good looking Zeiss Super Ikonta, for an opening bid of just under $100.  Since these typically sell for upwards of 3 to 4 times this amount, I handily placed it in my watch list for revisiting.  By the afternoon of the auction's closing date, there were no bites at all on this camera, and a good part of that was likely due to the listing calling this simply an "IZEISS COMPUR CAMERA."  Thus, it didn't appear in search results for "Zeiss" or "Ikonta."  I figured I was worth an early Christmas present to myself, so I bid, and managed to win it for just over $120,  a decent score considering its value.

This Zeiss was the "premium" version of my other Ikonta cameras in that it had a coupled rangefinder to assist in focusing, thus giving it the "Super" moniker.  Further, it had a Tessar f/3.5 lens that was the high end counterpart to the less sophisticated Novar on my other 6x9 format Ikonta 521/2.

The camera's seller was apparently a widow selling off her husband's camera collection, and offered little description in the way of the functionality of the so there was certainly some risk involved regarding the functionality of this classic Zeiss, and as such, it was being sold strictly "as is" with no guarantee of functionality.  Regardless, it looked to be in excellent shape, so it seemed that if nothing else, it was at least worth what I had paid for it.

The Super Ikonta 531/2 appears quite similar to the 521/2, with the most pronounced difference being the elaborate rangefinder mechanism that the user swings into place after unfolding.  To focus, the user looks through the porthole in the back of the camera, seen below, then composes the image using the Albada style flip up finder.

Unboxing the camera upon receipt was definitely a great experience, as I was greeted with a great looking, great smelling classic camera.  The lens was clear.  The bellows were tight and supple.  The rangefinder seemed to be clear and working.  The focusing ring was smooth.  The apertures stopped down properly.  But there was one catch, or rather a lack of one.

When cocking the shutter, the shutter release would list towards the right, and would not catch to lock.  It appeared as though a spring linked to the shutter release from within the shutter mechanism was either broken, missing, or disconnected.

It seemed that this was pretty easily remedied by just holding the shutter release to the left when cocking the shutter, so as to provide the tension that would have been provided by the errant spring.  Then releasing the shutter would simply flick the already sprung shutter to release and capture the image.  With this little fix, I then tested the shutter speeds in comparison to the Agfa Billy Compur, and found them to pretty much sound alike.  Having skirted around this seemingly minor little foible, I loaded the Super Ikonta with a roll of Provia 400X and decided to try a test roll to ascertain sharpness and color rendition.

In the field, I noticed little issue with the operation of the Super Ikonta, though the practice of holding the shutter release required some acclimation, and was often forgotten altogether at times in the field.  The multi-step process of focusing through the viewfinder, setting shutter speed and aperture, and then framing the shot using the separate Albada viewfinder was actually one step more cumbersome than just guessing the focus as done in non-rangefinder models, but the ultimate goal was accuracy of focusing instead of guesswork, so the minor inconveniences of the process seemed a small price to pay.  Besides, it was an additional immersive step that helps the photographer be more involved in the making of the image.

The view through the rangefinder shows a pair of images if the lens is not focused on the subject, as seen above.  The user then turns the focusing wheel until only image is visible, as seen below.

Within a week, I had fired off eight shots of various subjects and sent the roll of Provia off to Kansas for processing in the expectation of some generally positive results.  What came back a couple of weeks later left me underwhelmed.

Of the eight shots on the roll, three were overexposed beyond any recognition of the subject whatsoever.  Two others were hideously out of focus, while one had motion blur that was admittedly more the fault of mine than the camera.  That left me with just TWO usable shots on the entire roll, a pretty dismal 25% yield, certainly a disappointment given that I'd spent more than 3 times as much on this camera as my typical folders.

Admittedly, in my excitement to experiment with this camera, I may have had a clumsy hand in the out of focus shots.  Still, the washed out overexposures lend themselves more to a shutter related defect than my own incompetence.  Let's have a look...

The Good

First shot out of the gate from the Super Ikonta shows a result that is sharp, colorful, and well focused, definitely a very desirable medium format result that shows a lot of promise.

Another result from the roll shows a little bit of camera shake on the tripod, particularly evident in the lights on the left side of the frame, yet still fairly sharp overall.  

The Bad

No, the images above and below were not intended to be bokeh tests, though the results only have maybe that much usefulness to them.  Admittedly, I don't recall focusing the above image before shooting, and am not entirely sure what was the situation with the below image.  

The Ugly

While I honestly may have botched the focus on the two preceding photos, I'm really pretty certain that I didn't set the shutter and aperture to woefully overexpose several frames on the roll.  Yes, such were among the results I got back from the disappointing roll. 

Never the sort of results one wants to see when their film comes back from the lab.

The Diagnosis

I did take a two step look at the mechanics of the camera as well as trying to replicate what I was doing while shooting to determine if I could get some better results on the next try.  

My first step, to investigate the "ugly" in regards to the terrible overexposures, was to try to cock the shutter while "forgetting" to hold the shutter release lever to the left to provide tension.  Sure enough, when I'd overlook this precaution, when the shutter cocking arm would spring back, the shutter would indeed open right up and let light in, exposing the film before any actual shot was fired.  When I would hold the shutter to the left, this would be avoided.  The result is that I will have to ensure that I am very regimented in positioning the lever before each shot.  Since this is the only camera for will I'd have to do this, it would then seem that until I repair this flaw, this improvisation will be easiest to adhere to if I am ONLY shooting this camera, as opposed to carrying two or three folders, and switching between them.

The culprit of the overexposed images.  If the shutter release tab, at the bottom left, is not pressed to the left when cocking the shutter, the cocking arm springs back to the left, and the blades of the shutter open right up, as can be seen above. 

My other step was to try to double check the focus.  Since the two good shots on the roll seemed to be focused fine, while two others were not, it was entirely plausible that my poor shots on the roll were the result of user error, quite possibly from me "playing" with the fascinating rangefinder feature between shots, and thinking I had the lens focused closer to infinity.  Fortunately, I had recently purchased a few ground glass focusing screens, and I was able to lay one of them onto the open camera in the film plane, and open the shutter to focus and compare the results.  Initial results seem to show that the camera does indeed focus properly, so it seemed my only real technical issue involved the catching of the shutter release.

Carefully positioning a spare ground glass focusing screen, matte side away, along the film plane, with the camera open, shutter open and set wide open to f/3.5 I was able to verify that the focus was indeed working, and lining up with the rangefinder.  

While my initial results were disappointing, I am definitely not giving up on the Super Ikonta.  Until such time as I am able to either fix the shutter release catch myself, or send it out for repair, I'll need to be on my P's and Q's about properly ensuring that I tension the shutter release each time I take a photo.  I've loaded the camera with a roll of Ilford FP4+ and hope I can get a better idea of what it can do, to see just how (or if) it will fit into my collection of active shooters.  Of course, I've already botched the first frame, having left the shutter on "B" and letting light in.  Sigh...

To be continued...