Zeiss Super Ikonta III

A review for Reddit's /r/analog Camera Review Wiki. Send questions or comments via the contact form at the bottom of this page.

History. Zeiss, now known for lenses, made cameras until the 1970s. Their medium format folding cameras were mostly sold under the name Ikonta starting before World War II. There were many different formats and lens options over the years. Certo6, who restores folding cameras, has an excellent introduction to the different models.

The Super Ikonta III and IV were the last models produced, from the mid-50s until around 1960. The IV is a III with a built-in light meter.

I found an Agfa Isolette at a local vintage store which I restored and used. I like the size and the quality of the pictures. I didn't like the "guess the distance" zone focusing. I sold the Isolette and bought a restored Super Ikonta III. I've been using it for five years, and like it so much I bought a second two years ago.

I'll talk about my particular camera - with a a 3-element Novar lens, and Synchro-Compur shutter - in this review. Because there were many variations over the years individual models may have different features or specs.

Body and construction. The Super Ikonta III is solid, well-built, and compact. It fits into a large pants or jacket pocket when folded. The bed, which folds down when the camera is opened, snaps solidly into place and is very rigid.

The viewfinder and rangefinder are usable and bright. Not the brightest, but not the worst I've ever used. There are no framelines.

The shutter goes from 1 to 1/500 second plus B using the old speed sequence (1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 250, 500). The aperture range is f/3.5 to f/22. Close focus is 1.2 meters, a little under 4 feet. There's a cold shoe on top of the camera, and a PC jack for flash sync. There is double exposure prevention; in fact, it's impossible to make a double exposure.

Opening the camera. There's a small button to the side of the accessory shoe that releases the lens bed. Cradle the lens bed in your hand rather than just letting it drop down - the sudden fast movement can suck the film forward and cause unsharp photos.

Push this button to open the camera. Hold the bed so it doesn't drop down too quickly. You may need to push it down gently until it snaps in place.

Controls. Most of the controls are on the lens and shutter. Focus is a thin ring operated by the left thumb. The aperture ring is on the right side. Shutter speed is a thicker milled ring towards the front of the lens. The shutter cocking lever is behind the shutter speed ring.

On the top plate of the camera, there's a dial on the left that is a reminder of what film is in the camera. Not useful unless you can convert ISO to DIN. The dial on the right is the winding knob, near the shutter release and the frame counter.

The lens and shutter. The distance scale is at the top, then the focus index and depth of field scale. Next is the milled ring with the red index that selects the shutter speed. The lever at right beneath it cocks the shutter, and the PC terminal is just visible behind it. The right thumbwheel sets aperture, The left thumbwheel is focus.

Loading film. Open the back of the camera by pulling down on the small latch on the end of the door opposite the hinge. Move the empty spool from the left side to the right - pull down on the spring at the bottom to release the spool. Put in the new roll of film on the left side, pull the paper across the back of the camera and thread it into the slot on the take-up spool.

Pull down the spring to insert or remove a spool.

Fooling the automatic frame counter. Many cameras of this era used a simple red window on the back as a frame counter. Take a picture and wind on, watching the red window for the next frame number to appear. Easy to overshoot if you are not paying attention. The Super Ikonta III has a sophisticated automatic frame counter which looks like the ones on 35mm cameras. Take a picture and wind until it stops. Foolproof - except...

The frame counter mechanism was calibrated to the thickness of film 60 years ago. Modern 120 film apparently has thinner backing paper so with many brands the frame spacing will be too close or frames will run together. To make it work with modern film it's necessary to pad the take-up spool a bit. I put 3 Post-It notes, trimmed to the width of 120, on the leader right after I hook it up to the take-up spool. Stick a bit of tape over it otherwise they will come unstuck. Different film may require different adjustments - take notes! I've found that using different manufacturer's take-up spools can also affect frame spacing. When you find something that works, be consistent.

Important note: If you don't do your own developing, warn the lab that there will be some extra paper at the beginning of the roll.

Three Post-It notes, trimmed to the width of the film, taped to the leader.

After adding the extra packing, continue to advance the winding knob until the arrow on the backing paper lines up with the white dot in the camera back. Close the back and wind on until it stops. This is the first frame.

Arrow on the film backing paper lined up with the index mark in the camera back.

Taking a photo. Eight easy steps!

1. Figure out the exposure settings using an external light meter, a smartphone app, the sunny 16 rule or a wild ass guess.

2. Set the shutter speed by turning the thicker dial.

3. Set the aperture by turning the thin dial on the right side.

4. Cock the shutter using the lever behind the shutter speed dial.

5. Look through the viewfinder and focus via the split-image rangefinder. The focus knob is moved with your left thumb.

6. Frame your photo in the viewfinder.

7. Press the shutter release slowly until you hear the click.

8. Wind on to the next frame.

Folding up the camera. There are two tabs with the Zeiss Ikon logo on the struts on either side of the bellows. Push these straight back towards the camera, and then fold the bed up until it snaps shut.

Push the tabs marked "Zeiss Ikon" on both sides straight back into the camera to close it.

Quirks

  • Store the camera with the shutter uncocked.
  • Red dot mode: Set the aperture to the red dot between f/8 and f/11, and set focus to the red dot between 5m and 15m. With the shutter speed correctly, everything from 12' to infinity will be in focus.
  • Pressing the shutter halfway without taking a picture may activate the double-exposure prevention. If this happens the frame is wasted. Wind on to unlock the shutter release.
  • The 1/500 speed should only be set with the shutter uncocked (other speeds can be set at any time). Turning the dial to 500 takes some extra effort because another spring is engaged.
  • Intermediate shutter speeds can be set between 1 and 1/10s, and between 1/25 and 1/250, but not between 1/10 and 1/25 and not between 1/250 and 1/500.
  • Framing for closer subjects is a bit tricky. Don't count on anything at the very top of the viewfinder being in the picture.

My take. The Novar lens is not so great. The corners are soft at every aperture and there's vignetting. There's an odd shadow at the edge of every picture - either the frame mask is missing or the bellows are sagging a bit.

Forget all of that. This camera is wonderful, and a bit of a chameleon. Photos can be mushy and soft focus at larger apertures, and sharp - not Hasselblad sharp, but reasonably sharp - at smaller apertures. There's a lovely look to photos from this camera. It's one of my favorites.

Resources
  • Certo6 pages on all Super Ikontas and the Super Ikonta III and IV
  • Super Ikonta III instruction manual
  • The Ikonta Guide: How to Make the Most of the Super Ikonta and Rangefinder Ikonta M Cameras by W. D. Emanuel, published by Focal Press. This book has everything you need to know about all the different models. My copy is the 10th edition from 1960; earlier editions may not have the Super Ikonta III and IV.

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